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The Body in History: Europe from the Palaeolithic to the Future

The Body in History: Europe from the Palaeolithic to the Future

Edited by John Robb and Oliver J.T. Harris. Pp. xxiv + 266, figs. 105, color pls. 8, tables 8. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2013. $115. ISBN 978-0-521-19528-7 (cloth).

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The present volume is the culmination (and publication) of a rather ambitious project involving changing understandings of the human body from the Upper Paleolithic (ca. 40,000 BP) down to contemporary times. Undoubtedly, a diachronic study of the body was (over)due in the present era that deifies the (youthful) body-as-image, while not letting go of the older, ailing and dying body, often crossing the lines of ethics by extending the lives of bodies beyond their limits.

The book is a luxurious, carefully edited and executed publication, comprising a collection of treatises on perceptions and the reception of the body as a category then and now by field experts. Amply illustrated (albeit in black-and-white, a common issue in publications as of late, except for color pls. 1–8), each of nine chapters is clearly laid out with a plethora of subtitles for easier navigation. The chapters follow a rough chronological order with some unavoidable gaps in a time span of 40,000 years (chs. 3–8), preceded by theoretical chapters 1 and 2, while chapter 9 is a self-proclaimed “concluding essay,” aptly summarizing what preceded it. A necessarily long, impressively up-to-date, diverse, and intriguing list of references is compiled in the end (237–58), followed by an indispensable index. Notes are wisely, given the broad scope of the book and density of references employed throughout, placed at the end of each chapter. Overall, it is an easy read about hard-to-grasp concepts.

Chapters 1 and 2 set the theoretical basis and methodological boundaries of the project. The adoption of a vast time scale seems to be a trend in archaeology (e.g., C. Broodbank, The Making of the Middle Sea [London 2013]). A few other trends are also followed here: the call for an interdisciplinary multiscalar approach, also advocated in Souvatzi and Hadji’s Space and Time in Mediterranean Prehistory (Routledge 2013), repeated more explicitly in chapter 9; and a fresh and refreshingly jargon-free language that does not compromise either eloquence or academic rigor.

The discussion is about the fallacy of the “natural body” based on ad hoc ideas of normality, as rightly pointed out by the authors, who juxtapose to this redundant and compromised view an understanding of the body as a historically contingent entity, a place until recently reserved for ideas and paradigms (and their shifts). The body is viewed as a “body world”; it is not bodies that change but body worlds. This distinction makes all following chapters easier to follow and holds the main argument firmly in place.

Chapter 2 explores various theories on the body, the axis being a socially defined space as occupied by bodies. The theoretical overview is undoubtedly useful, albeit by default rudimentary: Bourdieu’s habitus, Ingold’s taskscape (body and space), Foucault’s discipline (body and power), and Butler’s performativity (body and gender) are all accompanied by ethnographic examples of varying perceptions of the body and its role in the cosmos. The most important point raised is the idea of the varying body given the anatomical plasticity not merely of our muscular structure but first and foremost our brain cells and neurons. Even a single body can be shaped internally as well as externally in ways we only now begin to comprehend: from organs rearranging after major surgery to limbs being replaced by high-tech prosthetics to brain areas adjusting to missing fingers and realigning signals. The final pages of chapter 2 constitute a treatise on the methodological limits of science and the futility of the endeavor to know it all but also signify the nobleness of the task. 

Chapter 3 begins the chronological trajectory of human bodies and their place in the world. Each chapter in this sequence begins with a short story, successfully building on the fine tradition of archaeological narrative. Without compromising its academic integrity, the use of narrative provides the reader with an easy start in an overwhelming amount of condensed information and vivifies the processes and theories analyzed.

Chapter 4 focuses on the changing bodies that mark the transition to the Bronze Age across Europe, as metals become a manifestation of status and an extension of bodies as ornamental possibilities. There seems to be a bias in the discussion of evidence, focusing mostly on data from burials and only briefly touching on the wide range of anthropomorphic sculpture throughout the European Bronze Age.

