Monuments megalithique de Grande-Bretagne et d’Irland, by CHRIS SCARRE
Regard or disregard for megalith monuments is something that has long bedevilled the respective cultural landscapes of Ireland and Britain. In archaeology’s roulette wheel of survival and loss, never have the odds seemed so markedly skewed. This new French publication addresses that period in prehistory when cadres or ‘missionaries of megalithism’ held the attention of both nations.
In a virtual vacuum of general guides to this topic, it has been relatively easy for the megaliths of Great Britain to slip quietly away to a place that is not quite of this world. In Brittany, folk tradition has long insisted that the stones of Carnac run down to the sea on Christmas Day. In Britain it seem that our stones are still on the run.
It is against this backcloth of neglect and marginalisation that we must view the arrival of Chris Scarre’s excellent book. This has been designed to guide our French colleagues through the precocious monumental architecture of Britain and Ireland in the 4th and 3rd millennia BC. It should come as no surprise to us to find that the publishers, Editions Errance, have adopted this worthy British topic. French publishing houses can certainly claim a fine record in all manner of inexpensive archaeological guides to the land of the dolmen and menhir.
It is immediately evident, when opening this book, that this is no tour guide. We begin with the chronological setting of British and Irish megaliths. First, we are reminded of the commonality of group traditions during the Mesolithic/Neolithic transition. We then follow the rapid geographic advance of these changes as they spread through the Scottish islands and permeate Ireland during the 4th millennium BC.
The persistence of some ancient and dwindling land-bridges in the British Isles is seen as an important aid to early communication and diffusion. We are also prompted to consider the early development of seafaring in our islands. The writer reminds us that the Scottish seaboard can offer tell-tale scenarios like Oronsay where Mesolithic occupation is evident on an island that is effectively too small for independent habitation. Here we meet a situation where an insular community engaged in grazing or hunter-gathering can only be sustained with the help of maritime activity. The book soon leads to the conclusion that the building of boats and the transporting animals was an essential element in the perpetration of the British Neolithic. It seems that it was by this means that domesticated animals arrived at Ferriter’s Cove in Southern Ireland around the close of the 5th millennium BC.
The case for Neolithic seafaring activity is nicely concluded with the observation that Neolithic domestication of animals in the Paris Basin follows a pattern that seems to re-occur in southeast England. For those who may hanker for a traditional indication of Neolithic of diffusion, we can also find an illustration of Scottish, Irish and northern French bowls of Early Neolithic date. In this, it appears, the French analogies are not particularly striking.
This book has been written as a guide for French students of archaeology so we must not be too surprised when old familiar favourites of British or Irish archaeology make their encore. This may be said of the Calderstones in Liverpool Museum and those other examples of Boyne style art that are to be found on the eastern shore of the Irish Sea at Barclodiad-y-Gawres and Bryn-Celli-Ddu.
This reviewer has been sorry to miss one old favourite, the spiral-marked antler-hammer or mace from Garboldisham, in Norfolk (Edwardson 1965). The appearance of spiral and related designs is certainly fickle in megalithic contexts. The Garboldisham piece hints that these designs could have been more widely employed in other media like bone, wood or leather. To this reviewer it seems that a little might have been added on megalithic art. These motifs seem to be pre-eminently suited to body-marking. Such a powerful overt expression of identity and personal commitment could lie at the very heart of the ‘missionary’ zeal of ‘megalithisme’. Male bonding of this kind works particularly well amongst the acolytes of a religion or the working crew of a boat. Some ethnographic comparisons with the curvilinear body markings and the strong boat-building traditions of Maori culture might be a promising starting point. The analogy between the spirals, the wavy lines and the waves of the sea is immediate. For terrestrial hunter-gathers in Britain and Ireland, new ideas carried by new people had literally emerged from the sea.
In fixing the chronological setting for the arrival the megalith-builders in Britain and Ireland, Professor Scarre, draws attention to the fact that many chambered long barrows and ‘other Neolithic monuments’ belong to a period after 4000BC .The earliest dated examples are those in Yorkshire and the south of England. These offer dates around 3800 and 3500 BC. In the past it has often been assumed that megalith constructions arose as the result of the aggrandisement of well-established Neolithic communities. This book offers a different interpretation in which many megalithic monuments are seen to mark the very debut of the Neolithic revolution. This is a time when the subsistence strategies of human groups were in critical transition.
For Professor Scarre, many of these bold new stone monuments appear to mark ‘a new view of the world, a new awareness of the link that exists between people and the environment, and a new desire to manifest this bond through the construction of burial chambers, enclosures and circles of stone’. The author assures us that once such a realisation has occurred ‘the construction of Neolithic monuments, in reality, would not always require a large number of people.’ Such changes would not necessarily require the arrival of a new population but the embracing of an idea.
While this book may primarily address questions posed by our French visitors, it is pleasing to find that Professor Scarre has some well-measured observations to offer a British audience. At sites like Stonehenge the author suggests that it may be highly significant that this Neolithic monument was constructed at a place where Mesolithic activity had formerly taken place. Such, it seems, may be the new emphatic symbolism of monument construction. In this scenario, an old and familiar locality used by Mesolithic groups could be transfixed. The construction of a megalithic monument could provide a point of reference in a changed society where commitment to a permanent place of habitation had yet to emerge. At Stonehenge such a link is argued for Mesolithic pits found under the car-park.
