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Women in Prehistory.
Margaret Ehrenberg.
British Museum Publications. Pb £9.95.

Margaret Ehrenberg is an archaeologist and a feminist. Her book provides a good overview on what is known about prehistoric women.

She gives a very good account of how what evidence we have can be used to build up a picture of prehistoric cultures. She makes clear how much of the development of agriculture, among other things, is due to women.

Writing as a professional archaeologist, she is extremely cautious in her interpretation of much of the evidence, showing how conventional views cannot be justified, but frequently refusing to come to a conclusion herself. This is a refreshing contrast to those feminist writers on prehistory who draw sweeping conclusions from very little evidence. Of course, this is no more than has always been done by male writers who assume that all past societies must have been basically like their own. Indeed, the main difficulty I find with some feminist writers is that they convincingly show how much the conventional views are based on speculation and how little on evidence, but then I want to apply the same critical approach to their own theories. On doing so, I find the theories unconvincing despite their being no more speculative than the conventional views.

This refusal to commit herself can be very irritating, especially when she fails to reach a conclusion about whether ancient “figurines” are symbols of a religion of the Goddess (and she nowhere refers to the work of Marija Gimbutas). It has the advantage, though, that where she does reach a conclusion, as in discussing women’s contribution to agriculture, the reader can be sure that the evidence is very strong.

A very useful book, despite its limitations.

Wood and Water 29, Autumn 1989
© Daniel Cohen

 

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