in Prehistoric Britain by Francis Pryor
Seahenge by Francis Pryor
Britain B.C. by Francis Pryor
All three volumes are written for the general reader, and all three have the immediacy and enthusiasm of a face-to-face conversation, a characteristic which makes them thoroughly engaging. The author’s ‘I’ is a welcome one rather than an intrusive one. It is sometimes difficult to judge whether a statement is an ‘I believe’ or an ‘I (and/or my colleagues) have shown’, but this is a price worth paying for a prehistory peopled with living human beings. A short way into Britain B.C. the reader is told that ‘The Prehistoric Society, incidentally, is the national society for the study of all pre-Roman archaeology. Its Proceedings is an academic journal of record, and is pretty technical’. Francis Pryor has a surpassing skill in distilling the ‘pretty technical’ into the stuff of life.
For all these shared characteristics, the books show a progression. Farmers in Prehistoric Britain and Seahenge are both firmly rooted in the author’s own experience, and hence tend to convey the impression that the lower Nene and the lower Welland were together the epicentre of prehistoric Britain, although Seahenge makes excursions from this home territory into other monument complexes in Britain and Brittany, as well as to the Norfolk coast. Britain B.C. has a wider geographical range - it could, indeed, have been called Britain and Ireland B.C. - and a longer perspective, both inherited from the television series on which it is based.
Farmers in Prehistoric Britain is enriched by Francis Pryor’s other life as a farmer and his experience of that life’s priorities and preoccupations, as well as of its numberless low-tech skills, many of which must go back into prehistory. It brings home wonderfully well that the superficially dramatic transformation in the earlier second millennium BC from landscapes dominated by earthwork monuments to landscapes dominated by hedged, fenced, banked and ditched fields may have entailed far less fundamental change than the plan view (archaeologists tend to see society in two dimensions) suggests. He emphasises the precondition of communal will, the contact between people from different lineages coming together to establish the new boundaries and to maintain and modify them, with all the communications and transactions that these periodic gatherings would have entailed. The social divide between the communal monuments of the Neolithic and early Bronze Age and the communal field systems of the full Bronze Age narrows in the space of a few paragraphs. It narrows further with the (dendro)chronology of Flag Fen, a ceremonial centre visited for centuries by people from far beyond its immediate neighbourhood, during the second and early first millennium, when field systems were in place and earthwork enclosures, the use of which was in many ways comparable, had ceased to be built.
Seahenge breaks down another dichotomy between monuments and the rest, by bringing into focus the cosmological significance of trees and of the natural world in general. The erection of a carefully trimmed, up-ended, fallen oak at the centre of a small timber circle built in 2049–2050 BC prompts in the reader an openness of mind about the Victorians’ teutonophile enthusiasm for forest myths and about the mindset of Fraser’s Golden Bough. Closer to earth, it prompts re-evaluation of the significance of all those tree holes beneath and around dry-land monuments. Coincidence or not? How many of those trees had names and histories? But be warned, ‘Seahenge’ itself, with its haunting, mysterious qualities and all the intense emotions and botched public relations which its discovery generated, is in the foreground for only fifty-odd pages out of over three hundred.
In Britain B.C. social structure and beliefs, both very much present in the two earlier books, surge to the top of the cauldron. The durée is distinctly longue: a distinctive national character and an essentially egalitarian attitude to social relations are presented as persisting from the Neolithic to the Roman conquest and into the present. One warms to such convictions, whether or not one shares them. An almost equally long life (at least into the Roman period) is argued for a nexus of beliefs and practices centred on the seasonal cycle of growth, decay and regeneration; the dichotomy between life/the living world/light and death/the ancestors/dark; and offerings placed in the earth and in water. In this case, the argument and the evidence amassed to support it are impressive. Not the whole canvas (what can be?), but some hefty threads of it.
This latest book has many other strengths. The often forbidding record of the Palaeolithic is distilled with clarity and a sense of the big issues. The very fact that this period is not the author’s specialism makes it easier for him to render it accessible to those who know even less about it. The Mesolithic comes very much alive. The only point on which I disagree with the author is his assertion that the archaeology of the period 4500 to 4000 BC remains obstinately close to invisible. It is surely coming out of the mist, most dramatically in the shape of the superimposed Mesolithic and Neolithic levels in the late fifth/early fourth millennium part of the sequence in the Fir Tree Field shaft in Cranborne Chase, but also in a growing tally of contemporary radiocarbon dates from less spectacular contexts.
The book’s final flourish emphasises the cruelty of history. The late Iron Age in Britain was a time of vigorous change and innovation. The increasing complexity and sophistication of insular society were taking it somewhere new. But we will never know where. It all lasted less than two centuries, cut short by the Roman conquest. This is where the Irish record, interwoven into the whole book, is used to particular effect. The grandeur, scale, and symbolic depth of the Navan complex, at once breaking new ground and rooted in the beliefs and practices of the previous four thousand years, illustrate one of the directions which the late Iron Age society of the larger island might have taken.
Britain B.C. is a ripping yarn, personal without being self-indulgent, thoroughly enjoyable, and soundly informative. It is a five-trowel book - and the previous two were four-trowel books.
Review Submitted: May 2004
The views expressed in this review are not
necessarily those of the Society or the Reviews Editor.
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