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The Human Factor

Europe Between the Oceans: 9000 BC to AD 1000.

By Barry Cunliffe

(Yale University Press, 480 pp., $39.95)

Playmobil, the German company that specializes in detailed snap-together plastic toys, makes a Viking ship. Seventeen inches long and five wide, with six sweep oars, a steering oar, and a single movable square sail, the toy precisely models surviving Viking ships in museums in Roskilde, Denmark and Oslo, Norway. It also floats in bathtubs. Most of its users will not realize, of course, that the Viking ship was the plank-built descendant of the much older hide-covered ships that had sailed the northern seas for well over a thousand years before the Vikings, or that the Vikings themselves were but the last of a long sequence of ocean-going migrants.

Perspective is something that readers of Barry Cunliffe have come to expect. In Facing the Ocean: The Atlantic and its Peoples, which appeared in 2001, and now in its sequel, he has chosen to study Europe's oceanic destiny. Europe was, and is, the land between the oceans. Its deeply convoluted coasts and island fragments make for a total of 37,000 kilometers of interface between land and sea--equivalent to the world's circumference. It was "no accident" that Europe's first civilization arose in the Aegean Sea (on Crete), where the ratio of coast to land was at its greatest. The seashore is also where Europe came from--whence Europa was kidnapped to Crete, "a reminder, if one were needed," Cunliffe notes with characteristic charm, "that the seashore is a liminal place where unexpected things can happen!"

Observations of this sort occur on nearly every page of this captivating book. Cunliffe makes the best possible case for archaeology as a specifically human science: not the study of mute objects, but of the walking, thinking, feeling human beings who made or transformed those objects. Europe Between the Oceans is a work of great humanity, looking back across the abyss of time to catch a dim echo of our earlier selves. What is re-constructed is the early history of Europe, from the end of the last glaciation to the emergence of the continent's first nations. What is re-interpreted is something closer to human nature itself. Archaeology, at this vanishing point, blends back into anthropology, from which it separated either a hundred, two hundred, or three hundred years ago, depending on whom you ask. And Cunliffe, himself, takes on the role of sage, like those early anthropologists whose vocation was a way of glimpsing the eternal while talking about the particular. (Both Durkheim and Levi-Strauss were descendants of rabbis.)

The great advantage of deep distance in time (archaeology) or space (anthropology) is that the significant comes into focus and the trivial blurs to insignificance. For humans, the most important thing is food. And so, romantic encounters at the tideline aside, riverbanks, deltas, and sea coasts were important, because they offered a fantastically rich and regular caloric harvest--a side benefit of which was the presence of iodine, which boosted fertility.

Coastal middens, or garbage dumps, often of gigantic proportions, still amaze with the power of the sea's nutritional wealth. At a couple of sites in modern-day Denmark, we find middens over 6.5 feet tall, 800 feet long, and 160 feet wide. These testify to substantial settlements in use for a very long time--radiocarbon suggests that these sites were in continuous use for eight hundred to one thousand years. Imagine a city twice as old as New York but surviving in later memory only through its Fresh Kills. (Imagine, too, how terribly fragile and limited that memory would be: such is our relationship to this distant world.) And yet there is a reason why there are so many shells here: calorically speaking, "a single red deer would be worth fifty thousand oysters."

The littoral, therefore, offered a regular and plentiful but rather desperate situation: without constant effort and searching, these established old societies would not have survived, let alone grown. It is the interplay between biology and psychology that Cunliffe keeps revealing for us. In all animal populations, there is a particular "holding capacity" of the land: exceed its caloric resources and the population faces decimation. Still--and this is part of what makes Cunliffe's presentation so powerful--he does not see this as an argument for nutritional determinism. "Holding capacity" can be altered by climate or technology or behavior modification, external (such as war or plague) or internal (marriage rules, sexual behavior, culling through ritual murder). Cunliffe never forgets to remind us that humans are crucially dependent on their environment, but he also never fails to recall that humans have "always had an effect on their environment, often initiating long-term change." If there is a subtext to his grand narrative, it is that humans make their history.

