Finding the New Rome
Voting for archaeology
Editor Simon Denison
Reviewed by Simon Denison
Circles of Stone
The Stone Circles of Britain, Ireland and Brittany
Aubrey Burl is almost certainly Britain's best-selling 'serious' archaeological author, having sold more than 50,000 copies of his magnum opus, The Stone Circles of the British Isles - now substantially revised as The Stone Circles of Britain, Ireland and Brittany - not to mention many thousands of his numerous other books on stone monuments and other subjects. This achievement derives partly from the inherent, haunting appeal of his subject matter. But far more important is Burl's unparalleled sensitivity, within archaeology, to the rich vocabulary and cadences of the English language, and his fastidious ability to discriminate between interesting and uninteresting information. His books are as much works of literature as of scholarship.
The appearance of two new books by Burl (one the revised edition of Stone Circles) would therefore be welcome in any event. They are even more so given that in Circles of Stone, Burl's text accompanies photographs of 70 stone circles across the UK and Ireland by a gifted and original photographer, Max Milligan. This is Milligan's first book.
Many photographers have made images of stone circles over the years, and finding a new way of depicting these monuments poses a major challenge. Our perceptions of what stone circles 'ought' to look like in a photograph have been moulded, in the main perhaps, by the stark and elegant monochrome images of Fay Godwin and Mick Sharp; and to a lesser extent by the clichéd sunrise and sunset pictures of guidebook illustrators. Max Milligan, however, arrives with a fresh vision, making soft, grainy pictures in a muted colour range, in which form and unexpected compositional associations enjoy paramount importance.
The divide between 'fine art' and more pedestrian forms of illustrative photography (however technically competent) depends partly on the relative importance of the main subject matter and the overall picture. Not all the images in this book cross that divide; but the best do. Here, in some of Milligan's more successful images, the circle itself is only hinted at. Equally important is its intriguing relationship with other material - for instance a pair of departing figures, a broken scooter, a strip of tarmac, a wheelbarrow and garden roller. Admirable also in the best work is his appreciation of colour, ensuring that all the colours in the image work together - a surprisingly rare accomplishment in colour landscape photography where a reliance on clichéd warm sunlight and super-saturated colour filmstock is the norm.
Having written about stone circles before in so many books, great and small, you might have expected Aubrey Burl to run out of things to say about them here. But not a bit of it. Each of his summaries in Circles of Stone, most of them only a couple of hundred words long, contain new curiosities of information and striking new forms of expression. They are not merely digests of his descriptions in other books. On the Devon circle of Grey Wethers, he writes: 'The rings were in collapsed disarray until they were restored in the early 20th century at the request of King George V. . . The name Grey Wethers is descriptively accurate, because from a distance the stones do resemble quietly grazing sheep. Rumour has it that a stranger was persuaded to buy the flock. It is also said that the stones turn at sunrise and go for a short walk . . .'
On Avebury, he writes: 'Avebury is a gargantuan astonishment. Everything about it is outsize. Near it is the largest long barrow, the largest causewayed enclosure, the tallest manmade mound. It is the Texas of prehistory. Its outer bank is high and a quarter of a mile across. An upright telegraph pole could have been hidden in its ditch. Along its edge is the widest stone circle in Britain, Ireland and Brittany, the stones at its four entrances the slabbiest and heaviest of all the rings . . .'
In Circles of Stone information is elegantly rationed. Stone Circles provides the full story. First published in 1976, it has been comprehensively rewritten to account for over 20 years of new research. It covers the origins, construction, and purpose of stone circles in general, and the characteristics of varying regional styles in more detail. The evidence of hard research is everywhere leavened by antiquarian accounts, poetry, legend, recent history, even jokes. (At Methilhill, Fife, a beaker in a grave had spilled over, its alcoholic contents lost. Burl asks: 'Mead or methilhillated spirits?')
Burl has done more than anyone to ensure that the astronomical alignments of stone circles are taken seriously. But circles 'are unlikely to have been colleges for dispassionate musings on the nature of the universe'. Circle-builders believed in an otherworld of powerful forces which could be placated and manipulated through rituals and offerings. World- changing cometary impacts of the late Neolithic perhaps added to existing cosmic anxieties. Drugs, drums, dancing, sex, all may have played their part in ceremonies. Astronomy and magic were not mutually exclusive but were complementary.
