Back to Book Reviews

Prehistoric Rock Art In The Northern Dales, by Paul & Barbara Brown
Stroud, Tempus 2008. 320pp, 130 b&w figs + photos, 35 colour photos. pb ISBN 978 0 7524 4246 4 (19.99)

Rock Art And Ritual: Interpreting the Prehistoric Landscape of the North York Moors, by Brian A. Smith & Alan A. Walker
Stroud, Tempus 2008. 160pp, 37 b&w figs, 33 colour photos. pb ISBN 978 0 7524 46349 (14.99)

The study of British rock art is flourishing as never before, and these two books are both outstanding contributions to the field, although markedly different in content and approach.

The first, by Paul and Barbara Brown, constitutes a very thorough and masterly account of all the rock art in a large part of northern England — ie, seven dales in North Yorkshire, Durham and Cumbria. The marked rocks — many of which have been found by themselves in recent years — are presented area by area, and the authors set them both within the landscape and in their archaeological context, while also giving full accounts of the previous history of research, the personalities, involved, and so forth. Interspersed with these subjects are occasional discourses on such things as stone circles and their possible orientations, the famous monoliths known as the Devil’s Arrows, or ‘the spiral motif in British prehistoric rock art’. The vast majority of the rocks, of course, are marked with enigmatic cupules, rings and lines. Throughout the book the authors draw much on the work of other local researchers, such as Tim Laurie, but are meticulous in citing the sources of their information. The volume is illustrated with numerous fine, clear photographs, as well as Paul Brown’s characteristically superb drawings. It is also remarkably up to date, since the Gazetteer — which runs to almost 100 pages, and which alone will instantly make the book a bible for rock art researchers in northern England — was completed in late 2007.

I spotted very few typos in the text — my favourite (p. 140) being ‘Mesolithic flint napping site’ — although one short section on Castlerigg appears twice (pp. 187 and 203/7). Overall the text reads very well, marred only — for this reviewer at least — by the idiosyncratic use of the term ‘the prehistoric’ throughout, instead of ‘prehistory’ or ‘the prehistoric period’. But these minor points in no way detract from the considerable achievement which this book represents and for which the authors deserve our gratitude and congratulations.

Rock art books often seem to become linked with poetry. The Browns’ book contains two examples, by Joanne Boulter and Stan Beckensall respectively, while the volume by Smith and Walker is punctuated with verses by John Brelstaff as well as Brian Smith. This book is extremely different from the other, in that it is made up of a series of essays by the authors relating to their many years of intensive and excellent fieldwork on the North Yorkshire moors. The narratives are very personal, and contain a fair dose of whimsy and humour. Some of the ideas they present concerning the marked stones are pretty basic and highly probable — for example, that they probably occur along ancient trackways — but others are more tenuous and rely on a variety of ethnographic analogies. This is perfectly acceptable, but the unfortunate aspect is that for their ethnographic data they have relied almost exclusively on the extremely unreliable work of Eliade — ironically a man who, in complete contrast to themselves, never carried out any fieldwork! They should be encouraged to broaden their ethnographic reading very considerably to avoid falling into this trap in the future!

Smith and Walker are, however, refreshingly honest about the shortcomings of their theories, and their wilder speculations are clearly presented as such. Their illustrations — in black-and-white and colour — are outstanding, and the sections concerning the amazing decorated stones of Brow Moor, which came to light after a recent fire, are of particular significance and importance. Thus despite its tentative and speculative nature, this book is certainly to be recommended to anyone interested in British rock art, and in attempts to make some sense of its distribution and content. I found myself less than convinced by many of their interpretations and archaeoastronomical musings, but that is irrelevant, since — unlike many rock art researchers of recent years, around the world — they have not presented their views as ‘the truth’ or ‘the key’ to reading the art, but instead make crystal clear that, like all of us, they are groping in the dark and striving to find concepts that might help them make some sense of the distribution and placing of all these mysterious cups, rings, lines and squiggles.

Paul G. Bahn

Review submitted: December 2008

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

Home Page The Prehistoric Society Home Page