Let's be fair - a New Age book is a fun read. Bold assertions, sweeping pronouncements, assumptions offered grounded on faith grip the reader's attention. Such confidence must have some underlying justification, right? New Age books have one great virtue. They challenge "established" thinking with intriguing questions demanding valid answers. Dames' book fits well into the genre. It's an entertaining venture, filled with interesting ideas, vivid illustrations and based on the idea that remnants of the Neolithic world remain a part of modern life.
The photograph of John Barleycorn celebrants on page 17 sets both the theme and the tone of this book. Why, asks Dames, is this bunch of rummies wearing those outlandish costumes, sloshed beyond reason, tunelessly singing some arcane melody? Dames uses this image as a launch site to examine ancient rituals and explain their origins. His focus is evidence derived from various burial sites and henge monuments. For him, all these are indications of the dominance of the Hag Goddess supposedly prevalent in many Neolithic cultures. Stone shape and placement, relative positions, accumulated debris and other evidence all points to a society dominated by rituals honouring the Earth Mother.
Dames doesn't just propose the Earth Goddess as the basis for Neolithic structures of widely varying design, he simply assumes it at the outset. From that start he's able to dovetail an overwhelming number of graves, skeletal postures, barrow shape, location and orientation into his thesis. Even the watercourses of the local streams have ritual significance. He puts each artefact or other element before you with such confidence and enthusiasm, it's hard to resist. If you take his presentation at face value, it's easy to become enmeshed in the image he builds of fertility rites, sacrifices and homage to deities. No-one dies of old age or disease in Dames world. Nor, it would seem, is there any place for males, either in the society or the heavens [This was tested using the photograph on page 35 where one observer saw a phallic symbol and the other a subdued Hag Goddess.].
Although Dames asserts in one place that the Avebury Cycle is a cooking ritual, he later deems it location of the annual fertility rite. Perhaps he was swept up in his own rhetoric while building toward the culmination of his inspiration. For Dames isn't content with the spread of similar rites and behaviours over a scattered collection of communities. There's a bigger surprise in store, which he graphically produces at the end of the book. It turns out that not only is the Earth Goddess commonly worshipped throughout the Neolithic world, she has her own image for airborne viewers to perceive. A nine by twenty kilometre area of the Wessex Chalk Downs has been configured around streams, henges, stone monuments and various grave sites to outline the Goddess to all who can achieve the altitude - or develop the imagination. It's a breathtaking proposal - one that would give the ghosts of the Inca carvers of the Nazca Plain a tinge of envy. Except the Inca, at least, made their images unmistakable.
Dames' book is a frolic for those not in the archaeologist's guild. If you accept his opening assumption, the rest of the book is easy to swallow. Evidence as limited as the Neolithic age has left us is easy to interpret. Shade from proper lighting, pointing out what's there - when it is - strong assertions all lead the unwary to follow Dames sweeping assumptions. But a closer look even at the evidence he provides leaves one in doubt. Two low hills bracing a gully immediately become "breasts". Try it with any two low hills in your area. Dames selection would be laughed at by any Playmate. It doesn't bear thinking what a Neolithic wife might say. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]