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The Social Archaeology of the Levant: From Prehistory to the Present

July 2020 (124.3)

Book Review

The Social Archaeology of the Levant: From Prehistory to the Present

Edited by Assaf Yasur-Landau, Eric H. Cline, and Yorke M. Rowan. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2019. Pp. xxxvi + 643. $150. ISBN 978-1-107-15668-5 (cloth).

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While cultural-historical narratives continue to dominate much of the literature on the archaeology of the southern Levant, an increasing number of interdisciplinary studies and theoretically informed approaches have gradually introduced southern Levantine archaeology—a deeply politicized topic—into global archaeological discussions. With a foreword by Thomas Levy, the editor of The Archaeology of Society in the Holy Land (Facts on File 1995), this 33-chapter volume provides a comprehensive summary of the archaeology of the southern Levant from the Palaeolithic to the Middle Islamic period. The volume also includes a number of thematic chapters that offer an update on some of the theoretical dimensions of Levantine archaeology and highlight the benefits and potential of a close collaboration between archaeological science and theoretical archaeology. 

As its title indicates, the volume aims to explore Levantine archaeology—in reality Israel and Jordan and to a lesser extent southern Syria, Lebanon, Sinai Peninsula, and the Palestinian National Authority—from a diachronic and theoretical perspective. As such, it offers a timely integration of research on recording methods, high-precision absolute dating, microarchaeological techniques, postcolonial critique, and other aspects of methods and scholarly inquiry that have expanded significantly in recent years.

In a concise prologue, the editors discuss the rationale, timing, theoretical underpinnings, and scholarly tradition of this endeavor; they also conclude the volume with a comprehensive epilogue that critically summarizes the contributions. The volume comprises six parts. The first four are in chronological order, intersected with chapters (5, 8, 11) that offer effective cross-disciplinary dialogue. Outside of these instances, most chapters act as summaries of the available evidence and the most relevant debates for given chronological periods. The last two parts of the volume are thematic and cover issues including human–animal relations, women’s studies, archaeometallurgy, maritime archaeology, radiocarbon dating, object biographies, and museum studies. Despite this seemingly odd structure, the 33 chapters of this volume form a coherent collection of papers that one can read as self-contained essays or a history of the southern Levant from the earliest evidence of human activity until 1400 CE.

Chapter 1 (Gary Rollefson) summarizes the Palaeolithic evidence in the southern Levant with an emphasis on dating techniques and a discussion of human mobility. This is followed by a summary of the most important debates surrounding the scarcity of evidence for the Upper Palaeolithic (ch. 2, Anna Belfer-Coher and Nigel Goring-Morris). Chapter 3 (Natalie D. Munro and Leore Grosman) offers a review of the current state of research on the transition to agriculture in the southern Levant focusing on community organization and accompanying social change. The theories associated with the Neolithic Revolution in the region are explored in detail by Bill Finlayson (ch. 4) but also by Edward Banning (ch. 6), who examines the Late Neolithic through the concepts of households, property, gender and labor, and community organization. Chapter 7 (Yorke M. Rowan) offers a synthesis of the Chalcolithic period chronologically, geographically, materially, technologically, and theoretically. Accompanying these chapters, this first section includes two examples of interdisciplinary research applied to Neolithic and Chalcolithic contexts. The first considers the microarchaeological identification of fire (ch. 5, Ruth Shahack-Gross) and the second the use of archaeobotanical remains in developing narratives on socioeconomic change (ch. 8, Philip Graham).

The second section of the book offers six contributions focusing on the Bronze Age. Chapter 9 (Meredith S. Chesson) offers an overview of debates surrounding Early Bronze Age urbanism. In chapter 10, Susan Cohen offers a refreshing approach to the Intermediate Bronze Age and its misleading description as a “dark age” by appealing to recent evidence, including absolute dating, to describe it as a period of resilience, adaptation, flexibility, and change. A more detailed discussion of the concept of urbanism is offered in chapter 12 by Yasur-Landau, who uses the Middle Bronze Age Canaanite city as a case study. Although the author highlights the local input and “dialectical” process through which urban Canaanite cities occurred, a surprising characteristic of this contribution is the use of the village–city divide and of agricultural activities as indicators for or against urbanism. Theoretical discussions on ruralism in the Mediterranean and the Near East, as well as agro-urbanism in Mesoamerica and Southeast Asia, have, over the last decade, challenged such associations. Yasur-Landau’s approach also contrasts with chapter 25 (Ian W.N. Jones) on rural communities and labor in the Middle Islamic period, which questions the urban–rural divide and highlights agency in rural landscapes. Finally, as in the previous section, one chapter (11, Susan Guise Sheridan) is dedicated to archaeological science, in this case exploring bioarchaeological reconstructions that rely on mixed and fragmented assemblages.

