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Metal, Nomads, and Culture Contact: The Middle East and North Africa

July 2013 (117.3)

Book Review

Metal, Nomads, and Culture Contact: The Middle East and North Africa

By Nils Anfinset. Pp. xi + 241, figs. 76. Equinox, Oakville, Conn. 2010. $120. ISBN 978-1-84553-253-6 (cloth).

Reviewed by

The southern Levant features prominently in the bibliography of early Old World metallurgy thanks to an impressive accumulation of work, including the pioneering projects on the mining and production sites of the Timna and Feinan regions, individual studies of metallurgical assemblages from settlement sites of the Chalcolithic and Early Bronze Age periods, as well as numerous contemporaneous metal artifacts, not least the intriguing Nahal Mishmar hoard. The region has formed the arena for the development of new research methodologies in archaeometallurgy, while the wealth of culminating data have allowed inspiring synthetic overviews of the social organization of early metal production, distribution, and use.

The present book dares to take this work a step further. Crossing traditional geographical and scholarly boundaries, it attempts to link the introduction and developments in metal production and use across a wide geographical area incorporating the southern Levant and northeastern Africa (defined here as Egypt and Nubia) during the fifth and fourth millennia B.C.E. At the same time, a central theme explored is the presence and role of specialized pastoral nomads in interregional cultural contacts, the development of exchange networks, and attested social changes.

Following a very short introduction setting out the primary scope and a brief outline of the volume, the second chapter introduces some basic concepts and approaches, including secondary products and their association with the development of specialized pastoralism, aspects of world systems analysis, and material culture. Although a wide range of topics are touched on, very briefly without being analyzed fully, they are later incorporated into the book’s interpretative framework.

In chapters 3 and 4, Anfinset undertakes the admirable task of providing a succinct summary to the cultural developments in the southern Levant and northeast Africa, respectively, during the fifth and fourth millennia B.C.E. For the reader not directly familiar with the archaeology of these regions, such as the present reviewer, the two chapters provide dense and valuable information, to which one can always return. The introduction to the environmental contexts is particularly important within these marginal areas and in connection with the author’s arguments for the development of pastoral nomadism. The chronological and cultural phases are disentangled, with figure 3.2 and the associated discussion providing a welcome clarification of variable terminologies of Levantine early chronologies used by different researchers (25–7). Unfortunately, the quality of accompanying figures does not hold up to the standard of the text in the book, and the maps used are very basic, showing mainly locations of sites in different phases with limited landscape features depicted (e.g., the absence of the Jordan River in the Levantine maps).

Chapter 5 is dedicated to pastoral nomadism. First, attributes of present nomads in the regions under consideration are discussed. Subsequently, the author challenges earlier claims on the difficulty of identifying pastoralism archaeologically because of the perishable nature of the materials left behind by presenting a brief summary of recent developments in the field, focusing primarily on the regions of interest to the present book and surroundings. In his analysis of the evidence for pastoral nomads in the southern Levant and northeast Africa of the fifth and fourth millennia B.C.E., Anfinset considers a diverse range of evidence, scrutinizing every type of available information. Hence, he is able to argue for different adaptations of pastoral nomadism between the regions, with specialized nomadism appearing in the Levant much earlier than in most of Egypt (104–11).

The author’s discussion of metallurgical activities and metal usage and deposition across the geographical boundaries considered within the two millennia reveals very interesting patterns that are not otherwise immediately clear. For example, his consideration of the evidence for metal production and metalworking highlights the acknowledged importance of the southern Levant, and particularly the Beersheba region, for the Chalcolithic, with changes encountered in the Early Bronze I period (115–24), while the absence of any substantial evidence in Egypt and Nubia, despite the availability of rich resources, is intriguing. The author briefly presents possible interpretations for this picture (127). Anfinset collects all known artifacts and considers the patterns of deposition for different broad groups (e.g., awls, blades, daggers) across regions and periods. His discussion is accompanied by individual graphs. Fewer, more comprehensive graphs incorporating larger groups of materials would have made comparative patterns more readily visible. Unfortunately, there are no images of the artifacts discussed, making it impossible for the unfamiliar reader to gain an appreciation of their forms. Metallurgical aspects of the artifacts are also considered very briefly, mainly because of the current research lacunae; data from Egypt and Nubia are still scarce to nonexistent. In fact, the author reports here for the first time analyses of three Nubian A-Group copper artifacts (163–65), which ultimately cannot say much on their own. In the case of the Levant, the author describes analyses undertaken, with emphasis on those on the Nahal Mishmar hoard. Here lies perhaps potential for significant further work and deeper analyses in Anfinset’s suggested model. In addition to considering patterns of deposition, how are typological and technological aspects of metals affected through the modes of cultural contact proposed? Ultimately, such an analysis is presently limited by the scarcity of data from Predynastic Egyptian artifacts, although the author notes that such a project is currently underway (163).

In the last chapter (ch. 7), prior to his conclusions the author draws together all his evidence emphasizing the role of pastoral nomads in a developing network of long-distance exchange of goods and ideas. Over time, Egypt becomes the prime market for luxury groups, with the southern Levant and Nubia acting as suppliers in a dynamic relationship that shapes the future of these individual regions as their role in this system changes. Metals and copper minerals are not the only materials traveling on these routes, as there is evidence for other exotic goods and perishable commodities. However, the author’s aim from the start was to investigate the beginning and development of copper metallurgy across these two regions within these two formative millennia. His arguments seem concrete overall, although further work on the metallurgy of northeast Africa is needed to test these ideas. His proposal for lack of exotic castings in the southern Levant during the Chalcolithic (e.g., 173, 186), based on evidence available at the time, has, however, since been refuted by the work of Goren (“The Location of Specialized Copper Production by the Lost Wax Technique in the Chalcolithic Southern Levant,” Geoarchaeology 23 [2008] 374–97).

In closing, the present volume represents a remarkable effort in viewing the earliest stages of metallurgy interregionally, with emphasis on mobility and cultural contact. The author’s interdisciplinary approach and broad geographical and chronological perspective will open up new avenues of thought to interested prehistorians of these regions and specialists in early metallurgy or pastoral nomadic groups.

Myrto Georgakopoulou
Fitch Laboratory, British School at Athens
106 76 Athens

Book Review of Metal, Nomads, and Culture Contact: The Middle East and North Africa, by Nils Anfinset

Reviewed by Myrto Georgakopoulou

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 117, No. 3 (July 2013)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1173.Georgakopoulou

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