by Mike Pitts.
What is Hengeworld? Hengeworld is three things. First, the avowed justification for the term: it is useful to have a baggage-free label and concept to discuss the later Neolithic people of Southern Britain, rather than fossilizing them in distorting categories based on their chronology or (even worse) ceramics. Secondly, as a concept, "Hengeworld" neatly suggests that we should imagine these people not as shadows lurking behind megaliths or artifacts, but with real ethnographic depth as makers of their own cultural universe. Finally, the fantastic quality of the term - just as "Woodhenge" is a linguistic back-formation on "Stonehenge," "Hengeworld" carries overtones of Diskworld, Waterworld, Dune, and Middle Earth --lends the book a science-fiction air right on target for its purpose.
For this is stealth scholarship. Its goal is to reclaim Stonehenge and its public for serious archaeologists. Academic archaeologists in this day and age are an astonishingly inclusive bunch, and one suspects that many of them would prefer a long conversation with any Druid, New Age traveler, shaman, goddess-worshipper, ley-line hunter, or astronomical alignment aficionado than with most of their colleagues. Nevertheless, there remains a deep gulf between the academics and the rest. This is only partly due to traditional canons of scholarship and use of evidence, as one might suppose. A lot of it depends simply on how one answers the basic question: is the past interesting enough to study on its own terms, without the addition of mystical earth forces, colorful antiquarian anachronisms, or neo-mythologies? If you answer "no," there is a plethora of fantasy-enhanced Stonehenges available in the popular domain. If you answer "yes," the situation is different. As Mike Pitts notes, while the public can find thousands of pages about Stonehenge in libraries, bookstores and web sites, there is surprisingly little sound archaeological material which is presented engagingly on a popular level. Most readily available books are out of date, inaccurate, or filled with pet theses or axes to grind. This is the niche Hengeworld is designed to fill.
The first section of the book describes skeletons found at henge monuments and the history of research at them, and the central part of the book is an exposition and close reading of the archaeology of Stonehenge and Avebury. Dramatic interest for the reader is supplied by personalities - Hawley, Newell, Atkinson, Gray, Keillor, the Cunningtons and many others strut across the stage in gossipy accounts of their digging, along with many personalities still very much alive and kicking. The final section of the book dispenses with the historical vignettes and presents Pitts' own interpretation of the monumental landscapes.
One must admire the aim of this book. If we want the public not only to marvel at monuments but to understand the kind of reasoning about them professional archaeologists do, we must learn to talk different languages: popular writing, web sites, documentary scripts, even novels and screenplays. And this book is a page-turner, fun to read, clearly and incisively written, and informative. It's definitely a book to give to a friend or relative who wants an up-to-date, dependable account of what's going on at the stones. Issues such as dating and context are well-handled. Much of the editorial commentary which may sound preachy to the professional is entirely appropriate for a public audience. For instance, Pitts argues that it is ethnocentric and condescending to try to make Neolithic henge-builders into would-be modern astronomers or construction engineers, admirable because they managed it in spite of their primitive selves. Most of us know this; but anyone who has done much first year or adult education teaching will know how much harangue it takes to overcome the ingrained "rise to civilization" narrative which gives rise to these scenarios.
Having said all this, one must confess that some of the journalistic rhetorical devices quickly become annoying (all right, I may be a snobbish academic; but several educated non-archaeologists I tried the book on also had this reaction). In particular, the television-script exposition, repeatedly cutting back and forth between personality vignettes and skeletons laid out on the table, makes the exposition disjointed and hard to follow. Similarly, the underlying structure of the sections on Stonehenge and Avebury builds an accumulating picture of the local archaeology; but using the device of a sequence of historical personality spotlights to present this, while entertainingly gossipy and informative on why the research evolved the way it did, makes it very hard to follow the mounting archaeological detail coherently. Surely the main dishes, Stonehenge and Avebury, can be served up on their own without this kind of sauce.
The last section of the book presents an interpretation of Stonehenge and Avebury. Here Pitts drops the exposition in terms of historical personalities and presents his own version of what the monuments were used for. At both Stonehenge and Avebury, groups of henges and pathways defined pathways for the dead to follow, ceremonial routes along which the dead accomplished the transition to timeless ancestorhood. This is certainly a fascinating, detailed and plausible reconstruction which draws upon many current ideas in British archaeology. One can always cavil at the easy use of tropes such as the equation of skeletons with ancestors and at the uneven coverage of sources (for instance, the influential work of Bradley, Tilley, Thomas, and Barrett seems virtually unacknowledged, perhaps because of the journalistic emphasis on fieldwork discoveries such as the recent ones at Beckhampton). But equally, there are interesting insights all along the way, for instance in the discussion of the individuality of each stone and in the recognition of the monumentality of massive timber posts.
On a different key, in a book of this nature, it would seem important to discuss the bases of interpretations and their validity. How does asserting that water is a metaphor for change and transition and hence a corpse's journey down the Avon from Woodhenge to Stonehenge was a stage of purification and initiation (p. 274) differ from asserting that Silbury Hill is a representation of a Mother Goddess? I believe there are both similarities and differences between these two assertions, but the basis for preferring one to another may be far from plain to a non-professional audience. One would think that establishing this key point would be critical to bringing the public audience around to viewing Neolithic Britain with an informed and critical eye.
Review Submitted: July 2002
The views expressed in this review are not necessarily those of the Society or the Reviews Editor.
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