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Europa Emerging from the Sea

EUROPE BETWEEN THE OCEANS: 9000 B.C.–A.D. 1000. Barry Cunliffe. x + 518 pp. Yale University Press, 2008. $39.95.

Map of Europe, 2800–1300 B.C.Click to Enlarge ImageThere are numerous contenders for the title of “the last man to know everything,” among them Thorstein Veblen (1857–1929), a political economist from Minnesota. Barry Cunliffe, the author of numerous synthetic works on prehistoric Europe, is a top candidate for a similar distinction on the subject of what he refers to in the preface of his latest book as “the westerly excrescence of the continent of Asia.” Although his main area of specialization is the European Iron Age before, during and after the appearance of the Romans, Cunliffe has published extensively on all aspects of European archaeology, including its social and political history. Europe Between the Oceans: 9000 B.C.–A.D. 1000, which covers some of the same ground as his previous publications (particularly Facing the Ocean and The Extraordinary Voyage of Pytheas the Greek, both published in 2001), reflects his interests in maritime adaptations and the role of geography in prehistoric social evolution, two themes that have marked the latest phase of a distinguished career. (Cunliffe was knighted in 2006.)

In a sense this is the kind of book that can only be written at a point in a scholar’s career when he or she has acquired an encyclopedic knowledge both of the literature and of the processes of technological, social and political change. The volume provides a very personal but also very compelling recounting of the creation of a group of peoples united as well as divided by geography and surrounded by water on all sides except to the east. Cunliffe draws on his considerable expertise in archaeology and history to weave a narrative tapestry with a weft of water and a warp of mountains and fertile soil; the patterns and motifs are presented in an engaging style that is accessible to the general public.

His major point is that the peoples who filled up the European peninsula from the end of the Pleistocene (about 10,000 years ago) until A.D. 1000 were shaped by their environment in a distinctive way, influenced particularly by the area’s extensive coastal zones and their effect on mobility and innovation. Some might say that a similar argument could be made for other culture areas surrounded by the sea that have developed very differently, and that environmental determinism has its limits as an explanation for social evolution. However, as a narrative device the maritime focus works quite well—better possibly for some areas of Europe than for others, but it’s effective in reminding us that environment actually can be destiny in more ways than one.

A major problem for anyone faced with the task of generating a synthetic overview of European cultural evolution is how to define the study area. In some ways Cunliffe sidesteps this issue by never precisely specifying boundaries other than seacoasts. It is perhaps not a coincidence that he becomes vague about boundaries precisely where the maps of the Roman empire did, suggesting that some of the areas considered part of Europe today (including much of the Low Countries, northern Germany, Scandinavia and the various gateways to Asia in eastern Europe and the Balkans) actually developed according to a slightly different rhythm than areas in the south and west. He refers to “peninsular Europe” but leaves open where the precise locations of the northern and eastern borders might be, even though these regions are frequently discussed as sources of various goods, peoples and cultural impulses.

In many ways the volume is a direct descendant of earlier work on prehistoric Europe published by another polymath, the Australian-born archaeologist Vere Gordon Childe (1892–1957), appropriately known as the Great Synthesizer. Several of his books—The Dawn of European Civilization (1925), The Danube in Prehistory (1929) and The Prehistory of European Society (1958)—cover much the same ground as the current Cunliffe volume, albeit on the basis of far less archaeological data. The reconstructions of both authors are rooted in traditional European culture history (the largely descriptive and narrative approach to archaeological interpretation before the 1960s), and their expressed goals are strikingly similar: Childe sought to discover “how and why the prehistoric barbarian societies of Europe behaved in a distinctively European way” (the subtitle of his 1958 book), whereas Cunliffe asks, “Why was it, then, that Europe above all other regions managed to achieve such dominance?” Cunliffe, however, approaches this question from an environmental perspective specifically focused on the proximity and ubiquity of the oceans surrounding the European peninsula, whereas in Childe’s view, cultural evolution is generated as much by internal conflict as by external influences.

Comparing Childe to Cunliffe is an interesting exercise. In spite of the far more sophisticated technologies at our disposal today, from radiocarbon dating to DNA and isotope analysis, and even though thousands of archaeological sites have been excavated since Childe’s death in 1957, the metanarrative of how Europe became Europe has changed only in the details, not in its essentials. For example, Cunliffe’s emphasis on prehistoric and early historic European mobility, which he attributes to an innate restlessness influenced by proximity to the sea, reflects a recent resuscitation of migration as a mechanism for social change, another culture-history trope that appears frequently in Childe’s work. Migration theory fell out of favor in archaeology for a time following the Second World War, but it has recently made a comeback, largely due to technological advances in the study of human mobility, including genetic and isotope analyses. Disappointingly, however, Cunliffe only briefly mentions the existence of such studies and largely ignores them in his reconstruction of European mobility patterns, which follow the standard culture-history template. In addition, his discussion of mobility focuses almost exclusively on large-scale population movements or smaller-scale movements of male mercenaries, whereas one of the more interesting aspects of recent mitochondrial DNA and Y-chromosome studies has been the recognition of gender-specific movement patterns: Women, it appears, may have moved shorter distances than men in prehistoric Europe, but they apparently moved in much larger numbers, presumably marrying out of their natal communities over many generations.

