97 of 113 people found the following review helpful
Too basic, lots of errors and speculations,
Amazon Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: Europe Between the Oceans: 9000 BC to AD 1000 (Hardcover)This book is a quick summary of European prehistory, ancient and early medieval history. I bought it chiefly for the prehistoric section (two thirds of the book). It is very readable and well illustrated, but so basic that it reminded me of a secondary school textbook (although a nice one). I didn't learn much. I was annoyed by the fact that Barry Cunliffe speculates a lot and gives his personal opinion everywhere, but not enough archaeological data that would allow the reader to draw his own conclusions. Archaeological periods are usually mentioned without starting and ending dates, which I find unacceptable.
The first three chapters (86 pages) are not about history or archaeology, but consist of a boring description of European geography and geology. There is very little about the central European and Italian Bronze Age; only to sentences about the Unetice culture and not a single mention of the Tumulus culture (1600-1200 BCE), nor of the Terramare culture (1700-1150 BCE), two essential periods to understand the development of Celtic and Italic cultures. There is very little on north-eastern Europe as well.
For a book specifically about European (pre)history, I found that there was an undue emphasis on the Near East (Anatolia, Levant, Egypt) and much too little about Europe beyond Greece, Italy and the Balkans.
Cunliffe keep insisting that no major migration took place between the Pontic steppes and the rest of Europe, despite overwhelming genetic evidence to the contrary. He claims that Indo-European languages came with Neolithic farmers from Anatolia (p.137). This goes against all linguistic studies that date the split of Indo-European languages to 4000-3000 BCE from their Pontic steppe homeland, much later than the spread of agriculture to Europe (7000-5000 BCE). Archaeological evidence confirms that bronze technology, horse-riding, single graves and the rise of patrilinear hierarchical societies all originated in the Eurasian steppes, and moved progressively westward until reaching the Atlantic coast of Europe. Cunliffe reports all this in the book, but repeats obstinately that all this change happened without substantial migration.
On pages 99-101 and 111, the author argues that the Neolithic Greek and Balkanic populations descended directly from the Mesolithic population, and not from Near-Eastern immigrants. How could Indo-European languages spread with agriculture (as he believes) without a migration of population ? In fact, Cunliffe's claim has been completely disproved by DNA studies as well. The Balkans and Greece are much closer genetically to Anatolia and the Levant than to the rest of Europe. This much was clear beyond reasonable doubt when the book was written in 2007.
Barry Cunliffe even argues that the Etruscans did not have any Near Eastern origins. On p. 250, talking about the rise of the Etruscan civilization, he pompously and wrongfully declares that "it is now generally accepted that development was continuous with no influxes of new people". Not only is it not generally accepted, but once again DNA tests have confirmed a Near-Eastern origin both for modern and ancient Tuscans, but also for cattle lineages found in Tuscany today.
The author's dogged refusal to admit a spread of Proto-Celtic people, culture and language from central to western Europe has for consequence that his view of Bronze Age Europe is flawed from the start. On pp. 254-258, he is amazed at the similarity of weapons and feasting gears in Iberia, France, Britain and Ireland in the period 1200 to 800 BCE, and attempts to explain it simply by the existence of maritime networks. It does not ocur to him that this Proto-Celtic culture might have sprung from a common source. Maritime networks don't explain the presence of the same objects inland, far from the coasts. He also does the unforgivable mistake of illustrating the late Western European Bronze Age with a map of P-Celtic and Q-Celtic languages based on the earliest Roman accounts of Celtic languages dating from over 1000 years later ! It is unlikely that the P vs Q split had already occurred around 1000 BCE. How can a serious historian make such a basic anachronism ?
Without trying to nitpick, I noted that some dates were quite inconsistent in different parts of the book. For instance, on p.95 Cunliffe writes that farming reached Crete from Anatolia in 7000 BC, but on p.174 it is 6000 BCE. One thousand years is a long time for such an imprecision.
The next criticism focuses on the author's unrepenting Anglo-centrism. On p.181 he claims that "the earliest appearance of regular bronze-using economy is to be found in Britain and Ireland in the period 2200-2000 BC, after which it spread eastwards and southwards through Europe". The reality is quite different. The Bronze Age started in the Near East, Caucasus and Pontic steppe from 3500 BC, then spread to the Carpathians, Balkans and Greece around 3000-2500 BC, then Central Europe around 2300 BC, and only reached the Atlantic fringe around 2200-2000 BC. I don't know who is is fooling writing that it spread the other way round.
