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The British Lower Palaeolithic. Stones in Contention, by John Mcnabb
Routledge, London, 2007, 420 pp, 125 figures and tables, hb ISBN10: 0-415-42727-4, ISBN10: 0-415-42728-2 (£25.99)

The last twenty years has witnessed an unparalleled level of research into the British Palaeolithic with large-scale funding for Boxgrove, the English Rivers Project, the Ancient Human Occupation of Britain Project, together with a host of smaller projects funded through the Aggregates Sustainability Levy Fund. As a result our understanding of Palaeolithic Britain has changed and it is very timely that a detailed text has appeared that draws many aspects of this work together.

So is this a general text book on the Lower Palaeolithic? The title would suggest so, and in many ways it is. However, it has been packaged and delivered through one of the recurrent debates of the Lower Palaeolithic – the Clactonian Question. This debate has raged since the early twentieth century when assemblages were found without the otherwise ubiquitous tool - the handaxe. What did these non-handaxe assemblages signify – differences in hominin type, cultural group, raw material distribution, or site function? All these have been used as explanations. Cultural explanations have tended to hold sway, at least in Britain, despite a refuelled debate over the last twenty years. Many of our continental colleagues wonder what all the fuss is about – they’ve had non-handaxe assemblages for years and usually regard them as one of the many expressions of the handaxe Acheulian. Maybe they’ve got a point?

Or have they missed the point? Britain, because of its rich, relatively well constrained record for this period provides an excellent stage for such debates to take place. Added to this is the issue of Britain’s changing accessibility from the continent. Whether Britain was an island, or could only be reached through a narrow land-bridge, access would have been limited, acting as a filter to populations coming in or out. This accident of geography confers on Britain a special status, where the filtering has perhaps only allowed small populations in at specific times. As much of our data consists of time-averaged palimpsests, the limited access has provided greater resolution to the data and perhaps enables us to interpret at a different scale. In contrast, in France and beyond everyone was allowed to play and the ability to interpret population comings and goings is much more difficult.

So back to the Clactonian. In Britain the debate rages on. McNabb has been one of the principal guns in demystifying the Clactonian and removing its cultural status, although he is categorical that he will merely present the data, discuss the associated problems and then let the reader decide. To this remit, he pretty much abides. The text is, therefore, driven by the debate and the result is not a standard textbook of the Lower Palaeolithic.

After a brief introduction, the reader is plunged into a series of definitions of key concepts from ‘archaeological assemblage’ to ‘secondary context’, followed by a didactic summary of the Clactonian problem. This opening seems slightly out of kilter with the rest of the chapter, which is an excellent summary of the European context from timescales, potential ancestors to the earliest evidence.

Chapter 2 continues with the broad geological context, again a very useful summary of orbital forcing of climate through time and how this translates into the terrestrial records that we have in Britain. Our understanding is focused on the river systems, which can be linked to the global records through terrace formation, and is also where much of the archaeology is found. This sets the scene for understanding the dating and context of the Clactonian.

Now for the nitty-gritty - Chapter 3. Detailed site summaries are given for all the major non-handaxe sites, including Clacton, the lower beds at Swanscombe and Barnham. The quest is to find sites that are unequivocally non-handaxe in composition, and that can’t be explained away through function, raw material or low sample size. Many sites flounder on low sample size, where McNabb takes a slightly harsh minimum of 500 artefacts. One other principle is used to filter out other sites from discussion; interpretations that deploy function and to some extent raw material as explanations can be dismissed if an assemblage consists of the sweepings of a broad landscape, accumulated over some time. These assemblages ought to incorporate a variety of functional areas and raw material sources and provide a general signature of a group’s technology over time. As the relevant contexts at Swanscombe and Clacton are fluvial gravels, both sites pass this test. Yet the assemblages still lack handaxes, so why?

