ISSN 1357-4442Editor: Simon Denison

Issue no 55, October 2000


Cerne Giant

Reviewed by Chris Gerrard

The Cerne Giant: an Antiquity on Trial
Timothy Darvill, Katherine Barker, Barbara Bender and Ronald Hutton (eds)
Oxbow £14.95
ISBN 1-900188-94-5 pb

Malcolm Bradbury was once quoted as saying that `genitals are a great distraction to scholarship', and so it has proved over the years for the Cerne Giant. The origins and purpose of the 55m high hill-figure cut into the downs of West Dorset have been speculated upon since the middle of the 18th century when Stukeley provided his observations to the Society of Antiquaries of London.

This volume is based upon an unusual extra-mural day school organised by the University of Bournemouth - a mock `trial' held in the village hall at Cerne Abbas in March 1996 at which Tim Darvill, Ronald Hutton and Barbara Bender advocated different cases for the Giant's age and significance, drawing upon expert witnesses to help argue their case live in front an audience, who also acted as jury. The event attracted a good deal of media attention at the time and this published account, a sort of transcript of the occasion, is no less entertaining and informative.

Following three papers of introductory material, Tim Darvill updates the orthodox case for the Giant's prehistoric or Romano-British roots by drawing upon recent evidence from witnesses including David Miles, on the recently dated prehistoric Uffington White Horse, and Rodney Castleden, on the iconography and possible meaning of the Giant.

The case for a post-medieval Giant is co-ordinated by Ronald Hutton and draws particularly upon two excellent papers by Joe Bettey and Katherine Barker. In contrast to the Uffington Horse which is documented from the 11th century onwards, it seems that the Giant goes unmentioned until the end of the 17th century. Given that the major Benedictine abbey in the valley below seems unlikely to have tolerated such a erotically-charged pagan neighbour; and given the large number of Tudor and Stuart accounts which ought to mention it but do not, it seems irresistible to conclude that the Giant must have appeared at a later date.

Bettey argues convincingly that the Giant was etched in the hillside around the time of the Civil War under the orders of landowner Denzil Holles. According to this interpretation the hill-figure is a less-than-subtle piece of propaganda designed in mockery of Cromwell, represented here as British Hercules.

Barbara Bender plays down the importance of origins. Her interests, and those of her contributors, centre on the continuing significance of the Giant up to the modern day. Tom Williamson records how, as late as the 1940s, women would walk over and talk to the hill-gure, believing it might save their husbands at war. Hilary Jones reports on more recent events ranging from suggestions to remove or cover the famously indiscreet phallus through to celebrating its proportions in publicity for condoms and fertility treatment campaigns. In 1968 `he' even became a `she' when the figure sprouted long hair and breasts overnight, and in 1980 a Marilyn Monroe chalk partner was proposed for the hillside opposite.

This collection of papers presents the competing arguments of modern research in an imaginative and engaging format, demonstrating that archaeologists can air debate and engage the minds of both public and scholars in stimulating ways. And you'll just have to read the book yourself to find out how the jury voted.

Chris Gerrard is a Lecturer at the University of Durham

Dark Age war

Reviewed by Richard Underwood

Warriors of the Dark Ages
Jennifer Laing
Sutton £20.00
ISBN 0-7509-1920-5 hb

This book covers a huge range. Individual chapters chart the history of each of the main `barbarian' tribes - Huns, Goths, Vandals, Franks and Saxons - from about the 3rd to the 6th century, although the period of interest is nowhere defined. This structure, rather than a general chronology, is unusual but works surprisingly well with little duplication.

It is very much a traditional history, focusing on kings and battles rather than the social aspects, being mainly drawn from contemporary Roman accounts. Unfortunately, because of its breadth there are few of the personal details that make the Roman authors so readable. Jennifer Laing, however, has drawn on an impressive array of original sources, many of which are not readily available, and she includes a useful bibliography for anyone wanting to take their own research further.

Other chapters cover, albeit briefly, the weapons and equipment the warriors used. Unfortunately, these contain a number of errors, some original and some perpetuated from earlier authors due to a reliance on secondary sources. For example Spangenhelms of the `Morken' type were made of bronze and iron plates not just iron, they did not have nasals and only a few appear to have had a mail curtain to protect the neck; nor was there any evidence of a mail shirt with the recently discovered Pioneer helmet. Mistakes such as this are annoying since, once published, they can survive for years.

With so little space devoted to the social organisation of the barbarian societies the inclusion of a section on women warriors was surprising, particularly when the evidence is comprised of myths and legends which fail to convince when set against the overwhelming silence in the contemporary historical accounts. The study of the role of women in warfare, whether inciting, supporting, or at times directing conflict or its resolution, deserves a better treatment than this.