Along the same vein I was shocked to read this passage on p.28 : "At a simple level it would be possible to see the Mediterranean world - a centre of innovation from the third millennium BC - as a core for which the rest of Europe served as periphery. There is a degree of validity in this generalization. Extending the argument, one could say that things only began to change in the seventh and eighth centuries AD when the focus of innovation started to shift to the Atlantic fringes of Europe, where it remained until the end of the nineteenth century." What is he saying is that the Atlantic coast of Europe (the British Isles and western France and Iberia) led scientific/technological innovation in Europe from the early Middle Ages. This is just absurd. During the medieval period it was first the Byzantine Empire then Italy then progressively France and Germany that led innovation. Britain really started influencing the rest of Europe from the late 17th and early 18th century onwards, but along with France, Germany and Austro-Hungary. In France, new ideas came from Paris or eastern France, rarely western France. Iberia hardly led Europe through its scientific innovations, mostly because of the oppressing religious climate under the Inquisition.
Cunliffe speculates (e.g. p.139) that the Western European seafaring tradition and the social prestige attached to exploring unknown territories and colonizing them have their roots in the spread of farming during the Neolithic. In other words, he is suggesting that the Spanish, Portuguese, French, Dutch and British colonialism can be explained by what people did 6000 to 8000 years ago ! I am not going to list all the aberrations contained in this book, but you will understand why I only grant it two stars. I won't give it only one star because the writing style is pleasant and the illustrations are nice.
Tracked by 2 customers
Sort: Oldest first | Newest first
Showing 1-10 of 11 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 7 Feb 2010 21:37:04 GMT
charles cleve says:
i like the point you made about not trying to 'nit pick' ha ha ha!
but im glad i read your review as you've just pointed out everything that wind's me up about author's on this subject, seem's you took a bullet there! cheers!
Posted on 15 Feb 2010 17:26:40 GMT
I agree with everything you say. To push back the presence of languages ancestral to Celtic in western Europe to six thousand years ago is really an extraordinary claim and it requires extraordinary evidence. The couple of pages he gives it here are barely undergraduate standard, never mind a reasoned and intelligent defense of his position against possible criticisms.
Posted on 25 Jan 2011 18:11:51 GMT
I don't find your criticisms to be all that helpful. There are obviously contesting theories in prehistory given the nature of the beast. For example, it's no secret that the authour holds the Atlantic Bronze Age to be the origin of Proto-Celtic culture. It is equally no secret that the authour rejects theories of mass migration as an explanation for certain material culture and language, instead preferring an explanation based on diffusion. As that's the case, the authour will writer and argue pursuant to his theories; I'm sure you can find others who will contest his views, but 'facts' are mutable, so a divergence of opinion is to be expected.
In reply to an earlier post on 25 Jan 2011 18:16:17 GMT
John T. Koch, eminent scholar of Celtic studies, has defend this view at length. You could have a look at his books on the subject.
Posted on 4 Mar 2011 22:26:38 GMT
Colin Martin says:
I don't think this is meant to be anything more than a general summary. Cunliffe is one of the pre-eminent archaeologists of prehistory and he's just about the best person to present this period to the general reader, which i think he does rather well in this book. If you're looking for detailed studies then there's plenty of specifics for you to enjoy, but give this book a break it's not trying to be anything it's not.
Posted on 24 Mar 2011 20:37:40 GMT
Michael Bolton says:
Three paragraphs in I lost interest in reading this!
Posted on 12 Apr 2011 13:25:54 BDT
Thank you for your summary of the flaws in his work - I have found similar nonsense in his previous works. It is a shame that people do not dig further into what they read as FACT, just taking for granted that someone is an expert and ignoring the fact they may have an agenda. Popular "non-fiction" ... not a good source for information, not peer reviewed, not to be taken as truth. Others have commented that it is all right to have differing opinions and speculations because the facts are vague ... no, facts are not vague when evidence shows impossibilities in the conclusions made. So, thank you for your efforts. I generally just ignore Cunliffe.
Posted on 19 Jan 2012 15:40:36 GMT
damaris tighe says:
Posted on 30 May 2012 16:58:16 BDT
Thank you very much for this review. I remember Cunliffe years ago, in context of attending lectures by Renfrew on Neolithic diffusionism. It was all very speculative in the late 80's, leaving me unimpressed with the academic ego's involved. I thought I'd give this book a try, to see if the massive advances in archaeology in the last quarter century give us a good text book for the Neolithic. Sadly not it appears. The contradition identified here between linguistic evidence , DNA and Cunliffe is the kiss of death as far as I'm concerned. Reading Nature regularly, you realise that anything DNA based requires peer reviewed articles from within the last 5 years generally, but not even considering DNA evidence.....??? That is soooo Twentieth Century! Well thats saved me £19..... much obliged!!
Posted on 13 Mar 2013 07:40:38 GMT
R. W. Hughes says:
After reading this review I wont be buying the book. I admire Cunliffe's work but has also read much re DNA evidence and migration and become very annoyed when historians and archaelogists churn out the same old myths.