The time this land forgot

Britain BC
August 20, 2004

Brian Fagan delves into the pre-Roman past that shapes our island nation.

Francis Pryor, archaeologist, TV presenter and sheep farmer, is passionate about archaeology as a chronicle of people in the past. He believes that you cannot understand British his-tory by starting with Julius Caesar's brief visit in 55BC. Britain BC argues that the roots of contemporary society lie deep in the remote past, writ large both in archaeological sites and in human DNA.

Pryor sets out to chronicle these continuities with an emphasis not on artefacts and food remains but on people who lived and died, loved and hated, formed bonds and had children. The result is a literate and engaging account of British prehistory, which is opinionated and at times speculative, but always firmly grounded in Pryor's rich experience of archaeology and life.

This is also an articulate rebellion against the "philatelic tendency creeping into archaeology... an obsession with sites, dates, artefacts and other minutiae at the expense of the original people and the stories that lay behind them". At the same time, Pryor does not recoil from controversy and expressing bold opinions that, as he puts it, are not necessarily those of the "Great Men" of archaeology.

Britain BC begins with the evidence for the earliest human settlement - the well-known Boxgrove site and the multipurpose handaxes that were the trademark of the Lower Palaeolithic. From there, we move briskly through the Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons, who left but a sparse footprint in the British Isles. Two chapters cover the global warming after the Ice Age and Mesolithic hunter-gatherers, who flourished until as late as 4000BC. It is during these millennia that Pryor identifies a characteristic of Britain's early history: what he calls insularity - somewhat idiosyncratic responses to social and economic conditions. This, he says, is the story of Britain and Ireland in a nutshell.

The book devotes three chapters to the earliest farmers. One covers the daily round, another monuments and pathways, a third death rituals. Britain BC journeys through these centuries after 4000BC from case study to case study, using mainly recent research, such as Seamus Caulfield's investigations of the Ceide Fields field system in County Mayo, Ireland, and his own work at Fengate, near Peterborough. Pryor estimates that between 30,000 and 50,000 people lived in Britain by 3200BC. This minuscule population constructed elaborate sacred landscapes, complete with causewayed enclosures, cursuses and burial mounds. He stresses the dynamic nature of these landscapes and their critical role in daily life. His Neolithic journey ends with a lively description of rituals at New Grange in Ireland's Bend of the Boyne, where he aptly rails against bureaucratic reconstructions of ancient monuments. "I'm not sure what I dislike most: the nearly destroyed or the supposed tourists' dream. Neither does justice to the original."

About 1500BC, British and Irish societies became more sedentary, field systems more set and the rationale for sacred landscapes less compelling.

Pryor brings us up to date on the latest thinking about Stonehenge, some of it based on analogies from Madagascar, where there are living traditions of communal burial and ceremonial. Much new research is concerned with the domains of the living and the ancestors, with the formalisation of the social landscapes of daily life.

This was the time when bronze first came into use in about, or just before, 2000BC. Life in Britain began to change profoundly, with the development of closely organised, livestock-based field systems.

Iron Age communities owed much to earlier times. The experimental Iron Age farm at Little Butser, Hampshire, provides the context for a discussion of Iron Age roundhouses. Iron technology arrived in Britain in about 750BC, with major changes in society coming after 500BC, as Iron Age communities became more diverse and specialist trades became commonplace.

When the Romans arrived, Britain was a land of tribal kingdoms with complex and ever-changing interrelationships. Pryor believes that native beliefs, traditions and ways of life, with their deep roots in the past, survived the four centuries of Roman occupation remarkably well to become an integral part of the fabric of modern Britain.

Britain BC is an entertaining, intelligently argued and thoroughly up-to-date survey of British prehistory. Every teacher of history should read this book, then apply its lessons in the classroom.

Brian Fagan is emeritus professor of anthropology, University of California, Santa Barbara, US.

Britain BC: Life in Britain and Ireland before the Romans

Author - Francis Pryor
Publisher - HarperCollins
Pages - 488
Price - £25.00
ISBN - 0 00 712692 1

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