Avebury: the Biography of a Landscape by JOSHUA POLLARD & ANDREW REYNOLDS
Tempus 2002, 288 pages, 115 b/w figures, 25 colour plates. ISBN 0-7524-1957-9 pb. (£18.99)

Monuments of the British Neolithic: the roots of architecture by MILES RUSSELL
Tempus 2002, 192 pages, 100 b/w figures, 26 colour plates. ISBN 0-7524-1953-6 pb. (£17.99)

A Zest for Life: the Story of Alexander Keiller by LYNDA J MURRAY
Morven Books 1999, 134 pages, 56 b/w figures. ISBN 0-9536039-0-3 pb. (£9.99)

SRAE demands at university, and the absence of archaeology in the English school curriculum, appear to discourage those who know most about prehistoric Britain from writing for those who know least. Many archaeologists, even some proclaiming the importance of reaching a wide public, instinctively dislike books that follow a populist rather than academic agenda. Yet here are three books aimed at a non-specialist market, two written by university academics and one by an amateur, of potential interest to readers of a deeply specialist website. This is an exciting time for archaeological publication.

The publishing house Tempus, responsible for two of these volumes, is an important player, with a stock list approaching its second hundred in less than five years. With such a prolific output, and as their archaeological publisher has recently written, a dearth of ‘appropriate authors’ (Kemmis Betty 2002, 1054), perhaps there are bound to be a few lacklustre titles. On the other hand, there are already some substantial classics, among them Ian Stead’s Salisbury Hoard, Martin Green’s Landscape Revealed and Ann Woodward’s British Barrows. And here is yet another to delight the prehistorian.

Pollard and Reynolds, authors of Avebury: the Biography of a Landscape, have the right qualifications for the job: hands-on knowledge of local archaeology and history acquired through survey and excavation over several years, and active engagement nationally with leading theory and research. The benefits are clear throughout the book, but an example will illustrate the point. A discussion of the early Neolithic environment blends well-known work in the upper Kennet valley by John Evans, Alasdair Whittle and others (‘much of the Avebury landscape was covered by closed, oak-dominated deciduous woodland, making it difficult to perceive the subtle details of topography so evident today’), with a review of ideas about natural clearings, and the practical and other uses of woodland (‘Trees ... could provide a rich source of symbolic meaning’). It’s only a page and a half, but it is a good introduction to the issues and the literature, useful to the essay-writing student as much as a senior archaeologist trying to keep up, yet likely to appeal also to the more casual reader.

When such an approach is pursued consistently for an entire book the outcome is more than an intelligent review, valuable though this is. Here we have also an informed creative essay that inspires new ideas and will underpin much future research. This, it seems to me, is where Peter Kemmis Betty’s publishing project scores most, when professional archaeologists, writing for a lay readership, advance thinking in ways that would not have happened if they addressed only their academic colleagues.

Never before, for example, has the dating problem emerged so clearly. One is constantly reminded how poor the chronology of Neolithic and Bronze Age Avebury is, even for the major monuments, for which one example will suffice: the West Kennet enclosures.

By the high standards set for Stonehenge (Allen & Bayliss 1995), all of the West Kennet radiocarbon dates would be rejected if no further data could be made available. More information is needed on chemical and other processing, quality assurance, precise sample provenances (eg CAR-1294 and CAR-1295, 3620±70 BP and 4050±70 BP respectively, are from adjacent ‘postpipe cores’) and sample details (CAR-1294 and CAR-1295 are described as ‘bone samples’, but species, element, condition and state of articulation are not stated).

Whittle found the wide span of dates (around 750-1000 calibrated years) ‘wholly at odds with the lack of other indications for longevity and development’ (1997, 138). Here Pollard, while recognising that recent cropmark evidence suggests a slightly more complex history at the site, similarly finds no ‘grounds for assuming a particularly long sequence of construction and use’ (page 115). It doesn’t help that several dates at the more extreme ends of the range come from apparently contemporary contexts (as the two above). At least until further data on these determinations are made available, the enclosures will remain dated by artefacts and not radiocarbon, a most unsatisfactory position.

Another reason for professional interest in this book is that both authors describe research not yet fully published. So we have a review of the continuing Beckhampton excavations, a new geophysical plot of a probable early Iron Age enclosures at West Overton, and a convincing revision of the early history of Avebury village, with extensive information on the still unpublished school site excavation by Faith Vatcher.

The text is easy to read (if not immune to occasional lapses: you don’t etch a canvas; ‘scholarly research’ doesn’t have shoulders to ‘rest on’), and the illustrations, almost all previously unpublished, are almost worth the price of the book alone.

From a potential classic to one that will soon be forgotten. The best one can say of Monuments of the British Neolithic is that building a backlist of excellence involves risks, and if sometimes the gamble fails, that is perhaps the price we pay. As a professional writer of both books and book reviews I know how much easier it is to criticise than to praise, and that criticism can hurt. I do not knock lightly, and must justify my opinion. This is far from Russell’s first book: if he listens to counsel, and focuses his evident energy and enthusiasm with more thought, we might all be the richer.

