ISSN 1357-4442Editor: Simon Denison

Issue no 51, February 2000


Stonehenge fiction

Reviewed by Richard Lee
Bernard Cornwell
HarperCollins £16.99
ISBN 0-00-225969-9 hb

It is notoriously difficult to write a prehistorical novel with any hope of accuracy. How can you guess at the mindset of a people who have left no written records? And even if you guess correctly, how will anyone know if you're right? There is nevertheless a hunger for these books, as shown by the American Jean Auel's multi-million selling Clan of the Cave Bear sequence. Cynics see her stories as little more than proto-feminist sex romps - the gorgeously blond Ayla searching for true love amongst the Neanderthals - but the general public loves them. And for a lot of people, this is where their knowledge of prehistoric times begins and ends.

Whether it was the lure of such a lucrative market or some deeper affinity with the subject which drew Bernard Cornwell, author of the Sharpe series of books, to write about Stonehenge, the result is surprisingly pleasing.

Cornwell bases his novel on two of the archaeological finds from Stonehenge. One was an archer, with a stone bracer to protect his wrist from the lash of the bowstring, buried beside Stonehenge's north-eastern entrance, who had been killed, evidently at close quarters, by three arrows. The other find was a group of three gold lozenges from one of the burial mounds closest to the monument.

In Cornwell's story the gold belongs, at first, to the man who dies. The gold signals a change to the tribesmen, or rather, it provides a focus for those within the tribe who want change. There is a war party, a peace party, and a religious party - the latter offering its support to peace or war depending on circumstances. In the novel each of these parties is headed by a brother, and so the rivalries are personal.

The three powerful women in the story are all priestesses who help, manipulate, or seek to crush the brothers. It is against this backdrop that the stones are brought, the slaves who will work them are taken, and the proper ceremonial and religious conception behind the temple is decided upon, changed, and remade.

The narrative misses a few opportunities. I was disappointed, for example, that there was no female viewpoint character. The women are only seen from the outside, and in a way this leaves us with only half a picture of this alien world. Cornwell also seems to have a squeamishness about hunting; certainly his world gives less precedence to the mystery of the hunt than might be expected.

The prehistoric Britain he does depict is a brutal and bleakly tribal place. The culture seems like animist Africa at times, and in different scenery the story could be a Zulu tale, replete with bloodthirsty Chakas - shades of Rider Haggard.

The overriding images from the book are wide skies, animal skins and bones, human squalor, and temples - not Stonehenge, which doesn't arrive till the end of the book, and even then not as we know it - but sordid, animal-smelling, superstitious, fear-inspiring temples.

Whether or not this is historically accurate, of course, no one knows, but it certainly leaves a striking impression.

Richard Lee is Secretary of the Historical Novel Society

After the Romans

Reviewed by Roger White
The End of Antiquity
Jeremy Knight
Tempus £19.99
ISBN 0-7524-1448-8 hb

Nearly 30 years after Peter Brown's seminal work The World of Late Antiquity, the late and post-Roman period continues to fascinate archaeologists, historians, and the general public alike. The topic's fascination comes from its apparent mysteriousness - these are after all the 'Dark Ages' - and the urge to explain how the Roman Empire collapsed (or should that be 'transformed itself'?) to emerge as something recognisably medieval and European.

Knight's book is a commendable distillation of a large body of material - archaeological, social, religious, historical, linguistic - whose range of themes demonstrates both the attractions and difficulties of the era. Geographically, his book is largely limited to modern France (a fact that should surely have been reflected in the title), although often straying into neighbouring regions including the Iberian peninsula, Germany and the Low Countries, and the British Isles.

While this may appear to limit his options, a detailed consideration of the transition from Gaul to France has much to commend it as a study. For those studying Britain, France is considerably better documented than its textually impoverished neighbour, and archaeologically provides much that illuminates British developments. Examples of this include the tottering survival of Roman towns through the medium of the incipient church and its aristocratic bishops; the intriguing evidence for changing social patterns in cemeteries, and their role in the development of the parish; the introduction of fundamental medieval concepts such as monasticism; and the development of the northern European-centred trading pattern, in preference to one centred on the Mediterranean. Much of this has been studied before, but rarely in combination.

Perhaps the most useful aspect of the book is its clear exposition of the considerable amount of archaeology that has recently been done in the area for this period, particularly in the refining of dating of artefacts and epitaphs. Such comparative studies are invaluable for British studies, although the paucity of illustrations hinders the text on occasions.

It is also particularly refreshing to find an author who is loath to adopt monocausal explanations for what must have been a complex, overwhelming and confusing time. Indeed, there is much in this book that provokes thought and reflection on the modern world.