A history of some of the most innovative historiography of the twentieth century could be charted through writings about the Mediterranean, from Weber to Pirenne to Braudel to Goitein to the great historians on either side of our own Atlantic, Chris Wickham at Oxford and Michael McCormick at Harvard. These scholars revolutionized the use of material evidence by historians. At the heart of their work is the challenge of reconciling the human and the structural, the personal and the impersonal dimensions of past time: how to be true to the individual nature of experience without missing the big patterns that are only visible from a more godlike remove.

As unlikely as it might seem, it may be the archaeologist Cunliffe who shows us what the solution to this sphinx-like riddle might be. And he does so partly by shifting the historian's field of vision from a Mediterranean Europe to an Atlantic Europe. For the Church Fathers, as for Hesiod, light may have come from the East, but for our ancestors food came from the West and the North. The Mediterranean of philologists and package tours is in fact a resource-poor environment. As the last ice sheet receded, Cunliffe observes, "the hitherto inhospitable north--the shores of the Baltic and the North Sea--became congenial, welcoming environments for the huntergatherers now colonizing the more northerly parts of the continent, while to the south, in the Mediterranean and the Black Sea, the productive coastal environments became successively more restricted with rapidly rising sea levels."

Indeed, if one were to follow upstream to their watersheds the great rivers that perforate Europe's maritime facades, one would find that the Atlantic rivers extend deep inland, bringing with them resources and access to even greater resources. The Mediterranean and Black Sea system, by contrast, is shallow and hemmed in by high mountain barriers. "Atlantic world" studies are now all the rage in university history and literature departments; and reading Cunliffe one wonders if the Atlantic will be the Mediterranean of the twenty-first century.

Cunliffe views Europe's ecological diversity--the unequal distribution of natural resources--as what Braudel called "imbalances productive of change." The human response is measured in terms of mobility and sociability. Nature may propose, but it is the humans, in Cunliffe's view, who do the disposing. Cunliffe admires Braudel and sympathetically evokes his notion of the longue duree, or long time span, as crucial for understanding the past. And yet Cunliffe balks at the idea of human history without a human face. In a book devoted to ten thousand years of human history, nearly all recovered from material remains, Cunliffe brings us face to face, again and again, with individuals who etch themselves into memory.

Here we meet such people as Sostratos son of Laodamas, mentioned by Herodotus as a rich exporter of Attic black-figured pottery to the Etruscan heartland, where many pieces have been found 2,500 years later inscribed with a mark that begins "SO ...," along with a dedicatory inscription reading "I am of Aeginetan Apollo: Sostratos had me made. ..." Or Hanno the Carthaginian, who sailed down the west coast of Africa in the third century B.C.E. and upon his return set up an inscription in the Temple of Baal giving the details of his trip. The inscription no longer survives, but a copy was made in the tenth century C.E., and the details are there. What began as a colonial reconnaissance mission turned into a voyage of discovery that took him to Sierra Leone and possibly Cameroon. (The discovery in 1749 of eight Carthaginian coins of the third century B.C.E. in the Azores suggests that this was not impossible.)

And what of Ingvar? He left central Sweden with a small fleet of ships in 1036 C.E. on a five-year trip via the Gulf of Finland and Novgorod to the Dnepr River, Black Sea and Byzantium, and then via Tbilisi to the Caspian Sea and eastward into Asia where, according to Icelandic sagas, he and his men met disaster. Thirty memorial stones were put up by grieving relatives, who included his brother Harald. There were so many Ingvars and Haralds plying those long rivers of western Eurasia that the Swedish name by which these traders were called, "Rus" or "Rhos," was eventually given to the land itself. And finally there is Cunliffe's own hero, the great scholar and explorer Pytheas of Massalia (the ancient Marseille), who visited Brittany, England, and probably Iceland around 350 B.C.E. and then wrote a book about it, fragments of which survive, mangled, in the works of others.

