Fortune-Seekers

Neal Ascherson

  • Europe between the Oceans: 9000 BC-AD 1000 by Barry Cunliffe
    Yale, 518 pp, £30.00, July 2008, ISBN 978 0 300 11923 7

If Barry Cunliffe’s large and magnificent new book has a guiding motto, it is a famous sentence by Fernand Braudel about the Mediterranean, which Cunliffe applies to the whole continent and repeats several times in these pages: ‘Our sea was from the very dawn of its prehistory a witness to those imbalances productive of change which would set the rhythm of its entire life.’

Imbalances productive of change! It’s an elegant refinement of Marxist thinking about ‘uneven development’ as the dialectical drive of the historical process, applied to archaeology. European imbalances were precisely of that nature. The bizarre, uneven configuration of this ‘westerly excrescence’, the jagged profusion of utterly different landscapes and climatic zones, the staggering geological diversity of soils and accessible minerals, all combined to make Europe a place where humans became dependent on contact with other humans in other places, and on the exchange of resources. ‘In no equivalent area of the earth’s surface,’ Cunliffe writes, ‘is it possible to find so many different ecozones so closely packed together; it is a variety rich in opportunity, encouraging human communities to venture and adapt, and by so doing to develop a flexibility conducive to survival.’

All through the period, population growth – in itself a sign of successful adaptation – would run up against the productive limits of a landscape, impelling migration. In the eighth millennium BC, the first agriculturalists overexploited their land and began to move to the Mediterranean coasts and then to take their ‘Neolithic package’ (agriculture, stock breeding, pottery, polished stone tools, permanent settlement) to Crete, Cyprus and, later, the Balkans. At the other end of the epoch, rising population and competition for land set the Germanic peoples moving across the Roman frontiers and through western and central Europe. It was the same with travel for resources. At the incredibly early date of 11,000 BC, the community that lived in the Franchthi cave near Argos was somehow crossing 75 miles of sea to the island of Melos to get obsidian for its blades. Later, the rare and scattered resources of accessible copper and – even rarer – tin required for producing bronze were distributed through a continental network of land and sea trading.

Humans were commodities, too. Etrurian graves suggest that women were often exchanged between distant groups, perhaps as expensive gifts rather than trade goods. Much later, plagues in the Roman and then the Arab empires caused labour shortages that led to a boom in slave-trading; the Venetians and other Italian port cities bought ‘barbarian’ captives from the Black Sea steppe and sold them principally to Arab employers.

Cunliffe adds to these creative ‘imbalances’ the diversity of outlooks fostered by variety of landscape. He speculates that the earliest shore dwellers had a distinct view of the world, richer than that of forest dwellers. Maritime communities were aware, thanks to tides and moon-phases, of natural rhythms other than the mere progression of seasons, and were intensely concerned with the identity and movement of stars as aids to navigation.

Migration is inevitably one of Cunliffe’s big themes. Here he has to deal with modern controversy, acrimonious and often political, about the importance of migration and invasion as causes of cultural change. The intellectual pendulum has swung back and forth, starting with early 20th-century assumptions that new arrays of artefacts and technologies must be explained by the arrival – probably as conquerors – of new populations. With the reaction against the Nazi abuse of ‘invasionist’ theory, and as European empires overseas began to disintegrate, this approach came to be regarded as dangerously racialist and colonialist. In the 1960s, the orthodoxy shifted to explaining cultural change as mainly endogenous, involving the assimilation of new ways by pre-existing communities who acquired them by travel and trade. More recently, the pendulum has begun to swing back again, as DNA and isotope analysis of human remains suggests that migration was a substantial factor after all.

Cunliffe sums up these arguments with elegance. A moderate neo-migrationist, he recognises that both explanations have their place. In the Aegean, for instance, the spread of farming and the Neolithic package plainly took place through the movement of mostly male farmers from the Levant to the islands and then to Greece, taking their sheep and goats with them across the sea; some 85 per cent of the Neolithic peoples of south-eastern Europe carried DNA showing that they were of Asian descent, but only about 20 per cent of their females. Further north, by contrast, the Neolithic package was slowly adopted by indigenous Mesolithic hunter-gatherers. Cunliffe shows that the old ‘invasionist’ tradition in archaeology was wrong to assume that change always flowed from the east – the ex oriente lux dogma. It was once assumed that the custom of constructing megalithic tombs originated in the Mediterranean and spread westwards to reach Iberia and the Atlantic coasts. Radiocarbon dating has since shown that the reverse is true: the Atlantic passage graves are older than their supposed ancestors by some two thousand years.

