Flying visits to ancestral homelands

The Penguin Historical Atlas of Ancient Civilisations
March 3, 2006

Bite-size knowledge is a publishing phenomenon. The success of books that distil the essence of their subject but do not intimidate is driven, ultimately, by usability, coverage, and purchase price. The wider the content, the more instantly accessible the main points, and the more visually informative the presentation, the more useful the book is to students fazed by the size of their reading lists. By these criteria, The Penguin Historical Atlas of Ancient Civilisations is a wise investment.

The organisation is simple but effective. The world is divided into five parts - "Ancient Near East", "African civilisations", "First civilisations of Asia", "First European civilisations" and "Ancient Americas" - within which each civilisation has an illustrated two-page spread. Thematic introductions provide context to each part, though they are sometimes clunky in organisation. Mesoamerica's Olmec civilisation appears twice in an awkward introduction to the Americas, and the introduction to Africa is dominated by issues pertaining to Egypt. Nevertheless, although overall the text is necessarily brief, it is adequate.

It is the maps and plans that make the book work and are its raison d'être .

Obvious topics such as the Minoans, Egyptians, Persians and Maya are supplemented by others on Greek colonisation, Sub-Saharan Africa, Vedic India, and the chiefdoms of the Pacific. Plans of Ur, Babylon, the Giza pyramids and early Rome are useful, but Inca Cuzco, Aztec Mexico City and any number of Asian examples, might have been helpful, too. How ancient civilisations conceived of and organised their living space is one of the most interesting issues such a book should emphasise.

More perhaps could have been made of thematic entries. The few included here are area specific: "The first farmers", "The first towns" and "Ziggurats" are all focused on the Near East. Literacy, art, warfare and pyramids are just a few of the topics that could have offered powerful insights from a global perspective in just a few pages.

Despite these absences, it is possible to flick through the whole book in a matter of minutes and gain an idea of the what, where and when of such varied cultures as the Sea Peoples, the Mound Builders, the Elamites and Zhou China, among others. This is, in my opinion, the most valuable aspect of any atlas of this kind. This publication lives up to its title, providing knowledge and a visual grasp of the ancient world at a glance. It is small and cheap, and one of those useful books that will live on long after student days.

Nicholas Saunders is in the department of anthropology, University College London.

The Penguin Historical Atlas of Ancient Civilisations

Author - John Haywood
Publisher - Penguin
Pages - 144
Price - £12.99
ISBN - 0 1410 1448 2

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