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Early Bronze Age Goods Exchange in the Southern Levant: A Marxist Perspective

Early Bronze Age Goods Exchange in the Southern Levant: A Marxist Perspective

By Ianir Milevski (Approaches to Anthropological Archaeology). Pp. xv + 294, figs. 54, tables 27. David Brown Book Company, Oakville, Conn. 2011. $115. ISBN 978-1-84553-378-6 (cloth).


The purpose of the book under review is twofold: First, it aims to review archaeological evidence for Early Bronze Age (EBA) exchange in the southern Levant, which is very clearly arranged in chapters 3–9, covering pottery, flint, stone objects, metal, floral and faunal commodities, as well as minerals. Second, it aims to interpret the whole process of exchange and its underlying principles from a Marxist perspective, which is outlined in detail in the second chapter ("Theoretical Frameworks"). Although the author attempts to "go beyond mere description and interpret the archaeological record" (10 [emphasis added]), the first part of the book is in essence a summary of Marx's theory of value and exchange as outlined in the first chapters of Das Kapital: Kritik der politischen Ökonomie (Hamburg 1867), whereas the main part of the book deals with a descriptive overview of the distribution of certain commodities in the southern Levant.

Milevski is right to state that "Marxist archaeologists tend to jump to high-level analyses but avoid dealing with the concrete archaeological data" (23). The main problem with his study is that he works the opposite way. He virtually avoids all theoretical analysis (apart from quoting Marx's Kapital for the chapter "Theory of Value" [23–6]) and concentrates mainly on descriptive archaeology.

It is also not clear how a Marxist approach as outlined in chapter 2 contributes to Milevski's aim to "identify the main commodities exchanged during the EB Age" and to "establish patterns of exchange" (9–10). Disappointingly, the benefit of a Marxist approach on the EBA exchange remains unclear throughout the book and is not discussed much until the end. Some readers may also expect that a study with a Marxist approach (i.e., assuming that social existence depends on modes of production) would at least address the question of EBA urbanization, trying to explore if—and how—a developing mode of production made the first cities of the southern Levant possible (or inevitable?).

A methodological problem emerges in this chapter because the EBA society of the southern Levant is rather dogmatically defined as belonging to the "Asiatische Produktionsweise" (Asiatic mode of production), although it would be a great benefit—not only for archaeology, but also for Marxist theory—to review the different forms of production outlined by Marx and Engels based on their knowledge more than 150 years ago with up-to-date archaeological data. In fact, that would be an expected task from the viewpoint of historical materialism. Unfortunately, the definition of the "Asiatische Produktionsweise" is not questioned at all (and, in fact, is also not addressed in the conclusions of this book). Another problem deriving from this rather dogmatic classification is that Milevski concludes that there is no privately owned land in the EBA southern Levant (23, 236). Although it is true that there is no evidence whatsoever that privately owned land existed (like documents referring to buying and selling as in Mesopotamia, also quoted by Milevski on p. 236), the only viable conclusion would be that we simply do not know if privately owned land existed or not. Milevski in this point is clearly mixing absence of evidence with evidence of absence.

Another drawback of the book is that although it was published in 2011, the bibliography virtually ends at 2005–2006 (with some exceptions). Therefore, a number of substantial studies are neither discussed nor even mentioned in the text. For instance, in the overview of previous research concerning exchange with and within the southern Levant, one should add the important book by Sowada on Egypt in the eastern Mediterranean during the Old Kingdom (Egypt in the Eastern Mediterranean During the Old Kingdom: An Archaeological Perspective [Fribourg and Göttingen 2009]). In the review of previous research on "Regional Studies, Trade and Urbanization" (13), works on urbanization and society by Savage et al. ("The Early Bronze Age City States of Southern Levant: Neither Cities nor States," in Levy et al., eds., Crossing Jordan: North American Contributions to the Archaeology of Jordan [London 2007]) or Chesson and Philip ("Tales of the City? ‘Urbanism' in the Early Bronze Age Levant from Mediterranean and Levantine Perspectives," JMA 16 [2003] 3–16) are surprisingly missing.

A main problem of Milevski's study is that it virtually stops at political borders (i.e., concentrates on modern-day Israel). Although every study is obliged to limit its geographical scope in one way or another, using political boundaries seems to be the most unfortunate way. Current research carried out in Lebanon or Jordan (although the Jordan Valley is included in this book) is largely ignored, and conclusions are based more or less only on material found west of the Jordan River—which is very unfortunate, especially if production, exchange, and consumption of commodities are discussed.

Neglecting current research carried out in neighboring countries, mainly in Jordan, also affects certain conclusions. For example, Milevski states that EBA flint quarries are almost unknown in the southern Levant, citing only Har Qerem and the Jafr Basin in Jordan (90), ignoring that flint quarries are in fact known in the Wadi Ruwayshid region (Jordan), currently under study by Müller-Neuhof of the German Archaeological Institute (see B. Müller-Neuhof, "Tabular Scraper Quarry Sites in the Wadi Ruwayshid Region [N/E Jordan]," Annual of the Department of Antiquities of Jordan 50 [2006] 373–83; "Chalcolithic/Early Bronze Age Flint Mines in the Northern Badia," in W. Abu-Azizeh and M. Tharwneh, eds., Current Research on Protohistoric Settlement in Desert Areas of Jordan [forthcoming]). This information would also change considerably the distribution map of tabular scrapers (fig. 4.6), where it is suggested that these artifacts originated mainly in the Jafr Basin and were exchanged to the north, whereas consideration of the flint mines in the eastern desert of Jordan would imply another main exchange line coming from the east.

Likewise, the chapter on "Metallurgy and Metal Objects" (ch. 6) would very much benefit if new archaeological projects would be taken into account. Although the author briefly mentions the site of Tell el-Magass in the southern Wadi Araba, close to the Red Sea (123), he surprisingly misses the far more important neighboring site of Tell Hujayrat al-Ghuzlan north of Aqaba, excavated by the University of Jordan and the German Archaeological Institute, where evidence for substantial metallurgical activities and exchange links to Egypt have been documented (see L. Khalil and K. Schmidt, eds., Prehistoric Aqaba I. Orient-Archäologie 23 [Berlin 2009]). Concerning the distribution of metal objects, one should also take into account the recent excavations of the Università di Roma "La Sapienza" in the upper Wadi Zarqa, northeast of Amman in Khirbet el-Batrawy, where a late EBA palace was found, including a cache of copper axes, which would also seriously alter the exchange lines drawn on the distribution map on page 128 (fig. 6.3) (see also L. Nigro, In the Palace of the Copper Axes [Rome 2010]; and earlier publications by the same author).

However, despite these limitations, the strength of this study lies in assembling a vast amount of information in a very clearly arranged way. Milevski's study is definitely a more than welcome overview of EBA commodities and exchange in the southern Levant, and it surely will be a starting point for any future studies addressing EBA society and trade. This book should therefore not be missed in archaeological libraries.

Felix Höflmayer
German Archaeological Institute
14195 Berlin

Book Review of Early Bronze Age Goods Exchange in the Southern Levant: A Marxist Perspective, by Ianir Milevski

Reviewed by Felix Höflmayer

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 116, No. 4 (October 2012)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1164.Hoflmayer


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