Monday, April 20, 2009


Version at BMCR home site
Barry Cunliffe, Europe Between the Oceans. Themes and Variations: 9000 BC to AD 1000. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008. Pp. ix, 518. ISBN 9780300119237. $39.95.
Reviewed by TammyJo Eckhart, Indiana University

Barry Cunliffe was Professor of European Archaeology at the University of Oxford from 1972 to 2007. Europe between the Oceans is the most recent book in his prolific publishing career, which includes not only academic work but also mainstream books educating the general public about Europe's past. Although, as an archaeologist, Cunliffe is concerned with human achievements and culture, Europe between the Oceans has a theme familiar to scholars of the ancient world: Geography determines culture.

The idea that culture develops in great part from the environment around it can be found in Herodotus, Pliny, Plutarch, and most other ancient authors who described and offered explanations for the variety of human practices and beliefs, a connection that Cunliffe demonstrates through numerous classical quotations in his first chapter. We classicists and historians primarily concern ourselves with written evidence, though we often utilize other fields to test our theories and supplement what can be a frustrating dearth of information. Cunliffe takes us far back into Europe's past before human settlements might properly be called civilized. From this beginning he steers us through ten millennia, looking at how geographic features aided or hindered interactions between groups of people principally through trade and competition for land and resources.

As the title suggests, Cunliffe looks at how the oceans around Europe have aided and limited European development. Chapter two of Europe between the Oceans lays out what Cunliffe will consider to be Europe for the purposes of this book, and frankly his definition is standard. The chapter and the book, though, are not solely focused on oceans as the primary geographical condition that drives development. Bodies of fresh water, be they lakes or rivers, also play a vibrant role in his discussion, since these are areas where humans settle and via which they trade.

Of course humans need more than water; they must have food, and so chapter three goes back much further than our title suggests to explain how diverse Europe is in terms of animal and plant life as well as agricultural potential. Cunliffe's careful descriptions of changes in climate and environment are very clear, with a good presentation of the evidence. This clarity continues throughout the text, though archaeological and geographical data seem the focus over written evidence, an unsurprising fact, given Cunliffe's expertise.

Almost every chapter is written in a clear format that both laypersons and scholars can understand. Introductions give a brief overview of what each chapter will cover; the bulk of the chapter that follows then contains geographical and sometimes political or cultural sections that look at developments with multiple examples of evidence. Whenever there are conflicting or competing theories for the observed realities, Cunliffe lays these out clearly, though he often does not give specific citations for whose theories these are and he usually argues for one of the theories through application of additional evidence. All but one of the chapters then ends with a brief summary highlighting the most important facts he has discussed.

Chapters four through six do not use written evidence, even though written evidence is extant for the period covered in chapter six. Of course, as an archaeologist, Cunliffe is aware of the latest scientific studies and evidence, and he lays these out in a logical fashion while explaining these techniques for the readers. A point of special interest is the use of DNA evidence to challenge or validate theories about the movements of people through the centuries. Cunliffe briefly describes the limits of DNA evidence in chapter four, then utilizes it throughout without returning to address these limits. The common threads found through both DNA evidence and artifacts is that by and large men moved more than women across Europe, coming primarily to trade, Cunliffe speculates, and then intermarrying with the local populations in the earliest millennia of European history, only exchanging women during periods of relative wealth and stability. I think the evidence is suggestive, if not persuasive.

Similarly Cunliffe sees far fewer external influences on Europe than cultural differences developing sui generis, an argument he supports through the use of artifacts and DNA evidence. He demonstrates that even those areas of Europe in greatest contact with Africa and Asia are more selective in their adaptation of religious practices, technological methods, and social forms than we would expect if there were massive migrations or large-scale colonization. There is no counter-suggestion that Europe exported its cultures into the rest of the world, but then the focus here is on the development of Europe, not its impact on the world. Trade and competition for resources are the factors driving most of the minor movements of people that Cunliffe sees in pre-historical Europe.

Beginning with the seventh chapter and the third millennium BC, written evidence becomes increasingly important, but Cunliffe never ignores the geographical, archaeological and DNA evidence employed for pre-history. This approach offers good supplemental evidence since we know that all written sources contain biases as do the artifacts and the interpretation of them, as well as geographical and other scientific evidence. Nothing is truly objective, so when Cunliffe can offer such a range of information it supports his own arguments for why certain practices or events occur. There was not much that one would strongly disagree with in this book, though readers could come up with several questions they would want more information about and different interpretations of a few of the written sources he uses.

When we leave pre-history firmly behind and become entrenched in the historical periods of Greece, Rome, and the early Medieval world, I noticed that Cunliffe's opinions on differing theories and interpretations sharply dropped, as did the amount of non-textual evidence. He never completely leaves out the artifacts, geographical considerations and DNA, but the largest percentage of the material in these chapters is dedicated to a narrative similar to what we find in good textbooks. I think this is a fine approach, since the target audience of this book is so broad, and Cunliffe, like all of us, has his areas of expertise and interest. What I did find lacking was a discussion of how advances in technology may have decreased the role of geography on cultural development and what may have replaced it.

The text is peppered with a multitude of photographs, illustrations, and maps. The photographs are gorgeous, adding a great deal to the discussion. The illustrations also add to the information of each section. The maps are of varying quality, some lacking keys and others poorly keyed; this seems true more for the historical chapters than for those dealing with prehistory, but perhaps this reflects my areas of expertise. Some of the archaeological diagrams also lack good keys, making them almost impossible to understand without some basic training in the conventions for marking things in such drawings. Oddly, this book lacks a proper bibliography and instead offers a "Further Reading" list; likewise, except for the occasional internal citation, there is very little information about where each fact and theory Cunliffe uses comes from. After dozens of publications it might be argued that Cunliffe need not document everything, but one is surprised to see so few citations. Fuller bibliographical indications would aid readers who found a particular piece of information intriguing and wondered where they could learn more.

Overall Europe between the Oceans is a beautiful book that covers a lot of information in a readable fashion for both scholars and laypersons. Cunliffe argues the idea of geography driving destiny very well while allowing for and highlighting how human decisions determine cultural differences and similarities.

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