The book is well illustrated, with 32 pages of plates, 16 in colour. These are largely dedicated to illustrating the workmanship of `barbarian' craftsmen, with examples drawn from across the continent. This is a very readable introduction to a fascinating period of history. However, those with a particular interest would probably prefer the immediacy of the primary sources.

Richard Underwood is a defence analyst at the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency and an expert on Anglo-Saxon warfare

Flints and rivers

Reviewed by Nick Ashton

The Lower Palaeolithic Occupation of Britain
John Wymer
Wessex Archaeology £30.00
ISBN 1-874350-29-9 hb

Following his monumental volumes on the Palaeolithic of the Thames valley (1968) and East Anglia (1985), it comes as no surprise that John Wymer's latest product is another tour de force.

During the 1990s, English Heritage funded a team led by Wymer to conduct a seven year survey of British Lower and Middle Palaeolithic sites - published recently as The English Rivers Palaeolithic Project - and this work has already provided summaries and maps of every known findspot to help planning authorities decide on future land-management strategies. The two volumes of Wymer's new book are the distillation of that work, providing a more accessible survey with an avowedly landscape approach.

It is not initially clear for whom the books are intended. The opening chapters provide a thorough introduction to Palaeolithic studies for the less initiated, embracing the full range of related subjects, from fluvial geology to dating. The following chapters, though, are not for the lighthearted, with nitty-gritty accounts of an astonishing number of sites covering the full range of depositional environments.

This part is clearly for dipping into, being a good starting point for specialists, and giving valuable summaries for others. Key sites are clearly highlighted as box summaries, while in the accompanying volume colour maps show detailed site distributions with background tones for relevant geological contexts.

The geographical approach inevitably means that themes, problems and interpretations are buried within the text. Although debates are intermittently aired throughout (such as the cultural versus raw material explanations for the Clactonian and Acheulian, or the meaning of handaxe variation), these could perhaps have been drawn together in a summary chapter.

Two conclusions that do stand out are, firstly, the location of most sites close to river confluences, and secondly, their positioning within striking distance of the arguably open and rich hunting grounds of the chalk downlands. Whether these patterns are real or taphonomic - ie, merely reflecting the survival and preferential collection of certain types of evidence - perhaps needs further analysis.

Other patterns appear subliminally through the text, such as the paucity of evidence on the terraces of the Worcestershire Avon compared for example with those of the Great Ouse, or the apparent decline in human evidence from the more recent terraces of the Thames. Again, are these questions of collector-bias and the extent of gravel extraction, or a true reflection of human occupation? Here lies the real strength of the volume, in prompting models of landscape use and chronological patterns of human colonisation, at the same time as providing the starting point from which such ideas can be tested.

The books are finely illustrated, handsomely produced and should grace the shelves of amateur and professional alike. In 1968 Wymer wrote of this period: `It is not the lack of material evidence that has hindered its study, but more the prodigious quantity of it'. Over 30 years and two books later, we are now in a position to go beyond this problem.

Nick Ashton is a Palaeolithic specialist at the British Museum

Tin mining

Reviewed by Adam Sharpe

The Early British Tin Industry
Sandy Gerrard
Tempus £14.99
ISBN 0-7524-1452-6 pb

Until the early 1980s the early tin industry of Cornwall and Devon had been studied only by historians. Archaeologists had done little more than map the extent of the tinworks which everywhere cut across the prehistoric and medieval landscapes of the granite uplands. Yet now, many kilometres of streamworks, leats and the structures associated with them have been (or will soon be) designated as Scheduled Monuments.

The key to this remarkable change was the arrival at the Cornwall Archaeological Unit in 1984 of a young Scottish archaeologist carrying the PhD thesis which forms the basis for this book. By combining already well-researched historical material with personally-conducted surveys and excavations, Sandy Gerrard had for the first time forged a link between social and economic history and field evidence, and provided the means of explaining the morphology of these formerly enigmatic sites so that they could be categorised, analysed and understood.

His new book, illustrated by maps, survey plans, photographs and contemporary drawings, bolstered by relevant extracts from medieval and post-medieval accounts as well as by survey and excavation evidence, sets out the fruits of 15 years of pioneering work within this important new field of research in a clear and structured fashion. It provides for the first time an explanation of the workings of this formerly barely-understood industry.

