Review: The Prehistoric Archaeology of Ireland. Revised Edition

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Review: The Prehistoric Archaeology of Ireland. Revised Edition

  1. 1. Review: The Prehistoric Archaeology of Ireland. Revised Edition. Originally posted online on 21 December 2011 at rmchapple.blogspot.com (http://rmchapple.blogspot.co.uk/2011/12/review-prehistoric-archaeology-of.html)John Waddell. Wordwell, Dublin, 2010. 435pp. Black & White illustrations and platesthroughout. ISBN 978-1-905569-47-5. €40 (via Wordwell) or £40 (via Amazon).This 2010 volume describes itself as the ‘Revised Edition’, building on the 1998 firstedition (published by Galway University Press), and the 2000 second edition (publishedby Wordwell). Inevitably, it is already known within the Irish archaeological world asthe third edition. Before I began this review, I went back and re-read Tom Condit’s(1998) assessment of the first edition in Archaeology Ireland. I wanted to get a feelingfor how the work was perceived at the time and how this latest edition either continuesthose initial observations, or deviates from them.In the first instance, Condit sees the volume as joining an ‘impressive suite of recenttextbooks’. These are given as Herity & Eogan’s Ireland inPrehistory (1977); Harbison’s Pre-Christian Ireland (1988); O’Kelly’s EarlyIreland (1989); Mallory & McNeill’s The Archaeology of Ulster (1991); Cooney &Grogan’s Irish Prehistory – a social perspective (1994); Pagan Celtic Ireland by Raftery(1994); and Mitchell & Ryan’s Reading the Irish Landscape (1997). As is the way of suchthings, books pass from being relevant first-port-of-call research resources into relativeobscurity as the newer generation of volumes pushes forward. It is merely a personalopinion, but I would suggest that with the possible exception of the last two books(Pagan Celtic Ireland and Reading the Irish Landscape), the time of the volumes onthat list has come and gone. As I say, this is neither a slight on the books, nor theirauthors, but simply the progressive nature of research. While a contemporary of thesevolumes, The Prehistoric Archaeology of Ireland has established itself as the textbook
  2. 2. of choice for the archaeology undergraduate and the professional classes. Inevitably, inthe time since its original publication, other contenders have come forward. Chiefamong them are Malone’s Neolithic Britain and Ireland (2001) and Bradley’s ThePrehistory of Britain and Ireland (2007). While Neolithic Britain and Ireland, at least,has much to recommend it, neither of these works has ever been a serious contender todisplace The Prehistoric Archaeology of Ireland.In his preface to the work, Waddell explains how, in the 1st edition, he attempted to usethe emerging body of radiocarbon dates to dispense with the ‘antiquated’ Three-Agesystem and such terminology as ‘Mesolithic’, ‘Neolithic’, ‘Bronze Age’, and ‘Iron Age’. Hehas now come to realise that, despite its inadequacies, it ‘stubbornly refuses to die’. Iwould argue that the reason for its longevity is precisely because it continues to presenta valuable conceptual apparatus for examining and discussing our past – but that isanother matter. While he claims to ‘some reluctance’, he includes a broad chronologicalperiodisation, though a similar chronology was included in the introduction of the 2ndedition. After the expected listing of important publications from both the universityand commercial sectors that have necessitated a new edition, Waddell launches anumber of broadsides against the current state of university education in archaeology,the State licensing and oversight system, and the practices of the commercial excavationsector. While not all readers would agree with all of his points, I feel that they should berecommended reading (and discussion topics) for every archaeologist; student,professional and enthusiast.Readers will note that the introduction to the earlier editions (A short history ofprehistoric archaeology in Ireland) does not appear in the new edition. This is becauseWaddell developed the chapter into a full book in its own right. Foundation Myths: Thebeginnings of Irish archaeology (2005) is a superb investigation into the origin anddevelopment of archaeology in Ireland from mythological tales and the works of earlyantiquarians, through to the professional archaeologists of the early and mid-20thcentury. As an aside, I would also recommend Foundation Myths as an exemplary read.Chapter 1, ‘Postglacial Ireland: The first colonists examines the earliest evidence for thefirst humans to arrive in Ireland. The various Palaeolithic finds from Ireland areassessed and dismissed and a brief sketch of the climate and