Earthen long barrows: the earliest monuments in the British Isles, by David Field
To misquote Dr Johnson, anyone tired of long barrows is tired of the Neolithic. As David Field’s splendid account for the general reader underlines, they can be found up and down the country, and not just in the south. Although this book serves principally as overview and summary, and deliberately avoids going over ground and monuments already covered in Tim Darvill’s Long barrows of the Cotswolds (2004, from the same publisher), it manages not only authoritatively to review the history of research and principal features of long barrow form and contents, but to generate also a strong sense of the diversity of these early constructions. It is at very best when it takes us on a series of mini-tours to clusters of long barrows, informed by recent discoveries and additions from aerial photography and ground survey alike. These are threaded through chapters 5 and 6, and this lively treatment of the setting of the Skendleby long barrows on the Lincolnshire Wolds, or of those in the upper Wylye valley in Wiltshire, for example, re-emphasises the dense distributions that can occur. It poses afresh the very real, unanswered questions of how many people were involved in such building enterprises and the kind of population entailed. A sense of connection to the land, place and the earth, alongside negotiation with the past and treatment of the dead, is developed by close attention to the materials of building; we could regard the secondary layers in the chambers of the West Kennet long barrow, for example, as not just inert fill, but as symbolically charged matter in its own right. This account deserves to be on the shelves not only of the ‘general reader’, but of specialists as well. Thirty fine colour plates reinforce the sense of diversity of form and setting, and enhance the remarkably good value of the volume.
Important questions remain. The example of the upper Wylye, with its cluster of 21 long barrows, each only about 2 km apart, is for me the most striking image from the book of the extent of what we do not know about long barrows. When did these start being constructed? How long were they in use? How did they relate to other early developments in the Neolithic, and to other forms of construction and to settlement in the region? What was placed in them, and how varied was this? Some of these upper Wylye examples have been opened, and the archive could perhaps be further exploited for dating samples, but many remain untouched. Perhaps David Field is right, and these come to reflect a more substantial population than much recent debate in Britain has allowed the early Neolithic, but until we sort the chronology, we will be left speculating. The few explicit chronological models published so far propose short use-lives, probably from one to five generations (at 25 years a generation), and construction probably from the 38th century cal BC onwards; one or two examples may prove to be slightly earlier (see supplement to Cambridge Archaeological Journal 17.1, February 2007). So is this Wylye concentration a gradual or a rapid accumulation, and is it a population focus or a sacred space that became ever more so with each emulation of those who had gone before? Few long barrows have been excavated recently. It was the original hope at Hazleton in the 1980s to excavate a pair, but in the event it was a major achievement by Alan Saville to excavate Hazleton North so completely and to such high standards. It is possible to sample the ditches of a causewayed enclosure, for example, or of a cursus or a henge, to recover dating samples, without significant threat to the overall integrity of the monument. It is much harder - and increasingly unlikely to be granted permission - to sample the contents of an unthreatened long barrow. It is therefore going to be a long haul fully to get to grips with these most evocative of monuments. As part of this process, we need to exploit all we can in the archives, not least the human remains, and patient survey and observation on the ground and from the air, as David Field so well shows here, are another important way forward.
Review Submitted: May 2007
The views expressed in this review are not necessarily those
of the Society or the Reviews Editor.
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