Andrew Meirion Jones and Marta Díaz-Guardamino
Oxbow Books, £40
Review George Nash
The later prehistory of the British Isles (including Ireland) is usually bound-up with all things ritual and symbolic. Synonymous with the Neolithic and Bronze Age are the stone monuments and associated garnish that venerate the dead and the powerful. Associated with monumentality, albeit in a rather sporadic way, is art – be it static or portable. Much has been written about monuments over the recent past and creeping into the odd chapter have been discussions of engraved art, usually as exotic grave goods. In a wider context, a number of books specifically focusing on rock art have produced excellent guides, but little in the way of interpretation. It is therefore refreshing to pick up a book that does the opposite: it is big on interpretation and less so on empirical data.
Making a Mark focuses on decorated portable artefacts from mainly the Neolithic, and provides the reader with an excellent discussion forum. Across the book’s 15 chapters, the authors discuss a number of issues, such as the would-be relationship between certain motifs found on both portable and static art (for instance, passage grave megalithic art). For this, the authors use several core areas of Neolithic Britain and Ireland.
The book, capturing the essence of the ‘Making a Mark’ project, used a variety of cutting-edge digital imaging techniques. An assemblage of decorated portable artefacts made of antler, bone, chalk, stone, and wood was analysed. These artefact types, originating from the Neolithic core areas of East Anglia, southern England, and the Irish Sea Province (Ireland, the Isle of Man, and Wales), north-east Scotland, and Orkney, revealed widespread evidence of design or motif obliteration, design change or enhancement, and reworking. These morphological changes were in action over the entire Neolithic, some 2,000 years of history, or roughly equivalent to 60 generations of community. The authors show that, although the ‘artefact’ is in a state of flux – moving from passage grave to portable objects – the types of design remain the same.
The layout of the book follows a tried and tested formula, with an introduction to the artistic endeavor of Neolithic Britain and Ireland. This opening chapter provides the reader with an overview of the various portable art assemblages and their respective contexts. This chapter is followed by a detailed account of the techniques and processes used to create the art. In the second section of the book – ‘The Archaeology’ – the authors discuss the artefacts from the various core areas of Britain and Ireland, including the chalklands of southern Britain (Chapter 3), the chalk drums of Folkton and Levant (Chapter 4), decorated portable artefacts from the Irish Sea Province (Chapter 5), the making processes of carved stone balls (Chapter 6), flintwork on Maesmore-type maceheads (Chapter 7), and figures and sculptured stones on Orkney (Chapter 8). In Chapter 9, Antonia Thomas contributes a section comparing and contrasting the engraved art present on stonework at the domestic and ritual complex of the Ness of Brodgar.
Following on from the book’s geographic sweep, the authors turn their attention to ‘Relationalities’, focusing on motif replication on different forms of artefact, such as ceramics and megalithic rock art (Chapter 10). In Chapters 11 and 12, Meirion Jones discusses how art promoted power and prestige, and how art objects would have been received and circulated. In the penultimate section, the authors discuss the theme of ‘Collaborations’ with two sections (Chapters 13 and 14) that focus on the methods and theory of deconstructing art. In the final section, entitled ‘Coda’ (Chapter 15), Meirion Jones draws the book and the project to a conclusion, discussing the fundamentals of making things.
Supported by a comprehensive bibliography, excellent and detailed photography, and that all-important index, Meirion Jones and Díaz-Guardamino provide the reader with a refreshing approach to deconstructing art and how it played a fundamental part in Neolithic society. This book will be an important contribution to the study of this enigmatic subject.