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Seahenge: a quest for life and death in Bronze Age Britain [Paperback]

Francis Pryor
4.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)
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Book Description

4 Oct 2008

A lively and authoritative investigation into the lives of our ancestors, based on the revolution in the field of Bronze Age archaeology which has been taking place in Norfolk and the Fenlands over the last twenty years, and in which the author has played a central role.

One of the most haunting and enigmatic archaeological discoveries of recent times was the uncovering in 1998 at low tide of the so-called Seahenge off the north coast of Norfolk. This circle of wooden planks set vertically in the sand, with a large inverted tree-trunk in the middle, likened to a ghostly ‘hand reaching up from the underworld’, has now been dated back to around 2020 BC. The timbers are currently (and controversially) in the author’s safekeeping at Flag Fen.

Francis Pryor and his wife (an expert in ancient wood-working and analysis) have been at the centre of Bronze Age fieldwork for nearly 30 years, piecing together the way of life of Bronze Age people, their settlement of the landscape, their religion and rituals. The famous wetland sites of the East Anglian Fens have preserved ten times the information of their dryland counterparts like Stonehenge and Avebury, in the form of pollen, leaves, wood, hair, skin and fibre found ‘pickled’ in mud and peat.

Seahenge demonstrates how much Western civilisation owes to the prehistoric societies that existed in Europe in the last four millennia BC.


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Seahenge: a quest for life and death in Bronze Age Britain + Britain AD: A Quest for Arthur, England and the Anglo-Saxons + Britain BC: Life in Britain and Ireland Before the Romans
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Product details

  • Paperback: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial; (Reissue) edition (4 Oct 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0007101929
  • ISBN-13: 978-0007101924
  • Product Dimensions: 13 x 3.2 x 19.7 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 177,345 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Dr. Francis Pryor was born in London in 1945. He read archaeology and anthropology at Trinity College, Cambridge where eventually he took a PhD. After Cambridge he emigrated to Toronto where he joined the staff of the Royal Ontario Museum. Using the Museum as a base, he began a series of major excavations (1971-78) in England, at Fengate, on the outskirts of Peterborough. Here he revealed an extensive Bronze Age field system, plus Neolithic and Iron Age settlements. After Fengate he turned his attention north of Peterborough, to the Welland Valley, where he excavated two large sites, at Maxey (1979-81) and Etton (1982-87). Etton was a superbly preserved earlier Neolithic (3500 BC) causewayed enclosure, an early type of ceremonial centre. In 1982 he also began survey work in the nearby Fens and soon discovered the timbers of a Late Bronze Age (1300-900 BC) timber causeway and religious complex at Flag Fen, just east of Peterborough. This remarkable site was opened to the public in 1987. Today it has become one of the best known Bronze Age sites in Europe and a principal visitor attraction in the region. He was awarded an MBE 'for services to tourism' in 1999. Fengate was published in four volumes in the 1970s and '80s and major English Heritage monographs on Maxey, Etton and Flag Fen appeared in 1986, 1998 and 2001. His popular account of this remarkable site, Flag Fen: life and death of a prehistoric landscape (Tempus Books, Stroud), was revised for a second edition in 2005. His book on prehistoric farming, Farmers in Prehistoric Britain (also for Tempus) is also in its second edition (2006).
Since 1998 he has devoted himself to writing popular books on archaeology, including Seahenge (HarperCollins 2001), an account of the discovery of a Bronze Age timber circle on the Norfolk coast; Britain BC (HarperCollins 2003), the story of British prehistory before the Romans and Britain AD (HarperCollins 2004), a book about new finds from Dark Age Britain. The third of this series, Britain in the Middle Ages, is on the archaeology of the medieval period and was published in June 2006 by HarperCollins (in paperback, June 2007). His largest book, The Making of the British Landscape was published in June 2010 and is now in paperback. His latest book, The Birth of Modern Britain (HarperCollins) was published in February 2011. He was President of the Council for British Archaeology from 1998-2005 and has written and presented series for Channel 4 on Britain BC, Britain AD and The Real Dad's Army, a review of archaeological remains surviving from 1940. He is also a regular contributor to, and member of, that channel's long-running series, Time Team. Presently he is working on a book for Penguin Press about domestic life in ancient Britain. Recently he has turned his attention to radio and has presented half-hour programmes for Radio 4 on the medieval Welsh town of Trellech (2006) and Stonehenge (Secrets of Stonehenge) (2007); Britain's Lost Atlantis, an account of the archaeology beneath the North Sea (2009)
Although a freelance author and broadcaster, he retains close links with academia and is currently visiting Professor in Archaeology at the University of Leicester.
In 'In the Long Run' he now regularly blogs on the trials and tribulations of writing, broadcasting, sheep farming, gardening and archaeology.

