Thursday, 22 July 2010

Britain BC

Britain BC: Life in Britain and Ireland before the Romans

Author: Francis Pryor
ISBN: 9780007126934

It has actually taken me two years to read this book. I started it in July 2008, and I remember finding it hard to comprehend. It seemed all over the place and I had difficulties with the way Pryor went into long, confusing descriptions of various archaeological dig sites. I felt extremely stupid as I just could not visualise that which he attempted to illustrate with words in detail. I became frustrated and, instead, found other books to distract.

This year I have made a concerted effort to finish those books I struggled with in the past. I picked up Britain BC again, but instead of returning to the beginning, I continued from where I had left off in order to distance myself from the earlier frustrations. It worked! I was able to read this book somewhat more comfortably and actually absorb most of the information.

The detailed and wordy descriptions of various artefacts and archaeological digs sites still left me reeling, but pictures and illustrations are provided (more frequently in the second half of the book) which help to clearly demonstrate what Pryor is tries to describe in words. In some cases, I still skipped the details in favour of understanding how the site/artefact furthered the understanding of a particular time, people, community or way of working.

Britain BC did provide me with insight in the world of archaeology; its progress over the years; and an idea of how archaeologists work today both in terms of learning about our past and in preserving it for the future. I marvelled at the amount of speculation involved in seeking to put finds into context, giving the impression that the purpose of a site or artefact can never be certain where archaeologists are involved. This was quite a lesson for me. I found it disconcerting that as Pryor dismantled the ideas of others, he sought to replace them with his own imaginings, a few of which I thought less credible than those he had just rejected. Still, what do I know?

I was taken by the idea that, immediately prior to the arrival of the Romans, British society was not necessarily a cohesive whole but rather made up of small community groups, some of which had banded together to form larger societies. Pryor also speculates that some of these communities did not have a formal structure, but were loosely banded together, and there may not have been an elite class as previously thought or imagined by rich burial sites.

Prior to reading Britain BC, I was unaware the Iron Age extended into the early part of first millennia CE with crannogs and brochs being in use in 600 CE, but only in those areas where the Romans had not tread. Although I have gained some insight into what is known about the various “ages” of prehistory, I might have assimilated more if the author had refrained from flitting between archaeological dig sites, with a quick tangent into the future of one or another site "... but we will explore that further later in another chapter" (to paraphrase) and back again. As a reader, I felt disconnected from the finds or how they corroborated what was known about the people and/or communities of the age and how they lived in the landscape. I was lost quite a bit of the time; I needed lots of breaks from reading this book in order to take my bearings. I know the author is enthusiastic - I can read it in his text - but I think more careful editing might have made the evidential information more accessible.

Overall, the book did provide me with a basic knowledge of prehistory in Britain and it's all in one place instead of the myriad of bits and bobs floating around in my head from reading news updates from various archaeological websites. I have definitely learned more than I ever did at school about the subject. It's just Britain BC is not a book I would, or even could, use as a reference to with which to check my understanding.

I am not sure what is says about the book when the first thing I can say about it is: "I now know the difference between pre-history, proto-history and history".

Rating: 4/5.


dreamguardian said...

A fair assessment, I would say. I like his commitment & that he is genuinely interested in his work rather than it being a academic exercise. The TV series associated with the book is available to view for free online & helps the continuity & make his book more coherent.

Unknown said...

yeah, to be honest I would recommend people watch the program first before they read the book, even if the material is familiar to them.

episode 1:

episode 2: