The Environmental Impact of Later Mesolithic Cultures: The Creation of Moorland Landscape in England and Wales.

I.G. Simmons

Edinburgh University Press for the University of Durham, Edinburgh, 1996. ISBN 0-7486-0842-7.

Review by Graeme Warren.

I was nave enough to think that writing this review might be easy. After all, I had read the book, enjoyed it and found much of it very useful. Of course, there were some problems, but I felt sure that I could briefly highlight these without detracting from Simmons' achievement. I wanted to follow his own maxim, that "the object in all of this is to tell one story which can be taken on by others" (xii), and make suggestions that might be of use in furthering this project. However, as I tried to express criticisms, I found myself sinking into a mire of deconstruction, failing to move Simmons' story on at all. In order to circumvent this, it might be helpful to turn to a problem that lies deep within our discipline rather than solely with Simmons: the relationship of social and environmental archaeologies.

The plural tells the story: that the two often address different issues and utilise radically divergent methodologies. As a consequence of this, their final narratives sit uncomfortably together, their very language often incompatible. Stereotypically, environmental archaeology considers long temporal frameworks within a more or less determinist, processualist framework, whilst social archaeology considers power and identity, events and actions. This is a tired opposition, acknowledged as such by most, and Simmons might appear to skirt this by explicitly raising post-processual concerns (228ff). Unfortunately I find myself in whole-hearted agreement with his own statement, that "this enquiry and synthesis have been conducted in the language of positivist discourse" (ibid.). This quite simply means that Simmons' places his study within a specific academic pigeon hole, and this can only perpetuate oppositions and misunderstandings.

Simmons has argued over thirty years for the active role of Mesolithic cultures in managing and altering their environment. Here, through exceptionally sensitive analyses of pollen data, he breaks down the broad brush flavour of much palynology, creating a more convincing case for anthropogenic causes of fire-incidence than I have previously encountered. His stress upon local factors is particularly welcome and it is also pleasing to see an explicit move away from environmental determinism (p.162). Unfortunately Simmons' project here is encapsulated in his title to examine 'The Impact of Later Mesolithic Cultures' (my italics), and this reviewer would not like to see the much vaunted demise of environmental determinism be reduced to changing the direction of feedback loops. The environment is certainly not the director of the play, but neither is it a blank curtain against which humans act out their lives. Deriving from Cartesian categories, positivism sets the world apart from humanity: by using such a discourse Simmons reiterates false understandings. He misses the fundamental point that to be human is to inhabit, to live in and make sense of the surrounding world. Human actions bring aspects of this world into focus: redolent with meaning, these themes, places, or items are re-worked, and re-negotiated, crystallising new potentials for future dwellings creating and re-creating identity as they create and re-create the landscape. Simmons touches on issues of meaning and identity almost as an afterthought, one page out of 230. This is not sufficient. His 'Impact' rings false because it is epistemologically flawed.

I suggest that an archaeology focused on how humans made sense of their world, and reproduced these understandings over time and space, might reconcile the antagonistic archaeological siblings. If we wish to focus on inhabitation, on tasks and temporality, routines and relations, then environmental changes and rock art, pollen cores and social theory are all relevant. Nothing is ipso facto primary, because all of these things, all of these aspects of the world, are, and were, caught up in the messy, unpredictable, and loveable complication that is human life. Consequently they are all valid approaches to the study of past human possibilities, approaches which require mediation through appropriate forms of representation.

These criticisms, although seemingly a manifesto out of place in a book review, are central to an understanding of Simmons' book. Simmons is constrained by his discipline, his discourse and by the character of his knowledge. To move his story along we must shatter the academic propriety that his book draws upon. I am not saying that Simmons should have written a social archaeology: a social archaeology that does not draw upon environmental data is as flawed as any environmental archaeology that does not discuss human landscapes. The divisions are redundant. It is perhaps time we moved on, rather than proceeding to pat our collective back at our cleverness in identifying a reflexive agent and then writing the same old bunk.

If I have sounded harsh, this is unfortunate and my irritation is not aimed so much at Simmons as the more general situation that he (and all of us) is in. Let's see what The Environmental Impact.. has to offer.

The fact is that it demonstrates great potentials, although not in the way that Simmons might think. His reluctance to indulge in interpretation, and the over-rigid separation of hypothesis and evidence (p.39), makes for a number of dry, data-heavy chapters before any humanity is allowed to appear. When it does, it is model-generated, based on postulated extractive and functional relationships with resources: relationships derived from anthropology and archaeology. The models are not revolutionary and I found the almost incidental interpretations Simmons makes as he takes the reader on a tour of pollen cores much more stimulating. Details of management techniques (lopping, ring barking and burning), and about the temporal character of such activities, begin to offer a window onto routines of life and the practical engagements through which spaces became places. Whilst Simmons does not draw upon these themes it is nice to know that the data enables more interesting stories to be told.

On a more positive note, one of the main achievements of the book is the shattering of the myth of Mesolithic cultures as ultra greens, living alongside but not damaging their environment (Introduction). Stated so boldly this seems untenable, a twentieth century political myth. However I believe that such conceptions underpin many discussions of the inception of agricultural techniques, especially those which stress a new, interventionist role for culture after the Neolithic watershed. Such arguments must now be seen to obscure rather than enlighten, and Simmons' arguments show that this is a false characterisation of the much vaunted transformation. If Simmons' "last substantive contribution to the upland Mesolithic" (xii) achieves nothing else then he should still go home very happy.

One or two criticisms must be ranged at the language and format of the book itself. One is simple: positivism is rarely fun to read. Alongside linguistic scientism, this book also suffers from a specialist's alienation. A table giving Latin-English equivalents for the pollen taxa that crop up so frequently would have been very very useful. Whilst these are identified on their first appearance I found that without constructing my own table it was hard to follow arguments closely. This may sound trivial but is a nuisance. Much more grating is the terrible over-use of abbreviations. Whilst AP and NAP are OK for arboreal and non-arboreal pollen, LM and RM for logistical and residential mobility are D.U.L.L. (Decidedly Unnecessary Linguistic Legislation), and EW and NYM for England and Wales and the North York Moors are D.I.R.E. (Desperately Irritating, Rarely Enlightening). I don't know whether this was the publishers' decision or Simmons'. Could they please not do it again?

I don't want to be a sourpuss. Simmons' book, despite its problems, is well worth reading, and if your collection of pollen diagrams needs updating go and buy it. Simmons' writing, despite the criticisms raised, is generally clear and his deep knowledge (can I say 'love'?) of pollen is readily apparent. As an introduction to what sensitive palynology is capable of today I can think of no parallel. However I sincerely hope that his story is not the end of the line, that archaeologists can move past the tired oppositions of environment and culture by recognising, belatedly, that the labels and categories by which a modernistic project identified and understood the world do not bear any necessary relationship with what it actually means to be human to inhabit a landscape.

Graeme Warren is a freelance archaeologist affiliated to Sheffield University, in other words, an unemployed ex post-grad. He likes prehistoric things, particularly in Northern Britain, and is sometimes found in dabbling in theoretical waters that are probably too deep for him. He hopes to be doing a PhD next year, but when he grows up he really wants to go and play in the Himalaya. If anyone knows any ways of getting grants for ethnographic work in Tibet he'd appreciate it...

Graeme Warren 1997


assemblage 1997