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Garden Archaeology: A Handbook

Posted on January 20th, 2010 by Charles Boot

Chris Currie, Garden Archaeology: A Handbook. Practical Handbook No. 17 (York: Council for British Archaeology, 2005), vii + 178 pp., 70 black-and-white illus., 8 col. pls, £12.50 (hbk). ISBN 1902771486

Archaeology is an important means to discover hidden details of historic parks and gardens, and its results are essential to a proper understanding and good management, as well as an aid to accurate reconstruction. Chris Currie, who died whilst this book was in press, was a leading exponent of using archaeological techniques in gardens, initially through a Leverhulme research project at Castle Bromwich Hall near Birmingham in 1989–92 and subsequently on a range of other sites. The handbook is based largely upon that experience and is the product of his personal observation and prejudices, becoming at times a curious mix of detail and digression, which occasionally rants against garden managers and historians.

The methods covered by the book include how to research a garden’s history, from the careful use of documentary sources to the application of non-invasive methods such as aerial photography and geophysical survey. The chapters on earthwork survey, the recording of buildings and excavation (including use of artefact and biological evidence) are generally well informed and offer useful practical advice. Who, for example, has not cursed the difficulty of tying results into the Ordnance Survey National Grid (p. 42)? There are nevertheless some striking omissions and instances of misunderstanding that prove misleading, such as not considering the implication of reconstructing a garden to its original levels. The use of molluscan remains as an indicator of past microenvironment and, hence, growing conditions is overlooked, and the section on field survey could have mentioned how differences in modern surface vegetation can aid analysis, particularly of former avenue-planting. Similarly, the rather pessimistic treatment of geophysical survey (written by Martin Locock) fails to mention the benefit of closer sample spacing for plan recovery.*

Herein is the difficulty of this book: it is surprisingly old-fashioned and largely locked into techniques that were tested fifteen years ago and in most instances have been around for much longer. They still have important application, but approaches and methods have moved on greatly since then, particularly in adapting new technologies such as three-dimensional laser scanning and orthophotography for recording, and we are now less preoccupied by digging and more concerned with what should be preserved and how best to do it.

The failure to give due credit to the advances made by others who are also working in the field leads to some serious omissions, most notably about the contribution that archaeological study can make to landscape conservation and how it is applied in parkland situations. There is no mention, for instance, of archaeology in picturesque landscapes such as Hafod, near Aberystwyth, where there are particular problems concerning identification and recording as well as complex management issues. Likewise, public parks are hardly considered despite forming the majority of current restoration projects. The chapter dealing with a multidisciplinary approach, which actually does not say much but should have discussed inter-disciplinary methods, would have been better used to consider these issues. For a book that ought to have been seminal, it is to be regretted that it does not give the reader a balanced overview.

Brian Dix

* Jan Woudstra, Colin Merrony and Michael Klemperer, ‘The Great Parterre at Chatsworth: refining non-invasive archaeological methods as investigation techniques’, Garden History, 32:1 (Summer 2004), pp. 49–67.

33:2 (Winter 2005)

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