Islay Bookreview - To the Islands with Steven Mithen

An article in The Ileach last October described how Steven Mithen, Professor of Early History at Reading University, had just spent a fortnight excavating two Mesolithic sites on Dunlossit Estate which had proved so promising that he is intending to bring his team back here next August and, hopefully, for several more years of digging. Readers may remember Professor Mithen’s digs between 1987 and 1995 elsewhere on the island, especially at Bolsay and Coulererach. Then he disappeared from Islay, but in the intervening years has been pursuing his main interest of the Mesolithic peoples further north in the Inner Hebrides, including Colonsay, Mull, Tiree, Coll and the Small Isles. He has published many scientific papers and books on his work, but in his most recent book he has produced a very accessible account of, in the words of the book’s subtitle, his “relentless quest to find the prehistoric hunter-gatherers of the Hebrides”.

The book takes one in chronological order through the entire saga of archaeological discovery, starting with his exploratory visits to Islay, Jura and Colonsay in 1986, followed by several years of excavation on Islay, then onward to Colonsay and islands to the north. The account tells of the trials and tribulations of conducting fieldwork on remote islands, his dealings with the islanders and the well-acknowledged help he received from them. At each stage, one is invited to share Steven Mithen’s steadily growing knowledge of the Mesolithic people whose lives he was trying to uncover, which doesn’t only entail much heavy digging to get down to the layers of interest followed by careful scraping as artefacts are revealed, but long and detailed microscopic examination of the tens, indeed hundreds, of thousands of pieces of flint which are the lasting remains of the Mesolithic settlements. Continue reading......

Interspersed with this work is what can be described as play, such as forming a football team to take on the locals or participating in the Ellister Run through the bogs and forestry of the Rinns. Steven and his colleagues also gave public talks on their work and visited local schools revealing what they had learnt of this region’s earliest inhabitants, living here between 10,000 and 6,000 years ago, hunting deer, catching fish, gathering and roasting hazelnuts, and fashioning with incredible skill their flint tools. One of these tools, which I saw last autumn, was a tiny triangle of flint about a centimetre long with, along the sides, seven or eight minute notches which had been created by a real craftsman. When Steven and his team attempted their own flint-knapping, they found such techniques beyond them.

Steven writes in a fluent and easy style, shedding light both on the Mesolithic people and on the life of an archaeology professor so obviously enjoying and stimulated by the fieldwork, but also coping with the inevitable administration, fund-raising and writing that is a necessary part of any project such as this. As well as being very well written, the book is illustrated with over 100 colour photographs and several line drawings. I cannot recommend this book highly enough. You will both enjoy it and learn from it.

To the Islands is published by Two Ravens Press, Isle of Lewis 2010, price: £15.99, available from Amazon and other bookstores

This bookreview was written by Malcolm Ogilvie and is published here with kind permission of the Ileach local newspaper.

Tag: bookreview archaeology mesolithic history