The Death of Prehistory? On the Contrary.

Rediscovering Ancient Britain – A Time Team Special.

This is a review of a rather good trot through the Neolithic and Bronze Ages, which pulls some great names in to tell the story. And because it touched upon a couple of subjects in archaeology that I’d been meaning to write about for a while, I thought I’d take the opportunity to stick my nose in, unasked, and possibly unwanted.

The show.

You may want to watch it before reading this – you may want to do it the other way round. You may want to do neither. I’m just assuming you’re in the right place.

The programme makers decided to narrow the scope of enquiry to the Dorset Ridgeway, which is a good plan, as there’s an awful lot of Prehistory, and you’ve got to start (and finish) somewhere. To section it off into even more easily digestible morsels, the inquiries are split between three people:

Alex Langlands (the new guy) is going to walk the Ridgeway and experiment with phenomenology (because the other two didn’t fancy it).

Phil Harding is going to explore the technology of Prehistory (good, solid walkthrough – won’t be talking about it here – worth a watch though).

And Tony Robinson will be interviewing various experts about recent advances in archaeological enquiry.

The foundation of the narrative begins with the geology of the area – for this they bring in geologist Sam Scriven. Sam explains how the Dorset Ridgeway started life as a sea bed, but found a second career as a hill when it was pushed up as a knock on effect of the continent of Africa colliding with Europe. He actually uses the phrase ‘smashed into’ to describe the collision. This event of course happened in geological time – there was no bang. It’s not as if herds of Apatosaurus looked up from their ferns to see what all the bloody racket was about, or any pods of ichthyosaurs had to get a shimmy on to avoid becoming flatfish. Sam almost makes you believe that, had Africa not been drinking heavily the night before, this whole messy European business could have been avoided entirely.

Anyway. He goes on to explain that the chalk ridge contains a plentiful supply of nodular flint, and that a spring line runs along the base – so, high dry ground, raw materials for making tools, and a good supply of fresh water. Additionally of course, there is a nearby coast with plentiful marine resources. In short, a pretty ideal spot all round.

Long Barrows.

We’re not surveying the whole of prehistory – we’re starting with the Early Neolithic, around 6,000 years ago, and heading for the (third) Roman invasion in 43AD. To get there, the writers have decided to use characteristic monument types from each period – it’s a good approach, and to start Alex off on his phenomenological adventure, he’s getting a guided tour of the rather interesting long barrow known as the  “Grey Mare and Her Colts”, from the equally interesting Richard Bradley.

Bradley gives a bare-bones (no pun intended) overview of how the structure would have looked shortly after it was built, and how they were ‘”closed” and put out of service by the addition of mind-bogglingly heavy slabs of rock. He also points out that the people who interred their relatives here are unlikely to have lived on this windswept hill, for all sorts of practical reasons. This is Alex’s first brush with phenomenology, a more detailed explanation of which is then delivered by  Prof. Sue Hamilton of UCL. It is, essentially, an attempt to understand ancient landscapes by putting yourself in the shoes of the people from the period you are trying to study. I am sceptical. We will be coming back to this. . .

Timber Circles and Henges.

Now we’re under Dorchester with Tony and Mike Pitts, in the underground carpark at Waitrose. There are a number of large red dots painted on the concrete floor of the carpark, each denoting the position and size of an excavated post-hole which originally contained a large oak post, believed to have been part of a huge timber circle. Four football pitches wide, Tony says.

I had to go and look this up, as I had no idea how big a football pitch is. It turns out that there is a wide range of variation – according to the BBC, “The length of a pitch must be between 100 yards (90m) and 130 yards (120m) and the width not less than 50 yards (45m) and not more than 100 yards (90m).” This is probably worth keeping in mind next time you hear someone using a football field as a unit of measurement – there is, apparently, no legal way of stopping them.

Ok, bear with . . .  according to the measurement I just took in Google Earth it’s around 481 yards across (440 metres), or around 4 times the size of the great circle at Stanton Drew, the second largest stone circle in Britain (Avebury is the largest). A biggun in other words. I am constantly taken aback at how little known these places are. This would be of interest to school kids, no? Thank you. That’s what I thought.

This segues neatly into a summing up of henges (though they are not directly related to timber or stone circles, they are found in conjunction frequently enough for the link to made made without too much explanation), illustrated by a nice graphic, and a visit to the remarkable Maumbury Rings. Tony asks the question “Do we know what its function was?” – a decent question, and one we should never stop asking.

Pitts responds by saying that we know they aren’t military sites, and we know they weren’t domestic spaces either, and by ticking off those options concludes that they were probably ritual spaces.

But when an archaeologist says ritual, what they usually mean is religious. However, it should be noted that our own society indulges in a great deal of ritual behaviour which is not predominantly religious in nature – running around the country with an Olympic torch, Trooping the Colour, the procession around the country made by the Queen for a Jubilee celebration. These are all ritual performances whose elaborate displays far out-weigh a simple declaration of an event or occurrence. It’s worth remembering – ritual does not always mean religion. Henges may (or indeed may not) be ritual spaces – military, royal, sporting, religious, or all of the above.

