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Climate and Ancient Societies

April 2017 (121.2)

Book Review

Climate and Ancient Societies

Edited by Susanne Kerner, Rachael J. Dann, and Pernille Bangsgaard. Pp. 351, figs. 81, tables 11. Museum Tusculanum Press, Copenhagen 2015. $52. ISBN 978-87-635-4199-2 (cloth).

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Climate and Ancient Societies is a wide-ranging contribution to the discourse on ancient climate change and the responses of (mostly) prehistoric communities and societies to it, containing papers from a workshop held in Denmark in 2009. The editors situate the book as a contribution to contemporary debates on climate change and environmental problems; they argue that archaeology is relevant to the present and future and has, with its longue durée perspectives, “much to bring to the table” (24).

The book is divided into four parts, covering Holocene climate reconstruction, complex society’s responses to climatic variation, archaeological evidence for pollution and its ecological implications, and stable isotope analysis in the Middle East. Most of the 15 chapters consider the Near East and eastern Mediterranean, but two focus on Denmark. In terms of chronological coverage, the volume focus ranges from the Danish Late Paleolithic/Mesolithic (12,500–6,500 B.C.E.) and the 8.2 ka BP climate event to Old Kingdom Egypt, northern Mesopotamia (in Akkadian times), and the eastern Mediterranean ca. 1200 B.C.E., for which there is some textual evidence. It is not possible to review each of the papers here, but some comments can be made on a selection of them and some of the points they raise.

The issue of chronology, the dating of climate “events” or “shifts,” is a perennial difficulty in this field, as is tying them to social change. Roberts’ paper on Holocene climate change in the eastern Mediterranean, for instance, contains important warnings about identifying coincidence between climate changes and social change and slipping into environmentally deterministic “explanations.” He rightly suggests that nonenvironmental factors “were at least as important” in driving change (35). He also rightly emphasizes that many societies did not collapse due to climate change and that we can learn from these; societal responses to climate change were not predetermined, and collapse was not an inevitable result.

The matter of chronology, social and political change, and collapse ca. 2150 B.C.E. is also a theme of Bárta’s contribution on the end of the Egyptian Old Kingdom. This collapse has been characterized as abrupt and caused by climate change and a reduced Nile. He uses beetles from Abusir to argue that aridification began almost two centuries before the end of the Old Kingdom, with the spread of desert conditions and the shrinking of the Abusir lake and increased salinity on its shores (182–83). In addition, he notes structural changes to the Old Kingdom polity, with an increase in the relative power and wealth of local and regional elites, which weakened central authority (183–86). The latter may have been an adaptation to changing environmental circumstances (178). He sees these changes as coincident and draws the conclusion that the eventual demise of the Old Kingdom was brought about by these long-term processes.

Building on the idea of varied responses to climate change, Ur examines the case of Early Bronze Age northern Mesopotamia ca. 2220 B.C.E., where climate change has been linked with drastic change in settlement and population and with the collapse of the Akkadian empire. He focuses on three cities: Hamoukar, Tell Brak, and Tell Leilan. As he demonstrates, there was no simple collapse, no single response to climate change in the region—each city had its own trajectory. Hamoukar remained populated and wealthy after 2200 B.C.E., and when it was later destroyed abruptly and violently, the “immediate cause was social rather than environmental” (79). Tell Brak seems to have decreased in size and status with the abandonment of the lower town, the sealing of high-status complexes, and a relative increase in domestic buildings (81). Tell Leilan was apparently abandoned in a short space of time, and settlement in its hinterland changed from nucleated to dispersed. Ur makes clear, though, that at other sites in the region there was continuity of occupation and agricultural practices (84). Apart from this diverse picture, he also reminds us that both the evidence for the timing of the climate shifts and their nature is unclear (76). Even when climate shifts are identified, he stresses, and rightly, that “the ultimate causes” of change “are as much social as they are environmental” (71). These conclusions are important for considering other cases in which climate change and collapse are linked.

There are some papers, however, that seem to be on less sure ground and may mislead those not familiar with their specific fields, as, for example, that by Kaniewski, Van Campo, Van Lerberghe, Boiy, Jans, and Bretschneider. Their study examines the collapses in the eastern Mediterranean ca. 1200 B.C.E. The paper combines, in a rather confused way, narratives of invasion with proposed climate change, collapse, and the onset of a “Dark Age.” On the issue of invasion, they argue, following older interpretations and their previous work, that “the Sea Peoples” were violent invading raiders who destroyed sites such as Gibala-Tell Tweini (158, 165). At the same time, they identify climate change and droughts from the late 13th century B.C.E.—from scientific evidence and suggestions of grain shortages in the Egyptian, Hittite, and Ugaritic texts—which could have caused collapse (158–59, 166–67). The Sea Peoples phenomenon is not straightforward in interpretation, with many different interpretations of the evidence (and even debate about what evidence is relevant). However, many do not believe in a migration or invasion; identifying destructions by Sea Peoples is completely speculative. In addition, what the texts signify about grain shipments is unclear. Furthermore, the northern Levant and region (indeed the eastern Mediterranean as a whole) did not plunge into a Dark Age, as the authors suggest; they themselves identify “local reoccupation” at Gibala and other sites and continuity in place names from the Late Bronze Age (166). We also have to reckon with the continuation of complex Neo-Hittite kingdoms such as Carchemish, as well as the development of Palastin, where at Aleppo a monumental temple of the Storm God is now known. While many sites in the region do have destruction levels, not all do, and most were soon reoccupied without a contraction in population; the eastern Mediterranean and Levant remained an interconnected world. There was continuity through ca. 1200 B.C.E. at Tyre and elsewhere (see H. Sader, “The Northern Levant During the Iron Age I Period,” in M.L. Steiner and A.E. Killebrew, eds., The Oxford Handbook of the Archaeology of the Levant, c. 8000–332 BCE [Oxford 2014] 607–23).

In sum, the papers in this volume offer some interesting perspectives on climate, social change, and collapse, some of which have a wider resonance and should be of interest to those whose research touches on these questions. Some general issues should be noted though. While the book has a short opening essay, this introduces the topic generally but not the papers specifically; in addition, it lacks a summing up at the end. These would have helped the reader navigate the contents more easily and understand the significance of the work presented. A chronological table might also have been useful, and an index would have enabled the reader to look up and track themes raised by the contributors.

Guy D. Middleton
School of History, Classics and Archaeology
Newcastle University

Book Review of Climate and Ancient Societies, edited by Susanne Kerner, Rachael J. Dann, and Pernille Bangsgaard

Reviewed by Guy D. Middleton

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 121, No. 2 (April 2017)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1212.Middleton

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