CWA 83 – New Book Reviews

6 mins read
Ashmolean; £15; ISBN 978-1910807088

Mountains and Lowlands: Ancient Iran and Mesopotamia

by Paul Collins

The ‘Rosetta Stone’ of Mesopotamian cuneiform is the Persian king Darius I’s massive trilingual inscription. Written in Babylonian, Elamite, and Old Persian cuneiform at Behistun, and dating from c.500 BC, it provided the key to deciphering cuneiform in the mid-19th century. Curiously, it is not located on the alluvial plains of Mesopotamia, created by the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, where the cities of Uruk, Ur, and Babylon gave birth to cuneiform. Instead, the inscription was chiselled into a cliff in the Zagros Mountains, which divide Mesopotamia from the Iranian plateau. Darius chose this prominent spot because it overlooked an ancient road from Babylon through the Zagros to Ecbatana, capital of the Medes in Iran. This later became the western end of the Silk Road.

It is a significant fact, according to Paul Collins, curator for the Ancient Near East at Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum, in this wide-ranging and detailed history of ancient Iran and Mesopotamia from 6000 BC through cuneiform’s invention in the late 4th millennium BC to the advent of Islam in the 7th century. Aimed at the non-specialist, Mountains and Lowlands is superbly illustrated with compelling objects from the Ashmolean, the British Museum, the Louvre, and other collections.

For Iran mattered greatly to the Mesopotamian world, argues Collins, even though scholars have tended to emphasise Mesopotamia’s achievements ‘with an eye on the Mediterranean world, often as part of a search for the foundations of Western civilisation’. Mesopotamia was rich in fertile soils, had wide plains, and easy communications; but it lacked stones, metals, and wood. Iran’s landscape, by contrast, was rugged, with only limited and irregularly distributed areas suitable for settlement, but offered a wide variety of the natural resources missing from Mesopotamia, including the horse, an animal termed the ‘donkey of the mountain’ in texts from the end of the 3rd millennium. In the words of a Sumerian story, Lugale (‘O king!’), on a fragmentary Ashmolean cuneiform tablet excavated at Kish in Iraq and dated to c.1900-1600 BC, a god tells of his defeat of a mountain demon’s stone army and invokes the blessings of the mountain: ‘Let its meadows produce herbs for you. Let its slopes produce honey and wine for you. Let its hillsides grow cedars, cypress, juniper, and box for you. Let it make abundant for you ripe fruits, as a garden. Let the mountain supply you richly with divine perfumes. Let it mine gold and silver for you… Let it smelt copper and tin for you… Let the mountains make wild animals teem for you.’

The discrepancy drives the complex interplay between Mesopotamia and the East, including military incursions by both sides, such as the Assyrian colonisation of the eastern Zagros, and early long-distance trade with the Indus civilisation, revealed by exquisite, elaborately drilled carnelian beads of Indus design found at Kish and Ur. Reconstructing this history is, however, a challenge for archaeologists and historians, especially for the earlier period. Collins compares it vividly with the reconstruction of an old-fashioned film from a reel that has disintegrated over time, leaving damaged and incomplete strips – the reel standing in for clay tablets that are indecipherable, broken or lost. ‘The film is silent: at the start there are no subtitles but occasional written words appear later – though only for a few of the many actors and sometimes in languages we barely understand’. To provide at least some narrative, footage has to be added from other films, inevitably producing a division of opinion among the critics. In fact, ‘a narrative history of the early Near East is virtually impossible’, confesses Collins, who regrettably chooses to provide no ‘Chronology’, on the grounds that different scholars disagree too much about the dating of sites, rulers, and events.

Nevertheless, the book is chronologically structured, beginning with ‘From village to city: 6000-3000 BC’ and ending with ‘From India to Egypt: 500 BC-AD 650’, a chapter ranging from the Achaemenid Empire of Darius via the invasion of Alexander the Great to the defeat of the Sassanians by the Arabs. Throughout, Collins is an expert and judicious guide to a pivotal region that was even more complicated in ancient times than in the turmoil of the present day.