And where we do not have a name, Cunliffe tries to imagine himself back into the mind of the person. A Bronze Age burial on the south coast of Sweden, dated 1700-1500 B.C.E., contains images of horses, a figure riding a two-wheeled chariot pulled by a pair of horses, long boats, two axes, a monolith, and a parade of human figures, all but the last clearly from beyond the Nordic realm. Cunliffe suggests that the lord of Kivik (that is the name of the site) could well have led his warriors from home via the island of Bornholm to the mouth of the Oder and thence to the Carpathian basin, where chariots with spoked wheels were then found--and found only then and only there. The burial chamber contained scenes from this adventure story. "Fantasy perhaps," Cunliffe observes, "but that voyages of exploration were made at this time is not in doubt. The Kivik lord may have been one of many such explorers."

And where we do not have even a person, but only objects and things, Cunliffe is able to show us how the survival of material culture implies a narrative of human lives. Perforated amber spacer plates in necklaces have been found in Bronze Age Wessex, in southern Britain, where they seem to have been manufactured--there, and also in Mycenae. How is this possible, we might ask. Cunliffe asks, more incisively, whether this was a one-off, or the unique survival of a larger trade pattern. Did the object travel overland across Europe, or by sea through the Atlantic and Pillars of Hercules? And, if the latter, did it makes its journey in one stage or through coastal tramping? Was it carried by a merchant, or, perhaps by a woman sent as a gift to a Mycenaean prince? The imagination kindles strongly to the perspectives opened up by such questions.

So it is not only a matter of re-defining space to include the Atlantic, or redefining time to include pre-history. (Cunliffe forcefully brandishes Lucien Febvre's dismissal of the category of pre-history: "in this book, we are all historians.") If Cunliffe manages to resolve the tension present in all those wonderful twentieth-century Mediterranean histories and create a real cultural history of the material world, it is because, despite working with a body of evidence that is fundamentally faceless, he insists on the centrality of the human experience, and finds it. His book is a reminder that historians, too, are not determined by their climate or geography, but are products of a much more inscrutable dialectic.

With Cunliffe the archaeologist-as-cultural historian as our guide, we may revisit also an earlier age's attempt to understand the origins of European civilization: the late Renaissance and Enlightenment thought experiment of "conjectural history." When Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, and others painted the picture of a "state of nature" from which they extrapolated a whole series of conclusions about human nature and political society, they were actually speculating about what we now know as the Mesolithic (from around 9000 B.C.E.) and Neolithic (in Europe, from around 5000 B.C.E.) ages. Those gigantic shell middens of the Mesolithic coastal foragers, or the settlement at Catalhoyuk in central Anatolia, which extended over thirty-two acres with many closely packed rectangular houses, or the tel at Karanovo in Northern Bulgaria, whose forty feet of height and twenty-five acres of circumference enclose two thousand years of occupation--all these places do indeed suggest the primal reality of coercive power.

In the Mesolithic period, with the onset of neo-thermal conditions in Europe, we first find sedentary communities storing their own food. In the beginning, Cunliffe suggests, it is likely food that was the key token of power. Those with access to, or control of, greater caloric resources were the most powerful. In turn, they developed symbolic structures to enhance this hierarchy. It is then that we begin to find complex behavior patterns that strengthen social inequalities, such as grave goods marking social differentiation. Since status tokens in children's graves could not have been earned, they suggest the existence, already, of inheritance patterns.

