Sunday, April 08, 2012
Francis Pryor - Seahenge: A Quest for Life and Death in Bronze Age Britain
Readers may remember the excitement near the end of 1999 when a wooden circle was discovered on a Norfolk beach. Surrounding a central, uprooted tree stump, a circle of timber looked like a wooden Stonehenge. Quickly the media dubbed it Seahenge and the name has stuck. This irritates some students of archaeology, as the circle is not a henge in the sense that Stonehenge is. Rather the timber circle was actually made of planks, touching to form a continuous wall. It's only after thousands of years of action from water that we see the timber reduced to stumps, and the appearance of a henge.
Francis Pryor's book is much more than an exploration of what Seahenge was, and what it was for. It is a deep, semi-autobiographical trawl through the way that studies of the Bronze Age have changed during the last hundred years. Pryor is now one of the foremost archaeologists of the Bronze Age, and he has helped over see a changing view of the way that the people of that era lived, worshipped, farmed and died.
This book begins with Seahenge, but rapidly looks at a number of sites that Pryor has concentrated on. In particular, the Flag Fen site near Peterborough, which Pryor has been instrumental in excavating, exploring and bringing to the attention of the public. As he discusses his involvement with these sites, he teaches the reader how he, looks at the Bronze Age landscape. For Pryor, it is not enough to look at a site or a find in isolation, you have to understand it in the context of the wider world of the people who lived there, or buried the item in the ground. This means looking at the importance of boundaries, roads, paths and the edges of water. Pryor shows us how Bronze Age people might have seen the world around them, based on the layout of their farms and the positions of their buildings. His archaeological research is practical, and his statements, while they occasionally border on whimsy, frequently are based on experience. Pryor knows that you can't have a central chimney on a Bronze Age round house, because he's tried it and had to flee the recreation as it filled with dense smoke. Pryor begins with Seahenge, but he finishes there too. You cannot explain Seahenge without understanding the wider Bronze Age experience, and this is one of the reasons that the book is so strong - the author is giving us the intellectual basis to understand Seahenge. You cannot explain a monument (if that is the right word) like this, without this. It would be like trying to sum up the Magna Carta, or Karl Marx's thought in a single sentence.
"At the end of the second season in 1972 I gave a paper at a conference in Newcastle, in which I described the emerging picture of well-regulated life in the Bronze Age. No sooner had I stepped down from the stage than half a dozen academics declared that such order and organisation could only be due to the presence of a powerful political elite, who controlled those otherwise unruly prehistoric Fen folk. I don't know why, but this assumption irritated me. Why couldn't they control the way they behaved themselves? Why do some always have to look for a ruling class, just because ordinary people seem to be running their lives efficiently and well?"
There are some interesting bits here. Pryor discusses the neolithic revolution, the moment in human history, when agriculture transformed our ways of life and pushed us in the direction of class society and the accumulation of ever greater wealth. He points out that this was less of a revolution than a gradual process, agriculture having its roots in early experiences, even of hunter-gathering communities. While the transformation was revolutionary, it was not a process that happened overnight, nor was it simultaneous everywhere. This view feels more natural, though I think Pryor underplays the importance of the term revolution in this context. The development of agriculture and the transition to a life dominated by sedentary life, rather than movement was a culmination of what had happened before, but it was also a break from it. Humans constantly develop their forces of production, sometimes they transform their situation into a new mode of production. Hunter-gathering had elements of agriculture to it, but it is a fundamentally different system to one based on agriculture.
But these are really the minor quibbles of a Marxist obsessed with early farming. Pryor's book is one of the best introductions I've ever read into Bronze Age history and archaeology. If it doesn't make you want to read more, or visit the stones of Carnac in Brittany, or Flag Fen itself, then I really cannot imagine what will. Most of all though, Pryor is a writer who likes people. Those that lived, worshipped and were sometimes buried at the sites he describes are real, rounded individuals who lived in the midst of a landscape they tried to shape and understand. For this reason alone, Pryor is an archaeologist who, it feels to me is on the right side.
Pryor - Britain BC
Pryor - Britain AD
Pryor - Britain in the Middle Ages
Pryor - The Making of the British Landscape