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.

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