Notes from a small-island archaeologist

An Island Archaeology of the Early Cyclades
April 27, 2001

An interest in how humans live in, shape and are shaped by the landscapes they inhabit occupies a prominent place in contemporary archaeological discourse and forms a prominent theme in this book about living on and among islands. It deals specifically with island life in the Cycladic islands of the Aegean in the Neolithic and early Bronze Age, c.5000-2000BC, but it has much to interest anyone who is familiar with or who studies islands anywhere in the world. Cyprian Broodbank has two main goals: first, to write a history of the communities that inhabited the Cyclades over a period of nearly 3,000 years in the "prehistoric" past; and, second, to explore and, by example, refocus the practice of island archaeology as a world-wide phenomenon.

In his first chapter he offers a review of island archaeology as a global phenomenon, drawing on a range of cross-cultural examples, with an emphasis on the Pacific, where so much island archaeology has been practised recently. From this review, Broodbank draws some themes relevant to the practice of island archaeology that inform his own archaeology of the Cyclades. He rejects the idea of the unitary island as an effective unit of analysis and, to encapsulate the peculiarities of island life, coins the term islandscape. Islanders tend to have an oblique view combining land, coast, sea, horizon and sky, unlike the artificial view of a bounded island on modern maps. The sea, which we think of as separating island land masses, in fact acts as a link to resources and other communities.

In short, Broodbank argues that we should develop an archaeology of the sea, analogous in its sophistication and subtlety to that of the land, attentive to material culture as an indicator of the "fashioning of insularity", a clue to understanding social practices on islands, not simply the signature of chronological phases or cultural groups. Ultimately, he suggests, it is "just as interesting to see what people have made of islands as what islands have made of people".

Although he acknowledges his debt, Broodbank's historical approach represents a radical departure from that embodied in Colin Renfrew's The Emergence of Civilisation (1972), the first major synthesis of Cycladic prehistory.

Broodbank next sets the background - physical, chronological and intellectual - to the Cyclades and their study, including an account of the valuation by the contemporary art market of Cycladic marble objects and its catastrophic effect on our ability to appreciate their original uses. He outlines the major threads that run through the account of life in the prehistoric Cyclades: variation in islandscapes, environments and resources; general ways of living, including subsistence and community size (almost uniformly small); and movement, as reflected in the potential for and limitations on travel by sea with the maritime technology available.

The remaining chapters follow a loosely chronological sequence, emphasising the changing patterns of life over a 3,000-year period. Chapters four and five give a sophisticated reconstruction of the patterns of the first permanent colonisation of the Cyclades. They form a basis for an exploration of meaning in the cultures the colonisers developed in their islandscapes.

Chapter six takes us through to the early Bronze Age and introduces the technique of proximal point analysis, by which Broodbank models interconnections among the Cyclades, often with surprising results (given our modern perceptions of their geography) that nevertheless fit well with the distribution of archaeological materials. The next three chapters focus on the Early Bronze II period, the era of Cycladic culture most familiar to the popular imagination.

Chapter seven gives a detailed analysis of the distribution of habitation, again using proximal-point analysis to offer cogent explanations for the prominence of exceptional and otherwise inexplicable sites such as Daskaleio-Kavos and Chalandriani. Chapter eight offers a perceptive and stimulating interpretation of material culture and its meanings (from body decoration, through the paddled longboats crucial for communication and exchange, to metallurgy), while chapter nine, evocatively entitled "Ulysses without sails", examines external relations.

In chapter ten, Broodbank manages to cut through the dry questions relating to the correct identification and interpretation of a limited range of archaeological materials that obscure the end of the third millennium BC in the Cyclades, concluding that this was a period of profound change in the Cycladic communities, not a period of abandonment. His account of the transformative effects of the introduction of sailed seacraft at this time, making the islands directly accessible from outside, is a model in its sensitivity to the embededness of technology in the social sphere. Perhaps equally significant is his tantalising suggestion that this period saw the first emergence of individual island identities.

Chapter 11 follows with a well-judged account of the first major transformations in island living in the Cyclades wrought by outside powers - the first palaces of Minoan Crete. A concluding chapter pulls the threads of history and island archaeology together and suggests future directions for research.

A popular view of archaeology holds that it is all about new discoveries, but more often the best archaeology is about understanding the seemingly familiar in a new light. Broodbank has achieved just this in a book that transforms our understanding of the early Cyclades and deserves a wide readership, not just among those with a professional interest in the study of islands. His clear and accessible style, eschewing jargon, means that the book offers those intellectually adventurous travellers who ply today's Aegean on Broodbank's "ferry routes that... slice through ancient maritime networks like motorways through Aboriginal songlines" the opportunity to see beyond the seemingly timeless rhythms of modern Cycladic life to the "foreign country" of their past: a constellation of small, interlinked communities first established 7,000 years ago.

John Bennet is lecturer in Aegean prehistory, University of Oxford.

An Island Archaeology of the Early Cyclades

Author - Cyprian Broodbank
ISBN - 0 521 782 4
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £50.00
Pages - 414

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