From Stonehenge to the Baltic: Living with Cultural Diversity in the Third Millennium BC, edited by Mats Larsson and Mike Parker Pearson
The best conference sessions provide interesting and serendipitous juxtapositions of approaches and data-sets. That sense of contingency may be lost in edited volumes where papers are selected and arranged to create a sense of unity. It is both a strength and a weakness of this book that four different groups of papers from a conference held in Sheffield in 2006 are brought together without spurious attempts to impose an overall unity (other than the 3rd millennium timespan). The advantage is that events in Britain are set alongside unrelated but broadly contemporary developments in Scandinavia, providing some interesting parallels and differences for the reader to pick out. For example, the use of stable isotope data to study human diet among the Pitted Ware Culture (PWC) in the Baltic region (Lidén & Eriksson) and Neolithic and Bronze Age populations in East Yorkshire and Scotland (Montgomery et al. and Jay & Richards) provides a contrast between the distinctly marine diet of PWC people, living alongside different cultures with a terrestrial diet, and the lack of a marine component in the diets of British populations, whether coastal or terrestrial. In both cases it appears there may be cultural reasons underlying dietary choices—though these are not discussed in any detail. This points to the weakness of the volume, which is that many of the papers are short summaries or interim reports, tending to whet the appetite rather than provide full results and conclusions. The Scandinavian section is also brief in comparison with the discussion of the British material, which rather imbalances the volume, while the light editorial hand extends to variations in the use of certain terminology (eg, whether the Funnel Beaker Culture is abbreviated as TRB or FBC), the quality of the figures and the number of typos.
The first group of papers, covering material culture diversity in the Baltic, actually focuses on south-east Sweden, apart from a contribution by Lars Larsson summarising recent work on the Battle Axe Culture (BAC) in Denmark. Mats Larsson describes a number of Middle Neolithic ritual sites with structures and deposits somewhat reminiscent of contemporary British sites, though without sufficient detail for the reader to set against the later discussion of the Stonehenge monuments, and Alexandersson discusses the use of lithic raw materials equally briefly. The most substantial contributions, however, concern the PWC, with original research on stable isotopes (Lidén & Eriksson) and pottery (Papmehl-Dufay). These papers complement each other and show the value of grounding scientific data in the complexities of material culture remains. In clearly demonstrating the differences between the diets of PWC and BAC or TRB populations, the isotope study takes the PWC as essentially a homogeneous entity, while the ceramics paper, which considers various aspects of production and consumption, argues for a more complex and diverse society with an elaborate and socially embedded ceramic craft tradition.
The next group of papers deals with the British Beaker People Project, and again mixes important new scientific data (dietary strontium isotopes in east Yorkshire discussed by Montgomery et al.; carbon and nitrogen isotopes among Scottish and Yorkshire Beaker burials discussed by Jay & Richards; and dental microwear among the Scottish Beaker group by Mahoney) with more interpretative and synthetic discussions by Needham, Gibson & Sheridan. However, the value of the scientific work for developing social interpretations remains unclear, especially as only the Yorkshire pilot study is complete—though the results are interesting in suggesting the development of more regular or formalised patterns of human and/or livestock movement in the Early Bronze Age compared to the Neolithic. The implications of this insight are not discussed in the interpretative papers, though as with the PWC contributions their stress on the complexity of the Beaker issue offers a counterpoint to scientific and statistical approaches which seek to produce distinct and homogeneous groups of results. Needhams contribution is an engagement with the problem of understanding the varying origins and legacies of Beakers in different areas of north-west Europe, and how this might be explained in terms of social processes of immigration, interaction (including marriage) and exchange. Gibson, meanwhile, provides a timely review of the complexity of burial practices found in this period, showing that the traditional model of complete inhumations in individual graves overlooks a variety of complex behaviours involving excarnation, exhumation and incomplete interments, which undermine the traditional distinction from earlier collective burial practices. Finally, Sheridan reviews radiocarbon dates for Scottish Beaker and identifies a number of burials of possible early immigrants, as well as the variety of contexts in which typologically early AOC Beakers have been found; while the quality audit of the existing dates is extremely valuable, the study lacks a Bayesian model that may help to constrain the date ranges with greater certainty.
The third group of papers delivers the Stonehenge element of the volume, with a series of preliminary reports and other papers arising from the Stonehenge Riverside Projects recent fieldwork. The results from Durrington Walls described by Parker Pearson & Thomas, with a flint-surfaced avenue and intensive occupation by the eastern entrance, as well as isolated enclosures within the monument, present an important revision to our understanding of activity at the large Wessex henges—though most of the remains in fact predate the construction of the henge bank, which has in part aided their preservation. Of particular interest is the largest group of Grooved Ware houses found outside Orkney (and their resemblance in plan to the structures from Skara Brae); it seems plausible that this occupation has something to do with the construction of Stonehenge, though Parker Pearsons contention that the Durrington settlement is precisely contemporary with the sarsen phase at Stonehenge remains to be proven. The resemblances and differences between Stonehenge and its timber counterparts at Durrington and Woodhenge (the latter site discussed by Pollard & Robinson) are also covered, and though none of the authors draw firm conclusions as to the nature of the relationship there are suggestions of both complementarity, eg, the similarity in plan of Stonehenge and the Southern Circle at Durrington Walls, and sequence, eg, the idea that Woodhenge was a later imitation of the Stonehenge layout, while the subsequent addition of stones and henge bank turned it into a different kind of monument altogether.
Stonehenge itself is discussed in a stimulating paper by Tilley et al. that covers not only the spatial organisation of the stone circle but also its siting in a landscape of rivers, coombes and other monuments. The authors conclude, plausibly if perhaps a little contradictorily, that Stonehenge was a monument built to be seen rather than to look out from, but that it may never have achieved the final complete form that is often shown in reconstructions: it may always have been open to the north-east, much as it survives today.
The Stonehenge section is rounded out with short contributions on units of measurement that can be recognised in the size and layout of some of these monuments (Chamberlain & Parker Pearson), a topic which it is good to see receiving serious discussion again; a possible ethnographic parallel for this kind of sacred space from Siberia (Grøn & Kosko); and a discussion of phallic objects in the British Neolithic (Teather) which it would be inappropriate to describe as stimulating ...
The final section essentially complements the Stonehenge papers with brief reports on recent work in the landscape of two other World Heritage Sites at Brú na Bóinne (Brady) and Orkney (Card et al.); of particular interest in the latter is the indication from geophysics and excavations of up to 2m of stratigraphy on the Ness of Brodgar isthmus, comprising structures, middens and deep midden-enhanced soils.
The unevenness of this volume in terms of the coverage of different regions, the length and detail of the individual papers and the discussion of results is occasionally frustrating but it serves to provide a sense of the immediacy of current discussion of the 3rd millennium BC, especially in Britain; the recent Prehistoric Society conference on the British Chalcolithic is another case in point. The reader has the feeling of being immersed in a vibrant debate that is throwing up all sorts of questions as new datasets emerge from excavation and scientific analysis. That this book will no doubt be out of date in a few years time, when final reports are available, is simply testament to the significance of much of the work described here.
Review submitted: June 2008
The views expressed in this review are not necessarily those of the Society or the Reviews Editor.
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