Ronald Hutton's Pagan Britain is a fascinating and comprehensive survey of the archaeological and historical evidence for British paganism. His erudition is amazing. Hutton considers literally hundreds of articles, books, objects and sites in his quest to provide a complete review of what is known about British pagan beliefs. He also traces how British paganism has been interpreted from Victorian times to the present day. The historiography often fascinated me as much as the discussions of henges and burial mounds. He analyzes how scientists and humanists approach the same material in markedly different fashions. Thus, the book is ultimately a meditation on how (in his words) "truth can be established in scholarship...especially in the study of the remote past."
I can best give you an idea of his comprehensive approach by discussing his chapters on Mesolithic and Neolithic Britain. He discusses famous sites, such as Stonehenge, and the history of both the research at the site and theories about the site. He discusses typical artifacts from the period, and how they have been used to contemporary scholars to try to understand the past. Scholars have used many approaches to understand this material and Hutton never uses dismissive language to discuss any of them. He has a fascinating discussion on how contemporary academicians and "alternative" archaeologists have approached the same material. He traces the intellectual history of both and shows how what was yesterday's "alternative" explanation sometimes becomes today's orthodoxy. Again and again, Hutton emphasizes how little we actually know about the preliterate past and how many explanations can be attached to the same artifacts. Archaeology of religion, he writes, can "recover the material remains of ritual action...but not (usually) the ideas which inspired them."
Little seems to escape his purview as he discusses paganism through the Iron Age, Roman Britain and the conversion of Britain to Christianity. He also has a comprehensive discussion of possible survivals of paganism in Christian period. Contemporary Pagans may be disappointed that he finds relatively little evidence for paganism surviving into the medieval age. In these chapters again he emphasizes what is actually concretely known and how this evidence is used. Thus, in discussing the possibility of human sacrifices, he devotes much time to detailing graves, burial practices and human skeletal remains found in unusual locations. Decapitated skeletons have been found and Hutton discusses alternative explanations for this. Roman sources claiming the British practiced human sacrifice are carefully deconstructed. Hutton also discusses various contemporary theories about human sacrifice. Hutton's conclusion here--as it is again and again in this book--is that the evidence supports a variety of possible explanation for archaeological remains and that human sacrifice in prehistoric Britain remains and will probably remain unprovable.
He also discusses the intellectual history of modern interpretations of the British pagan past. Thus, he has an illuminating discussion on the "Goddess" theory which so riveted many scholars earlier in the 20th century. He shows how the needs and thought patterns of the present have often skewed the interpretations of the past.
Hutton is a very fine writer. His prose is always clear and often beautiful. I imagined once or twice that a reincarnation of Shakespeare might shamelessly lift from Hutton's prose the way the actual bard did from Holinshed, though I suppose today creative plagiarism of that nature is out of style. The major difficulties reading the book result from the sheer amount of information presented. This is a dense and fascinating book. The book is illustrated with drawings and black and white photographs. Embedded in the text, they illuminate the argument of the book but do not particularly add to its beauty.
I think anyone interested in history, archaeology, pagan religions or Britain would find this book well worth the time. Hutton is not sensational the way some books and TV shows about this material have been but his solid scholarship is much more illuminating.
I do not know how a contemporary Pagan would react to this book; but it seems to me Hutton, a genial and intelligent man, is totally and completely respectful of contemporary Pagan spirituality and that a contemporary Pagan might very well want this book in his library.