Online Review: Book

The Urals and Western Siberia in the Bronze and Iron Ages

Alison Betts

113.2

By Ludmila Vladimirovich Koryakova and Andrej Epimakhov. Pp. xxiii + 383, b&w figs. 124, tables 10. Cambridge University Press, New York 2007. $99. ISBN 978-0-521-82928-1.

The vast landmass of Eurasia, stretching from Hungary to Mongolia and encompassing an area larger than all of North America, was the wellspring that fed so much of western civilization, and yet, as a result of remoteness, hostile climates, and above all political barriers, it is an area about which western scholars know very little. This is not, however, true of Russian scholars who have been conducting extensive and detailed research across its vast grasslands and forests for many decades. The Cold War and the Iron Curtain together combined to separate two distinct strands of scholarship that are only now slowly becoming properly intertwined. This volume is a highly important landmark in that process.

Although the ecological uniformity of the steppe has led to apparent cultural similarities across vast distances, closer inspection reveals subtle but distinct regional variations. The Ural Mountains bisect the steppe and mark more precise cultural boundaries. This volume looks in detail at part of the eastern region that encompasses the mountains themselves, the southern part of the western Siberian plain, and the upper reaches of the great Ob’-Irtysh River system.

The authors describe the volume as “an advanced introduction to the late prehistory of a substantial part of Eurasia, predominantly within the steppe and forest-steppe zones” (xxi). Sources are almost exclusively Russian, so the work presents, in English, largely the Russian strand of scholarship about the region, only lightly intertwined with western interpretations. It is, nonetheless, extremely important and opens the way for non-Russian-speaking researchers to obtain a much fuller and clearer understanding of the available evidence.

Russian scholarship has largely been based on typologies of material culture, in particular ceramics and metal weapons. More attention has been paid to burials than to settlement sites, there have been limited collection and analysis of faunal and (in particular) botanical remains, and dating is based almost exclusively on relative chronologies. The authors have therefore concentrated on summarizing the key elements of defined “cultures,” rounding them out with well-grounded discussions covering their subsistence strategies and the nature of relationships among them. Key problem areas in creating a history of Eurasia are the connections made between archaeological “cultures” and either linguistic groups or peoples mentioned in historical sources. In the case of the latter, Russian scholarship tends toward to caution less than western, while western writers have led many of the arguments about linguistic groups. The authors of this volume generally treat these issues with care and balance, making reference to opinions on both sides, and largely avoid linking their archaeological evidence too strongly to either linguistic or historical groups.

Certain issues are critical to cultural change in the region and these are covered separately. The first is the development of metallurgy, the key catalyst to early economic development. The second is the complex nature of nomadic life: its rise, its role in the transmission of goods and ideas, and the many and various ways in which it is practiced across the region. The last issue is treated in detail with considerable depth of scholarship and reference to the works of western authors as well as Russian sources. This section in particular is recommended to readers seeking a concise analysis of Eurasian nomadic development, although the summary of tribal names from historical sources should not be taken as a detailed critical study of the evidence.

A serious criticism is the extremely poor level of proofreading. There are numerous basic typographical errors and a figure (2.17) whose captioning appears to bear no resemblance to the figure at all. This seems extraordinary for a volume published by Cambridge University Press. With regard to editing, some peculiarities of expression may simply be the result of non-native English-speaking authors (e.g., “a visible desolation of the Eneolithic cultures of the Balkans” [26]), but others are clearly the result of poor editorial control (e.g., “The only reliable objects that can be defined as a weapon is a leaf-shaped spearheads” [50]). Typically, Russian plans and artifact illustrations are well drawn but are frequently over-reduced and published on poor-quality paper, causing problems for anyone attempting to reproduce them. The authors have made the best they can of this problem, and the illustrations are relevant and generally well presented. The extensive bibliography will be of great value to anyone interested in using this volume as a starting point for further study.

Overall, this volume presents a wealth of information in a readable and balanced manner that makes it accessible to all academic readers from undergraduates to serious researchers. While the detailed discussion of regional cultural development is focused on the Urals and western Siberia, the more general discussions and summaries cover a wider sweep across all of Eurasia, from China to Europe. The volume should accordingly be on the shelves of any library covering Old World archaeology and ancient history.

Alison Betts
Department of Archaeology
University of Sydney
NSW 2006
Australia
alison.betts@usyd.edu.au

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1132.Betts

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