Saturday, 29 November 2008

Archive: Dunadd: An Early Dalriadic Capital - Alan Lane and Ewan Campbell

Dunadd: An Early Dalriadic Capital
Alan Lane and Ewan Campbell

I think it's fairly safe to say that this book is everything you ever wanted to know about Dunadd, with knobs on.

Given the detail involved - up to and including lists and catalogues of the finds and detailed analysis of soil reports and so on - it's probably safe to say that it's not going to be essential reading for most people interested in CR or Scottish history or archaeology, but it is likely to be one of those books that will be referenced in years to come if you happen to read more accessible ones.

The main remit of the book is to bring together the findings of the series of digs that were carried out there in the early 80's, which were aimed at finding evidence to date the site and give it a detailed chronology. The dig was successful in this, showing some occupation in the Iron Age, but mostly finding activity coming from the early medieval period, confirming that it was in use during the heyday of the Dál Riata.

That in itself doesn't make it of much interest from anything but an archaeology geeks perspective, really, but I bought it mainly because there's some good stuff on the idea of Dunadd being an inaugural site for the Dalriadic kings, both in terms of the history of people claiming that it was an inaugural site (it's a fairly recent idea), and in looking at whether there's any evidence to support such an idea (in short, yup). Like so many authors, they seem to shy away from going into the pre-Christian stuff in too much detail, but there are still some interesting points to ponder - the position of Dunadd in relation to the land, and the concentration of pre-historic monuments in the area seems to be a conscious connection with the past, legitimating the king's authority by his links with land and the evidence of the people before him.

There's also some good stuff on the history of Dunadd and Dál Riata in general, and the discussion at the end of the book brings it all together nicely. All this goes into a bit more detail than Saints and Sea-kings, and discusses points like the apparent contradiction between the history and the archaeology in more detail (the history says the Irish came to Scotland whereas the archaeology suggests the migration was the other way round); and concludes that the popular idea of the Irish taking over the area en masse, as we're told in historical records, isn't so clear cut, and that the Dariadic kings and the introduction of Gaelic to the area was probably a much slower process that happened through close trading links and cultural closeness between the two areas, rather than a political takeover at one point in time.

The main reason I bought it, though, is an article on interpreting the ogam inscription found near the summit of the site, by Katherine Forsyth, who argues that it's not Pictish gibberish as previously, but is indeed Gaelic. She discusses other studies of the ogam that have been carried out, and gives a tentative partial translation of the inscription as Finn manach, 'Finn the monk', or Fir(r) Manach, 'the men of Manaig' (with Forsyth favouring the former, rather than the latter translation). It's tempting to assume that this is referring to a monk involved in the inauguration of a king, but who can say for sure?

The book comes with a hefty price tag, so this was a luxury buy for me. I enjoyed it, and it's well written and well-referenced, but I wouldn't say it's essential reading and it's probably the sort of book to get out from the library to pick at the chapters that are of most interest, if you really want to, rather than to invest in.

Archive: Saints and Sea-kings - Ewan Campbell

Saints and Sea-kings: The First Kingdom of the Scots
Ewan Campbell

I mentioned this one in a review of another book from the same The Making of Scotland series by Historic Scotland a while ago, but it deserves its own review I think. The other book took a look at Iron Age Scotland, whereas this one looks at the eary medieval period and the coming (and going) of the Dalriadans who settled in the Argyll area of the west coast from around 400AD (although the dates depend on who you ask).

The series aims to provide "lively, accessible and up-to-date introductions to key themse and periods in Scottish history and pre-history", and while I'm not sure history can ever be lively for some people, I'd say the book delivers on its promise of being accessible. Nearly ten years on, it also still stands up as being relatively up to date - since this was one of the key texts for a module I studied (Early Medieval Gaeldom) and some of the things in there were fairly revolutionary at the time there's sometimes an excitement and defensiveness at some of the things that are said that are generally accepted as fact, which might date it a little. But maybe I'm thinking more about the tone of my lectures than picking up anything from the book.

There are plenty of pictures and illustrations with nice soundbites in helpful little boxes to help emphasise some of the more important facts that are presented, and the tone and language that's used is clear and there's not too much jargon. The lack of references, unless a text is specifically mentioned or quoted, is a problem, but not surprising for a book like this which is aimed at a younger audience rather than a specifically academic one, but overall the book is short and sweet and gives good pointers to further reading and sites to see. And at least with this book, you can look up the sites on CANMORE and check for the site reports yourself, unlike Cunliffe's book that also had the same problem.

On the plus side, the author presents the information clearly and in a straightforward and sensible manner. It's not an in-depth analysis of the subject, by necessity, but Dr Campbell does cover some of the more important quibbles over some of the details here and there. He covers the origins of the Dál Riata, what their everyday life would have been like, their social and political structure, religion (mainly in terms of the coming of Christianity, rather than anything useful about any pre-Christian beliefs) and the importance of Iona in the early medieval period, the sources that relate to or refer to Dál Riata, and their artistic accomplishments.

It's an easy read that doesn't repeat itself too much and doesn't rely on teh big wurdz to make the author sound intelligent. The only real negative in terms of the information that's presented is that there's an unfortunate mistake that mixes up Brythonic and Goidelic as Q- and P-Celtic languages, rather than P- and Q-Celtic. I'm not sure if there are later editions that have corrected it, but it's worth watching out for and noting. It's the only real clanger in the book.

It's a good series of books to get if you want a beginner's guide to Scottish history and archaeology and while it's not directly beneficial in terms of informing CR practice - although the mention of conical glass 'drinking horns' are interesting from a feasting perspective, I think - I'd recommend it for getting a good idea of historical background for someone looking to get a good introduction to the subject, as well as a good perspective surrounding the issues in studying it.