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Material Mnemonics: Everyday Memory in Prehistoric Europe

July 2012 (116.3)

Book Review

Material Mnemonics: Everyday Memory in Prehistoric Europe

By Katina T. Lillios and Vasileios Tsamis. Pp. 199, figs. 49, tables 6. Oxbow Books, Oxford 2010. $70. ISBN 978-1-84217-966-6 (paper).

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The study of memory seems to have gained momentum in archaeology, with many volumes and papers devoted to the subject, from the initial “past in the past” view and the study of ancestral landscapes to the more recent “memory work,” which focuses more on the practice of remembering (and forgetting) in all aspects of life, rather than just on monuments. Material Mnemonics brings together papers emerging from a session at the 2006 meeting of the International Union for Prehistoric and Protohistoric Sciences in Lisbon under the same title, plus a final commissioned comment (ch. 10); in doing so, it aspires to offer a new perspective to this burgeoning field. In the words of the editors and judging by the subtitle, this perspective has to do with “everyday practices and experiences,” “the mundane and the repetitive” (4). There are eight papers, in addition to the introduction and the final comment, which provide a wide and diverse picture of prehistoric Europe, with cases from the British Isles and Scandinavia in the north to Iberia and Greece in the south and with a chronological range from the Neolithic to the Iron Age. The papers are organized chronologically, so there is a slight back and forth from region to region, something, though, that is not at all counterproductive. Nevertheless, I remain skeptical of the reasons provided by the editors, who, saying that this was done “to consider how mnemonic practices transformed over time” (5), allow for a unified evolution of such practices in the area.

The eight papers suggest, of course, nothing of the sort. They present cases that point to the diversified practices of people toward their past and its commemoration, even if we allow that some of this diversification is due to the approach followed by the authors themselves. The papers are more concerned with the exposition of the cases than engaging with theory per se and are accordingly written in clear, jargon-free language. Understandably, some papers stand more like introductions to their subject rather than a full-scale analysis, but this is to be expected from an edited volume of such character. For example, Skeates (ch. 4) presents a general framework for the analysis of body ornaments in relation to memory and does not dwell on details. Given this general character and that his chapter is the only one that presents a definition of mnemonics (75), albeit a definition not necessarily shared by the rest of the authors, I would suggest that the reader start here. Lillios focuses on a somewhat relevant class of artifacts and, in the largest chapter of the volume (ch. 3), presents a detailed study of 46 reshaped fragments of engraved plaques, which she calls “plaque-relics.” She examines in length what is known in terms of provenance, manufacture, context, and chronology and places them within the wider framework of Neolithic Iberia, thus paving the way for a better understanding of these objects. Staying in Iberia and on rocks, García Sanjuán and Wheatley (ch. 2) study the integration of natural objects in the present to commemorate the past and at the same time lead a group of papers that focuses on monuments, a topic well tread when it comes to memorialization. Thus, Jones (ch. 5) talks of burning in certain Neolithic monuments of Britain as “a memorably violent event” (94), and Arnold (ch. 8) comments on central European Iron Age burial mounds as focal points for subsequent behavior, mortuary or otherwise. Levy (ch. 7) remains in the mortuary domain and examines the deposition of hoards in bogs and other wet places in Bronze Age Denmark as a practice of memorialization. The remaining two chapters move away from burials and to settlements. Larsson (ch. 9) focuses on a building with ritual use that retained its form from its erection ca. 200 C.E. to its dismantlement ca. 950 C.E., invoking its previous significance into centuries with different notions of the religious or the sacred. Tsamis (ch. 6) talks of buildings, yards, and vessels in two settlements of Late Bronze Age Macedonia, Greece, that are neither ritual nor monumental, although the storage facilities in Assiros may well be viewed as special. He explores the possible formation of embodied memory by consuming food in different conditions and thus writes of the everyday more than any other author in this collection, even though I would be reluctant to characterize any of these practices as mundane.

Regarding this everyday aspect of memory, the volume falls somewhat short of its mark, or rather, of its subtitle. It is certainly the case that burial practices, ritual performances, the building and use of monuments, and other activities had a lasting effect on the everyday life of the people involved, directly or indirectly, but this aspect is hardly explored in the papers. The authors remain fixed on the contexts of memory formation rather than on the effects of such events on the life of people both in and outside these contexts. Nevertheless, this by no means diminishes the value of the contributions. True enough, there are many ways to approach the subject. For instance, Hamilakis (ch. 10) closes the volume by commenting briefly on the papers and at the same time proposing alternative avenues of research based on his own work, specifically highlighting the underside of memory, forgetting. He also points out that memory is not only about intentional or conscious commemoration but also about unintentional resurfacing of things set aside (190), things that, I may add, have been denied representation and yet are represented. To conclude, this is a collection with many merits, and there is something to be gained from each and every paper. Plus, its language makes it accessible and appealing to any audience from graduate students to dedicated specialists.

Stratos Nanoglou

Book Review of Material Mnemonics: Everyday Memory in Prehistoric Europe, by Katina T. Lillios and Vasileios Tsamis

Reviewed by Stratos Nanoglou

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 116, No. 3 (July 2012)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1163.Nanoglou

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