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Monuments, Ritual And Regionality: The Neolithic Of Northern Somerset, By J. Lewis
Oxford: Archaeopress, British Archaeology Reports, British Series 401, 2005, 171pp, 84 b&w illustrations, 21 tables, pb ISBN 1-84171-880-7 (£33)

This volume is refreshing to read. It succeeds in focusing on the diversity of evidence for Neolithic peoples in a region other than Wessex (p. 1, 4). The volume is the result of a Ph.D thesis, submitted at the University of Bristol in 2001 with minor alterations and updating. An addition is a chapter on pits and postholes, but a review on landscape archaeology is removed. This is odd as the approach was centred on a ‘landscape methodology’ (p. 8), otherwise the thesis and this volume retain the same arguments.

This volume is divided into nine chapters summarised as: 1. Introduction: approach, method, study area and history of research; 2. Topography and environment, comments on the landscape types within the study area, with a review of the limited evidence, animal bone, pollen, charcoal, molluscs, mostly from caves and swallets; 3 and 4. Earlier Neolithic ‘mortuary monuments’ are translated into long barrows, two portal dolmens, their structure and contents analysed; 5. Later Neolithic ‘monuments’ is essentially henges or those that are potentially henges; 6. Neolithic pits and postholes; 7. Caves and swallets; 8. Lithic scatters, titled as, ‘domesticating the landscape’; and 9. Conclusions.

The strength of this research is the fieldwork attempting to assess the function and classification of earthen monuments. An example of this is the fabled Hunter’s Lodge site recognised for sometime as a probable ‘henge’ (Grinsell 1966, p. 15). Here, earthwork, gradiometer and resistivity surveys were completed (pp. 75-79, figs, 5.3-5.5). Targeted areas were fieldwalked systematically. However, the subsequent analysis of those lithic assemblages is slight. A further interesting element is the review of antiquarian sources, such as Aubrey, Strachey and Stukeley on Stanton Drew (pp. 88-91, figs. 5.12-5.14). The contribution of more recent workers is also reviewed (pp. 7-11). The aerial photographic coverage was reviewed and Geographical Information Systems (GIS) software was employed to map and present data, not to analyse distributions (p. 7). GIS is not used as an analytical tool even when data may be generated/analysed in this way: height, distance between monuments, water and geology (for example, tables 7, 8 and 11).

The strengths lie in the systematic approach towards field monuments; with structure, orientation and content analysed. The author appears more interested and dynamic in style when writing about long barrows, henges, enclosures and this is where the evidence of the in-field observations and non-invasive surveys are best suited. Chapters 3, 4 and 5 are useful summaries of this evidence, new data reviewing structure and in-field preservation. However, more developed interpretations could have been muted by Lewis. At times, often the published interpretations are recanted, for example as with the complexes at Gorsey Bigbury and Priddy Circles (pp. 79-88). Given the published quantity of artefacts, excavated features and landscape context, a new interpretation could have been asserted. Much has been published on henges, their ditch sequences, landscape context or social-ritual meaning (cf. Harding 2003). This debate is not addressed, even with these most dramatic and understudied monuments.

Chapter 6 reviews the posthole and pit excavated evidence, observing this is rare in Somerset (p.113). Five examples are discussed containing residual contexts, lithics and more discrete accumulations: earlier Neolithic plain bowl pottery; Grooved Ware and Beaker pottery (p. 111). Lewis argues that these low numbers reflect a bias in recovery (p. 154). Ritual activity is implied, pit digging and infilling - events that are interpreted as tight temporal practices, reflecting structured deposition (p. 113). What is not addressed is the re-visiting of pit locations, and what these places meant.

The timely review of cave, rock shelter and swallet archaeology in Chapter 7 is welcomed. Human remains (mostly partial), lithics, pottery and animal bones are presented. Lewis complains of the poor state of recording and burrowing of animals limiting the resource potential (p. 115, 125). Balch is acknowledged as a pioneer of cave exploration and archaeology, even if, in hindsight, his work and others’ now seems primitive. In summarising several points (p. 125): all artefact types are associated with each other, except stone/flint axes; lithics, pottery and animal bones are most common; deposits with hearths commonly contained animal bones, more rarely human bone; human bone is commonly found with pottery; scrapers are the most common lithics.

Lewis interprets the patterning in cave/swallet deposition as; earlier Neolithic use as burial, whereas in the later Neolithic/Beaker period, use for burial and other roles. ‘Hearths’ at Rowberrow Cavern and Sun Hole are seen as evidence for ‘domestic’ activity (pp. 125-126). Throughout, Lewis fails to address exactly what ‘domestic’ and ‘ritual’ meant to those who created these deposits. If you dissolve the western division between ritual and domestic, further clarity on definitions is required, not less. The notion of ‘deliberate deposits’ requires clarification (p. 126). The relationship between those above and below ground is rarely discussed, save that burial in caves was ‘as an alternative to chambered tombs’ (p. 125). What about the relationship between each location, the practices and peoples attending these rites? The sequence and material culture presented on swallets is centred on two examples Charterhouse Warren Farm Swallet and Brimble Pit Swallet. These are complex sequences, sacred locations, perhaps revisited over generations. What of Bos Swallet, Priddy (ApSimon 1998)? If Beaker pottery is included within caves, why not include the large Beaker assemblage at this enigmatic site? Lewis notes a potential spatial relationship between swallets and monuments on western Mendip, following Stanton (1986) and Bradley (2000, 88, fig. 25). Her comments are, however, limited on the content and the parity between material culture, monuments, caves and swallets (pp. 130-131).