We’re kept in suspense for several chapters before we’re allowed to know the answer. Chapters 4 – 7 take us on a chronological journey through the British Lower and early Middle Palaeolithic, from the earliest pre-Anglian sites to the population collapse 180,000 years ago. In-depth site descriptions are set in detailed regional geologies, which together provide an excellent up-to-date summary of these periods. This is a textbook in itself. The mission is of course to track down any other candidates to put into the Clactonian box. There don’t appear to be any. However, there should be one note of caution. McNabb’s statement (p.131) that ‘It is clear that a non-handaxe tradition did not persist from the time of the earliest occupants (Pakefield) into post-Anglian times’ should be tempered by the very small assemblage sizes of the earliest sites. Although a non-handaxe tradition may not have persisted, at the moment we simply don’t know enough about the technology of the very first inhabitants to dismiss a non-handaxe tradition in Britain.

There are several other underlying discussions in these chapters, one of the more central being the changing demography of Britain. Pivotal to this has been not just the apparent absence of humans from 180,000 to 60,000 years ago, but also a suggested decline in population in each successive warm stage from the late Anglian (Ashton & Lewis 2002). One measure of this has been the density of artefacts in each of the river terraces of the Middle Thames. McNabb (Chapter 8) argues against this interpretation. He argues that the pattern in the Middle Thames it is a matter of collector bias, but presents no supporting data.

Further on (Chapter 7) he posits another suggestion – that of changing land-use and artefact discard by Neanderthals during the Middle Palaeolithic. This is a serious suggestion first formulated by Scott (2006), whereby Neanderthals with their Levallois technology ranged further across the landscape, with discards occurring at a wider variety of sites used for tool repair and re-provisioning, and often away from the raw material sources in the river valleys. She would argue that parts of the record are not getting incorporated into the river gravels in the valleys. This may well contribute to the pattern, but it probably doesn’t explain all the 12-fold drop in artefact density from c. 300,000 years ago to c. 200,000 years ago in the Middle Thames. If the pattern of decreasing population is correct, then there are equally interesting explanations, with humans finding it progressively more difficult to reach Britain during temperate periods after the English Channel has been created and becomes more of a barrier as it widens through time.

Europe is the focus of Chapter 8 and a return to the mission of finding the Clactonian, but this time abroad. If there is a tradition in Britain, where did it come from? The chapter is organised as a blow by blow account of each region, rather than the chronological approach adopted in the previous chapters. This organisation is not ideal, but is perhaps inevitable given the array of terminology used in different areas and often in different ways across the continent. A classic example of this is the term ‘Micoquian’ where there is little similarity in the meaning or the timing between south-west France and Germany. Other problems are also highlighted, such as the difficulty of dating many of the sites, and the not infrequent problem on non-flint rocks of distinguishing between natural and human fracture. The wide-ranging survey provides little convincing evidence of a genuine non-handaxe assemblage tradition, ie, one that survives over a good length of time within clear regional boundaries. In some areas the absence of handaxes is explained by the paucity of suitable raw material, while many of the non-handaxe sites of eastern Europe are deemed to have a greater array of flake tools than the Clactonian.

The next chapters (10 and 11) take a shift in emphasis, examining the history and political background of research into the Palaeolithic. The early years of the subject were marked by the adoption of evolutionary theory, whereby human progress could be seen through a series of incremental steps. This was exemplified by the French prehistorian de Mortillet in describing the sequences in the Somme. When Smith and Dewey in 1912 discovered cores and flakes at the bottom of the sequence at Swanscombe, and overlain by cruder pointed handaxes and then by more refined ovates, this was a clear illustration of the progress of mankind and of unilinear evolution. As McNabb notes (p265) ‘The intellectual foundations of the Clactonian as a non-handaxe assemblage type had thus been laid…’.

