ISSN 1357-4442Editor: Simon Denison

Issue no 54, August 2000


Stone Age wonders

Reviewed by Tim Taylor

Lost Civilizations of the Stone Age
Richard Rudgley
Arrow £8.99
ISBN 0-09-922372-4 pb

The dust jacket of this book carries an endorsement from the novelist Doris Lessing: `This book will transform our view of BC'. Supported by a glossy documentary series on Channel 4, Rudgley's message is hard to miss. Our ancestors were not savage brutes with matted hair harbouring nutritious lice; au contraire, they were civilized - not in the urban sense but the urbane sense. This we can judge because their achievements were like our achievements, and they were earlier. In fact, mutatis mutandis, it is they who were civilized and us savage.

Rudgley castigates some of the less defensible uses of human remains by anthropologists, and then springs his leading question: `If our moral superiority to `primitives' and prehistoric `cavemen' is to be cast in doubt by the bringing to light of such nefarious goings-on among scientists, what of the notion of social evolution and progress on a more general level?' What indeed? `Out the window!' an unwary reader (such as Lessing) is obviously tempted to cry.

Rudgley has studied anthropology and brings an outside curiosity to bear on archaeology. Chapters on `Stone Age' religion, the origins of languages, `The Palaeolithic origins of writing', `Palaeoscience', the emergence of medical knowledge, the meaning of Ice Age art, prehistoric drug culture, ancient global colonization, and much more, make for a rich journalistic soup. It is generally well-informed, but too credulous of Gimbutas's Mother Goddess theories and several other shaky heterodoxies.

For those members of the public who hold that little was managed by our species before the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans, this book could form an antidote, but it will frustrate those with more knowledge. Rudgley reminds us that `Unfortunately, due to the ravages of time, which have obliterated most of the material culture of earlier epochs, many aspects of the technology of early man are known only from a few fortuitously preserved artefacts, and we may presume that other developments of these remote times have left no tangible traces at all'. This is, in a way, uncontroversial.

The real question is how inferences may be built on fragmentary evidence, but there is no sense in these pages that Rudgley understands archaeological theory and method. All too often, it seems, blinkered, dogma-plagued archaeologists wilfully fail to see the simple truth.

Rudgley winds up with a grand general statement, saying `There is overwhelming evidence that the whole conventional chronology for the various cultural innovations of mankind is fundamentally inaccurate.' He believes there are nevertheless grounds for hope, as although much has been lost to `human negligence and vandalism', future discoveries will allow us to `glimpse the reflected glory of the lost civilisations of the Stone Age'.

Despite a wide-ranging review of much of the specialist literature, both old and more recent, this pacey retelling of the story of the fall owes rather a lot to Victorian romanticism. Filled with awe about when things happened, the sense of why is curiously absent.

Tim Taylor teaches prehistory at the University of Bradford

Romans at war

Reviewed by Jon Coulston

The Roman Art of War
CM Gilliver
Tempus £19.99
ISBN 0-7524-1422-4 hb

This book examines Roman warfare from the Middle Republic into the Late Empire, although in practice it mainly goes up only as far as the 2nd century AD. Kate Gilliver, an ancient history lecturer at Cardiff University, commences with a brief overview of Roman army organisation, then conducts the reader across the landscape of Roman warfare. In succeeding sections the army marches out, rests in `campaign camps', fights pitched battles, and ends up besieging enemy fortifications.

Appendices usefully provide a list of Roman military treatises, and a translation of Arrian's Order of Battle Against the Alans which outlines the plan for marching an army towards a steppe nomad enemy and drawing it up for battle. The book is well illustrated with photographs of Roman and comparative Assyrian artworks which depict armies at war. A series of diagrams clearly elucidate the descriptions of marching armies provided by ancient writers, but some of the site and battle plans are crudely drawn.

Gilliver's book relies heavily on surviving ancient military treatises, and there is some discussion of their worth as source material. She is quite correct to sound a note of caution because however `technical' these works appear to be, they form part of a recognised literary genre going back to the 4th century BC. With few exceptions, they were written by and for the elite, and, like agricultural writings, were not really intended to be practical guides.