Roger White works for the Wroxeter Hinterland Project

Neolithic revised

Reviewed by John Gale
Understanding the Neolithic
Julian Thomas
Routledge £19.99
ISBN 0-415-20767-3 pb

After an eight year gestation period Julian Thomas has produced a timely reworking of his thought-provoking book Rethinking the Neolithic, complete with a revised title. After its publication in 1991 Rethinking the Neolithic was both applauded and criticised, as it was essentially an exercise challenging much of the published interpretations of the period.

Thomas was drawing attention to the dangers of examining the past without an understanding of the way in which we are all restricted, in our thinking, by the straight-jacket of modern contemporary culture and philosophy. This idea was itself not new. What was new was the application and development of this idea on a scale that enveloped much of the Neolithic of southern Britain.

This new edition makes use of new work in the field, and offers a more expansive evaluation of the data. The structure is largely true to the original, but a useful concluding section has been added to each chapter, which summarises the preceding narrative. This will undoubtedly be popular with undergraduates who will form the main audience for this work - but by not reading the main text they will miss out on theses that are both well-written and convincing.

As before, key aspects of Neolithic culture are examined such as economic landscapes, mortuary practice, and portable artefacts. These sections are then followed by three regional case studies (Stonehenge, the Upper Thames valley and Avebury) where the evidence is examined spatially rather than temporally.

Although Thomas expresses disappointment in his preface that the original edition had been described as a textbook, the fate of this remix will undoubtedly be the same. It effectively outlines traditional or mainstream interpretations of the period, with liberal reference to sites and associated data, and provides alternative interpretations. These are drawn from the author's attempt to describe an 'otherness' for the Neolithic withdrawn from modern preconceptions. The evidence is exclusively drawn from southern England, but as Thomas points out it is there that the evidence is sufficiently expansive and developed.

The value of this work lies in its application of alternative interpretations to a set of temporally-unified archaeological themes. Those studying the Neolithic will find it of particular interest, but it deserves to be read more widely.

John Gale teaches the Neolithic at Bournemouth University

Saxon trading

Reviewed by Alan Vince
Anglo-Saxon Trading Centres
Mike Anderton (ed)
Cruithne Press £9.50
ISBN 1-8773448-04-X pb

To understand this book, you need to first consider another book. In 1982, Richard Hodges published Dark Age Economics. The central thesis of the earlier book was that with the decline of the Roman Empire in western Europe, trade and towns all but disappeared. The revival of trade in the 6th and 7th centuries was centrally controlled, according to Hodges, and flowed first through seasonally-occupied beach markets, and then through permanently occupied ports. Both types of emporia were centrally controlled.

The network through which goods flowed to these places was characterised by Hodges as dendritic. In other words, the function of the network was to extract surplus goods from the surrounding countryside rather than to allow the redistribution of goods within and between regions. Hodges' work, elaborated and extended in a series of papers, has been remarkably influential although extensively criticised.

To a certain extent Hodges lays himself open. An early review characterised his writing style as being of 'catatonic obscurity'. Historians hated the free and easy use of sources and the use of theory. Theoretical archaeologists objected to the theory. Field archaeologists worried about the minutiae (for example, there is no Petergate in Lincoln).

Now, 17 years on, we have a new small book whose main purpose, according to the introduction, is to 'lead people away from the Hodges-centred view of early medieval trading centres, and . . . encourage them to focus on the re-examination of earlier evidence and look at new evidence in a different light.'

The book arose from a conference held in 1996, and includes papers by scholars interested in Ipswich and its setting (Paul Blinkhorn and John Newman) and Southampton and its setting (David Hinton and Alan Morton). These are followed by a thought-provoking paper by Alex Woolf who uses Byzantine/Rus trading relations in 10th century Russia as a model for the role and operation of the North Sea trading settlements of the late 7th to early 9th centuries. The book is then rounded off with an essay by Ross Samson worthy, for its faults, of Hodges himself (particularly in the assignment of the Reeve of Portland to Portsmouth, a very Hodgean touch). Samson's views on Hodges can be summed up by one of his sub-headings: 'Bad and Mad Dark-Age Economic Theories'.

So do these scholars succeed in putting forward alternative theories for the function and control of trading settlements such as Ipswich, Hamwic and Lundenwic (Saxon London)? I think not. Woolf, for example, seems to be offering almost contemporary confirmation that ports of trade existed in the northern world and that they were centrally controlled. Similarly, the main papers would sit as happily in a volume celebrating Dark Age Economics as in one so openly hostile to it. Barring the two end papers, I could not find any view that would not fit easily into the Hodges vision of the world. My scoring would be Hodges 1, Young Turks 0.

