Thoughts, Ideas, Observations

Modern Archaeology

Barry Cunliffe, Europe between the Oceans, 9000 BC to AD 1000. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008.

Ian Hodder, The Leopard’s Tale: Revealing the Mysteries of Çatalhöyük. London: Thames & Hudson, 2006.

Reviewed by John Bedell

figurine of seated womanIt is hard to write about prehistory. Oh, it is easy enough to write an interesting book about archaeology if you focus on the adventure of finding cool things in the ground and stint on what the world was like a long time ago. But the reasoning process archaeologists use to puzzle out the past is complicated and buried under a vast amount of jargon, the conclusions are tentative, and since we lack the right words for naming the people, places and things of the past, archaeological writing is full of bizarre locutions like “Terminal Archaic Broadspear-Using Culture” or “Loire/Seine/Rhine Corded Ware Complex.” Only dedicated readers will plow through this sort of thing. A way of writing about the prehistoric past that is fun to read, while remaining true to the way archaeologists work, has yet to be devised.

The main thing these two books have in common is that I bought them with the gift cards I got for Christmas, but they are also both attempts by eminent archaeologists to explain the findings of their craft to a large audience. I found both books fascinating, especially Hodder’s, but they both illustrate, in their own ways, the difficulty I have described. They are both full of annoying jargon, parts of both are tedious to read, and they are both tentative on the most crucial points about the past. They also both illustrate the enormous amount of work it takes to figure out even fairly basic things about the distant past. 

Europe Between the Oceans is an attempt by British archaeologist Barry Cunliffe to write a different sort of textbook about the European past. He wants to focus on what Ferdinand Braudel called the longue durée, the underlying realities of life that last long beyond the events that occupy a conventional historical narrative. This is a program I applaud. I have long wanted to find a way of teaching history that doesn’t involve a long parade of kings and battles. What I want is to convey some sense of what things were like in the past. To me that means telling some stories, because often things are most clear when they are in motion, but I would choose those stories because they illustrate life, not because they are important in themselves. Yes, some events matter very much – the Roman conquest of Europe, Columbus’s voyage to America – but most really don’t. But while I fully support Cunliffe’s aim, I can’t recommend his book. It is full of fascinating information, great maps, and amazing pictures, but to me it gave very little sense of what life was like in the past.

The best part of Europe Between the Oceans is the facts, especially the ones presented in maps and other illustrations. Cunliffe produces, among many others, a map showing the find spots of Roman luxury goods in Scandinavia, a map showing how obsidian from Sardinia and Malta was traded around the Tyrrhenian Sea, several drawings of house plans from the Mesolithic and Neolithic, and marvelous plans and photographs of Malta’s neolithic temples. His discussion of European geography is excellent, with great maps, including several showing how the coastlines changed as sea levels rose after the Ice Age. But the early chapters suffer from some of the issues with archaeological writing that I have already mentioned, especially ambiguity and jargon. One of the key cultures of the European Neolithic is called the Linearbandkeramik, or LBK, and it is just a little hard to get excited about people called the LBK folk. Cunliffe makes this harder by failing to tell us anything very cool about them. We learn about how their culture spread across Europe and about the kind of soils they liked to farm in, but nothing about their burial customs or their religion. Instead we get lots of sentences like this:

A further point that may be relevant is that sheep and goats together with pottery-making appear very early in the west, where they are characteristic of the La Hoguette culture thought to represent local foragers selectively adopting Neolithic attributes spreading from the Mediterranean via the Rhone valley (see below, p. 125).

Cunliffe wants to focus on what happened in the past, not arguments among archaeologists, so he glosses over much that is controversial. In particular he has little to say about he problem of how Europeans came to speak Indo-European languages. He gives a nod to the theory that the languages spread with agriculture but says nothing about the pros and cons of this or other theories. He also deals cursorily with the new genetic data on the European population. This is probably the right decision for a textbook, but again he misses a chance to make the book more exciting to curious readers, by writing about what is genuinely new in the field and speculating about where these new studies might take us.

Cunliffe is an expert on the British Isles, but the book distributes its attention evenly across Europe. Which I thought was too bad, since the area Cunliffe knows best has some fascinating prehistory. In the late Neolithic and even more in the Bronze Age the Atlantic coastal zone from northwest Spain to the west coast of Scotland was one of the most dynamic regions in Europe. Trading networks tied this region closely together and connected it to Italy, Greece, and Hungary. Some of the wealth built up in trade was invested in the great megalithic monuments, such as Stonehenge, Carnac, and New Grange, that still draw tourists to these regions. Cunliffe is strong on the trade connections, but otherwise doesn’t give much sense of what this civilization was like: what kind of communities people lived in, what they wore, what they ate, what kind of beliefs underlay the amazing investment in circles, alignments, and tombs made of gigantic stones.

Along the way through this material Cunliffe pulls off one of those difficult feats in which academic writers find their true calling: he makes both the megaliths and human sacrifice seem boring. Is it too much to ask that this material be presented in a way that emphasizes the mystery and wonder of it all?

