The Archaeology of Mediterranean Prehistory, eds, Emma Blake & A Bernard Knapp
The study of Mediterranean prehistory has changed rapidly in recent years, as this book clearly shows. We have moved on from questions of what, where and when to how and why. It is, however, worth remembering that this would not have been possible without the framework provided by that earlier work.
A general impression first. There is here, throughout the twelve chapters, a very commendable questioning of long-held assumptions, many, though not all, now to be abandoned. However, it is rarely possible to put any firm conclusions in their place, as the various authors readily admit. Whatever interpretation any expert offers, another will immediately contradict it, or at least claim that his or hers is better. Uncertainty may be preferable to false ‘certainty’, but is still not very satisfying. Frequently the main problem is a matter of definition of terms, like ‘the Mediterranean region’, ‘trade’, ‘state’, ‘sex and gender’, ‘elite’, ‘settlement and community’.
The editors in their opening chapter face up to that first problem. We all have a fairly clear idea of what we mean by ‘the Mediterranean region’ without worrying too much about where its boundaries lie. Should we define it by political frontiers, topographical, climatic or vegetational factors, or admit that precise definition is neither necessary nor possible? To take just one illustrative example, how many of France’s 5305 museums (Fig.12.1) should count as Mediterranean? The basic discussion is the old debate of whether seas in general, or this one in particular, serve more to unite or divide sites and regions on their shores. Both factors clearly apply to a greater or lesser extent, often at the same time. It is good to see the matter carefully discussed in the prehistoric context, though I am puzzled by ‘connecting’ being coupled with ‘corrupting’ in the chapter heading.
The main point made, very fairly, by Robb and Farr is that ‘trade’ is too often envisaged in modern commercial terms, when all we really mean is the movement of material goods, by whatever means, and of which only a very small proportion will have survived in the archaeological record anyway. Obsidian figures largely in this discussion of course, being so well documented, but the mechanisms of its movement are still highly debatable. One question discussed by both these authors and later ones in the volume is what the obsidian actually meant to its eventual owners.
Less problematic, though still useful, is Barker’s chapter on landscape and its exploitation, from foraging to agriculture and pastoralism, at first at the subsistence level, later in more complex economies. Controversy rears its head again over the decline and collapse of the Aegean palaces, and whether or not agricultural problems lay behind them.
Chapman’s discussion of social relations makes little headway in the face of what different scholars understand by the term ‘state’. At least we thought the distinction between sex and gender, biological and social, was clearcut, but then Talalay admits it ‘is in fact, no longer well supported’ and ‘may forever defy clarification’, which seems to pull the rug from beneath the feet of her whole contribution.
Blake tackles the evidence for cult and ritual, practices to some extent recoverable, beliefs much less easily. Recent thinking emphasises that sacred and profane blended much more imperceptibly in the past, without the ‘clear delimiting of space’ she would like to see. I was surprised to see no mention of La Muculufa in Sicily in this context (Holloway 1991).
Kolb expresses scepticism of the suggestion that monuments are characteristic of small, but not too small, islands. While there may be some doubt - why Sardinia and Corsica but not Sicily? - the coincidence seems too great to dismiss out of hand. There is a certain circularity in the argument that a religious elite was responsible for the Maltese temples, when the temples themselves provide the only evidence.
Much of Karimali’s chapter on lithics would apply anywhere, not just round the Mediterranean. She raises the same point as Robb and Farr on the obsidian, the relative importance of its utilitarian and symbolic appeal. Her map, Fig.8.1, is over-reduced, and omits several major flint sources, even those mentioned in the text. The same over-reduction is visible in items 9, 11 and 12 in Fig. 8.3, where they are barely visible at all.
Kassianidou and Knapp show that on archaeometallurgy we have come a long way from both the Three Age System and the view that all metal-working can be traced back to the Near East. While in our region Anatolia still holds its priority, they point out that the evidence for independent origins in both the Balkans and Iberia is increasing. This chapter provides the clearest example of change through time, even if the switches from stone to bronze to iron are now impossibly blurred.
I found Sollars’s discussion of settlement and community unsatisfactorily vague, particularly when he later introduces the concept of an “imagined” community, his inverted commas.
On the other hand, Manning and Hulin give a very balanced view of the problems in the terms ‘trade’ and ‘commerce’, while pointing out how frequently experts in this field dispute with each other. We should consider much more carefully the role of both the producer and the consumer in this activity, as opposed to the middlemen and their possible elite employers. But even with these, the authors have some very pertinent observations to make.
In many ways, Skeates’s survey of museums of Mediterranean prehistory is the most straightforward in the book, mainly because the task he has set himself is the factual one of assessing the present position in this field, and how it has arisen, a fascinating story. Admittedly, he does discuss the differing aims museums in the various countries have set themselves, but since they are all valid in their own way, thoughts on what museums ought to be doing can be offered without polemics.
The book is beautifully produced. I found no single typographical error, unless ‘Kalavossas’ on p.123 was such. References are particularly generous, averaging over six pages per chapter, and so nearly a quarter of the book, allowing one to follow up the evidence for any controversial intepretations.
All in all, the unspoken theme throughout is, ‘take nothing for granted’. If that leaves us wondering whether we can believe any interpretation, now or ever, that is perhaps just as well.
Review Submitted: August 2005
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