Posted by David Cota, Senior Marketing Coordinator
Neil Christie is a long established scholar of late antique and early medieval archaeology, with a geographic focus centred on Italy, but with a much broader field of interest – which has included heading a major archeological project centred on the urban heritage of Wallingford in south Oxfordshire (a late 9th-century burh of King Alfred the Great and a favoured royal seat from Norman times). Here he talks of two of the volumes that he has published with Ashgate in the last decade.
Sometimes it is easy to identify when the idea of a book first took root. Books can be generated direct from a PhD/DPhil thesis – in a process often surprisingly quick after the three or more years of building the doctoral edifice – or from a funded research project which has as its ultimate output a monograph; or a book can gather its own form from the accumulation of ideas generated by an array of articles; or your departmental appraiser or head of department will tell you firmly that you’ve a book to write for the next UK University REF exercise.
My titles have come from a variety of sources: the 2006 From Constantine to Charlemagne volume might owe a few elements to my (long unpublished and far too out of date now anyway) PhD and draws on excavations attended and visited since my doctoral days, but largely belongs to an early lecture course at the University of Leicester where I explored themes related to late Roman and early medieval Italy, tackling the archaeological and historical trajectories of cities like Rome and Brescia, questioning the fate of villas and the spread of monasteries, and looking at the impact of new powers such as the Ostrogoths and the Lombards on society and landscape. Realising that all the articles and books in Italian, French and German that I had read were largely beyond my students and seeing the relative dearth of work in English on the period became the prompt to think out the book. But it was no stallion charging from the starting gates; rather, my beast of burden took plenty of time to graze while other tasks kept me from taking up that particular saddle. When I did take up the challenge the scale had grown – the fences to jump for my academic horse were Grand National-like in terms of researching to sufficient depth in what was and is an ever-growing field. Indeed, as is obvious from scanning through Ashgate’s rich collection of titles, the Late Antique, Byzantine and early medieval epochs are busy with scholars from architectural historians to zooarchaeologists; and Italy in particular has been an extremely active scholarly landscape for AD 500-1000 in the last couple of decades. The task then is getting around the course in fair time, to good effect, showing your rivals your horse is worthwhile, well read and fed, aware of pitfalls, and able to show some new tricks too. And – equally important – is the need to finish the course in good time and not to take too many extra laps. As many an author knows, the finishing is nearly always a bit further than anticipated after the early charge from the gates (doubling the estimate for book delivery from 2 years to 4 is often realistic!)…
From Constantine to Charlemagne is weighty, but, I hope, full and informed and a volume which serves to introduce many to the multiple and varied sources, sites, materials and debates in Italian archaeology for a crucial and challenging timespan. Issues raised in any archaeological work will always be tested by new finds – and some fascinating new excavations have indeed occurred since the book was published – but I feel that my book has helped to stimulate some of the revised debates.
The same goes for the more recent Vrbes Extinctae volume (2012, co-edited by myself and Andrea Augenti), which has received some excellent reviews. What we aimed for there was to open a wider field: we can come out with some bland statements sometimes about the demise of classical towns and how archaeology offers insights into this decay, but examples are stale, and so this volume hunted out (largely) active projects and really tried to interrogate them. Each town can be seen as individual in its content, responses, and transformations in the late and post-classical period and giving these voice is crucial. Similarly, we wanted to detail ‘afterlives’ to show that populations did often persist at these sites even as their urban attributes fail; en route, however, we can observe changing attitudes by those people towards the surrounding decay. And the ways we study these places is important: while methods of investigation – open area excavation, remote-sensing, etc. – are evolving and improving, and generating vital data, such new evidence makes us ever more aware of just how much evidence has been removed and destroyed by previous excavators whose focus did not include the often fragile or jumbled post-classical strata. This book too had no straightforward birth: it emerged from a funded EU project that saw archaeologists from four institutions in four different countries (Italy, Spain, Hungary, England) excavating at an early medieval church at the former urban site of Classe near Ravenna in NE Italy; some workshops were arranged to raise questions related to Classe and the Leicester session chose to think more broadly about urban loss in antiquity. Producing a book from the event was a later idea: only a few of the papers presented at Leicester joined the volume; others were commissioned to ensure a wider geographical spread and to use examples of Roman-period loss, Islamic-period decay, sites that breathed urban life only briefly, sites hit by war, and some that just faded.
And like all good edited volumes the Vrbes Extinctae venture has opened up collaborations (actual, planned or potential), contacts and sharing of ideas which, I hope, will lead onto further explorations of Late Antiquity.
From Constantine to Charlemagne was identified by our editors as having played a significant part in the building and reputation of our publishing programme. To see the full list of titles chosen by our editors visit, History Editors’ Choices.