Archaeology's a dirty business. For Francis Pryor it goes further - becoming muddy, peaty, mucky and worse. And that's ignoring the incoming tide filling excavations. Dusty, mucky or just plain wet, the business is rewarding. It tells us about the past and, hence, about ourselves. His focus is the British Isles, particularly eastern England, and how ancient societies there developed over time. In some cases the span of time is vast. Many of those developments have persisted to our day, while others were cast aside. Pryor neatly summarises the work of many years in this book. He describes the current thinking during his schooling, then demonstrates how new analysis techniques and data interpretation have overthrown old concepts.
Pryor is passionate about his field. He shares that passion expressively and it proves infectious. He doesn't hide disappointment or failure, because the successes reap rich rewards. He's found ancient pastures long hidden by modern farms. He's revealed tracks for livestock and humans alike. The pathways reveal indications of human value systems, the locations are sites of sacrifice and limits of family holdings. Burial sites, unlike our modern sterile cemetaries, are rich with artefacts hinting of social hierarchies. The distribution of the sites refute the notion that Western Europe was overrun by peoples invading from the east. War, he argues, never happened on the scale earlier writers described. Instead of closed villages, fortresses and stockades, Britain's early people were scattered widely, groupings based on family ties. The nearest thing to war was cattle rustling raids by young men expressing their prowess - perhaps even part of marriage rituals.
Pryor's best known find is the mis-named "Seahenge". At Holme-Next-the-Sea along the coast of The Wash, his team discovered an oak stockade. Within the circle of logs was an inverted oak stump. Pryor reluctantly accepts the media's designation for this site, although it by-passes the accepted definition of "henge". He wants to understand why such a structure was built is of greater importance to him. Unlike stone circles, the logs of Seahenge form a solid barrier. The stump, lacking evidence of being a burial site, remains an enigma, although Pryor offers a reasonable suggestion. Seahenge became of scene of conflict between science and New Age religionists. Pryor's account of the resolution of the issues makes wonderful reading. As does all the book.
Pryor offers insights into how the work of archaeology is done and what it reveals. Local conditions clearly set social systems. Seahenge, he asserts, was a local shrine of limited use and duration. It stands in sharp contrast to sites in use for millenia. He reminds us that most Neolithic communities, with their lifestyles and observances exceed the history of Christianity by a millennium or more. The wooden trackway at Flag Fen, he notes, was in use "from two centuries after the death of Tutankhamun to the lifetime of Christ". In other words, a wooden walkway was used and maintained for 1300 years. Such persistence, he argues, demonstrates that Neolithic Britons maintained a firm belief in a continuous state between the living and the dead. The walkway and other sites are described as liminals - transition zones where the living showed respect for the ancient dead.
With sets of photos displaying the working conditions and the finds, further enhanced by line drawing maps and diagrams, Pryor provides background and environment. His "Further Reading" list is brief and directed by chapter topics. Following many of his suggestions will lead you to academic libraries or expenditure for books rarely encountered in North America. Both are worth the effort and expenditure. A superb read with much new and exciting information, this book is a treasure. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]