Animals in the Neolithic of Britain and Europe, edited by Dale
Serjeantson and David Field
This book is precisely what its title suggests: a compilation of papers presented at a seminar of the Neolithic Studies Group, held at the British Museum in 2003, exploring the theme of animals during the Neolithic. It is not a zooarchaeological volume in that it does not contain simply bone reports or papers written by zooarchaeologists for zooarchaeologists. A variety of approaches is represented, treating animals in economic, social and ideological terms; it will, thus, appeal to a wide range of scholars working on this period.
The volume consists of 11 research papers and a final discussant paper. Its geographical coverage is selective: of the research papers six focus on Britain, two on Greece, one on the Adriatic region, one on the Netherlands and one spans the whole of Western Europe. The focus is the period of the Neolithic proper, and not its onset or the origins of domestication. The order of the papers is not geographical or chronological; it is rather thematic, as will be highlighted in the present review. All these features contribute to the volume’s relevance and interest to scholars working more generally in the Neolithic, irrespective of period or region.
Modest in size and modest in coverage, this volume does not set itself an agenda for revolutionising research into the Neolithic; tellingly, the editors’ preface is short. Nonetheless, it is an inspiring volume. Papers are unequal both in terms of quality and in terms of scope and outlook: some deal with a particular deposit, others deal with large geographical areas. It is this juxtaposition, however, that makes the reader reflect on the merits and constraints of each approach and on the future direction of research both into the Neolithic and into past human-animal relationships.
The first paper by Field takes a historic approach to the subject of animal bones studies in the Neolithic, reviewing how William Cunningham recovered and recorded the bones in his excavations of long barrows in Wiltshire in the early 1800’s, often with the help of his local butcher to help with identifications. The paper’s interest is in documenting these early faunal studies; an appreciation of their legacy in later Neolithic research would have been welcome.
The following three papers by Boyle, Zeiler and Clark explore the role of wild animals in Neolithic economies and societies. It is invigorating to see a volume on the Neolithic treating hunting in a serious manner, although Albarella in his concluding paper urges for an even deeper appreciation of its significance and importance. Each of these papers follows a different approach.
Boyle presents a general overview of the frequency of wild animals from more than 900 sites across the whole of Western Europe during the Middle and Late Neolithic (4900-3800BC). After a presentation of the distribution of the main wild animal species (red deer, roe deer, boar, horse and aurochs), she discusses possible reasons for their exploitation within the context of a domestic economy (primary hunting, mixed hunting and farming, exchange hunting for other foodstuffs, replacement hunting in situations of agricultural failure, protection of people and livestock, non-subsistence hunting) and the sustainability of such hunting. However, these discussions do not stem directly from the distribution data presented. It is indicative of the lack of integration of the two parts of the paper that the one of the most memorable parts of the paper is the strong frequency (more than 40%, even more than 80%) of wild animals (primarily red deer) at some sites.
Zeiler focuses on the presence of carnivores in 25 Dutch sites, discussed in relation to the environmental context of each site: the most frequent species is otter, followed by pine marten, polecat and wild cat; fox, badger and seal are also common. No rigorous exploration of the reasons for such a presence is attempted, nor the role of these animals in Neolithic economies is examined. It is only the last paragraph, where the anatomical distribution of the faunal remains is used to discuss possible reasons for exploitation (for meat or fur) that hints to the existence of a more interesting paper, were that route to have been followed.
Clark’s paper is even more specific, but also more engaging. She examines the canid remains from Neolithic Britain to ascertain whether they represent one breed. She suggests that a greater variability in stature and morphology existed than previously thought. The larger part of the paper is dedicated to discussing a single specimen, a skull from Staines Road Farm, which she suggests might be a dog/wolf hybrid. As with many of the papers in this volume, Clark succeeds in drawing the reader into the wider social and ideological issues surrounding the possible existence of such a hybrid, rather than focusing on the metric data that provide the basis for her hypothesis.
Two following papers by Halstead and Dineley consider the role of domestic animals within the agricultural economy. They argue for a close integration of animal and plant economies in the past and for the secondary role of the former. The two papers are, though, very uneven. Dineley discusses grain mashing and malting, and feeding animals with the remains of such processes (the spent grain). Very little evidence to support the existence of such a practice is presented and a more rigorous and less hypothetical approach could have been adopted. Halstead’s paper, on the other hand, is very thought-provoking. His aim is to offer possible explanations for the predominance of sheep among domestic animals in Greece. He argues that sheep rearing would have been an integral part of, and beneficial to, cereal cultivation: use of sheep manure and grazing of sheep on the sprouting cereals in late winter/ early spring to prevent frost damage or stalk lodging are among the examples offered. He, thus, suggests that the Neolithic ‘package’ of domesticates need not be a marker of incoming farmers but of a sustainable agricultural and pastoral economy.
