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Framing Archaeology in the Near East: The Application of Social Theory to Fieldwork

Framing Archaeology in the Near East: The Application of Social Theory to Fieldwork

Edited by Ianir Milevski and Thomas E. Levy (New Directions in Anthropological Archaeology). Pp. 146, figs. 13, tables 8. Equinox, Sheffield, England 2016. $100. ISBN 978-1-78179-247-6 (cloth).

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Social theory has seen wide use in archaeology since the late 1990s and early 2000s, but, as the editors of this volume point out, it has rarely been considered by archaeologists working in the Near East. In particular, the social dimension of ancient communities has not been included in the work of the so-called cyber-archaeologists, who have been interested instead in reconstructing ancient archaeological contexts through the use of modern technologies (e.g., geospatial databases, 3-D digital reconstructions, qualitative geographic information systems). This volume, the result of a workshop held at the 8th International Congress on the Archaeology of the Ancient Near East (ICAANE) in Warsaw in 2012, tries to fill this gap through a series of case studies that are interpreted using theoretical and methodological approaches ranging chronologically from the prehistoric through biblical periods, and geographically from the Levant to Mesopotamia, Central Asia, and Anatolia.

The volume is composed of nine chapters and includes a brief introduction that clearly presents the theoretical and methodological tenets of the book as well as its overall structure. In presenting the volume, the editors correctly quote the “father” of social archaeology, Gordon Childe, in saying that “societal forms are interconnected and cultural change has to be explained in societal terms; just as there is no society without people, there are no people without archaeology, there is no archaeology without social theory” (2).

Of great interest is the first chapter, which Harrower dedicates to framing the theoretical conundrum of the relationship between space and time in the application of spatial archaeology. He argues that “when informed by social/spatial theory, multiscalar perspectives and emergent mapping technologies (including online and 3D) hold considerable potential to move archaeology towards a more informed understanding of the ancient Near East” (7). This chapter highlights the qualitative potential of spatiotemporal exercises for place making in archaeology (which include, e.g., field survey, settlement pattern, visibility, and social network analyses) through the use of modern technologies (qualitative GIS, GPR, LiDAR, UAV) that define ancient geographies and, most of all, reconstruct the relationship between people and their landscape.

Chapters 2 and 3 are dedicated to themes related to gender studies. Mardas (ch. 2) concentrates on the interpretation of textual and iconographic elements associated with the concept of gender differences in ancient Mesopotamia, whereas Luneau (ch. 3) focuses on the relationship between sexual identities and biological sexual differences based on Bronze Age (ca. 2300–1500 B.C.E.) funerary data from five necropolises of the Oxus civilization in Central Asia. Even though the premises of Mardas’ contribution—“to shed some light on gender ambiguity and the relationship between sex/bodily differences and genders”—are intriguing, they are neither thoroughly investigated nor approached from an archaeological perspective (22). Luneau, on the other hand, conducts a detailed analysis of the available data (see the tables very clearly listing all the funerary goods found in male and female graves) and is able to discern variability in grave goods as a sign of gender differentiation that “might be materially expressed in the funerary rites according to the roles held by the individuals” (45).

Chapters 4 (Filipowicz) and 5 (Di Ludovico) are linked by a common interest in semiotics and in identifying forms of communication among ancient societies. Filipowicz employs a semiotic Piercian analysis to interpret the transformation of central Anatolian Neolithic visual communication and, in particular, the relationship between the transformation in imagery at the pivotal site of Çatalhöyük and changes in funerary practices and architecture. Filipowicz extends into the following period (i.e., the Chalcolithic phase) her attempt to define a symbolic value of animal imagery at other central Anatolian sites. To investigate the possibility of continuity, she uses as examples the bucrania and the spirals, both of which might have symbolized the wild power of the bull. Even though the subject is tackled well and the data are of great interest, in the concluding remarks the author does not offer a clear interpretation of the theoretical statements presented at the beginning of her paper. Di Ludovico focuses on the late third millennium B.C.E. in southern Mesopotamia and in particular the Third Dynasty of Ur, a phase well known for an increased use of writing for administrative purposes in contrast to a scarcity of archaeological remains. Considering the paucity of the archaeological record, the author’s task was quite difficult, and, in fact, he focused most of his paper on the textual aspects. However, the paper’s objectives are difficult to follow, and some statements do not have a clear relationship to the topics suggested by the paper’s title, “The Role of Communication in Late 3rd Millenium BC Mesopotamian Society Supported by Cross-disciplinary Interpretative Tools.”