Pitts pulls out a beautifully preserved antler, which appears to have taken on  the nature of the chalk in which it was buried – they are regularly found at the bottom of the ditches they were used to create. He’s using it to illustrate the kind of tools they had available for such ridiculously ambitious, and astoundingly achieved engineering projects such as the henge at Avebury and Maumbury Rings itself.

The second artefact which nestles in his lap is a 22cm chalk phallus, which he describes as a “huge willy” (though my partner said she thought it looked distinctly average. Bless you sweetheart.) He says that a number of these have been found, and concedes that there is no way of telling whether they would be something that was treated with any seriousness by the henge builders, or whether they were something of a joke.

A fair sized one was found during the Stonehenge Riverside Project at Durrington Walls. This find became informally known as the “Durrington Dong” (Parker Pearson, 2012), a name which was also given to that season’s cocktail of choice – a concoction of gin, Campari and ginger beer.

Something that often crosses my mind when crude carvings are discovered is that children may well be responsible – even in the late Mesolithic they made up around 40% of the population (Roveland, 2000), but are rarely considered in archaeological texts, unless found in the context of an interesting burial. Who knows how many ‘ritual’ artefacts are in fact nothing more than kids messing about with wood or chalk? Who’s to say that the hermaphroditic “God Dolly” found at Bell’s Trackway on the Somerset Levels was not a joke figure of Big Uncle Derek (a popular Neolithic name no doubt), the man with a willy and boobs?

“Don’t let Uncle Derek see that! Throw it in the swamp you little buggers!”

Alex’s Big Phenomenological Adventure (Part One).

Back to Alex. He’s alone now, and wandering the Ridgeway with a little video camera to record his thoughts. He’s getting deeper into the whole phenomenology thing. When he comes across a barrow, he wants to see what it says to us. It’s quite tall, it stands out, he says. And it’s right along this Ridgeway. It is an unbelievable bit of landscape – the kind of place – he says – where you would want to bury your ancestors.

Maybe we’re just different, but when I’m at the top of a hill, my first thoughts aren’t usually about burying my family. Actually, I suppose it would depend what mood I was in, and how they’d been behaving on the walk up.

I suppose one of the reasons why I’m clinging onto my scepticism at this approach is that it’s just impossible to condense fact out of nuance (Stephenson, 1992) at this distance. The cultural beliefs that dictated or at least helped shaped the choices and behaviour of the population that constructed these monuments died with them. I could wander around the Australian Outback phenomonologising for a decade, but without a deep knowledge of the Songlines that bind various monuments and landmarks together, I would, in essence, be making things up according to my own cultural values. I can’t see how this is different.

It is not a method without value, but should probably be used sparingly, and ideally for pragmatic considerations of movement only. As with any other realm of archaeological conjecture, there is no way to rewind the tape to see if your findings were right.

Also, it should be noted that by placing barrows on hills, they’re not taking up any valuable agricultural land. Just saying.

The Death of Prehistory?

Cut to Tony, who’s telling us about a new dating technique that’s changing the face of C-14 dating. He’s actually talking about Bayesian analysis which, I feel the overwhelming need to point out, is not in fact new. The method was first formulated by Thomas Bayes in the 18th century. Its application to C-14 dating in prehistoric archaeology is new, but Bayes came up with it well over 200 years ago, even if (and this, if no other reason makes me admire the man) there was absolutely no application for it at the time (Bryson, 2011). If he were alive today, I would send him a cake.

Thomas Bayse, c-14 and the henge which isn’t a henge.
Stonehenge image © Adam Stanford.

Anyway. Tony is talking to Dr. Alex Bayliss. She explains that if you have a large amount of material from which you can draw a range of C-14 dates, the data can then be analysed using Bayesian analysis. Baye’s Rule essentially increases the resolution of a probability estimate. In other words, where previously archaeologists were working with dates that had an accuracy leeway of sometimes up to 300 years (shhh – don’t tell anyone), that leeway can now be reduced to as little as 20 years. These results, which came as a surprise even to Dr. Bayliss, have weighty implications for the archaeological community. Or, as she put it in an interview with the Guardian;

“[A] lot of what we have been taught in the past is complete bollocks.”

There are drawbacks though – to get enough radio-carbon dates you need a big sample. It’s no coincidence that Dr. Bayliss and other members of the team that undertook the research decided to start with Causewayed Enclosures, the ditches of which are frequently brimming with deposits of a suitable nature. She uses the Causewayed Enclosure at Maiden Castle as an example – it was originally excavated by Sir Mortimer Wheeler in the 1930s and was presumed to have been in use for centuries (as was the case with all Causewayed Enclosures before this new analysis program began). But because the ample human remains that were excavated had also been stored (this is, incidentally, an excellent argument against reburial) Dr. Bayliss and her team had plenty of material to sample and analyse. The results showed them that the Causewayed Enclosure was probably constructed and in use for around ten years – certainly less than twenty. Dr. Bayliss proclaims this to be the death of prehistory.

