The Significance of Monuments: On the Shaping of Experience in Neolithic and Bronze Age Europe
by R. Bradley
Routledge, London, 1998
192 pp. (figures, bibliography, index)
ISBN 0-415-15204-6
£14.99 (paper)

reviewed by G. Warren


In this book, Richard Bradley explores the 'human experience of time and place' (163) from the Later Mesolithic Period through the transformations in the archaeological record that occur in many areas during the Bronze Age. He argues that people's involvement with monuments was central to the creation of new senses of time and place, and that this eventually facilitated the adoption of different agricultural and residential practices (161, and passim). The theoretical framework of the book is not radically new. Bradley weaves together many recent concerns: phenomenology, everyday life, and the creation and maintenance of identity. These varied themes have been pulled together into one narrative of this length too rarely, and here Bradley deserves much credit. This is an excellent and generally satisfying text, introducing a number of ideas in simple terms. As ever, Bradley's writing is lucid and refreshing. At times his excitement and pleasure in an insight is palpable.

The Significance of Monuments is quite short (179 pages including indexes) but well illustrated. It is divided into 10 chapters, many of which are modified versions of papers that have appeared elsewhere. (Bradley notes that the book is 'conceived less as a continuous narrative than as a series of linked essays' [14].) In Part 1, 'From the House of the Dead', Bradley examines the adoption and transformations of monumentality in Neolithic north-west Europe. He tries to focus on the interplay between everyday life and conventions of meaning, thus avoiding both the excesses of approaches which 'have treated symbolism and ideology at such an abstract level that these issues hardly ever deal with the experience of people in the past' (50) and the sterility of paradigms which suggest that 'the prehistoric landscape was structured by practical considerations' (37). In Part 2, 'Describing a Circle', Bradley's attention shifts to the later Neolithic and Bronze Age, and he examines the transformations and continuities in monument form during these periods. Chapter 8 'Theatre in the round' is a particularly satisfying account of some of the differences between henges and stone circles, and their 'integration with the landscape' (116). A critique of formal descriptions of monument types continues throughout the book and runs alongside Bradley's gentle teasing apart of our chronological categories, most notably the unity of the Neolithic.

Linking the two halves of the book, and in many ways central to its thesis, is Chapter 6, 'The persistence of memory'. This is a 'much revised version' of an earlier paper 'Ritual, time and history' (Bradley 1991). Following Bloch, Braudel, and Sahlins, Bradley suggests that ritual in the Neolithic may have been prescriptive in character, thus preserving forms of practice into the longue durée. Therefore, studying changes in ritual allows archaeologists to begin to approach societal change and social history. In this theoretical construct, monuments and the transformation of their forms are absolutely central to archaeologists' efforts to write history. This is the principal justification for this book and its discussion of such a wide range of monumental evidence.

And it is here that some doubts arise, for it is so easy to be swept along with Bradley's prose that at times we can forget just how far we have travelled and how many monuments we have enthusiastically visited with him. In Part 1 the discussion ranges from Kujavia, Bohemia, and Poitou to Britain. And from the Mesolithic and the Linearband Keramik into the later Neolithic periods. Part 2 is more restrictive, but still covers all of the British Isles, from Orkney to Cranbourne Chase. Bradley is, of course, well aware of the difficulties in balancing narratives between local details and the wealth of high-quality evidence available (14), but there still appears to be too much tension between this analytical range and the scale at which many lives must have been lived in prehistory. If monuments allow us to write history, they may also restrict the sort of histories we can write. When one uses only uses the best evidence or the clearest sequences, one runs the risk of emphasising quasi-universal structures at the expense of local agency. The stability of ritual time and practice in the longue durée in some locations may mask resistance and contestation in others.

In fact, Bradley stresses the importance of agency, and (following Johnson 1989) suggests that this can be witnessed archaeologically through the local manipulation of existing structures (73). He draws upon this conception of agency in discussing long mounds and causewayed enclosures. For example, in Kujavia the symbolic associations and transformations between long mounds and long houses are clear (Chapter 3, 'The death of the house') and his sensitive discussion of the transformations in the context of enclosures across Europe is stimulating (Chapter 5, 'Small worlds'). However, this agency feels a little disembodied and contextless, and it is also notable that, although a number of comments about the potentials of places to draw distinctions between people are made in this text, we hear little of gender or power.

Identifying local agency is probably tied up with our ability to integrate evidence of day-to-day life with monumental forms. This is partly a question of resolution: matching the activities responsible for a flint scatter to those responsible for a carbon-dated posthole is a genuine intellectual challenge. This tension runs throughout the account of Stonehenge offered in Chapter 6. Still, Bradley's statement that 'although sites of many different kinds may contain the new styles of artefacts adopted during the Neolithic, there seems little prospect of using this evidence to interpret patterns of everyday life' (10) is deeply troubling. For if true, we seem destined to interpret Neolithic life in terms of cosmologies derived from monuments alone.

Monuments have dominated our approaches to the Neolithic and earlier Bronze Age, and Bradley's book is a treatise on monuments, probably the best introduction to the subject written yet. Perhaps we now face a rather different kind of intellectual challenge: to find ways of interrogating the character of everyday life in these periods. Only by finding these approaches will we be able fully to integrate ritual and the everyday, and as a corollary, we may also find ways of linking the Mesolithic and earlier Neolithic within similar theoretical frameworks (Chapter 2 'Thinking the Neolithic'). Creating these local, day-to-day histories may require significant shifts in the forms of our narratives.

Bradley has identified some aspects of cosmological significance at a broad European level. The Significance of Monuments is stimulating, interesting, and enjoyable; I would highly recommend it for teaching. Yet his book also asks us two inescapable questions: firstly, whether archaeological data has the resolution to allow us to access day-to-day life and local transformations of society in the past; and secondly, whether archaeologists have the imagination to write these kinds of histories. A gauntlet has rarely been thrown so politely.

Works cited
Bradley, R. 1991. Ritual time and history. World Archaeology 23: 209-219

Johnson, M. 1989. Conceptions of agency in archaeological interpretation. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 8: 189-211

Copyright © G. Warren 1998


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