Having read Francis Pryor’s Seahenge, and of course knowing his work on Channel 4’s Time Team, I was very interested to read this. The prehistory of Britain is mostly not my main period, at least where it applies to the Stone Age, but it is the focus of about half of this book — and of much of Pryor’s interest. That’s fine with me, because though it might not be a period of literature and known culture, it is the period of henges and causewayed enclosures, burial mounds and early humans. It helps that Pryor’s enthusiasm is obvious throughout, and his writing is approachable.
(I can actually understand the people who find it dry — when you’re not that interested in the subject, anything can drag, and Pryor does spend a fair amount of words on flints and the evolution of their form and use. But for me, that enthusiasm carries it.)
His theories and interpretation of the evidence more or less goes along with the other work I’ve read, for example from Mike Parker Pearson, who wrote an excellent book on the conclusions of the Stonehenge Riverside Project. Beyond that, I’m not really qualified to comment, though I do find myself wondering somewhat about his opposition to the idea of any mass migration happening from Europe. The thing is, mass migration must have happened sometime, or there’d be nobody in Britain even now. It’s true that we’re pretty sure now that invasion is the wrong term, and that often the spread of ideas was more important than the spread of people. But there are genetic differences between the Welsh and the English, language doesn’t change as completely as from the Celtic languages to the Anglo-Saxon language without some kind of impetus… I mean, the people in Britain today are not going to adopt French unless there’s suddenly a big need for us to communicate with people speaking French — and that isn’t likely to be talking among ourselves unless there’s a significant presence and intermarriage with French speakers. There’s also the influx of Anglo-Saxon mythology and attitudes; Beowulf is not a native British poem by any means, and there are plenty of parallels between English and Scandinavian languages and culture which don’t exist between the Welsh (for example) and Scandinavia.
So I’m somewhat sceptical about the suggestions in this book that the British have more or less been the same people for such a long period of time. There are definitely things which have survived which point to a closer and less adversarial relationship between the incomers and the residents of Britain, but incomers there must have been.
When it discusses archaeology, it’s probably on safe ground. I’d be less sure when you also need to consider non-physical culture and language.
I was interested to read The Death of Caesar, since I’d read Barry Strauss’ work before — his book on Spartacus, for one, and the one on the Trojan War. I was less impressed with this one — it’s still informative and interesting, and it even pulled out things I didn’t know about the Ides of March and Caesar’s life in general. For example, if I’m thinking about the Ides of March, I’m thinking about Brutus and Cassius, and not about a guy called Decimus who didn’t even make it into Shakespeare’s version properly. And yet Strauss brings Decimus back into the foreground, pointing out how close he was to Caesar. If Caesar’s last words were “et tu, Brute?”, then he was referring to this Brutus: Decimus Junius Brutus Albinus.
But. The book didn’t have quite the energy I remembered from the book on Spartacus, and things seemed to drag on. Perhaps it’s because it doesn’t only cover the death of Julius Caesar, but also somewhat of the rise of Mark Anthony and Octavian (Augustus). It seems to wander a little from the point — but then, how would you write a whole book about the Ides of March? And doesn’t it make sense to cover the political fallout and the fate of the assassins?
So possibly I’m just being picky, but this didn’t feel as riveting as Strauss’ other books. Interesting, though, definitely.
Mesopotamia: The Invention of the City, Gwendolyn Leick
After reading David Damrosch’s The Buried Book, I was eager to read more about Mesopotamia — a place and culture which has influenced so much of humanity’s subsequent history, but about which we often know all too little. This book looked like the perfect way to get more information: it discussed the building of early cities, which includes so much of what’s relevant to humanity. Interaction, education, religion, etc, etc.
Unfortunately, it’s badly written. Or rather, it’s overwritten: sentences meander along to conclusions which don’t always make sense, or which could have been put much more cogently. Suppositions go unsupported, instead phrased in a kind of hopeful, artistic way.
For example, Leick mentions the lagoon beneath the first city, Eridu. She links this to vessels found in presumed temples throughout Mesopotamia, containing water. Okay, I can go with that; I’ll trust your link there. And then:
Perhaps the fountains and pools in Middle Eastern buildings of much later centuries retain a faint memry of the old lagoon in the very south of Mesopotamia.
