Neolithic and Bronze Age Landscapes of Cumbria, by Helen Evans
I harbour a slight scepticism of Ph.D theses turned into BAR reports, as they are often badly edited and presented, with passages of mind-boggling theoretical text juxtaposed with tables of indecipherable data, accompanied by grainy line drawings and images. If the report is on prehistoric landscapes, and was part of a Ph.D submitted at Sheffield, then it is likely to be written in a language only those who religiously attend TAG can understand, while making allusions to poetry and the landscape aesthetic. The Neolithic and Bronze Age Landscapes of Cumbria is, therefore, a welcome surprise.
The study begins with a revisit to R.G. Collingwoods 1933 review of prehistoric studies in the counties of Cumberland, Westmorland and Lancashire-north-of-the-Sands (modern-day Cumbria), and his call for a revival of research in this area. As one notes the references, and their dates, throughout this book, one can clearly see that only a notable few have rallied to Robin Collingwoods call in the intervening 75 years.
Following a shake-down tour of the countys geography and prehistoric archaeology, the study presents a critical yet thorough examination of the existing palaeoenvironmental, artefactual, and monumental record, highlighting self-perpetuating presumptions that have been instrumental in interpretations of the prehistoric occupation of Cumbria. This said, many past interpretations have failed to address the real essence of occupation at all, as beyond the large stone circles and stone axe production, the county has merely been seen as an inconveniently mountainous routeway between Ireland, Yorkshire, southern England and Scotland.
There is a substantial lithics record from the county, although the vast majority are from unstratified contexts and cannot be closely dated (the largest excavated assemblage is not published and not accessible). Diagnostic pieces are rare, and the material has been viewed in relation to elsewhere, rather than within a local technological tradition. Microliths have traditionally been seen purely as part of a late Mesolithic industry, whereas the tradition certainly continues into the early Neolithic in Cumbria.
The monumental building tradition is fraught with chronological uncertainty and schemes of classification within which many monuments have been forced, often from precursary external surveys of denuded structures. There are many cairns of many types (long cairns, round cairns, funerary cairns, summit cairns, ringcairns (large and classic) and clearance cairns), and it is not always clear which are which. Even studies of the great stone circles are not without presumption and projection, and the traits that have been utilised to classify and date these monuments are flawed, and sometimes even imaginary. The majority of the evidence for funerary practice comes from antiquarian excavations, and consequently unrepresentative and poorly recorded. The evidence, where available, does suggest that funerary rites were complex, and extended over a broad chronological period, with most sites revealing numerous phases of deposition and construction.
Although Cumbrians do sometimes have a propensity to moan, one begins to understand why so few have acted on Robin Collingwoods call to prehistoric arms.
Evans advocates a landscape approach, seeing these monuments as just part of monumental complexes, rather than individual dots on maps or plans to be slotted into classification typologies. The long cairns, putative enclosures, and larger stone circles are located within central catchment areas for wider dispersed communities, involved in seasonal movement. Many of these look out to specific points within the wider landscape, and have close relationships with natural routeways, valleys, rivers and estuaries. The increase in smaller, circular monuments in the later Neolithic and Bronze Age, often in groups, marks a shift away from wider community identity towards increasingly localised expression of occupation and tenure. Natural features and water sources remain strongly associated with these monuments, however, and the use of site location, architecture, building materials, and human remains all served as references to the past and statements of identity within the present.
This is an over simplification on my behalf, and to the authors credit she celebrates the diversity of monument traditions within the county, rather than forcing them all into a single overall plan. A case study from the Furness Peninsula details the rich artefactual and monumental record available from this little-studied area, where a programme of fieldwalking, artefact collection and small-scale excavation has been ongoing for some years. There are still, however, presumptions of date for many sites. While some of the enclosure sites cited may have a Neolithic origin, not one can be proven to date from this period.
Overall, the research can indeed claim to be holistic, with a significant part of the archaeological record examined and interpreted. An increasingly significant body of survey data for both the Cumbrian coastal plain and uplands now exists, and this study examines this data in terms of occupation and local identity, while distancing itself from the purely economic and functional interpretations utilised in the past. There is significantly less consideration of ceramics than flint, although that is obviously the nature of survival and retrieval of archaeological material, and is made clear from the outset. While the chapter on burial practices is an excellent examination of the evidence, and the section on stone circles a considerable improvement on the popular texts available, the section on the smaller monuments and cairns remains problematic. The typology is at times confusing, and the reasons for the differences and diversification are not truly examined. These failings are not solely the fault of the author, but largely down to the difficulties of chronology, and real shortage of excavation data. Overall, the conclusions struggle a little where chronological data is lacking, and while they weave a theoretically informed tale of seasonal movement, local identity, landscape, tenure and social change, at times we are presented with more of a hard natural landscape, and less of a social one.
While the occasional appearance of transformative portals and routine temporalities occur in the text, it is largely readable and free from theoretical jargon. This is not a text book, or a guide book, and if anything at times lacks a continuous narrative within. The work is clearly well researched and presented, however, and represents by far the most up-to-date synthesis on Cumbrian prehistoric studies. It is not the final story, but represents a strong springboard for future studies. It is perhaps a poor reflection on the archaeological community that following Collingwoods 1933 review, so few studies have followed, and most of those are pre-1990. Only now are we objectively assessing the archaeological record, past methodologies, and identifying new directions of research at a regional scale, celebrating the local diversity of the archaeological record. Evans is to be congratulated on beginning to redress the imbalance.
Collingwood, R.G., 1933. An Introduction to the Prehistory of Cumberland, Westmorland and Lancashire-North-of-the-Sands, Transactions of the Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian and Archaeological Society 33, 163–200
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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