Another complaint I have is that Cunliffe doesn’t spend enough time on individual sites. Generalization is all fine and well, but archaeology is built on things dug up from the ground, and I wanted to see more on some of the most interesting sites. The general statements, I thought, should more often have been backed up by description and analysis of archaeological discoveries. Cunliffe does a fair amount of this in the early chapters, but by the time we get to the Bronze Age everything floats in a sea of generalities.

But though they suffered from too much jargon and not enough interesting detail, the early chapters are on the whole strong. They have a great deal to teach about the European past, and I read them with pleasure. If I have complained too much about them, it is because they fall short of the great book this might have been. Once we get into the classical era, though, Cunliffe falters badly. He loses his focus on the findings of archaeology and begins to recycle old historical narratives. Does the world really need another dry, condensed description of the Punic Wars? Yawn. And because he has filled these chapters with the standard historical boilerplate, Cunliffe leaves out the kind of material that made the earlier chapters interesting. For example, there are no plans of houses or villages from any period after the Bronze Age. I, for one, would like to follow these matters all through history. Did the Roman conquest of Gaul have any impact on the houses or villages of the Gauls? Were they the same in AD 1000 as they had been in 1000 BC, or not? When he deals with issues like the scale of Germanic migration into the Roman Empire, Cunliffe works entirely from texts, and says nothing about evidence from cemeteries or settlements. I can read about Hannibal anywhere, and I was hoping that Cunliffe would tell me something about the classical and early medieval periods that I didn’t already know. He doesn’t.

It may sound like I wish Cunliffe had written a much longer book, and maybe he should have. But he might have achieved better results in the same space by being more selective. I wanted less that was general and familiar and more that was specifically archaeological. I wish he had made the material in the later chapters compatible with that in the beginning. If you want to talk change over long periods of time, you need data sets that span the whole era of your study. The only one Cunliffe gives us is trade routes. Besides forgetting to keep us informed about houses and towns, Cunliffe tells us little about the evolution of key technologies. He is good on ships, but what happened to agriculture, after the Neolithic revolution? To fishing, after the Mesolithic? To metal working, after the introduction of iron? These are the things that make up the longue durée: the nature of households and communities, the basic technologies, ways of organizing space and relating to nature. I am still waiting for a book that will approach the European past in the spirit that Cunliffe attempted but could not sustain.

The Leopard’s Tale is a very different sort of archaeological book. It focuses on a single famous site, Çatalhöyük in Turkey, and uses the details of the excavation to explore certain important themes in the distant past. I found it very interesting, but I have to say that even for a professional archaeologist with too many degrees some of the analysis was tough going. Some of the prose is downright awful.  I learned a great deal, but I also ended up with questions about the kind of archaeology Hodder and his team are doing.

For archaeologists, much of the interest in Hodder’s book centers on the relationship between theory and practice in our profession. Hodder made his reputation as a theoretician. In the 1980s he attacked the scientific thinking that dominated archaeology at the time, driven by the influx of new laboratory techniques like radiocarbon dating, pollen analysis, element analysis of pottery and bone, and the like. These techniques are excellent for getting at the material basis of life, but they tell us nothing directly about how people thought or felt. The whole spirit of archaeology in the 1970s went against such unprovable speculations; better to concentrate, it was asserted or assumed, on the things we can know for certain, like what people ate, how far they traveled, and what technologies they had mastered. Hodder dismissed this approach as self-defeating; what good was it to do archaeology, he wondered, if it couldn’t tell us what we really wanted to know about the past? He insisted that through a sensitive approach to archaeological data, and especially to symbol systems, we could learn quite a lot about how ancient people understood their worlds. He also thought that culture was not determined by technology and economics, as materialist archaeology seemed to assume. To Hodder, people were just as likely to develop technologies that would support the way they wanted to live as to adapt their expectations to material constraints. His theoretical books were written in an extremely jargon-rich and obscure style, which led some critics to say that given how hard it was for them to understand what Hodder was saying, how were they going to understand the people of the Neolithic? One of Hodder’s favorite sites for analysis was Çatalhöyük, which had been partially excavated in the 1960s. So when it was announced that excavations at Çatalhöyük would resume under Hodder’s direction, everyone was curious about how Hodder would proceed and what results might come from the combination of modern techniques and post-modern analysis.Catalhoyuk house

Çatalhöyük is a tell site built up from the remains of mud brick houses. The main mound was occupied from about 7400 to 6000 BC, from the early or pre-pottery Neolithic into the middle Neolithic. It dates to thousands of years after the first domestication of plants and animals in the Near East. What made it sensational and still draws people to the site is the remarkable art. Scattered among the densely packed houses are some, the same size as the others, packed with bizarre ornaments. The most famous include “bucrania,” the skulls of wild bulls covered with plaster and mounted on walls, and wall paintings that include scenes of bull hunts and vultures pecking at headless corpses. Corpses were buried beneath the floors of these decorated houses, some times as many as 70, so crowded together that the latest burials have to be dug through earlier ones. The early excavators called these decorated houses “shrines,” but Hodder had already shown back in the 1980s that they were really houses, with all the necessary domestic apparatus. In the later levels of the site there are fewer wall paintings and bucrania, but there are remarkable figurines like the famous image of the seated woman with a pair of leopards (pictured above).

