Book review (5): Penny Bickle & Emilie Sibbesson (eds.), Neolithic Bodies (Neolithic Studies Group Seminar Papers), 2018.

After a longer break, book reviews are back! To start off the new year I chose one of the most anticipated releases of the last year: Penny Bickle and Emilie Sibbesson’s edited volume Neolithic Bodies  (Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2018, 154pp., pbk, ISBN: 9781785709012). Initially this review should have been published in an archaeology journal (or two, judging by a second proposal I’ve received). Ultimately, I preferred this blog format, and here are some general thoughts.

  • ‘For given the way that the question of Neolithic embodiment surfaced at the turn of the millennium, it is striking that relatively few contributions have explicitly asked the question: what were Neolithic bodies like?’ (p. 133).

This question posed by Julian Thomas in the concluding chapter of the book lies at the heart of the volume. In spite of the extensive number of works dedicated to Neolithic bodies, in all their forms, this is the first volume in recent years dedicated solely to European Neolithic bodies, beyond regional monographs. At the same time, it appears in the context of what seems like a renewed interest in theorising the Neolithic, being synchronous with three other volumes which rethink key Neolithic issues (Schwarzberg and Becker, 2017; Bailey, 2018; Thomas, 2018). So when the news broke of the upcoming release of this particular volume, there was anticipation and interest among the specialists in the field. Therefore, the question is: did it pay off?

Genre

Non-fiction. Archaeology.

Structure & Style

The volume gathers the proceedings of the Neolithic Studies Group Seminar in 2014. It is a short volume, with only nine chapters amounting to 154 pages, which makes it a reader friendly endeavour- an aspect not too often associated with collective volumes.

The case studies mostly originate from Britain and central Europe, with one exception from Asia. According to the two editors (in Chapter 1), Penny Bickle, a bioarchaeologist specialised in Neolithic lifeways, and Emilie Sibbesson who is interested, among other things, in food and agricultural history, this volume aims to ‘survey some of the diversity of approaches to Neolithic bodies currently being debated’ (p. 1), by comparing regions and lines of evidence. Thus, the two have chosen to bring together studies on living bodies (Chapters 2-4), on dead bodies (Chapters 5-7), and on representations (Chapter 8). The volume ends with a discussion chapter meant to reflect on the future of body related studies. So let us take them in turn, and briefly survey the arguments raised by the authors.

Highlights

For me, the strength of the volume lies in those case studies which draw in their interpretation from multiple strands of evidence, integrating them towards interdisciplinary interpretation. Currently, Prehistoric archaeology is a terrain on which multiple disciplines bring new kinds of datasets, and their integration challenges us to develop appropriate interpretative models.

Some of these chapters also take a reflexive dimension, like Chapter 4, or go beyond the boundaries of archaeology into public engagement (Chapter 6), or of historical comparisons (Chapter 3). These I found to be the most provocative readings in the volume, as another challenge for 21st century archaeology is its relation with the other disciplines & the wider society.

Chapter 3, signed by Abigail Ash and Ron Pinhasi, is a bioarchaeological study focused on the analysis of stress markers in 511 individuals from five Early Neolithic LBK communities from central Europe. The aim was to investigate health parameters, and to test the evidence of a ‘frontier effect’. To achieve this, five skeletal non-specific indicators of stress were recorded: porotic hyperostosis, cribra orbitalia, non-specific insult, joint degeneration, and linear enamel hypoplasia. What I liked about this chapter was that the authors take as a ‘good to think with’ (but not as a direct comparison) the example of the life on the American frontier, in order to understand human adaptation to agricultural subsistence practices in new environments (p. 38). History, analogies and skeletal analyses coming together make an engaging narrative.

The next chapter (4), by Emilie Sibbesson, looks at food, consumption, and diet practices in Neolithic, at the cross-roads of laboratory analysis and cultural interpretation. By discussing dietary stable-isotopes, lipid residue analysis and pottery typology, the author places food-related evidence in its social context. An illuminating analytic table highlights the relationship between scale and the kinds of evidence that can be obtained, from macro (diet), to micro (meal companionship). Importantly, the author also critically evaluates how we should deal with different, and sometimes contradictory lines of evidence, making the good point that ‘as our laboratory techniques become ever more advanced and specialised, the division of labour between natural and social-scientific archaeology risks growing rather than eroding’ (p. 44). Sibbesson concludes that what is needed is a ‘reconciliation of different datasets’, and I think this chapter is a successful attempt in that respect.

