British Archaeology, no 29, November 1997: Reviews

Surveying Europe’s oldest monuments

by Andrew Chamberlain

Frances Lynch
Shire, £4.99
ISBN 0-7478-0341-2 pb

Megalithic tombs and long barrows were the very first monuments in prehistoric Europe. Why were they built?

The conventional view is that the adoption of farming in the Neolithic brought a new sense of responsibility for managing the natural environment, new concerns for the legitimation of land tenure and a social system which vested authority in the community’s ancestors. The availability of stored food and (on a seasonal basis) surplus labour made monument building a practical possibility. However, it is now recognised that Neolithic tombs occur predominantly in regions fringing the primary focus of early European farming, among communities in the farming/ hunting contact zone. New explanations for the phenomenon, therefore, have to be sought.

There is an extraordinary diversity of regional styles in the British Neolithic. Megalithic tombs – cairns and barrows containing burial chambers made of large stone slabs – are confined with few exceptions to the western half of Britain, with a complementary distribution of non megalithic long barrows and cairns, many of them formerly with wooden chambers, in the eastern zone. Regional diversity is most apparent in the west: progressing northwards we encounter the entrance graves of Cornwall and the Scilly Isles, portal dolmens in Cornwall and West Wales, Cotswold-Severn cairns on either side of the Bristol Channel, Clyde cairns in south-western Scotland and passage graves in North-West Scotland. Examples of several of the groups are also found in Ireland. Indeed, the distribution of styles suggests the Celtic, Irish and Hebridean Seas were direct routes of communication rather than the physical barriers of today.

Recent excavations and radiocarbon dating have tended to show that stylistic variation within each regional group was contemporaneous, with little clear evidence for the origin and dispersal of specific designs. Lynch, a Lecturer in Archaeology at the University of Wales in Bangor, also reviews the evidence for burials, which are best documented in the long barrows of southern and eastern Britain.

Although Lynch could be criticised for being reticent in her discussion of current interpretations, this book is a highly commendable addition to the Shire archaeology series.

Dr Andrew Chamberlain is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Sheffield

A manifesto and manual on Roman pots

by Richard Pollard

Paul Tyers
Routledge, £35.00
ISBN 0-713-47412-2 pb

Finds work, such as pottery studies, seems often to be viewed with indifference by archaeology’s purseholders, undertaken by ‘harmless drudges’, to use Tyers’s definition, whose output is of little relevance to the ‘real world’ of survey and excavation. This book, however, is a manifesto for pottery studies masquerading as a work of reference. Its principal concern is to demonstrate that pottery studies are essential to an understanding of the Roman world.

The first part of the book provides concise histories of Roman pottery studies and of the pottery itself in Britain, along with chapters on the potential tools available to the student and the uses to which they can be put. Throughout the focus is on innovations. Biographies of the scholars who developed new ideas are of particular interest. Until the 1960s, virtually all the key figures were men, though the same cannot be said today.

In his history of the pottery, Tyers, a freelance specialist, spares little room for alternative explanations of the various phenomena, and thereby runs the risk of stifling rather than stimulating debate. This account is one person’s interpretation of the evidence, albeit a masterly one.

The book’s second part is an ‘atlas and guide’ to nearly 90 types of pottery, ranging across the full spectrum of imports and Romano-British products, described in sufficient detail for use as an identification manual. The assemby of data and research from diverse sources is invaluable; and important research is brought to light which might otherwise have remained buried in obscure, often out of print, sources. Oversights and inconsistencies can be found, but that is the challenge set by a book of this wide scope.

Dr Richard Pollard is the Assistant Keeper, Archaeology, at Leicestershire Museums

Blasting away in all directions at once

by Roger Mercer

Andrew Selkirk
Adam Smith Institute, £5.00
ISBN 1-873712-91-X pb

In a pamphlet issued by the Adam Smith Institute, one might expect a cogent, well-argued analysis from a well-defined and now well-known viewpoint. This pamphlet, however, despite a façade of cogency and organisation, is in fact a stream of inconsequential and ill thoughtout reflections, often inconsistent, and frequently based on what appears to be a profound lack of experience. Inappropriate comparisons are made with non-archaeological bodies and policies, and mere gossip is cited as evidence.

Selkirk’s basic thesis is that virtually all government intervention in the funding and management of the heritage has been counter-productive. He advocates a return to a laisser-faire marketplace (loosely conceived in a variety of ways) where the utility of any enterprise, activity or policy would be judged against its appeal to ‘the independent [archaeologist]: someone working with his own time, his own energy, his own money, and thus able to make his own independent judgement’. Selkirk believes the birth of an archaeological profession has bred a ‘professional conspiracy’ to exclude and patronise nonprofessionals. He believes that listing, scheduling, and treasure legislation stultifies the market. Museum collections, he says, deny the opportunity for the private display of objects. The CBA is bashed for putting pressure on the Government to increase funding for archaeology – ‘it is hard to see why government should fund bodies that campaign against itself’. Royal Commissions are simply written off, ‘apart, ’ he says, ‘from the National Monuments Records’ (not realising that these are in fact the main focus of their work). And why? Because their county surveys (which they have not being doing for a decade) supposedly discourage independents from carrying out the same work (who? when? where?). Universities are lambasted for teaching theory and, through their extramural departments, for ‘teaching independents not to dig’.

And so it goes on, blasting away in all directions. Selkirk, who has edited Current Archaeology for 30 years, clearly finds many of the changes that have taken place over that time hard to accept. What is needed, though, now, is for everyone in archaeology (‘ professionals’ and ‘independents’ together) to make the subject more accessible to the public, and to enhance the standards that have steadily improved over the past half century, working within the economic framework created for us so prominently by the Adam Smith Institute.

Dr Roger Mercer is the Secretary of the Scottish Royal Commission

Castles that won the west of Scotland

by John R Kenyon

Chris Tabraham
Batsford, £15.99
ISBN 0-7134-7965-5 pb

This work should rapidly establish itself as one of the key works on Scottish castles, covering as it does the first castles of the 12th century through to the early use of guns in fortification in the 15th century, and culminating in an examination of the first artillery forts and the strong tower-houses of the 1500s.

In his chapter on the golden age of Scottish castle-building in the 13th century, Chris Tabraham, a Principal Inspector at Historic Scotland, points out that the variety of forms a castle might take was determined, to a great extent, by the personal preferences of the builder – a factor too often ignored in castle studies.

A number of early 13th century masonry sites of a relatively simple form, termed in this book ‘curtain-walled castles’, can be found amongst the large number of castles in western Scotland, particularly along the Argyll and Inverness coasts. All stone castles have curtain walls, but what Tabraham means here is generally castles just consisting of a high wall, usually rectangular in plan, with no towers, although Rothesay is circular. It was these castles, such as Castle Sween and Castle Tioram, that enabled the Scots to wrest this area from Norse control.

Tabraham suggests that some elaborate Scottish castles may originally have been similarly simple. Excavations at Dunstaffnage suggest the round towers may have been added to the ‘curtain-walled’ castle. Many of these strongholds were built by the Scots of Norse-Celtic ancestry, although Rothesay owed its origin to the Norman Stewarts.

Early stone castles is but one theme in the chapter on the 13th century, for besides defences the author also discusses the social aspect of castles, giving some idea of how the castle operated as a residence – a function as important as its defensive capabilities. This book is clearly written and profusely illustrated, not least by a number of excellent reconstruction drawings by David Simon.

John R Kenyon has written widely on medieval and later fortifications

Return to the British Archaeology homepage

Return to the CBA homepage

© Council for British Archaeology, 1997