You are here

Pastoralist Landscapes and Social Interaction in Bronze Age Eurasia

July 2012 (116.3)

Book Review

Pastoralist Landscapes and Social Interaction in Bronze Age Eurasia

By Michael D. Frachetti. Pp. xvii + 213, figs. 53, tables 12. University of California Press, Berkeley 2008. $45. ISBN 978-0-520-25689-7 (cloth).

Reviewed by

Pastoralist Landscapes and Social Interaction in Bronze Age Eurasia is based on the doctoral work conducted by the author in the Dzhungar Mountain region in eastern Kazakhstan. As the title suggests, the research is framed in terms of the formation of pastoralist landscapes beginning in the Bronze Age, taking a long-term and multiscalar perspective on the evolution of these socioeconomic strategies. One of the significant strengths of the work is that Frachetti draws on a diversity of sources, from archaeology to ethnography, ecology, environmental studies, and history, with the latter including Chinese, Persian, and Greek writings.

The book is divided into six chapters plus an introduction and a conclusion. After setting the context of the study in the introduction, the first chapter discusses the notion of pastoralism and pastoralist landscapes. It is followed by a presentation of the archaeology of Eurasia in the Bronze Age (ch. 2) and the relationship between steppe environment and a pastoralist way of life (ch. 3). Ethnographic and ethnohistorical sources on the study region are the focus of chapter 4; the archaeology of the region and its interpretation are the basis of chapters 5 and 6. The book ends with a brief concluding chapter.

The author argues that the development of pastoral landscapes in the region can be traced back prior to the widespread Andronovo phenomenon of the later Bronze Age. Frachetti takes pains to counter a variety of stereotypes concerning mobile pastoral groups that have long existed in historical and other literatures. These include the familiar notion that the Eurasian steppe was a “territory of nomadic barbarism” (5), whereas “the sown” was the region of civilization. Additionally, he argues that the steppe consists of “mosaics of regionally differentiable economic-social spheres or landscapes” (7), rather than being an enormous, undifferentiated “highway of grass” (7). An important point that extends well beyond studies of mobile groups is Frachetti’s consistent effort to distance himself from the idea that archaeological cultures may be understood as proxies for living ethnic groups or cultures. Although many of us may think that such a stance no longer requires explicit articulation in the early 21st century, archaeology in parts of the former Soviet Union (see A. Smith, “The End of the Essential Archaeological Subject,” Archaeological Dialogues 11 [2004] 1–20; P. Kohl, M. Kozelsky, and N. Ben-Yehuda, eds., Selective Remembrances: Archaeology in the Construction, Commemoration, and Consecration of National Pasts [Chicago 2007]) as well as in many other parts of the world offer a sad demonstration that this is not the case.

Frachetti’s focus on landscapes as a concept around which to orient his work is well argued and convincing. He sees landscapes as part of a historical accumulation of knowledge, forming “mental maps [that] allow humans to conceive and socialize their environment” (15). Places accumulate historical meanings through the layering of palimpsests composed of interactions among people and between people and their environments. These landscapes are also flexible, in particular in terms of the different scales of interactions and exploitations within their perceived as well as their physical boundaries. Interactions occur among people at various nodes in the landscape but also in the spaces between them, and it is these interactions that act as key catalysts for growth and change in pastoralist social networks.

The author points out that there are and have always been significant variations in economic strategies across the steppe zone. Mobile pastoralism as a specialized adaptation involving an ecologically strategic way of life is argued to have emerged around the end of the fourth millennium B.C.E. and to have become widespread across the steppe zone by the middle of the third millennium B.C.E. It was accompanied by shifts in socioeconomic strategies toward more intensive pastoralism, visible in terms of an increase in emphasis on sheep, goat, and cattle and a corresponding decrease in hunting. Accompanying the adoption of mobile pastoralism was the use of wheeled vehicles and the local exploitation of copper. In addition to identification of these general trends of undoubted importance, Frachetti also makes a welcome argument for the existence of distinct economic forms connected to local microecologies. In support of his argument, he maps variation in microecologies in his study zone in order to calculate comparative productivity in terms of grazing capacity (the number of sheep per hectare) and thereby to arrive at a “detailed understanding of the nuanced force of the environment as a formative element” (75). By doing so, he is able to suggest that the region supports a rich potential grazing land, in contrast to its agricultural possibilities, which, using Bronze Age technologies, were far more limited.

The latter portion of the book is devoted to Frachetti’s archaeological work in the Koksu River valley. His research demonstrates that most sites show evidence of long-term continuities in use, suggesting that pastoralists selected these locations for settlement because of their favorable environmental conditions and then returned to them regularly. Frachetti nuances his ecological arguments by proposing that people’s investments in particular locales were initially based on environmental considerations, but that ecological factors quickly became just one issue among many in the decisions to continue to use particular places. Despite his efforts to avoid a complete focus on ecology, environment, and adaptation, the heavy emphasis in the book on those factors tends to make people as actors fade into the background. This critique is not meant to detract from the quality of Frachetti’s work but rather to highlight a conundrum that faces archaeologists more generally: How do we deal effectively with long-term, large-scale phenomena, such as ecology or climate change, while at the same time not losing sight of the importance of the small scale, including practice, agency, and the roles of people and their everyday actions in culture-making (see J. Robb and T. Pauketat, eds., Big Histories, Human Lives: Tackling Issues of Scale in Archaeology [Santa Fe, N.M. (forthcoming)])? It is clear that Frachetti tries to grapple with this problem, although to my mind not fully successfully.

As part of his archaeological survey, Frachetti documented rock art in the Koksu River valley. Refreshingly, he does not try to bracket off only the old rock art but rather approaches it as an example of “a historically continuous form of social engagement with the landscape” (136) that stretches from prehistory to the present and forms an “archive of historical motifs ... [that is] part of the complex array of investments in the landscape on the part of local pastoralists” (147). Combined with his modeling of pastoral mobility patterns, Frachetti argues that the Bronze Age landscape was inscribed by means of social and ritual elements, including clusters of rock art, burials, and winter settlements, which may have served as enduring markers of ownership or control as well as ancestral connections to particular places. These material remains were enduring elements of the landscape that asserted groups’ claims to particular areas during the times of the year when they themselves were elsewhere.

In sum, Frachetti offers a fresh perspective on mobile pastoralism as a way of life in the Eurasian steppe, one that is both critical and constructive and that will be of particular interest to scholars studying pastoralism in various geographical and temporal contexts. He successfully builds his study around an understanding of landscape that integrates perception and meaning, variability and change, as well as social relations and interactions. Although to my mind environment and adaptation play a somewhat overly large role in his analysis, this does not detract from the value of this book for an understanding of the history of settlement in the Eurasian steppe and research on mobile pastoralism more generally.

Susan Pollock
Institute for Near Eastern Archaeology
Free University of Berlin
14195 Berlin

Book Review of Pastoralist Landscapes and Social Interaction in Bronze Age Eurasia, by Michael D. Frachetti

Reviewed by Susan Pollock

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

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1163.Pollock

Add new comment

Plain text

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.