Not surprisingly, this was also an age of "Hobbesian" aggression: 44 percent of burials from Mesolithic Denmark show evidence of traumatic blows to the skull. In Sweden and France, it is 20 percent. In Bavaria in 1908, two groups of skulls were found in pits. Men, women, and children had been bludgeoned, and then their heads cut off. This occurred some time around 6400 B.C.E. And yet at this same time, at Lepenski Vir on the Danube, circa 6500 B.C.E., we find a permanent settlement with well-built houses featuring compacted floors edged with stone, hearths, and timber roofs. Houses have paths between them leading to a central open space fronting the river. "The implication is of an imposed social order maintained over generations as the houses were successively rebuilt." There is organization here, and organization implies authority. Was it in places like this that the "social contract" was devised? Can we see through the archaeologist's distant mirror to the beginning of politics as we know it?

But it is surely even more the case that the shift from Mesolithic foragers (or hunter-gatherers, as we use to call them) to Neolithic food producers created the necessary conditions of political power. We find, interestingly, a fairly tight connection between the presence of the full Neolithic package in Brittany (domestication of grains and livestock, permanent dwellings, ceramics and metallurgy) and the appearance of menhirs, or megaliths (around 4700 B.C.E. ). The largest of them is 348 tons and would have been sixty-six feet high. It was dragged two-and-a-half miles. Excavation shows that the Grand Menhir was probably the terminal of eighteen of these things in increasing size. If all had been erected, the labor cost would have been huge. Like the pyramids of Egypt but two thousand years earlier, this is evidence for "coercive leadership on an unprecedented scale."

Along with the beginnings of politics--maybe even social thought?--in the Menhirs we may be witnessing also the beginnings of organized religion. Like Stonehenge across the water, these represent some attempt to make a cosmological statement. In late Bronze Age Scandinavia, we find a shift from inhumation to cremation, from chthonic deities to the sky god. The role of the sky was--perhaps, but Cunliffe is bold--emphasized by the use of the "sunship bird" motif: a solar disc carried on a boat whose prow and stern were swans. This is found on repousse bronzework and on bronze knives and razors. And the shift from collective to single burial must say something about the meaning of the individual.

With the Neolithic package, then, we are in a world which we may still unironically call the Old Regime. In his Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, Rousseau tried to explain the beginnings of agriculture, property and metallurgy, drawing on the best ethnographic writing of his day. In Europe Between the Oceans, Cunliffe shows us how archaeology can strip away much of the "conjecture" from conjectural history. Someone trying to tell Rousseau's story today would need to read this book.

The history of technology may be the ultimate demonstration of what the Romans meant by cultura, or the human transformation of the natural world. In the Neolithic we find both matter and space being transformed. Copper and gold were mined, our earliest evidence for this coming from the northwest of Bulgaria around 5100 B.C.E. Tin came from Cornwall. A commercial revolution brought them together, and a technological revolution made them one: thus was born the Bronze Age.

Ceramics, another means of taming fire and turning earth into truth and beauty, provides us not only with material culture, but also a window into the soul. "For many," Cunliffe remarks, "the plasticity of unfired clay provided a freedom for expressing identity by favouring particular shapes and kinds of decoration." Looking at some of the first European-made ceramics, he remarks that "Europe's early potters were brilliantly inventive. Their sense of form, space and colour was often stunning, and in sheer creativity they could hold their own with the best of modern craft potters."

The domestication of the horse and the development of wheeled transport helped to diffuse these inventions. We have no evidence for ships before 2600 B. C.E., but their perfected appearance at that point suggests that boat building must already have had a long history. The sail seems to have been introduced from Egypt sometime around 2000 B.C.E. But where we find things, there must also be thoughts. Cunliffe connects the dots in the Neolithic period: "Knowledge, particularly knowledge of distant places and people, became a desirable attribute for those who aspired to power." This was the world described in the Iliad and the Odyssey. The cultural prominence of those epics must reflect on some level a respect for those who voyaged into the distant unknown. "Encounters of this kind," Cunliffe observes, "pervading all corners of the European peninsula, brought people into contact and through such contact knowledge and ideas would have flowed. ... In Europe distances are not great and knowledge could spread rapidly. The networks of communication pulsated with the flow of information--stories of exotic lands and people, technological know-how, systems of values and beliefs." These are Cunliffe's main themes, and they make his book a model for all those interested in thinking about things.

