Cornwall in Prehistory by Toni-Maree Rowe
Toni-Maree Rowe’s Cornwall in Prehistory is a slim potted account of Cornwall’s rich prehistoric archaeology. Written in a breezy, clearly enthusiastic and, even, chatty style, it makes for easy reading. It is aimed at the beginner and ‘those who know something’ (p. 7). It is intended as a synthesis of Cornish prehistory charting the archaeological resource of the county from the Palaeolithic period right through to the pre-Roman Iron Age. Although having said that, there is a very short section in the chapter entitled ‘Postscript’ where the author explains very briefly how Cornwall continues to remain distinct as a region during the Roman period. Strangely this is the only bit of the book where the distinctiveness of Cornish archaeology is highlighted (see below). This final chapter also flirts with the impact of modern antiquarianism on prehistory, but in a rather slipshod fashion. Principally each chapter is devoted to a main chronological period where discussion is centred on monument types and diagnostic cultural (principally artefactual) traits. Throughout, themes such as the environment, trade and technology, metalworking, settlement and economy, ritual and burial, are variously explored albeit, each time, in rather a broad-brush manner. The first chapter kicks off with a much abbreviated introduction to some of the methods and techniques archaeologists employ to investigate the distant past. A ‘final thoughts’ paragraph appears towards the end of each chapter where the author challenges the ways in which archaeologists reach their interpretations. Each time this end ‘summary’ stresses the apparent limitations of a technical and indeed functional approach of explanation and interpretation. These asides pop up as repeated attempts to challenge established approaches, but with varying degree: they read as though the author is conducting some off-side debate with some unflinching orthodoxy. By doing so they ground the author firmly with some New Age even ‘fringe’ (p. 145) way of thinking. In the final chapter the existence of Druids in the distant past appears unchallenged which, unfortunately, rather detracts from one of the important points the author makes: that is, that the distant past may imbue enduring aspects which may be carried on through by later generations (through folk memory, place-names and stories) - whether through respect, reverence, fear, disregard or neglect. But rather paradoxically throughout the book, Toni-Maree Rowe variously distances, and at the same time does not distance, herself from the orthodox positions she appears to challenge. It’s a bit confusing, because in her own words, ‘are we imposing our own romantic notions on the landscape and the past’ (p. 39). By linking selected themes to our universal humanity, it rather oddly (and irritatingly) posits that people in the past behaved just like we do today (p. 40). Each chapter ends with suggestions of sites to visit in the county.
A new synthesis of Cornish prehistory is long overdue. There have been many advances in research and thinking over the past 50 years where a professional and a very active amateur archaeological community have opened up lots of new ground. But here the book disappoints, as it’s not so much a synthesis, but a very selective cherry-picked overview of the wide range of data that we have at our disposal currently. The distinctiveness of the prehistoric archaeology of the county, just fails to come across. The author has adopted a rather old-fashioned approach and that is to channel what is distinctive in Cornish prehistory into a canon dominated by Stuart Piggott’s Wessex models of prehistory. Bowl and bell barrow (p. 84), for example, are not terms that we would comfortably equate with any discussion of the Cornish barrow today. There is very little discussion for example, of the evident highly distinctive character of Cornish Early Bronze Age funerary and ceremonial cultural traditions and practices. It leaves one thinking that the author was not aware of the ground-breaking significance of the work of Charles Kenneth Croft Andrew as a result of his excavations of Early Bronze Age Cornish Barrows conducted throughout the early years of the Second World War; contra statement on page 10 where it states fieldwork came to a halt on the onset of war (see Christie 1986). Or indeed any discussion on the very interesting and unresolved relationships between the clearly disparate and varied characters of Iron Age settlement in the county: to enclose or not to enclose! (see Quinnell 1986). There is also confusion about the chronological relationship between rounds and hillforts (see Quinnell 1986) and indeed about when and how the Cornish uplands were settled (see Chapter 4). Any classic model, based on the investigations of hillforts in southern Britain, can not be not directly applicable to the enormous variety of enclosed settlement, now documented in the county, during the 1st millennium BC! Clear conceptual cultural differences between the significance of southern British Neolithic causewayed enclosures and Cornish tor enclosures are summarily bypassed (p. 48), which leaves the highly distinctive and unique character of the Cornish Neolithic, sadly, unexplored. Any discussion on the stark differences of the prehistoric archaeology of the Isles of Scilly in relation to mainland Cornwall, for example, is notable by its absence. Landscapes as sub regional and regional cultural constructs, a theme very much in the forefront of current research, hardly gets a mention. The short section on geology and landscape in chapter 1 does no justice to the varied micro-landscapes in the county even to the general reader. It presents a poor grounding.
In 1932 Hugh O’Neill Hencken published a substantial County Archaeology which may still be regarded as a classic text. Some thirty years later Aileen Fox published South West England (1964) where the uniqueness of Cornish prehistory was skilfully promoted, albeit in the context of a wider south-western perspective. Paul Ashbee’s Ancient Scilly (1974) remains a valuable introduction to the archaeology of the ‘Fortunate Isles’, a text which was later expertly expanded in Charles Thomas’s eloquent holistic landscape essay in Exploration of a Drowned Landscape (1985). A few years later Malcolm Todd’s South West to AD 1000, by including Cornwall, added to this literary canon. This new addition to the bookshelf has a lot to measure up to. In this reader’s view, this new book is a missed opportunity. Highly selective, rather anecdotal, idiosyncratic even, and peppered with many factual errors and inconsistencies (see for example on the contrary dates given for the discovery of Rillaton barrow, compare pages 10, 76 and 106), it fails to measure up to the long overdue synthesis. Oddly and worryingly, none of its ancestral predecessors (with the exception of Todd in chapter 1), are listed in the bibliography which has a number of other omissions (many actually listed in the text). And, there is, frankly, the shortest index this reader has ever seen. This reader is left feeling rather short-changed. This is not a concise or far-reaching book to be considered to be a new synthesis. It is, rather, a meandering and somewhat lacking account which is unfortunately riddled with poor production and technical proof-reading errors (fallen captions, badly drawn and uninformative maps, poorly referenced). Surely the author too must be feeling short-changed by the publishers.
The volume is suited more for the A level syllabus which the author teaches, rather than the undergraduate or even a postgraduate more knowledgeable market. In this respect perhaps the book is best described as an appetiser rather than a full meal. It’s greatest asset are the excellent series of colour photographs showing off some of the cream of the County’s prehistoric sites in some glory and suggestions of some fabulous sites to visit. It works on the level of a useful gazetteer which requires to be read alongside existing texts, rather than an update on the current state of knowledge of Cornish prehistory.
Jacqueline A Nowakowski
Review Submitted: August 2005
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