Scotland’s Hidden History, by Ian Armit
This is an updated version of Ian Armit’s popular guide to Scottish archaeological sites, first published (in paperback and hardback) in 1998. As Armit explains, the revisions have been necessitated by new discoveries and advances in our understanding of Scottish prehistory and early history to around AD 1000, with the bibliography and chapter introductions showing the biggest changes from the first edition. The production of this second edition reflects the success in sales of the first.
The volume is aimed at the intelligent ‘lay’ reader, and is intended as a guide book for use by those who want to visit the traces of Scotland’s ‘hidden’ past – hidden, in the sense of not being documented (to any degree, if at all) by contemporaneous written records. It starts with a brief (14 page) introduction to the 9000 years covered by the book. Subsequent chapters provide a chronological run-through of the principal types of site that may be encountered, including a section on ‘Broch towers and the Atlantic zone’ – one of Armit’s own specialist topics. A brief introduction to each of these chapters, together with a map showing featured sites, is followed by selections of sites deemed worthy of a visit, with each entry including information on site ownership, location (as National Grid Reference) and directions on how to access the sites, as well as a description of the site and often some interesting nuggets of additional information (e.g. on the nature of vitrification on Iron Age and Early Historic forts, pp. 93–4). Many entries are accompanied by photographs of the sites or by Alan Braby’s vivid and evocative reconstruction drawings; site plans are rarer, and images of artefacts rarer still. The volume ends with a list of recommended museums and visitor centres to visit, publications to read, a glossary and an index to the sites mentioned in the book.
The book has many strengths. Armit writes in a clear and accessible way, without talking down to the reader, and it is clear that he has visited all the sites and done his homework. Armit’s years as an Inspector of Ancient Monuments with Historic Scotland in the 1990s have clearly paid off, and the book comes with that institution’s seal of approval proudly adorning the back cover. Site descriptions are usefully embellished by fascinating, bite-sized insights into how the featured sites fit within the broader narrative of prehistory and early history. One example, on p.122, explains how a 4th century late Roman account claiming that Orkney submitted to Claudius in AD 43, long before Agricola’s Scottish campaign of AD 79, may not be as fanciful as formerly thought, given that Claudian period amphora sherds have been found at the broch of Gurness (suggesting long-distance links with the south of England). His discussion of the function of souterrains and brochs is interesting (even though one suspects that souterrain function will continue to be debated by archaeologists); and the geographical scope of the sites covered in this guide is extensive.
Armit’s choice of sites to visit hits all the right spots, taking the reader on a wonderful (if inevitably expensive and car-bound) tour of Scotland. And he is arguably wise to omit the Orcadian Iron Age site of Mine Howe from his list of sites to visit, since the deep stepped shaft is very vulnerable to damage from visitors’ feet.
The matter of over-reduced illustrations is an irritant at various points in the book, most notably with fig. 26 (p.51), where ground plans of Orcadian chamber tombs are reproduced at so small a scale that it is impossible to see clearly the various arrangements of human remains to which the key alludes. Equally irritating is the use of line drawings of certain artefacts (such as the Shulishader axe, fig. 14, or the Culduthel Beaker cist assemblage, fig. 5) where excellent photographs could have been provided (granted, at a price) by the National Museums Scotland. The inadequacy, or total lack of provision, of an illustration budget by publishers, is a perennial problem facing authors. Publishers should bear in mind that the appearance of a book can be improved greatly by using the best possible illustrations. A similar cost-related issue is that of the inclusion of colour images: with modern printing technology it is possible to print integrated colour images through the text, rather than relying on discrete colour plate spreads (which, in this cases, look rather washed out in some cases, and do not do justice to the original photographs).
As regards the contents, it is clear to this reviewer that Armit is strongest when dealing with his own specialist period (i.e. the first millennia BC and AD). The temptation to critique his potted version of the Mesolithic-Neolithic transition will be resisted, although the significance of Continental links ought to have been given more emphasis; similarly, his treatment of the Beaker phenomenon makes no reference to the Amesbury Archer, whose discovery reignited the debate about the nature and extent of immigration around 2500/2400 BC. (Also, incidentally, the Culduthel assemblage shown in fig. 5 is not really typical, as the caption suggests: most Beaker graves have only the pot as a surviving grave good.) Granted, it is impossible to cover all the aspects of prehistory in a few pages, but a few tricks have been missed in his coverage of early prehistory (e.g. the important Early Neolithic discoveries in East Lothian during the A1 upgrade, or around Kintore, both resulting from developer-funded archaeology). And it is unfortunate that the re-assessment of Croft Moraig (Bradley & Sheridan 2005) must have come out just too late to be accommodated within Armit’s text.
Final niggles: i) figure 33 is mis-captioned, since the illustration shows the Stones of Stenness, rather than the Ring of Brodgar; ii) Isbister is not under Local Authority ownership; iii) ‘chambered tombs’ should read ‘chamber tombs’ throughout; iv) the opportunity to include some fairly spectacular images (e.g. of the full moon at Callanish, or the sun shining into Maes Howe) has not been taken; and v) there is the occasional comma in the wrong place.
Overall, however, this book is to be commended. It is bound to sell well because it is appropriately priced, has an attractive cover and title, will appeal as an authoritative guidebook, and is sure to be on sale at all Historic Scotland outlets and good booksellers. And the great thing about current archaeology in Scotland is that so much exciting work is going on that there will be plenty to add for the next edition, should the newly-crowned Professor Armit at Bradford University choose to take up the challenge...
Review Submitted: February 2007
The views expressed in this review are not necessarily those
of the Society or the Reviews Editor.
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