Set in Stone - New Approaches to Neolithic Monuments in Scotland, edited by Vicki Cummings and Amelia Pannett
Set in Stone is a collection of ten papers concerned with recent work on Neolithic Scotland, most of which were first presented at a series of annual meetings held in Cardiff. The contributors come from a variety of different institutions, but they share the common purpose of presenting new ideas. Although the title suggests a special focus on monuments, in fact one of the papers is concerned with fishing and another with the analysis of rock art.
The geographical focus of the volume is necessarily wide but there is a special emphasis on the Northern and Western Isles which together account for half the chapters. Another discusses evidence from Caithness, whilst the rich archaeology of the east coast features in only one or two of the papers. That division reflects some important differences in the survival of standing monuments and a particular concern with megalithic tombs. In fact tombs of various kinds feature in no fewer than six of the contributions. Stone circles and henges, both of them equally important components of the Scottish Neolithic, are discussed in just two of the articles, as well as Kenneth Brophy’s wide-ranging paper on the problems of classification. To a large extent these geographical biases reflect the regions in which research has always taken place, but they do emphasise upland areas at the expense of the lowland landscapes where many recent discoveries have been made. Understandably, the structure of Set in Stone says more about the distribution of postgraduate theses and research excavations than it does about the results of developer-funded fieldwork. This is not a synthesis of recent work on Neolithic Scotland so much as an interesting review of a number of projects that are closely linked to a few academic institutions, and it is possible to think of other research which might have contributed to an even broader review: Julian Thomas’s excavations in south-west Scotland; the recent discovery and excavation of a series of Neolithic ‘halls’; the investigation of cursuses; or the identification of palisaded enclosures. To be fair, these have been treated well by other writers, and the papers published here have an interest all of their own.
They vary considerably in scope. Perhaps the most ambitious papers are those that deal with entire regions or bodies of evidence. They include Gordon Noble’s reassessment of the architectural development of Clyde Cairns; Gordon Barclay’s wide-ranging account of Scottish henges and related monuments; and Andy Jones's thoughtful discussion of the relationship between prehistoric rock carvings and the surfaces on which they were made. Another is Cole Henley’s reassessment of the critical site of Callanish which makes the interesting suggestion that the stone circle and its alignments of standing stones can be regarded as a transformation of the characteristic architecture of a passage tomb. Another thoughtful contribution is Kenneth Brophy’s discussion of the problems of monument typology. This is both searching and entertaining, and it certainly has implications that extend beyond the borders of Scotland. All these papers have important points to make and any of them could provide the stimulus for new research.
That is not to say that the contributions which are concerned with smaller areas are any less accomplished. Fraser Sturt, for instance, provides a long overdue assessment of the role of deep sea fishing in the Orkney Neolithic. This is based on excavated bones and forms an interesting, if puzzling, complement to the evidence of prehistoric diet obtained from stable isotopes. In the same way the editors emphasise the importance of the sea and sea channels in the siting of Orcadian chambered tombs. These have played a major role in the ‘territorial’ model which relates them to the positions of settlements on the land. Taken together with Tim Phillips' recent paper in World Archaeology volume 35, their study suggests a new way of looking at monuments near to the shore. Perhaps these structures were perceived not just only as landmarks but as seamarks as well. Their distribution emphasises some of the major channels between the islands in the archipelago.
Two of the papers are concerned with South Uist, and they can be considered together. Vicki Cummings, Cole Henley and Niall Sharples provide a thoughtful and comprehensive study of the megalithic tombs on the island, and in a separate paper Cummings and Sharples report on the small scale excavation of one of those sites. These chapters are important because they demonstrate that surveys of this kind are still worthwhile even when so much of the groundwork had already been accomplished by Audrey Henshall. If the excavation of the chambered cairn at Leavel sheds new light on the archaeology of the west coast, the same is true of Amelia Pannett’s fieldwork in Caithness which provides evidence for Mesolithic activity in the vicinity of other Neolithic tombs. It reminds us of the importance of field walking in a country where the technique has not been used as often it might.
The volume is well produced, but would probably have benefited from a general introduction linking these particular contributions to other work in Scotland. That would certainly help to redress the geographical biases in this particular collection.
What did I take from this volume? I was fascinated by Kenneth Brophy’s discussion of how monument types are brought into being by field archaeologists. I was fascinated by the imaginative yet wholly convincing way in which Gordon Noble was able to breath new life into the study of some very well known tombs, showing that their histories were more complex than they had seemed. I was excited by the discussion of the seascapes of Neolithic Orkney and wanted to know whether similar studies could be carried out in other areas. I was convinced by Cole Henley's reading of Callanish which made sense of a monument which I had always found incomprehensible, and I was equally intrigued by the singularity of the Scottish henges discussed by Gordon Barclay. I have said that one measure of a book is whether it provokes new research. In this case that is easy to demonstrate, for I have already embarked on the excavation of one of these henge monuments. What could be more fascinating than the sites considered here? Read the book and see whether it has the same effect on you.
Review Submitted: April 2006
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