appearance of thepostglacial landscape is presented. As in previous works, there is justifiable dominancegiven to the Early Mesolithic evidence from Mount Sandel, Co. Londonderry, and LoughBoora, Co. Offaly. The Late Mesolithic evidence also hits all the expected sites, andincludes more recent discoveries at Ferriter’s Cove, Co. Kerry, Clownastown, Co. Meath,and Hermitage, Co. Limerick. Chapter 2, ‘Farmers of the Fourth Millennium’ describesNeolithic life in terms of settlements, pottery, lithics and organic materials. As an aside,I would add that Waddell’s referencing, however briefly, the excavation of threeNeolithic houses at Ballintaggart fulfils a long-held personal ambition of being includedin this volume! (buy BAR 479 here!) Chapter 3, ‘The Cult of the Dead’ examines passagetombs (with particular reference to the Boyne Valley, Loughcrew, Carrowkeel, andCarrowmore cemeteries), burial ritual, grave goods and passage tomb art. This isfollowed by succinct expositions on court tombs, portal tombs, wedge tombs,Linkardstown graves and other forms of burial. Chapter 4, ‘Sacred Circles and New
  3. 3. Technology’ describes the evidence for the transition from the Late Neolithic into theBronze Age. Subsections within the chapter include Beaker pottery and burials,settlement and economy, new metalworking technologies, and cemeteries. As is to beexpected from a specialist in Bronze Age pottery, the sections dealing with bowls, vases,and urns is especially thorough. Chapter 5, ‘Enigmatic monuments’ examines thephenomena of rock art, stone circles, alignments, standing stones, and burnt mounds.Chapter 6, ‘Bronze and gold and Power: 1600-1000 BC’ presents the evidence for thebronze and gold metalwork of the Kilmaddy, Bishopsland, and Roscommon Phases;along with the evidence for ‘settlement, economy and Society 1600-1000 BC’. Chapter 7,‘The Consolidation of Wealth and Status: 1000-600 BC’ presents the metalwork of theDowris Phase, through the buckets, cauldrons, horns, and crotals and into theweaponry: swords, chapes, spears, and shields. The goldwork is then presented: dress-fasteners, lock-rings, hair-rings, ring-money, bullae, and bracelets. The evidence forregionality during the Dowris is examined and followed by an examination of the moreenigmatic artefact types. The latter include ‘boxes’, ear-spools, hats and pins. Shortsections are dedicated to the topics of ‘the Atlantic seaways’ and ‘amber and the Nordicquestion’. Bronze tools and implements are detailed, with particular emphasis beingplaced on the socketed axes. The final portion of the chapter examines ‘Settlement andSociety 1000-600 BC’ and is chiefly composed of brief synopses of major sites, includingLough Eskragh, Co. Tyrone, Mooghaun, co. Clare, and Rathgall, Co. Wicklow. Chapter 8,‘From Bronze to Iron’ examines the earliest evidence for iron working and is followed bya section assessing this transitional period in terms of ‘Discontinuity and Change orContinuity an Innovation?’. The author treats briefly of ‘The Problem of the Celts’, andhow the archaeological record may be interpreted in terms of linguistic and DNAevidence. The major hoards of the period are examined (Knock, Somerset, andBroighter) and are followed by a significant section on horse harnesses and relatedartefact types. Further sections examine weaponry, personal ornaments, along withdiscs, horns and solar symbols. Chapter 9, ‘Elusive Settlements and Ritual Sites’presents the comparatively meagre, but growing, evidence for Iron Age society andreligion. Subsections include detailed presentations on quern stones, wooden andbronze vessels, Royal sites and large enclosure in Later Prehistory (with dedicatedsections on Tara, Co. Meath; Navan, Co. Armagh; Knockaulin, Co. Kildare; andRathcroghan, Co. Roscommon), The Hillfort Problem, linear earthworks, along with‘cult, sacrifice and burial’. Chapter 10, ‘Protohistory’ briefly assays the impact of theRoman world on this island. He concludes that the traditional claim that Ireland wassomehow aloof and insulated from the influences of Rome can no longer be sustained.Condit took issue with Waddell’s use of chapter endnotes to present the bibliographicalinformation, and suggested that the standard Harvard system was preferable. This hasbeen rectified in the Revised Edition and a conventional Harvard system is appliedthroughout. Unfortunately, the endnotes have been eliminated in their entirety. Whilefollowing up on published references is now (arguably) easier than before, the wealth ofadditional information not suitable for the main text (including detailed references toradiocarbon determinations) has all been swept away. I cannot pretend that I amanything but disappointed by this development.
