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Organising Bronze Age Societies: The Mediterranean, Central Europe and Scandinavia Compared

Organising Bronze Age Societies: The Mediterranean, Central Europe and Scandinavia Compared

Edited by Timothy Earle and Kristian Kristiansen. Pp. xxiv + 303, figs. 54, b&w pls. 15, color pls. 15. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2010. $29.99. ISBN 978-0-521-74835-3 (paper).

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This volume, the first major output of the Emergence of European Communities project, financed in large measure and with suitable largesse by the 6th Framework Programme of the European Union, presents a series of essays on aspects of Bronze Age economy, technology, and society that draw on the results of the three separate elements that were included in the project: the Thy project in Denmark, the Százhalombatta excavation (and associated Benta Valley survey) in Hungary, and the Monte Polizzo excavation in Sicily. Curiously, the last of these actually falls in the Iron Age (700–500 B.C.E. are the dates given), quite apart from being situated in a Mediterranean environment, so one wonders in what way it can realistically be compared to the other two. Nevertheless, no sensible archaeologist would turn down a great funding opportunity, so the assembled team was obviously encouraged to ignore such minor details and get on with the serious business of doing archaeological fieldwork.

After an introductory chapter by the editors, there are chapters on a number of individual themes: paleoenvironments (French), settlement patterns (Earle and Kolb), settlement structure and organization (Artusson), households (Stig Sørensen), subsistence strategies, (Vretemark), and technology and craft (Sofaer). All of these attempt a consideration and cross-comparison of all three study areas in turn. Not surprisingly, they all find—to a greater or lesser degree—that the three areas are quite different, in almost every respect. Thus, while Thy shows an increasingly open landscape during the course of the Bronze Age, in the Benta Valley in Hungary, there was rising rainfall accompanied by a growing number of some forest species along the floodplain (though with a generally open environment on the valley slopes). In Sicily, the Early and Middle Bronze Ages were dry times; the occupation of Monte Polizzo (in the Iron Age) was apparently accompanied by an increase in rainfall followed by a return to dry conditions.

The comparative approach is continued in each chapter. Thus, in chapter 3, on regional settlement patterns, each area is considered in turn; the Thy data are the most comprehensive because that area had already been the subject of a long-running survey program when the present project began. For Százhalombatta and the Benta Valley, surveys had also been conducted and were checked by the present team; in Sicily (the Salemi area), new fieldwalking on a considerable scale was conducted (339 freshly plowed fields; nearly 43,000 artifacts recovered), giving a good picture of settlement density over time. Interpreting the data from the three countries in a comparative way then becomes more a matter of laying down general rules. For example, gross agricultural productivity is a good predictor of social complexity for early agrarian societies; differences in population density reflect differences in the microregion’s potential to intensify agriculture; this ranking translates into potential surplus production for staple finance in emergent chiefdoms (83). What is more, “the political economy shows a fairly dramatic gradient from north to south in terms of control over agricultural labour and staple production” (85), as well as social complexity. This is an elaborate way of saying that Iron Age Monte Polizzo is more complex in economic and social terms than Százhalombatta or Thy, which hardly seems surprising news.

Artursson has an interesting chapter on settlement organization—especially for the Scandinavian case studies and Hungary. The short comparative section (119–21, table 4.7) bears out the conclusions of the previous chapter on settlement patterns (i.e., Iron Age Sicily had a more developed settlement structure than the other areas), but much more important is the development of a methodology for understanding settlement organization based on house size and number. This can plausibly be connected with development in social organization, as can the rise of fortified settlements of the Vatya culture and ensuing periods in Hungary, where networks of forts can be seen.

Similar considerations apply to Sørensen’s paper, where she discusses not only house size but also other aspects: the “materialisation” of the south Scandinavian household, for instance (which actually turns out to mean organization of household space). This analysis is effectively applied to both Denmark and Hungary, where good excavation technique has resulted in fine detail being recovered in the Százhalombatta houses. As usual, the Sicilian houses were different, but Sørensen makes fruitful use of artifact distributions to make suggestions about house function.

With Vretemark on subsistence strategies, we can again discern the rather obvious differences between the different areas and periods; several important trends in both plant and animal utilization are pointed out. Finally, Sofaer, on technology and craft, has made a special study of these matters at Százhalombatta, and the results of that study in particular make interesting reading. Thus, Sofaer sees the “investment level” in ceramics at Százhalombatta as large scale, at Thy as small scale, and at Monte Polizzo at medium scale, reflecting the relative importance of ceramics at the first by comparison with the last—and in contrast to the situation with chipped stone, where Thy comes out on top.

The “Concluding Thoughts” by the editors range over a series of issues covered in the volume and introduce a number of further ones. Here, they ask such questions as, why do groups organize with larger and more centralized structures? (222). The answer, we are told, lies in “new value systems,” a “new tension between local interests and regional politics, households and local groups pushing to retaining [sic] local autonomy and identity versus chieftains attempting to assert regional power through control over local resources and international relationships” (223). We are given sketches of three houses: that of the warrior (Thy), the charioteer (Százhalombatta), and the merchant (Monte Polizzo). We end with a section entitled, perhaps inevitably given the nature of project funding, “Forging Identities: Institutions and Material Culture.” This ranges over a series of artifact types and their distributions, which are alleged to tell us about the institutions of ritual chiefs and warrior chiefs (as shown by “foreign” swords and solid-hilted swords). We meet again Bronze Age political economies, familiar from Earle’s previous writings, with a distinction drawn between the “decentralised chiefdoms” of the center and northwest of Europe and the “more centralised chiefdoms” of the south. And finally, we are introduced to long-term trends in wealth creation, hoarding, new social patterning, and the like. “The character of late prehistoric societies in central and northern Europe was to include local regional polities organised against state formation” (256), and if you understand what that means, then you will probably like this analysis. This concluding chapter could have been written 20 years ago, without the need for the Emergence of European Communities project at all.

It is regrettable that there are many typographical errors that editors or subeditors should have picked up: I counted four in the 10 lines of the “Participating Institutions” on page 257 alone.

One can only admire that the protagonists created a title and project description that appealed to Brussels bureaucrats to such an extent that they funded the project in spite of the many and obvious problems that a national research council would quickly have picked up on. At the end of the day, when the detail of each project is published in full, we should have cause to be grateful for this funding, as each subproject will produce valuable results that are not developed here. One cannot really say the same for the forced manner in which completely disparate sites and materials are “compared”—a comparison that merely serves to show that Bronze Age (and Iron Age) Europe was in reality a thing of shreds and patches, not a unified world. The editors’ concluding chapter, by concentrating on general matters that can be considered cross-cultural, neatly avoids this awkward fact—but then so did the project from the outset. Apples are not very much like pears and nothing like fish; Thy is not much like Százhalombatta and nothing like Monte Polizzo. One hopes that the funders think they got their money’s worth. For archaeologists, the benefits will be longer in coming, but with final publication by this able team, there is much to look forward to.

Anthony Harding
Department of Archaeology
University of Exeter
Exeter EX4 4QE
United Kingdom

Book Review of Organising Bronze Age Societies: The Mediterranean, Central Europe and Scandinavia Compared, edited by Timothy Earle and Kristian Kristiansen

Reviewed by Anthony Harding

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 116, No. 1 (January 2012)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1161.Harding

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