In chapter 5, classical ideas and treatments of the body are discussed in conjunction with modern scholarship clichés about them. The authors remind the reader that the “classical” naturalistic/idealistic body image concerns a particular strictly defined part of the culture, namely public (state) art.

Chapter 6, delving into the Christian cosmology, discusses the body-soul dichotomy that characterized the medieval body world. The authors highlight this oversimplification of medieval body views, reminding the reader that aside from the nominal body (i.e., the Christian body), there also existed and were acknowledged marginal bodies: the heathens, the lepers, and the outcasts, whereas the female body was a category in itself. The equation of the body with the map—a medieval fixation, the world map, mappa mundi, ­in medieval cosmology—is emphasized and illustrated effectively. The zest of the chapter is the abolition of the fallacy of the monosemantic medieval body. Multiple, often ambiguous, ambivalent, and mostly conflicting body images and perceptions coinhabited the medieval world. Returning to the narrow definition of Europe employed throughout the book, the medieval Byzantine world and its attitudes toward the body is not part of chapter 6, thus limiting its scope.

From chapter 7, the transition to modernity begins with the realization that the process and reality of colonization opened the world to new bodies never encountered before. Part of the modern worldview was a transition from a view of the body as cosmos to body as a machine with distinct identifiable cooperating parts. In the same mind frame, Descartes’ role was vital in the abandonment of beliefs in a vaguely located soul and the emergence of the specificity of the mind as mastermind of the living body. The colonizing world accommodated views of anatomy as colonization of the body, while ideas of “race” and the reality of racism emerged.

The heart transplant vignette at the beginning of chapter 8 is a slightly futuristic scenario that is not very far removed from the present, as research is currently being conducted on 3D printing of functional hearts to be used as transplants. Emphasis is placed on the medical body and operations as well as chemical interventions and bioengineering as operators of change of our body worlds once more. While the discussion is generally valid and raises awareness of issues encompassing the fields of ethics and the limits of progress, the discussion about pharmaceutical transformations of the body (205) is somewhat exaggerated. While it is probably true that there never was such a vast array of chemicals at hand, people used drugs since time immemorial to alter their body ailments or reactions.

Chapter 9, as stated above, returns to the idea of body worlds outlined in the introduction and then summarizes the preceding chapters. Change in the macro scale is discussed somewhat retroactively—I would rather see this discussion in the introduction.

Overall, the geographical boundaries do not involve the south of Europe, as becomes increasingly more evident as the book unfolds in its particular chapters. Overall, the methodological unit of Europe, problematic as it is nowadays, with the sharp division between the troubled and troubling South and the seemingly stable North, is perhaps not the most satisfactory solution for such a broad chronological overview, leading to practical omissions. Thus, for example, in chapters 3 and 4, Mediterranean prehistory is not really touched on, and the site of Maroulas on the Aegean island of Kythnos is not mentioned in the Mesolithic burial practices discussion (38–9); also, “western Europe” is only acknowledged as not encompassing the whole of Europe as late as on page 174, column 2.

There are scarce errata: in table 3 (67), Early Bronze Age for the Balkans and central Mediterranean is listed twice with no explanation as to the distinction—its chronology understood by Bronze Age specialists but otherwise confusing; and on page 172, it is erroneously stated that landscape painting starts in the 17th century (it was Joachim Patinir, a century earlier, who established what became known as “landscape painting” in western art).

In sum, the editors resumed the daunting task, rather unusual for edited volumes, to coauthor and cosign each and every chapter together with an expert in the chronological era/thematic area covered. All in all, the project succeeds in its goal to raise awareness of our changing bodies through examining other—past—people’s shifting attitudes toward their bodies. The body in the contemporary world is a field of inquiry as well as a battlefield, and Robb and Harris ensure that no reader enters the battle unprepared.

Athena Hadji
University of the Aegean

Book Review of The Body in History: Europe from the Palaeolithic to the Future, edited by John Robb and Oliver J.T. Harris

Reviewed by Athena Hadji

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 119, No. 4 (October 2015)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1194.Hadji

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