For all its supreme qualities, this book is unlikely to provide the final word on stone circles. Many, perhaps most, scholars will dispute Burl's insistence that the Stonehenge bluestones were transported from Wales by glaciation. Moreover, research will continue; indeed important work has already taken place since the book was revised, such as Mike Pitts's reinterpretation of the Sanctuary at Avebury (BA February 2000), and last year's dating of the skeleton beheaded at Stonehenge to the 7th century AD. Even so, one is tempted to describe this work as a masterpiece - and there are exceedingly few books in archaeology that come near to deserving such an accolade.
On Bodmin Moor stand three neighbouring stone circles of Stannon, Fernacre and Louden Hill. The following extract is from 'The Stone Circles of Britain, Ireland and Brittany' by Aubrey Burl
The recently discovered havoc of the Louden Hill ring on a ridge between Stannon and Fernacre had a crude alignment to the midwinter sunrise over Garrow Tor. So had Stannon which additionally was due west of Brown Willy over which the sun rose at the equinoxes. To the north-east it appeared in a prominent notch on Rough Tor in May and November, the festivals of Beltane and Lughnasa.
Fernacre's situation was even more arcane. It stood at the exact crux where north-south and east-west intersected, Garrow Tor peaking to the south, Rough Tor to the north. Across that meridional line the equinoctial sun rose over Brown Willy. Opposite it the southern slopes of Louden Hill marked sunsets at the equinoxes. Men must have prospected almost fanatically to find so propitious a site . Its spectacular landscaping suggests that Fernacre was the first of the triumvirate of rings.
TS Eliot wrote of 'old stones that cannot be deciphered' and of 'the still point of the turning world'. Fernacre's lifeless stones may have been the still centre of its builders' lives. The ring was perhaps what a kiva was to the Anasazi indians of New Mexico. These were buildings with doorways to north and south but circular because they duplicated the circle of the skyline. It was a place where earth and sky met and where the four directions of the world were reproduced, 'a metaphor of the cosmos in stone . . . an image of time and space '.
At the round earth's imagined corners, blow
It is possible to imagine but not to prove that there were seasonal gatherings, people in their hundreds assembling at Fernacre in the Spring and Autumn, at Stannon in May and November, at Louden Hill at the midwinter solstice, waiting at dawn for the sun to appear above the gloom of the lightened edges of the rocks and for their leaders to conduct irrecoverable rites of fecundity and supplication, possibly both useless and repugnant to the modern mind but which to those long-dead men and women ensured the continuance of their world.
Simon Denison is editor of British Archaeology
Children in the past
Reviewed by Dawn Hadley
Children and Material Culture
This book is a welcome addition to the small but growing body of literature on the archaeological study of children in past societies. The main issues include why we should study children, how this enhances our understanding of the archaeological record, how we can identify children and their actions, the types of material that children made and used, and their attitudes and responses to it. As Koji Mizoguchi observes, in the archaeological record 'children are actually quite visible', contrary to some previous opinion.
The volume highlights the fact that different communities viewed childhood in different ways, and that 'child' is not an unvarying social category. The length of time during which an individual was regarded as a child may vary, according to social context, gender and class-related factors, and this may have had important consequences for the material record. Robin Dennell and Jennie Hawcroft, for example, draw contrasts between childhood amongst Neanderthals in the Middle Palaeolithic and amongst anatomically modern humans in the Upper Palaeolithic. They suggest that the shorter juvenile period of the Neanderthals may have led to pressure to learn quickly the necessary social and material skills for adult life, and to avoid experience-based learning. Patricia Greenfield's study of a later 20th century Mayan community reveals that in many instances children are so closely supervised during craft production that there is no opportunity to experiment and learn from mistakes, meaning that the finished article is not discernibly different from that made by an adult. In other situations, however, children may be the agents of innovation, being more receptive to new techniques. Linda Grimm's study of flint-knapping argues that the artefacts made by children may be quite different from those of a more skilled adult.
Artefacts made specifically for children are discussed in several papers studying more modern contexts, such as later 20th century British domestic environments (by Victor Buchli and Gavin Lucas), and early 20th century toys within the household (Laurie Wilkie). These papers also allow some insight into the attitudes that children had to the material world around them, and the evidence permits us to view children as children, rather than simply as would-be adults. Indeed, where children have previously been discussed it has tended to be as individuals learning to be adults, rather than as a social and cultural group in their own right. It is perhaps these papers, with clear evidence of artefacts associated with children, and the papers focusing on funerary evidence - where children are easily identifiable - that are the most successful at integrating theory and data.