Excavations at Çatalhöyük resumed in 1993, and The Leopard’s Tale covers the work done through 2004. (Work continues, and excavation has a nice web site.) The excavations have employed a multinational team of experts at enormous expense, yet in the first decade of work they uncovered much less of the site than the original team did in four seasons of digging. Part of the reason for the slow going is the Turkish authorities, who wish the site to become a permanent tourist attraction and so have insisted that many finds be preserved in place. Since Çatalhöyük has about fifteen layers of houses, and leaving one in place means not being able to reach the ones beneath it, the desires of the archaeologists and the tourism promoters necessarily conflict. It is a big site, and there is room for both approaches, but the negotiations involved have created many delays. The main reason for the slow approach, though, is the extraordinary care being taken in the excavations. Every sort of sample is being taken from dozens of locations within each house: carbon samples, plaster samples, thin sections through every floor that can be viewed under the microscope, samples for pollen counting, micro-artifact analysis, protein analysis, phytolith analysis, and more. At one point the burden of taking samples grew so great that the field team rebelled, and Hodder had to call a summit of field and laboratory leaders to work out a compromise. This answered the question scientific-minded archaeologists had about the methods Hodder would employ: he has out-scienced them all.

Yet Hodder has not abandoned his theoretical interests. While his excavators and assorted experts try to work out the history of each house in minute detail, from the way the bricks were made to how it was swept out before demolition, Hodder has kept his eye on the question of how the residents of the town viewed the world. One of the most convincing arguments he has made concerns the role of the highly decorated, burial-filled houses. Hodder asserts that the residents of Çatalhöyük were what Levi Strauss called “house people.” Among “house people” status and identity become attached to the ancestral house of a clan or extended family. It is common among such people for these ancestral houses to become filled with art objects and magical totems, and for them to be the site of burial for the leading members of the family. Since there is little evidence for status differences at Çatalhöyük, Hodder suggests that the people in control of the ancestral house were the elders of the family, or those who had been through a series of initiations. The people of Çatalhöyük commonly hid some of the special items in their houses, either by burying them in the floor or covering them over with plaster, and some of the objects plainly visible to us may have once been hidden under mats. Hodder interprets this habit as part of a dynamic of obscuring and disclosing sacred objects practiced by many peoples, in which the most special objects are the ones seen least often. Knowing where things were hidden in the house may have given a simple, immediate expression to the elder’s wisdom; if the skull of a particular ancestor was needed to cope with a crisis, only they knew where he or she was buried.

wall painting of vultures and headless corpsesMuch of the interest in Çatalhöyük among non-archaeoligists has surrounded the idea that its inhabitants were matriarchal worshippers of the mother goddess. Hodder has made a speciality of “dialogue with the goddess community”, as his web site puts it. Rumor has it that he is really trolling for sky-clad babes, but his official goal is to explain to interested pagans what the evidence from Çatalhöyük really shows about religion and the status of women in the Neolithic. As he explains in The Leopard’s Tale, there is not much evidence of worship of a mother goddess at Çatalhöyük, or, for that matter, worship of any god or goddess. The artistic imagery focuses on the power of wild animals, especially bulls and leopards, and on death, as in this famous image of vultures pecking at headless corpses. None of the images of women depicts them specifically as mothers. A cult of motherhood and the mother goddess, says Hodder, is characteristic of societies with a strong division of gender roles, and what we have learned from Çatalhöyük and other Neolithic sites suggests that men and women spent most of their time in each other’s company, doing many of the same things. 

All of this is very interesting, and if you want a serious look at how archaeologists learn about the distant past, I strongly recommend The Leopard’s Tale. But unless you have experience reading theoretical anthropology, you won’t find it easy going. My other main reaction was to wonder what the extraordinary care and expense taken in the excavations was really contributing to our knowledge. The analysis of all those micro-samples from the floors shows us that many domestic activities were mainly done in the southern half of the house, while the northern half, which held most of the art and the burials, was kept much cleaner. But, as Hodder says, this distinction was perfectly visible to the excavators, who spoke among themselves of “clean” and “dirty” areas in the houses. Naked eye observations tells you that the walls were replastered many times; what do the careful counts of 150, or 427 coats of plaster add to our understanding? Study of the animal bones shows that most of the meat in the diet was domestic goat or sheep (which are entirely absent from the art), and, what do you know, stable isotope analysis of the human bones shows the same thing. I suppose it is interesting to have at least one site in the world that is being dug to the most exacting standards, using the full range of available methods; this way we have a test case against which to judge other work. My strong impression is that the extraordinary expense is adding very little, and that we would have learned much more if the money had been spent uncovering more houses, or even digging at several sites, instead of lavishing more and more effort on what is really a tiny sample of a single site. If any site is worth the attention, though, it is certainly Çatalhöyük, and Hodder's book is an excellent if challenging way to learn why.

February 6, 2009

From the 
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