An interesting contribution to framing social theory in Near Eastern archaeology is chapter 6. Baldi uses a paleotechnological approach in defining the relationship between “local” and “foreign” pottery production in northern Mesopotamia during the so-called colonial contexts (i.e., related to cultural connections with the south) of the Late Chalcolithic 3–5 (ca. 3800–3000 B.C.E.). Starting from the northern Syrian site of Tell Feres Al-Sharqi and from a detailed methodological and theoretical approach based on “technical identity” in a given community (90), the author clearly states the impossibility of distinguishing what is “foreign” (or so-called Uruk-related) from what is “local” based on the techniques used to make ceramic vessels that are in both cases a mix of mold and coiling manufacturing techniques.

The three last chapters are concerned with the archaeology of the Levant. Greener gives the reader a look at the social transformation of communities of the southern Levant at the end of the Early Bronze Age (ca. 2300–2000 B.C.E.), when the collapse of urbanism and the fragmentation of settlements also affected burial customs. During this period the tradition of multiple burials, typical of the Early Bronze Age, is transformed by “an overwhelming majority of single burials . . . located in areas surrounding the settlements that were expressly designated for the burial of the deceased” (95). The author uses shaft burials unearthed at Jericho (phase IB) as a case study to demonstrate that the social fragmentation that occurred at the end of the Early Bronze Age is mirrored in the funerary data, which show a distinction based on gender and sex differentiation rather than social status.

The final two chapters consider social theory and the Bible. Tebes (ch. 8) investigates the state model at Iron Age Edom. The traditional view of Edom was of a kingdom or monarchy, but more recently the ancient Transjordanian societies have been viewed as strongly marked by tribalism. Thus, Edom has been considered a sort of “tribal kingdom” that is “composed of kinship groups inside tribes and tribal confederations” (113). The author brilliantly discusses and criticizes a traditional model of statehood for Iron Age Edom and instead proposes (based on literary sources) a different political model based on a “chiefdom” centered at the city of Buseirah, “whose sovereignty was limited to its hinterland” (118).

Milevski and Gandulla (ch. 9) discuss the hotly debated topic of the politics associated with archaeological research in Palestine and Israel. In particular, the paper outlines the history of the theoretical and methodological approaches used by scholars in studying the ancient historical societies of the southern Levant, starting from a biblical perspective, continuing with processual and post-processual perspectives, and ending with the complexity of working as Israeli archaeologists in the midst of Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Due to the ongoing military conflict, it is difficult for Israelis and Palestinians to develop a common ground to study the archaeological remains of ancient societies. Such remains do not belong to any specific modern political landscape because, as suggested by the authors in their conclusion, “the content of archaeology is universal, as is humanity and the form that future development will take” (133).

Despite a few pitfalls related to this being the proceedings of a workshop and the lack of coherence between the book’s main topics and some of the chapters, the volume represents an interesting attempt at discussing different social theoretical approaches to diverse types of archaeological data (analysis of ancient landscapes, funerary contexts, pottery manufacture, written sources, and visual imagery) and aims to broaden the interpretation of archaeological fieldwork data.

Nicola Laneri
School of Religious Studies
Center for Ancient Mediterranean and Near Eastern Studies (CAMNES)

Book Review of Framing Archaeology in the Near East: The Application of Social Theory to Fieldwork, edited by Ianir Milevski and Thomas E. Levy 

Reviewed by Nicola Laneri

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

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1224.laneri

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