In Brief November 22, 2017
butterfly

Archaeology

ROGER ATWOOD

In this understated, well-crafted account, James Canton wanders across the British landscape searching for the remnants of ancient peoples. His story would be absorbing enough if he stuck to encounters with Neolithic flints and arrowheads. He finds those and many other artefacts, as he crawls into burial cairns in the Outer Hebrides or follows Roman roads across tilled English farmland.

But Canton, who teaches “Wild Writing” at the University of Essex, is hunting for more than old objects. He wants to get into the minds of Britain’s ancient inhabitants and see the landscape from their perspective, to “step into the feelings, into the thoughts, the fears, hungers and desires of our ancestors, of those people who lived here one thousand, two thousand years before”. It’s an ambitious wish, one that has tripped up many archaeologists. Whether or not Canton accomplishes it, he makes for an engaging companion as he travels around trying to discern the ancient past in the palimpsest (a word he uses a lot) of the land. He tracks down a monument with a mysterious inscription on it, known as the Newton Stone, in the garden of a Scottish mansion. Next, he camps for a week on a remote island trying to understand its Neolithic inhabitants through their stone tools and elaborate graves, which make “our funereal and burial practices seem almost crass and uncaring in comparison”. Nearby, he sees a man walking down a deserted beach who reminds him of his dead father. Within the discovery of the ancient, Canton suggests, is discovery of the self.

Although he knows his ancient history, Canton’s approach is empirical and speculative. He observes the lie of the land, the shadows of its sub-surface archaeological features, and, over cups of Thermos tea, imagines the place being ploughed by Bronze Age farmers. He reminds us how, despite centuries of development, the landscape still breathes with antiquity for those willing to look and use some imagination.

Canton’s prose is as mild and level as the East Anglia landscape where much of his account takes place, but he is capable of simple, arresting descriptions. He notes “the wonderful silence to the moment as the molten bronze is lifted from the furnace and gently poured”. Possessed of a multidisciplinary mind, he knows the name for absolutely everything, from species of trees to geological phenomena to the titles of P. J. Harvey songs. Near the end, he asserts he has “dug ever deeper into the minds and beliefs of those souls who lived upon these lands”. For a book that aims to describe not just how ancient people worked or worshipped, but how they thought, that amounts to a partly earned declaration of victory.