Nicholas Bartos reviews some of the latest archaeological books.
The Silk Roads: A New History of the World
by Peter Frankopan
Describing Peter Frankopan’s monumental 656-page work as ‘ambitious’ may be an understatement: he sets out, in no uncertain terms, to fundamentally reorient the axis of world history to the east, right along the crooked spine of Asia. Here the silk roads, the neurons of the world’s central nervous system, fanned out in all directions to link disparate people and places, providing a steady flow of goods, ideas, and, just as often, violence and death. His focus on connectivity – and the chaotic melding of discrete cultures and religions – allows Frankopan the flexibility to seamlessly weave through a tapestry of considerations within a wide swathe of time from antiquity to the present day. He manages this without resorting to snore-inducing historical dryness; instead, his addictive narrative balances scholastic precision and memorable storytelling. While Frankopan perhaps overemphasises the originality of his approach, his account is still an eye-opening antidote to Westernwashed versions. The archaeologically inclined reader might find the book’s starting point, the height of the Persian Empire in the 6th century BC, a bit late considering the splendour of ancient Mesopotamia. But, despite its relatively light emphasis on material remains or the geography of the routes themselves, The Silk Roads provides a fresh framework within which to digest history, current events, and this very magazine.
Maize for the Gods: Unearthing the 9,000-year History of Corn
by Michael Blake
Out of the estimated 400,000 plant species on earth, one humble stalk grew above the rest. Becoming the world’s most vital and productive crop, it spread to more than 160 countries and every continent except Antarctica. But how did we create this maze of maize? Michael Blake harvests many species of recent research – ethnography, genetics, chemistry, and plant science – to tell the nine-millennia-long story of our gradual and mutual entanglement with corn from an archaeologist’s perspective. Once a tall, bushy grass on the plains of south-western Mexico, ancient teosinte attracted nomadic indigenous people, who began slowly to domesticate and cultivate it, transforming the plant’s morphology and initiating its global conquest. In turn, increasing emphases on maize production permeated the material worlds, socioeconomic organisations, religious beliefs, and cultural identities of people everywhere, particularly in Mexico and Central America. With such a rich array of cultural expression around maize, it is understandable – yet slightly disappointing – that Blake does not peel further below the husk on that topic. His real triumph lies in his candid explanation and interrogation of modern research methods of maize: everything from archaeological dating and genetic investigation to microscopic analysis and ancient dietary reconstruction. In the end, what emerges is a complex narrative of reciprocal dependence. As Blake succinctly puts it, ‘humans grow maize and maize grows humans’.
At Home with the Aztecs: An Archaeologist Uncovers their Daily Life
by Michael E Smith
Resisting the trappings of ‘monumental archaeology’ – a fixation on kings, priests, pyramids, and bloody ceremonies that has for so long dominated scholarly discourse – Michael E Smith instead focuses on the life of ‘your Aztec Joe’, diving into trash heaps and exploring households in order to investigate the humble communities that actually made up the largest part of Aztec society. He does not find, contrary to popular belief, an entire civilisation of sacrificial maniacs, nor masses of slaves toiling under the rule of ancient despots; instead, the lifeways of Aztec peasants were surprisingly prosperous and diverse. Through his remarkably engaging narrative, Smith often weaves personal anecdotes and methodological insights, drawing the reader into the hot Mexican dirt right alongside him.
Cleopatra’s Needles: The Lost Obelisks of Egypt
by Bob Brier
For over 3,000 years, people have coveted the grand obelisks of ancient Egypt, risking their lives in impressive feats of engineering dexterity and physical stamina to quarry, transport, and erect them. Foreigners to the Egyptian sands – from Roman emperors to representatives of 19th-century Western powers – selected a few of these silent sentinels and sent them on often harrowing journeys to new, far-flung homes. Deftly navigating a wide range of primary sources, Bob Brier illuminates the terrors and triumphs of everyone involved throughout the history of the ‘obelisks in exile’, allowing a new appreciation of ancient and historical technological hurdles, imperial ambition, and cultural appropriation.
An Archaeological History of Indian Buddhism
by Lars Fogelin
A comprehensive archaeological survey of Indian Buddhism is in many ways antithetical to what Buddhists themselves believe: their predilection for the transcendent over the illusions of the earthly and mundane physical world. Yet the material remains – largely ignored in the long tradition of Buddhist textual studies – provide a fascinating complement to prior understandings of the development, ascendance, and eventual decline of this major world religion in India. Lars Fogelin’s clear and informative book will appeal to scholars and enthusiasts alike, and it is a prime exemplar for archaeological studies of long-term religious change.