Fascinatingly, Cunliffe frequently resorts to the image of pioneering to explain the spread of the Neolithic package across Europe: "there is no reason to suppose that the 'pioneer spirit' is a characteristic only of recent societies." As if mapping a pre-historic manifest destiny, he calculates that if a generation was twenty years, it would need a new settlement to be established at an average distance of only sixty kilometers--a three days' walk--from the previous generation's home for a culture to spread across 1,500 kilometers in five hundred years--as it did in Europe across the Hungarian Plain from 6500 B.C.E., eventually reaching the shores of the Atlantic by around 5000 B.C.E.

And where does this "pioneering spirit," or "pioneering ethic," come from? More than the spirit of adventure, Cunliffe wants us to see in our distant ancestors a curiosity that is our own inheritance. "All human beings want to know," Aristotle wrote. This is what spurred on those voyagers to the west. The hordes sprung ever anew from Central Asia and poured into Europe, perching on its Atlantic rim and staring out at the setting sun--before, eventually, building boats and following that sun to a new world.

Cunliffe asks us to imagine that when King Menelaus of Mycenae boasted in the Odyssey of his travels to Cyprus, Phoenicia, Egypt, Ethiopia, and Libya, he and his contemporaries might have been "driven by a curiosity to know what lay beyond." Thousands of years, but really no time at all, separates the Bronze Age Odysseus from the Renaissance Ulysses, who urged his crewmen into the uncharted Ocean beyond the Straits of Gibraltar with the words: "You were not made to live as brutes, but to pursue knowledge and virtue." Even less separates Dante's imagined hell from Primo Levi's real one, where his own urgent lunchtime lesson on Ulysses's speech hit him "like the blast of a trumpet, like the voice of God."

Cunliffe dares us to try and understand the people whose traces we encounter on the strand of time. He talks about their "psychological needs," and in doing so he testifies to our own. An academic generation ago, this might have been unseemly; and certainly Braudel, Cunliffe's hero, would never have stooped so low. Humans were not so interesting to him; he famously described their lives--our lives--as froth on the waves. And even though Cunliffe refers to this passage, he deftly slips its misguided punch. As in Goitein and McCormick, Cunliffe's world is a mosaic of faces in motion. And as in Weber and Wickham, movement is a mark of power, and power is something to be studied.

The elite in Bronze Age societies were elite because they were able to siphon off the wealth moving across their lands. Anyone in New York City this winter was able to walk into the reconstructed hull of a 3,400-year-old wreck in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and see for themselves just what this amounted to: 354 oxhide ingots of copper weighing ten tons, 120 bun-shaped copper ingots, pithoi packed with Cypriot pottery, and Canaanite amphorae with a ton of terebinth resin. Around this bulk cargo were ingots of tin weighting a ton, colored raw glass, scrap gold and silver, an elephant tusk cut into shells, two hippopotamus teeth, logs of Egyptian ebony, and ostrich shells. Additional items which may have belonged to the crew include two swords, one Syrian and one Mycenaean, Syrian pendants, a Mesopotamian cylinder seal, an Egyptian scarab, various Mycenaean pots, and a writing tablet.

Since natural constraints limited production, any surplus to be distributed in exchange for allegiance had to come from somewhere else. Disruption at any point in the system linking transport, trade, communications, and distribution strained agricultural productivity, leading to harsh extraction measures. These, in turn, drove agricultural populations away, leaving sophisticated palace cultures to collapse under the weight of their own needs. The fall of civilizations in Crete and Egypt c. 1300 B.C.E. under the onslaught of the Sea Peoples shows highly diversified societies falling apart when these connecting links were removed. In the same way, the Celtic migrations and the Scythian irruption one thousand or so years later shattered the trans-peninsular routes that created the wealthy Halstatt culture of the fifth century B.C.E., creating a new locus of power around previous fringe groups (so-called "La Tene" culture) who now controlled "the throughput of commodities."