The ‘sacred’ properties of caves and rock shelters, Lewis argues, may have given way in the later Neolithic to the sacred use of swallets (p. 126). The use of swallets is viewed as an origin for a ‘chthonic cult’ (p. 132). This is hard to accept as only three swallets have provided evidence of use (p. 115).

It may be convenient to divide the evidence up into groups; pits, postholes, and such like. But, the prehistorian must try to think out side of these boxes. Lewis asserts the act of digging was, perhaps central to ‘being Neolithic’, as was monument construction and pottery use’ (p. 113). Yet, how these acts may have differed from the emplacement of pottery, other objects and human bone into the receptacle of a cave or swallet is not clear (p. 132). Would a pit or posthole be perceived as less of a ‘natural monument’, and if so, how and why would this be? This represents a missed opportunity to explore the specific regional characteristics of being Neolithic.

The weakest part of this volume is Chapter 8 on lithic scatters. Early on in the volume the contribution of amateur recovered lithic collections was dismissed; the assumption was they constituted a ‘lack of rigorously collected data’ (p. 7). She asserts the amateur derived collections are of poor provenance (pp. 133-134). This is not the case in a national overview (Schofield 2000). Just because grid or line walking was not adopted does not mean that the lithic assemblage is useless.

Lithics may not be Lewis’ strongest evidence, not because of the type of material, but approach. After mentioning the problems of attributing dates to individual artefacts and lithic scatters per se, Lewis’ emphasis is on retouched artefacts that give dates to only the smallest proportion of any assemblage. Although aware of these limitations (pp. 136-137), her analysis of her own lithics and published assemblages favour this. Metric analysis is not explored and Lewis devalues museum collections (p. 134), which should not be dismissed out of hand. There are many ways of assessing lithic assemblages, even those with varying degrees of provenance (Gardiner 1987).

Lewis employs the lithic scatter data to argue for a breakdown in the division between ritual and domestic space. The slimmest of chronological evidence is asserted, to argue that lithic scatters, when recovered within close proximity to a long barrow or henges, are broadly contemporary (pp. 138-146). Most of her lithic scatters consist of published notes, selecting chronologically diagnostic artefacts that may not date the total assemblage recovered. She argued that lithic scatters were solely the reserve of ‘domestic’ activity (pp. 133-134). Their close proximity to monuments; for example, Brays Down long Barrow (fig. 8.2), Devils Bed and Bolster long barrow (fig. 8.3), Priddy long mound (pp. 141-142) or the Stanton Drew henge complex (fig. 8.4), demonstrate a breakdown of the division between ‘ritual’ and ‘settlement’ space (p. 146). Given the limited analysis of each assemblage, emphasis on finished tools, rather than the total assemblage, this hypothesis cannot be proven.

Miscellaneous other minor points arise: fig. 5.8, after Jones 1935, is 1938; fig. 5.9, after Tratman 1966, is unclear, italics text blurred; Barrington & Stanton 1972 or 1976, p. 115, 117, 160, should be 1977; the Chelms Combe Rock Shelter and Hay Wood Caves are spelt differently in text and figures (p. 117, figs. 7.1-7.3); a sketch section of Brimble Pit Swallet is blurred (fig. 7.14); flint does occur ‘naturally’ in the region in secondary deposits, contrary to Lewis assertion (p. 7).

The definition of the study area, its applicability to the Neolithic as a social entity is questioned. The physical area studied encompassed the limestone landscape; the Mendip Hills to the Failand Ridge, including the North Somerset Levels (pp. 1, 4, 15-18, figs. 1.1, 1.2). This may be seen as a whole, being similar to today’s North Somerset region . This may not have been the case in the distant past, since a socially constructed identity for landscape may have included more topographical variability. Whilst a case for a distinctive part of a regional landscape may be made, a ‘Pays’, referring to a limestone dominant area, its separation from the Somerset Levels and Moors, the Wedmore Ridge and the Polden Hills, is questionable. Communities and farming economies historically have been interlinked. The origins of the Neolithic, its relationship to the preceding Mesolithic peoples, is not articulated (p. 5). Nor is any link with the earlier Bronze Age convincingly discussed (pp. 5-6, 153-154).

This is a volume worthy of reading by all not familiar with Somerset prehistory. A diversity of evidence is synthesised and succinctly presented. This is timely, as English Heritage has commenced a new research project on characterising the cultural landscape of Mendip. Lewis has raised the profile of this and its adjacent limestone prehistory, a unique Neolithic landscape.

Clive Bond
Department of Archaeology
University of Winchester

ApSimon, A.M. 1998. Bos Swallet, Burrington, Somerset: boiling site and Beaker occupation site. Proceedings of the University of Bristol Spelaeological Society 21(i), 43-82
Bradley, R.J. 1998. An Archaeology of Natural Places. London: Routledge
Gardiner, J. 1987. Tales of the unexpected: approaches to the assessment and interpretation of museum flint collections, in A.G. Brown and M.R. Edmonds (eds.), Lithic Analysis and Later Prehistory: some problems and approaches, Oxford: British Archaeological Reports, British Series 162, 49-166
Grinsell L.V. 1966. Prehistoric sites in the Mendip, South Cotswolds and Bristol Region. Bristol: Bristol Archaeological Research Group Field Guide No. 1
Harding, J. 2003. Henge Monuments of the British Isles. Stroud: Tempus
Schofield, A.J. 2000. Reflections on the future for surface lithic artefact study in England, in J.L. Bintliff, M. Kuna and N. Venclová (eds.), The Future of Surface Artefact Survey in Europe. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 45-55
Stanton, W. 1986. Natural sinkholes affecting the Priddy Circles. Proceedings of the University of Bristol Spelaeological Society 17(iii), 355-358

Review Submitted: May 2007

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

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