During the first lockdown last year, taking my lockdown puppy for our Boris-sanctioned daily walks, I discovered a love of prehistoric hill forts. By the third lockdown I, a hardened medievalist, had even progressed to an unexpected admiration for megalithic stone structures. My former indifference was caused by the perceived lack of people within those landscapes. Sure, they are spectacular, but it took a year of walking and a hefty amount of Googling before I appreciated how much we know about the people who shaped and experienced them. The latest book by the archaeologist and Time Team presenter Francis Pryor would have got me there an awful lot quicker.
Scenes from Prehistoric Life aims to ‘dispel the myth that people in the past lived lives that were simpler and somehow less rich than ours’ — a common misconception of prehistory. ‘Nothing’, says Pryor, ‘could be further from the truth.’ In a series of 15 profiles of chronologically arranged landscapes, his book covers about a million years of prehistory, up to the arrival of the Romans in AD 43 and their subsequent impact on the next few centuries.
The first scene is set during the Ice Age, and the earliest occupation of Britain. Discoveries include footprints — five people, including three children, weaving their way across the foreshore — preserved in estuarine muds at Happisburgh, Norfolk, dating to 850-950,000 years ago, so early that they were not even made by Homo sapiens but by some precursor. The placement of this group, a family perhaps, into the narrative is a sign of things to come. Throughout his scenes, Pryor takes a long view of the past, with an overarching theme of change: of environments and of societies.