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Mesolithic Britain and Ireland; new approaches, edited by Chantal Conneller and Graeme Warren
Tempus, Stroud, 2006, 224 pages; 34 illustrations and plates; ISBN 0-7524-3734-8 (£19.99)

The book is an edited volume of seven broadly themed chapters, which are reviewed in turn as follows. In a chapter on technology by Graham Warren, case studies are used to examine the relationship of society and technology in the Mesolithic rather than the artefactual evidence per se. The author suggests our modern concept of technology may hinder our understanding of Mesolithic views of objects. Graeme Warren examines existing approaches to assemblages and the micro versus macro-scale approaches used. Theoretical discussion is exemplified with examination of, for instance, bevel-ended tools and discusses how with even simple tools the mechanics and networks of raw material provision and manufacture are complex and as such can provide greater information on society and use of the landscape than we usually attempt to glean. Case studies are presented for progressively larger scales of study: of barbed antler point manufacture at Star Carr, deposition of stone tools in Ireland and a consideration of ‘fracture and combination’ or use of composite tools in Britain as a whole. He examines choice and handling of material, knowledge of material properties, use, deliberate deposition and the relationship of these tools to people’s wider view of the natural world.

'Gender and Personhood’ by Nyree Finlay begins with a theory-based narrative on gender. A consideration of the assignment of artefactual remains and the activities they represent to specific gender follows and the assumptions made on roles related to gender and age from necessarily flawed application of modern ethnographic analogy are questioned. Finlay refers to a tradition of ‘boys and arrows’ narratives for the Mesolithic period, but also rightly suggests that often gender is not considered at all for many sites. The author discusses Mount Sandel as one of the few sites where more explicit statements have been made on gender roles and division of labour where he questions their validity.

The history of subsistence studies for the Mesolithic is reviewed by Nicky Milner and she author suggests that the basic approach has evolved little since the seminal work of Clark at Star Carr, despite the advent of potentially exciting techniques such as stable isotope, usewear and residue analyses. Milner suggests that many new approaches might be taken to food and society, and she highlights the importance of its sourcing, preparation and consumption in societal organisation. Rather than considering the Mesolithic as one amorphous period, with evidence of diet used as a set forming a whole that did not apply to any one group, the author encourages a consideration of regional and temporal changes in consumption. Thought is also given to seasonality and the problems of the palimpsest of evidence for season of use faced by researchers at individual sites. A discussion on the little considered but clearly interesting themes of menu, taboo, cooking and feasting follows and includes a discussion of how specific foods might have been procured, and indeed disposed of, based on a balanced use of archaeological evidence and ethnographic observation. This contribution is particularly useful in showing how existing data might be reassessed and how we might approach food use in future studies.

In his chapter on ‘Analogy’, Peter Jordan examines a perennial problem of the use of ethnographic/ anthropological analogy in the interpretation of archaeological remains. The author provides an excellent review of the history and methods of its use and examines the implicit assumptions that are made for the period based on ethnography, itself often flawed or limited by the assumptions of the observer. However, he suggests there is a way forward, with a more balanced examination of ethnohistorical sources, incorporating for instance consideration of symbolism and spirituality in studies of hunter-gatherer subsistence practices, to enhance interpretation of the Mesolithic. Jordan points out the opportunities such an approach provides for ‘broadening our appreciation of the Mesolithic’ and to make it a more widely interesting period of prehistory.

