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Altering the Earth: The Origins of Monuments in Britain and Continental Europe.

Over the past few years it has become increasingly possible to discern a pattern in Richard Bradley's writings. A series of articles will announce his interest in a particular topic in an exploratory and experimental way, trying out hypotheses and stimulating debate with other scholars. Finally, some years later, the book arrives. Thus we have recently had the metalwork and hoarding book (The passage of arms) and the stone axes book (Interpreting the axe trade). And to judge from a recent series of papers, it can only be a matter of time before a book on rock art emerges. In the meanwhile, here is Richard Bradley's monuments book, in the form of a series of essays prepared for the 1992 Rhind lectures.

In several ways, the format works exceedingly well. The book has been promptly and attractively produced, and together with the very accessible text this should make it popular with students and general readers. The essay framework is well suited to Bradley's discursive style of writing: each chapter takes the reader through a separate argument dealing with different aspects of monumentality, often using a different class of sites as illustration. For some readers, this may come uncomfortably close to fashionable notions of 'multiple narratives', although the different stories which Bradley tells are less competing hypotheses than complementary fragments of the whole. What is achieved here is a taking stock of the past decade of research into prehistoric monument-building, a decade which began with a series of articles in which Bradley offered a critique of Colin Renfrew's arguments concerning territoriality, labour-estimates and social evolution. By now, these concerns have receded from the agenda, and another set of issues have come to dominate.

Thus the lectures begin by laying to rest the notion that the Neolithic monuments of northwest Europe were a consequence of the adoption of farming. The old argument (which still crops up with depressing regularity) held that a more stable and productive economy would allow agriculturalists to generate surplus labour, which could then be used up in the construction of monuments. These in turn would serve as demonstration and symbol of the group's prosperity. However, at least since Marshall Sahlins' discussion of foraging peoples as 'the original affluent society' it has been clear that there is no shortage of potential labour power in hunter-fisher-gatherer societies. In some cases, particularly in the New World, this labour has been harnessed into the creation of permanent structures of one kind or another. Beyond this, recent work in European prehistory has started to erode the sharp division between Mesolithic foragers and Neolithic farmers. The former were sometimes more sedentary than presumed, while the evidence for early agriculture around the Atlantic seaboard is looking increasingly flimsy. On this basis, Bradley turns the argument on its head. It was not agriculture which provided the labour for monument-building, but the construction of monuments which established a new understanding of time and space. This in turn promoted more sedentary ways of life. It follows, of course, that if monuments are not the direct product of an 'agricultural revolution', their origin has to be found in a historically specific set of circumstances, and perhaps in the interaction between agricultural groups on the loess and developing Mesolithic populations on the Atlantic fringe. It is only here that one might have wished Bradley had pushed his argument a little further. However, to have done so might have been to jeopardize the delicate balance which is maintained throughout the volume between a concern with monumentality as a universal phenomenon, approachable in ways which have a general applicability, and the particularity of those monuments which emerged in the European Neolithic.

Having considered the context in which monuments are created, the emphasis changes toward an investigation of what these structures are and what they do. Places, it is argued, can include prominent natural features, which may take on a particular significance in the lives of human beings. These features may even be amended by acts of material deposition or through the execution of rock art, placing a human mark on the location. Yet the construction of monuments is something else again, even if it takes place in a locus which has already accrued some meaning. This human intervention in the landscape is one which wholly transforms the character of space. What one might wish to add to Bradley's account at this point is the extent to which this transformation is bound up with the exercise of power. Particularly in the context of the establishment of the northwest European Neolithic, monument-building may not merely change the understanding of landscape, but may have a role in suppressing a previous order: a Mesolithic cosmology.

Subsequent chapters elaborate upon the theme of monuments as places, and the way in which they are experienced; upon the question of tradition and transmission of monument style; and upon the ways in which groups of monuments develop in relation to each other and to natural features. In turn, linear structures (cursus and alignments), causewayed enclosures and monument complexes serve as exemplars, drawing out a rich series of side arguments too numerous to mention in the present context. Much of this will doubtless fuel further debate: the appropriateness to a prehistoric context of the division which Bradley often draws between 'cultural' monuments and 'natural' landscape will be questioned by some, for instance. Certainly, there is no reluctance to engage in controversy in this book: the use of the later history of Roman towns as an example of the way that the existence of human works must be accommodated by future generations (even if they are merely to deliberately ignore them) is a splendid piece of provocation.

However, in some ways the most refreshing aspect of Altering the earth is the theme of interpretation and creativity which runs through the whole book. The physical presence of monuments requires that, once constructed, they be noticed and taken seriously, but this does not mean that they fix or condition how a site is to be appropriated. Rather, they are continually reevaluated and re-interpreted, and our task as archaeologists is to engage in a similar process of creative interpretation. This is surely a positive message for the Rhind lectures to be sending to the discipline.

JULIAN THOMAS Department of Archaeology Saint David's University College, University of Wales
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Author:Thomas, Julian
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 1993
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