The Late Bronze and Early Iron Ages are the most extensively studied periods in the region, a fact reflected in the wide array of topics explored in this section: literacy in Bronze Age Canaan through cuneiform writing (ch. 13, Yoram Cohen); aspects of Late Bronze Age Egyptian government in the southern Levant (ch. 14, Shlomo Bunimovitz); and the 13th- to 12th-century BCE settlements appearing in the highlands of Canaan (ch. 15, David Ilan).

Given the religious and political entanglements of southern Levantine archaeology, traditional topics related to ethnic and religious identities inevitably appear in this volume, in the third section, which focuses on the Iron Age. This is done both generally, through an ontological debate on terminology used to describe groups and networks throughout the Iron Age (ch. 17, Benjamin W. Porter), and more specifically by emphasizing, for instance, the Iron Age I Philistine identity (ch. 16, Aren M. Maeir). In addition, chapters 18 (Avraham Faust) and 19 (Daniel M. Master) explore the social archaeology of the kingdoms of Judah and Israel, respectively, sketching out recent developments in the field but also examining the field’s strong ties to biblical studies. Finally, chapter 20 (Christopher A. Rollston) offers an overview of the origins of writing, the alphabet, and the nature and development of alphabetic writing.

In the book’s fourth section, ethnic and religious identities are further explored in Achaemenid Palestine of the sixth to fourth centuries BCE—problematically, in the view of this reviewer—using coinage to suggest borders for ethnoreligious regions and by extension ethnoreligious identities (ch. 21, Oren Tal). By contrast, Andrea Berlin’s (ch. 22) study of the social landscapes of the Levant from Alexander to Augustus combines material and written sources to produce a more theoretically informed narrative on the fluctuating perceptions of space, territory, and homeland in the period from the fourth century BCE to the first century CE.

Another important topic in the volume is the legacy of imperialism on material culture and society. This topic is explored in chapter 23 (Alexandra L. Ratzlaff) through the study of aspects of household and customs of life during the Roman Period. Similarly, chapter 24 (Itamar Taxel) links evidence from agricultural contexts with gender studies to examine the social archaeology of the southern Levant in the Byzantine period. The final chronological period covered is the Frankish, particularly its social makeup and cultural influences through the lens of materiality, summarized in chapter 26 (Rabei G. Khamisy).

The last seven chapters of the book are thematic. Chapter 27 (Nimrod Marom) surveys major themes in zooarchaeological research by emphasizing hunting, domestication, and livestock management. Chapter 28 (Stephanie L. Budin) intersects women’s studies and gender theory with biblical archaeology to offer a more profound understanding of women, specifically their social roles and sources of power in ancient Israel and Palestine. Chapters 29 (Erez Ben-Yosef and Sariel Shalev) and 31 (Felix Höflmayer and Katharina Streit) highlight the roles of archaeometallurgy and absolute chronology (radiocarbon dating), respectively, in the production of social archaeological narratives. Chapter 30 (Assaf Yasur-Landau) explores diachronic maritime adaptation from the Neolithic to the Iron Age. An exciting commentary on object biography from deposition to museum is offered in chapter 32 (Morag M. Kersel), while chapter 33 (Arwa Badran) explores the intersection of archaeology, museum studies, and education.

Political circumstances inevitably affect the scope of many of the papers (geographically, at least), but most live up to the book’s general aim of moving Levantine archaeology beyond political history and into global theoretical debates. Although the book aspires to offer an introduction to the archaeology of the Holy Land useful for students, it regretfully omits a chronological table summarizing the various “cultural periods” cited. For example, there are cases in which cultural periods are used as a designation of time (e.g., “Persian period” or “Frankish period”) without specifying absolute dates, potentially leading a reader unfamiliar with the content to seek alternative sources. The readers of the volume would also greatly benefit from consistency in the inclusion of maps in chapters designed to provide overviews (chs. 15, 17, 21, 24, 26) or those that discuss sites to support their arguments (chs. 4, 12). 

Despite these few drawbacks, this volume offers a critical survey of important theoretical trends in Levantine archaeology and is a timely contribution to growing discourses on agency, materiality, gender, and identity. While it seems less suitable to the general public, its clear structure, detailed presentation of information, and wide array of themes, as well as its attempt to shift the imbalance of scholarly inquiry thematically and chronologically, make this volume a valuable contribution and update to the extant archaeological research in the southern Levant that will serve as an essential handbook for years to come. For these reasons, The Social Archaeology of the Levant (awarded the Ernest Wright publication award) is a welcome and exciting addition to the archaeology of the Middle East and the eastern Mediterranean.

Georgia M. Andreou
Department of Archaeology
University of Southampton

Book Review of The Social Archaeology of the Levant: From Prehistory to the Present, edited by Assaf Yasur-Landau, Eric H. Cline, and Yorke M. Rowan
Reviewed by Georgia M. Andreou
American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 124, No. 3 (July 2020)
Published online at
DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1243.Andreou

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