No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

#34: Britain BC -- Francis Pryor

This has been my bedtime reading for months now: there's only so much detailed analysis of hut-circles and ditches that I can imbibe at a time. And I didn't even know that Francis Pryor was famous (or perhaps notorious) for his work on Time Team and other pop archaeology projects.

I bought Britain BC for the first few chapters, really: Britain during and after the last Ice Age, the excavations at Boxgrove, life before metal. Pryor's enthusiasm for his subject, and his anthropological perspectives -- he returns again and again to the spiritual, magical implications of various sites -- kept me hooked. And I learnt a lot, though some of it is inevitably closer to speculation than to fact.

Pryor's explanations are accessible, colloquial, couched in layman's terms. He compares Neanderthal thought processes (deduced from brain capacity, probable maturation period and relatively static technology) to "the overfocussed approach of obsessive trainspotters or stamp collectors". His digressions -- mostly in footnotes rather than endnotes, a distinction I appreciate -- are wonderfully entertaining:

Timber, a word unique to English, defines a form of wood which has been trimmed up and sometimes split, sawn or further subdivided, with the intention of being used in a structure of some sort. A felled tree is not timber (despite what lumberjacks shout as warning) but its trimmed-up trunk is.

He's pretty rude about some of the 'restorations': Newgrange is a 'grotesque hatband', Neolithic tombs defaced by 'Ministry mortar'. He's a little more tolerant of those who have gone before. His passage on Dean Buckland, the 19th-century clergyman who excavated a Paleolithic burial under the impression that he was digging up a Roman prostitute surrounded by the bones of beasts who'd drowned in the Flood, is almost affectionate. (That burial is like something from a Robert Holdstock novel: it took place during the last great glacial maximum -- 26,000 years ago -- right on the edge of the habitable part of Britain, in a cave that now overlooks the sea but would have been high in the mountains. The cave had been used for thousands of years before that burial, and would be used again. A liminal zone.)

There's a recurrent theme of Place, here: of sacred -- or at least somehow 'special' -- sites being used again and again, often hundreds or thousands of years after they first became significant, and sometimes after a long period of disuse. It's not so much continuity of purpose, as perhaps a new set of people happening upon the remains of an older set, not understanding them but recognising that they held some importance. In the early modern age, antiquarians attributed Neolithic monuments to folk heroes or devils; how did earlier ages interpret the relics of their ancestors?

Pryor draws upon recent anthropological work to suggest simple equations that, whether or not they are true, are credible. Stone for the dead, wood for the living; buildings erected so that the use of them mirrors the diurnal and seasonal cycles; ritual landscapes with definite boundaries; the spiritual dimension of even the most mundane tasks. He really gets into his stride in the Bronze Age, writing about lake villages -- in particular Flag Fen (near Peterborough), a site he's spent years excavating. His enthusiasm is infectious.

As his sweeping overview of history draws to a close, it's clear he also has an agenda: an argument that pre-Roman Britain was by no means a land of heavy-browed savages, but rather a surprisingly sophisticated collection of tribal kingdoms with legal and civil systems firmly in place. "It would be tempting to suggest that the British love of democracy and instinctive mistrust of all politicians is rooted in prehistory, but I shall try to resist it."

Fortunately for the entertainment of the reader, he doesn't try too hard.


  1. You encapsulate what is both appealing and infuriating about Pryor. He is a tremendously enthusiastic man, which makes him a great educatior. But he has a romantic strike a mile wide, which leads him to present a picture of pre-Roman Britain where no-one ever had a bad word to say to anyone else.

  2. It *is* a bit idyllic, apart from the frequent sacrifices and warfare. And the Romans were Horrid and Bad. But Pryor knows how to hook his readers: there are passages in there as compelling as any novel (even though they probably have little more factual content).