British Archaeology, no 12, March 1996: Reviews

Images of potency in rock art

by Chris Knight

Peter Garlake
British Museum, UKP16.99
ISBN 0-7141-2518-0 hb

The rock art of the now-extinct San shaman-artists of southern Africa depicts not ordinary animals, people or things, but a world transformed by spirit. This book, however, is not directly about San ethnography or rock art interpretable in the light of living traditions. Building on the ethnographically informed work of David Lewis-Williams in South Africa, he takes us further back in time, to the ancient granite hills of Zimbabwe, where thousands of exquisite paintings are all that remain of religious traditions stretching back five, eight or more millennia into the past.

Garlake differs from Lewis-Williams in identifying himself as an art historian, not a scientist. Unhappy with the simplifying idea that San rock paintings uniformly express the inner vision of shamanic trance, he opts for a more eclectic approach, postulating numerous possible interpretations. Despite this, Garlake's debt to Lewis-Williams is unmistakable on virtually every page of this superb, theoretically sophisticated, beautifully illustrated work.

The `most clearly significant' images in the rock art of Zimbabwe, according to Garlake, are also the most initially baffling. Numerous immense oval shapes, often packed together within larger pouches containing `arrows' leading from an `orifice', have defied all previous attempts at explanation. `The ovals', writes Garlake, `represent the internal abdominal organs, including the main sources of potency, the liver and spleen . . . The arrow or bird shapes and flecks escaping through the orifice suggest potency in an active form . . . The whole is thus a representation of the Kung gebesi, the fount of potency.' Garlake marshals his evidence convincingly - in one case, an `oval' is shown alongside a vacancy where a human abdomen should be; in another, it is attached to a recumbent human figure's lower back.

Garlake is commendably ferocious in repudiating a sorry recent history of ill-informed, facile, and all-too-often racist interpretations of southern African rock art, but unfortunately displays some cultural blind-spots of his own - ignoring, for instance, the possibility that the zigzags emanating from his female `spread-legged' figures connote the `potency' of menstruation. Comparable southern African images have been linked to San female initiation, in which the blood of the girl undergoing initiation identifies her with the hunted, bleeding Eland (an antelope), primary icon of trance.

Dr Chris Knight is a Lecturer in Anthropology at the University of East London

History mixed with romantic fiction

by Bob Silvester

Graham Phillips
Century, UKP15.99
ISBN 0-7126-7533-7 hb

In his publisher's blurb Graham Phillips is classed as an historical detective, one who co-authored a previous revelation entitled King Arthur - The True Story (1992). Developing the Arthurian theme, Phillips has now come up with `astonishing new proof of the existence of the Grail in Britain', no doubt much to the joy of his publishers.

It is a deceptively short book. Phillips writes entertainingly and the text moves swiftly - the discovery by Helena, mother of Constantine the Great, of the Marian Chalice in Jerusalem in AD327; a consideration of King Arthur (identified here with Owain Ddantgwyn, supposedly King of Powys); discussion of the Grail romances which emerged in the late 12th and 13th centuries; the links in these romances between the Grail and the descendents of Owain Ddantgwyn; one specific descendent, Fulk Fitz Warine, a minor lord in early 13th century Shropshire whose castle at Whittington housed the Grail; its rediscovery around 1615 at Alberbury Priory on the Shropshire/Powys border, and its rediscovery once again at nearby Hawkestone Park in 1920; to its current resting place with a graphic designer in Rugby, a descendent of Owain Ddantgwyn.

Phillips's archaeological and historical base, however, is sometimes shaky. Newstead is not on Hadrian's Wall; it will surprise Anglo-Saxon historians that Whittington appears in the Tribal Hidage as the capital town of Powys, and is recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as being taken from the Britons by Offa in the late 8th century; and there are other similar errors. Central to the earlier part of the story is Wroxeter, for Phillips the capital city of Britain in the 5th century, the headquarters of Arthur and a centre of Pelagianism.

Phillips refers to the medieval prose romance Fulk le Fitz Waryn as `a combination of historical events . . . merged with romantic fiction' - a comment that could also be applied to his own work.

Bob Silvester is the Deputy Director of the Clwyd-Powys Archaeological Trust

This detectorist has the right idea

by Andrew Jones

Andrew Palmer
Seaby, UKP9.99
ISBN 0-7134-7810-1 pb

Although the late Prof Richard Atkinson advocated the use of metal detectors decades ago, few topics generate stronger feelings amongst British archaeologists. This book, written by a journalist and detectorist, is based on years of experience, and although aimed at novice detectorists, it should be essential reading for all concerned with the curation of the heritage.

Palmer is not afraid to address the long-standing conflict between detectorists and heritage professionals. He has no sympathy for `criminal looters who use detectors to steal from landowners, despoil heritage sites, and take part in a black market which depends on the illegal export of antiquities. ' He stresses that most detectorists behave responsibly, and that many archaeologists and museum staff collaborate with detectorists to their mutual benefit.

The preface draws attention to the recently-published CBA/English Heritage report Metal Detecting and Archaeology in England, and consistently advocates that detectorists work with archaeologists to contribute to our knowledge of the past. Throughout the book the reader is reminded to seek permission for detecting. Variations in the law in different parts of Britain are clearly stated. Palmer urges careful recording of the location of finds, and warns against attempting to clean artefacts. These points are exactly what most archaeologists have been calling for for years.

No attempt is made to encourage detectorists to try to understand the function of a site or its regional or national significance. However, Palmer urges detectorists to use many of the techniques of modern archaeology to locate sites, including researching sites in libraries, conventional field walking, and looking at aerial photos for crop-marks and discoloured soil in fields. These points are likely to cause angst, if not rage, amongst some archaeologists; but before the book is castigated, we must remember it represents a major advance in thinking among the detecting community.

Dr Andrew Jones is Director of the Archaeological Resource Centre in York

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