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Review – Creating Prehistory

November 19, 2015
Isn't that a lovely cover? Copyright Skyscan Balloon Photography/English Heritage

Isn’t that a lovely cover? Copyright Skyscan Balloon Photography/English Heritage Photo Library

Let me begin by saying I enjoyed this book tremendously, despite it taking me so long to getting round to writing a review. Stout’s examination of the esoteric ideas about the past that were concurrent with the expansion of British archaeology in the first half of the twentieth century is excellently written and researched. Stout makes the point that to the outsider all those interested in the excavated past, whether mainstream or marginal, were seen as unconventional, archaeology in the first half of the twentieth century was an off-beat and unorthodox interest. Additionally, Stout’s work is embedded in the contemporary political and social understandings of pre-war Britain and as I said here he weaves wider social ideas and attitudes into his narrative, particularly ideas about the past being envisaged as wild and how this connects to the search for the wild in pre-war Britain, the untamed and untainted, pre-modern, folkloric, simple, innocent and how this was linked to the burgeoning outdoors movement including the Woodcraft Folk* and the mass trespass of Kinder Scout. As a piece of social history it is absolutely fascinating and I would – and have – recommended it to undergraduates as an essential book about the history of archaeology. But I recommend it with provisos, I’ll get to those later, and I will admit that even after I’d read his sympathetic account my view of the more outré believers was still ‘Holy cow! What a bunch of nutters!**’ –to use a technical reviewing term.

As the subtitle suggests Stout is interested in the druids, ley hunters and archaeologists of pre-war Britain (by which he means pre 2nd World War) and the way the archaeologists sought to contain the unconventional elements and control which past was disseminated to the public while the fringe tried to ensure that their voice was heard. But there’s both more and less to his book than that, in particular (although not referred to in the title) he documents the work of Smith, Perry and the other hyper-diffusionists, giving their story as much weight as druids and ley hunters.

Smith is a fascinating character, his work on anatomy, and particularly the anatomy of Egyptian mummies, as well as his psychological work alongside his friend W. H. R. Rivers on treating, sympathetically, sufferers of shell shock is well-known. When I was researching my PhD I came across Shell Shock and its Lessons and – because I was supposed to be reading other things – promptly sat down and read it from cover to cover. As you do. Obviously a work of this kind is going to be anti-war, but that Smith then used diffusionist understandings of anthropology/archaeology to promote pacifism is not something I’d picked up on, yet Stout makes a convincing case. I had obviously just uncritically accepted the idea that Smith and Perry were cranks whose ideas could therefore be simply dismissed, Stout demonstrates that this was far from being the case. Their ideas were fascinating, coherent and connected and make so much more sense when read within the anti-conscription and anti-war framework. Stout argues that Perry’s ‘peaceful primitives’ overwhelmed by the ‘Children of the Sun’ military aristocracy was framed to counter the idea from Sir Arthur Keith and others that humanity was predisposed to war. In Perry’s view war came about through greed: the sea-faring warriors enslaved various natives in order to gain access to life-giving precious metals. The counterpart of this argument was that humanity could therefore return to its former peaceful condition. Understandably Perry’s books Children of the Sun (1923) and The Growth of Civilization (1924) were enormously popular with those promoting peace in the shocked aftermath of the First World War. However, they and Elliot Smith’s book Human History (1930) as well as Massingham’s Downland Man (1926) were popular beyond this group and diffusionism really caught the public imagination.

Stout argues that anthropologists were not so keen and details the power struggles of Elliot Smith’s rise to dominance and the epistemic revolution he attempted. It’s riveting stuff. He details who was on Smith’s side, initially these were Manchester illuminati (including the wonderfully named Dr Henry Guppy of the John Rylands’ Library) but diffusionism spread from this centre (sorry!) when Smith moved to UCL and Perry followed to take up the Rockefeller funded Readership in Anthropology. Other anthropologists, especially those affiliated to the Royal Anthropological Institute became highly suspicious of Smith and Perry’s intentions, particularly their refusal to join in academic debate, and the two were gradually ostracised and marginalised as Malinowski and the functionalist anthropologists became more influential. Possibly because of this ostracism, possibly because of the rise of Nazi ideas of Aryan races, possibly because Perry was increasingly ill with Parkinson’s, he and Smith abandoned their intransigent hyper-diffusionism over the 1930s and came back into the fold of social evolution and functionalism.