Now, as you may have gathered from the title of this post, I’m not entirely in agreement with this phrase. It’s not the first time I’ve heard it and I feel it represents something of a fumbled ball for archaeology. The thing that separates history from prehistory is a lack of written documentary evidence. That’s the cut-off point. And although tightening the chronology of a foggy period is a major achievement, it doesn’t change the nature of the discipline – it’s still archaeology – it doesn’t need to be contextualised by referencing  a second discipline with a separate methodology.

I realise it may just be my own opinion, but this is a scientific triumph for archaeology – a real breakthrough for a discipline which has been going through a series of self imposed identity crises since the 90s, caused by the application of theory lifted wholesale from unrelated spheres. This level of resolution is a solid achievement for applied methodology. This is the birth of prehistory, surely?

Ok fine. I’ll have a cup of tea and calm down.

Alex’s Big Phenomenology Experiment (Part Two).

To continue the phenomenology experiment, Alex spends the night in a tent, just like a ‘stone age’ man. Obviously it’s a pop-up tent, and supper consists of beans on white toast (at least while the camera is on) but I’m absolutely convinced that this is as close to the real thing as you can possibly get without trying at all.

By the time the sun comes up, it’s the Bronze Age and Alex is having a breakfast of porridge cooked in an aluminium pan. He’s telling us how this experience is informing him that even in the Bronze Age people probably woke up and had breakfast. He’s deep into it now. To be honest I don’t know how he’s going to reintegrate into modern society.

Stone Circles.

Tony’s at a stone circle with archaeologist Niall Sharples – I didn’t catch the name of it, but as far as I can tell it’s the Kingston Russell Circle. It’s a smallish circle, and the stones lie recumbent, though apparently this was not always the case. Sharples makes the case for the Bronze Age circle as a meeting place, providing a similar function as a moot mound, or a Viking ‘thing’ (assembly).

The Kingston Russell example reinforces this suggestion because it is overlooked by the other prehistoric monuments that run along the length of the Ridgeway. It is surrounded by reminders of a long occupation, of continuity. And if perhaps you were the one delivering a speech, or recounting an event to those gathered around you, or negotiating a settlement, you may be able to bring these monuments into play – to remind them of the consequences of a rash decision made by the person interred in that barrow, or inspire them with reminders of the wisdom of the person interred in that one over there.

Tony chalks it up as another win for phenomenology.

Metals & All That.

The program feels rushed towards the end, but that’s alright, as I often feel the same way about prehistory. Millennia upon millennia of stone technology, then someone works out that if you heat up green rock it goes runny, changes colour, and can be molded into weapons. Then bam! We’re on the Moon playing golf.

For the program the progression through prehistory ends with the Roman invasion. Someone dressed in full lorica segmentata trots out the myth of the unstoppable Roman fighting machine against naked warriors unable to withstand the advance in technology and change in tactics. He’s conveniently forgetting the battle of the Thames, where the 40,000 strong invasion force was fought to a standstill for two days. And all the other thrashings they received over the years. But still. No time to dwell on that, because it’s back to. . .

Alex’s Big Phenomenology Experiment (Part Three – also, The End).

His clothes are gone – we don’t know where – and he has smeared his body with mud – the pelt of a badly skinned rabbit covers his modesty. A pair of pheasant tail feathers arch back from the crust of white chalk he’s rubbed into his hair. Brandishing a long stick, to the end of which he has attached a crudely knapped flint, he fixes the lens with worryingly dilated pupils and pours forth a glossolalic torrent of sounds, while gesticulating frantically towards the setting sun, the barrows, the earth, the grass and sea. He lunges at the camera, grunts and swings his spear to deliver a  heavy double a handed blow. The lens cracks, and the filming stops. He has come too far, too fast.

Such are the dangers of misapplied theory.

 About the author.

Henry Rothwell is a digital archaeologist specialising in heavy sarcasm and inappropriate comments. He will never learn, and can often find his way home at night guided only by the light of the bridges he keeps burning.


Durrington Dong recipe. (Parker Pearson, 2012)
Parker Pearson, Mike. (2012). Stonehenge – Exploring the Greatest Stone Age Mystery. Simon and Shuster. P69.

Children made up 40% of the population. (Roveland, 2000)
Roveland, Blythe. (2000). Footprints in the Clay. In: Derevenski, J.  Children and Material Culture. New York: Routledge. P36.

Condense fact from nuance. (Stephenson, 1992).
Stephenson, Neal. (1992) Snow Crash. Bantam Books.

There was absolutely no application for it at the time. (Bryson, 2011).
Bryson, Bill. (2010). Introduction. In: Bryson, Bill Seeing Further: The Story of Science and the Royal Society: 350 Years of the Royal Society and Scientific Endeavour.  Harper Press.


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