Geographically, the evidence presented here is perhaps rather biased towards Gerrard's two principal areas of interest - Bodmin Moor and Dartmoor - which contain by far the best-studied evidence in south-west Britain for the form of hydraulic tin exploitation known as streamworking. For the rest of Cornwall and for early underground mining, by contrast, he provides no more than an introduction. Some of the distribution maps have obviously suffered from over-reduction and important recent work in Cornwall has been overlooked. Nonetheless, this is a seminal work and should be read by anyone studying, or indeed perhaps even visiting, the south-west.

What formerly only seemed scarred river valleys can now, with the help of this book, be readily understood as physical testaments to the ingenuity, medieval hydraulic engineering skills and sheer hard labour which created an industry which, for several centuries, was of prime importance for the Western world.

Adam Sharpe is a Senior Archaeologist at the Cornwall Archaeological Unit

Severn wetlands

Reviewed by Robert Van de Noort

Prehistoric Intertidal Archaeology in the Welsh Severn Estuary
Martin Bell, Astrid Caseldine and Heike Neumann
CBA £42.00
ISBN 1-872414-11-7 pb

The Welsh side of the Severn estuary, and especially the area known as Goldcliff near Newport, is now an area with probably the greatest concentration of recorded structures along Britain's coast. More importantly, the `wetland' conditions that prevailed throughout prehistory preserved the organic remains, both archaeological and palaeoenvironmental.

This wealth may come as a surprise to many, as the number of archaeological sites in the Severn estuary known before 1980 was limited to a few isolated findspots. Much the same can be said for most of Britain's other estuaries.

In over 440 pages, and a CD that holds a similar amount of information, Martin Bell and his many research associates (more than 35 in all) present a comprehensive multi-disciplinary account of their research over the last two decades. The range of subjects include the prehistoric footprints of cattle, a Mesolithic camp, trackways and several Iron Age square - yes, square - buildings that remain without clear parallel on the surrounding dry land.

The multi-disciplinary character of the research allows the detailed reconstruction of past environments and environmental change, and an important contribution to the study to regional sea-level studies is made. The book is not over-long, not least for a new generation of archaeologists who will venture out into the intertidal zone and who should be aware of the potential wealth, pitfalls and opportunities that await them.

The work undertaken at Goldcliff and the Welsh Severn estuary was a superb research project and this is a worthy book to match.

Robert Van de Noort is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Exeter

Rock art

Reviewed by Henry Owen-John

British Prehistoric Rock Art
Stan Beckensall
Tempus £18.99
ISBN 0-7524-1271-2 hb

Until recently prehistoric rock art in Britain was a subject largely ignored by the academic community, particularly in England and Wales. Not quite art, not really archaeology, safely ignored - that seemed to be the message. Internationally, however, rock art was studied more widely, not least because in, for example, Australia and South Africa it represented such a graphic link with the pre-colonial past.

In Britain it needed a series of publications by Richard Bradley, culminating in Rock Art and the Prehistory of Atlantic Europe in 1997, to give the topic the academic respectability that was taken for granted elsewhere. Many British university archaeology departments now include rock art in their curricula and its study is correctly regarded as a mainstream activity. The speed of this change in perception was only made possible because so much recording had already been undertaken by a handful of dedicated amateur archaeologists.

Turn to Bradley's 1997 work and you will find that it is dedicated to Stan Beckensall, one of those dedicated amateurs and the author of this book, which is described on the dust jacket as `the first extensive guide to the rock art of prehistoric Britain'. This is a fair description. For the first time the principal areas of Britain where rock art can be found have been described in a single volume.

Half the book is dedicated to summaries of these areas, with a high proportion of drawings and photographs to text. This is a good balance as the cup-marked stones, incised rings and other motifs are likely to have a more immediate impact on the reader than any amount of text. That said, Beckensall provides his own definitions of the various motifs and a context for the regional accounts. He also describes how rock art studies evolved, and concludes with a section setting out the relationship of the petroglyphs to the `conventional' late Mesolithic, Neolithic and early Bronze Age sites with which the markings are most commonly associated.

There are some minor frustrations to the user of this book. In his enthusiasm, Beckensall has structured the text in such a way that to gain a full understanding of what is being described, the reader sometimes needs to jump from the regional description to the introductory chapters before fast forwarding to the contextual sections at the end. As the publication is an overview, some of the interpretations are presented in a rather summary style.

But to focus on such criticism would be to miss the point. This book is the result of single-minded dedication and enthusiasm. Amajor proportion of the drawings and photographs are Beckensall's own, painstakingly built up in over 30 years of fieldwork, during which he has lived and breathed the subject. Without his work, English Heritage's recent pilot project on rock art would not have happened, and if more wide-ranging research and improved management develops across the UK, it will be in no small part attributable to him.

Henry Owen-John set up English Heritage's rock art project, and is now Assistant Director of EH's North West Region

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