Scotland in Ancient Europe: The Neolithic and Early Bronze Age
of Scotland in their European Context, edited by Ian A G Shepherd & Gordon J Barclay
This volume presents the proceedings of a conference held in Edinburgh in March 2003 - one of a series of Society of Antiquaries of Scotland conferences reviewing Scotland’s past within its broader context. The previous, and first, was held in 1999 and was published by the Society in 2004 as Mesolithic Scotland and its Neighbours (edited by Alan Saville); the next is due to take place in 2008, and will cover the Later Bronze Age and the Iron Age.
The Scotland in Ancient Europe conference was held in honour of Stuart Piggott, the second Abercromby Professor of Archaeology (after Gordon Childe) at the University of Edinburgh’s Department of Archaeology. The editors (who, like several of the contributors, had studied under Piggott) carefully selected contributions that would embody the tradition of open-minded scholarship that Piggott had worked so hard to promote. Now is an appropriate, if sad, time to be reviewing this volume, because Piggott would doubtless have been horrified to learn of the radical changes that are currently affecting that Department and its Abercromby Professorship (as alluded to in the current Editorial of Antiquity, volume 80) changes that have included the recent dismantling of the Drummond Library that Piggott helped to develop, in order to make space for computer terminals. But perhaps he would not have been surprised: an extract from one of his letters (p. 15) reveals that University problems are nothing new:
‘Less successful was my running battle with the University authorities for adequate accommodation and more staff, where with one or two notable exceptions I found a total incomprehension of the needs of a modern archaeological department...’
The volume is a third Festschrift for Piggott – the first being Coles and Simpson’s Studies in Ancient Europe published in 1968, and the second, Megaw’s To Illustrate the Monuments (1976). It nods to both: its introductory and concluding sections are titled ‘Scotland in Ancient Europe 1’ and ‘Scotland in Ancient Europe 2’ respectively, and the latter ends with a bibliography (by Marjorie Robertson) of Piggott’s later (post-1975) publications, to complement her list of earlier publications that had appeared in Megaw's 1976 volume.
‘Scotland in Ancient Europe 1’ comprises two chapters, starting with an excellent evaluation, by Richard Bradley, of Piggott’s philosophical and methodological approach to Scottish prehistory, comparing and contrasting it with that of Childe. This contribution also lays to rest some misconceptions wrought by Sharples’ harsh critique of Piggott (Sharples 1996). Chapter 2 is a highly entertaining ‘appreciation’ of Piggott by Ian Ralston and Vincent Megaw, developed from their after-dinner speeches during the conference dinner. This affectionate review of the man and his poetry reveals a lot about his character, and particularly his wit; it includes the legendary photograph of ‘Piggins’ posing as a crouched inhumation, accompanied by a bottle of beer as a grave good, taken at Croft Moraig and used as his 1965 Christmas card (fig. 2.1.6). At the other end of the book, ‘Scotland in Ancient Europe 2’ comprises the aforementioned bibliography, together with two contributions by Roger Mercer – a Summary and Conclusion, and a quirky, engaging piece on ‘The bronze doors of No. 9 Millbank, London…’, offered to Piggott’s ghost as a little something that the great man would have found amusing. This piece is not irrelevant to the main themes of the book, as it offers a reading, and a biography, of a specific piece of material culture.
The structure and rationale of the rest of the book are set out in the editors’ Preface (xvi–xix): the aim was to consider certain themes ‘which Piggott had illuminated during his career and which are still relevant today’, namely: i) Beginnings, narratives, environment, settlement and chronology; ii) Tombs, monuments and their landscapes; and iii) Artefacts, art and their connections. These themes are amply covered in the 19 chapters in question, written by leading ‘players’ in their respective areas. It is not proposed to review each of these in detail, but it is worth pointing out some noteworthy features. For example, both Barclay’s history of the study of the Scottish Neolithic, and Clarke’s paper on the construction of narratives, make points of fundamental importance regarding archaeological approaches to understanding the past, and their relevance extends far beyond Scottish archaeology. The environmental chapters (by Edwards and by Tipping and Tisdall) offer useful summaries of our state of knowledge, and touch on long-standing issues such as the elm decline; pre-elm decline cereal pollen; and the impact of climatic and other environmental change at different periods. Mike Richards’ contribution highlights the importance of biomolecular approaches to archaeology in furthering our understanding of prehistoric diet, and of the Mesolithic-Neolithic transition. Warren’s paper on the start of the Neolithic in Scotland confirms the enormity of the changes involved, and also comments that Piggott’s definition of the earliest Neolithic in Britain and Ireland is still valid in many respects, because he ‘was one of a number of writers who defined archaeological discourse to such an extent that we are still largely operating within the terms he established’ (p. 99).
