Review: Ancient Wonderings, James Canton

Rating: 2 out of 5

I did not mind this book. It comes down to expectations: mine were for something akin to Robert MacFarlane’s wanderings, but what was this? There are bits of history, bits of historical fiction (I’ll get to this), and some other genres included here. The order of the chapters isn’t chronological either (which always annoys me).

But what do we have? Each chapter, generally unlinked to the previous ones, relates an episode in the author’s story where he was investigating some period or place. The most recent of these (I believe) would have been in Roman Britain while the oldest go back tens of thousands of years. I’m fascinated by prehistory, much like Mr Canton, but I’m of a completely different mind as to how we should try and envision that period.

The author’s style is to head off and camp on a beach or walk on an old road, pretending he’s five or ten thousand years in the past and to try and comprehend his surroundings via that method. Well, a good walk is one of the best pastimes, but I don’t believe for a second that we have any chance of trying to step into the Bronze Age via the method—a society, then and now, can be (somewhat) understood by knowing what it’s most important priorities are. But how do we really know what was important to them?

In one case, the author actually describes this in relation to burial traditions. We don’t know if the specific way some folks are buried reflects a specific tradition that is only a part of a much larger tradition. We are a grain of sand and we postulate a beach while in reality there was a sandstorm. Or something like this…

So it is the the majority of this book feels like historical fiction. The author is clearly a knowledgeable individual who enjoys history, but at least in the way we enjoy it, we must differ.

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