Geography Is Destiny

An epochal new book argues that the events of history we think consequential and monumental are, mostly, trivia

By Benjamin Schwarz

Worlds collide Hellenistic images on the dome of a Thracian tomb in Bulgaria

Great archaeologists are often at war with themselves. They aim to explain seismic transformations—social and cultural, economic, demographic, even genetic. But they do so by sifting (literally and figuratively) physical evidence that’s scant and (literally and figuratively) fragmentary. These methods mean that nearly all their publications are narrow and exceedingly dry, even by academic standards. And even on those rare occasions when they venture beyond the journal article or monograph, their writing seldom tempts even the most archaeologically besotted general reader. For instance, although the great archaeologist of Mesopotamia Robert McCormick Adams has revolutionized scholars’ understanding of the origins of urban civilization, his oversize tomes, with their detailed maps of watercourses and settlement patterns and meticulous charts of pottery types, resemble field reports, not works of history. But because archaeology addresses the most basic questions and explores the most profound changes in human history by means of a grossly incomplete record—and perhaps because it was long the province of aristocrats and buccaneers—it has invited the sort of bold interpretations in which speculation can too easily become untethered from evidence. When archaeology is done right, it’s frequently dull; when it’s fascinating, it’s frequently wrong.

So Europe Between the Oceans, at once compelling and judicious, is an extraordinary book. In a work of analytical depth and imaginative sweep, Sir Barry Cunliffe, the emeritus professor of European archaeology at Oxford, has synthesized the voluminous recent record of excavations from Iceland to Turkey, the burgeoning scholarship on DNA and ancient populations, and research on topics ranging from Stone Age shipbuilding to trade in Muslim Spain and from salinity levels in the ancient Black Sea to state formation in Early Iron Age Denmark. This all serves to elucidate the “complex interaction of human groups with their environment, and with each other” in Europe from 9000 B.C. to 1000 A.D.—10,000 years of cultural, social, and material development, starting at the close of the last ice age and ending with the emergence of the European nation-states.

Cunliffe’s approach will jar readers accustomed to being informed of the epoch-making quality of every inauguration speech. Not for him “the events and personalities flitting on the surface” of conventional history. Rather, he focuses resolutely on the underlying forces—primarily geography and climate—that influenced societies, and specifically on the ways those forces shaped and constrained the “intricate social networks by means of which commodities were exchanged and ideas and beliefs were disseminated.” Cunliffe is intellectually indebted to Fernand Braudel and the Annales school of French economic and social historians, which emphasized largely static environmental influences and long-term historical continuity and regarded political events as little more than trivia. The Annales approach works better for the millennia Cunliffe examines, in which very, very few individuals can even be identified, than for the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance, the periods Braudel assessed.

Geography forms the essential basis of Cunliffe’s history. The waters encircling Europe, the transpeninsular rivers that penetrated it, and its topography, currents, tides, and seasonal wind patterns all determined millennia-old sailing routes, and thus the goods and beliefs transported along them. From Cunliffe’s perspective, even the Roman Empire was just an interlude, and perhaps its main achievement was to institutionalize through its ports, roads, and market centers Europe-wide networks of exchange that had been operating since the Middle Stone Age.

By stressing historical continuity and adroitly employing a wide-ranging archaeological record to highlight mobility and interconnectedness, Cunliffe draws a startling picture. Europe, he demonstrates, was geographically and culturally merely “the western excrescence of the continent of Asia.” His archaeological and topographic analysis shows how for thousands of years the steppe lands linked central Asia to the Great Hungarian Plain, thus providing “easy access” from China to the Atlantic Ocean. Here was a corridor for trade and migration, starting with nomadic groups deep in prehistory and continuing through the preclassical, classical, medieval, and early modern eras with great hordes of Cimmerians, Scythians, Sarmatians, Alans, Huns, Magyars, Bulgars, Moguls, and Tatars. Knowledge of, for example, the chariot seems to have moved from the Russian forest steppe (the earliest known examples date to 2800 B.C.) to the Carpathian basin in Hungary and, by the 16th century B.C., to Mycenaean Greece and Sweden. Sarmatian horsemen, originally from central Asia, served in northern England as mercenaries in the Roman army.

By water and over land, through far-flung webs of trade and tribute, the most disparate cultures reached and changed each other. The beliefs and technologies behind megalithic tombs found along Europe’s Atlantic coast as far north as the Orkneys spread to Minoan Crete by 3000B.C. Identical amber jewelry is found only in southern Britain and Mycenaean Greek sites, strongly suggesting direct contact between the societies of Homeric Greece and prehistoric Britain. Images of the same type of warrior are found in Sardinia, Egypt, and Scandinavia by about 1300 B.C. Archaic Greek building techniques were used in southern Germany in the sixth century B.C. At a Dark Ages trading center in central Sweden, active from the sixth through ninth centuries A.D., archaeologists have excavated coins from the eastern and western Roman empires, a ladle from Egypt, a bishop’s crosier from Ireland, and a bronze statue of Buddha from India. In the Byzantium of the 900s, the Varangian guard was made up wholly of Scandinavian mercenaries. “It may have been a member of the guard,” Cunliffe notes, “who scratched his name, Halfdan, in runes … in the church of Hagia Sophia, leaving a poignant reminder of the confrontation of two very different cultures.”

Lavishly illustrated and replete with a sumptuous array of creatively conceived color maps, Cunliffe’s book is further proof that its publisher produces the most beautiful and intelligently designed works of scholarship in the humanities. I can’t think of a better gift this year for the historically minded reader. No book so well exemplifies what Cunliffe joyously calls “the vibrancy of archaeology.” More important, its focus on what Braudel called the longue durée will jolt the temporally complacent (and aren’t we all?), just as its bracingly materialist approach—which leads to the inescapable conclusion that trade has always laid the foundation for the exchange of ideas and beliefs, indeed for most cultural transformations—nicely tempers our blather about the power of ideas and the individual.

To splurge, give this book with Norman Davies’s panoramic, stylish doorstop, Europe: A History—a work that takes the Continent’s story up to the end of the Cold War and is as sensitive as Cunliffe’s to the linkages between geography and history—and Peter Spufford’s gorgeously and informatively illustrated Power and Profit, the definitive history of medieval commerce, which continues the specific story of Europe’s exchange networks where Cunliffe leaves off, and which similarly conveys the topographic and climatic backdrop of and hindrances to trade.

These books contain hardly anything about the great deeds of Great Men, and none offers much to flatter our images of ourselves. But in their marriage of exactitude and far-reaching vision, they clarify the scale of the human enterprise and remind us that the events that seem so significant today are, as Braudel put it, little more than “surface disturbances, crests of foam that the tides of history carry on their strong backs ... we must learn to distrust them.”

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2008/12/geography-is-destiny/307163/