Chalkland: an archaeology of Stonehenge and its region, by Andrew Lawson
With the word Stonehenge prominent in its sub-title, and a stark image based on that iconic prehistoric monument from a painting by David Cousins on the front cover, this physically substantial and highly illustrated volume might on first glance be shelved alongside the ever-expanding library of works on Stonehenge and its landscape. But to do so would underestimate the breadth and scope of this work which is not in fact even confined to the chalklands of central southern Britain implied by the substantive title. Rather this is a geographically and chronologically wide-ranging archaeological overview of a roughly triangular area stretching from west Dorset eastwards across to West Sussex, and from the Isle of Wight northwards to the Thames Valley near Oxford. Chalk ridges and plains certainly form the backbone of the region, but snaking through the area are several important river valleys and Lawson quite rightly ranges freely across adjoining environmental zones on the perfectly reasonable grounds that past communities rarely confined their activities to landscapes formed of a single geological substrate.
Chronologically, the book spans the entire spread of human activity in the area from the Lower Palaeolithic to the twentieth century AD—from Homo heidelbergensis flint-bashing at Boxgrove half a million years ago to the armed forces square-bashing at Bulford Camp half a century ago—in nine chapters. Yet, even in a book of this size, coverage of that great swathe of time is lumpy and in places slightly disjointed. Six of the nine period-based chapters are devoted to the period from the late fifth through to the later second millennium BC, the Neolithic and Bronze Age in old money. An introductory chapter sets the scene by defining and explaining the area of interest, and outlining a brief history of archaeological enquiry in three simple phases (Antiquarian; Early twentieth century; Late twentieth century). A couple of pages discussing key sources, more than 16 pages of references, and a fairly comprehensive index provide solid supporting apparatus. A substantial appendix (22 pages) reviewing the twentieth-century excavations of round barrows in the Stonehenge landscape is incredibly useful and detailed, but sits uncomfortably with the rest of the book and feels like a piece of work prepared for another purpose that has simply been bolted on for good measure. Chapter 7, which deals with round barrows and barrow cemeteries, refers to the appendix rather infrequently and occasionally duplicates information.
Tensions can be sensed in the construction of the text right from the start. Questions that come quickly to mind before the first chapter is through include Who exactly is it for? And what is it really trying to say? Lawson tells us in the introduction that it is aimed at informed readers and that he has assumed that the reader has a basic grasp of archaeological theory and practice (p.3). Yet just a few pages on he rather patronizingly tells us that the word Palaeolithic is derived from the Greek for Old Stone Age (p.11). Elsewhere we find rather unnecessary detail about the calibration of radiocarbon dates—standard fare in the first session of most university extra-mural courses on archaeology let alone anything more advanced—but we are never explicitly told which calibration programme was used during the compilation of the book. Oxygen Isotope Stages and all that they imply are portrayed simply as sub-divisions of the Quaternary Period (p.11), yet the classification of Beaker pottery is meticulously tracked through every twist and turn in its study from Thurnam through Abercromby to Piggott and then to the more recent work of Clarke, Case, and Needham (pp.142–5). The last of these has condemned most earlier accounts to the dustbin of archaeological history and would have been enough on its own. Like Colt Hoare before him, Lawson speaks from facts not theory. His account is unashamedly grounded in data, revealing in the introduction that this book is more a description of the archaeological evidence than an examination of archaeological theory accepting that while this might be considered a rather old-fashioned approach, I think it essential to know some fundamental facts before seeking a higher level of interpretation (pp.2–3). Again like his antiquarian forebears, especially John Lubbock, Lawson is happy to draw in ethnography to help illuminate the past, especially his own experiences in northern Mongolia. Thus Tsagaan reindeer herders appear alongside discussions of the upper Palaeolithic of Wessex, while stock enclosures in Hövsgöl province are used to illustrate the archaeological residues of nomadic lifestyles in relation to the kind of pastoralism suggested by Andrew Fleming and others for the British early Bronze Age. His research interest in horses, and love of horse-riding, provides another useful perspective that supports the increasing recognition that using horses for transport was intimately connected with the spread of Beaker pottery and long distance movements of population at the time, well evidenced by the Amesbury Archer who himself might conceivably have been a casualty in an early riding accident.
