I love history, & especially British history. My interests started with the Victorians, then the Tudors & Stuarts (in both England & Scotland). Richard III dragged me back to the medieval period, than I became interested in the Anglo-Saxons. I’ve only recently started reading about Roman Britain & the 18th century – it took a while for the Georges to make an impression. Prehistory, though, has always confused me. I find it hard to come to terms with all the thousands of years before the Romans invaded in 43 AD. However, I’ve enjoyed Francis Pryor’s previous books & I thought the subtitle of this one – a time traveller’s tales from Britain’s prehistory – sounded intriguing. I’m so glad I picked it up because if you’re looking for an accessible book about Britain’s prehistory with a little autobiography & quite a few opinionated rants thrown in, then this is the book for you.
For those of you that are as confused as I am, the book covers the Mesolithic, or Middle Stone Age (9600-4000 BC), the Neolithic (New Stone Age 4000-2500 BC), the Bronze Age (2500-800 BC) & the Iron Age (800 BC-AD 43). You can see what I mean about the length of time in each of these periods.
The title of the book is Home & it’s the role of home & the family that Francis Pryor is exploring as a way of looking at Britain’s prehistory. He was an archaeologist for over 50 years & is probably best known for his work on Time Team & the documentaries he made based on his previous books, Britain BC & Britain AD. His best-known projects have involved prehistoric sites such as Flag Fen, Fengate & Etton, all of which are referenced in the book as examples of different periods of Britain’s history.
I particularly enjoyed the way that Pryor uses his practical experience at every stage, often disagreeing with earlier academic historians who may never have actually been involved in an archaeological dig. Francis Pryor has also been a sheep farmer in the Fens for the last thirty years & his farming experience has informed his theories about what our prehistoric ancestors did & why they did it. He continually emphasizes the fact that our ancestors weren’t so very different from us. There may be areas of their lives that we can’t penetrate – mainly to do with religious beliefs – but they needed to feed their families & they were intelligent enough to work out how to build a watertight shelter, where to site their houses & farms, which crops to grow & livestock to rear. He has also discovered an enormous amount through replicating the techniques of the farmers of the past. The idea that hunter gatherers led a subsistence existence, moving around constantly living in flimsy structures & with no time for anything but survival, has been debunked in recent years.
The widespread belief persists that our hunter-gatherer (i.e. pre-farmer) ancestors led impoverished lives. They would spend all day chasing around after scarce and flighty game, only to arrive back in the hovel, or cave at night-time, empty handed, or at best, with a moth-eaten hare or a hibernating hedgehog. Meanwhile, the wife and children had been out in the woods grubbing around for a few edible roots, or buried nuts. They gobbled down this unenviable repast over a flickering fire, then collapsed, still hungry, into a fitful sleep, always keeping one eye open in case the fire died down and a passing cave-bear might be feeling peckish.
One of my favourite examples involves an Iron Age roundhouse that was constructed as the Iron Age people would have built it. It withstood a ferocious storm much better than the modern huts close by. At every point, Pryor considers what any human being would do in that situation to feed a family, build a house or create a community & looks at the evidence with this common sense in mind.
I enjoyed the stories about the archaeological digs he has taken part in & directed, many of them in the Cambridgeshire Fens, a part of Britain that he obviously loves & feels a real affinity with. Etton is on the edge of the Fens. The enclosure was first constructed in around 3700 BC & in use for about 300-400 years. When Francis & his team started excavating, it was the site of a quarry & they had about a year before the quarry owners would come in & start extracting gravel from the site. The amount of material that had been preserved in the waterlogged conditions was amazing. The site was in two halves, one where people & livestock lived & the other where rituals & ceremony would have been conducted. The water had preserved large quantities of wood & Francis’s wife, Maisie Taylor, an expert in prehistoric wood working, found that different areas of the enclosure were obviously being used for different processes.
Then, more unusual items were found. A 2 ft length of twine was discovered which seemed like an unusual thing to have been casually lost as it represented a considerable amount of work. This discovery, in the centre of the enclosure ditch, & other similar discoveries led to the theory that the people who lived at Etton were deliberately depositing items in memory of their ancestors. At other sites, skulls had been found in ditches & at Etton, pots, a sea-urchin & even a fox’s skull had been buried. The deposits were found at intervals all through the depths of the ditch. The objects that were found weren’t broken or worn so were unlikely to be rubbish that had been tossed aside. There was a pattern to the siting of the deposits & the shape of many of the objects suggested a human head, maybe an offering or a symbol of an ancestor. Quern stones, used to grind grain & therefore very potent symbols of the home, were also found. They were broken deliberately, so as to make them useless in this world but maybe they were to be used by the ancestors in the next world? Pryor’s theory about these deposits is influenced by his memories of his family’s place in the graveyard of their local church.
You can read something of our family history in the inscriptions on the tombstones – and that’s what I think those neatly arranged and covered-over ‘placed deposits’ in the Etton enclosure ditch are essentially all about. They’re permanent records of the doings of long-vanished relatives. I would imagine that every year the members of the family would have stood around their ‘own’ ditch segment, while a senior, older person recited the deeds – real and mythical – of the ancestors. It was part of the continuing process of educating the young and of binding people together, with their common family histories and shared memories. Had I lived in the earlier Neolithic, my life would doubtless have been commemorated with a carved flint trowel.
There are many other case studies describing family & community life in Britain throughout prehistory. I think it was the idea of home being at the centre of the book that made it all make sense. Francis Pryor even calls the period around 1500 BC the Domestic Revolution, the period when roads & trackways had been built, the landscape had changed & different groups of people were brought into contact, forming larger social groups. There are so many interesting ideas in this book, which is written in an accessible, almost conversational style. I could hear Francis Pryor’s voice as I read, having seen him on TV & read his blog, In the Long Run, for the last few years. I was prepared for the opinionated rants, & especially enjoyed the one about the delights of growing vegetables, being a veggie grower myself in a small way. It’s all this practical common sense that informs every page of this book & makes us see our ancestors as just like us rather than as creatures from another planet.
Francis Pryor has also recently started writing detective fiction. His first novel, The Lifers’ Club, features archaeologist Alan Cadbury. The publication was crowd funded through Unbound, a site where readers can contribute towards the costs of publishing an author’s work. I have The Lifers’ Club on my Kindle & I’m looking forward to reading it soon. Francis’s second book, The Way, the Truth and the Dead, is currently 49% funded.