Product Description

About the Author

Francis Pryor is President of the Council for British Archaeology and a prominent field archaeologist who has devoted his professional life to the excavation of wetland landscapes in eastern England. He has been a central figure in the so-called ‘Wetland Revolution’ of British archaeology, and has published a number of specialist monographs on his discoveries. He appears frequently on TV’s Time Team; this is his first book for a wide general audience.


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Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
26 of 27 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Not what I expected, but good nonetheless! 12 Jan 2004
By Alan S>
Format:Paperback
I purchased this book, expecting to read quite a bit about the furore about the so-called 'desecration' of this site by archaeologists. I was pleasantly surprised to find that this aspect of the discovery of the monument was not the central theme of the book.
What we have here is an almost biographical account of Francis Pryor's life as an archaeologist. It starts in his early days as a post-grad student and describes his gradual acceptance of what has become his life 'quest' - investigation and interpretation of Neolithic landscapes on a wide scale. The book moves through his earlier work on Fengate and the Flag Fen area, and culminates in the Seahenge discovery, touching on the furore mentioned earlier, but using the discovery to pull together all the earlier threads in the book to put forward a coherent theory of what life was like in the Neolithic.
Because of this, I found the book to be an enjoyable, entertaining and educational read. Not so academic that it becomes difficult to follow, yet at the same time not pitched too low to become boring.
Recommended for anyone interested in the Neolithic.
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25 of 27 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Looking for liminals 20 May 2004
By Stephen A. Haines HALL OF FAME
Format:Paperback
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".
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars 5 Stars are not enough! 4 Jan 2006
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
If you only ever buy one book about 'old things in the ground', this should be it. Francis Pryor gives a fast-paced, highly readable account of his career as an archaeologist, and has a refreshingly dismissive approach to some of the traditionally presented facts of prehistory (e.g. pottery used as evidence of mass-movements of people in Europe.)

The story gives a very nice picture of the different interests that want a say in any significant new discovery, including New-Agers! But it was English Heritage who took a chain saw to the central tree of Seahenge, adding an interesting possible answer to the question "who's history is it, anyway?"

Brilliant, and it'll teach you 10 times more about prehistory than any textbook.

2007 update: I'm now biased; I met Francis when we invited 'Time Team' to dig a site on Anglesey last year. The man's as enthusiastic as his books.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Very enjoyable 31 Dec 2010
Format:Paperback
This is much more than just about Seahenge; it is an autobiography of someone who loves his work. Anyone who has watched the author in Time Team will have sensed his enthusiasm.

Francis Pryor's writing style makes for a very readable and enjoyable book, not too heavy on the academic or technical, yet occasionally throwing in explanations of methods or terms that are a great help to the non-archaeologist.

Some of the detail in some of the photos (most I suspect are very old) is hard to pick out, but this does not detract from the fact that overall this is a very good book.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Worth digging into 9 July 2013
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Francis Pryor gives us the interesting story of his career in archaeology. It is built around the discovery and excavation of the intriguing Seahenge site in Norfolk, but includes his fascinating and rewarding work in the Fens.
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