Stonehenge of course forms a leitmotif running through the whole book. It is approached and incorporated at three levels. First, the monument itself is discussed in a series of special sections that are printed with a light grey toned background to make them stand out. These tell the story of Stonehenge following the conventional architecturally-driven phasing of the monument. Most of the highlighted sections are stand-alone pieces placed in the text at an appropriate point. Rather irritatingly, the main text flows past them but the toning is so subtle that in low light the sudden break is less than clear. Chapter 6 is entirely devoted to Stonehenge and deals with the later Phase 3 monument that is still visible in decayed form on the site today. A second Stonehenge strand concerns the place of the monument in its wider landscape context through later prehistory and beyond, always there and unlike many archaeological sites never really discovered in the conventional sense of being unearthed. Thirdly, is a concern with tourism at Stonehenge, and its conservation and management over the last century or so. Again, it is all solid descriptive stuff but Table 10 usefully reminds us just how many of the familiar stones at the site were straightened, re-erected, moved, or replaced during the consolidation works between 1901 and 1964.
The great strength of Chalkland is undoubtedly its accounts of excavations in the region. Many of these, especially those relating to prehistory, have become type-sites for understanding monuments across large parts of the British Isles. Many too were excavated by Wessex Archaeology or its forebear Trust for Wessex Archaeology which Lawson directed between 1983 and 2003. It is a great credit to the company and the skill of its employees that so much new material has come to light through the kind of rigorous contract archaeology that they pioneered in the region. In every chapter the key sites chosen for consideration are identified with a bold-face heading and there is useful information about when a site was investigated and by whom. The archaeological evidence for each site is well summarised and discussed, and, rather importantly, set very clearly within its wider context. In many cases this involves looking beyond Wessex to other parts of the British Isles and the near continent. All of this material is well researched, up-to-date, and clearly unfolded. Many of the sites discussed are illustrated with plans and photographs, some from published sources but many it seems from the archives of Wessex Archaeology and the authors personal collection. Some are conventional, some perhaps a little indulgent, but all are useful in their own way. Many are also great fun in the sense that they add a very personal touch to the business of excavation that is often lacking in polished academic site reports. Ann Ellison and Richard Bradley excavating the ditch at Rams Hill in 1972, Julian Richards at the North Kite with Martin Bell and Roy Entwistle in 1983, and Stuart Piggott sitting on a stone at The Sanctuary in 1985 amused this reviewer, but there are many other familiar faces and distinctive profiles scattered through the images for people-watchers to identify.
Overall, Chalkland is neither a textbook nor an analysis of the evidence that provides much new insight. It is certainly a substantial and valuable account of a large body of archaeological material, but the sense it makes of the many excavations and surveys that it describes says more about the process of archaeology than it does about the past that it is trying to recreate. One cant help feeling that there are several books and papers between the covers of this volume all struggling to get out: an account of Stonehenge; an overview of Wessex archaeology; a study of barrows and their users; and a celebration of the success of late twentieth century archaeology in the Wessex region, especially the huge contribution by Wessex Archaeology over the last 30 years or so. A stronger editorial hand and a clearer vision of who the intended audience is would have improved the content and focus of this book immeasurably. Even so, there is much here that many will find useful. As a quarry for pertinent information about a host of landmark sites and landscape surveys this book will no doubt be referred to often. It is neatly designed, well produced, and priced competitively in both hard and paper covers. Having now compiled what amounts to the bumper-book of Wessex archaeology it is to be hoped that Andrew Lawson will turn his attention to releasing and developing some of the intriguing and original material trapped in the pages of the present volume.
Review submitted: December 2008
The views expressed in this review are not necessarily those of the Society or the Reviews Editor.
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