New Directions: Two Very Original Books on Archaeology

One consequence of the general ‘dumbing-down’ that is such a sad feature of so much modern marketing is that one rarely comes across anything interesting to read in an English Heritage or National Trust bookshop. Site guidebooks aside, it’s just the same old predictable, lavishly illustrated, if largely plagiarised, pap ground out by the usual celebrity suspects. Yawn, yawn. So I tend to spend my money on ice creams, which can sometimes be locally made and invariably stimulate my imagination far more than the books on offer. So now I’m going to suggest two books to take with you if you find yourself heading out into the countryside to visit ancient or prehistoric places.

Pagan BritainThe first is Ronald Hutton’s Pagan Britain (Yale University Press). I got to read it in proof stage, so that I could write a glowing reference for the back cover (not something I will agree to do if the book isn’t genuinely good, I hasten to add; I don’t get paid to do it!). It’s a superb piece of work and beautifully written, too. There isn’t so much as a hint of a textbook to it, yet it is packed full with facts. And don’t let the P word in the title put you off: that has nothing whatsoever to do with the sort of fruitcakery you’re likely to encounter if ever you’re mad enough to linger among the alternative crystal shops in Glastonbury (the town, not the festival). Hutton is careful not to remove the religions he discusses from the lives of the people at the time – as we currently understand them.  So I see it as a deeply rooted, or grounded, book, which sets religious and spiritual beliefs in their social context. To my mind it is just the sort of book one should read before visiting the newly made-over Stonehenge. And speaking as someone who has long been fascinated by ancient religion in all its bewildering and contradictory complexity, I rather wished this book had appeared thirty years ago, when I was wrestling with the problems of Neolithic ritual and ceremonial, as I tried to understand what had been going-on at Etton, some five and a half millennia ago (see my Seahenge, chapter 8). It’s a topic that has kept me stimulated ever since, and I will return to it in my next book for Penguin, which will be published early in October. The point is, that until quite recently nobody would have dared to have written about ancient religion if, that is, he or she wanted to retain so much as a shred of academic credibility. Thankfully, those dreadful, dreary times are largely past when to be a ‘scholar’ one had to stick to ‘hard facts’ and stay well clear of things that were ‘not provable’ or could be considered ‘speculative’. As I see it, we prehistorians are in the business of providing alternative models for life both in the crowded present and, perhaps more importantly, in the increasingly unstable future. And that requires imagination, not predictable stodge.

Which brings me seamlessly to my second book, Stonework, by Mark Edmonds and Rose Ferraby (Group VI Press, Orkney). In many ways the two books I have chosen to discuss could not have been more dissimilar. Pagan Britain is published by an established publisher of top quality books. It is thick, learned and packed with useful references. In many ways it exemplifies the old way of doing things, which is not to say, of course, that that will stop any time soon. But Stonework is, as the Pythons would have said: ‘something completely different’. For a start it’s self-published. Again, in the past the words ‘self-published’ could often be read as ‘unpublishable’; very often such books were produced by authors who were too arrogant to accept an editor’s changes. And sadly they were often tenth-rate. But with the coming of the internet all of that has changed. Now authors  can use Twitter and other social media to promote their work. Bloggers like me can write reviews; but it is not without its risks: I could have written something hostile, had I taken against it. Put another way, the ‘new’ self-publishing, whether truly self-done, or run through Amazon or Kindle, is not an escape from a real and hostile world. It’s another world of its own, entirely; another way of doing things, but one in which the author has far more control of his or her book’s production. In fact, I’ve been amazed by the extent to which I’ve been consulted by the nice folk at Unbound in the production stages of The Lifers’ Club. Never before have I been offered a range of styles and typefaces to choose from – and as for the cover(s), that has taken at least three attempts to get right. And now it’s spot-on. In fact, I’m delighted with it. But I digress…

No, the point I was so laboriously trying to make was that many authors today, especially those with an artistic or craft bent, turn to self-publishing to produce the book that not only looks right, but feels and handles right. Today, reading can be about far more than words and pictures alone. And Stonework is a prime example of this new genre of beautifully produced and crafted books. And being self-published there are few middle-managers and directors to ply with salaries and bonuses, so its price is very reasonable (just £25, which includes post and packing).

I first met Mark Edmonds, who wrote the words and did some of the illustrations for Stonework, many years ago, when he was a student. Since then he has become a leading authority on the Neolithic and has done some amazingly original research into the polished stone axes that were made in Cumbria and were exported all over Britain, between four and five thousand years ago. Etton produced loads of them, and Mark kindly described them in my final report (Etton: Excavations at a Neolithic causewayed enclosure near Maxey Cambridgeshire, 1982-7. English Heritage Archaeological Report No. 18 [1998]). Many specialists content themselves with classifying their chosen objects into endless categories and sub-divisions. Indeed those reports make an excellent substitute for diazepam, if you’re having trouble getting to sleep. But Mark has always been fascinated by why his chosen stone axes were fashioned in the first place. What made them so special and why did people seek out the wonderful creamy-green stone (that archaeologists labelled prosaically Group VI) and then quarry it? But they didn’t mine it somewhere convenient and low down, but high in the scariest cliffs of the Pike O’Stickle. I’ve looked up at those quarries, but the Fenman in me quakes at the thought of climbing up there, which Mark has done, of course, many, many, times.

So this book is a celebration of Group VI and what it might have meant in the past and how it affects us in the present.  It’s all about impression, feelings and time and is refreshingly fact-free. Mark describes it as ‘a different way of telling’. Personally I think you’ll get more from it if you can learn a bit about Group VI first. So if you don’t know anything about the topic I would strongly recommend that you visit the website which Mark has set-up (the tab ‘contexts’ gives you all you need to know in a nutshell):

You’ll be able to read about Group VI there, and of course you can buy the book on it. There are some useful references, too.

I was going to include some photos of the book, but I have to confess my pictures couldn’t do justice to its texture and feel. So I gave up. Another friend of mine, Mike Pitts, who edits the CBA magazine British Archaeology has written a very good review of Stonework, and with pictures that do the originals justice. It’s well worth a visit:

In two days time I’ll be poring over the first proofs of The Lifers’ Club. But there’s still just time to get your name in the list at the back (along with people like Mark Edmonds and Mike Pitts…). Meanwhile I’m wrestling with the plot of Alan Cadbury’s second adventure. The thing is, he never reports his stories to me the same way twice. It can be very frustrating and it makes the construction of a coherent narrative almost impossible! In fact, late last week I’d had enough. So I told him to get stuffed – I was that fed-up. Then yesterday evening he turned up at the pub and bought all the beers. So I suppose he’s forgiven, at least for the time being…

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