Having set the scene, the book leads us through a refined selection of British and Irish megaliths. For English readers there are some old favourites, some engaging surprises and just a few perceptible and debatable absences. Stonehenge, Avebury, Newgrange and Maes Howe will be familiar to everyone yet, even here, we can find some new meat to savour and chew.
Professor Scarre reminds his readers that Stonehenge must not be viewed as a single entity but as the product of many episodes of change and adaptation. To whet our appetite he remarks that the Y and Z holes may be the un-used sockets for a planned rearrangement of bluestones. He leaves us with the thought that, at a critical stage of its history, Stonehenge was re-cast to become a stone representation of one of the wooden henge buildings that accommodated the ceremonies and celebrations of everyday British Neolithic life.
Drawing on ethnographic observations in Madagascar, Professor Scarre presses this argument to suggest that this conversion to stone marks a dedication to the ‘domain of the dead’. He observes that the lintel tenons on the outer circle and inner horseshoe seem best matched with carpentry techniques employed in the working of oak. Further skeuomorphy seems evident on stone 59 where a display of rilled stone tooling seems to imitate the adzing of beech.
At New Grange we are taken through the issue of the stone slab light box and the penetration of the rising sun’s rays on the day of the winter solstice. We are rightly reminded that alignments on the winter solstice are also to be found at Maes Howe and in the Clava tombs. Other sites, like Carn Ban in the Isle of Arran, respect the rising of the sun at summer solstice. Ruggles (1999) observations on alignment-shifts at Stonehenge are also cited and illustrated.
In Scotland Professor Scarre forgivably strays a little from the path to take us to the extraordinary monument known as the Cleaven Dyke. Here a long extant central bank and some wide-set side ditches offer some intriguing analogies with all those sad ploughed up cursus monuments we have so dutifully traced in the south.
In Ireland we are taken from the Bru-na-Boyne tombs to Carrowmore, Carrowkeel and then to the Creevykeel court cairn. We also examine the portal dolmens on the high bare limestone of the Burren. The latter is a depleted karst landscape that our French colleagues would rightly recognise as causse.
In the English counties Professor Scarre’s deviation into ‘monuments de type henge et cursus’ leads us to those remarkable henge-like posts-settings that have now been detected within the stone circle at Stanton Drew, At Thornborough his map reveals some dismaying and destructive brinkmanship by an impinging quarry. At Sarn-y-Bryn Caled, in Wales, we are shown an extraordinary artistic reconstruction of a wooden circle that appears to be a henge monument that is in desperate need of a roof. These, and many other enticing sites, will surely strengthen British resolve to pursue the text.
Comments on British and Irish tombs in their European context are particularly interesting. Scandinavian analogies for Wessex earthen long barrows have long been advocated by Paul Ashbee (1970) but it was a surprise to this reader to find that the Thickthorn long barrow could apparently claim a well matched analogy in the tumulus de Cruchard at Sainte Lheurine in Charente-Maritime. An interesting photograph of both of these sites is provided but some specific comparative plans would be welcome.
Objectivity requires a critical appraisal so it is fair to note that the illustrations and plates are, regrettably, un-numbered and the publishers have failed to provide the reader with the all-too-vital index. The publishers also seem to have cut the bibliography frustratingly short. Readers may be surprised to find that even the works of Glyn Daniel, Audrey Henshall, and Gibson & Simpson, have all failed to make the bill.
For this reviewer, a mention of the Coldrum group of Kent megaliths would have been a welcome touch. Like the Scillonian tombs, these are geographic oddities well worthy of comment. In the closing section, the topic of Breton-Cornish analogies, pursued by ApSimon (1997) might have enriched the discussion for the benefit of a French audience. We must accept, however, that the author has been presented with a ‘megalithic’ task and a finite number of pages.
Megaliths, tall and commanding in the fresh morning dew, never fail to strike the heart with wonder and admiration. This reviewer readily admits to difficulty with another language yet this book will surely rekindle the fire of archaeological enquiry in every British reader who opens its covers. Editions Errance have clearly set out to provide an archaeological guide for an informed French audience yet this publication has also provided something that has been long awaited this side of La Manche.
The scope of this book makes a pleasing comparison with that of the ambitious and enthusiastic volume on Rude Stone Monuments compiled more than a century ago by James Fergusson (1872). Like Roger Joussaume’s ‘Dolmens ...’, Chris Scarre’s book is certainly a most worthy successor.
Could it be that a radiant dawn of enlightenment now awaits us when Professor Scarre’s fine new book appears in both French and English on the sales-desk at Stonehenge? Members of the Prehistoric Society must decide for themselves whether they can draw sufficient breath for the interval.
Review Submitted: November 2005
The views expressed in
this review are not necessarily those of the Society or the Reviews
|The Prehistoric Society Home Page|