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Symbols and Warriors: Images of the European Bronze Age

July 2007 (111.3)

Book Review

Symbols and Warriors: Images of the European Bronze Age

By R. Harrison. Pp. xi + 360, figs. 56. Western Academic and Specialist Press Ltd., Bristol 2004. £31.68. ISBN 09535418-7-8 (cloth).

Reviewed by

The title of this book refers to “Images of the European Bronze Age,” but it deals in fact with a fairly specific set of images (stelae) of a very specific European region (Iberian southwest) in a specific portion of the Bronze Age (Late Bronze Age). The so-called warrior stelae are a set of graphic representations that have, in equal measure, fascinated and puzzled Portuguese and Spanish prehistorians for more than a century. They are basically stone monoliths with an average height between 70 and 200 cm, dressed with engravings representing principally (although not exclusively) panoplies of weapons. Their archaeological context is largely unknown, as most of them have been found by chance by farmers and local amateurs, and their number has steadily increased to just over 100. In addition to a long series of scientific papers, four monographs have already dealt with the stelae’s compilation, description, and analysis (M. Almagro Basch, Las Estelas decoradas del suroeste peninsular [Madrid 1966]; J. Barceló Álvarez, Arqueología, lógica y estadística [Barcelona 1991]; E. Galán Domingo, Estelas, paisaje y territorio en el bronce final del suroeste de la península ibérica [Madrid 1993]; S. Celestino Pérez, Estelas de guerrero y estelas diademadas [Barcelona 2001]); Harrison does not cite Barceló Álvarez (1991) in his bibliography.

Harrison’s book appeared shortly after the synthesis by Celestino Pérez, and inevitably it shows some degree of overlapping. In fact, the main virtue I find in Harrison’s work is that it synthesizes and translates into the domain of English-speaking archaeology issues, problems, and interpretations that are of general knowledge within Iberian prehistory. However, beyond this positive linguistic contribution to internationalization, it is hard not to perceive some degree of intellectual redundancy throughout the book. An example of this can be found in the descriptive catalogue of the stelae, which represents almost half of Harrison’s book (187–325) and is very similar to that of Celestino Pérez. Another example is chapter 7, in which Harrison discusses the Old World “parallels” of every object represented in the stelae (swords, shields, chariots, etc.), just as Celestino Pérez does extensively in chapters 4 and 5 of his own book.

From the perspective of the preceding investigations in the field, Harrison’s most original contribution is, in my view, the identification and discussion of cases of recutting, reutilization, and recontextualization among the stelae (44–52), which he correctly interprets as part of ideological procedures of assimilation and manipulation of cultural memory. These cases are highly consistent with newly emerging evidence of the extent to which material culture was used to negotiate the past by all Iberian societies from the Neolithic to the Iron Age. Another innovative aspect of this book is the discussion presented in chapter 6 (“Reading the Codes: Symbols and Meanings”), jointly written by Harrison and Marco Simón, about the concept of the hero in Near Eastern ancient literature and mythology and its relevance for the interpretation of the Iberian warrior stelae.

One problem with Harrison’s approach to these monuments is that at an empirical level he takes too many things for granted. More or less anecdotal examples are found in statements referring to the human figures, which are depicted with a high degree of abstraction (e.g., “facing the viewer and not in profile” [95] or “clean shaven” [112]). These are entirely untestable assertions that depend very much on subjective appreciation. More seriously, the excessive interpretation of the formal elements represented in the stelae reveals itself in the proposed “evolution” of the compositions, from an early stage based on “basic” compositions (shields and weapons, no anthropomorphs) to a late stage dominated by more “narrative” examples in which the anthropomorphic figure or figures have a more preponderant role. This chronological approach to the variability of compositions relies heavily on two principles: first on the classic (but arguable) premise that human matters always evolve from the simple to the more complex; second on the identification and dating of some specific items depicted on the stelae (e.g., brooch types).

Given that the functional context of the stelae has not been firmly established (Harrison advocates for considering them surrogate burials, a plausible possibility) and that not a single absolute date has been obtained, this pattern of formal evolution must be regarded as purely hypothetical. Furthermore, it is fairly weak. For example, when discussing the four “stages” in which the “sequence” can be divided, Harrison asserts that “in stage III there are compositions with no shield at all ... probably the group of diademadas should belong to Stage III, as well, since the compositions lack shields and weapons” (97). This statement in fact was invalidated by one of the first new stelae found after the publication of this book: stela number 2 from Almadén de la Plata (Seville, Spain) displays an anthropomorphic figure diademada (with diadem) next to a second human figure that features a sword and a shield (L. García Sanjuán et al., “Las estelas de guerrero de Almadén de la Plata [Sevilla]:morfología, tecnología y contexto,” Trabajos de Prehistoria 63 [2006] 1–18). It is quite possible that the differences in composition and associations of iconographic elements are attributable to functional or ideological causes and are not necessarily explained by changes over time.

Another major problem with the method of analysis put forward in this book is that it does not consider the warrior stelae as part of the long evolution that graphic symbols in general (and stelae in particular) exhibit since the Neolithic in the Iberian southwest (particularly regarding the so-called megalithic art, a field where recent research has made significant advances). An example of this is to be found when dealing with the “basic” warrior stelae. Harrison states that “it is as if a ghost in human shape lies behind the composition, only to be identified through the position of the motifs on the rock surface” (87). The author does not seem to acknowledge that the Neolithic menhirs abundant in southern Portugal—mostly natural blocks of stone without anthropomorphic representations—are increasingly being interpreted as human figures (ancestors or mythical beings) or that many of the megalithic stelae embedded in chambers of Neolithic or Copper Age monuments in southern Spain may be viewed as humanlike representations (ancestors, divinities) of an apotropaic nature. In other words, it is becoming increasingly apparent that, since the Neolithic, the blocks of stone (menhirs, stelae) erected in ritual and funerary places may have been regarded as human representations in themselves. The extent to which this reasoning is of relevance for the interpretation of the basic warrior stelae is not discussed by Harrison, who, instead, takes his analogues from the protohistory of the eastern Mediterranean (e.g., his discussion of the “heroes” in ch. 6). The neglect of the importance of local traditions in the understanding what the warrior stelae signified ideologically and the emphasis on eastern analogies evoke the inveterate underlying classic diffusionist premise of ex oriente lux.

Finally, the third major problem I find in Harrison’s discussion is inherently linked to this lack of attention to the prevailing local social conditions and their diachronic dimension. This has to do with the absence of a thorough discussion of the significance of the warrior stelae within the framework of social complexity and emerging forms of leadership among the Bronze Age societies of the Iberian southwest. It is regrettable that Harrison has chosen not to discuss the implications of his interpretations regarding several works that deal with this subject and that have been published in the 1980s and 1990s.

Leonardo García Sanjuán
Departamento de Prehistoria y Arqueología
Universidad de Sevilla
41004 Seville

Book Review of Symbols and Warriors: Images of the European Bronze Age, by R. Harrison

Reviewed by Leonardo García Sanjuán

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 111, No. 4 (July 2007)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1113.Garcia

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