Barry Cunliffe is about to retire as Professor of European Archaeology at the University of Oxford.
He has been a towering figure and will be a hard act to follow. He has achieved a great deal, particulaly through his excavations at Danebury Hillfort and environs. He has also established the first undergraduate course in archaeology at Oxford, albeit with links to anthropology rather than to classical studies and history as some would have wished, but it has been a considerable success. For his successor, Oxford has looked internally and has chosen Chris Gosden, a lecturer in the department and curator of the Pitt Rivers Museum.
It so happens that I now have before me a book of Gosling’s for review, which might be called his magnum opus as far as popular archaeology is concerned, entitled Prehistory – a very short Introduction (OUP £6.99). It is a somewhat theoretical book, the Oxford answer to Cambridge theory: however much impenetrable theory Cambridge can produce, Oxford can go further. The leitmotif can perhaps be given in his own words, describing the sort of prehistory we are trying to get away from:
“Prehistory was born with a series of steps and stages taking humanity from people like Them – unfortunate hunter gatherers living at the mercy of a fickle environment i.e. savages – to people like Us – those enjoying an urbane lifestyle made possible through the progressive application of the powers of reason which have given people control over the physical world through the invention of farming (barbarism) cities (civilisation) and industrialism/ imperialism.
“Even for Europeans the triumphalist story of Prehistory has been counter-poised by a darker tale – Marx decrying the fact that the material wealth of capitalism has been bought at the expense of “spiritual impoverishment”.
In other words the Victorians, whom he mentions elsewhere as a term of abuse, are always wrong, but Marx, in the usual university belief, is always right. There is a problem about writing this sort of prehistory, that if you have no concept of progress, no feeling for the ups and downs of human life, how will you structure the subject? The answer is to keep close to theory, and as far away as possible from having to dirty one’s hands with anything as murky as evidence.
The book begins with a chapter on ‘What and When is Prehistory?’ which begins with Boxgrove and ends with the advent of writing. The next chapter is concerned with one of the major current fashions in theoretical prehistory, the problem of ‘identity’. The trouble is that this chapter should be the place where he deals with the traditional archaeological concept of culture, where you try and build up a picture of the past by looking at various aspects: pottery, metalwork, houses, burial, language, etc, seeing all these aspects as intersecting circles. And where these circles intersect, you say that is a ‘culture’ which probably represented a people with a shared identity. But Culture History is unfash- ionable at present, and he therefore ignores it: the trouble is, he does not really succeed in putting anything in its place.
A later chapter concerning Continental prehistories is the best and longest in the book, suggesting that the different continents have different prehistories and these in turn often depend on the different animals domesticated and the different plants cultivated. A chapter on the nature of human social life follows, but he ends with a chapter of the Prehistory of the future, which seems to me to be quite round the bend.
I am worried about this book, and about the decision of a distinguished publishing house to publish it. We must remember that archaeology, and our way of looking at the past is constantly under attack by people we call the lunatic fringe, today notably the Creationists. People will constantly be looking at the books we put forward and ask, does it make good sense? is it internally coherent? Does it put forward a reasonable view of the world?
This book seems to me to be a series of intellectual pirouettes performed for the benefit of fellow academics addressing the concerns of the academic world. I fear that to the average non-academic reader it will appear way beyond the fringe; and I fear that the average reader, comparing this book with, perhaps, those of Graham Hancock and asking which provide the more realistic account of the ancient world, might come down, perhaps reluctantly, in favour of Hancock. And this is disastrous.
This opinion comes from CA issue 203