What Middle Eastern buildings? What centuries? What are the links that would cause that memory to be retained? What’s the evidence? Why are you saying this, is it important? Or is all of this speculative, more poetry than history? Without being able to judge that, the whole thing falls apart somewhat. Combined with the overly abstruse sentences, and I found myself unconvinced it’d be worth my time. I didn’t finish the book.
A mostly readable and entertaining book which has nonetheless mostly slipped my mind since I read it. The main thesis was that the Celtic tradition — which it has to work to define, given the arguments about such a thing existing at all — drove a surprising amount of the development of modern society. I seem to recall there was something that annoyed me, and I think it was in the section on King Arthur. Just… that whole condescending attitude about the Welsh hope for and belief in the return of Arthur.
While I like that it acknowledges a Celtic identity and influence, I’m not sure I’d recommend this book. There have been some really fascinating books about the Celtic culture, even Nora Chadwick’s outdated The Celts, which I’d recommend more.
This book is a solid biography of Cleopatra, appreciating her cleverness and ability as a politician, and examining how the world at the time reacted to her. It’s perhaps a little drier than people would hope — how could you make Cleopatra so academic, when she’s such a colourful figure? Well, I don’t mind that at all, and I enjoyed the way it contextualised her achievements and dissected the myths surrounding her. It delves into the background of her rule and her city, as well, giving a picture of Egypt under the Ptolemies.
I’ve enjoyed other books by Tyldesley before, and though it’s not one of my areas of expertise, I have found her books well-written, referenced and clear. That’s more than I can say for some other Egyptologists who write for the pop-history crowd. Other than that, I don’t have much basis to make a judgement, but I found this one enjoyable.
Although this book is undoubtedly out of date, published in 1971, it’s a fascinating survey of what was known and believed about the Celts at the time. Some of the theories are less in vogue now (with more credit given to the spread of ideas than the spread of people for the changes in agriculture, art, etc), but descriptions of the archaeology, art and literature are solid and worth reading. I found Chadwick’s style very pleasant and easy to read: this is serious and somewhat academic in depth, but not boring.
Pretty much my only quibbles, when you lay aside the outdated theories, were the way the literature was described at length. I don’t need a description of Táin Bó Cúailnge — I’ve read it! And my other quibble would be the intense focus on Ireland. It does make sense within the frame Chadwick gives us, where Ireland was more conservative in culture and thus retained purer Celtic culture for longer, but I would still love to have read as detailed a discussion of the Welsh texts surviving, particularly stuff like the Triads.
If you read it knowing that, of course, other theories are in vogue now and some of it has been disproved, it’s a pretty sober and admiring look at Celtic culture. Maybe a touch too much judgement re: civilisation vs barbarism, with the Celts decidedly on the latter end, but there’s still admiration, and no prurient focus on the idea of ritual human sacrifice (which, judging from this, was not considered common then either).
A Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England, Ian Mortimer
Flashback Friday review from 1st April, 2013 (but unfortunately it wasn’t a joke)
As a history book, this is an interesting format and it’s reasonably engaging, though by the end I was starting to get worn down by the sheer level of detail. But what bothered me was that apparently, if you want to time travel, you’d better be male: there’s some lip service paid to actually discussing women’s role in society, with some references to the kind of work women did (mostly: make ale, I gather), and quite a lot of reference to the kind of clothes women wore, and how likely women were to be assaulted and raped, but. We hear about monks and not about nuns, about merchants and not about their wives, about farmers and not their daughters.
And don’t give me the excuse about that not being interesting to read about: nor is intricate detail about what a monk can eat on which days, for most people.
In summary: to time travel, apparently you have to be male. And only men are interesting. Slightly disappointed I paid for this book right now.
A History of Ancient Egypt: From the First Farmers to the Great Pyramid, John Romer
I don’t know much about modern Egyptology; it’s been a long time since I read exhaustively about the subject, and the books I referred to then were either for children or very out of date, albeit fascinating in their own way. (Christine Desroches-Noblecourt’s description of the treasures and items found in King Tutakhamen’s tomb held me spellbound for days at a time, and I frequently returned to it, fascinated by what we could glean of the boy king, and of Ankhasamen, his sister-bride.) This book kept some of the fascination of those books for me, though it deals with early Egypt, the very first pharaohs. That does mean it covers up to the construction of Khufu’s Great Pyramid, so it does include some of the very classic Egyptian things people think of, though not the gold-encrusted tombs of later pharaohs.
