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Response to Review no. 766

Justin Colson’s generous review of our book on the London Guildhall rightly draws attention to some of the tensions and difficulties the authors experienced in trying to bring together archaeological, documentary and architectural evidence to tell the story of this landmark London building – a standing medieval secular building in a city with few surviving medieval remains. As with any research project, there is always a decision to take about how much of the data you have uncovered you want (or need, or can afford) to include in the actual publication. In this case we were lucky enough to have generous sponsorship from the City of London Corporation and we were working within the context of an established series of monographs published by the Museum of London Archaeology Service (now Museum of London Archaeology). It might be useful in this forum to explain something of the recent trends in archaeological publication in order to give some context for the type of book we wrote.

In the past, archaeologists often aspired to a quasi-scientific objectivity, publishing their excavations as a series of essays, focussing separately on the ‘stratigraphic’ evidence (the actual archaeological remains of walls, pits and the like), the pottery, the botanical remains, with numerous other sections for other archaeological sub-disciplines and – if you were lucky! – an essay on the documentary evidence. The evidence was drawn together in a concluding essay, many of which now seem remarkably short and unsatisfactory. In the 1990s various Museum of London archaeologists, in particular Chris Phillpotts, Barney Sloane and Chris Thomas, came up with a model for London archaeological publications with their Excavations at the Priory and Hospital of St Mary Spital, London, which became MoLAS Monograph no.1, published in 1997 (the series is now at number 43). Their innovative approach, rightly praised at the time, was to structure the archaeological report in three main sections and we followed their example in our book on the Guildhall. The first section is therefore an illustrated chronological narrative of the site, going through the evidence for the site as a series of dated ‘periods’ of about a century and – crucially – where the various strands of evidence are integrated as far as possible. The second section is thematic and takes a more ‘vertical’ approach to time, looking at aspects of the site across the centuries, in essence things that struck us as interesting. The third section is a series of essays written by the various specialists within the archaeological spectrum including, therefore, subjects as diverse as the dietary evidence of animal bones, the chemical analysis of the composition of copper-alloy dress accessories and a medical analysis of the human remains found in the churchyard of St Laurence Jewry. As Justin Colson rightly observes in his review, the three sections are complementary and to some extent repetitive because they are aimed at different readers: the chronological narrative is aimed primarily at archaeologists, the thematic essays perhaps written more with historians in mind and the specialist essays of the third section written by individual experts for their peers.

A fourth section that appears in the Guildhall book is the supporting data on CD-ROM, a successor as Colson points out to the microfiches that one used to find at the back of some archaeological and historical publications. To reassure Colson and other readers, the rather vulnerable electronic data is also archived with the London Archaeological Archive and Research Centre (another part of the Museum of London), who have strict conservation and updating procedures to ensure the long-term survival of such data.

I must admit that it was tough at first for this author to read Colson’s comment ‘in terms of interest for the historian, while this publication offers a wealth of detail, it might be apparent by now that there are few major new discoveries offered’: I can’t help but recall the long days we spent trying to turn the 28,000 archaeological ‘contexts’ (the individual walls, layers and pits we found) into some sort of coherent story! As Colson points out, this lack of absolute novelty in our book is largely due to the work of Caroline Barron who wrote her meticulous documentary and architectural history of the Guildhall in 1974; some of our work on the new Guildhall book consisted of filling in details and providing more illustrations to Barron’s book. Perhaps I might take this opportunity to add to Colson’s valuable summary of our major discoveries. Tony Dyson’s analysis of the documentary evidence allowed us to continue the narrative begun by Caroline Barron and reconstruct in some detail the centre of civic government in the 16th and 17th centuries; the book therefore includes new evidence of interest to early modern historians of London, for example, an account of the development of Blackwell Hall cloth market, one of the City’s most important financial assets. For both medieval and early modern historians, I would also suggest that the work by our contributor Mark Samuel in reconstructing the grand front entrance to the medieval Guildhall, and that of its 17th-century successor, is of national significance. Archaeologists certainly don’t find lost works of Christopher Wren every day!