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The Prehistory of the Netherlands, edited by L.P. Louwe Kooijmans, P.W. Van Den Broeke, H. Fokkens & A.L. Van Gijn
Amsterdam University Press. 2005. 844 pages; numerous black-and-white illustrations; 48 pages of colour plates, ISBN 9053561609 (€89.50/£69.50)

‘The new standard for Dutch prehistory’, says an antiquarian bookseller advertising this work and how right he is! It is a far cry from de Laet’s 1958 Ancient Peoples and Places volume, which contains the only previous English-language survey of the prehistory of the Netherlands, or the elegant little Dutch book, De voorgeschiedenis der Lage Landen (1959), by de Laet and Glasbergen. Glasbergen intended to write a fuller treatment of the northern Low Countries but ill-health prevented him from doing so.

The editors wished to produce a comprehensive and accessible survey accommodating the explosive increase in archaeological research in the Netherlands since World War II, one of the hotspots of European prehistory especially for wetland archaeology and settlement. They let as many researchers as possible (thirty-nine authors, including the four editors who are all connected with Leiden University) present their views at first hand. The result was first published in Dutch (Nederland in de prehistorie, Amsterdam, Bert Bakker, 2005), but because of the wider importance of many aspects of Dutch prehistory - and even wider ignorance of the language - this English edition has also appeared.

An Introductory section contains three chapters. The first sets out the background to the work, the second is a short history of Dutch prehistory and the third covers the genesis of the Netherlands during the Quaternary period. The background contains typically sensible Dutch statements, ‘The development of theoretical and methodological aspects of archaeology has never been a prime objective in the Netherlands. Instead, the emphasis has been on gathering and interpreting information in field research’, and ends with a quote from van Giffen’s thesis, ‘The facts remains, their interpretation varies.’ This chapter also summarises chronology, but we are given surprisingly few uncalibrated radiocarbon dates in the text. The technique for dating cremated bone is mentioned only in an endnote, with the great series of Lanting and van der Plicht Palaeohistoria articles on radiocarbon chronology. As in this case, the last endnote to a chapter is often worthy of attention because it may mention important publications since that chapter was completed.

Part I, Hunters and gatherers, covers the Palaeolithic and Mesolithic from 500,000 years ago to 5300 cal BC. Like all the chronological parts, this has an introductory and concluding chapter. In addition, there are four chronological chapters, on Neanderthals, Lower and Middle Palaeolithic, Upper Palaeolithic, then later Upper Palaeolithic and Mesolithic. These chapters are interspersed with shorter features on flint tool manufacture, Mesolithic finds from the North Sea floor, camp sites, burial pits at Mariënberg, and hunting camps on river dunes at Hardinxveld discovered during prospection for the Betuwe railway in 1994. Part II, First farmers, is on the Early and Middle Neolithic, 5300-2900 cal BC. The chapters cover Bandkeramik, Early Neolithic B and Middle Neolithic A (Rössen, Michelsberg and Swifterbant), Funnel Beaker and Vlaardingen cultures and Neolithic subsistence. There are features on the Rijckholt flint mines, a Middle Neolithic inhumation cemetery at Rijswijk-Ypenburg, stone axes in the northern Netherlands and on hunnebedden (megaliths).

Part III, Mixed farming societies, treats Late Neolithic to Middle Bronze Age, 2900-1100 cal BC. The chapters are now thematic: technology and material culture, Beaker and Bronze Age settlements, and Beaker and Early and Middle Bronze Age funeral and burial rites. The first chapter contains a four-page section on metal production (presumably by the senior contributor, Jay Butler) that extends far beyond the Netherlands and provides an admirable introduction to metallurgy in prehistoric Europe. There are features on the Drenthe timber trackways, Single Grave settlements in Westfrisia, barrow research and palynology, and a collective burial of twelve people - probably all massacred around 1700 BC - at Wassenaar. Part IV, Increasing diversity, is on the Late Bronze Age and Iron Age, 1100-12 BC (when Drusus used the Netherlands as a base for campaigning in Germany). It has four chapters on regional settlement and others on food production, material culture and technology, funeral and burial rites and other ritual and cult sites. The features cover salt production, terpen (settlement mounds), use of wood in Iron Age farms, settlements on peat on Voorne-Putten, clothing, Iron Age inhumation burials and bog bodies.

There is a concluding chapter by Louwe Kooijmans summarising the long-term trends in the post-Glacial period.

A 74-page bibliography, on the first page of which a quarter of the items concern subjects outside the Netherlands; five maps, including locations for sites mentioned in each of the four parts; indexes of sites, subjects and people; sources of illustrations – which do not always refer to a published source; and notes on the authors comprise the apparatus.

The captions do not seem to have been translated in the same commendable way as the text and contain some errors. The socketed axe in fig 27.4 has an ear rather than a loop. Neither of the bronze vessels from Venlo (fig 27.18) or Drouwen (fig 28.6) is a cauldron and Drouwen is correctly called a hanging bowl on the facing page. The English ‘flange-hilted’ and ‘solid-hilted’ have eluded the translator for fig 17.13, 3-4 leaving the unsatisfactory hybrids ‘Griffzungen sword’ and ‘Vollgriff sword’, while as for some other illustrations of Bronze Age metalwork no references are provided to a publication, only the source of the photographs. The same applies to plate 28, where imported Bronze and Iron Age objects are shown at different scales, some far too small, but no information is provided to enable readers who do not know these objects to find out more. This is not the only plate where colour does not seem justified, some having very limited palates. The black-and-white illustrations are, however, excellent.

This is Dutch archaeology at its very best, which few others can emulate. We must be grateful to all those involved, especially the Prins Bernhard Cultuurfonds for commissioning the work. At their current Oxbow price of £69.50, these handsome volumes should be in any serious archaeological library.

Brendan O’Connor,

Review Submitted: March 2006

The views expressed in this review are not necessarily those of the Society or the Reviews Editor.

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