Friday, May 10, 2013

World Atlas of Archaeology by Nick Constable

A beautiful survey of the world’s ancient civilizations
In the World Atlas of Archaeology, Nick Constable boldly attempts to sum up the totality of the world’s ancient civilizations in under two hundred pages. Fortunately for the reader, he succeeds surprisingly well. The book is divided into eleven regions, with a chapter each on Africa, Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece, Rome, Western Europe, Central and Northern Europe, Russia and Central Asia, the Far East, Australia and Oceania, and the Americas. Each chapter is divided into anywhere from six to twelve articles devoted to a particular archaeological site. Constable devotes equal coverage to the lives of the inhabitants of these ancient civilizations and the latter-day explorers who discovered their remains. In its accessible tone and ease of readability, the text resembles a series of National Geographic articles, yet it presupposes a basic level of knowledge and enthusiasm on the part of the reader and doesn’t dumb down the subject matter. British spelling is used throughout the text (e.g. “colonisation”, “centred”), but beyond that there is an inexcusable number of typographical errors, including one map that’s completely mislabeled. The errors are even more unforgivable considering this is a revised edition.

This volume is not an atlas in the traditional sense of the word, as the cartography takes a back seat to the text, but the maps are certainly a main attraction. They are attractive, easy to read, and uncluttered with a lot of superfluous information. The illustrations, such as reconstructive renderings of ancient buildings or cities, are very well executed, and the photographs have been judiciously selected both for context and aesthetics. Overall it is a beautifully illustrated and well designed book, with one major exception. At the bottom of each page there is a running timeline of events, which serves more as a graphic element than a useful addition to the text. The timeline restarts at the beginning of each new chapter, yet the events in the chronology bear little correlation to the subject matter of the chapter in which they appear. It’s as if a random collection of events from all over the world have been thrown together and arranged in chronological order. If the idea is to show a comparison between the state of different civilizations during a corresponding period, this could have been accomplished much more effectively by combining the eleven regions into one comparative timeline in the back of the book, executed with the same graphic quality as the excellent maps. As it stands, however, the running timeline is simply an annoyance, and after a while I learned to ignore it.

New archaeological discoveries are being made all the time, and although the revised edition of this book was published in 2009, like any collection of scientific research it’s already starting to show some signs of age. The section on Ötzi the “Iceman,” for instance, goes into quite a bit of detail about the life of this Neolithic European, but it makes no mention of the fact that he was murdered, a much publicized recent discovery. Nevertheless, the World Atlas of Archaeology is an admirable encapsulation of the current body of knowledge on humanity’s past. Even if you consider yourself pretty well versed in the field, you’re likely to gain considerable insight into some corner of the globe with which you are less familiar. This book doesn’t pretend to be a scientific treatise; its purpose is to inspire wonder and curiosity in the armchair tomb raider. To that end it is immensely successful.

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