Online Review: Book

The Levant in Transition: Proceedings of a Conference Held at the British Museum on 20–21 April 2004

Graham Philip


Edited by Peter J. Parr (PEFA 9). Pp. vi + 122, figs. 57, tables 2, plans 10, maps 10. The Palestine Exploration Fund, Leeds 2009. $96. ISBN 978-1-904350-99-6 (cloth).

This book contains 13 papers on various aspects of the Early Bronze (EB) IV period in the Levant that were delivered at a conference held at the British Museum in 2004. A key aspect of the period is regional diversity, which the volume covers well, with evidence from western Syria and Lebanon presented alongside the more familiar data from the southern Levant.

Three papers are focused on Syria, where EB IV is associated with urban polities and marked by a sophisticated material culture and settlement expansion. Pinnock's discussion of Tell Mardikh highlights continuities in the transition from EB IVB (Mardikh IIB2—the phase postdating the destruction of Palace G) to Middle Bronze (MB) I, with the former seen to provide the base on which the larger MB occupation would develop. Morandi, too, discusses urbanism and outlines the nature of EB IV as represented at the site of Qatna. He explains that the settlement was established by late EB III at least and attained an area of some 25 ha during EB IV, when it formed the center of a regional settlement system. Morandi draws attention to documentary evidence from Ebla that suggests EB IV communities located in the steppe margins southeast of Hama had elites, chancelleries, and scribes. These may have been key points of contact between newly emergent regional polities and more mobile populations. The role of pastoralists is discussed by Lönnqvist, who reviews documentary and survey evidence, including stone enclosures and groups of cairns—some linked to form chains, which she believes pertain to EB IV activity in the uplands of the Jebel Bishri. While her claims are intriguing, the force of her argument is weakened by unreferenced statements and a very brief account of the actual dating evidence.

Most papers deal with the southern Levant, where the evidence points to EB IV as a period of decline following the demise of the walled settlements of EB II–III: the regional literature makes numerous references to "ruralism," "pastoralism," and "collapse." Despite the excavation of several cemeteries, we have limited knowledge of EB IV settlements in the region. Thus, Covello-Paran's presentation of a small rural site in the Jezreel Valley is of real value. Her careful analysis of the artifactual data defines 'Ein el-Hilu as a largely self-sufficient agricultural community but one that participated in wider regional networks. However, the author makes the important point that it was but part of a wider settlement system and such small sites should not be regarded as typical of all EB IV communities in the region—a matter of interest in light of the evidence from Jordan. A short discussion of EB IV settlement in the coastal plain is provided by Gophna, who asserts that the activity there was limited and must represent a short, distinct phase, separated by an occupational gap from the preceding EB III and later MB occupations. Note, though, that Faust and Askkenazy have suggested there is little evidence for EB III activity in the coastal plain, either (A. Faust and Y. Ashkenazy, "Settlement Fluctuations and Environmental Changes in Israel's Coastal Plain During the Early Bronze Age," Levant 41 [2009] 19–39). Short papers by Kochavi and Haiman cover the data from the Negev and argue for the existence of a particular settlement system that developed around the transport of copper from Faynan to Egypt. However, both papers remain vague as to where this phase fits in terms of the overall chronology of the period, and they might usefully also have discussed the evidence (and radiocarbon dates) from the EB III–IV copper-processing site of Khirbet Hamra Ifdan in Jordan.

While the papers on sites in Palestine largely confirm the accepted picture, those dealing with south-central Jordan suggest a more complex situation. Richard and Long discuss the evidence from Khirbet Iskander, an EB IV settlement with a defensive system, evidence for olive oil production, and a possible "public" building complex with ceramic evidence attesting a significant storage capacity. In fact, the site might indicate the continuation into EB IV of an organizational form more typical of EB III. Support for such continuity is offered by Schaub, who reviews the ceramic data from EB III–IV settlements in the Kerak Plateau in light of the stratified EB IV sequence from Bab edh-Dhra'. This raises the possibility that the EB III–IV continuity visible in south-central Jordan attests to a local economy that was less highly developed, and so perhaps more resilient, than were those of communities in Palestine and northern Jordan.

Lebanon, until recently a serious gap in our knowledge, is now documented by Doumet-Serhal's review of the EB III–IV occupation at Tyre. This points (as do Thalmann's excavations at Tell Arqa) to continuity of occupation rather than the break that is documented in Palestine. Taken as a whole, these papers underscore the diversity of regional trajectories during EB IV and make it clear that continuity is the norm in most regions; Palestine is the exception.

While some elements of EB IV material culture show markedly local distributions, others are quite widely shared, suggesting that superficially disparate communities were connected by extended networks. Prag's earlier emphasis on the importance of livestock pastoralism as both an economic strategy and a mechanism for interregional contact has received support from the growing evidence for such activity in the Syrian steppe in the later third millennium B.C.E. In a reappraisal of the evidence from her fieldwork at Tell Iktanu in the Jordan Valley, Prag notes that several ceramic forms, which suggest connections with Syria, appear linked to the consumption of food and drink, most likely in the context of banqueting, a social practice probably related to Syrian urban polities rather than the steppe world.

Tubb uses the typology of metal artifacts to resuscitate Schaeffer's later (i.e., C.F.A. Schaeffer, "Ex Occidente Ars," Ugaritica 7 [1978] 475–551) version of his theory of the Porteurs de Torques, which argued for warrior elites entering the Levant from central Europe in the late third millennium B.C.E. While parallels with European metal styles can be documented, a fully developed version of Tubb's thesis would need to acknowledge the appearance of torques and related metal artifacts in grave contexts at sites in northern Syria and Anatolia in the first half of the third millennium B.C.E. (see E. Peltenburg, ed., Euphrates River Valley Settlement: The Carchemish Sector in the Third Millennium BC [Oxford 2007]).

Overall, the book provides a useful overview of the variety of settlement and organizational forms prevalent during EB IV. As to the individual papers, some are new and interesting, others repeat material published elsewhere, and one or two have a slightly antiquarian feel. While the book's coverage suggests that it is aimed at a specialist audience, such readers (and students) may regret the absence of either a scene-setting introduction or synthetic commentary. They may also find the limited discussion of radiometric dates a matter of concern. While probably not an essential purchase, this book will certainly be required by research libraries.

Graham Philip
Department of Archaeology
Durham University
Durham DH1 3LE
United Kingdom


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