It’s difficult to know where to start: even the old stand-by of summarising the book is a challenge. What is it about? Russell opens with the less than eloquent assertion that ‘The Neolithic ... represents the most fundamental period of change ever to occur within the history of human society ... [T]he end of human reliance upon solely the hunting and gathering of foodstuffs and the origins of farming ... [mark] the origin of the modern world’.

His first colour plate illustrates the theme. It shows a public sculpture in Moscow, ‘originally constructed as a monument to the Soviet state, in reality commemorat[ing] a much earlier revolution than that of 1917; intensive farming, industrial production and the building of monuments were all fundamental aspects of the Neolithic’.

These extraordinary statements (the Neolithic an era of ‘intensive farming’ and ‘industrial production’, apparently leading directly to ‘the modern world’: surely Russell does not actually mean to say that the Soviet statue was designed to celebrate the Neolithic) are not explained or defended. But then it hardly seems to matter, as the rest of the book considers Neolithic earthworks, palisades and standing stones with little reference to either the ancient ‘revolution’ or the present. There are occasional hints of a thesis trying to escape. If I may be so bold, I suggest this is grounded in an unease with the dominant model of Neolithic Britain, in which population ‘invasions’ and a sedentary economy with causewayed enclosures as settlements, finds small support (notwithstanding Russell’s’ belief that ‘Neolithic society is usually thought of as being sedentary’). This widely accepted model has been developed over decades, with many well-argued, thoughtful texts. Intelligent critique would be welcome, so Russell’s failure to deliver is doubly frustrating. Even a clear, well-referenced summary of the status quo would have been valuable, if only to get the reader up to speed: to give a further example, he writes as if no one had before noticed a similarity between barrow and house plans (I recommend Avebury: the Biography of a Landscape as an excellent introduction to current thinking).

‘Why?’, he asks in the Introduction (a question that stuck in my mind to the end). Why farming? ‘The vast majority of the world’s population today ... buy their food ... from supermarket shelves... It is almost as if [there were] ... two very different species of human: ... the industrialised agriculturalist who largely dominates the planet [and]... the hunter-gatherer’.

I suspect few but a reviewer would read further than such nonsense (if Russell got out a bit more he might find significant areas of the world with no supermarkets; or just try the internet, where Google lists 28,400 websites featuring “subsistence farming”). Sadly the reward for continued reading is more nonsense.

Strangely for someone with a poor sense of English, Russell seems obsessed with jargon. He rejects ‘barrow’ in favour of ‘structured mound’, because barrow ‘implies a burial or funerary function, something which should not be taken for granted’ (although the Oxford Dictionary allows several definitions of barrow as no more than a mound). The emphasis on the scarcity of human remains in long barrows is challenged by the many ‘case studies’, almost all of which consist of long barrows with human remains: an apparent contradiction that goes without comment.

Jargon paranoia takes flight when he comes to henges. He professes a ‘severe objection’ to ‘cursus’, ‘bank barrow’ and ‘henge’, informing us that such terms are ‘largely meaningless’ (we are not told why). He rounds up no less than 15 such hated names in the following paragraph. Yet he then uses them, framed in quotation marks, in his discussion. Either these categories exist or they don’t. As Russell manages several pages describing them, presumably, for him at least, they do. So why irritate the reader with meaningless posturing? Perhaps there is, buried inside Monuments of the British Neolithic, an intelligent, provocative book. It is, however, up to the author to deliver this work, not us, to extract it from the present text.

So back to Avebury, and another good read. Two of the great regional fieldworkers who dominated the early 20th century development of archaeology have at last received their first biographical treatments - none too late, as the two authors use interviews with people who have since died. Maud Cunnington (1869-1951) and Alexander Keiller (1889-1955) both worked in Wiltshire, and though the man was 20 years younger than the woman, their most active years were the 1920s and ‘30s, and both did little of archaeological significance after the outbreak of the 2nd World War. Julia Roberts’ ‘reassessment’ of Cunnington’s life is motivated by a perceived need to correct misunderstandings (Roberts 2002), while Lynda Murray’s self-published biography (A Zest for Life: the Story of Alexander Keiller) is less righteous and more subtle, and perhaps the better for it.

Poor Keiller. He may have been born into wealth, but he suffered a childhood few would envy: both parents dead before he left school, a lone child incarcerated in Eton, he was only 9 when his father passed away overseas. Could this be one reason why his career seems to be a succession of confrontations, from his first publication on Scottish witchcraft that set out to rubbish a book by Margaret Murray, to his attempt to remove the stone circles at Avebury of the village that cared so little for its inheritance? The Windmill Hill excavations originated in a protest against the Marconi wireless company, and became a fight with Harold St George Gray; Keiller struggled to found a museum at Stonehenge, eventually giving in to pressure from the Cunningtons, only to reach a near-manic level of anger over their excavation of the Sanctuary; and the implement petrology programme, which he helped to found, was an opportunity to rail against backward-looking museums that didn’t want their stone axes sliced up.

