Britain Before Caesar
Prehistoric Britain. By Jacquetta and Christopher Hawkes. (Chatto and Windus. 15s.)
"PREHISTORIC "—the schoolboy who in 1947 finds that he has exactly 2,000 years of British history to digest, will be relieved that the hors d'oeuvre of pre-Roman Britain has not yet been elevated to the status of a full course. But on re-reading this book (which, in its original form, was issued as a Pelican in 1944) one feels that by clinging to the old title the authors have too modestly under- estimated their own most convincing reconstruction of our past. It is true that we do not know the name of a single inhabitant of these islands before Cassivellaunus, the opponent of Julius Caesar, but surely it is no longer necessary thdt 55 B.C. should form the water- shed between history and pre-history. The invasions of Caesar had a negligible effect upon Britain compared with the La Tem invasions of two hundred years before and the invasion of Claudius a hundred years later. Of the results of both we now know a great deal, despite the complete absence of any written records concerning the first. The curtain of our previous ignorance has been pushed back to reveal a Britain of which we need not be shy.
During the last fifty years archaeologists from Pitt-Rivers to Mortimer Wheeler have performed, almost unnoticed, a series of remarkable operations upon the scarred and pimpled countenance of our land. Round barrows have been lanced, the bones of Roman towns re-set, the subcutaneous deposits of Neolithic settlements laid open for diagnosis. The information so acquired has been reburied in provincial museums and technical journals of archaeology, from which it has been rescued from time to time by popular accounts of early Britain. This present book is undoubtedly the best which has yet appeared. Mrs. Hawkes, who has written the bulk of it under the scholarly eye of her husband, is already well known as the most readable of modern archaeologists. She adopts a perfectly legitimate compromise between fact and supposition—legitimate, because the facts are always clearly given and the suppositions never exceed the proper bounds of the facts. Take for example her description of a Mesolithic settlement: "Poor little groups of hunters and food-gatherers scattered round the fringes and in the clearings of the dripping forests. . . . The Azilian woman crouching among the rocks as she dislodges limpets with a stone, the Tardenoisian with his flint-tipped arrow lying in wait for a hare, or even the Maglemosian leaning over the prow of his canoe with a glistening fish thrashing between the prongs of his spear."
Bogus? Undoubtedly, were it not that the preceding pages have shown that the forests, the limpets, the arrow-head, the canoe, the spear and even the rain are all vouched for by actual discovery or by analysis of the soil, and all are dated to their correct periods by stratification or geological parallels. The layman is fascinated and remains convinced.
For all her ingenuity and graphic style, Mrs. Hawkes's narrative is inevitably dulled by the lack of personalities among the countless invaders of these shores. As she herself says: "If archaeological methods were turned to investigate the early 194os it would easily detect the war and the decline in the standard of life, it would see American support through the evidence of Spam tins, but most certainly it would overlook Winston Churchill." One is left with the false impression that our remote ancestors were always fighting on the beaches, simply because the incursion of a new people leaves behind more easily recognisable evidence than any other historical event. It was indeed fortunate that these islands, the cul-de-sac of Europe, should have had an apparently unlimited capacity for absorbing harassed foreigners, since the indigenous population seldom invented or designed for themselves anything either useful or beautiful. Yet there is a certain continuity of tradition which has survived to our own day—a tendency, for example, to accept, suddenly, the inevitable. And this, the first description of Britain ever written, has a familiar ring. It is from the log of Pytheas, the Greek explorer, who visited St. Michael's Mount in about 300 "The island is populous, and the condition of its climate is very cold indeed, as one would expect as it lies under the arctic itself. It has many potentates, and these for the most part are in a state of peace with each other."