Books: When the Diggers Should Give Way to Historians ; Did Neanderthals Think like Trainspotters? Frank McLynn Questions a Survey Which Claims Too Much for Archaeology; Britain BC: Life in Britain and Ireland before the Romans by Francis Pryor HARPERCOLLINS Pounds 25 Pounds 23 (+ Pounds 2.25 P&P PER ORDER) 0870 800 1122
McLynn, Frank, The Independent on Sunday (London, England)
Francis Pryor, an archaeologist with 30 years' fieldwork behind him, has set out to write a popular, accessible guide to the story of Britain from earliest times to the Roman invasion of 43AD. But his book is a curious mish-mash of styles, idioms and motifs and in addition, it really collapses three distinct volumes into one. What we may call Book One is the straightforward historical guide based on archaeological evidence. After bringing us up to date on the latest thinking on that classical Darwinian problem, the descent of Man, he introduces Cro-Magnon Man, our common ancestor who first evolved in Africa 150,000 years ago and was the first example of homo sapiens to appear in Europe. Next comes Neanderthal Man (about 60,000BC), the classical exemplar of a nasty, brutish and short life, the product of what Pryor calls the first 15-minute, immediate gratification culture. Pryor seems obsessed with how these early humanoids would strike observers in today's Oxford Street (doubtless his gloss on the man on the Clapham omnibus) and whether they would turn heads. To judge from the drawing of the Neanderthal he produces, I can answer with an emphatic "no" for his hominid looks a dead ringer for Grant Mitchell in EastEnders.
But Pryor is keen to move on to the first real signs of history, around 8,000BC. Recognisable human society first emerges in Scotland at this time, quickly followed by the severing of Ireland from the rest of Britain by rising sea levels (c7500BC). By 6000BC Britain was a series of offshore islands and the stage was set for the emergence of the Early Neolithic Age (c4200-3000BC). Here the great transition was from hunter-gatherers and scavengers to farmers. 2500- 2000BC provides the passage from Late Neolithic to Early Bronze Age, followed by a Middle and Late Bronze Age from c1800-700BC; Pryor establishes that copper mining was far more extensive in this period than in the traditional accounts. Finally, the Early Iron Age finds the State in inchoate form, with political elites, specialisation of labour and a priestly caste. Throughout his historical sketch Pryor tries to insinuate one of his favourite ideas: that the Atlantic side of Britain, facing Brittany, Portugal and Spain, has been overemphasised while East Anglia, with links to north-east France, the Low Countries, north Germany and Scandinavia, has been neglected; in other words that Britain is as much a North Sea culture as an Atlantic one. And throughout his historical analysis the author seems obsessed with trying to get inside the minds of Britain's early inhabitants. "Neanderthal thought," he writes, "may have been very similar to the overfocused approach of obsessive trainspotters or stamp collectors." But how can Pryor know this? How can you deduce thought processes from archaeological remains? The attempt to understand "mentalities" or "mindsets" from groups of standing stones, hill-forts or shards of pottery suffers from obvious and well- known philosophical objections. More honest is Pryor's assessment elsewhere (which in effect rebuts the above statement), that archaeology is guess- work: "It's rather like trying to recreate the magic of Derby Day from a few champagne corks, a page of the Sporting Life and a broken horseshoe. …