Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Britain BC, by Francis Pryor

Pryor is a working archaeologist who writes well, making a lot of technical detail relatively painless. He is almost chatty at times, and gives a clear picture of how archaeologists develop theories and change their minds in the face of new evidence. This particular volume is also quite up-to-date. Good maps and diagrams, great photos.

That’s all fine, then. On to the ideas. The first 80 pages cover the early Paleolithic, in which I have little interest. The homonids he discusses who lived from 40K – 500K years ago are not our ancestors, or the ancestors of any living humans. It is a pet peeve of mine that physical anthropologists emphasize – repeatedly – how similar to modern humans they are. Well, compared to mice, or even macaque monkeys, sure. But their tools consisted of flint hand axes and they didn’t have language proper. Granting that they had better communication than apes or dolphins, and that the technique of shaping flint is hard to learn, they still aren’t much like us.

They died out 40,000 years ago. Those were the Neanderthals, and though they lived in Europe and left some evidence of themselves, there is no real connection to us. So who cares? I don’t really get interested until the late Paleolithic, when new hominids came in who eventually turned into us. Those are the ones who did the cave paintings, who had actual language comparable to ours, had religious ceremonies, and likely put a few quid down on their rugby matches as well. They’re us. Still, Pryor writes well enough to have kept me going through the Paleolithic, so I can hardly complain.

Humanity doesn’t really pick up speed until about 8000 BC, and if you said 5000BC instead I couldn’t argue with you. This is when farming comes in, and increased trading. Landscape features start taking on more mystic significance, and people start using the same areas generation after generation for ceremonies, gradually turning them into the Stonehenges, Skara Braes, and Newgranges we try to decipher. Pryor is good at dispelling myths about these places.

We think of these religious sites as rather solemn places. I remember speaking softly inside West Kennett Long Barrow and gazing contemplatively at Avebury’s stones. I suppose I think of them as British, and so rather Church Of England. In use, they would have been filled with wailing incantation and hours of drumming, painted garish colors every year with rising smokes to make you dizzy. Families would return to the places that the bones of their ancestors remained throughout the year, and when they came to bring Gramps’s bones this year, they wouldn’t have done it off-handedly. They would have to move across the landscape from the lands of the living to the lands of the ancestors. People wouldn’t go there to have a few days off from the family and just think about spiritual matters.

Wood was used for the living, stone for the dead. There is evidence that this occurred even at subtle levels. The tempering agents used in pottery for domestic use tended to be plant-based; minerals for funerary pottery. It is interesting that there is still an echo of this in our funeral customs of transitioning folks from living to dead: flowers followed by wood coffins followed by stone markers. Many henge sites show post-hole evidence of being originally wood henges. Once the stones were erected, there were still posts arranged on the long ceremonial paths leading to them. Presumably the posts had something on them, and when they are in close rows, may have been used as screens to heighten effects of the journey.

The current thinking is that there were not a series of invasions or large migrations in the Mesolithic and Neolithic times, but that ideas of animal husbandry and plant cultivation came with only a few small tribes - the technology spreading rather than battle and conquest. Battle and conflict there certainly was, but similar to the frequent skirmishing of current hunting tribes, rather than armies and military campaigns. Over the course of a decade, the deaths in battle add up in such circumstances.

In the transition from hunter-gatherer to agriculture, each tribe would have handled it differently. Some would have rapidly settled down and made beer, while at the other extreme some hunting tribes might only have modified how they followed the reindeer across the landscape, bringing in dogs to manage the herd a bit. Most would have been mixed for generations, even centuries, with some herding, some minimal planting or sowing each year in their patterned migration, and trade contacts with tribes that had made different choices.

I didn’t get to finsih it because it’s a Christmas present, but I may get a whack at it again down the road. The first 270 pages are recommended, anyway.

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