He also, we learn, could be extremely rude to visitors to his excavations, and to his own staff. Yet he was clearly a popular man, fielding four wives and an unknown number of mistresses, receiving praise and thanks as well as complaints from the hapless W E V Young, who variously worked for Gray, Keiller and the Cunningtons. His charisma and energy added vision to his archaeological disputes, so that his excavations, his work with O G S Crawford on Wessex from the Air and his restorations at Avebury all benefited the profession and a wider public.

In her delightful little book, Murray writes with a dry sense of humour. Keiller liked to send friends personalised Christmas cards. In 1928 they received a photo of Felstead, the dog skeleton from Windmill Hill, and the following year of Duffine, the goat: ‘interesting (though not terribly festive)’ she notes. She has unearthed much that is new, and knows when to curb speculation. On one occasion Keiller wrote ecstatically to Stuart Piggott about a man he’d met in a London hotel: ‘His eyes are lustrous, and I am told he sews divinely’. ‘The remarks are on the whole cryptic’, comments Murray, ‘but suggest ... that he was not indifferent to all of his male associates’.

Murray is interested in Keiller’s many cars, and the detail on these is a bonus that might not have graced a more conventional archaeological biography. On the other hand, her archaeology is not always right. For example, in the early 1900s three, not four, West Kennet Avenue stones ‘remained upright’: the fourth was re-erected by Maud Cunnington in 1912 (page 70). Young had not worked for the Cunningtons at Woodhenge (1926-8) and the Sanctuary (1930) before Keiller at Windmill Hill (1925) (footnote 65a). The suggestion that the East Kennet long barrow was bombed in 1940 (page 104) sent me to W E V Young’s diaries, where I learnt that in fact it was the field between the barrow and the road that suffered.

Such things, however, are likely to be noticed by those archaeologists to whom they really matter. There is enough here to make this one of the more rewarding recent archaeological biographies. The book is pleasantly laid out, with many well-selected photos, and a continuously-numbered footnote system that is today easy to do but rarely seen.

Keiller made much of his scientific methods and his modern equipment, but it was mostly show. Instructive comparisons can be made between Keiller and Mortimer Wheeler, on the one hand, and Cunnington and Cecil Curwen on the other. Keiller and Wheeler both insisted on straight, tidy trenches. One of Wheeler’s great contributions was to develop Pitt Rivers’ theory of stratigraphy. Keiller, however, dug in horizontal spits, making his comprehensive, even obsessive finds recovery almost meaningless (Hamilton & Whittle 1999, 42). Despite Keiller’s famous protestations to the contrary, and notwithstanding his more expensive equipment, Robert Cunnington’s surveys seem every bit as accurate.

Yet neither was Maud Cunnington perfect. The young Stuart Piggott visited the Windmill Hill excavations and returned, deeply impressed, to the Neolithic enclosure on the Trundle, West Sussex. The effect is clear from Curwen’s photos. Before Piggott’s Wiltshire visit we see a Cunnington-like excavation, where modern surfaces gently elide with what may, or may not, be Neolithic fill or a ditch bottom; after, we are in Keiller territory, everything clean, straight and neat. By the mid 1930s Cunnington’s style of excavation was archaic. Curwen possessed a vision and a literary fluency that Cunnington did not have (and, perhaps because of the number of flint mines in Sussex, he recognised and valued flint artefacts). Both Cunnington and Curwen, however, were highly efficient publishers of their work. It is surely wrong to describe Keiller, with his appalling publication record, as ‘very modern’ (Roberts 2002, 55).

With these two biographies, it is time to stop bickering. Cunnington and Keiller were quite different personalities with different goals. Both made substantial contributions to the history of Wiltshire and to public engagement with its ancient past. For this we should all be thankful.

Mike Pitts

Allen, M.J. & Bayliss, A. 1995. The radiocarbon dating programme. In Cleal, R.M.J., Walker, K.E.W., and Montague, R.E., Stonehenge in its Landscape: Twentieth Century Excavations. London: English Heritage, 511-35.
Hamilton, M & Whittle, A 1999. Grooved Ware of the Avebury area: style, contexts and meanings. In Cleal, R. & MacSween, A. (eds), Grooved Ware in Britain and Ireland. Oxford: Oxbow Books, 36-47.
Kemmis Betty, P. 2002. Anyone for writing? Antiquity 76, 1054-8.
Roberts, J. 2002. ‘That terrible woman’: the life, work and legacy of Maud Cunnington. Wiltshire Archaeological & Natural History Magazine 95, 46-62.
Whittle, A. 1997. Sacred Mound, Holy Rings. Silbury Hill & the West Kennet Palisade Enclosures: a Later Neolithic Complex in North Wiltshire. Oxford: Oxbow Monograph 74.

Review Submitted: February 2004

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

Home Page The Prehistoric Society Home Page