By the 1920s the ideas of diffusionism were gaining acceptance, mainly through the work of the Abbé Breuil. Rather than a straight progression from one technology to the next, new technological advances were introduced by new groups from elsewhere. Change was not therefore universal and allowed for the existence of different groups with different tools at the same time. By now the flakes and cores at Swanscombe and Clacton had been given a name, and the Clactonian was seen as the earliest expression of a non-handaxe tradition that eventually led to the Mousterian. This was hugely important and led to the adoption of the term elsewhere in Europe, Asia and even southern Africa, and was no longer confined to two sites in Britain. The goal now was culture history.

Blended into McNabb’s analysis of the development of the subject, is the political backdrop of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, which he argues influenced the interpretation of the day. If the nineteenth was all about empire and the progression of mankind, then the early twentieth was the competition of various political creeds, played out ultimately through the Second World War. The ideas of diffusionism were a reflection of various armies marching across Europe, with competing doctrines, cultures and societies. Many of these doctrines mis-used progressive evolution, none more so than Nazi Germany.

The horrors of the Second World War laid the foundations for the ‘New Archaeology’ of the post-war era. Europe was in tatters, empires were collapsing, and the dangers of misusing evolution were all too apparent. America, whose archaeology tended to be based in anthropology, began to increasingly influence the ideas and interpretations of the European Palaeolithic, exemplified through the work of Binford. Culture history was now tempered by the study of behaviour. Fossils and their cultural goods were overshadowed by humans with their thoughts and actions, and analysed through empirical data collection. Was this a new enlightenment unhindered by political theory. McNabb thinks not, but again was merely a reflection of society and political thinking. However, the scene was set for the reinterpretation of the Clactonian, in which McNabb played a leading role. So, what is the Clactonian?

Hold on, we’re not quite there yet. I’m not sure whether we’ve jumped backwards or forwards, but Chapter 12 is all about the contentious stones – textbook stuff on knapping, technology and typology. All very good, but what about the Clactonian?

Chapter 13 asks the long-awaited question of whether the Clactonian can be regarded as a cultural tradition. To try and answer this, McNabb builds his own ideas on culture transmission and social theory, based primarily on the ‘Social Brain’ hypothesis of Dunbar (1998) and Gamble’s (1999) theories on individuals and societies. I must confess this chapter confused me a bit, but the crux of the matter seems to be whether artefacts in the Lower Palaeolithic carry their own encoded social messages and thereby become material culture. McNabb thinks not. This does not deny the existence of culture, but simply that it doesn’t have a material expression. Given this interpretation, McNabb argues that we simply don’t have the evidence to assess whether or not the Clactonian is a cultural tradition. I’m still mystified as to where this leaves handaxes, which to me at least clearly do carry encoded messages, even if we don’t understand them.

Is that it? Well, yes, I suppose it is. From the outset McNabb declared that he did not possess the answers to the Clactonian question, but would provide the reader with the information to decide. In this he has succeeded, and he has also done far more. In essence this is three books in one – a textbook on the British Palaeolithic, a debate of the Clactonian and a review of the growing pains of a young subject. If the development of the Palaeolithic is a mirror for changing political thought over the past 150 years, this book is a reflection of the journey of one man. Setting out with a rucksack full of stones he has traversed the well-trodden paths of empiricism ending up at the gates of social theory. As McNabb would admit, he is also a child of his time.

Nick Ashton
Dept. Prehistory and Europe, British Museum

Ashton, N.M. & Lewis, S.G. 2002. Deserted Britain: declining populations in the British late Middle Pleistocene. Antiquity 76, 388-396
Dunbar, R. 1998. The Social Brain hypothesis. Evolutionary Anthropology 6, 178-190
Gamble, C. 1999. The Palaeolithic Societies of Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Scott R. 2006. The Early Middle Palaeolithic of Britain; Origins, Technology and Landscape. Unpublished Ph.D. Thesis, University of Durham

Review Submitted: December 2007

The views expressed in this review are not necessarily those of the Society or the Reviews Editor.

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