Eoin Grogan’s review of Irish Neolithic houses and their implications provides a valuable summary of the evidence that had mushroomed, and continues to mushroom, through developer-funded archaeology in Ireland; and although Scotland has had no such ‘housing boom’, the approaches that Grogan proposes to understanding Neolithic settlement are relevant to Scotland. Magdalena Midgley offers a broader review of houses, and funerary monuments, in north-west Europe during the later sixth and fifth millennia BC; and Patrick Ashmore’s contribution teases out from the burgeoning population of radiocarbon dates some fascinating themes (such as dates relating to barley; to cattle; to types of structure; and to pottery styles). Ashmore also usefully reminds us of the factors that need to be taken into account when considering radiocarbon dates (and when submitting samples for new dates) (p.125). Incidentally, this is the first year when Discovery and Excavation in Scotland will not be featuring the invaluable annual round-up of Scottish archaeological radiocarbon dates (other than those obtained for the National Museums Scotland) that Ashmore had produced since 1996: his relocation, upon retirement, to deepest France means that his input is sadly missed.
The ‘Tombs, Monuments and their Landscapes’ section starts with a brief and characteristically incisive piece by Ian Kinnes in which he exhorts prehistorians (including this reviewer) to ‘Forget strict parallel-chasing’ (p.142) and to focus on constructing meaningful narratives. As in many of his recent publications, he cuts to the heart of issues concerning the origins of the British and Irish Neolithic, and does so from the basis of a solid knowledge of the Continental Neolithic – a knowledge which is sadly rare among today’s prehistorians.
Kenny Brophy’s light-hearted but scholarly review of monuments in today’s landscapes – and the way in which people react to them – includes the wonderful spoof reconstruction (by David Hogg, for Gordon Barclay) of one of the Balfarg Riding School structures as a swimming pool. More seriously, he pays homage to Gordon Barclay for posing the question ‘Do I really believe what I’m saying?’ This is, of course, an invaluable question to bear in mind when constructing any kind of narrative. Indeed, it is the inattention to this question, and the resulting low quality and sloppy construction of some Neolithic narratives of late, that has resulted in Barclay’s recent defection from the world of Scottish Neolithic studies: his input is missed.
Alex Gibson’s paper concerns the all-important issue of visibility with respect to monuments – not just questions of creating imposing monuments, or of directing people’s physical approach to them, but also the role of distant reference points, including planets at certain times in their cycles, in monument design. This is an approach that has been followed by others who have worked in Scotland, such as Richard Bradley; and although most of Gibson’s exemplars are non-Scottish, he demonstrates that much more can be learnt about Scottish monuments by pursuing this line of enquiry rigorously.
Julian Thomas’ ‘The ritual universe’ includes a valuable discourse on the performance of ritual as illustrated through the construction, burning and rebuilding of certain monuments such as the Holm Farm cursus. It also includes nuggets of information that have been difficult to find elsewhere; the imminent publication of his report on his excavations in south-west Scotland is most welcome, as it will fill in the details on a fascinating group of monuments, mentioned in this paper.
Jo Brück’s contribution highlights the variability in Scottish Early Bronze Age funerary practices – a rewarding topic in need of further work, building on the invaluable research of Ian and Lekky Shepherd in Aberdeenshire, for instance – and she compares and contrasts Scottish practices with those of north-west Europe.
The ‘Artefacts, Art and Connections’ section comprises chapters on stone axe production (Cooney), on Chalcolithic and Early Bronze Age metalwork (O’Connor with Briggs; Needham; and Cowie), and on faience (this reviewer with Andrew Shortland). As it is invidious to review one’s own work, no comment will be offered on the faience chapter (other than to thank the Editors warmly for including the splendid colour spread). The chapter by Cooney directs our attention to the various ways in which we can approach stone quarrying sites, and usefully situates the Scottish sites within a broader geographical framework. O’Connor’s paper on the earliest Scottish metalwork provides an invaluable summary of advances in our state of knowledge since Coles published his studies in the 1970s, including recondite information on Continental (non-) comparanda for Scottish basket-shaped ornaments that only Brendan could track down, with his encyclopaedic knowledge of Continental material. Stuart Needham’s ‘Migdale-Marnoch: sunburst of Scottish metallurgy’ forms one of a whole series of definitive studies of Copper and Bronze Age artefacts to have been published by Needham over the past decade: his profound knowledge of British and Irish (and Continental) metalwork is amply illustrated in this contribution. A similarly profound understanding of Scottish Bronze Age metalwork and of depositional practices marks Trevor Cowie’s study of the special landscape locales chosen for the deposition of Bronze Age metal objects.
Overall, Scotland in Ancient Europe is a treasure chest of information, insights and experience, and it will take some considerable time before its contents could be regarded as out of date, even though Scottish archaeology moves on apace and much new information has been obtained since its publication. Of course, there are areas where one might have wished for more information on a specific topic: the papers dealing with the Continental background to the Scottish Neolithic could have presented more details of structures and material culture dating to around 4000 BC, for example. However, there are sufficient tantalising loose ends of this kind to stimulate fresh researches.
All credit is due to the editors, and to the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, for having produced – so very promptly and efficiently – an attractive, coherent, grammatically correct (hurrah!) and outstandingly well edited volume, complete with a very useful Index. It successfully avoids being a hagiography of Piggott, and it most assuredly meets the exacting standards of the ‘Scholar and Master’.
Review Submitted: January 2007
The views expressed in this review are not necessarily those
of the Society or the Reviews Editor.
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