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Cronología Absoluta y Periodización de la Prehistoria de las Islas Baleares by RAFAEL MICÓ PEREZ
British Archaeological Reports International Series 1373. 2005. 621 pages, 65 figures, 1 map. ISBN 1 84171 815 7. (£70.00)

The prehistoric monuments of Mallorca and Menorca have long been known to both local inhabitants and foreign visitors. They form a highly visible materialisation of the past in the modern landscape, unmissable to all but the most myopic and over-refreshed of tourists who may not appreciate that Magaluf and Palma Nova are in a foreign country. Monuments such as talayots, navetas and taulas have a tradition of antiquarian study that focused attention on their architectural forms, with fieldwork limited to the emptying out of their contents or their robbing by more clandestine activities. Similar practices have also limited the contextual information on collective burials in natural and artificial caves. For foreign archaeologists, the Balearic Islands are ‘something else’, island cultures like those of Sardinia, Corsica and Malta that have distinctive sites, sequences and materials that do not fit into the standard Three Age system structure of European prehistory. To a certain extent they have been viewed as curiosities, although the main focus in recent decades has been on their comparative study with island cultures in the Mediterranean and beyond, especially in relation to their colonisation and degrees of isolation from mainland societies at different stages of their prehistory.

A major impetus to the absolute dating of life and death in Balearic prehistory was given by the late Bill Waldren. Both in his ‘heartland’ of northern Mallorca, within easy driving distance of his home in Deya, and in Menorca, Waldren went to work from the 1960s on the contextualisation of both stratified and unstratified sites and materials, and the systematic use of radiocarbon dating as part of this study. A significant outcome of this and other contemporary research was the proposal of a longer absolute chronology for the occupation of the Balearic islands, extending back to the fifth millennium cal BC, and a higher chronology for some of the main monument types. Other research projects, especially those of the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona at Son Fornés and Son Ferragut in central Mallorca and Cova des Carritx and Cova des Mussol on Menorca have added to the work of dating and contextualisation, as well as asking questions about the nature of the prehistoric societies that lived on the Balearic Islands.

Micó’s publication marks an important stage in this tradition of research on the Balearic Islands during the last five decades. His objectives are twofold: to provide an inventory of all absolute dates on archaeological sites and palaeo-environmental samples and to use the evaluation and analysis of these dates to propose a periodisation of the prehistoric occupation of the islands. After reviewing the development of absolute and relative chronologies on the islands, he shows how the use of radiocarbon dating has accelerated from under 100 dates before 1980, to 370 dates by 1998 and 751 dates in 2005. Activity has been unevenly distributed between the islands, with Mallorca having some two-thirds of the dates, although there is considerable regional variation and parts of Menorca have larger numbers of dates per region. In most cases there are only low frequencies of dates per site, thus showing the importance of key sites and sequences at Son Matge, Son Mas, Son Ferrandell-Oleza, Cova de Muleta and Son Fornés in Mallorca and Cova des Carritx and Torralba den Salord on Menorca. Also of interest are the comparatively high frequencies of dates on short-lived samples such as human and animal bone, although dates on seeds are rare.

The lion’s share of this publication, some 501 pages in all, is devoted to the inventory of dates, organised alphabetically by site and then in chronological order of the dates for each site, from the oldest to the youngest. The format adopted for each date is to give the site, location, the date’s calibration at one- and two-sigma, any carbon and nitrogen ratios, details of the archaeological context and significance, observations and bibliographic references. The format enables Micó to present the basic information on each date and its context, and then to make any observations on what the sample actually dates, where it fits into the sequence of a site, whether it dates use or abandonment, and how much confidence we might have in it overall. This is priceless information. As we have learnt time and time again with radiocarbon dating, this back to basics approach is fundamental to how we proceed to use absolute dates to construct absolute chronologies. As such, the inventory alone is an essential research tool for anyone working on Balearic prehistory.

