Exploring Prehistoric Europe, by Chris Scarre
I found this to be an odd but mostly enjoyable volume, and the oddness I found in it is rather instructive. This book sits at an unusual point, and that is that it is a book encouraging tourism to prehistoric European sites where art and architecture survive. There is a conundrum in this, in that the presence of large amounts of tourists makes it more difficult to preserve ancient sites which, by virtue of their age, tend to be rather fragile, but the presence of those tourists also creates a large enough popular base for the preservation of ancient history. The dilemma of the same people being both a threat to sites as well as a necessary and worthwhile part of a coalition for preservation of those sites is one that this book deftly handles, even if in a bit of a heavy-handed way. As someone deeply interested in ruins and ancient history , I am certainly part of this book’s fairly obvious target audience, and despite having some critical things to say about the author and his approach I also found much about this book enjoyable and it did give me some travel ideas, so on the whole it was definitely a worthwhile read.
The slightly more than 200 pages of this book are divided into fifteen chapters that look at individual sites across Europe (except for Greece) and give some comments on the artifacts that can be found there, the efforts at excavation and reconstruction, and some speculations on the meaning and importance of the artifacts as a whole, about which much can be said. While some of the sites were particularly familiar to me (Lascaux, Avebury, Stonehenge), most of the sites were very unfamiliar to me, and they include some open-air Paleolithic carvings in Portugal that were threatened with inundation in a dam, Maltese temples and graves, a Neolithic village in the Orkneys that was rather dark and difficult to walk in, and a fire-prone and security minded Polish town, along with a Celtic township in France which was destroyed by the Romans at the beginning of its historical period, among other intriguing sites. The author does a good job at making someone want to go to these strange places and puzzle over the mysteries of the past and try to figure out why the builders of these towns and temples and tombs and the artists of these drawings and carvings did what they did.
There is both a good deal of fun and at least some frustration in the author’s speculation, given that he appears to want to make these sites universally appear as old as possible and paint those who want to economically develop the areas (including right-of-center political parties in Portugal, for example) in as bad a light as possible, which is irksome for me as a right-of-center person. On the other hand, without the speculation of the author there would be little of depth to this book except for very technical discussions and drawings about the sites and what they contain, which means that the speculations add a great deal of what narrative enjoyment exists in this book. What I found most striking in the author’s discussion of art and its creation is that it was the most isolated peoples in history who were the most serious about creating art. As a fairly isolated person who tends to be intensely creative, I found this to be a rather melancholy reflection on the fact that the art of these ancient people has survived far longer than the meaning that was meant by that art, leaving people to wonder without knowledge what intentions and purposes those artists had in their creations.
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