The continuity of coastal lives

Facing the Ocean
August 24, 2001

"This is the book I have wanted to write for a lifetime," claims Barry Cunliffe on the dust jacket of his latest work, Facing the Ocean: The Atlantic and its Peoples . Certainly it is an ambitious volume, chronicling "almost 10,000 years of human life" along the Atlantic coasts of Europe from the Isles of Shetland to the Straits of Gibraltar.

The dust jacket goes on to state: "It is not often that a new idea enters the world of ancient and medieval history, but in Facing the Ocean Cunliffe presents a fresh approach that will change our view of the European past." This is a grand claim. Cunliffe's "new approach" is to state that the Atlantic was a natural route of communication for thousands of years, resulting in the formation of common values and beliefs at varying levels and to varying degrees among the peoples who lived along its coasts.

This idea is of course not new. As Cunliffe himself records, the use of the Atlantic coastline as a broad corridor of communication promoting cultural similarities in the past was recognised by many archaeologists and geographers - most famously by Sir Halford Mackinder, O. G. C. Crawford, Sir Cyril Fox and V. G. Childe - writing as early as the first half of the 20th century when archaeology was in its infancy and dominated by now discredited theories of geographical determinism and cultural diffusionism.

In common with these early scholars, Cunliffe believes that geography provides the essential framework that constrains and empowers human action. But here the similarities with previous approaches end. Cunliffe is not making a claim for cultural uniformity throughout the Atlantic: he is only too aware that many of the communities within this vast, complex area display distinctive and even at times contrasting characteristics. Nevertheless, he clearly demonstrates that, by standing back from the detail, the cultural similarities along the Atlantic coastal area appear remarkable, something that can be explained only by the spread of knowledge and beliefs along the Atlantic seaways over thousands of years.

Facing the Ocean is a remarkable achievement. Cunliffe has produced a measured and masterfully executed account of the long-term development of Atlantic communities and their maritime connections, bringing together for the first time a staggering amount of material. His story begins in around 8000BC with the coastal hunter-gatherer societies of the Mesolithic taking tentative trips to sea in log boats, and ends around AD1500, by which time Atlantic maritime culture and technology had advanced sufficiently to undertake voyages of discovery to the Americas.

Cunliffe considers not only the evidence for seafaring throughout the period but also the evidence for more general similarities in the organisation of settlements and societies. He identifies three main cycles of Atlantic contacts. In the first, the prehistoric cycle (from c . 8000-700BC), he charts the development of systems of gift exchange and reciprocity in the Atlantic zone, culminating in the first few centuries of the first millennium BC with the widespread exchange of thousands of distinctive bronze metalwork types.

The proto-historic cycle (800BC-AD400) is marked by an apparent lessening in the intensity of contacts along the Atlantic coasts - at least in terms of the movements of objects - as Atlantic communities were gradually drawn into Europe-wide networks of exchange. In the historic cycle ( c . AD400-1500), the Atlantic networks were reinvigorated and "the maritime regions came together to create the most dynamic and productive commercial zone Europe had ever experienced".

Only by the end of the book can one fully appreciate its scope. By the 15th century AD, the communities of Atlantic Europe were ready to face the challenges of the open ocean, and within a century the ocean had been crossed many times and the world had been circumnavigated: "The Atlantic, once the end of the world, was now the beginning."

The richness of the natural resources of the Atlantic region itself is discussed at various points. The Atlantic coastal lands are composed predominantly of old, hard mineralised rocks and feature a range of rare raw materials, from fine stone to metal deposits such as tin, copper, gold and silver. Cunliffe argues that the restricted distribution of these deposits - along with the extensive marine food resources of the Atlantic - stimulated and promoted contacts throughout the zone, their very existence being "a goad to travel and exploration".

Another recurrent theme is the sea as "an ever present force of raw energy which has to be contained by the belief systems and behaviour patterns of the people who live within its compass". Although Cunliffe has a tendency to romanticise the sea, it seems likely that the sea as a powerful natural feature would have affected the world view of communities living beside it. In the prehistoric period, religious attitudes to winds, tides and the forces that control the sea may have been as important in the creation of belief systems as seasonality was to agrarian societies. The apparent lunar emphasis in megalithic ritual practice, for example, implies that tidal regimes may have been seen as important from an early date in Atlantic areas.

Cunliffe also highlights the ritual connotations of sea-girt promontories, which have a long pedigree from the siting of burial monuments in the Neolithic through to the building of Christian churches and cemeteries in the first millennium AD. The reuse (or continued use) of these liminal locations throughout the prehistoric and historic periods might be seen as a conscious effort to be associated with the sea as a place of spiritual power. Whether this shared experience of the sea resulted, as Cunliffe claims, in Atlantic communities developing an "oceanic mentality" or "a mindset that is markedly different from that of the dwellers of the Continental interior", is more difficult to say.

Cunliffe's approach highlights one of the main advantages of the archaeologist's perspective as opposed to that of the historian: the ability to consider long-term processes occurring over a broad geographic area, allowing the definition of "the underlying consistencies that bind communities together and the rhythms that moderate their development over long periods of time". In taking this broad perspective, Cunliffe will undoubtedly be criticised by some for being too general. Any synthesis of a large body of material is open to such criticism, as by its very nature it has to be highly selective. Cunliffe's skill lies in knowing just what to highlight and what to leave out from the mass of data available. It is a testament to his achievement that the book hangs together so well as a single work.

Although the book will be of great interest to professional archaeologists and historians, it has been written with a general audience in mind. As a result, the style is very readable and sustains interest throughout. The frustrating aspect for the academic however is that to keep the text free of scholarly clutter, no references have been included. There is a bibliographic essay at the end, but as it quotes mainly well-known general works, it is of limited value to the specialist. On a more positive note, the book is lavishly illustrated with colour graphics, photographs and maps.

As a synthesis of an understudied zone in archaeology, this book has been much needed and should be wholeheartedly welcomed. Most importantly, perhaps, it challenges the widely held notion, within archaeology at least, of Atlantic Europe as a peripheral area that had little role to play in the mainstream of European prehistory and development. Such a notion should now be seen as untenable, the result more of a focus on the Mediterranean by archaeologists themselves than a true reflection of the vitality and innovative nature of Atlantic communities.

Jon C. Henderson is lecturer in archaeology, University of Nottingham.

Facing the Ocean: The Atlantic and its Peoples, 8000BC-AD1500

Author - Barry Cunliffe
ISBN - 0 19 924019 1
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £25.00
Pages - 600

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