Kenneth Brophy, Gavin MacGregor, and Gordon Noble propose in Chapter 6 a different approach to cremated bodies in Late Neolithic Scotland. This was both a more poetic reading, but also one that linked the past with the present through witnesses’ bodies. The authors look at the transformative nature of cremation on both living and dead bodies. Cremation is understood as ‘a spectacle and a journey’, quoting Jane Downes (p. 74), a practice which ties dead bodies and living bodies alike as it ‘generates memories and impacts on the body as well as the mind’ (p. 88). In their text, it is interesting to see how different lines of evidence can inform each other: archaeological data, from a third millennium cremation cemetery, and experimental pyre firing, where experimental archaeology meets public engagement.

Points that could be further explored

Overall, the volume was more understated than what I had anticipated. It also leans more towards case studies, than new interpretation. This of course speaks only to my expectations (and not what the editors or authors intended)- that is a need for a volume that evaluates where we have been, and where we can go in light of the advances in the field (both theoretical and in datasets).

As a reader I am also going to look forward seeing how several authors develop their insights:

In Chapter (2) Oliver J.T. Harris takes a theoretical approach, following on the concept of bodyworlds which was elaborated together with John Robb (2013): bodies as a ‘complex and multiple assemblage’ (p. 7). He takes as a case study the emergence of identity in the Early Neolithic in Southern Britain (3750-3500 cal BC), and places it at the cross-roads of body engagements ‘with death, materials, movement, spaces, and violence’ (p. 7). The defining aspects of these bodies, according to him are ‘separation and partibility’, and ‘flows and permeability’ (p. 7). This is an ambitious and original program, with potential for opening new lines of inquiry into the understanding of Prehistoric bodies, especially by crossing the divide life-death. However, the reading of the chapter seems rather fragmented -> It would be interesting in the future to see a more in depth interpretation which ties together the proposed lines of inquiry (if that is possible), and which at the same time builds a stronger case for the two proposed defining aspects.

Chapter (7) is a collective paper by Philippe Lefranc, Anthony Denaire, Christian Jeunesse, and Bruno Boulestin that combines ethnographic insights and archaeological data to propose a reinterpretation of ‘atypical’ human deposits from the Upper-Rhine valley. The authors make a case for sacrificial practices for 35 individuals which have died over a span of 250 years. They draw a typology of burials from the area, evaluate alternative explanations, and convincingly argue in support of their hypothesis. The only point on which the authors could have dwelt more is terminology: they use the term ‘unconventional positions’ to describe these depositions, though on p. 102 they mention that at least in some cases the evidence ‘were part of a symbolic system of funerary rites’.  So what does unconventional mean in this context, in light of the conclusions they draw? This is a discussion relevant to body depositions in Neolithic Europe in general, where terms such as deviant, or non-funerary etc. are frequently employed, but usually without in depth (culturally specific) contextual definitions.

The last chapter signed by Julian Thomas, though presented in the introduction as a ‘where to’ piece, actually reads more like a looking back review of the main themes associated with the study of Neolithic bodies. Thus, while it is interesting to read the thoughts of one of the leading researchers in the field, especially as he makes a good case for the central role of body studies in understanding the Neolithic, it would have certainly been interesting to read an explicit point of view in regards to ‘where to’ Neolithic bodies studies.

Audience

Given that the volume offers a good introduction to the study of Neolithic bodies, by presenting an array of methods and questions pertaining to their research, this would be a useful for students. To Neolithic specialists it can present some new case studies, or a number of inspiring cross-disciplinary highlights.

If you liked this you might also want to have a look at:

References mentioned:

Bailey, D. 2018. Breaking the Surface. An Art/Archaeology of Prehistoric Architecture. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Robb, J. & Harris, O. T. H. 2013. The body in history: Europe from the Paleolithic to the future. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Schwarzberg, H. & Becker, V. (eds.) 2017. Bodies of Clay. On Prehistoric Humanised Pottery. Oxford: Oxbow Books.

Thomas, J. 2018. Neolithic Britain. The Transformation of Social Worlds. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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