Sally Crawford, in a paper on Anglo-Saxon burial practices, importantly points out that some artefacts associated with children may not be identified as such during excavation - she cites the example of a beaker containing a stone or a nail to use perhaps as a rattle. She also suggests that children may often have been 'outsiders within the adult mortuary ritual' and we may have to expect more individual, personal responses to children in mortuary contexts than are commonly found for adults.
The book spans the period from the Palaeolithic to the later 20th century, drawing on data from Europe, Scandinavia, Asia and the Americas, and providing insights from archaeology, cultural and biological anthropology, psychology and museum studies. Inevitably, perhaps, a collection of short, diverse papers raises more questions than it answers - but it will, I hope, provide the spur to further work on this important subject.
Dawn Hadley teaches archaeology at the University of Sheffield
Joy of wood
Reviewed by Maisie Taylor
Wood and Woddworking in Anglo-Scandinavian and Medieval York
Being old, tired and past it these days, it takes quite a lot to bring a smile to my poor sad old face. This book managed it. My interest in wood and woodworking obviously means that I am biased - but what an achievement this book represents. There is a certain amount of solid archaeology for those who need or want it, but there is an awful lot for normal people as well.
Instead of grouping finds together according to where they were found, Carole Morris groups them according to what they are and what they do. After relatively short sections on the archaeology and conservation, she gets down to looking at material under two main headings: Craft and Industry and Everyday Life. The first section deals mostly with techniques, especially turning and coopering, and tools. The second section brings us glimpses of ordinary people doing daily tasks: wooden spoons and spatulas, buckets and knife handles, boxes and lids, bits of furniture, lavatory seats, combs and fragments of musical instruments.
So who will enjoy this book? Wood and woodworking specialists are a small but obvious group of readers. Any modern craft worker, however amateur, would be fascinated by the glimpses of these ancient crafts. The archaeological material is beautiful (and beautifully drawn), and illustrations from early manuscripts show this material being produced and used. Instead of pages and pages of pottery or animal bones, we find ourselves looking at door latches and spades, rakes and ploughs, wooden pins and part of a beautifully decorated saddle. Anyone who has tried to imagine how people lived in the past will find plenty to flesh out their imaginings here. Although written for archaeologists it will appeal to anyone who is interested in life.
Maisie Taylor is a specialist in ancient wood based at Flag Fen
Reviewed by Bob Bewley
Air Photo Interpretation for Archaeologists
Throughout the 1990s many of David Wilson's colleagues had been urging him to produce a new edition of this, the air photo interpreter's 'bible'. The 1982 edition was a landmark in aerial archaeology. Its clear and informative writing guided the reader through the interpretation of features (archaeological and non- archaeological) in a way that few have succeeded in doing since.
Wilson's retirement in 1998 as Curator of the Cambridge University Committee for Air Photography (established in 1945 by the late Kenneth St Joseph), provided the freedom and time for him to concentrate on producing this excellent new edition. The book has been a standard reference work for two decades, and will remain so for the next 20 years at least.
Since the book first appeared, aerial survey has matured into a central discipline for archaeology. There are more archaeologists required to interpret aerial photographs or use the information derived from interpretations than ever before and this book is the major source for providing the necessary skills. However, the first edition has been out of print for many years. The author has taken care to update the book and the new preface summarises some of the major developments of the past decade. There is additional updated information in the opening and concluding chapters but the bulk of this book remains the same, which is as it should be - the fundamentals of air photo interpretation do not change.
A new development is the use of colour photography. There are 29 colour images (in the first edition there were none, except for the front cover). But there are two disappointments. The first is the quality of reproduction - the black and white images are weak and soft compared to the first edition (although they remain intelligible). The second disappointment is the selection of the images. Each tells a story but it might have been possible to have found a few more striking ones, with perhaps a wider variety of non-archaeological features. The line drawings should have been redrawn. The new edition also has a smaller format than the first and thus nearly all the illustrations are smaller, making it harder to see the features being described.
Bob Bewley is Head of Aerial Survey at English Heritage
CBA web:Jan/Feb 2005