Oxbow Books, £40
Review George Nash
It is sometimes all too easy to compartmentalise economic, social, and symbolic strategies into convenient archaeological chronologies, the classic example being that all hunter/ fisher/gatherer economies fit into the Palaeolithic and Mesolithic periods, then suddenly, at 4000 BC in north-western and Atlantic Europe, the economy and social life changes to that of the pastoralist. Along with pastoralist economies (cultivation, animal husbandry), the archaeological record also reveals long-term food procurement, pottery, and monument-building. This significant cultural change, originating some 6,000 years earlier in the so-called Fertile Crescent and commonly known as the ‘Neolithic Package’, had profound effects on the new people who lived during this period. Even today, many of its primary components still have reverberations: we are products of the Neolithic.
Alasdair Whittle’s most recent contribution to this fascinating period in European prehistory argues cogently against the concept of wholesale change at a particular point in time. As for all prehistoric archaeology spatial and temporal development, adaption, and adoption create a complex narrative. This complexity has been made convincingly clear from recent innovations in chronometric dating techniques, which in turn have assisted Bayesian modelling research. Both techniques show that Neolithicisation occurred across Europe at different times during its expansion phase. Based on sites yielding good archaeological and dating evidence, the process of Neolithicisation is not clear-cut. As Whittle shows, there are elements of the ‘old way of life’: the hunting, the fishing, and the gathering are present, indicating a mixed economy and maybe contradictory and hybrid belief-systems.
The book challenges the one-dimensional view of the Neolithic, and turns this traditional view into a dynamic series of narratives that are influenced by mindsets, which in turn mould the material culture. Whittle clearly shows that this 3,000- year period of prehistory was colourful (to say the least) and extremely complicated.
Using selected sites across mainly eastern and northern central Europe (including Ireland, the Orkney archipelago, and southern Britain) that fall within a period range of between the 6th and 3rd millennia BC, Whittle’s book assesses their various chronological timescales, using available chronometric dating methods. The date-range from each of the sites discussed in the text has allowed Whittle to apply statistical analysis on spreads of radiocarbon dating, thus applying Bayesian modelling. The results from Whittle’s study reveal the unpredictable changes within the Neolithic sequence: it is not so much a continuous wave of change, but more a series of pockets where either agrarianism or hunter/ fisher/gatherer economies (or both) were practised. To further complicate the transition that was taking place, and based on absolute dating techniques, change appears to occur over an extensive timescale. Whittle argues that much of the complex spatial/ temporal change is the result of particular mindsets and attitudes to external and internal influences.
One of my concerns using Bayesian modelling for, say, the Neolithic is the lack of availability of multiple absolute dates. I am therefore curious to know why Whittle chose to use one particular site – Garn Turne in Pembrokeshire (see CA 286) – to generalise a date range for this Neolithic core area, when the Neolithic dates for this site were limited in number. Readers will be aware that Wales has yielded a limited number of chronometric dates for individual burial-ritual sites, and therefore the true account for, say, monument development, use, and abandonment is still unclear.
In Whittle’s final chapter, the author debates the future of science-based approaches in archaeology, which can home into the complexity of Neolithic life. He promotes a Bayesian approach in order to achieve a precision-bias narrative that will give insight to the way Neolithic communities made fundamental decisions on when and where to adopt a particular economy.
Despite the rather drab cover, the body of the text is supported by good colour imagery throughout, as well as that all-important bibliography and index. The book will be a significant contribution to what is currently an ever-increasing Neolithic bookshelf.
This review appeared in CA 350.