One of the problems facing the anti-invasionist school was always that, as soon as written records began, they described massive folk movements, conquests and the change of culture by population replacement. Some of these accounts must be exaggerated (the arrival from Ireland of ‘the Scots’ in the sixth century AD now looks more like a coup by a small kinship group than a folk migration), but many plainly are not. Europe between the Oceans addresses this difficulty. History-writing happened to begin with a period – the late Iron Age – when large-scale mobility of whole tribes and peoples began in northern Europe and the Pontic steppe after many millennia in which the continent had been relatively stable and had attained a sort of unity in diversity through trade and contact. As Cunliffe puts it, perhaps sticking his neck out: ‘In this period’ – 1300 to 800 BC, the later Bronze Age – ‘something approaching a pan-European culture begins to appear.’

But from about 500 BC, ‘communities living in the swathe of territory stretching from the Marne to Bohemia were drawn into a vortex of change resulting in large-scale migrations thrusting southwards and eastwards’: the so-called ‘Celtic migrations’ which poured into Italy, Hungary, Greece, south Russia and even Anatolia. In the Black Sea steppe, the arrival of the Sarmatians drove other nomadic peoples westwards. By about 200 BC, the turmoil was over, only to return in the early Roman period as the Cimbri and Teutones set off on their wanderings across central Europe, Gaul, Iberia and then towards Italy, where they were annihilated by the consul Marius in 102 BC. A few centuries later, in the late Roman Empire, an assortment of Germanic peoples began to push across the frontiers in erratic expeditions which traversed all Europe and reached north Africa. ‘People were on the move on a scale quite unlike anything experienced before.’ These migrations and settlements – including the Saxon arrival in Britain, the ‘Viking’ expansions and the Arab conquest of the southern Mediterranean – did not cease until about the tenth century AD. From then on, invasions came mainly from the eastern steppe rather than from within Europe, and were repulsed.

As a good Braudelian, Cunliffe respects the longue durée, the emphasis on slow currents of underlying change and the influence of geography and climate. Discussing events in the Mediterranean after about 500 BC, where the earliest written sources record a scene of wars on land and sea (Punic, Persian, the expansion of Rome, the exploits of mighty men), he remarks that these events were ‘really only petulance on the surface of deeper movements’. All the same, he is remarkably attached to ‘agency’, to the influence of individual human beings on those ‘deeper movements’. One of the most engaging features of this book is Cunliffe’s constant interest in the ‘adventure spirit of the young’. Discussing the ways that farming and herding may have spread across Mesolithic Europe, he suggests that this spread was ‘embedded in a system of social values, enshrining the belief that young men could only gain social status by leading colonising expeditions’. The distance they could cover from home was perhaps the ‘measure of prowess’. He comes back to this when discussing the reason Greek communities began to found distant colonies and diaspora settlements in the eighth and seventh centuries BC, and again when addressing the mystery of why the Scandinavians suddenly began to raid and eventually settled the whole northern world at the end of the eighth century AD. Among many causes, he numbers ‘young men with aspirations who might choose to seek their fortunes in new worlds’. At the end of the book, Cunliffe returns to the Neolithic spread as evidence of something enduring in the European ethos. It was not only about food supplies and population pressures, but ‘seems to have had a deeper underlying dynamic. Maybe we are glimpsing here a real pioneering spirit – a desire to see what lies beyond, drawn on westwards, perhaps, by the fascination of the setting sun.’

Another theme is the ebb and flow of ‘connectivity’, the alternation of periods in which trade routes opened and multiplied with others in which societies seem to have lost contact with distant regions and turned in on themselves. Identifying the trade routes – the north-south river systems separated by overland portages which made the North Sea accessible to traders from the Mediterranean, or the Black Sea to Norsemen coming from the Baltic – has always fascinated Cunliffe. One of his recent books, Pytheas the Greek, studied the fourth-century BC voyager from Marseille who set out to hitchhike north with the Atlantic traders, circumnavigated Britain and wrote an account of what he had seen. His story taught Cunliffe the importance of the inter-ocean land route across the isthmus between the Golfe du Lyon and the Gironde estuary on the Atlantic, the route which for many centuries carried Breton and Cornish tin to the Bronze Age kingdoms of the Mediterranean.

The late Bronze Age attracts Cunliffe for some of the same reasons that cultural bureaucrats in Brussels were tempted to see it as a foreshadowing of the European Union: a time of long-range trade and prosperity in which the social structures and even the cults of Europe seemed to be growing together. The values of the ‘warrior-lord’, with his standard kit of bronze weapons and his four-wheeled chariot-cart, were widespread. Rituals began to converge, and Cunliffe several times suggests that in this period reverence shifted from the earth to the sky. It was not only the move away from burial to cremation, but the new bird-boat-sun iconography on artefacts which persuades him that something like a ‘universality of belief’ was appearing.

