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Archaeology and Folklore.
Amy Gazin-Schwartz and Cornelius J. Holtorf (eds.)
Routledge 1999.  Hb  £55.

This book is a publication of the Theoretical Archaeology Group, based on papers presented at their 1996 conference. It begins with two general articles on the relationship of archaeology to folklore from the viewpoint of archaeologists. The remaining articles discuss connections between the two in various specific archaeological works; many of these articles also include a general discussion. The word ‘folklore’ is used here to cover the beliefs, myths, customs and behaviour of people and also the formal study of this material. In the latter sense, both archaeology and folklore have developed from the work of antiquarians from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century.

There are two articles on Catal Hoyuk. The first discusses its significance among the villagers of the surrounding area. The second, by Lynn Meskell, looks at how Catal Hoyuk and other sites are interpreted in the Goddess movement. She suggests that these interpretations are based on archaeological work of an earlier period, and does not take into account more recent work. She notes that archaeologists criticise the views of the Goddess movement without realising how much their own, or their predecessors’, work has been influenced by the same mythological studies that still influence the Goddess movement. Unfortunately her critique of Gimbutas, while worth taking into account, is marred by a very ungracious remark.

There are several articles on the British Isles. Miranda Green writes on “resonances of the past in myth and material culture”. Julia Murphy discusses interpretations of the Pentre Ifan megalith. She points out that “the evidence unearthed does not suggest funerary practices occurring there, let alone burial”, and concludes that “The ease with which archaeologists categorise Pentre Ifan as a ‘tomb’ and readily associate the monument with spooky feelings of death and awe is really not much less far-fetched than dreaming of fairies at the site.” Sara Champion and Gabriel Cooney look at the folkloric elements of the names of various Irish sites, and consider how the folklore of these sites has affected their preservation or destruction. Finally, the archaeologist Martin Brown and the storyteller Pat Bowen write about guided walks that they organise to explore and interpret the landscape of East Sussex to the participants, covering archaeology, folklore, geology, animal and plant life and people’s responses to these.

An interesting piece by Ingunn Holm on clearance cairns in Norway shows how the local population’s oral traditions helped archaeologists to understand the significance of these objects. Martin Schmidt and Uta Halle write on the significance of the Externsteine to German culture, pointing out that it attracts both Goddess groups and neo-Nazis.

Other articles range from Sardinia and Italy (the Etruscans) to North America (the Ho-Chunk, also known as Winnebago).

While the book is intended for academics, it is accessible (apart from the price) to the general reader. The opening two pieces are of especial interest. The editors say that “folklore is valuable to archaeologists because it offers us alternative ideas about the past that counter our tendency to portray everyone in all time as versions of ourselves.” Folklore also indicates “what monuments and other archaeological objects meant (and mean) to people in their respective lifeworlds and how they were (and are) used in the formation of collective identities.” It also reminds one that monuments have their own life histories, and “folklore reflects some of the later interpretations of prehistoric sites, and contemporary folklore constitutes one important part of present-day understanding of monuments.” 

The whole book is informed by the post-modern understanding that “other voices and other constructions of knowledge” are to be valued, and that the dominant one is not the only one to be considered. It is also recognised that there is a need to look at how the dominant approach has been constructed, what its roots and hidden themes are.

In issue 70 of Wood and Water, Jan Henning wrote about the attitude of the archaeologists investigating Seahenge to the locals and the pagans who were distressed by their actions. I was left with the feeling that these archaeologists would have learnt a great deal, and might have been less arrogant, if they had attended the meeting from which this book sprung.                                                                                                                             

Wood and Water 71, Summer 2000 

© Daniel Cohen                                                                                    


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