– Review by Andrew Robinson

Princeton; £27.95; ISBN 978-0691166407

Three Stones Make a Wall

by Eric H Cline

Taken from the archaeologists’ saying that ‘one stone is a stone, two stones is a feature, three stones is a wall…’, the title sets the tone for this entertainingly informative account of archaeology, from early antiquarians’ discoveries to present-day breakthroughs. Cline is Professor of Classics and Anthropology at Washington University, with three decades of excavation and several books under his belt, so he is perfectly suited to tell such a story. That he accomplishes it in a lively and refreshing style is a tribute to his skills as a writer. Familiar tales are updated – where Howard Carter once spied ‘wonderful things’ in King Tut’s tomb, Nicholas Reeves now spies hidden chambers; fraudulent research is debunked – remember von Däniken’s alien landing pad at Nazca? And in ‘Back to the Future’ Cline examines how our world might look to archaeologists in millennia to come. But the meat of the book is in chapters such as ‘What have the Romans ever done for us?’ or ‘Mysteries in Mesopotamia’ – though the latter does begin with a gossipy tale of rivalry between Leonard Woolley’s wife and the new Mrs Max Mallowan (aka Agatha Christie). From ocean wrecks and Olmec stone heads to bog bodies and boat burials, the book rattles through geographical and chronological zones, encompassing archaeological discoveries, techniques, and folklore to bring you everything you need to know about global archaeology – and a lot more besides. Written with vigour, authority, and wit, this antidote to dry volumes of worthy debate is a welcome reminder that archaeology can – and should – be told in a way that is exciting, fresh, and fun.

– Review by Caitlin McCall

Archaeopress; £70; ISBN 978-1784913533

Rock Art Studies: News of the World V

by Paul Bahn, Natalie Franklin, Matthias Strecker, and Ekaterina Devlet (eds)

This weighty and much-awaited volume, the fifth in a series that dates back to 1997, is an essential round-up of rock art discoveries and research around the world between 2010 and 2014. The editors have done well to craft a volume of this size and quality. A noticeable inclusion is the wide range of fieldwork research and desk-based photogrammatic techniques that are using hard-science to either enhance imagery, or to assist in our understanding of chronology – often pushing back the dates for the rock art – as well as application techniques and possible interpretation and meaning. The book is organised into chapters covering the many diverse regions of the world that contain prehistoric and protohistoric rock art, running from the Caribbean to Siberia. It is a shame, therefore, that much of north-western Europe appears to have been ignored, despite significant and recent discoveries. Nonetheless, this handsome fullcolour volume will prove a valuable resource, not just for academics, but for anyone with an interest in this most esoteric area of archaeological enquiry: rock art research.

– Review by George Nash

Oxford University Press; £64; ISBN 978-0190605247

The Caribbean before Columbus

by William F Keegan and Corinne L Hofman

Contrary to the typical holiday advertisements, the Caribbean is remarkably diverse, both environmentally and culturally. The prehistory of its six archipelagos is no less dynamic, as a mosaic of indigenous communities innovated and collided following the arrival of the paleo-Indians in the 6th millennium BC. They ultimately mixed with the descendants of Europeans, Africans, and Asians from across the crystal seas. The most current and comprehensive survey of the pre-colonial archaeology of the region, this book presents for the first time the complete histories of the major islands and island groups. It is thorough yet accessible, an immersive intellectual exploration of a world before its ‘discovery’.

– Review by Nicholas Bartos

Cambridge University Press; £75; ISBN 978-1107142435

Human Mobility and Technological Transfer in the Prehistoric Mediterranean

by Evangelia Kiriatzi and Carl Knappett (eds)

The later prehistoric period was the earliest era of wide and continuous connectivity in the Mediterranean, when people travelled from one end of the basin to the other, bringing with them an evolving arsenal of technologies and lifeways. This book, the first in the British School of Athens Studies in Greek Antiquity series, discusses Mediterranean mobilities and their varied motivations and modes from the Neolithic through the 1st millennium BC, with detailed case studies ranging from Neolithic Macedonia to the Iron Age Levant, alongside commentaries and regional introductions, allowing for a new appreciation of the complexity of movement.

– Review by Nicholas Bartos

Oxbow Books; £38; ISBN 978-1785703850

Life and Death in the Mesolithic of Sweden

by Mats Larsson

Distilling the scattered field notes and site reports of the entire Swedish Mesolithic (9700-4000 BC) into a slim volume is an impressive task never previously accomplished. Yet with his simple and salient writing style, Larsson – one of the country’s premier prehistorians – manages just that, employing a chronological and thematic approach to make sense of the diverse stone tools, bone-filled pits, and rogue post-holes peppered through Sweden’s dense forests and Baltic shoals. The result is a midden of material for researchers and enthusiasts alike, covering the whole country but with particular emphasis on recent discoveries, such as the excavations in Blekinge. Though Larsson’s swift bog-hopping is useful, the volume would have benefited from more robust concluding summaries of the Mesolithic in each region.

– Review by Nicholas Bartos

These reviews appear in CWA 83Read on in the magazine or click here to subscribe.

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