Fairweather Eden: Life in Britain Half a Million Years Ago as Revealed by the Excavations at Boxgrove
by M. Pitts and M. Roberts
Century, London, 1997
356 pp. (113 figures, 32 plates, index)
ISBN 0-7126-7686-4
£17.99 (cloth)

reviewed by A.M. Chadwick


During my time as an undergraduate, palaeolithic archaeology was one of the subjects that interested me most, and for four weeks during the summer of 1988 I myself volunteered at the Sussex site of Boxgrove that is the subject of this book. In the years since then, my own archaeological interests have moved on, and I have fallen further behind the literature concerning the period. Reading and reviewing this book was, therefore, a rather curious experience for me, for it reminded me of much I had forgotten, but also showed how much research has moved on and how quickly ideas can change in this particular field.

The excavations at Boxgrove have already been published as an English Heritage monograph, and that publication is, presumably, yet another familiar exercise in detailed empirical evidence and scientific erudition. Fairweather Eden is clearly an attempt to do something very different chronicling instead the history of the excavation itself. Chapters on key excavation events and brief sketches of some of the personalities involved are interleaved with other chapters explaining the history of palaeolithic studies in Britain and the world, as well as some of the main debates concerning hominid tool-making, cognitive abilities, and social organisation. In addition, the intricacies of faunal analysis and geological and palaeo-environmental studies are explained in lay terms that even I can understand! This rather non-linear text is further divided by some fine illustrations showing everything from geological strata and handaxe manufacture to a selection of the artefacts and animal bones recovered during the excavations. Chapter headings are embellished with drawings of some of the animals and birds that made up the faunal assemblage of the area some 500,000 years ago.

The prose style is generally very readable, and there is much rewarding information within the text, and some intriguing speculation. I particularly liked the idea mooted on page 253 that the degree of wear on a soft hammerstone made from an extinct giant deer antler may indicate that it was a valued and highly curated object, which may have been seen as imparting the strength of the animal itself into the flint tools made using it. This may be one of many potentially controversial ideas presented in the book, which argues for a degree of behavioural sophistication amongst Middle Palaeolithic hominids is an idea that would have been deeply unfashionable only a few years ago. This includes evidence that may indicate hunting with wooden projectiles. Although these issues are argued quite convincingly, many arguments against the ideas are absent. Some of the main papers of the last twenty years regarding hominid behaviour and subsistence practices are touched upon, and they are cited in the small but useful bibliography. However, the feel of the book is more one of reasoned polemic than extensive survey of the available literature, though in all fairness, Fairweather Eden does not pretend to be such a review. What does seem to be missing, though, is any direct criticism of some of the more contentious claims raised by the Boxgrove project, as well as the response of the project team members to these criticisms. As the monograph itself was only published in 1997 the same year as Fairweather Eden, this is perhaps understandable.

One of the most noteworthy portions of Fairweather Eden for me was chapter 55. In this, the authors have produced a more experimental piece of writing -- a short narrative of a hominid group, incorporating ideas of hominid behaviour generated by the excavation results. There is much to admire in this short piece, although I felt that it could have explored more issues of hominid behaviour and, for me at least, the style was somehow never quite convincing. Writing these inhabited archaeologies is not easy and there is the obvious danger that embodied experiential accounts can descend into poorly worded prose little different to the more banal historical fantasy literature, such as the books of Henry Treece or the extremely unbelievable 'bonkbusting' realms of Jean Auel's Upper Palaeolithic sagas. To their credit the authors of Fairweather Eden have been able to avoid this.

Where I think Fairweather Eden falls down, or at least stumbles, is in its account of the history of the excavations. Inevitably, perhaps, the director of the project, Mark Roberts, is given centre stage, but this is at the expense of other participants in the project. Almost prescient powers of perception and forward-thinking are attributed to Mark Roberts, and some of the book's more purple passages describe these. I suspect that there is much hindsight involved. What we are presented is a picture of a lone archaeological warrior battling against the archaeological establishment. Whilst this may have been true of the project's early years, modern multidisciplinary research projects simply do not work like that. Although of the individuals who contributed to the research undertaken on the site or who worked on the material from it are mentioned, few of them are shown as real figures with their own voices. It would have been much more interesting to have explored these individual contributions and viewpoints in greater depth.

For example, we could have been presented with the different perspectives of those professionally involved with the project, and the many independent and student volunteers. Mark Roberts is a noted shooting and fishing man, and whilst I was at Boxgrove in 1988, wild game consituted a substantial part of the menu (even including a seagull on one memorable and not too successful occasion!). The remains of these creatures were destined for the faunal collection of the assistant director of the project, Simon Parfitt. I can well remember coming across various animal and bird carcasses and body parts bubbling away in rendering pots in obscure corners of the project buildings. This all lent an unusually morbid and, at times, almost macho atmosphere to the proceedings, and I wonder how all this was perceived by the women who have worked on the project, and what their opinions are of the rugged image of Boxgrove Man [sic] the hunter that is presented in Fairweather Eden. This perspective is definitely missing from the story of the excavation itself.

All in all, Fairweather Eden is an enjoyable book, and an interesting experiment in archaeological writing. It manages to be accessible and entertaining to both those within the discipline and the more general reader, and it is well illustrated, which makes a change from many archaeological publications. There is no doubting the veracity of many of the excavation’s findings, and even the more controversial claims sounded convincing to this non-specialist. However, it should be read with a degree of scepticism concerning the foresightedness of some of those involved, and the title of the book is more than a tad over-romantic. Still, heads roll, there are some fine disarticulation sequences, and the beast count is high. I say check it out.

Copyright © A.M. Chadwick 1998


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