ISSN 1357-4442Editor: Simon Denison

Issue no 37, September 1998


Half a million years in a short book

by John Mitchell

Nicholas Barton
Batsford, £15.99
ISBN 0-7134-6846-7 pb

This short account of the Palaeolithic era in north-western Europe covers 500,000 years of human activity in only 135 pages. It begins with a chapter on stone tools, summarising details of their manufacture and chronological develop-ment. This is followed by a detailed but intelligible discussion of the evidence for past climates and environmental change, particularly in the last 150,000 years.

These two chapters form a spring-board for a discussion of the hominid colonisation of Europe - after a brief foray into the African background - answering the important questions of who, where, when and why. The exceptional Lower Palaeo-lithic site of Boxgrove in Sussex is discussed in detail, and we hear about the hominid tibia, the two hominid incisors, the intact land surfaces, the perfectly preserved stone tools, and the remarkable faunal remains found at that site over recent years. These finds form the basis for a summary of recent theories of hominid development, language and technology in the early part of the period.

Barton, a Senior Lecturer at Oxford Brookes University and a specialist in the Middle Palaeolithic, then moves on to cover the Neanderthals, discussing, amongst other things, their hunting, use of the landscape, and ritual behaviour. Anatomically-modern humans receive similar treatment. Barton describes the evidence for human physical evolution, advances in tool technology, the rise of symbolism and ritual, art, economic activities, and the sidelining of Neanderthal populations.

Throughout the book, the evidence is presented clearly, and includes plenty of background material with a world-wide perspective, but is clealy focused on the British story.

John Mitchell is a specialist in the microwear of stone tools, and worked at Boxgrove

The Rose dressed up like a good read

by Peter Carrington

Julian Bowsher
Museum of London, £9.50
ISBN 0-904818-75-6 pb

Purpose-built theatres appeared in London in Elizabeth I's reign as a response to the development of modern English drama and flourished until they were closed during the Civil War. However, study of their appearance has hitherto been based purely on scraps of documentary evidence. The importance of the Rose, excavated amid much controversy in 1989, lies in the fact that we have both archaeological information and the papers of its owner, Philip Henslowe. Together they allow us to reconstruct the individual characteristics of a specific theatre.

Since the excavation, most of us will have heard little about the site. As compensation we are now treated to a lavishly illustrated paperback by the director of the original dig. Its beautiful production will probably ensure that people buy it. However, the way it is written makes it a lost opportunity.

Despite its glossy appearance, the book is ordered as an orthodox analytical excavation report. The first three chapters comprise an introduction to the emergence of theatres in Elizabethan London, a description of the Bankside area where the Rose was situated, and a history of the theatre's use: so far, all well and good. However, the fourth chapter is an excessively detailed description of the excavation. This makes concentrated reading even for the professional archaeologist, and I suspect the layman would simply give up.

The fifth chapter, `The Rose in Context', is a miscellany of information that could not be fitted in elsewhere. The book is concluded by `Playing at the Rose' - the operation of the theatre from the actors' point of view, and a postscript by Walter Hodges explaining his reconstruction drawings.

This structure seriously detracts from the readability of the book. A popular account, I would have thought, ought to be terser and tell more of a continuous story. In particular, inclusion of Hodges' excellent reconstructions and comments into the account of the excavation would have made the latter more intelligible.

Dr Peter Carrington is Senior Archaeologist with Chester Archaeology

Origins of war from outdated sources

by Timothy Taylor

Robert L O'Connell
OUP, £20.95
ISBN 0-19-506460-7 hb

Robert O'Connell is a senior intelligence analyst with the US National Ground Intelligence Center who optimistically believes that technological advances could soon mean an end to wars. Here he addresses the origins of war, giving precedence, ostensibly, to archaeology.

Perhaps one should not expect him, as a non-archaeologist, to sift the grain from the chaff of post-modern jargon, nor to make the connections between palaeopathology, lithic analysis, and social archaeology that archaeologists themselves often fail to make. But little is made even of the specific relationship between types of artefact and forms of combat, and O'Connell's authorities - James Mellaart, Glyn Daniel, Graham Clark, and other leading figures of earlier this century - are often outdated.

O'Connell begins with `man the hunter' who, via various social metamorphoses and the efforts of boys playing athletic games with horses, turned into `man the warmaker' - specifically a mounted nomad harrying settled agricultural communities and forcing urban agglomeration. This model paves the way for some unorthodox inter-pretations of the rise of Egyptian and Indus Valley civilization, and the assertion that war arose independently in the New World. For the emergence of nomadic warmongering O'Connell relies almost entirely on David Anthony's early horse-riding hypothesis, along with a selection of idiosyncratic and/or superseded texts. Explanations draw heavily on the sociobiology of EO Wilson. War is - innately - a `guy' thing and gender does not get a look in. The index lists amazon ants but not Amazons (those warrior women of the Iron Age steppe whose archaeological and historical reality so confound Engels's original formulation of pastoral nomadic society). If proof were needed of the failure of theoretically-informed archaeology to sell itself to a wider community of writers, this book provides it.

Dr Timothy Taylor is a Lecturer at the University of Bradford

Sutton Hoo from prehistory onwards

by John Newman

Martin Carver
British Museum, £16.99
ISBN 0-7141-0591-0 hb

Three archaeologists can be most closely associated with the Anglo-Saxon cemetery at Sutton Hoo in Suffolk. These are Basil Brown, who ran the initial excavations in 1938 and 1939, Rupert Bruce-Mitford who directed the ensuing research and publication programme for the British Museum, and the author of this book, Martin Carver, Professor of Archaeology at York and director of the most recent fieldwork programme on the site between 1983 and 1992.

Therefore, while an extensive range of books on the burial ground of the early East Anglian royal dynasty already exists, Martin Carver is in an unrivalled position to present a concise and lucid account of the initial momentous discoveries under Mound 1 of an intact, richly furnished grave of the highest status, the subsequent work in the 1960s, and his own excavation programme culminating in the discovery of a second, intact burial under Mound 17.

Two aspects of this book should commend it to a wide readership. The first is Carver's use of the Sutton Hoo archive to give a clear account of the events and characters behind the 1939 excavation of Mound 1.

Secondly, Carver's own excavations were on a large enough scale to allow a more detailed understanding of the site. He presents a comprehensive picture of the prehistoric phases of activity and how this previous land-use influenced the structure of the Anglo-Saxon cemetery. In addition a convincing chronological sequence can now be presented for the barrow cemetery.

On a more detailed level the structural evidence from Mound 17 has been used to reinterpret the Mound 1 records and, one hopes, finally allay any doubts that Mound 1 did contain a body, in a coffin, within a chamber in the ship. The complex character of Sutton Hoo is also shown by the series of `flat' graves around Mound 5 and east of the main site, and here Carver draws heavily on Andrew Reynolds's work on the use of Anglo-Saxon cemeteries as `killing places' for felons (see BA, February) which here may have started as early as the 7th century when the site was still in its formal, funerary phase.

John Newman is a Field Officer with the Archaeology Service at Suffolk County Council

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