Book review: The Ravens by James Dyer

The Ravens is a children’s book set in the late Iron Age, in fact in 54 BC, the year of Caesar’s second invasion of Britain, similar to Adventure on the Knolls which we reviewed earlier (and published by the same publisher). It even starts with a modern boy dreaming about what went on in an ancient hillfort. Where it differs, though, is in the quality of writing and research. It was written by James Dyer, an archaeologist with a specialism in Iron Age hillforts.

The modern boy is called Adam and he is a really good runner. He is training with a rival, a boy called David Azlett and stops on the Mound overlooking Ravensburgh hillfort. The Iron Age story then begins in the next chapter, leaving you wondering whether it’s all in Adam’s head or not.

The Iron Age Adam is tipped to be the new leader of the Boys House at Ravensburgh, but his rival is a bully called Azlett. Adam’s grandfather is advisor to their leader, Cassiv (short for Cassivellaunus, the documented king of the Catuvellauni tribe). Cassiv is away fighting the Romans, who find the British fighting methods, guerilla tactics, each to himself and use of chariots, difficult to deal with. Adam and his friend Marik go with Greggo, a veteran of the wars, to deliver more equipment to Cassiv’s warriors.

With the confidence and freedom of being near-grown boys in the Iron Age, Adam and Marik decide to go and take a look at Caesar’s army for themselves and end up finding out a secret that could see the end of the Catuvellauni and Ravensburgh. Only swift-footed Adam can save the day, and he’s been spotted by the traitor Azlett.

The book is filled with amazing attention to detail, such as the importance Iron Age Britons attached to their appearance, sacrifices made to Iron Age gods and accounts of the campaign from Caesar’s perspective as well as the Britons’. One reference to the now discredited Icknield Way can be forgiven; the book was written in 1990.

The book could be read alongside topic work on Iron Age Britain and the Roman invasion, what it meant to Iron Age people, some of whom welcomed it and some of whom certainly didn’t. You could explore what changes the Catuvellauni might have expected if Caesar had decided to stay instead of going back to Gaul, before looking at what did happen in AD 43.

A trench through the ramparts at Ravensburgh in 1964. Photo courtesy of North Hertfordshire Archaeological Society

A trench through the ramparts at Ravensburgh in 1964. Photo courtesy of North Hertfordshire Archaeological Society

What’s particularly lovely about studying this book is that the author also surveyed and excavated at Ravensburgh, so you can look up the work he did and compare it to what he wrote in the novel. This PDF from the Chilterns AONB in which Ravensburgh sits is quite useful, or there is a quick summary from North Hertfordshire Archaeological Society.

Book review: The Whitestone Stories by John Barrett, illustrated by Christine Clerk

This is the first book so far that we have read that deals with later prehistory for children, apart from the Wolf Brother series which is set in the Mesolithic (middle Stone Age – after the ice and before farming). What is so attractive about this book is that it covers not only the Mesolithic period but also later Neolithic (farming) and Bronze Age, though unfortunately stopping short of the Iron Age.

Barrett’s prose is beautiful. It helps the reader become immersed in these other, very different, times. The first story recounts the coming of humans to Britain and starts by evoking the smells, sights and sounds of the wildwood.

When Summer came to the forest, all the thickets sparkled with red raspberry jewels; and the grasses were spangled with scarlet strawberry drops as bright as the garnets in the mountain rocks.

Plenty of scope for analysing rhythm, rhyme, alliteration and imagery there and for drawing what the phrase conjures up in the mind’s eye. The Whitestone itself is a glacial erratic that has been dropped by a glacier and witnesses the changes all around, the disappearance of the forest, the ploughing of the land and the building of huge monuments.

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Crawling into West Kennet long barrow to meet the ancestors

Although never explicit, you could make links to what is now Avebury, the West Kennet long barrow and Silbury Hill, or similar monuments in Scotland with Barrett exploring how such monuments might have come to be built and what people did there.

The stories do not shy away from some discussion of magic but many read as if they are parables that would have been told around the fire to children in prehistory to ensure that they knew how to behave, for instance to only take what they need from the forest and not everything, to be kind to one another, to be honest and not envious and to be loyal to ones friends.

Because of this tendency for the stories to come across as legends already very old by the time they are told in prehistory, some of the mechanisms of change in society may not reflect modern archaeological thought. The coming of farmers in boat loads and exterminating the hunter-gatherers, for instance, as in Chapter 3, is not now considered to have been the case. The ideas and products of farming may instead have been adopted by the indigenous population of Britain.

The changes in religious beliefs over the millennia are very interesting, from the ancestor worship of the Neolithic to possible worship of the sun and moon in the Early Bronze Age (which coincides with very rich burials of individuals indicating some kind of high status, in the book they are described as kings), to worship of a destructive water goddess in the later Bronze Age that links to the deposition of lots of metalwork in rivers and bogs at that date. It is pure supposition that there was a change from a matriarchal to a patriarchal society in the Bronze Age, though.

Dancing girls of the later Bronze Age - this is as bad as the nudity gets

Dancing girls of the later Bronze Age – this is as bad as the nudity gets

The pencil-drawn illustrations are very rich in content and would repay some attention, particularly looking at the way people’s dress changes over the years, and the different reconstructions of settlements and religious ceremonies. Be warned that there are some topless dancing girls in this book, which may have happened in the later Bronze Age (though the only evidence we have is from Denmark).

Overall this is an excellent book and deserves to be widely used in the classroom as there is otherwise a dearth of good picture books about the Neolithic, Bronze Age and Iron Age. This book goes some way to addressing that.