Because I don’t know much about modern archaeology in Egypt, I can’t really speak to the accuracy of Romer’s interpretations. There is an extensive bibliography, of course, and he steers away from some of the romanticised, imperialist assumptions of earlier theories. Still, at times I had no idea how solid a base his theories stood on: he seemed to spend a lot of time telling the reader what can’t be gleaned from the remains, and then building up some kind of story — a court organised around early pharaohs, controlling the flow of goods along the Nile — anyway.
On a purely stylistic level, it has some of the grandeur and wonder of the books I used to read, and finds wonder in the simplest carvings and burials as well as the feats of engineering, but the sentence structure… needs work. I don’t usually nitpick grammar, but there were far too many long sentences where the subject wasn’t clear, or which lost focus halfway through, or were fragments. Quite offputting.
I’m definitely interested in reading the follow-up volume, once it’s out!
Home: A Time Traveller’s Tales from Britain’s Prehistory, Francis Pryor
Unlike the more focused Seahenge, Francis Pryor’s Home tries to cover a lot of ground — no less than looking at the roots of family life in the Neolithic world, and its development through to recorded history. There’s a lot of evidence to look at, but a lot of it doesn’t deal directly with the home: in fact, Pryor discusses Seahenge and Stonehenge at reasonable length, as well as other potentially sacred places and practices that we don’t now fully understand (or in some cases, understand at all). It somewhat ties in with what I’ve been reading recently about Celtic culture, and the development of infrastructure in Britain, though it covers a lot more centuries, so it was interesting to see where it dovetailed.
Unfortunately, I think the fact that there’s sections about burial practices and the like detracts from the central theme, even though it does relate to how a home life might have been seen and how individuals were treated. Pryor’s willingness to speculate about all these things makes the book seem a little overstuffed at times — reiterating ideas from Seahenge and from Mike Parker Pearson’s Stonehenge, then discussing Pryor’s own digging experiences, and then talking about a hoard found somewhere else… It lacks focus, I think, which is a shame.
It’s still a fascinating book, and Pryor writes well and interestingly, but it feels like the material could equally constitute most of Britain BC, which I haven’t yet read but intend to. It isn’t just about the home; we don’t have enough evidence for that, as much as we would wish it. Instead, questions about ritual and beliefs about death intrude at all times, partly because these are things we are more fascinated to know, and only partly for the way it reflects on the living of life.
The Celts: Search for a Civilisation, Alice Roberts
This book was written to accompany a BBC series that I haven’t seen, but that doesn’t seem to detract from it any. I seem to be seeing a lot of people lately considering the issues of Celtic identity: how do we pin it down? Is it based on language, material culture, genetics? Is it really a thing? I’ve been to the temporary Celtic exhibit in the British Museum, as well as read this and — for contrast — Graham Robb’s The Ancient Paths, which views Celtic identity as very contiguous across Europe. (It is reassuring that most of the facts here chimed with Robb’s claims, if you’d like to believe in his theories!)
This book surveys evidence from all over Europe, eventually coming to the conclusion that Celticness might have originated in the West and spread east, rather than the other way round. It also pours cold water on the idea of human sacrifices (though it doesn’t mention some of the archaeological evidence about Boudicca’s revolt and the claims of human sacrifice and barbaric practices around that), with what I think seems like justified scepticism. Roberts points out that we’ve got a fundamental problem where the literature is interpreted in ways which prop up the interpretation of archaeological finds, at the same time as those archaeological finds are held up as truth in interpreting the literature.
Overall, Roberts is relatively unconclusive, if conclusions are what you’re looking for. Celtic identity is a bit of a morass, and its modern importance to Welsh, Scottish, Irish and Cornish people may well be a very recent construct. That makes it no less powerful, and there’s something understandable and powerful in modern people looking back to our ancestors and trying to understand them, claiming to be a part of them. After all, we must be.