Complex activities in the ancient world were not learnt from manuals but through experience. Thus artisans developed their talents through workshop training under masters. Similarly, military skills were passed on through training and reinforced through the structures and formations of the Roman army. Generations of soldiers passed through the system and shared in the military acculturation process. The army simply had no need for manuals: continuity of experience provided all the necessary skills and information. Consequently major Roman defeats, such as that at Hadrianopolis in AD378, were not so important for the loss of manpower as for the loss of expertise and break in continuity (as happened with the swift Turkish replacement of men and ships after Lepanto in AD 1571, but with great loss of naval skills).

Many modern observers of regular armies have mistaken military tradition for inflexible conservatism, yet the very success of the Roman army for such a long period of time bespeaks adaptability. It was indeed a regular army with features now considered as modern, such as set length of service, promotion structures, related payscales, and basic training. Yet it was also an army without a uniform in the modern sense, and an army suffused with religious ritual.

During Gilliver's pursuit of the Roman army at war many issues are raised which are relevant to the study of ancient warfare, to an understanding of broader Roman culture, and to enquiries into the nature of modern militarisms. Not least because of its broad chronological sweep, this book makes a very valuable contribution to these fields of research.

Jon Coulston teaches Ancient History at the University of St Andrews

More to life than telly

Reviewed by Simon Denison

Mick's Archaeology
Mick Aston
Tempus £12.99
ISBN 0-7524-1480-1 pb

This is a book for the millions who know and admire Mick Aston through his work on Channel 4's Time Team. It is not a rounded autobiography - there is almost nothing on his mildly eccentric personal life or inner world. Instead it is a rattle-through of some of the things he has done in his career and some of the subjects he finds interesting in archaeology, addressed to an audience unburdened by much or any knowledge of the subject.

As such it is a bit of a list in places, particularly in the chapters on scientific techniques and experimental archaeology, his various career moves, and the places he's enjoyed visiting.

But the chapters on aspects of archaeology he knows a lot about are much better - buildings, monasteries, and the Shapwick medieval village project in Somerset. These sections contain lots of stimulating bits and pieces, for example that you can't date a church wall from the style of its arches, windows and doors, because the wall is often older than its openings. At St Oswald's priory in Gloucester, the oldest (Anglo-Saxon) part of one wall is the bit at the top under the roof, the only part that has remained undisturbed through all the centuries of reshaping.

Also interesting is the account of his work on deserted farm sites on Exmoor. There are no deserted villages in the area because there never were any medieval villages there, only farms and hamlets. A document of 1327 showed that many local people were actually named after their farms, and this allowed him to link named historical people with earthwork bumps in the ground. This for example linked William de Mauleshangre with Mousehanger in Winsford, and Mabel de Gopeworthy with Gupworthy in Brompton Regis - a fascinating exercise.

Mick Aston has a folksy style - he writes as he speaks - which makes the book very easy to read. He also has an amusing way of putting things. This is his take on the Dissolution of the Monasteries of 1530-40:

It is very difficult to imagine the speed and totality of the change in that decade . . . All of it was achieved by Thomas Cromwell, the evil genius working for Henry VIII, and it was all done without computers, faxes, e-mails or indeed motorways. It would take as long today just to do the feasibility study and set up the bureaucracy.

Mick Aston is one of archaeology's more likeable characters and his engaging personality shines through these pages.

Simon Denison is the Editor of British Archaeology

Bugs, plants and pollen

Reviewed by Allan Hall

The Environment of Britain in the First Millennium AD
Petra Dark
Duckworth £14.95
ISBN 0-7156-2909-3 pb

`One of the goals of this book,' writes Petra Dark in the conclusion to the final chapter, `has been to highlight the increasing body of data available for reconstruction of first-millennium AD environments, and to attempt to offset the general bias in discussion of environmental change towards prehistory.'

This she has certainly done - though the maps in each of the main period-based sections plotting the distribution of, for example, sites with well-dated pollen sequences might lead one to think the gaps in the data were too large to sustain any kind of synthesis. If nothing else, this valuable compilation will be ammunition in the hands of those seeking support for studies of late Iron Age to late Saxon/Viking palaeoenvironments in most parts of Britain, for there are few places where we have an adequate quantity of data.

Dark, a lecturer at Reading University, refreshingly considers environment in the broadest sense. Thus while she deals in detail with the results of the many largely `off-site' pollen studies one would expect to form the core of a work like this, she adds a consideration of evidence from plant and animal remains and their context from occupation sites. Here dating is generally easier, but one is often dealing with remains which owe their presence largely to human activity, and which may thus have little bearing on environment in the `climate and vegetation' sense.

The importance of pollen analysis to Dark's survey is emphasised by the detail in which she introduces the technique. This would form a useful introduction for anyone to whom it is shrouded in mystery. Other types of evidence are also introduced, though her lack of familiarity with these other groups - unavoidable where one specialist is dealing with a wide range of subjects - may explain some questionable interpretations.

The body of this book is a discussion of the evidence for four main cultural periods, with the consideration of the Iron Age sensibly beginning well before the 1st millennium AD. Perhaps the most important new contribution is the survey of pollen data, presented region by region within Britain.

Allan Hall works at the Environmental Archaeology Unit at York University

Neolithic Ireland

Reviewed by Jim Mallory

Landscapes of Neolithic Ireland
Gabriel Cooney
Routledge £16.99
ISBN 0-415-16977-1 pb

The Irish Neolithic is best known, among the general public, for its megalithic tombs such as Newgrange. This book by Gabriel Cooney, Professor of Archaeology at University College Dublin, seeks to redress the balance by examining the full range of human activities during the period.

He moves from chapters on subsistence economy and domestic architecture to the ritual monuments, their positioning on the landscape and their internal ordering. Finally he discusses the material culture associated with the Neolithic, especially ceramics and stone axe production. Throughout, he tries to describe how Neolithic life might have appeared to people living at the time, and he deftly moves between generalities and specific case studies.

The introduction suggests that the book is written in the theoretical style of current British archaeologists such as Julian Thomas. Fortunately, the dogged tradition of Irish empiricism - with a long history of unwillingness to be informed by imported theory - ensures that the author maintains a balanced view. He reminds his readers just how different Ireland was in the Neolithic from Britain, and how different both may have been from the Continent.

The plethora of Irish Neolithic houses, for example, and the pollen and macrobotanical evidence for clearance and cereal cultivation, render attempts to impose the currently fashionable view of hypermobility in the Neolithic far less convincing in Ireland than in Britain and other parts of western Europe.

More difficult perhaps are interpretations of megalithic tombs, their siting, and their `meaning' in the landscape. Cooney's arguments depend on our ability to be certain about the precise sequence of tombs or tomb types within a landscape, so that we can devise a model of the unfolding of various ritual landscapes. But my scepticism is mitigated by Cooney's models, which provide a good starting point for future discussion.

This book is essential reading for anyone interested in the Neolithic of these islands. The discussion of ritual landscapes is detailed and not for those who want a superficial megalithic buzz. The figures and maps are useful. The publisher's treatment of the photographs, though, is not so praiseworthy.

Jim Mallory is Professor of Prehistoric Archaeology at Queen's University, Belfast

Late Roman culture

Reviewed by Keith Matthews

The Later Roman Empire
Richard Reece
Tempus £19.99
ISBN 0-7524-1449-6 hb

Books by Richard Reece are typically individual, opinionated and insightful; and this is no exception. It has its origins in a course taught by Reece at the Institute of Archaeology in London for over 25 years.

Divided into eight thematic chapters, this book is not a chronological account of the later Roman period, although an introduction draws out some of its major cultural developments. The standard history is told almost as a footnote in the final chapter, where in just over eight pages we are taken from the Republic to the fall of Constantinople in 1453. But this is not the author's main subject.

In many ways, this book is less an archaeology than an art history - themes cover official sculpture and representation, portraits, paintings and mosaics, illuminated manuscripts, churches, silver, coins and the economy, and finally `material' - but it is art history written by an archaeologist who sees not a decline in classical standards of good taste, but changing aspirations.

Choosing the spectacular survivals - the churches of Ravenna, the Kaiser Augst hoard - rather than the merely representative, we gain the distinct impression not of a civilisation in decline, but of a society with its own special genius. There are quibbles, of course. Some of the photographs are blurred or look as if they were taken from the window of a speeding vehicle. The chapter on `material' is especially disappointing, leaving an impression that we need more information before we can begin to make definite statements.

In this tour of High Culture, we rarely glimpse the mundane. And it is the mundane on which most archaeology relies. We lack houses, settlements, defences, field systems, an entire range of themes that would ordinarily occupy an archaeological textbook. But this is not a textbook, and all more valuable for that.

Keith Matthews is a field archaeologist with Chester Archaeology

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