Stout looks at the impact of diffusionism on archaeology and it’s here that his insistence on calling Elliot Smith and Co ‘diffusionists’ as opposed to the more accepted ‘hyper-diffusionists’ becomes confusing. Because diffusion did appeal to archaeologists and was used by them, for all they dismissed Smith and Perry’s insistence on hyper-diffusion, on an Egyptian origin for all cultural change. This is an area Stout barely explores, and even when he raises interesting points such as contemporary archaeologists’ (and particularly Wheeler’s) insistence on the naturalness of warfare, he goes into hardly any detail. Tell me more Adam! What are you basing this on? However, what Stout does do, is point out how damningly and unfairly Daniel and Trigger wrote about Smith and Perry which has made me want to go back and re-read Smith and Perry’s work.

What else can I tell you about this book? Stout looks at the rise of alternative religions and the affinity this appears to have to socialism and healthy living, I was delighted to learn that 1920s druids were mainly Labour Party supporters. His section about druids is quite short, but sensitively and honestly written. While he notes that the druids were largely ridiculed and marginalised by archaeologists and government, he doesn’t exonerate either side, rather he talks about how archaeologists attempted to control the understanding of Stonehenge as a ‘dead’ monument while the druids attempted to present the site as part of a living tradition. This concern is repeated in the section on The Straight Track Club – ley line followers – a more disparate and interesting group than the early druids, and presented as more of a threat to archaeologists than the druids. Stout notes the similarity of purpose between archaeologists and Straight Track searchers, their concern with locating and defining the monuments within the landscape, their competing ruralism and, from Watkins at least, the emphasis on observation not imagination.

Again, this alternative approach to the past is discussed as credible and reasonable, even when it veered off into believing in Atlantis. Again, mainstream archaeologists are shown as deliberately distancing themselves from the ‘lunatic fringe’ although the work undertaken by both sides seems very similar, and when Watkins was attempting to gain Crawford’s approbation.

It is refreshing to read an account of archaeology that does discuss alternative readings of the past and treats them as valid approaches rather than presenting them as ridiculous caricatures. So, why do I only recommend it with provisos? I think the problem is that Stout veers too far in the opposite direction and the archaeologists become caricatures. Maybe I just know too much about these people, but by setting up a dichotomy pitting mainstream archaeologists against those who believed in hyperdiffusion/druids/ley lines I would suggest Stout misrepresents inter-war archaeology. Presenting mainstream archaeology as homogeneous with agreed upon attitudes and principles ignores many of the diversities and disagreements between members of that band. There were marked differences in approach and understandings of the nature of archaeology and when rifts appear they were very noticeable – for example Wheeler was viewed with suspicion and distaste by many and his fieldwork credentials questioned as shown in Glyn Daniel’s autobiography Some Small Harvest (1986), the fallout after Wheeler’s review of Hod Hill (see Antiquity 42 for the original review, reaction and riposte), or the letters between Piggott and Keiller in the Avebury Museum archive.

There are other examples I could give but let’s look at Stout’s assertion that ‘the mind-set of the ‘heroic band’ was hardly conducive to respect for esoterica, whether prehistoric or modern’ (118). Yet many of that heroic band wrote articles for Folklore, Leslie Grinsell, unarguably a mainstream archaeologist, was a linchpin of the Folklore Society. He was not alone, among other examples: Keiller was well known for his research into witchcraft, Piggott wrote an article about Mummers plays published in 1929, and obviously there was Margaret Murray whom Stout dismisses in less than a page. How does this translate as not respecting esoterica?

Then there is Stout’s understanding of fieldwork during this period, I’m not going to go into detail here but let’s just say that he’s obviously never worked in modern development led archaeology and he really should have read Gavin Lucas’ book Critical Approaches to Fieldwork (2000).

But, criticisms are inevitable when you read something that relates to your own field of interest/expertise. Despite my quibbles and occasional outright indignation about what is and isn’t included and despite disagreeing with him on several points, Creating Prehistory has made me think and that’s always the sign of a good, thought-provoking book.

On that upbeat note, I will wish you a fantastic weekend


* They were the precursors of the Kibbo Kift y’know – yes I am obsessed and fully intend to visit this exhibition.

** So, maybe I haven’t mellowed as much as I’d thought/hoped.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Kathleen Sheppard permalink
    November 23, 2015 2:28 pm

    Apparently when GES moved to UCL he and Petrie had some fights. Even though Petrie borderline agreed with him but refused to admit it to his face. Margaret Murray (surprise!) claimed she got them to shake hands later on and was quite proud of it. But now I want to read Stout to see what else he’s saying about this! Sounds like an excellent book!


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