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The Archaeology of the Caucasus: From Earliest Settlements to the Iron Age

The Archaeology of the Caucasus: From Earliest Settlements to the Iron Age

By Antonio Sagona. Pp. xix + 541. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2017. $140. ISBN 978-1-107-01659-0 (cloth).

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This book provides the reader with a general overview of the archaeology of the Caucasus, articulating and bringing together for the first time an impressive volume of recent research. It tackles major themes such as chronological issues, typological designations, sociopolitical complexity, and ritual behavior. In addition, the author provides a thorough background on the history of research in the region, including indication of the complications that have arisen from this multifaceted scholarship and that continue to be relevant today in our analysis and interpretations. Undeniably, one of Sagona’s strengths is accurately representing the variety of archaeological methodologies and research foci that have developed in the last generation and, at the same time, bringing them together succinctly. One needs to do so when attempting to cover such a broad time span and vast region—if not impressive by its extent, at least by its diversity. Discussion follows a roughly chronological order, with each chapter devoted to an individual time period from the Palaeolithic to the Early Iron Age, preceded by an introduction to the region and its geography, environment, and climate and concluded by discussion of issues and future directions of research in the region. All the significant “ages” of Caucasian prehistory are discussed, and the narrative of the book is anchored to, and around, these temporal milestones.

The geographical scope of this book is both the northern Caucasus region, today comprised of seven republics of the Russian Federation, and its southern counterpart, encompassing the modern states of Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. In regard to the latter, Sagona rightfully allows himself to transgress these modern borders, irrelevant to the study of prehistory. The most notable cases are the Kura-Araxes and Late Bronze and Iron Age I traditions, which extended into Anatolia, Iran, and the Near East. This judicious choice allows the reader to have a global vision of the true Caucasian œcumene rather than fragmenting it. The reality in which modern political divides act also as barriers for researchers is reflected in this book, in that Georgia and Armenia are overrepresented in comparison to Azerbaijan. Perhaps the only exception to this unevenness is in the Neolithic period, for which the study of the Shomutepe site and Nakhichevan region of Azerbaijan are pivotal to our understanding of key factors in technological innovations of this time. In our opinion, this imbalance by no means mirrors a lesser density of archaeological sites in Azerbaijan, but rather, generally, our lesser access to them. Hopefully, this situation will be rectified soon. In a positive manner, Sagona is not shy to address the limitations in our data and knowledge, and in some instances he provides suggestions as to how this can be rectified moving forward.

Sagona’s lifelong interest in the Kura-Araxes tradition (3500–2400 B.C.E.) is reflected in the elegant manner in which he describes its mystique: “No other prehistoric archaeological culture of the southern Caucasus has captured the attention and imagination of archaeologists with quite the force of the Kura-Araxes ‘phenomenon’” (213–14). He contemplates its elusive rise and fall (226–27), a topic that will surely be the focus of much upcoming research, and his astute critique of cultural materialism through the more holistic study of this “culture” is, in our opinion, one that must become a starting point for more critical debates. He also presents a new division of archaeological traditions with regard to the Late Bronze Age and Iron Age I (1500–800 B.C.E.) in which the Samtavro tradition is distinguished from the Lchashen-Tsitelgori one for the first time. This is the result of Sagona’s extensive research of the Samtavro complex.

Another topic Sagona puts in writing for the first time in this book is one that has been buzzing among Caucasian archaeologists for some time now: that international research collaborations can be stunted by the distinct methodological approaches and theoretical interpretations of members issuing from different intellectual traditions, revealing how Western scholars and those issuing from the Soviet tradition have been isolated during much of the last two centuries. The author is correct to say that many researchers working in the Caucasus are now faced with the uphill battle of reconciling these teams. In this regard, and in light of what we believe to be an increasing divide due to the popularization of archaeometric methods in Caucasian archaeology, Sagona’s writing acts as a powerful mediator between these two tendencies. He balances the descriptive and factual style that still dominates Caucasian scientific literature with a holistic counterpart more common in the West. In doing so, Sagona skillfully demonstrates, in writing, an avenue for reconciliation in the face of this divide. Another testament to his writing skill is that reading the book feels like being taken on a personal guided tour, where one is informed while also being pointed in the directions necessary to develop understanding. The clear and logical organization of the book and its chapters also aid in this matter. Furthermore, each chapter ends with a conclusion neatly summarizing the material and concepts, and geographical regions are addressed within the chronological framework allowing for an efficient overview in a complicated “patchwork quilt” of a region.

It is difficult to find fault with this book owing to its thorough approach to a wide variety and depth of material. The maps and figures are well presented and contribute effectively to the narrative; however, some maps would perhaps have been welcome showing the different geological (e.g., location of metal ore sources) and climatic regions within the Caucasus, as well as pictorially depicting (at least hypothesized) routes within the complex geography of the area. Also, while the region known as “the Caucasus” is already complex, covering numerous distinct regions and subregions, perhaps somewhat more definitive and detailed comparisons with neighboring regions could have been provided. The book in general has a rather traditional archaeology feel to it, which is not surprising given the title. The potential importance, utility, and contribution of scientific techniques such as stable isotope and DNA analyses are discussed at the end of the book (477), but these are notably absent from the preceding chapters. It would have been beneficial to have explored and discussed more regarding these recent contributions, if still only providing tentative conclusions. 

By Sagona’s own assertion, this book is not meant to be a comprehensive review of archaeological research in the region (xiii), but it is an excellent resource for both readers becoming acquainted with the region and specialists alike. In general, apart from a few new pieces of data (e.g., previously unpublished radiocarbon dates) and theoretical constructs, this book is not going to dramatically change or add to the scholarship of the prehistoric Caucasus. This is not a criticism, however, as this book is the first time that so much material has been brought together so eloquently and coherently, to provide an effective and useful overview of this complex region. In this regard, it is much like Sagona and Zimansky’s Ancient Turkey (Abingdon, U.K. 2009), providing an initial and easily accessible foray into the heritage of an area by simplifying a complex geographical region. In the book under review, this is achieved in part by choosing to focus on and explore in detail only the key sites of the chronological periods. Simultaneously, Sagona opens up the possibility for further and greater in-depth research, especially through the footnotes, which provide the reader with sources and references for developing their knowledge on particular aspects.

Despite the volume’s wide scope and general focus, the author manages to probe many theoretical and critical debates and accurately represents the current state of our knowledge. Furthermore, his clear writing style, structured organization, and highly informative content will undeniably make this book, released posthumously, a pillar of the growing body of literature on Caucasian prehistory. This book should be essential reading for anyone studying the Caucasus (and indeed adjacent regions), whether they be a seasoned scholar or someone new to the discipline or the region. As such, one should expect to find this book in the library of any university department or research institution that has a focus on the prehistory of the greater Near East, as well as in the private libraries of scholars.

Isabelle Coupal
Department of Anthropology
University of Montreal

Benjamin Irvine
British Institute at Ankara

Book Review of The Archaeology of the Caucasus: From Earliest Settlements to the Iron Age, by Antonio Sagona

Reviewed by Isabelle Coupal and Benjamin Irvine

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 122, No. 4 (October 2018)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1224.coupal

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