Sunday, April 19, 2009

Barry Cunliffe's "Europe Between the Oceans: 9000 BC-AD 1000": Book Review

This massive study shares Cunliffe's life's work of researching prehistoric and early historic geographical and archeological patterns of migration in Europe. It's a hefty book in size and scope, bringing us what can be summed up about the previous ten millennia to the better-recorded one we have just concluded. The maps and illustrations add to the understandings packed within an accessible, yet scholarly, text.

A wealth of details tend to favor what we can glean from the warriors and invaders. The quieter folks leave, buried in the soil or carved on the stones, less testimony. The sense of restlessness permeates this volume. Over the "longue durée" of the French Annales historical school, which Cunliffe follows to excavate the deep rarely moving water, the more vibrant surface, and the frothier waves of battle and assault, he seeks to understand the patterns that move Westerners always westward.

A patient reader will find intriguing examples. Primitive people could have gotten the same nutrition from a single red deer as fifty thousand oysters, yet their middens are filled with the tasty shellfish. Europe's coasts in mileage around them roughly equal the earth's circumference. The shift from inhumation-- burying bodies in the ground-- to cremation after 1300 BC may signal a break with earth-mother beliefs for those oriented towards sky-gods.

The ties between material culture then and what we speak today may be tenuous, but Cunliffe explains a key marker. Indo-European languages appear to have spread with Neolithic production of food, from south-west Asia, and then across the Balkans to Hungary and then through Middle Europe's forests in one branch; the other branch stretched from the Mediterranean to Iberia. This language was part of the "Neolithic package" that attracted Mesolithic peoples to adapt cultivation rather than hunting as their way of sustenance.

He also offers an explanation for the disintegration of the old Atlantic trading network that helped spread language and farming. The end of the Bronze Age, with the advent of iron, may have disrupted the entire subcontinent. Regionalism replaced trans-maritime networks. Agricultural surpluses in the east replaced bronze as commodities. Phoenicians dominated the seas. Along with the Greeks and Romans, seafarers left tantalizing suggestions of Atlantean travels into Africa, up into Britain, and perhaps beyond. First the exclusion from this network of Atlantic Iberia in the 8th c. BCE and then northern Europe with the isolation of Ireland in the 6th c. BCE may have accelerated the break we see later within Celtic languages, with Iberian splitting off more, proto-Irish evolving apart from British and Gallic Celtic. (258) Like many points, Cunliffe raises insights in passing on such a long intellectual journey, but he does point out byways worth pursuing.

Later, the Mediterranean inherited imperatives of honor and acquisition by trade and conquest. Cunliffe goes beyond the usual accounting for classical civilization by the need for feeding "gaggles of philosophers and droves of vase painters." (319) "But deep within the human psyche is the desire to gain honour and recognition through leadership: in the situations of stress and conflict that prevailed, military and territorial adventures provided a ready vehicle. In other words, desire to control resources met a deep-seated psychological need by offering leadership opportunities to young men intent on seeking honour." (319)

Young men wanted to fight, to advance their careers when they returned, and to gain high office. The more fights the empires raised, the more they invaded and conquered, until the Romans found themselves at the barbarian frontiers, recruiting the barbarians to police the imperial borders against the barbarians infiltrating the Empire. Many lessons can be learned, and Cunliffe retells the familiar story of Roman weakness well.

Cunliffe does present heaps of evidence, hundreds of tribes, and thousands of facts. Yet, he arranges the clashes and contacts logically, and the visual support aids comprehension of Sarmatians vs. Scordisci, or Pomerania vs. Pannonia. The complicated movements across ancient empires do get confusing even with charts, and the amount of learning crammed into these attractively designed pages is better digested slowly. Endnotes point the reader towards specialized studies, and the text proper remains remarkably free of jargon. One small flaw: the index, substantial though it is, lacks alphabetical listings for the more minor peoples and references in the text.

Concluding, Cunliffe eloquently summarizes his vision. Reviewing the endless push of populations across the continental spine (he starts the book by turning the map to view the sub-continent's peninsular ridge top first), he wonders. "What drove these outpourings is a fascinating problem." Beyond demographic pressures prompting mobility, "is it too much to suggest that underlying it all was a folk memory, passed across the generations, that 'our people always ride into the west'? I once met an elderly traveller on a road in Sussex, who told me he was making for Kent and hoped to be there in May. When asked why, he said, 'We always go there at this time.'" (476)

(Posted to Amazon US today.)

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