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The Black Sea and the Early Civilizations of Europe, the Near East, and Asia

The Black Sea and the Early Civilizations of Europe, the Near East, and Asia

By Mariya Ivanova. Pp. xviii + 390, figs. 84, tables 3. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2013. $99. ISBN 978-1-107-03219-4 (cloth).

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The Black Sea is a region often relegated to peripheral status in western calculations, but it has played and continues to play a central role in Eurasian history. Given the dizzying array of cultures, languages, and academic traditions encompassed by the region, any attempt to synthesize its history must be broad and ambitious in scope. Ivanova’s The Black Sea and the Early Civilizations of Europe, the Near East, and Asia, an overview of the seventh–third millennia B.C.E. in a region that she views as the bridge between southwest Asia and Europe, is certainly ambitious. The volume is a touchstone for the state of the discipline: it reflects the uneven state of the evidence and persistent divisions in the theoretical and methodological underpinnings of research traditions. The author correctly notes (4) that many linguistic and political barriers between East and West have fallen, but that the scholarly community is still grappling with the implications of nearly a century of bipolar isolation.

The volume is logically organized, with chapters on the history of research, geography, four regional overviews (corresponding to the northeast, northwest, west and south coasts, and hinterlands), and a brief conclusion. Each regional overview consists of a summary of fieldwork, chronology, settlement/funerary evidence, food production, technology (metal, ceramic, lithic, weaving), and concluding remarks. This organization makes it much easier for the reader to search for particular regions and topics. However, there is little crossover between categories, with greater attention to artifact types, forms, and technical studies than to social, symbolic, and cultural implications of assemblages and economies. Discussions of the implications of evidence are at times ad hoc, with little attempt to synthesize clear models of social organization, symbolic systems, or longstanding patterns of human-environmental interaction within subregions, let alone among them.

Three introductory chapters include an overview of the legacy of archaeology in the “Soviet Sea,” a summary of environment, approaches to the study of technology, and a Eurasian perspective on the Neolithic revolution. Entire chapters devoted to “Environment” and “A Framework of Technology” are promising, but the discussions are a bit superficial and do not lead to a comprehensive framework applied to the analysis of archaeological evidence presented in subsequent chapters. Chapter 3 discusses the spread of Neolithic ways of life from southwest Asia before turning to regional evidence, a welcome departure from recent obsessions with the Black Sea flood question that have followed Ryan and Pitman’s popular book Noah’s Flood (New York 1998).

The main substance of the volume is divided into four chapters: on the lower Kuban, northern grasslands, western wetlands, and the “Unknown South.” Each of these chapters is largely based on detailed summaries of evidence from key sites. These summaries are well illustrated with maps, plans, and drawings. The chapters on the lower Kuban and the west coast are strong and present useful discussions of settlement and burial practices. Discussions of technological topics bog down the text at times, with highly detailed digressions into specific studies—examples include the chemistry of metal smelting and vase painting (87–96, 205–20).

The discussion of the south coast is particularly problematic. The author characterizes these coasts as unknown, but her discussion neglects substantial recent work, particularly field surveys. Considerable space is devoted to a summary of Schoop’s reworking of the Ikiztepe chronology (230–39) yet devotes but a single page to the Georgian Bronze Age. No mention is made of the recent archaeological survey in Cide that was specifically designed to shed light on the fifth–third millennia B.C.E. (B. Düring and C. Glatz, “The Cide Archaeological Project 2009: First Results,” Anatolia Antiqua 18 [2010] 203–13; C. Glatz, B. Düring, and T.E. Şerifoğlu, “The Cide Archaeological Project 2010: Second Preliminary Report,” Anatolia Antiqua 19 [2011] 279–88) or to recent Turkish-French investigations in Kastamonu (C. Marro, “Archaeological Survey in the Kastamonu Region, Turkey,” in P. Matthiae et al., eds., Proceedings of the First International Congress on the Archaeology of the Near East [Rome 2000] 945–65). Although the Sinop Regional Archaeological Survey and Turan Efe’s excavations at Yassıkaya are briefly mentioned, they are not presented in sufficient depth to add much to the discussion. Equally puzzling, there is no consideration of the many sites in the area of the Sea of Marmara (in contrast to the discussion of the Sea of Azov) or of Özdoğan’s important discussion of the nature of the evidence gap along the Pontic Anatolian coast (“Coastal Changes of the Black Sea and Sea of Marmara in Archaeological Perspective,” in V. Yanko-Hombach et al., eds., The Black Sea Flood Question [Dordrecht 2007] 651–69). Before dismissing these coasts as unknown, she (and perhaps the peer reviewers at Cambridge University Press) should have looked harder.

The volume falls into some of the antitheoretical traps that Ivanova warns us about at the outset. A look at the bibliography finds an interesting array of theoretical entries that betrays interests in broader issues relating to technology (Lechtman, Lemonnier), monuments and landscape (Ingold, Bradley), and food, drink, and social organization (Dietler). But the author does not apply such perspectives in a consistent or coherent manner across regional data sets, much less into an overall synthesis. One critical player is notably absent from these pages: the Black Sea itself. A reader might get the impression that the author feels the Black Sea does not have strong relevance during the millennia under consideration, although she argues otherwise in a recent article (M. Ivanova, “Perilous Waters: Early Maritime Trade Along the Western Coast of the Black Sea, Fifth Millennium BC,” OJA 31 [2012] 339–65). A puzzling misreading and dismissal of recent attempts by other scholars to establish a basis for understanding the role of the Black Sea itself in history (1) seems to miss an opportunity to broaden the basis for human-environmental synthesis (E. Özveren, “The Black Sea World as a Unit of Analysis,” in T. Aybak, ed., Politics of the Black Sea [London and New York 2001] 61–84; O. Doonan, “The Corrupting Sea and the Hospitable Sea,” in D. Counts and A. Tuck, eds., Koine: Mediterranean Studies in Honor of R. Ross Holloway [Oxford 2009] 68–74).

Many of the weaknesses cited here could have been improved with more vigorous editing. There are many grammatical and word-usage problems (e.g., “millenniums” [41], “race” for breed [195], “opening materials” for temper [205], and many others) that would have been caught on a first reading by an editor with training in archaeology. Many of the highly technical discussions, for example, on the chemistry of metalwork and ceramics, or the chronology and stratigraphy of particular sites, are not integrated very well into the overall discussion. Such problems should have been corrected by peer reviewers. These editorial problems are very frustrating in such an important volume published by such an esteemed press as Cambridge.

In spite of the criticisms above, Ivanova has taken on a difficult challenge and produced a volume that fills an important gap in European and Near Eastern prehistory. It represents an impressive overview and compilation of research that has been carried out over the past century along the north and west coasts of the Black Sea. As such, it is a very useful tool for western colleagues interested in the region. The volume represents an important step forward in the ongoing integration of eastern and western scholarly communities and underscores that the history of this important region still awaits a masterful synthesis.

Owen Doonan
Art History Program
Art Department
California State University, Northridge

Book Review of The Black Sea and the Early Civilizations of Europe, the Near East, and Asia, by Mariya Ivanova

Reviewed by Owen Doonan

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

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1194.Doonan

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