Going Over. The Mesolithic-Neolithic Transition in North-West Europe, edited by Alasdair Whittle and Vicki Cummings
This volume was produced following a very successful British Academy conference in Cardiff. It is very thick and very heavy and packed full of detailed papers, providing a superb overview of recent data, methods and theories which are currently being used in studies of the Mesolithic-Neolithic transition, and covering many different countries and case studies.
The volume is largely arranged geographically and contains papers on the Western Mediterranean, Iberia, Central Europe, France, Belgium, Netherlands, Britain, Ireland, and Scandinavia. These provide clear overviews of the material, the dating and the theories on the Neolithisation process in each area and it is particularly interesting to compare the different approaches taken in different countries.
Another set of papers within the volume present the most up-to-date scientific methods being employed to address some of the key issues in the study of Neolithisation. For example, Alex Bentleys work which examines mobility and diversity in the Linearbandkeramik shows how detailed isotopic work on tooth enamel from southern Germany can be used to suggest some degree of migration between groups and social differences within communities. Similarly, Richard Evershed presents some of the most recent breakthroughs in molecular and isotopic research although this paper does not relate to specific case studies. Ruth Bollingino and Joachim Burger provide a detailed analysis of ancient mitochondrial data on cattle and auroch across Europe demonstrating that a difference between wild and domestic species can be identified. And this links well with a paper by Anne Tresset and Jean-Denis Vigne on the study of domestication and diffusion of animals through faunal remains. The extent of usage of domesticated plants is investigated by Amy Bogaard and Glynis Jones through the comparison of archaeobotanical data from Britain and central Europe.
Perhaps one of the most critical scientific methods for understanding the transition and the rate of change is the use of radiocarbon dating and refinement of chronologies. The Bayesian approach to dating the transition, carried out by Alasdair Whittle and Alex Bayliss in recent years has been fundamental in providing better chronologies to work with (see for example Bayliss & Whittle 2007; Whittle et al. 2008). The paper by Alasdair Whittle in this volume provides a convincing argument for the value of such an approach and some results for causewayed enclosures are given which not only set a start date for these sorts of monuments, but can also detail the stages in which they were built and how long these took.
There are also some themed papers in the volume which take a look at houses, bodies and tombs (Richard Bradley), Mesolithic to Neolithic modes of thought (Alan Barnard), and sensory experiences and the experience of landscape (Chris Tilley). The latter two papers examine how different Mesolithic people might have been to Neolithic people. Tilley even goes as far as saying that the Neolithic was a sensory revolution. From the perspective of someone who specialises in the Mesolithic it is felt that this paper presents a somewhat negative and rather limited view of the Mesolithic, which does not take into account changes through time, variety in social practices and environmental regional diversity. And, indeed at the conference itself, Graeme Warren identified that the majority of papers at the conference seemed to be from the Neolithic perspective of having gone over with little thought to the Mesolithic. Warrens paper is in fact the only one which is mainly concerned with the Mesolithic and in this he stresses how important it is to understand what life was like in the late Mesolithic in order to understand what is meant by going over. However, Alasdair Whittle in his paper states that it remains a considerable weakness that we still have so little detailed information about the sequence of development in the Late Mesolithic in southern Britain (page 379) and perhaps this should actually be expanded to encompass a much wider area: certainly there is a significant lack of sites and dates for the 5th millennium cal. BC in Britain as a whole.
This is perhaps an important message which can be taken from the volume and hopefully will lead to further research in the late Mesolithic. It should also be possible to stop creating a division between the Mesolithic and Neolithic periods and instead work through it as a period of time which encompasses the transition, ie, for Britain, the last half of the 5th millennium and first half of the 4th millennium cal. BC.
Another key point is that the editors do not claim that the volume as a whole presents a new consensus on the Mesolithic-Neolithic transition in North West Europe. One of the particularly interesting aspects of the volume is the debate on the process of change. There were some strong discussions at the conference itself, and the volume includes these views, particularly on the colonisation model and indigenous perspectives (see eg, papers by Alison Sheridan and Julian Thomas). What seems to emerge from the volume is the feeling that the process of Neolithisation was messy, complex and varies regionally.
Overall, this volume has been beautifully produced and carefully edited. It is useful for the researcher, but equally will be invaluable for students who wish to study this fascinating period of time.
Bayliss, A. & Whittle, A. (eds.), 2007. Histories of the dead: building chronologies for five southern British long barrows. Cambridge Archaeological Journal 17 (1).
Review submitted: September 2008
The views expressed in this review are not necessarily those of the Society or the Reviews Editor.
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