Mike Pitts is an extraordinarily talented writer, able to convey the most technical details with clarity, telling a story with suspense and drama, and enlivening longeurs with flashes of dry wit which, in less expert hands, would strike a jarring note. So why only 3 stars? I've just read this for the second time, and feel more than ever that Pitts was badly let down by his publishers who, whether to reach a wider audience or simply inpursuit of sales, chose a format which tragically fails to do the text justice. "Hengeworld" is published in novel format - thick, with small pages - and the cover picture is a rather sensationalist shot of the Heel Stone with Stonehenge in the background. The presentation, and the fact that Arrow books publish a lot of very popular titles, lead the unwary browser to expect a book which sets out a picture of neolithic culture at the time of the building of Stonehenge, with a final revelation of the truth about the meaning of Stonehenge, Avebury and Stanton Drew.
If you are a standing stone nut attracted by the lurid populist cover, you will find this book a disappointment. If you are the sort of person to whom it will appeal - the serious archaeology enthusiast - you may mistakenly pass it by, unless you click that this is THE Mike Pitts, the main authority on the subject. Pitts is a card-carrying proper, professional archaeologist, fully qualified to write the kind of definitive, dry survey of henge-building and its anthropological context that would have you dozing off in minutes. Instead, he has given us a book that rips along, full of zest and fascination, without succumbing to any of the baseless speculation or circular arguments that we would have found in a book by a mere journalist.
However, this is less a description of the world of the henge builders, more one of the world of the henge-digger-uppers. Though the Manchester Evening News is quoted as saying "reads like a whodunnit", it would be more accurate to say 'reads like a police procedural'. Pitts describes in full the history of the archaeology of henges (minor, less well-known ones as well as the big glamorous jobs), and of the archaelogists who did the work; their in-fighting, their incompetences, their unexpected discoveries. It is a long and complex tale and it is a great testament to Pitts' skill as a writer that he makes it every bit as gripping and fast-moving as he does. By now, Hengeworld is already a classic, and no doubt generations of archaeology students have thanked Mr Pitts from the bottom of their hearts for lightening their load. Out of the tale of archaeological progress emerges, in the latter part of the book a surprisingly vivid picture of just what we were promised; the world of the henge-builders.
Be under no illusions. Despite its accessible style and thrilling anecdotes, this is a serious book and you will, once you have read it, have as good an understanding of the world of our ancestors as anybody. The text is suitable for all ages and readers, from interested schoolchildren upwards. Where the book falls down - and the reason I have given it only three stars - is that the format permits only of the nastiest, tiny, obscure and barely legible plans and diagrams. At times, Pitts' graphs and data are insufficiently interpreted for the ordinary reader. It is good that, for the student, he has included all the technical data in appendices, but a little more effort on maps and photos, a larger format and some colour plates, would have raised this book to another level entirely.