Neolithic Britain: the transformation of social worlds

3 mins read
By Keith Ray and Julian Thomas

Oxford University Press, £30
ISBN 978-0198823896
Review by George Nash

Over the recent past there has been a flurry of literature concerned with the Neolithic of the British Isles, each book promoting a new interpretation on the life and death of its people. This book is no exception. The literature has clearly shown that the Neolithic is a complex world of social relations and entanglement with ramifications to our present: we are products of this significant period in our history.

This new approach to the Neolithic is concerned with links between domesticity and death and burial, the archaeological evidence of which is sometimes extremely fragmentary. Keith Ray and Julian Thomas carefully link this evidence and suggest that the dynamics of social change equate to changes in material culture, as witnessed through burial-ritual monument design and landscape procurement (see CA 347).

The book covers many of the core monument areas of the British Isles, with a particular focus on the rise of Wessex and the ritual complexity of sites that surround and include Stonehenge. The authors also provide the reader with a comprehensive discussion of individual sites that have recently received intense investigation, including the burial-ritual monuments of Orkney and their own projects in western Britain.

The contents of the book, organised into six themed chapters, provide the reader with an up-to-date overview of the Neolithic, and, in particular, its communities and the way in which they would have embraced death, burial, and the afterlife. The authors keenly promote the esoteric mechanisms that shape and manipulate the material culture, including changes to monument architecture over the 2,000-year period from the earliest burial evidence – the Portal Dolmen tradition – to the corporate monumentality of the Severn- Cotswold Group.

Frustratingly, the text is not referenced and is thus difficult to manoeuvre through. Instead, there is a chapter reference system at the rear of the book, which will be a hindrance to scholars who need instant access to specific themes or sites in the main text. Rather than offering a new conclusion on the Neolithic, this book provides commentary on current thinking about what the Neolithic represents.

This review appeared in CA 348.

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