Leslie Alcock book review

Somewhere in the two, or maybe three, entries I already wrote about Leslie Alcock’s Kings & Warriors, Craftsmen & Priests in Northern Britain AD 550-850 (Edinburgh 2003), I promised a review once I finished it. This time actually came some time ago but there were other things in the way. Now however I’ve got to it.

Cover of Leslie Alcock\'s Kings & Warriors, Craftsmen & Priests in Northern Britain AD 550-850

Cover of Leslie Alcock's Kings & Warriors, Craftsmen & Priests in Northern Britain AD 550-850

It is a slightly odd book. This feeling starts with the ampersands in the title, and persists throughout the maze of headings and subheadings; the book is very finely divided, and although there are 23 chapters and 460 pages each actual section is quite short: few are more than two pages and some as short as a paragraph. Sometimes that’s just all there is to say about Northern British drinking vessels or whatever, but sometimes it’s because the section bearing the title only introduces the topic, which is then actually explored in a following section about some particular example under a heading of the same weight. If I’d been copy-editing I’d have shunted a lot of these bits around; as it is the whole thing flows rather intermittently, and one is never quite sure if what one is reading is a summary of knowledge or an argument in a debate. In those 23 chapters there’s quite a lot of, not repetition, but return to points now illustrated from a different angle. This contributes to the weirdness of layout: he actually gave the general set-up first and the detailed explanations afterwards, and this is the right way around, because where he went into detail you know what difference it makes; all the same, it is almost like someone sandwiched a bunch of big lectures and a lot of snippets about sites and objects together and published it, which since it was based on lectures initially may even be what happened. It is also overbalanced towards certain subjects: warfare, especially, gets three solid chapters, only partly justified by Alcock’s insistence that not only was it the ruling class’s primary pursuit, but that many books all but omit it and this needs redress. On the other hand there is, when Alcock had little to say on a subject, little said.

When he did get involved in the debates here, Alcock was usually pretty careful to summarise scholarship on any issue, and although he very often opted for a safe “we can’t know” point of view, sometimes he was quite willing to throw his hat into the ring. This is faintly dangerous, because as he was at several points almost proud to admit, some of his views were old-fashioned, at least among archaeologists—that texts have anything to tell archaeologists, that religion is a relevant subject for understanding and so on—and he was not fully up to date with the latest scholarship: “To give a striking example of the problem: as I wrote this Preface [in September 2001], I received a bookseller’s flyer listing six major books highly relevant to my period, all of them published in early 1999.” (p. xv) So although he was involved with the debates and the evidence, he was so from a position slightly behind the curve. That said, it’s rarely possible to discount his views straight off. An example for you: he discusses the Hilton of Cadboll stone, a section of which is depicted below. He notes that most people have read the uppermost middle figure, who appears to be female, as riding side-saddle, and somewhat caustically suggests that anyone who’s done any riding, as the sculptor must have known, knows that people side-saddle don’t look like that; he instead suggests that she’s seated sideways on the horse, and therefore that perhaps she is watching a hunt laid on for her as a spectacle, rather than taking part. The interpretation is of course questionable, though imaginative; but, she is certainly not in a side-saddle position as we recognise it. So: was the sculptor a numpty? Was there some other compulsion acting on him (or her)? Or was there something different going on here, and if so was it as Alcock here suggested?

Detail of the central panel of the Hilton of Cadboll 2 cross-slab

Detail of the central panel of the Hilton of Cadboll 2 cross-slab

This quite nicely illustrates what will, for some people, make this book worth reading. Alcock’s imagination and insight made him a sympathetic and interesting writer, and very few people can have known the archaeological material so well, or contributed as much to its exposure and, most importantly, its publication. He refers throughout to excavated evidence and objects, which are often as not illustrated, albeit not necessarily close by because any given Pictish stone or Scottish dún is probably serving to illustrate about five points. But on the other hand, although he is often careful to say that we cannot know, as I emphasise, some of the writer of Arthur’s Britain was still left in him to generate these occasional flights of fancy which aren’t really justified, even if they may for all we can tell be correct sometimes… So some slight caution is necessary.

But there are such a lot of sites and objects! and read, often, in stimulating and interesting ways, and usually without going beyond the evidence. I used to work on this area and there was plenty I’d not heard of here despite Professor Alcock’s supposed loss of touch with the current field. And there are, as I’ve mentioned, many many (grayscale) illustrations, half-tone and drawings, and a good few maps. The paper is all gloss: it’s a very heavy book, and the marbled endpapers add a certain old-fashioned grandeur even though it’s hardback, not cloth. The contents table lists all the headings and subheadings, like a French thèse‘s would, so that it’s very easy to find where something should be discussed. There is also a site gazetteer at the back, so you can at a glance see what was published about and an idea of what was found at any of the sites mentioned in the book. Also, the bibliography is huge and not as outdated as you might fear from Alcock’s initial caution.

What this all means is that the book is more use, once you’ve read it, as a work of reference. You will go back to it to look things up but you probably won’t need Professor Alcock’s arguments about them: though they are all well-founded in some sense it won’t give an impression that you know the field. It’s hard to know what market would be the target for this book. Since the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland published it, the obvious one is `antiquaries’ and that’s probably fair; it is a summary of the knowledge of one of the field’s greatest scholars but it’s not exactly a crowning statement of his career. It is a very handy reference manual but, although effort has been put in to make it easy to use like that, that’s not what Alcock was writing. It’s not a course-book because it’s so thick and involved, although the actual writing, what is not unimportant, is easy to follow and pleasant to read. What it is is a thorough and complete guide to what one major scholar thought could and should be known about the Early Historic period in Northern Britain and I’m pleased to have it, and will use it a lot. But I don’t feel that I have the latest news for having it on my shelf.

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6 responses to “Leslie Alcock book review

  1. Pingback: Getting to grips with James Fraser’s From Caledonia to Pictland « A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  2. Something you should probably know when reading through this book written by a 76-year old Leslie Alcock. By 2001, he had done more than lead the field in post-Roman scholarship. With his dig at West Cadbury in the 1960s and subsequent publications, he had put it on the map of public digestion. I personally found this book of great use as a graduate student; it was an excellent reference for resources pertaining to the period. True, he might have been a little behind on the scholarship, but he was in his seventies at that point, and a book covering the massive amount of materials as his would have taken a great deal of time to prepare in any event. That he would admit to not knowing of recent scholarship is nothing more than a testament to his integrity as a scholar.

    • Oh, absolutely to all that. I think if you read through again you will in fact find me saying more or less as much myself. If I came over unjustly negative that should now be corrected by the few years of going to this book to look things up in the certainty that they will be there that I have amassed since writing the review!

  3. The man was quite the scholar. I remember when it came out, every archeologist with any interest in the period was lined up to get a copy.

    • Again, I’m in full agreement here. Leslie Alcock’s was among the first real archæological work I read properly, the very first serious piece being Brain Hope-Taylor’s site report on Yeavering. That and Alcock on Dinas Powys set my personal bar very high for painstaking excavation and for clear-sighted deductions that were logical to make from the evidence (soil stains and charcoal remains in the case of the former, animal bone in the case of the latter, though I suppose that Alcock didn’t analyse it alone) which nonetheless others had not seen. They represent about the best in positivist archaeology for me, although Alcock’s career happily unrolled better than did Hope-Taylor’s after their first moments of fame.

  4. Pingback: Fortunate Fellow « Senchus

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