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25 of 32 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Staunch skepticism delightfully delivered, 13 Jun. 2005
This review is from: Pagan Religions Ancient British: Their Nature and Legacy (Paperback)
It's easy to envision Hutton tucked away in his Bristol University office wondering if anyone is still reading this book. Published just as the Internet was gaining wide-spread acceptance, it might have forestalled rash of neo-Druidism, Wiccan and other "pagan" cults the Web has fostered. For example, a search in these pages on "wicca", "pagan" and "druid" returns over 1 400 hits. The "wicca" books may be discounted immediately. Assessing reliable material on "pagan" and "druid" requires close investigation of references - which is the motivation for this book. Hutton insists on reliance on good sources and firm evidence. Modern "pagan" cults have no basis in historical or archaeological data. This work thus becomes a fine discourse on evidence from valid sources and what it can tell us about the people living in ancient Britain. Hutton carefully presents the evidence available from many millennia, declaring, among other things, that local customs far outweighed commonalty of customs.
Hutton's effort can only be called "sweeping" in scope. Using a chronological structure, he takes us from post-glacial British Isles through the invasion and conquest of the archipelago by Christianity. Early evidence lies in graves and their contents. Hutton shows the diversity of structures, body placement, location and other elements indicates that each community followed its own rules. Most, but not all, were adult males. Body orientation and "grave goods" varied with time and place. Even after Christianization local practices were retained for centuries. How far these practices reached into the past remains unproved in Hutton's view. Many "traditional" or "ancient" habits of recent decades likely originated in the 17th or 18th Centuries.
While building his picture of data reliability, he's scathingly critical of those "reading in" the evidence to create false images. The most flagrant of these is the recent "Mother-" or "Earth-Goddess" contrived by Marija Gimbutas and her adherents. Gimbutas finds "divinity" in nearly every artefact - "Venus" statuettes, painted images, carvings on bone. Hutton is more discerning, arguing that we might view the Venus figurines as dolls or invocation to household spirits. They are not, he contends, justifiably viewed as representing a single deity, nor even necessarily a deity at all. He applies this skeptical view to a number of other widely-held suppositions, asserting that what is claimed must be proven. That Gimbutas' unfounded claims for divinities have spread widely, even into university curricula, is sad testimony to the lack of attention Hutton's work has received.
Hutton is, in one sense, far too gentle in his approach in discounting the works of those misreading or inventing evidence. He asks for validation of claims where he could be directly contending with claimants. He has far too much respect for those who don't deserve it. He acknowledges, for example, that Robert Graves' "Triple Goddess" was an invention - as did Graves - but neither has quelled the ensuing adoration of the idea by a credulous public. Hutton also suffers from production cost woes. The illustrations in this book are nearly all line drawings of carvings, implements and figurines. While they illustrate his points, they are devoid of environment, leaving you wondering what else might be brought into the interpretation. There are some reproductions of paintings which strive for accuracy, but they are mostly indistinct. These illustrations are designed to convey the most likely cultural scenarios, but don't contribute to Hutton's presentation significantly. They can all be generally ignored, leaving the reader to concentrate on Hutton's presentation, which is admirable. If his efforts produce more excavations and research where these are lacking, then perhaps this book will have accomplished its aim. His writing is clear even where the evidence is not. Perhaps some of those taking this up will carry on the work to clarify what is missing. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
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Location: Ottawa, Ontario Canada

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