Monday, September 28, 2020

Handbook to Life in Prehistoric Europe by Jane McIntosh

Vast range of time and space
For anyone interested in archaeology, the Handbook to Life series from Oxford University Press is a great set of books on ancient cultures and civilizations, including volumes on Greece, Rome, and Egypt, as well as the Aztecs and the Maya. Unlike those volumes focusing on one particular culture, Handbook to Life in Prehistoric Europe, published in 2006, is much broader in scope. Geographically, its range encompasses the entire continent, and chronologically, it covers a time span from the first appearance of homo species in Europe around 800,000 BC to the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century AD. It does not cover classical Greece and Rome, because they cannot be said to be prehistoric, but rather the cultures that existed outside those empires, such as those the Romans would have considered “barbarians.”

Like all the books in the series, this Handbook to Life begins with a substantial chronological overview, followed by a series of thematically organized chapters focusing on different aspects of life, such as agriculture, dwellings and settlements, trade, religion, burial practices, warfare, language, and apparel. Each thematic chapter proceeds from the general to the specific, breaking down its topic into categories that focus on, for example, the use of specific natural resources, different types of dwellings, or classes of weapons. Often included are brief descriptions of archaeological digs where examples of the artifacts or practices discussed have been uncovered.

Unlike the Romans or the Aztecs, it is difficult to make blanket statements about how daily life was lived in prehistoric Europe. Because of the vast area and time span considered, there is very little that unifies the various cultures and civilizations discussed. One can make generalities about Bronze Age and Iron Age technologies, for example, but those technologies developed at different rates in different regions of the continent. As a result, the text often reads like an inconclusive hodgepodge of data, expressed in the form of, “Some people did this; some people did that.” If you want to learn about a specific people, such as the LBK culture, the Etruscans, or the Scythians, you’d have to consult the index and hopscotch around for bits and pieces of data. For that reason, this book is probably more useful as a reference than as a cover-to-cover read. The Celts, who were widespread throughout western Europe, are the one group that are examined extensively throughout the book and pretty much dominate every chapter.

What this book does very well is give the reader an idea of what archaeologists look for at a prehistoric dig site, how they interpret their findings, and the methods and techniques they use to analyze and date artifacts. One of this book’s weaknesses is its illustrations, which seem to be treated as an afterthought. Most are drawings of artifacts pulled from 19th century textbooks. There are very few photographs. The maps, as typical of this series, are very well done. Overall, I didn’t enjoy this volume as much as others I’ve read in the series, but there is no denying it is packed full of valuable information. Author Jane McIntosh has done an admirable job compiling a comprehensive volume on this vast range of time and space. Oxford would have done better, however, to break this up into a few focused volumes on different ages or regions.
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