Thursday, February 13, 2020

David Miles - The Tale of the Axe: How the Neolithic Revolution Transformed Britain

I've been looking forward to reading The Tale of the Axe for some time as there is a lack of popular studies of the stone age tools that our ancestors used for much of human history. As the subtitle of David Miles' book suggests, these tools were fundamental to the transformation of human society from nomadic hunter-gathering to sedentary farming communities.

Disappointingly, however, stone age technology is not really the subject of the book. In fact the title is a bit of a misnomer, as there is no real tale of the axe here. Instead this is a decent over-view of how our understanding of ancient human history has developed and a summary of contemporary understanding, which particularly focuses on the British Isles.

Unfortunately the book suffers from trying to do too much, and becomes a bit of a mish-mash of ideas and subjects. There is quite a bit of skipping back and forth, and at times I was frustrated because I didn't really get what the author was arguing. It is refreshing to see someone engaging critically with the work of Gordon Childe and the ideas of Engels in the context of archaeology, but I didn't really find out whether he found them useful or not. Instead Miles appears to take bits and pieces of what he finds useful and apply them to particular situations without really giving me a sense of his actual framework.

While there is actually much of interest here (and some absolutely stunning photos and illustrations) I was quite frustrated by the book and the author's style. His tendency to throw in random facts and contemporary quotations was deeply distracting and left me annoyed rather than illuminated.

These criticisms aside, David Miles' book does have some interesting details and he draws on his long career as an archaeologist to illuminate specific sites and periods. But ultimately I was disappointed.

Related Reviews

Pryor - Britain BC
Bellwood - First Farmers: The Origins of Agricultural Societies
Mazoyer & Roudart - A History of World Agriculture from the Neolithic Age to the Current Crisis
Lewis-Williams - The Mind in the Cave
Mithen - To the Islands
Green - A Landscape Revealed: 10,000 Years on a Chalkland Farm
Reynolds - Ancient Farming
Flannery & Marcus - The Creation of Inequality

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