‘Ritual’ by Richard Chatterton investigates the archaeological evidence for ritual and spiritual belief, which the author links firmly with everyday economic and subsistence activity rather than splitting these important aspects of prehistoric life as is often done. He introduces instances of deliberate and ordered disposal. These include in shallow waters and waters-edge, though here more consideration of the possibility some (notably organic and animal bone remains) might be merely artefacts of erosion and/or location and that bias to preservation of remains in these locations is innate to these wet environs would provide balance. Of note, however, the author highlights the importance of Mesolithic relationships with wetland environments. Of particular import is his suggestion that there is a need to obtain more absolute dates for the human remains found in alluvial contexts in general and describes several instances where possible Mesolithic material might be confirmed. Since known human remains of Mesolithic age remain relatively scarce in Britain and Ireland and since there is a very real possibility that disposal in water was favoured and wetland edge localities focussed on for activity, this represents a key focus for future work. The author continues with strong reviews of the symbolic and monumental aspects of cave deposits, discard in pits and of shell midden creation and suggests with regard to the latter that to view them as monuments in the Neolithic sense may not be appropriate but that a conscious choice was made to create confined accumulations of disposed materials including human remains.

Despite the title, Lesley McFadyen’s text entitled ‘landscape’ is not on Mesolithic environs and exploitation as such. Rather it explores the idea of changing the natural landscape with creation and use of space through clearance, activity and occupation as architecture and considers Mesolithic perception and experience of their world. She describes the concepts of abstract space and meaningful place, drawing on the work in particular of Tilley and Edmonds. A case study of Mesolithic sites in North Wiltshire is used to highlight the interaction of deliberate human effort with their knowledge of complex natural process to create spaces in the landscape. The author also discusses the concept of mobile space with networks of activity and people creating and connecting the landscape.

Chantal Conneller’s chapter on death provides a thorough and engaging discussion of known human remains dating to the Mesolithic. She points out that despite the perceived paucity of remains, Mesolithic human remains are currently believed to have been found, in addition to the cemetery site of Aveline’s Hole, in twenty-one, dominantly cave site, locations in Britain and Ireland, yet few of these sites are widely known or discussed. She reassesses the somewhat confused remaining evidence from Aveline’s Hole to draw out what can be gleaned on mortuary practice including placement of bodies, the probable short period of use of the site and the use of ochre, shells, animal teeth and possibly cave art. In judging the nature of the assemblages the author points out that with the exclusion of the Mesolithic Gough’s Cave remains, all skeletons have been found to be disarticulated and most not formally buried and suggests this is representative of a real phenomenon. The use of caves in particular is discussed, with the suggestion that the dead were set apart and away from everyday living sites.

An concluding overview by Bill Finlayson provides a synopsis and wider view of the ideas presented and draws out that Mesolithic lives were socially more rich and complex than we account for. Helpfully, each author considers the possibilities for future research at the end of their chapter and these are brought together and expanded upon in this closing chapter. Finlayson suggests the general view of the authors is that the existing data set is adequate and capable of providing a better understanding of the period. The volume should however perhaps acknowledge that significant gaps in the archaeological record in this country do remain that may be tackled using the new ways of prospecting for and identifying Mesolithic landsurfaces, artefacts and associated environmental remains currently being developed in tandem with these new theoretical approaches.

This volume is not a text book or review of British and Irish Mesolithic archaeology not does it attempt to be. Instead it is a collection of thoughtful papers on aspects of Mesolithic life and how we might usefully reassess our approach to the big archaeological questions. It is of a highly theoretical bent and at times the terminology makes the volume less accessible and will be off-putting to some readers, but it is worth the effort, and brings some innovative ideas to the forefront. The authors make good use of selected current research and published works, The volume overall would have benefited from more illustration and plates of key finds and deposits referred to in the text but there is a full and useful bibliography at the end of the volume. Selected suggestions for further reading at the end of each chapter should prove helpful to student readers, however this book is likely to appeal most to those already actively involved in prehistoric research.

The enthusiasm of the authors and editors is most welcome, this book offers a different way forward in the approach to the Mesolithic and one that should continue to be debated and built on in the coming years. This is a much neglected period and there is scope for much greater concentration of effort in this period, and it is hoped books such as this will help to stimulate heightened that interest.

Catherine Chisham
Wessex Archaeology

Review Submitted: November 2006

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

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