An Ethnography of the Neolithic.

By Christopher Tilley.

Cambridge University Press, 1996. ISBN 0 521 560969.

Review by Vicky Cooper.

twenty seven months or so
you've been sizing up the planet
and looking at this early work
leant on the radiator to dry
I can't say it looks like anything
but maybe you want it to
or perhaps when you began it
you had meant it to
so I ask you
is it a house?
is it a mouse?
is it a tortoise?
well if it's not any of those
what CAN it be?
and you inform me
that it is paint.

A Young Artist, by John Hegley (1990).

Chris Tilley's book An Ethnography of the Neolithic is founded on the same basic principles that are encapsulated in the above poem. The text dedicates itself to applying meaning to objects that may be considered to have no single intrinsic meaning. The task that Tilley sets himself, like the author of the poem, is to create a world based on assumed meanings; he is attempting to provide a set of suppositions and meanings based on what he considers to be the most likely type of relationship between one object and the next. However, as John Hegley illustrates, meanings can surprise.

What is interesting about reading An Ethnography of the Neolithic is that it functions under a certain set of assumptions, themes and categories, which are obviously those that Tilley considers to be important for the acceptance of his theories. Therefore, what is noticeable about the topics he chooses to discuss, is not the associations that he does make, but those that he disregards, such as his refusal to accept that there is any conceivable link between what he defines as 'symbolism' or 'ritual' and settlements. This is clearly because the prehistory that Tilley aims to write concerns itself largely and almost exclusively with monuments and to shift the focus away from these would detract from the argument he creates.

Therefore, his argument, although it may seem extremely complex (and certainly this outcome is not accidental), is very simplistic, dealing with as few categories of object as possible, in as restricted a social situation as the suspended disbelief will allow. Tilley's 'ethnography' of the broad timescale of the Neolithic is, in fact, little more than a review of the circumstances of deposition of certain items of material culture in the immediate vicinity of monuments. It does not deal in any detailed fashion with settlements, it does not consider farming, it does not even cover the whole range of available material culture. It does, however, make you believe that it has achieved the author's aims by applying a narrow argument, constructed under very limited circumstances, to a wider social framework, to which the reader has already been introduced and familiarised with, enabling the reader to accept more readily the projection of one situation onto another.

This book is a glimpse into Tilley's world, a world in which categories can be easily bounded, meaning can be simply ascribed and those actors lacking in voice and stage directions can have them quickly supplied by the choreographer. This is certainly true of the 'ancestors', who stay in their monuments as instructed and never venture out into the rest of the landscape or leave their mark anywhere else apart from where they rest. Whilst their voices, albeit supplied at a later date, are loud, other players in Tilley's world, such as the ceramics, are muted. Gagged and helpless, they play second fiddle to axes, viewed as being inferior in status, quality and decorative value. It is also implicit, although never stated, that pots are feminine.

The 'weaker vessels' and ancestors are not the only ones subject to such a harsh definition of what they are and are not. All categories of item found within the covers of the book are tightly defined, not least Tilley himself, which is a point to which I will return. The two major categories of object discussed are portrayed as being in opposition and yet making up a whole, a kind of yin-yang for the Neolithic. Axes and pots are set up in this way because of Tilley's own most basic feelings for the materials from which they were made, namely that clay=pot=wet and stone=axe=dry. This is Tilley's way of ordering the world. There are alternatives.

Tilley's style of writing throughout this trip alters to suit the occasion. In the first section, the purpose of which is purely to set the scene, the language he uses is prosaic and factual, as though the opinions he is expressing have been proven to be true. He structures the book advantageously to ensure the acceptance of the one major theoretical section, chapter six. All that precedes chapter six is fairly straightforward, uncontroversial writing, although here and there the kinds of ideas discussed in chapter six are hinted at, so that the terms eventually employed become familiar. Readers may even feel that they have come to the conclusions reached in chapter six themselves, whereas in fact they have been nurtured throughout the earlier chapters for this one test of faith. Personally, I failed to encounter chapter six in the way in which it was intended, since I first saw it on a desk, apart from the familiar surroundings of the companion chapters and the enormous black jacket that the book wears for its own physical and theoretical protection. By encountering something so woefully out of context, I was able to experience the chapter as it stood: brash, controversial and without any clues as to why such difficult assertions and concepts had been introduced. Having read the entire book, I can now see why chapter six falls where it does and contains the ideas it has. I can understand, but I cannot agree.

The book which Chris Tilley has produced is in many ways more a book about mortality, than about axes or pots or the ethnography of the Neolithic, as the author would have us believe. It is an item of portable material culture that speaks solely of mortality, of the people of the past, of the reader, and also of Tilley himself. This heavy, sombre book, with its heavy, sombre archaeology, is concerned with the tombs of the dead, with 'dead' artefacts and with the dead people who experienced them. It contains in essence the ideas upon which the life and career of Chris Tilley are founded; this is his way of organising the world, this is his way of dealing with his own mortality and therefore it is unsurprising that the book is so carefully arranged -- agreement with his argument is paramount. This book is a journey through Tilley's world, cataloguing not only a way of ordering the past, but also his way of structuring his own existence. Tilley fulfils his need to create order from chaos and is, through the medium of this book, asking the reader for acceptance.


Hegley, J. 1990. Glad to Wear Glasses, London: Deutsch.

Vicky Cooper is a research student in the Department of Archaeology and Prehistory at the University of Sheffield. She is studying Neolithic material from Bavaria and hopes that someday this will reward her with an MPhil.

© Vicky Cooper 1997

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