The Tale of the Axe
Thames & Hudson 432pp £19.95
Oxford is full of history, dating back to its settlement in Saxon times. Yet it is rarely associated with prehistory, especially the Neolithic period beginning just before 4000 BC. In the long hot summer of 1976, that picture changed, at least among archaeologists. During the heatwave, distinct large circles appeared in the parched grass of the University Parks. Traces of a major Bronze Age barrow cemetery became visible. Subsequent excavations beneath the Ashmolean Museum’s Sackler Library located another barrow and the ditch of a henge monument near Keble College, just across the road from the Parks. Today, it is accepted that Oxford is built on a major Neolithic and Bronze Age ceremonial complex.
This is one of many intriguing contemporary details in a global history of the Neolithic period, with a focus on the British Isles, by David Miles, former director of the Oxford Archaeological Unit and chief archaeologist of English Heritage. As Miles observes, from decades of personal experience as an excavator and site inspector: ‘A time-traveller crossing Neolithic Britain could, at various times and in different regions, have come across massive and small buildings, megalithic tombs and cairns, earthen long barrows, causewayed enclosures, avenues bounded by ditches (cursuses), stone circles and henge monuments. In fact, many of them persist even today, dogged survivors whose meanings challenge our imagination.’
All of these structures, including Stonehenge, are discussed in The Tale of the Axe. Its focus, however, is on the stone implements used to build the structures, even if the text periodically loses sight of these small, enduring and revealing objects. Indeed, it was a Neolithic axe, presented to Miles in the mid-1970s by its discoverer, that stimulated him to write his book, as he notes in his prologue.
He was then living in Woodstock, near Oxford. One evening, just before dinner, there was a knock at the door and a stranger called Bob stood there holding a sports bag. He announced that he worked in the gravel pit at Stanton Harcourt, near the Devil’s Quoits henge monument. A couple of years previously he had noticed an unusual object on the conveyor belt. Having heard that Miles was an archaeologist, from the depths of his bag he now extracted a smooth greenish stone (alluringly reproduced in the book) and gave it to a thrilled Miles. Scientific study proved it to be a Neolithic polished stone axe-head made of Langdale tuff quarried in the English Lake District nearly 5,000 years ago.
The history of such axes, told in ‘Green Treasure from the Magic Mountain’, is perhaps the book’s most compelling chapter. Archaeologists have discovered a key source of jadeitite axes on the slopes of Monte Viso, a peak in the Alps on the Italy-France border, where they were quarried in the fifth and fourth millennia BC. Astonishingly, these axes turn up in large numbers in excavations in Brittany, particularly in and around the megalithic tombs of the Morbihan; and, in Britain, as far north as Scotland’s Dee Valley, over 1,000 miles from Monte Viso.
The craftsmanship of these axes, the long distances they were transported and the evident value attached to them by Neolithic peoples for ritual rather than practical purposes provides a driving theme of the book. Long before the construction of Stonehenge (c.3000 BC), or the construction of the first British wheel (c.1300 BC), life in Britain was already remarkably sophisticated, argues Miles. ‘It is human genius that took us from the stone axe to the Kepler Mission’, he concludes – echoing the opening scene of 2001: A Space Odyssey, in which a prehistoric rotating bone weapon morphs into a rotating spacecraft.
The book makes a few questionable statements. ‘Cooking increases the calorific value of food’ is only partially accurate; and Hammurabi’s Mesopotamian law code of 1754 BC is not ‘the first time in human history we can know the names of kings’, given the Egyptian ruler Narmer’s palette, c.3000 BC. But this is to be expected when an author deals in detail with an intrinsically speculative subject, requiring familiarity with diverse disciplines. Overall, The Tale of the Axe is a wide-ranging, eye-opening analysis of the evolution of early human societies that any historian will find informative.
Andrew Robinson is the author of several archaeological studies, most recently Cracking the Egyptian Code: The Revolutionary Life of Jean-François Champollion (Oxford, 2012) and The Indus: Lost Civilizations (Reaktion Books, 2015).