As monumental as the Neolithic Revolution was, it left intact a major feature of social life. And as brilliant as was the conjecture of the eighteenth century's conjectural historians to set their pre-history of property to the rhythm of its spread, they missed something crucial about the performance of property. We have had to wait for twentieth-century anthropologists, for Marcel Mauss and his heirs, to see that in truly pre-modern societies relations between unequals were driven by the dynamics of gift exchange. Cunliffe, the archaeologist, here points us to where we find a final shift from gift-giving as an exchange of protection for obligation to exchange as a way of mediating more complex relationships between degrees of power and degrees of obligation: in the Nordic lands circa 200 B.C.E., and in the La Tene culture of Southern Germany even more recently. In the former, it was due to the severing of trading connections caused by hostile migrations; in the latter to access to goods coming across the Alps from the Mediterranean zone. These late adaptations remind us how very young Europe is as a culture, and how very revolutionary compared to other cultures, where gift exchange remains dominant almost to this day--and also how this unique product was created by an alchemy of North-South relations absolutely invisible from a Med-centric perspective.

In the end, of course, there is Rome, which is the destination of Cunliffe's analysis. Seen through the archaeologist's long lens, the problem for Rome was no different than that of all earlier societies, whatever their sophistication: how to expand the fixed holding capacity of land. With elites always grabbing more because they could do so (and this, functionally speaking, is still what defines elite status) land reform was one option (the Gracchi and Marius in the first century B.C.E.), and conquest, colonization, and the venting of excess population the other (Pompey, Caesar, Tiberius, and so on).

But on Cunliffe's reading, there was no golden age, no Antonine apogee from which to decline. The problem of holding capacity was always there, and the problem of marauding migrants was always there, too. The Republic was ravaged by the Celts in the third century B.C.E., and by the Germans in the first. Hadrian tried to secure the Empire's frontiers by conquest in the second century C.E., but he failed, leaving passive defense along the border the only option. Which is to say: waiting for the next wave of migrants to return. His grandson, Marcus Aurelius, sitting on that cold frontier with his troops waiting for the barbarians, knew that even the might of Rome could offer but a slight interruption to nature's course. He reflected that "time is like a river made up of events, and the current is strong; no sooner does anything appear than it is swept away, and another comes in its place, and will be swept away too."

It appears, then, that what the classicist and the classicizer alike might regard as the end of antiquity was but the return to a longer-term European equilibrium. This is quite a correction of perspective. The end of the Roman political regime in the midde of the first millenium marks the reversion to a world dominated by movement, and movement on the grand scale: long-haul routes across Eurasia, not mere Mediterranean puddle-jumping.

And this is still our world. Cunliffe points to the Vikings and their role in funding the migrant-kingdoms-coalescedinto-states of northern Europe--exactly where Pirenne started, nearly a century ago. But movement across Eurasia, and across the oceans, remains our reality. Karl Schlogel, the great German historian and political anthropologist, recently published a powerful book entitled Planet of Nomads. For him, the twentieth century C.E. represents both a continuation and an acceleration of vast movements of populations, owing to war, expulsion, immigration, or economics. For the single year 1993, the United Nations estimated that there were 100 million people on the move. Why are the millions of Europeans, Asians, Americans, and Africans who uprooted themselves over the past hundred years in search of a better life any different from the hordes who march across the pages of Cunliffe's book? There are all sorts of implications to be contemplated. Perhaps "migration art," for instance, ought not be limited to early medieval belt buckles and brooches, but could include the work of Nigerians in London or Kwakwaka'waka in Chicago. From our perch at the end of time, it is the nineteenth-century world of secure borders and fixed social orders that most resembles, like Marcus Aurelius's Roman Empire, an elaborate sandcastle on the beach as the tide again comes in. And the tide is always coming in.

Peter N. Miller is dean of the Bard Graduate Center in New York City.

By Peter N. Miller