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Space and Time in Mediterranean Prehistory
January 2015 (119.1)
Space and Time in Mediterranean Prehistory
Edited by Stella Souvatzi and Athena Hadji (Routledge Studies in Archaeology 11). Pp. xvi + 303, figs. 36, tables 2. Routledge, New York 2014. $125. ISBN 978-0-415-83732-3 (cloth).
This volume is a heterogeneous combination of papers presented at a session organized by the editors at the 16th Annual Meeting of the European Association of Archaeologists at the Hague in 2010 as well as commissioned contributions (xvi). As evoked by Koerner in the final chapter (275), there is a “huge diversity” in this collection of essays. Chapters indeed vary substantially in scope and quality. They nonetheless all address, to some extent, issues pertaining to different temporal and/or spatial scales and how they relate to particular sociocultural practices.
Although traditional conceptions of space as the simple backdrop for social interactions and of time as a chronologically sequenced and unilinear scheme have come under heavy criticism in the past decades in social sciences and the humanities, it is argued in the introduction that some habits die hard in archaeology, and particularly in Mediterranean prehistory (2–3; see also ch. 2). The volume is therefore presented as an original undertaking to foster approaches to past social relations at different scales (xv, 18–19) through an “idea of space and time dynamics as interrelated phenomena” (xvi, 1). Its key issues are summarized in the first two chapters and further discussed from an epistemological perspective in the final one (Koerner). I personally found Chapman’s contribution particularly telling and would advise readers to start with it and maybe go back to the first chapter (Souvatzi and Hadji) for further references. The central idea is that theoretical assumptions in archaeological research often result in unhelpful dichotomies when it comes to studying cultural practices and the social, political, and economic changes and interactions that characterized Mediterranean prehistory. Souvatzi, Hadji, Chapman, and Koerner therefore underline that it is much more fruitful to envision approaches that acknowledge the interplays between the mental and the material, top-down and bottom-up processes, isolation and connectivity, continuity and change, structure and agency, long-term and short-term, for example, rather than focusing exclusively on one end of the continuum along which such realities exist. Furthermore, they all see a resolute attention to the different scales at which time and space are experienced and culturally constituted as meaningful (both by past people and archaeologists) as a necessary step to foster such approaches. These are very ambitious aims, and, unfortunately, being rather eclectic and imbalanced, the volume fails to address them in any systematic way.
The central problem here is that although ontological debates on the complex, dynamic, multiscalar, context-related, culturally constituted, and intertwined nature of time and space are certainly worth having and surely have serious epistemological implications, they do not necessarily provide archaeologists with reliable methods or analytical tools to fully appreciate or document human practices across different temporal and spatial scales. It is indeed one thing to make a plea for research programs acknowledging such theoretical underpinning (21), but it is quite another to provide a coherent argument to show how they could inform archaeological practice. This is precisely Geoff Bailey’s “genuine paradox” (quoted by Koerner in the discussion chapter ): “we cannot work out what tools we need until we know what sort of phenomena are there in the longer-term record to investigate, and we cannot investigate those different phenomena until we have the tools to do it with. And to solve that paradox we will need to work at both simultaneously.”
Most of the chapters in this volume do highlight the great diversity of past human behaviors, from individual agency at the microscale of the everyday to long-term patterns at the macroscale of regions or whole territories, but, for lack of a clear methodology, few actually manage to articulate different temporal and spatial scales in a convincing argument.
The contributions that stand out are precisely the ones that clearly address this issue of articulation. Watkins draws on insights from cognitive sciences to illustrate how material culture played a vital role to compensate for the “anonymity in propinquity” (112) in human groups growing in scale in Early Neolithic southwest Asia. By illustrating how resilience is strengthened by collective memories at the mesoscale of communities, Watkins provides a very convincing bridge between individual agencies and larger forms of sociopolitical organization. In their study of models and variations in architectural design within prehistoric enclosures in the Iberian peninsula, Márquez-Romero and Jiménez-Jáimez also discuss the important interplays between individual intentionality and overarching structuring principles. Harnessing the well-known potential of GIS, Murrieta-Flores’ work on the dynamics of movement in herding societies during Iberian late prehistory is also particularly relevant. Her discussion of fossilized pathways and the landmark role of megalithic monuments in “pastoral orbits” (201) through time is soundly argued and carried out with a good balance between archaeological interpretation and technological elaboration.
This problem of articulation is of paramount importance and demands that, as archaeologists, we pay due attention to devising sensible methodological approaches, especially if we want to find a middle ground between phenomenological narratives (Meegan, Miller Bonney) and thorough factual descriptions (Marketou, Yasur-Landau and Cline) that both have intrinsic qualities but remain relatively unhelpful if considered in isolation. Although cross-fertilization between disciplines such as archaeology, anthropology, and cognitive sciences has proven of great value in this regard, some of the chapters by non-archaeologists (Stavrides, Harkness) seem slightly out of place even if they do relate, to some degree, to the theoretical leitmotif of the volume.
Furthermore, as rightfully stressed by Chapman (44–5), empirical analyses from the bottom up remain of crucial importance. They simultaneously provide the evidential constraints framing our interpretations and help create solid foundations on which wider-scale issues can be addressed and enlightening comparisons made (Düring, Murrieta-Flores, Márquez-Romero and Jiménez-Jáimez, Watkins). In archaeology, data resolution is of course a major issue (Chapman [40–2]), and, for example, although Yasur-Landau and Cline set out to describe the “different temporal flavors of palatial activities” at Kabri (233), they willingly admit that the excavation data currently available preclude an account of “scales, rhythms, and cycles of time” (242) beyond the evocation of the major architectural phases of the building.
The interest of this volume lies in the quality of some of its individual chapters because they either successfully hint at the interplays of various processes at different scales (Watkins, Skeates, Murrieta-Flores, Márquez-Romero and Jiménez-Jáimez) or present interesting material (Düring, Marketou, Yasur-Landau and Cline), albeit for a rather specialized audience. As a whole, although it raises some important issues, the volume lacks coherence. This, in my opinion, is because of its extremely broad scope. A more focused approach, both in terms of theoretical issues and case studies, would probably have been best suited for an edited volume. The ancient Mediterranean has been covered in much more effective ways in recent monographs or volumes highlighting the importance of considering different temporal and spatial scales to document past sociocultural processes (see, e.g., C. Broodbank, The Making of the Middle Sea: A History of the Mediterranean from the Beginning to the Emergence of the Classical World [Oxford 2013]; see also P. van Dommelen and B. Knapp, eds., Material Connections in the Ancient Mediterranean: Mobility, Materiality and Identity [London 2010]). Readers can certainly find valuable insights and stimulating perspectives in these pages but should probably also look elsewhere for sound methodological options to analytically approach time and space from a multiscalar perspective. Very recently, Mediterranean prehistory has precisely been the focus of studies combining a very strong methodological apparatus with theoretical concerns echoing those highlighted in this volume (see, e.g., A. Bevan and J. Connolly, Mediterranean Islands, Fragile Communities and Persistent Landscapes [Cambridge 2013]; T. Tartaron, Maritime Networks in the Mycenaean World [Cambridge 2013]; see also some contributions in C. Knappett, ed., Network Analysis in Archaeology [Oxford 2013]).
Aegean Material Culture Laboratory
University of Toronto, Anthropology
Book Review of Space and Time in Mediterranean Prehistory, edited by Stella Souvatzi and Athena Hadji
Reviewed by Quentin Letesson
American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 119, No. 1 (January 2015)
Published online at www.ajaonline.org/book-review/1956