Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Francis Pryor - Britain BC

The period of history before the Romans came to Britain gets little enough attention. Right at the end of his excellent and illuminating book, Francis Pryor makes the point that the British Museum devotes less than 2% of its space to items from pre-Roman Britain.

The periods of Neolithic, Bronze and Iron in the UK are surprisingly well understood, though as with many periods of ancient history, you can get a group of archaeologists to argue into the small hours over the exact meaning of small finds or the arrangement of uncovered stones.

Pryor takes us on a historical journey right through the “half million or so years that elapsed before the Romans introduced written records to the British Isles”. In doing so, we learn a surprisingly large amount about life in “prehistory” and about the people who study it. In particular, I was struck by the large scale nature of some of the work done by people who in the past have been thought of as quite backward. We have all seen images of Stonehenge, but Pryor makes the case that Stonehenge was part of a “ritual landscape” that included tombs, paths and other large ground markings called “cursuses”.

He also points out that the ancients would have cut down hundreds of acres to create this landscape and allow it to be seen from afar. This is all evidence for collective thinking that is quite unlike the image of small bands of people we often have heard about in the past. I also particularly like how he shows that for people that distant from us, we must avoid making assumptions based on our own society – as life and death, myth and reality, past and present, religion and life must have been much more intertwined than in our own society.

It’s rare that objects other than stone or metal survive for long. However there are some places where wooden posts, pathways and so on have survived – usually bogs or similar wetlands. I was amused to see that the nature of this preservation leads scientists to be able to pinpoint with great accuracy the moment they were made – the winter of 3806 – 3807 BC for one track uncovered in Somerset and pictured in the book.

Pryor’s creates a picture of tremendously complex societies and histories – and shows how the different ages (stone, bronze and iron) tended to merge gradually into each other, rather than having specific start and end dates. He shows how there must have been traditions and histories that linked the peoples of these times. However, I do think it gets taken too far.

His attempts to show a continuity with the past are interesting, and one has to agree with his argument that invasions of Romans and Normans failed to wipe out the indigenous society (arguments of an earlier Celtic invasion previously hold little sway for modern archaeologists). But too say that as he does that “I genuinely believe that the British belief in individual freedom has prehistoric roots” is to invite ridicule – particularly as there have been many points in history since prehistoric times where individual freedom has been oppressed.

What Pryor does, is to bring alive a thriving culture and society from Britain’s past, the people’s homes, their farms, their deaths and their monuments. But I think he narrowly avoids falling into a right-wing trap that roots today’s society in some long unbroken line into the distant past.


maeve66 said...

Oh -- I like this review, and I'd love to read the book, though I am not sure where I could get it right now, and I have a vast queue of books waiting to be purchased, which I can't afford, either. I'll have to look at a local library.

I think this is almost where I came in, with you. I love archaeology in Britain, and prehistory in Britain, and also post-Roman history. All of it. I've had friends who worked with Martin Carver, of the University of York, he of Sutton Hoo fame. Thanks for writing this. Enjoyable.

Anonymous said...

Just because people of Britain have suffered from oppression doesn't mean they didn't want it or indeed lost the will for freedom during this time.

I think Francis Pryor does a good job of separating any personal view from the presented evidence.

Enjoyed your review, thanks.