Running round in rings


January 3, 2003

Archaeology, Gordon Childe wrote, produces neither bombs nor butter. Its products are generally of a more intangible kind, taking the form of a critical understanding of the past that can throw light on how we live in the present. Much archaeology is publicly funded, and it is surprising how little the public gets back in terms of intelligent, well-written accounts. Seahenge is an exciting exception to this dismal record, combining a good sense of fieldwork, its boredom and excitements, with insights into a set of wonderful prehistoric Fenland landscapes, mostly excavated by the author himself.

Francis Pryor's style is immediate, and the partly autobiographical structure of the book conveys a sense of his personal involvement with all aspects of his craft, from digging to writing. British archaeology has shifted focus over the past 20 years from single sites to whole landscapes, attempting to link people's food production with the exigencies of the domestic sphere and, especially, to sacred sites and practices. Pryor has been at the forefront of this trend and has been digging in East Anglia, where waterlogging has preserved wooden structures and artefacts.

One might be tempted to say that he has been lucky in his sites, had he not made so much of his own luck. Understanding prehistoric landscapes requires a long-term investment, but the 30 years of work he describes contain some amazing results, not least because of the continuities of the Fenland landscapes. The landscapes of Etton/Maxey and Fengate and Flag Fen have produced a mass of evidence of features aligned across the landscapes. These were particularly marked in the Bronze Age when a system of drove ways and stockyards followed a nearly north-south alignment, but also evident in the more ephemeral ditches and house structures of the Neolithic period which followed a northeast-southwest axis. This change in layout of the landscapes 5,000 to 4,000 years ago is not something people would have undertaken lightly and must indicate a major change in world-view.

Pryor is keen to combat an older primitivism, which held that early farming peoples spent so much time and effort on survival that they had little leisure for thought about the broader nature of the cosmos. He insists that we need to understand how relations between people were built up to hold them together in communities and that important relations were maintained with the dead, who were as much members of society as the living.

My one quibble about this aspect of the book is that although individual areas are clearly described after a narrative of discovery and analysis, Pryor fails to pull together all the threads to show overall similarities or differences between various areas, leaving the reader with a final picture lacking synthesis.

My other cavil is more major. The book is named after a site composed of 55 timbers in a circle of roughly 6.5m diameter with an upturned oak in the middle. Tree-ring and radiocarbon dating show the central tree was felled in 2050BC and four of the posts in 2049BC. Early Bronze Age circles usually survive in stone or through post-holes, making this one unique. However, the entire structure was removed in front of the cameras of Channel Four's Time Team , sparking debate as to whether this was sacrilegious or a necessity given the site's proximity to the sea and likelihood of erosion. Local people, "new-agers" and some professional archaeologists objected to this peremptory treatment. Pryor seems more concerned about rebutting any criticisms than really engaging in debate, which is ironical in someone rightly concerned with the public face of archaeology.

Archaeological sites and evidence are first and foremost arenas for debate, with their significance and meaning varying according to different points of view. It is not enough for archaeologists simply to convey the results of their work to the public, they must engage in discussion about what sites might mean and what should be done with them.

This criticism runs counter to my main feeling about the book, which contains one of the best popular accounts of archaeology I have read. The enthusiasm and energy of the author come through clearly, the evidence he describes is rich and the sense he makes of it exemplary. Archaeology at its best should produce debates about the past, supplying evidence to fuel the debates and ideas to help structure them. If archaeologists can produce more books such as this, the subject needs little further justification.

Chris Gosden is lecturer and curator, Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford.

Seahenge: A Quest for Life and Death in Bronze Age Britain

Author - Francis Pryor
ISBN - 0 00 710192 9
Publisher - HarperCollins
Price - £8.99
Pages - 337

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