Back to Book Reviews

Territories, Boundaries and Cultures in the Neolithic Near East, By S.K. Kozlowski & O. Aurenche
BAR –S1362. 2005. 275 pages, 44 maps and 171 pages of illustrations, ISBN 1 84171 807 6 (£35)

This book continues the work of the CNRS Maison de l’Orient et de la Méditerranée - Jean Pouilloux at Lyon (, afforced by its alliance with the University of Warsaw in the person of Stefan Kozlowski. Its expertise thus embraces the entire Fertile Crescent, east and west. The enterprise grew out of earlier work by the Maison, notably the Atlas des Sites du Proche Orient (ASPRO), led by the late Francis Hours, and presented in narrative form by Aurenche and Kozlowski (names in that order) under the title of La Naissance du Néolithique au Proche Orient ou le paradis perdu (Errance , 1999). The first-named author of the present volume has not only excavated in northern Iraq but in an earlier phase of work has consistently produced atlases of the classification of European Mesolithic and later cultures. This volume reflects the same interest and methodology, while making use of the accumulated ASPRO data and supplementing them with further research.

It is not the kind of enterprise which is currently fashionable in the English-speaking world - mais vive le difference! It is an empirical, bottom-up construction of cultural entities, using type-by-type distributions to identify consistent patterns of congruence and exclusion, somewhat in the manner of David Clarke. It would arguably be easier (in the 21st century) to use in an electronic version, which would also allow the calculation of some quantitative measures; but it is nicely produced and consistently illustrated, with a uniform set of base-maps reproduced at the same scale for much of the time. (These can be compared by using tracing-paper - which is one aspect in which an electronic version would have decided advantages!) Some 165 types are mapped, divided into two periods: an ‘early’ Neolithic (10500 - 8000 cal BC) and a ‘late’ Neolithic (8000 - 6200 cal BC) - roughly, PPNA+EPPNB and MPPNB+LPPNB+FinalPPNB, or periods 2-5 of the ASPRO terminology. (No chronological chart is provided, though readers should refer to Jacques Cauvin’s The Origins of Agriculture in the Near East [Cambridge UP, 2000] for a canonical version.) Pottery was present in a restricted area for the last millennium of the period covered, but the majority of the types plotted are lithic ones, either chipped, ground or hollowed, together with some architectural characteristics.

The volume is introduced by Frank Hole, whom one senses does not entirely agree with the enterprise of defining territories, nor is he sure what they might mean: the evidence is narrow and ambiguous, and may reflect many different factors. ‘A focus on intra-site and inter-site variability within and outside the territories would help us to understand more clearly what makes a territory distinct.’ Quite so. Processualists and postprocessualists can unite in condemning it- the former for its lack of specific hypotheses, the latter for its decontextualisation of the evidence - but their hostility would be misplaced. There is currently much debate over what the units established in the early days of the discipline might mean, and what kinds of entities are most useful in describing the patterns that are evident in any survey of the evidence. This is surely, therefore, a useful exercise: to feel one’s way around the structure of the observations, noting what is widespread and what is localised, what has vicariant forms and what is truly restricted, what begins locally and spreads widely, etc., etc… It is the open-endedness of these operations which is their most useful aspect, leading to explorative play - within the discipline of what has actually been discovered: a characteristically ‘continental’ [European] approach.

So what does it, in fact, all mean? Damned if I know. But I feel better for being made aware of the structure of variability, the plasticity of Near Eastern Neolithic culture. Clearly, the groupings are more specific than those established (say) for the Upper Palaeolithic, on the basis simply of lithics from a small number of caves and open sites; by the same token, they are less specific than the kinds of entities established by comparing a multitude of well-excavated and published ceramic assemblages, as in later prehistoric Europe - though of course equally ambiguous as to what the reconstructed boundaries actually mean. David Clarke was very insistent that archaeologists should avoid reductionism: equating the boundaries of pot-types with the limits of empires, or plotting chiefdoms from Thiessen polygons. The distribution of (say) bevel-rim bowls does not establish the limits of an informal Uruk empire: it plots the limits of the practice of using bevel-rim bowls (perhaps -it is a permissible speculation- for leavened bread?). That is for the fourth millennium: how much more so for the sixth to eleventh. We are still feeling our way around the Neolithic, and this book provides a useful way of doing so. Even better to have the data online as well, though.

Andrew Sherratt
University of Sheffield

Review Submitted: January 2006

The views expressed in this review are not necessarily those of the Society or the Reviews Editor.

Home Page The Prehistoric Society Home Page