The following two papers, by Miracle and Isaakidou, are the more traditionally zooarhaeological papers presenting a large number of raw bone data. Due to the large body of data analysed, they both have a primarily, though not exclusive, economic focus. Both papers are among the strongest of the volume methodologically in the way that they assess their data and draw from them a wide variety of information.
Miracle’s paper, especially, should be a lesson to all zooarchaeologists on how much information, both on an economic and social level, can be drawn out of detailed studies of (faunal) archaeological material. Age profiles, cut marks and burning on the faunal material of Pupicina cave (Istria, Croatia) are used to convincingly propose that during the Middle Neolithic the cave was used as a sheep pen, culling being geared towards milk/cheese production and that these activities took place in spring; a shift in the use of the cave occurred in the Late Neolithic, when the site was occupied primarily in autumn, with the killing of sheep, as well as of cattle and pig, and the hunting of wild game, being geared towards meat. This shift in animal exploitation at Pupicina, from milk to meat, and towards greater species diversification, is also identified in a comparative study of faunal assemblages from sites across the Northern Adriatic region. Although both parts of the paper successfully make the most of the available data, it was not clear how each part informs the other.
Isaakidou’s paper is more constricted in focus: it examines the faunal assemblage of one site (Knossos, Greece) to explore the timing and nature of Sherratt’s notion of Secondary Products Revolution. Through an examination of sheep, goat and cattle age profiles and cattle pathologies Isaakidou identified a mixed exploitation strategy followed for all species, geared towards meat, milk and traction. She, thus, proposes an earlier date for the onset of secondary product exploitation than envisaged in Sherratt’s notion of a ‘revolution’ during the 4th- 3rd millennium BC. As a discussion of the Knossian faunal assemblage this is a methodologically and interpretatively strong paper; given Isaakidou’s theoretical emphasis on the notion of the ‘Secondary Products Revolution’ in her introduction and conclusion, I believe that a wider focus on other sites would have strengthened her arguments.
The final three papers, by Serjeantson, Pollard and Cotton et al., all on the British Neolithic, attempt a more social approach in the interpretation of the data, although they are strongly based on the analysis of raw, zooarchaeological, data.
The faunal assemblage from the Middle Neolithic settlement site of Runnemede Bridge is explored, by Serjeanston, to ascertain whether it is the result of past feasting activities. Methodologically her analysis is sound and the avenues of analysis varied, including types of species (wild and domestic) consumed, frequency of fragmentation and patterns of burning. This latter piece of analysis is well-argued for identifying which bones derived from roasting (for feasting) and which from boiling (for everyday stews). She concludes that feasting or, at least ‘communal eating’ at a smaller scale, was practiced at Runnymede. It is not clear, however, why the hypothesis of feasting is proposed in the first place, as the reason for doing so (large quantity of bones; p. 113) is rejected soon after (p. 117).
Pollard explores the role of animals in people’s ideologies and cosmologies, the distinctions between people and animals, wild and domestic, and how these distinctions might have been formed, altered and dissolved during the Neolithic in Southern Britain. He questions the wild vs. domestic duality as representing a nature vs. culture divide. He proposes that the presence or absence of certain animals- and how that changed through the course of the Neolithic, with an increase in wild animals during the later periods- was due, rather, to past categorisations based on familiarity with animals and a perceived similarity of certain animals to people’s own social life, having biographies, social and family ties.
The final research paper by Cotton, Elsden, Pipe and Rayner deals with a Late Neolithic/ Early Bronze Age deposit containing the skeleton of an aurochs, together with six arrowheads, at Holloway Lane, Heathrow. Despite its narrow focus, the authors present an interesting discussion of the significance of the killing, dismemberment and deposition of the aurochs by the hunters-archers, maybe as a way of appropriating the landscape through an act which pointed towards earlier practices.
The last paper by Albarella is a commentary on the whole of the volume. In the first part he presents the main strengths of the volume: an emphasis on the Neolithic proper rather than on the Mesolithic-Neolithic transition; a wide range of approaches adopted, with a strong emphasis on social and ceremonial aspects, and an avoidance of dry zooarchaeological papers; a wide range of methods adopted indicative of the full potential of zooarchaeology. He then proceeds to discuss some themes he considers important to the study of the Neolithic, themes explored in the present volume: Neolithic lifeways and the role of hunting and husbandry; the local and regional perspectives used in scales of analysis; new aspects of the Neolithic economy (e.g. early existence of milking, late presence of horse); the nature vs. culture divide. Albarella’s paper is probably the most interesting and thought-provoking contribution as it explores the state of zooarchaeological and Neolithic research today and provides food for thought for future directions of research.
Despite any shortcomings in the quality of some of the papers in this volume and the restrictive coverage of the European Neolithic, I would agree with Albarella that the book succeeds in presenting a range of different data, ideas and approaches, some positive, some negative- but all of these make us think about the present state of research and can stimulate further developments in the field. A modest book, which I believe will leave its mark on all its readers.
Review Submitted: November 2006
The views expressed in this review are not necessarily those
of the Society or the Reviews Editor.
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