Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Review: Surviving in Symbols

There's only so much colouring in and drawing a parent can take of an afternoon, so yesterday I took my youngest off into Greenock after she finished nursery, to kill some time before we had to go and get the elder sibling from school. We had some books from the library that were long overdue so those got returned, and we took a nose around the library to see how good their history section was. The answer was not great, but I did pick up a few books to have a gander at when I got home. Hurrah.

My current in-teh-leck-choo-al reading is JP Mallory's Aspects of the Táin, which I got from my last trip to the university library, but it's slow going and a little dry so far, so some lighter reading is in order, I think. My brain can handle that. So from my trip to the local library yesterday, I got a book on modern Hogmanay celebrations, a book on Scottish Nursery Rhymes, and one of The Making of Scotland series that I haven't read yet. The latter is one of those short and glossy type of books with lots of pictures in it, so it's been a quick read, and as it deals with the Picts, it's been an enjoyable one. Time for a review, before I forget.

Surviving in Symbols: A Visit to the Pictish Nation
Martin Carver

As part of The Making of Scotland series, there are a few things I expected of this book: A straightforward, easy read, covering the basics; lots of pictures and illustrations; and a few problems with proof-reading here and there (but no biggy). And that was pretty much what I got...

Of the other books I've read in the series, I'm not sure this is one of the better ones - although I suspect my vague disappointment here is more because this is a subject I enjoy, so there was a lot of things I wanted to see being discussed. You can only fit so much in.

There is still a lot of good stuff packed in here, but there are a few bits and pieces in the book that I think could have been done better, on the whole. For one, I would have thought putting the Picts into context - who they were, when they were, where they were, and addressing or challenging some of the common misconceptions about them would have been a good thing to start with. But apparently not. As a result, I found the introduction a little dense, jumping straight into Columba and Adomnán, Bede and Northumbrians. Don't be put off, though.

The first illustration in the book is a tattooed artisan, carving Pictish symbols onto stone, with the accompanying blurb suggesting: "They may have carried their patterns in their heads, but here we speculate that some images at least were carried on their bodies, by one of the very oldest forms of picture-making - tattooing with natural dyes." I take this to be an oblique reference to woad tattoos (because everybody knows the Picts were covered head to toe in woad tattoos - Mel Gibson and Keira Knightly said so, so it must be true...), but at no other point in the book is the issue raised or even mentioned. It's pointed out that as 'Picti' they were known as 'the Painted People', but that's about it. It would have been nice to see some discussion of what this meant, and what other evidence there is, if any, for something that's now so ingrained in how people see them. In a way, though, maybe it's understandable in trying to lift the Picts out of their quagmire of woad.

Aside from that, the meat of the book is good. The author makes the point that the Picts were just like anyone else at the time; they were (to all intents and purposes) Britons, not some sort of pre-Celtic, non-Indo European, matriarchal, Bronze Age relics. They spoke a Celtic language, as far as we can ascertain, but one that had probably evolved differently to their Brythonic neighbours further south. Their material culture was distinctive, but not so different from anyone else. They drew heirs from matrilineal lines when needed, just like their contemporaries elsewhere did. They were not a different, separate race, but at some point, they could have been considered to be a nation.

Carver looks at the issue of the 'Pictish oghams', Pictish monuments, the conversion to Christianity, how they lived, and where, and for the most part it's well done. He gives a good introduction to the basics without being too biased in favour of one theory or another, but does point out what is most commonly accepted by academics. For someone who isn't so sure of the subject, this does a good job of building a solid foundation for further study.

To a degree, some of this is out of date now - there's no mention of the Pictish symbols possibly being a laguage, for example, since the book is now eleven years old. But there is some discussion of things I've not seen widely discussed elsewhere - like the issue of the 'Pictish' oghams being Pictish at all, as well as a good overview of Pictish burial practises. The author is certainly at his best when dealing with archaeology, as an archaeologist himself.

As a gentle introduction to the subject, it does a good job. It's short, but to the point, and the pictures and illustrations help to break it all up a little and give more detail in some of the most important areas that are covered. The book covers the main points, and throws in a good bit extra here and there, and gives a good list for further reading, and really, that's all you can ask for.

For the most part, if it falls short at certain points it's because there isn't enough space to go into more detail, rather than things being just plain inaccurate, but as far as this is concerned, I did feel the book was too focused on the Picts' relationship with their neighbours - Northumbrians especially - rather than their own internal politics and make up. I would liked to have seen more about that, but then again the focus does help to show that they weren't mythical blue wee people that nobody else in the early medieval world ever happened to mention...

References would have been nice, though. And an index.