British Archaeology, no 10, December 1995: Reviews

Guide, literature, and good company

by Ian Shepherd

Aubrey Burl
Yale, UKP8.95
ISBN 0-300-06331-8 pb

Stone circles, the first British antiquities to be recognised, have excited the imagination for at least 300 years. Immense amounts of conjecture, discussion and flights of fancy have been generated over the centuries.

Whether seen as simple puzzles in early engineering (100 or more labourers were needed to move the massive recumbent stone at Old Keig, Aberdeenshire), or as emporia for the exchange of Langdale axes (Castlerigg, Cumberland), or as sources of mythic powers (Drombeg, Co Cork, has a local tradition of black magic), stone circles continue to fascinate.

This book is not only an elegant and practical guide, it is also the best single-volume study of this extraordinary phenomenon, embracing 500 monuments from Shetland to Brittany. The sheer diversity of Burl's `family' of circles astonishes. It spans the immensities of circle-henges like Avebury or Brodgar, includes exotic flowers such as Callanish, and ends with the intimacies of four-posters like the Three Kings, Northumberland.

The range of territory over which similarities, or at least echoes, can be traced is equally challenging. Burl is particularly good on the Irish `recumbents' such as Drombeg (whose terrors were sensed psychically in 1923 by a Miss Geraldine Cummings) which bear an uncanny resemblance to the better known Aberdeenshire examples. The `warhorses', Stonehenge and Avebury, are dealt with crisply, and in general the clarity and suppleness of Burl's prose carry the reader on.

The copious use of folklore and antiquarian gleanings adds an important dimension. These range from legends of the Druids' Circle, Penmaenmawr, to an 18th century poem on Midmar: Time-hallow'd pile, by simple builders rear'd/ Mysterious round, through distant times rever'd!

Confident, erudite, pleasurable, this volume can be recommended as travel guide, archaeology, literature, and sheer good company.

Ian Shepherd is Grampian's Archaeologist

Ancient mining, for specialists only

by David Starley

Paul Craddock
Edinburgh, UKP45.00
ISBN 0-7486-04987 hb

From the arsenic-rich ores of Almirzaraque to zinc processing at Zawar, this tour of ancient metallurgical sites and processes covers the globe at a brisk pace. Since the last attempts to cover this wide subject area - the syntheses of Tylecote in the 1960s to 1980s - the study area has expanded, data have proliferated, and approaches have become more varied. How can such breadth be included in a single volume?

Firstly, the author makes no apology for not discussing the social and economic background of the metalworking communities. This is a book primarily about the technology of early mining and metalworking. Many of its intended audience may be more comfortable with technical terminology than with the language of archaeology, but the question remains why so many archaeometallurgists refuse to take up the broader issues underlying their subject.

Secondly, there is the pace of the presentation. There are times when the text is in danger of becoming no more than a filler between the very extensive references. These will provide an invaluable index of material for the researcher, but will be less palatable for the interested non-specialist. This volume is not a field guide. There is much emphasis on exotic metals and exceptional sites, and little on the more commonplace metalworking remains frequently encountered.

There is much to commend the book. The first chapter provides a sound introduction to the study of metallurgy. The broad perspective allows comparison of technologies across a wide geographical and temporal framework. Ethnographic studies, historical documentation and experimental reconstructions help to bring alive processes whose archaeological remains are not self-explanatory. Craddock has brought together an enormous amount of detailed information and the value of this work is in the breadth of his research and knowledge.

David Starley is an archaeometallurgist at the Ancient Monuments Laboratory, English Heritage

Getting it all wrong on Celtic art

by Miranda Green

Lloyd & Jennifer Laing
Herbert, UKP19.99
ISBN 1-871569-75-3 hb

This volume is the latest of a series of offerings by the Laing partnership on the theme of Celtic art. It is highly-illustrated, attractively produced, and the text is easy to read. However, it has many problems.

The title, for a start, is misleading. It purports to cover the whole 1,500-year period of Celtic art, but it is heavily biased towards the Dark Age. In addition, both Anglo-Saxon and Viking art are, disconcertingly, gathered under the Celtic umbrella.

The work is also a missed opportunity. The `Language of Art' section at the end, for instance, is really nothing more than a glossary, yet here was a wonderful chance to explore the function of art within society and to attempt to break some of the codes in a highly complex visual language. We are left none the wiser about why particular symbols occur on certain metalwork types; why, for instance, `dragon pairs' appear only on swords, and what the significance is of their wide distribution, from London to Hungary.

There are more serious problems, too. The book is highly derivative from other published works, both those of the authors and of fellow writers (the latter, I am sorry to say, not always with due acknowledgement). Indeed, there is little that is new here, either in material or discussion. Neither current controversies nor debates are presented.

The section on pagan Celtic religion is weak, and there is a definite cop-out in the explanation of the Celticization of the Celtic West. There are also factual inaccuracies, and peculiar and misleading remarks. The authors say, for instance, that Celtic society had little place for the `quest for beauty' and that Celtic art-styles did not manifest themselves on major and expensive objects. Both comments are utterly contradicted by such objects as the Battersea Shield, the Capel Garmon fire-dog and the Snettisham gold.

Dr Miranda Green is Senior Lecturer in Archaeology at the University of Wales College, Newport

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