European prehistory, however, is not a linear progression towards unity and general prosperity. The coming of iron changed Europe in ominous ways. In northern regions, it coincided in the first millennium BC with a change towards colder and wetter weather. Agriculture became more difficult, less productive. Peat spread across waterlogged lands which had once been arable. A time of disconnection arrived, as the widespread availability of iron over the whole continent led to the neglect of trade routes that had distributed the rare components of bronze. The Atlantic networks faded; north and west Britain seemed to lose touch with the world. The large-scale communities of the Bronze Age were being replaced by smaller, more suspicious societies whose hierarchies kept a tighter grip on scarce resources; it was ‘as if a social system based on the control of bronze supply was being replaced by one predicated on the command of agricultural surpluses’. In the south, the Mediterranean was becoming a scene of aggressive colonisation and war. The ancient stability of the Bronze Age was dissolving.

Cunliffe makes clear that the elites of Iron Age Europe were rapidly accumulating material wealth, possessions and power: ‘a prestige goods economy’, as the treasures of chieftains’ graves from the Hallstatt culture demonstrate. It was a process that set up intolerable social pressures. The consumption boom and the elites’ lust for magnificent imports from the Greek world were paid for with escalating amounts of local produce, which had to be extorted from subject populations now multiplying on overcrowded land. The rulers, Cunliffe suggests, turned to increasing their wealth by slave-raiding, selling the captives into the Mediterranean market. War and insecurity spread. Then came the first waves of north-to-south migration.

The European Iron Age culminated in the rise of Rome. Or perhaps it merely paused. At one point, Cunliffe seems about to treat Rome as little more than a blip: ‘In the longue durée of history Rome’s period of dominance was only an interlude.’ But he goes on to give lucid accounts of how the empire worked, especially in its Italian core, as imperial plunder was used by the ruling caste to dispossess small farmers and replace them with slave-worked estates. And his answer to the old ‘decline and fall’ question is sharp and professorial: problems of productivity and demography undermined a structure that was always ‘innately unstable’.

The empire, Cunliffe reasons, consisted of three concentric rings. The inner zone, Rome and Italy, was essentially non-productive, but consumed the output of the provinces and taxed them unscrupulously. The outer zone, the frontier provinces where huge and expensive armies were stationed, also consumed more wealth than it produced. The ‘mid-zone’, which grew the food and provided most of the raw materials (Spain, Gaul, Africa, Asia Minor, Syria and above all Egypt), was steadily crushed by increasing demands for produce and tax revenue; as the volume of trade soared, the money supply ballooned to inflationary levels and the currency was steadily debased until the whole fiscal system broke down. Even the reforms of Diocletian and Constantine achieved only a temporary pause in the shrinkage of production and trade, and by the fourth century AD the great provincial cities were shrivelling and half-empty. Regional secessions and revolts were followed by invasion across the frontiers.

Demography began to turn negative in the second century, after the disastrous plague of 166 AD led to a general labour shortage. The population of the empire continued to diminish (the introduction of lead-piped water supplies and lead-sweetened wine may have contributed to the falling birth rate), and the efforts of Marcus Aurelius and his successors to bring new tribes into the empire and settle them on abandoned lands could not reverse the long-term trend. ‘The fragile edifice of the empire began to fall apart.’

The texture of Cunliffe’s book changes as it moves from the rise of Rome to the post-Roman and early medieval period, when Europe reasserted its diverse nature. There is more chronological history-telling, but less of the imaginative guesswork, archaeological anecdote and broad theorising which make his treatment of prehistory so gripping. Towards the end, some of his favourite threads re-emerge. As the energy of the vast Scandinavian-Viking outbreak fades away and the Mediterranean world ‘dissipated its energies in exhausting rivalries’, ‘Atlantic Europe’ returns and slowly gathers itself for fresh achievements. New ships, stouter and larger, were evolving along those shores, and ‘in its people the lure of the west was ever present. It was from the ports of Spain and Portugal and later from Britain, France and the Low Countries that countless people from the peninsula of Old Europe sailed into the wider world.’

From a book as big and rich as this, the reader takes away not only a broad understanding but the sparkle of countless details. I won’t forget the image of the enormous gold fish, decorated with nomad-style hunting lions, which came out of a sixth-century BC Scythian grave in Germany, or of the horrible Neolithic massacre-pit at Talheim crammed with murdered peasants and their children, or the chieftain’s skeleton defiantly clutching his stone sceptre and flaunting his gold penis-sheath as he lies in his grave at Varna in Bulgaria. Unforgettable in another way is Cunliffe’s loving treatment of the island-city of Cádiz (Gadir), with its opulent Phoenician past and its pioneering Atlantic future, to which he returns again and again.

But my favourite passage is one of interpretation. In about 9000 BC, Mesolithic adventurers reached Sardinia and Corsica. They used small coastal caves, but not continuously: it’s clear that they were nomads who came and went over many centuries. How do we know this? Because between the layers of cave deposit full of fish, bird and hare bones, there are layers composed only of the pellets of Bubo insularis, the small eagle owl. Between the decades noisy with human chatter, crackling fires and wailing children, there were centuries of silence broken only by soft twittering. Now that is archaeology.