Alan Vince has written about Lundenwic and is an expert in early medieval pottery

Kilmartin valley

Reviewed by Graham Ritchie
Rachel Butter
Kilmartin House £10
ISBN 0-9533674-0-1 pb

This short book provides an introduction and guide to the important prehistoric and early historic monuments of the Kilmartin valley in Argyll, and is published by the new Kilmartin House Museum, which was created in 1997. The monuments include Neolithic and Bronze Age cairns (some with decorated slabs), extensive rock sheets of cup-and-ring markings, standing stones, and stone walled forts.

Excavations, not always conducted with scientific rigour, have resulted in the discovery of grave-goods of a high order and of occupation and industrial debris. A large number of individual sites were subsequently accepted into state care. Historic Scotland has excellent display boards at the monuments in state care, but until the opening of Kilmartin House there was no local source of information about the valley as a whole. Now all visitors should leave the museum aware that the landscape around them is as much a part of the story of the past as monuments or artefacts found by excavation.

This book provides a thematic overview of the valley, beautifully illustrated, in ways that take us beyond monuments to people. Rachel Butter, one of the founders of Kilmartin House, discusses themes such as transport and subsistence as well as power. The museum and the book place the environment at centre stage and incorporate the artefactual evidence, either through the original objects or imaginative copies, in such a way that the monuments acquire a greater relevance to life in prehistoric times. Boat-building, crannog-living, and music-making are all fully explored.

Attractive reconstruction drawings give a sense of drama to the deposits of bronze swords on the nearby island of Shuna. Photographs by David Lyons are a vital part of the book and are mostly stunning. A gazetteer describes 22 monuments with useful maps and information about access.

This is a book that will be not only a valuable site guide for visitors, but also a spur to others to come to the valley to see the monuments at first hand. The sub-title - Scotland's richest prehistoric landscape - is provocative of course, for the potential is untested of many other parts of Scotland where there has been no protracted history of excavation and there are fewer sites in state care. But there is no doubt of the buzz of the valley.

Graham Ritchie is one of the authors of the 'Inventory' of ancient monuments of Argyll published by the Scottish Royal Commission

Neolithic Europe

Reviewed by Graham Ritchie
Understanding the Neolithic of North-Western Europe
Mark Edmonds & Colin Richards (eds)
Cruithne Press £65.00
ISBN 1-873448-05-8 hb

This is a large and impressive volume containing 24 papers on the Neolithic of the North Atlantic fringe. Most originate in a 1992 conference at Glasgow University.

Thematically the volume can be split into papers dealing with social transformations, monument types and material culture - though there is considerable overlap between these themes. Social transformations focus on either the Mesolithic-Neolithic transition (Zvelebil, Pluccienik, Thomas, Louwe Koojimans), or the developments that created the later Neolithic (Larsson, Fokkens and Richards).

Within the former group there are significant differences in approach but surprisingly harmonious conclusions. All four authors stress the complexity of the transition from hunter-gatherer to farmer, emphasising that it occurred in different ways and over different time periods. This is demonstrated most emphatically by Louwe Koojimans's case study of the Lower Rhine basin where a hunter-gatherer economy continued with the addition of both animal husbandry and crop cultivation up to the Beaker period.

A feature of the papers dealing with the Mesolithic-Neolithic transition is their geographical sweep. In contrast, the problems of the later Neolithic are dealt with in a more regionally specific manner. This may have seemed appropriate given the apparent insularity of regions in this period, but the changes taking place in such diverse regions as Holland and Orkney are in fact similar in many ways.

These changes suggest the increasing importance of the individual, and the disappearance of the monuments that identify communal control of resources. The changes are intimately connected with intensification in the agricultural economy. However, these papers show that the processes of change in the late Neolithic are no more unified than processes at the beginning of the period.

The examination of material culture is dominated by papers on stone tool production, distribution and use (Edmonds, Petrequin et al, Rudebeck, van Gijn, De Grooth, Le Roux). Unfortunately the only examination of pottery is a study of Beaker variability (Boast). All authors place their work in a wider theoretical framework, integrating detailed analysis with an understanding of place and context. The importance of this approach is superbly demonstrated by the work on the Vosges region of eastern France. The seven authors of this work integrate traditional typological and chronological studies with detailed survey and geology sourcing, and bring the study to life with pertinent anthropological analogies from Irian Jaya. This project is a model for such studies throughout Europe.

The strength of this book is its thematic diversity. Too many books on the Neolithic are restricted to subjects such as tombs or flint mining, when we should be striving, as the editors of this book obviously were, to provide a more holistic view of the period.

Niall Sharples teaches prehistory at Cardiff University

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