Monday, 23 June 2008

Archive: Iron Age Britain - Barry Cunliffe

Iron Age Britain
Barry Cunliffe

Always looking for some good books on the archaeology of Britain, and always hoping that at some point somebody will write one of these books that gives equal weighting to all parts of Britain rather than concentrating on southern England, I took a punt on this one and decided to give it a go.

I really should have been patient and got it out from the library...It's not bad, or awful. It's just not all that great either, and my credit card could have been happily sponked on something far better. As I said, it's not too bad - not to the point of being only good for kindling - but I do think it's bordering on cluttering up my crowded bookshelf, rather than gracing it.

Cunliffe does offer something different here, compared to other books on the subject, and to a certain extent this is useful. He starts off well, giving a good overview of the state of Late Bronze Age/Early Iron Britain and points out that while the start of the Iron Age generally heralds the start of the Celtic period proper, there are a number of social factors and changes that can be seen in the archaeological record that started in the Late Bronze Age that also had their hand in shaping what we see of the Iron Age and the start of the Celtic period (such as the change in settlements and farming, etc), making the boundaries between Celtic and pre-Celtic much more fluid than they might sound.

After introducing a little background, Cunliffe goes on to look at the people, how they lived, how they farmed and the politic and social evidence that can be interpreted from the archaeology of the period...This is all good stuff. He even takes care to emphasise the regional differences that can be seen, stressing local factors that seem to have shaped the way people lived and evolved in the various parts of Britain, and takes a look at each area separately. This is also good stuff, and quite a refreshing approach, but this is also where the book starts to fall down.

It's partly not Cunliffe's fault; there isn't a good amount of evidence to draw from to treat all areas with equal detail, so like other authors (Miranda Green, Simon James, say), there's an inevitable bias towards the south and places like Danebury that have been more fully excavated (by Cunliffe himself, as it happens).

The main problem comes after the first few chapters that deal exclusively with the archaeology, when Cunliffe tries to give context to it with heavy use of Classical sources - in most cases drawing from the usual suspects like Caesar, Tacitus, Diodorus Siculus and so on - without much analysis or even consideration of the inherent problems in using them. Did they have an agenda in what they wrote? Were they writing from direct observation or conforming to established 'facts' and stereotypes that previous authors had popularised (as was common)? And so on...He uses a healthy smattering of Gaulish references from the Classical sources to help provide context for the British evidence, but without any useful discussion or background surrounding the sources he uses, it all ends up being not too helpful, and it raised more concerns for me than it helped to provide a fuller picture as was obviously intended.

My biggest bugbear with the book is his treatment of religion and beliefs, though. Taking a passage from Caesar, where he says that above all gods they worship Mercury, Cunliffe goes on to point out that Mercury was considered to be 'inventor of all arts' and points out that the Dagda fulfilled a similar role in Irish myth, and then goes on to talk about the Irish gods as if they were British as well. It seems to me that it would have been better to take a look at the post-Roman evidence that shows the variety of localised, along with the more widespread deities that could be found across Britain instead, rather than being fairly dismissive and conflationist.

His analysis of burial practice is better, though he largely goes into any great detail in terms of burials providing evidence for warriors in society, rather than focusing on what the practices implies about ritual and beliefs. But his treatment of evidence for the ritual year is woeful. Here he applies the typical Samhain/Imbolc/Beltane/Lughnasadh divisions and cites evidence of Imbolc and Lughnasadh being celebrated in Gaul as well, from the Coligny calendar, but offers no consideration of any possible evidence to support such a division in Britain itself in this period and so gives the idea that these are well established facts. There isn't much in the way of conclusive contemporary evidence for the ritual calendar in Britain, but some mention of the analysis of bones supporting the idea of spring/autumn feasting (based on the age of the animals slaughtered) would have been a good idea, I think.

All these problems can be found in Cunliffe's The Ancient Celts, but this book has by far more redeeming qualities that can forgive such poor scholarship. Cunliffe is an archaeologist, not a Celticist, so like Miranda Green his writing suffers when he focuses on subjects outside of this. The Ancient Celts offers a better understanding of how archaeologists interpret the material they find, and gives a good grounding in understanding how the antiquarian/academic study of the Celts has evolved over time...Iron Age Britain doesn't offer this and focuses more on giving the facts rather than interpretation. It's unfortunate that Cunliffe doesn't offer any references or even a bibliography in the book, so it's difficult to look up whether things like the mention of the Coligny calendar are sound (and why no mention of 'the three nights of Samonios' (and whether that might be linked to Beltane/Samhain) that can also be found on it?), though to be fair this might be more to do with the publisher than Cunliffe himself. could do a lot worse, but if you have some hard earned cash to spend on something genuinely helpful in terms of CR, then I'd prioritise your spending elsewhere.