  4. 4. In a previous blog post I passingly described The Prehistoric Archaeology ofIreland as ‘magisterial’, and I stand by that assessment. Condit’s review of the firstedition described the organisation of the books as ‘old fashioned’ in that the subjectmatter is organised ‘in a linear style, a straightforward exposition of material which canbe grouped to provide an assemblage of comparative information in chronologicalorder’. I, however, see this as one of the strengths and attractions of the work (in all itseditions) – the available evidence is clearly and concisely presented without any explicittheoretical framework being applied to it. Obviously, there are those who will see thelack of an unequivocal theoretical bias as a fault in the work – I am not among thisnumber. On a superficial level I would express some concern that a book that hasobviously incorporated so much new material has only increased its page count by two(1st & 2nd edns: 433pp vs. 3rd edn: 435pp). However, even in the preface to the firstedition Waddell acknowledged that a trawl of the available published literature, ofnecessity, required significant skills of selection and editing. Thus, I find little to fear inthe inevitable consequence that the some sections have been shortened to accommodatenew material. I do have two significant criticisms of the new edition, and neither hasanything to do with the contents or their selection. In comparing the 2nd and 3rdeditions I immediately noticed that there was a significant difference in the thicknessesof the two. The 2nd edition measures c.30mm, while the new volume measures c.21mm.It was this observation that first led me to examine the page count, presuming that thenew edition was much shorter. The solution is quite prosaic: the new edition is printedon thinner, lighter-grade paper. In a photograph I took for the IR&DD Facebook pagesoon after the book was delivered, the cover may be clearly seen, already starting to curl.This is not a trivial matter for two of the largest user-groups of this volume: archaeologystudents and professional field archaeologists. In my own case, my copy of the 2ndedition has been on practically every site I’ve worked on since its publication in 2000.For a lot of the remainder of that time it has knocked about in the back of my car orbeen a constant presence on my desk, being repeatedly thumbed through for bothparallels and (occasionally) some recreational reading. It has even accompanied me onfamily holidays across Europe, Turkey, Crete, and (I think) Egypt. Despite this catalogue
  5. 5. of abusive travel and research, my copy is in pretty reasonable condition and I shouldfully expect that it will last at least another decade. While the average archaeologyundergraduate may not quite subject their copies to such extremes, they will still requirea physically robust textbook. My fear is that the new edition will simply not stand up tothe material demands that may be justifiably made of it. My second major criticism ofthe new edition is that it is without an index [Note: see authors update in thecomments section, below]. In such a work as this, a comprehensive index is anessential component of its utility, and I can only feel that it is diminished by its absence.In all honesty, I feel uncomfortable criticising the publishers of this volume. Over theyears Wordwell have emerged as the major publisher of Irish archaeology texts of allkinds, and their name has become synonymous with high-quality products.Unfortunately, I feel that they have, in this instance, failed to live up to their reputation.I hope that Wordwell reconsider these production decisions and for future reprints andeditions commission a new index and print on more robust materials.Even taking account of these criticisms, the current edition of The PrehistoricArchaeology of Ireland is a masterwork and must be heartily recommended to allstudents of Irish prehistory – undergraduates and professionals alike. Condit, in hisoriginal review, justifiably takes issue with the choice of title for the book. While herecognised that there were only so many possible permutations of the words ‘prehistory’and ‘archaeology’ to go round, he took the title to imply that it was concerned witharchaeology in prehistoric times. I admit that I have never found the title completelysatisfying, but I do think it significant that the book has so embedded itself into thecollective consciousness of Irish archaeology that no one even raises it as an issue anymore. Perhaps even more significantly, for a large part of those involved in archaeologyon this island, the original title is not used at all – it is simply referred to as ‘Waddell’.To my mind, this has the unintended consequence of reducing the perceived importanceof his significant body of publications. Nonetheless, it is ample testament to thepreeminent place that both this book and its author hold in Irish archaeology. No matterhow great or small your collection of books on Irish archaeology may be – it is simplyincomplete without this volume being a part of it. Note: Robert M Chapple wishes toacknowledge the financial assistance provided under the Built Heritage element of theEnvironment Fund by the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht towardsthe Irish Radiocarbon & Dendrochronological Dates project [IR&DD Facebook Page].Reference:Condit, T. 1998 ‘The Prehistoric Archaeology of Ireland [Review]’ ArchaeologyIreland 12.2, 38.

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