Mesolithic Lives in Scotland by Graeme Warren
This slim but attractively-presented volume sets out to present an account of the lives of Scotland’s earliest inhabitants that is accessible to undergraduates and to those with a general interest in archaeology. Much effort is spent in explaining complicated processes (such as sea-level change) and in demystifying specialist terminology (principally that relating to lithic studies); and much of the book is taken up with exploring the various approaches that have been, and could be, used to understand Scottish Mesolithic people’s lives.
The book is organised into seven thematic chapters, dealing respectively with chronology; the changing landscape; the nature and importance of, and interaction with, the forest; the use of resources (in general, and in terms of the use of learned skills); landscapes and taskscapes; and population and communities. An introductory section sets out some basic definitions, reviews past approaches and sets out the author’s stall with regard to his own approach (which seeks to ‘humanise’ the Mesolithic); and an Epilogue returns to a discussion of that approach. Each chapter offers a helpful guide to further reading, complete with a commentary on the publications in question; and all sections except the Epilogue employ the Socratic device of ‘An Interjection’, in which the author imagines and addresses the kind of questions that the reader might raise.
The book is very much of its time, in terms of one particular current approach to the British and Irish Mesolithic, in its aim of getting close to its subjects through focusing on how they lived their lives and made sense of the world around them. This ‘empathetic’ approach, with its emphasis on materiality and phenomenology, on gender, identity and perception, can be seen, for instance, in contributions such as Steven Mithen’s ‘The “Mesolithic Experience” in Scotland’ (in Mesolithic Scotland and its Neighbours (ed. A. Saville, 2004, Society of Antiquaries of Scotland), and in the work of Chantal Conneller, Nyree Finlay, Tim Ingold and Lesley McFadyen. Similarly, the use of Socratic dialogue and of a personalised, auto-critical style – and indeed of the evocative photos of trees, the sea, a woodland path etc. – is very much in line with this kind of archaeological approach (cf. the work of Barbara Bender, Mark Edmonds, Chris Tilley etc.). The desire to achieve an intimate understanding of past people as human beings is, of course, a laudable aim, and Warren is right to praise the attempts of researchers such as Nyree Finlay in trying to squeeze as much information (about gendered behaviour, for example) from an avowedly difficult set of data. He is also wise to use terms such as ‘materiality’ sparingly, and to distance himself from the wackier expressions of this ‘touchy-feely’ approach which have done so much to perpetuate the glacial stand-offs between different sects within the church of Mesolithic archaeology.
How well does Warren succeed in bringing us closer to understanding what made Scotland’s earliest inhabitants tick – and in particular, in helping non-specialists on this quest?
In explaining complex processes such as environmental and sea-level change, his text is admirably clear and well illustrated – even if his exposition of lithic terms could have benefited from a few more definitions and explanations (e.g. of ‘blunting’, and of the various functions of retouch). His exploration about how people are likely to have related to the forest is right in showcasing this aspect of Mesolithic life. His accounts of the various problems facing any interpretative approach to the Mesolithic, and of the drawbacks of many previous attempts, is right and proper. Factual errors are mercifully few; last time I looked, Cornwall was not ‘over 500 km away’ from Hampshire (p. 139). This book is set to grace many an undergraduate course in British prehistory. Its guides to ‘Further Reading’ provide an important steer towards the sources of ‘nuts and bolts’ information. And its inclusion of brief summary ‘Reviews’ in many of the chapters reflects the author’s understanding of how undergraduate readers’ minds operate!
Inevitably, comparisons will be made with Caroline Wickham-Jones’ book on the same subject, directed at a similar audience, published 15 years ago (Scotland’s First Settlers: Batsford/Historic Scotland). Warren’s book is more up to date, if slightly less lavishly illustrated; and so much of its author’s energy is spent earnestly trying to do the right thing by his subjects – in explaining what we can’t know for sure, and in debating the rights and wrongs of specific approaches –that, at some points, it reads more like a journey through the author’s own quest for enlightenment than a guide for the uninitiated. This is, perhaps, a harsh judgement on what is an honest appraisal of a frankly challenging subject, and a sincere attempt to help readers get to grips with the evidence. It demonstrates how very hard it is to construct a straightforward yet detailed and profound narrative of the lives of Scotland’s earliest inhabitants.
The sales, and use, of this book will eventually determine whether it succeeds in its aim. For this reviewer, there are aspects of its style that are not to her taste (such as the Interjections, which grate slightly); and, while she understands the author’s reasons for body-swerving the tricky subject of what happened to Scotland’s foragers once agriculture came on the scene, it’s a shame that this topic didn’t get a bit more of an airing, to round off the account.
But clearly this book is a thoughtful, and indeed a caring, account, and it will be interesting to see how and whether its author’s views change as his quest continues over the coming decades.
Review Submitted: June 2006
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