British archaeologist Chris Scarre provides a literate and thoroughly enjoyable grand tour of Old World prehistory in this handsomely illustrated volume, the first in Oxford's "Places in Time" series. Treating 15 sites as case studies, Scarre grounds his readers in some of the thornier problems confronting archaeologists: establishing reliable chronologies (and Scarre, like many of his colleagues, proposes extending the arrival of humans to the European continent much farther back in time than late-20th-century orthodoxy permits), determining the ways of life of prehistoric peoples, and, most difficult of all, guessing at what they might have thought and believed about the world and their place in it.
Scarre takes us to expected venues such as Stonehenge and Maiden Castle, and he conducts a chamber-by-chamber tour of Lascaux Cave, which the French government closed to the public years ago. He also ventures to a number of lesser-known sites that are in many ways more illuminating of European prehistory than are their more famous counterparts. Tarxien, a Maltese site, for instance, yields evidence of organized religion dating far back into the megalithic period; its peculiar temple architecture gives "an impression of dramatic ritual ceremonies in a setting carefully designed with an eye to effect." Scarre aims to educate the eye of the traveler to recognize signs of the prehistoric presence in a landscape since overlain by many other cultures. In this he is eminently successful. --Gregory McNamee