The Dating of Food Vessels and Urns in Ireland, by A.L. Brindley
This excellently produced book provides a wealth of contextual and chronological data for the Irish Early Bronze Age. It is based on a large corpus of pottery and an impressive body of radiocarbon dates and it is largely possible due to the comparatively recent breakthrough in the dating of cremated bone. This volume almost represents Anna Brindley’s life’s work, certainly a labour of love, and also represents a somewhat considerable financial investment in Irish archaeology in the terms of the number of radiocarbon dates. It is an excellent companion to Waddell (1990) and O Riordain & Waddell (1993) also from NUI Galway.
The volume starts with a background discussion of Irish Bronze Age pottery and a literature review of past work. It explains the radiocarbon dating process and defines terminology. In theory this is no bad thing as the poor humble Food Vessel and its variants have been subject to a number of fairly arbitrary name changes over the last quarter century. Thus Vase and Bowl Food Vessels, Enlarged Food Vessels and Encrusted Urns have become vases, food vases, bowls, bowl food vessels, food urns, food vessel urns, vase urns and food vessel urns with plastic decoration. Mercifully Collared Urns are still Collared Urns (for the time being at least) except, of course, when they are Cordoned Urns. It is little wonder that Bronze Age pottery studies are being avoided by many of the new generation of archaeologists when the older generation will insist on such needless re-branding: The term Food Vessel has served us well and rather like other meaningless archaeological terms (such as ‘henge’, Carp’s Tongue etc) at least it is a label to which we can relate as Brindley points out early in the introduction.
Brindley claims to adopt a rigorous approach to her use of radiocarbon dates and to a large degree she does, however, there are some questionable practices. For example, when an urn contains the remains of more than one individual (for example 5 individuals at Knockroe) she claims that ‘a single date on carbonate from any one of the individuals may be considered as dating the entire deposit and associated finds’ (p17). Given the increasing evidence for the curation of artefacts and indeed human remains in later Neolithic and Bronze Age Britain, this is a dangerous assumption and strikes me as an opportunity missed when it comes to gaining a fuller picture of early Bronze Age funerary practices.
The major part of the book (part II) presents an illustrated catalogue of pottery and associated dates by vessel type. What is at once obvious from this catalogue is the paucity of associated grave goods in Irish burials. The ground floor of the national Museum of Ireland is comparable to a Piccadilly arcade in terms of the glint of gold and later in the Bronze Age some Irish metalwork is truly spectacular. But it was not being deposited in graves. Other than ceramics, the Irish burial record is indeed impoverished by British and European standards and it is therefore easy to understand why the Irish material has not been subjected to the same degree of rigorous typo-chronologies as have, for example, British Beakers. The radiocarbon dates are presented in a fairly balanced and unprejudiced way and so the foundations are laid for part III which looks at the typo-chronology of the various traditions and types.
The paucity of artefacts in Irish Early Bronze Age graves is compensated by the level of decoration on some of the pots. These are arguably some of the most aesthetically pleasing pots of British and Irish prehistory with intricate decorative motifs combined with a limited range of techniques to give an almost limitless range of decorative schemes: many pots may be similar but no two are identical. Indeed, as with comb-decorated Beakers, this may be important and increase the ‘value’ and symbolism of the ceramics within their contemporary society.
Each of the vessel types appears to have a three-stage development according to Brindley. Stage 1 bowls for example are characterised by comb impressed decoration in horizontal bands. Stage two sees the development of filled motifs and the beginnings of the use of the techniques of incision or grooving. Stage 3 bowls have more open decoration and utilise comb, incision and whipped cord techniques. This is clearly an inadequate paraphrase of Brindley’s more complex argument but the decorative basis of the subdivisions remind the reviewer of many schemes for British Beakers. Vases are also seen as having a three-stage development. Stage 1 comprises simple rimmed globular or biconical vases with zoned or linear decorative motifs composed chiefly of short lines. Stage 2 sees the development of the neck and shoulder and the increased use of triangular motifs executed in a variety of incised, comb and stamped techniques. Stage 3 again comprises necked vessels with more open decoration but still zoned. Once again this is a crude inadequate paraphrasing of a more complex typology. But again it has Beaker reminiscences, particularly with those vessels on the periphery of the main Beaker distribution such as those from western and northern Scotland. Indeed the extended necked form of many Irish Vases and the use not just of comb impressions but also the broad zoned and geometric motifs, particularly filled chevrons, suggest a closer relationship between Beakers and Irish Food Vessels than the author acknowledges.
The Vase Urn and Encrusted Urn groups also have three stage divisions as does the Collared Urn group that closely resembles Burgess’s scheme for British material. There is clearly a great deal of overlap in the radiocarbon dates for each of the three stages of Brindley’s schemes and this is somewhat glossed over by the presentation of the radiocarbon dates by ordering them from earliest to latest in each phase. A more random presentation of the dates for each style suggests more of an overlap and each phase seems less chronologically coherent than Brindley suggests.
The final part of the volume, examines Ireland and her Bronze Age neighbours. It is unfortunate that Brindley uses only the carbonate dates for cremated bone and ignores many of the other dates for British Bronze Age ceramics. Admittedly many of these non-cremated bone dates do need careful scrutiny, but surely this is the place to do just that. Hardly surprisingly the consideration of the Scottish radiocarbon dates relies heavily on the work by Sheridan (all referenced and acknowledged in the text) but it does not heed the warning words of Patrick Ashmore (Ashmore et al. 2000) for some of the older determinations. Welsh and English dates seem very selective.
There are some annoying errors in the text. Thus on p30 and p34 Evans & Megaw 1937 becomes ‘Megaw and Simpson 1937’. On p245 and elsewhere we have mention of spherical and hemispherical motifs when it is the two-dimensional circle and semi-circle shapes that are intended. On p163 we have a rejection of the term ‘herringbone’ but Brindley’s description of the motif seems to refer to interrupted herringbone rather than herringbone sensu stricto. The adjective ‘metamorphous’ is used instead of the noun metamorphosis on p323. There are other grammatical errors elsewhere that similarly annoy. On a purely self-indulgent note, the present reviewer’s observations on Scottish Bronze Age cups are incorrectly paraphrased on p231: for ‘a large number of vessels’ read ‘ten’. But worst of all, the lack of an index in a data- and site-laden work of this kind is inexcusable.
Index apart, these other errors are quibbles. Brindley has produced a very valuable series of datasets and has presented this in a coherent and easily accessible way. I doubt that it’ll be the final word on Irish Bronze Age pottery, but rather act as a solid platform and source of reference for future researches.
Review Submitted: August 2007
The views expressed in this review are not necessarily those
of the Society or the Reviews Editor.
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