ISSN 1357-4442Editor: Simon Denison

Issue no 49, November 1999


Livestock farming in the Bronze Age

by David Field

Francis Pryor
Tempus, £18.99
ISBN 07524-1403-8 hb

Francis Pryor whisks the reader along with enthusiasm in the first major book on prehistoric farming in Britain since 1983. Anecdotal in style, it has much to do with the author's own experience with livestock and his clear wish to convey this to as many of the general archaeological readership as possible. In this respect it is something of a polemic.

The stated aim is to discuss the millennium or so of `livestock farming that flourished during the Bronze Age' and the reader is swiftly and expertly guided through the transition from hunting to farming, through the notion of territory, to the world of symbolism and deliberate deposition. Based on the evidence from a number of excavations on the fen edge, the book uses the Etton causewayed enclosure, Welland Bank Quarry, and Flag Fen in particular, to chronicle farming practices from the Neolithic through to the early Iron Age.

Most of the book is devoted to sheep farming. Pryor suggests that, unlike the loess-covered plains of central Europe, the climate and hilly landscape of Britain was more suited to stock control than agriculture. Cereals were certainly grown but it may have been in small quantities, perhaps in gardens, and more as an expression of the Neolithic way of life than for subsistence, but he misses a trick - or perhaps carefully avoids entering the debate on whether they were in fact grown for beer.

More importantly he discusses the nature and significance of markets, in particular their role in ensuring that the in-breeding of animals (including humans) is kept to a minimum. This is an extremely important point in discussing the social development of prehistoric groups.

Pryor also makes the point that the evidence for farming refuses to fall neatly into the traditional time scales, but appears to have its own agenda, and he is at pains to emphasise the degree of continuity within the landscape. He describes the appearance of fields as a result of the number of animals grazing an area suddenly passing a `critical threshold', making it necessary to construct boundaries and formally arrange the landscape. In the case of standard `Celtic' fields, however, he does not consider why they are so small or indeed square.

The axis of field systems is also topical. For Pryor there is no indication that field alignments were symbolic. Instead they were aligned on a stream, or a pre-existing track acting as a starting point for the first organised landscape. Land was divided and allotted in a manner that ensured that each holding obtained a variety of soils, a little like the principles of the medieval strip system. Many of these holdings are thought to have possessed community stockyards where markets were held, for that is how excessively trampled areas are interpreted. However, similar trampled areas might be observed on the route to almost any milking shed, and although Pryor recognises that sheep can be milked, possibly he does not recognise the extent to which they are used for milk outside Britain today, and perhaps even within Britain prior to the medieval period.

The deposition of rubbish, something that has seen much lively discussion, is touched on only briefly. Like others Pryor remains `to be convinced that prehistoric peoples even possessed the concept of rubbish'. His example is that mundane artefact, the saddle quern, which was taken out of use and transported to the causewayed enclosure at Etton and deposited in pits. Here querns are seen as symbols of the family in contrast to deposited ground axes, which may have represented individuals.

There are of course bad points in this book. The title is rather misleading: from the map of sites mentioned in the text, one realises that `Britain' here is in fact bounded by Lincoln, Cambridge and Kings Lynn. One searches in vain for new insights into `Celtic' fields of the chalk downland, the reaves of Dartmoor, the processes that podsolised the soils of the New Forest, a mention of cord rig of the Cheviots, a synthesis of the results of the Land Allotment (BAR) volume, or the environmental evidence. One might have thought that the works of Bowen, Fowler, Mercer and Fleming would figure in the suggestions for further reading. Some of the photographs appear to be out of focus or fuzzy.

None of these points detract too much from what is a well-timed `impressionistic picture' of prehistoric farming. It makes a good read, one of those indispensable books that is difficult to put down until it is finished.

David Field is a field archaeologist with English Heritage

Ingenious texts from a not-so Dark Age

by David Howlett

Charles Thomas
Tempus, £19.99
ISBN 07524-1411-9 hb

In this book, and in a number of smaller publications since 1995, Charles Thomas has tried, while presenting some British inscriptions, to alter drastically both the ways in which we read them and the ways in which we understand the minds of those who conceived and received them.

Basing his theories upon a tradition of thought and composition, a Biblical style demonstrable in perfectly transmitted passages of the Hebrew Old Testament, the Greek New Testament, and the Vulgate Latin Bible, and an epigraphic style demonstrable in perfectly preserved inscriptions on stones and mosaics from Roman Britain, Thomas blazes a trail through Insular inscriptions from the 5th century onward. He reveals within the words we have long understood techniques for recovery of infixed signatures, dates, profiles of persons, and ground plans for buildings, sometimes displayed in the inscriptions as they are, sometimes devised by intellectual abstraction and mental rearrangement of the text.

Thomas adduces rudimentary analogues of these features in inscriptions from the Rhineland and the Iberian peninsula, where they are clearly reflexes of a Roman tradition. But inscriptions that illustrate the full range of developed features appear to have issued uniquely from the Christian culture of Insular Celtic peoples.

These analyses are revolutionary, likely to elicit one of only two responses: either outright rejection as counter-intuitive, and so convoluted and difficult as to have been impossible in the benighted and barbarous `sub-Roman' Britain of `the Dark Age'; or whole-hearted acceptance of an important aspect of our Insular culture, long lost.

Here are no tricks with smoke and mirrors, but clear presentation of everything a layman needs to know. The driver takes his readers and reckoners on an express train that makes no stops. Once aboard, there is no logical way to get off until the end of the line, at which destination some may feel breathless. The best practical advice is to read this book as a sceptic, looking for faults, the list of which will not be long.

Dr David Howlett is Editor of the Dictionary of Medieval Latin from British Sources at the Bodleian Library, Oxford

Jumbling old events with modern myths

by Ken Dark

David Keys
Century, £16.99
ISBN 1-7126-8069-1 hb

Did a huge volcanic eruption in the early 6th century AD cause profound global political, economic, cultural and religious changes? David Keys, a well-known journalist specializing in archaeological news, argues that it did. Drawing extensively on the work of archaeologists, historians, and scholars in other fields, as he makes clear, Keys suggests that an eruption led to a global environmental `catastrophe'. This, he proposes, brought ruin to the Roman Empire, the Avar kingdom in Central Asia and to Teotihuacan in Mesoamerica, and led to the formation of later England, France, China and Japan.

It is a bold thesis, and one which touches on current fears about environmental problems as a global threat. Moreover, while aspects of the argument are not entirely new (for example, the 6th century environmental crisis is credited to Mike Baillie's work), at first sight Keys offers a lot of supporting evidence for his broader interpretation. However, much of the apparent evidence presented in the book is highly debatable, based on poor sources or simply incorrect.

The chapters on Britain illustrate the limitations of the book as a whole. Sites (such as Mothecombe) are mislocated and archaeological evidence (as at Dinas Emrys) misquoted in detail. Unfounded assertions about population (as at Killibury) and desertion (as at Chun) abound. Important sites which might cause problems for the argument (for example, Dinas Powys) are absent altogether. As for textual evidence, pseudo-historical and historical material is intermingled, and few specialists will accept that late medieval `Arthurian' literature contains any reliable information about the 6th century, the topic of a whole chapter of this book.

Nonetheless, both the global scope and the emphasis on the 6th century AD as a time of wide-ranging change are commendable, and the book contains some fascinating and obscure information which will be new to many. However, it fails to demonstrate its central thesis and does not offer a convincing explanation for the many changes discussed.

Dr Ken Dark is an early medieval specialist at the University of Reading

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