By Barry Cunliffe. Pp. ix + 518, b&w figs. 58, color figs. 227. Yale University Press, New Haven 2008. $45. ISBN 978-0-300-11923-7 (cloth).
This volume is a handsome overview of European history from the end of the Ice Age, ca. 10,000 B.C.E., to 1000 C.E. The first half of the book is focused on archaeological evidence, while the second half integrates archaeological and documentary evidence. Cunliffe explicitly sets out to examine the big picture, the longue durée of history, focusing on the environmental/geographic setting, to understand the background of “[t]he westerly excrescence of the continent of Asia, which we call Europe, [that] came to dominate the world during the course of the second millennium A.D.” (vii). Full disclosure: as a prehistoric archaeologist, this reviewer is better equipped to evaluate the first half of the book than later sections.
The book is written in an enthusiastic and accessible style that neither uses excessive jargon nor talks down to the audience. Two introductory chapters examine the geography of Europe, with an emphasis on seas and rivers. The remaining chapters work chronologically from the Neolithic Revolution to the Vikings. At 479 pages of text plus numerous illustrations, an index, and a good section of references and recommended reading, this book is a bargain. That said, the volume has several problems.
I am not clear who the audience is. I assume the publisher wants to appeal to an American audience, but the book does not fit well into the curricula of American universities, which generally do not include prehistory, classical Greece and Rome, and the Early Medieval period in a single course. If this is not a textbook, perhaps the audience is the educated reader with an interest in history? For example, the kind of person who reads Jared Diamond’s books on the development of civilization. That is a large audience, but Diamond’s books are more focused, linking the past in specific and provocative ways to modern social and environmental problems, and they come in portable paperback versions. So I commend the publisher for its continuing commitment to high-quality book production, but I wonder about the viability of such a volume.
The book contains maps, line drawings, and high-quality photographs of sites and artifacts. There are wonderful aerial images of landscapes and sites. Oddly, in my view, maps significantly outnumber other illustrations. Many are useful, but others are redundant or unnecessary for the level of discussion, and sometimes lack important information. For example, rather than a map of the Neolithic distribution of Polish banded flint (a spread of dots across the northern European plain, which duplicates information in the text), I would have preferred a picture of the banded flint, which is likely to be unfamiliar to many readers. There are many other cases where a well-chosen picture would have been more useful than another map. The artifact pictures also lack scales, which detracts from full understanding of what one is viewing.
Cunliffe’s interest is clearly the importance of transportation, exchange, and communication in general, and the seas and rivers in particular. This opens the narrative in some ways; for example, he includes more than is usual in overviews about the Atlantic coast of Europe. However, this theme can be repetitive, and it biases the choice of topics and illustrations. As just one example illustrates, while “ships and boats” cover three vertical inches of small type in the index, there is no entry for “Christianity.” There is an entry for “monasticism” but this also demonstrates Cunliffe’s singular focus: “monasticism and exploration,” “monasticism and mobility,” “monasticism and Viking raids.”
The focus on transportation, communication, and exchange is also linked to an implicit but noticeable gender bias. Explorers, leaders, and warriors get lots of attention; they are assumed to be male. The lives of women—and, in fact, the lives of ordinary, nonchiefly men—are given minimal attention, despite the goal expressed in the preface to focus on the “complex interaction of human groups with their environment, and with each other” (viii). This is due in part to Cunliffe’s explicit decision to look at the big picture, but it is a very top-down big picture; surely, peasants and women and other nonleaders were interacting with the environment, too.
Additionally, Cunliffe’s gender bias leads him to a flawed treatment of archaeological evidence. For example, the large Bronze Age burial mound at Kivik, Sweden, with its elaborately carved stone cist, is illustrated and discussed in detail; Cunliffe provides an explicitly speculative and elaborately romantic narrative about the possible life story of the chiefly explorer, whom he calls the “lord of Kivik,” alleged to be buried there. The well-known Hallstatt tomb at Vix, France, is also well illustrated; the buried individual is called either “the female” or “a woman,” and there is no discussion about what experiences in her life might have led to this extraordinary tomb. To use more theoretical terms, the lord of Kivik has agency, but the Vix female does not. Yet, from Vix, we have careful excavation records and reasonably good data about the arrangement of the burial, as well as bioanthropological analysis of the skeletal materials. From Kivik, which was heavily disturbed in the 18th century, we have no information about the internal arrangements of the tomb and no anatomical confirmation that the central burial was male. Thus, Cunliffe has gone beyond legitimate simplification in the interests of a general audience and a compelling story; he is building this story on an unbalanced assessment of the evidence.
Although Cunliffe links this narrative to the modern world in the preface and, briefly, in the final chapter, he does not draw many explicit connections between the past and present. Yet his description of prehistoric Europe begins to sound familiar: “The continent was diversifying and pulling together at the same time” (179 [referring to the period 2800–1300 B.C.E.]). “Europe in the period 1300–800 B.C.E. was a vibrant place—a place of energy and assurance, interconnected as never before. Commodities were moving across the continent and around the coasts at a rate previously unknown, and with them flowed ideas, so creating a remarkable degree of similarity across huge territories” (269).
Suddenly it came to me: it is the European Union, led by ambitious and adventuresome (male) elites, who are repeatedly described as energetic, innovative, and dynamic. This “union” collapses after the end of the Roman empire, but begins to reappear ca. 1000 C.E.: “Yet for all its volatility Europe was being bound together ever more tightly by networks of trade as states began to crystallize out and markets developed to serve their increasing demands” (473). While this ideological parallel is not made explicit, it is quite clear that Cunliffe admires periods of connectivity and deplores periods of “retreat into regionalism” (478).
This handsome and readable book provides a broad overview of European prehistory and early history from a distinctive and knowledgeable personal perspective. For some, the perspective will become narrow and overbearing, but many others will find an excellent resource for understanding the development of the small but influential continent of Europe.
Janet E. Levy
Department of Anthropolog
University of North Carolina at Charlotte
Charlotte, North Carolina 28223