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Eurasia at the Dawn of History: Urbanization and Social Change

April 2018 (122.2)

Book Review

Eurasia at the Dawn of History: Urbanization and Social Change

Edited by Manuel Fernández-Götz and Dirk Krausse. Pp. xviii + 420. Cambridge University Press, New York 2016. $140. ISBN 978-1-107-14740-9 (cloth).

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The European Bronze and Iron Ages contain rich material for comparative analysis of the initial stages of social complexity. In this volume, the editors and authors evaluate the ways in which distinctive characteristics such as writing brought forth not only new social technologies of interaction but also a new impetus for collectivity that paved the way for the later emergence of classical Mediterranean urbanism. The volume begins with brief introductory chapters by the editors on the role of materiality in the creation of urban places, followed by chapters on script (Renfrew) and on the way in which writing brought “a new consciousness of language” (41, Olson). Chapters by Hernando and by Echt discuss the ways in which people used increasing varieties of material culture to display differentially gendered “individuality” in both living and mortuary contexts. Additional framing, with some comparative New World material, is provided in chapters on ancient economies by Feinman and on urban definitions by M.E. Smith. Bintliff considers questions of agency, and a chapter by Chapman and Gaydarska (on the fourth-millennium Trypillia sites of Ukraine) illustrates that the term “urbanism” tends to obscure very interesting phenomena of concentrated populations that might be better described by some other rubric.

The best chapters are the ones that skillfully blend a theoretical orientation with the historical trajectory of a particular region. Müller addresses the process and outcomes of population agglomerations using three distinct case studies: Neolithic Okolište in present-day Bosnia; the Cucuteni-Trypillian in the Ukraine, Moldova, and Romania; and the Iron Age Heuneburg in Germany. Müller thoughtfully discusses the way in which each of these cultural regions experienced the growth and dissipation of population centers and points out the incubator effect of concentrated populations on nascent political organizations and the formation of territorial leadership. Hahn provides a similar recognition of urban flexibility in his discussion of the way in which Timbuktu served as a nodal population center within vast networks of trade augmented by political investments in literature and scholarship. Trade also figures prominently in the contribution by Aubet, who makes the provocative statement that Phoenician expansions from the Levant to Spain were not the result of accidental voyages or incremental explorations but constituted a “perfectly programmed and organized strategy” (254) carried out with an explicit understanding of risk and profit.

The concept of “networks” of interaction invigorates several chapters. Osanna reports on a long-running research project on the Ionian coast of Italy, where the inhabitants of small sites such as Torre di Satriano were integrated through a “choreography of power” (295) manifested in elites’ selective use of imported styles in domestic contexts. The residential focus of local aggrandizement, demonstrated by evidence of greater feasting and the architectural dominance of one larger residence within the settlement, eventually was eclipsed in the fifth century B.C.E. by the development of a sanctuary that became the community’s focal point. Stoddart provides a similar examination of Etruria, where concepts of identity were framed both by the contemporaneous relationships of the living community and longitudinally by the descent group whose legitimacy of place was manifested in highly visible cemeteries. As a fitting summation of the dynamic character of early urbanism, the volume’s editors examine the growth of fortified settlements north of the Alps from the seventh to fifth centuries B.C.E. and conclude that “there was no such thing as a uniform Iron Age society or a continual evolutionary development from simpler to more complex forms of organisation” (331).

Throughout the volume, the authors make use of new research projects that broaden the scope of inquiry beyond well-known sites to address whole archaeological landscapes. Yet, perhaps because the scope of the volume is encyclopedic, many of the chapters are quite short, resulting in compressed arguments. Some treatments of sites, regions, and political configurations are rather mechanical, with little engagement on the human scale despite the volume’s stated attention to the concept of “individualization” starting in the Bronze Age. Some chapters focus on a specific region or time period, and some are broadly comparative, indicating that the editors provided a good deal of license to the authors. There are philosophical treatments of the way in which different Eurasian cultures addressed their own antiquity through writing (e.g., in the discussion of Egypt by Assmann) and the way in which innovations were taken up in the most ancient cultures of Mesopotamia and Egypt (e.g., in the chapter by Liverani), interspersed with other chapters in which authors restate long-held positions or bolster favorite arguments in their brief offerings. There are several well-illustrated chapters on Celtic art, but they are somewhat awkwardly appended to the end of the volume.

Some of the chapters on writing, individuality, and concepts of material culture are, to this reader, uncomfortably enveloped by declarations of Western primacy and European exceptionalism. For example, Guilaine’s chapter on the “diffusion” of the Neolithic from the Near East into the Mediterranean, accompanied by large-scale maps of cultural traits, would have been quite at home in the scholarly literature of a century ago. The use of the “Axial Age” rubric by several authors, even if only as a foil for the understanding of shared juxtapositions among contemporaneous cultures, similarly seems to emanate from a bygone era. Spier’s chapter on “big history” unselfconsciously and without a trace of irony proclaims that “in Eurasia, state formation began earlier and proceeded to a far greater extent than in the New World” (135). Such wording should have been graciously edited out of the proceedings, as they distract from the authors’ otherwise useful points and in large part are born of the fact that more research has been done in Eurasia than elsewhere.

Monica L. Smith
University of California, Los Angeles

Book Review of Eurasia at the Dawn of History: Urbanization and Social Change, edited by Manuel Fernández-Götz and Dirk Krausse

Reviewed by Monica L. Smith

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 122, No. 2 (April 2018)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1222.smith

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