Another way in which Europe Between the Oceans is very much in the traditional culture-history mold is in its subjugation to the tyranny of the Greek and Roman texts, which have always constrained interpretations of European cultural developments “before history.” Most of the peoples living in the European peninsula were not part of the revolutionary adoption of writing that was part of the transition to a state-level society in the Mediterranean, culminating in Classical Greek civilization. The peninsula’s inhabitants retained their oral traditions in many cases even after contact with the worlds of the Greeks and later the Romans. Thus the archaeological record is especially important for understanding developments in most of Europe until the introduction of Christianity.

Cunliffe in the present volume succumbs to the siren song of the texts, just as many others before him have done, including Childe. Apart from a brief nod to the fact that the interactions between the Mediterranean “civilizations” of Greece and Rome and the rest of Europe were not a one-way exchange, the “ex Oriente lux” concept has nothing to fear from this publication. There are times that I wish, as an archaeologist specializing in the early Iron Age in southwest Germany, that Herodotus had never written a word about the Iron Age Celts or their putative homeland near the source of the Danube! We would then perhaps be more willing to let the archaeological record serve as the definitive source of information about prehistoric European societies rather than privileging the written word of Mediterranean colonizers over the material remains of past lifeways.

The organizing principle of Cunliffe’s book, although it works well as a narrative device, is problematic in that he must engage in a certain amount of special pleading to make the case that the oceans were the driving force behind Europe’s supposedly unique developmental trajectory. It might conceivably be possible to argue that movement along bodies of water, including but not limited to maritime contexts, played a defining role in Europe’s cultural evolution. In fact, Cunliffe spends at least as much time discussing river routes, especially the east-west Danube corridor and the north-south river systems such as the Rhône, the Rhine, the Saône and others, as he does presenting his maritime hypothesis. Land routes, by contrast, tend to get short shrift, particularly mountain passes, and some regions are not discussed at all (notably Switzerland, which is not even mentioned in the index, in spite of its geopolitically important position, especially in the Neolithic). In addition, there is an inordinate amount of time spent on cultural developments in the Aegean, largely because Cunliffe’s maritime hypothesis of cultural development is of obvious relevance there. The broad-brush approach also tends to flatten out regional differences within Europe, which can be significant during certain periods of prehistory.

Ancient boats carved on granite rockClick to Enlarge ImageOne of the most valuable aspects of the book, particularly from the perspective of those interested in ships, shipping, shipbuilding and the history of various watercraft, is its detailed description of the discovery and excavation of prehistoric and early historic vessels. Cunliffe presents some of the more recent discoveries that are less commonly described, not just the better-known examples along the coasts of Greece and Turkey. The cross-Channel trade between Britain and continental Europe is documented by several well-preserved wrecks, together with their cargoes, and these have led to a reassessment of the level of technical skill in shipbuilding and seafaring achieved by European populations in this region as early as the Bronze Age.

Trade and exchange networks, another major focus of the book, resemble a shifting dendritic system that is transformed as each technological advance requires a reorientation of exchange routes depending on the raw material being transported: The unequal distribution of sources of lithic material, amber, copper and tin have all contributed as much to the creation of Europe as have the trade routes along which they were transported. This is where the broad-brush approach redeems itself; patterns are identified that might otherwise not be visible, and Cunliffe presents these skillfully and with a great deal of creative insight. By the time readers come to the last page of this book, they will have acquired a panoramic view of Europe’s gradual coalescence and cultural development that would otherwise require a lifetime of study; the author has done the work for them.

The many full-color illustrations, especially the satellite and aerial images of sites and landscapes, are a bonus, given the reasonable price of the book. Unfortunately, the effort to make the volume affordable (it was printed in China) may be one of the reasons that it contains many, many typos, especially in the full-color maps and map captions. It would be tedious to list all the instances here, but there are some howlers: There are references to the “Pliestocene,” the Hallstatt C “elete,” the Greek sphere of “influencence,” the “Pheonician” world and the “Cetiberian” culture. In several cases the map keys lack color designations, so that interpretation becomes a bit tricky. This is unfortunate, since in general the maps are beautifully designed and extremely helpful as illustrations of the complex interactions between regions that are the main focus of the volume. In addition, the decision not to include in-text references to the maps and other images (presumably an editorial rather than an authorial choice) occasionally results in confusion, because in some cases a graphic does not appear even within several pages of the place in the text where it is mentioned. The most egregious example of this is the map on page 48 showing Europe tipped on its side with the Iberian Peninsula to the north, representing a perspective that is actually discussed in the text on page 31.

However, these production problems detract very little from the value of the book. It will become a permanent fixture in the libraries of all those for whom the origins of Europe remain a subject of fascination.

Bettina Arnold is an associate professor and archaeologist in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee. Her research interests include the archaeology of pre-Roman Iron Age Europe, with a focus on southwest Germany, where she codirects a field project with Matthew L. Murray ( She is coeditor (with D. Blair Gibson) of Celtic Chiefdom, Celtic State (Cambridge University Press, 1995) and coeditor (with Manuel Alberro) of The Celts in the Iberian Peninsula, Volume 6 of e-Keltoi, a peer-reviewed, interdisciplinary journal of Celtic studies of which she is general editor (

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