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Prehistoric Journeys, edited by V. CUMMINGS & R. JOHNSTON
Oxbow Books 2007, 152pp, 59 b/w figs, 53 b/w photos, 5 tables, pb. ISBN 978-1-84217-250-6 (35)

This collection of 13 papers offers a number of forward thinking perspectives on travel, movement and social geography, and is a major contribution to the study of prehistoric landscapes. As the back cover sets out: “travel was a fundamental part of life in prehistory: not just as a means of getting around, but as a key aspect of identity and being-in-the-world. Journeys were of intrinsic importance rather than being a ‘means to an end’”.

In their introduction Cummings and Johnston remark on the irony that in the writings of antiquarians and early fieldworkers, their expedition-like travels were the main narrative device, yet the journeys of their archaeological subjects were largely untheorised. They compare this to the Grand Tour, in which the focus was stopping-off points and destinations rather than the social value of the journey itself (p. 1). In their brief but effective review of previous approaches to journeys, they trace this ‘primacy of destination’ from migration and invasion theses of the culture historical paradigm to the functionalist mobility models of the processual school, to recent phenomenological perspectives in which movement is in many ways central (p. 2).

The papers within this volume all have one problem to deal with—how to represent a fundamentally immaterial phenomenon such as movement archaeologically. The forthright view taken by the editors is that this necessitates the firm connection between movement as a social practice and material things as the medium for, rather than the outcome of, that practice. Consequently, the papers concentrate upon journeys that have such a dialectic element between archaeological evidence and the embodied practices inferred.

The editors thematically arrange the papers, in terms of the journeys suggested: 1, those journeys which laid down cultural traditions of movement across landscapes unfamiliar to the travellers (Riede, Odgaard); 2, journeys associated with the movement of artefacts (Kador, Garrow); 3, Neolithic monuments as the focus for journeys (Cummings, Noble); 4, ritual journeys that may have left behind deliberate representations of long distance travel, such as trackways (P. Robinson, Price, Roberts); and 5, movement that was structured by non-human agencies (animals, the land and the sea; G. Robinson, Wilkes, Chadwick). The important contribution of this volume is the breadth of different landscapes and periods that are represented, and in the way that each paper reveals different problems in the attempt to represent the immateriality of the journey.

Two issues are foremost. The first theme raises the issue of the value of ethnographic analogy in archaeology. As the editors note tactfully ‘analogy currently has a rather uneasy place within archaeological discourse’ (p. 3). The two papers in this section take dissimilar approaches to ethnography; whilst Odgaard successfully uses nineteenth century ethnographic accounts of Greenland’s Caribou hunters to build models of seasonal hunting parties (something which she was able to calibrate through field survey), Riede dismisses analogy by claiming that there are no parallels to the landscapes revealed to North European Palaeolithic hunters by retreating glaciers (p. 8–9).

This seems a little over dramatic and in fact Odgaard’s paper suggests the contrary view by detailing the arrival of Greenland’s Thule Culture, around 1200 AD, into a de facto unfamiliar landscape to which they brought their own cultural values and practices (p. 21–2). Unfortunately, some reproductions of Riede’s images have not rendered well. This is a pity because the overall standard of his volume is high and the book is generously and clearly illustrated.

The subsequent themes encapsulate the central problem with which the volume is preoccupied: how feasible is it to reconstruct past journeys from fragments, like pit groups found at either end of the route (Garrow), the location of monumental architecture and ceremonial complexes (Cummings, Nobel), or what can be seen landward from off-shore (G. Robinson, Wilkes)? These papers provide some stimulating examples of how materiality can be linked to the social practices of movement and travel, but in many ways they are typical of phenomenological approaches to symbolic or ceremonial landscape. This is not to say that they are poor, but they are familiar in the way that they assemble natural world and cultural phenomena along routes in the landscape, and seascapes.

It is the fourth theme, which pursues the creation of ceremonial landscapes and ritual routes, which best illustrates the tension between social practice and material culture. Price’s study of the Graig Llwyd Group VII ‘axe factory’ in terms of a site of pilgrimage or rite of passage is one of the most satisfying of the volume. Twinned with Roberts’ interpretation of the same site and period, this makes for an interesting juxtaposition. The journey Price imagines takes the protagonists’ familiar taskscapes outside of the ‘security and confines of habitus’ and ‘social structure’ and into the realms of ‘danger, profanity, disorder and transience’ (Price, p. 85). Price’s methodology shifts both the journey and the axe site/axes away from mere products and ‘ends’, in a way that is less evident in some of the other papers (eg, Cummings). She suggests that the place, the stone and its topographical setting (between sky, land and sea) may have acted together to generate interest in the individual elements, rather than all springing from the stone or the journey. In the Bronze Age the place may have attained some additional fame and this might be why one specific route was marked out by a series of cairns, standing stones and stone circles—including the formidable Druid’s Circle (p. 97–8).

Roberts’ paper contrasts with Price’s because he essentially rejects that this prehistoric route was the orthodox route in the landscape. Similarly to Johnston’s (1999) critique of Tilley’s characterisation of the Dorset Cursus, the determining materiality of the path is questioned and some of the different patterns of mobility, which are only partially represented to us materially, are brought out instead: Roberts wishes to move away from the opposition between ‘distant-as-valued and local-as-mundane’ in ‘ritual’ paths (p. 103–4). These traditional interpretations present opposed ways in which the path is said to be significant; either in ritual ‘linear movement along paths [which] implies journeys through the area’, or in local grazing activity which ‘implies journeys around/within it’ (p. 104). Significantly, each interpretation writes into existence a single value, and perhaps even a single category of protagonist. Roberts continues by teasing out the implied dichotomies of ritual/routine, upland/lowland and local/distant, arguing for more complex patterns of movement (p. 106).

This complexity is also suggested by some of the other papers, notably in Chadwick’s sensitive portrayal of the way in which humans, animals and plants are interwoven into the fabric of the landscape. Chadwick emphasises that this is something increasingly difficult to conceptualise from the perspective of modern Western society (p. 135; see also Insoll 2007) and he provides an impressive bibliography of anthropological studies of humans and animals that is worth investigating.

Prehistoric Journeys surely lives up to its promise to illustrate how people were ‘on the move’ in prehistory in different ways. The great variety within this volume and the quality of research makes it an important stimulus to landscape archaeology in general and essential for those researchers interested in phenomenological perspectives to landscape.

Robin B. Weaver
University of Birmingham


Insoll, T., 2007. Archaeology: the conceptual challenge. London: Duckworth

Johnston, R., 1999. An empty path? Processions, memories and the Dorset Cursus, in A. Barclay and J. Harding (eds.) Pathways and Ceremonies: the cursus monuments of Britain and Ireland. Neolithic Studies Seminar Papers 4, Oxford: Oxbow, 39–48

Review submitted: October 2008

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

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