Having presented the basic evidence, the author proceeds to use it to present a chronological sequence for the islands from the earliest human colonisation to the Roman conquest. Quite rightly this comes with a ‘health warning’, stressing where there are gaps in the evidence and where the nature of the samples leaves much to be desired. At the same time, there is positive emphasis on the use of short-lived samples, at least in comparison to long-lived samples wherever possible. The periodisation proceeds in two stages. First Micó divides up the sites into structural and functional types and examines the dating spans of each type using the sums of probabilities of dates at the 1-sigma range: thus the occupation sites are divided into caves/rock shelters, open-air settlements, naviforms, talayots, sanctuaries, taulas etc, while the funerary sites are divided into such types as dolmens, caves, hypogea (of more than one type) and navetas. Secondly the date ranges of these site types are then compared with each other to identify any marked breaks in sequence, with due allowance made for the quality of the evidence and regional or inter-island variations in that evidence.

The result of this analysis is the definition of eight periods in Balearic prehistory. The author argues, quite correctly in my mind, that there is no strong case for any stable human colonisation of the islands before the middle of the third millennium cal BC. This argument is based partly on the radiocarbon evidence and partly on the contextual evidence and the absence of unequivocal cultural materials that indicate any interaction with the West Mediterranean mainland at this time. The earliest evidence for substantial populations is associated with Beaker materials and occupies the period c. 2500/2300-2100/2000 cal BC. The sites and materials of the second millennium cal BC are divided two broad periods (Late Beaker/Dolmen and Naviform), while the famous talayot monuments are now dated to a period from the mid-ninth to the late sixth century cal BC, and low chronologies are also argued for the so-called ‘sanctuaries’ on both islands and the taulas of Menorca (both in the second half of the first millennium cal BC).

This periodisation develops that proposed in recent publications by Micó and his colleagues from the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona. What we see on each occasion is how the additional radiocarbon dates are strengthening the outlines of this sequence, as well as highlighting major outcomes and deficiencies in the quality of the evidence for particular site types. A major observation now is how the monuments of the islands are in fact restricted to comparatively short periods of a few centuries each, with the most well known concentrated in the first millennium cal BC. For example, the talayots (stone towers) and their associated settlements were erected and used in their primary form for a matter of perhaps three to four centuries over the entire islands of Mallorca and Menorca. This has major implications for how we think about these monuments and what they tell us about the organisation of labour and society at this time. Their abandonment and destruction, followed by major changes in the archaeological record in the period from the sixth century onwards, suggests a period of social change greater than any other in the preceding two millennia of the islands’ occupation. Here we are looking at social changes occurring at the island scale.

A second observation is that the period of famous monument construction is now seen to occupy only about 40% of the period of the islands’ occupation. For the rest of that time, we need to get to grips with a more low profile archaeological record. When considered in a wider, west Mediterranean context, the talayots of Mallorca and Menorca are now shown to be substantially later in date than the second millennium cal BC stone towers of Sardinia (nuraghi) and Corsica (torri), with which they have often been argued to be related.

Radiocarbon dating has been used by archaeologists for over fifty years and the battles over its validity have long been won. The implications of the ‘second radiocarbon revolution’, with the calibration of the basic dates, were clearly grasped some thirty years ago. Radiocarbon dating appears in every textbook on archaeological method. And yet there are marked differences in the intensity of its use across time and space in Europe. Every area also requires a kind of quality assurance testing on the dates and the absolute chronologies that are used. Micó (and the other members of the research group to which he belongs) has done just this for the Balearic Islands. The result is a publication which will be indispensable to anyone studying the prehistoric occupation of these islands. The book assembles the available information, identifies its strengths and weaknesses, and proposes a periodisation for further evaluation. As a result, we can begin to think more deeply about the nature of the societies who inhabited these islands and identify the critical periods of change in them.

Bob Chapman
University of Reading

Review Submitted: September 2005

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

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