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.