Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2004.06.12

Peter M. M. G. Akkermans, Glen M. Schwartz, The Archaeology of Syria: From Complex Hunter-Gatherers to Early Urban Societies (ca. 16,000-300 BC). Cambridge World Archaeology.   Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2004.  Pp. xv, 476.  ISBN 0-521-79230-4.  $110.00 (hb).  ISBN 0-521-79666-0.  $40.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Geoffrey D. Summers, Settlement Archaeology, Middle East Technical University, Ankara (
Word count: 1415 words

Akkermans and Schwartz have written an excellent, wide ranging, up to date and engaging review of the later prehistory of Syria for the Cambridge University Press World Archaeology Series. The series, according to the publishers note, "is addressed to students and professional archaeologists, and to academics in related disciplines". And that is precisely what this particular volume does in a very clear and accessible manner. The Introduction and brief Conclusions, Chapters 1 and 12 are co-authored. Chapters 2 to 5, written by Akkermans, cover the late Pleistocene and Early Holocene: "2 Hunter-gatherers at the end of the Ice Age, 3 A changing Perspective: Neolithic beginnings, 4 The exploration of new horizons, 5 Continuity and change in the late sixth and fifth millennia BC". Of equal size, the second half of this volume comprises six chapters by Schwartz which take us from the fourth millennium to the end of the (pre-Hellenistic) Iron Age: "6 The fourth millennium BC and the Uruk intrusion, 7 Regionalization and local trajectories, 8 The "second Urban revolution" and its aftermath, 9 the regeneration of complex societies, 10 Empires and internationalism, 11 Iron Age Syria". As to be expected with such a wide-ranging survey, the useful bibliography runs to 55 pages. Footnotes, usefully placed at page bottom, are kept to a necessary minimum.

As the chapter titles indicate, this volume admirably succeeds in its intentions of providing a rounded overview of current knowledge about the archaeology of Syria interwoven with broader theoretical issues concerning Syria and its complex changing relationships with the Ancient Near East. The starting point, in the last Ice Age, needs no justification. The lower limit of the study is, however, justified on the grounds that while there is much cultural continuity "the establishment of the Macedonian Seleucid dynasty and its policy of Hellenization represents a significant change in Syrian History". One might add that, somewhat artificial though the division is, from the Hellenistic period onwards there exists a daunting quantity of epigraphic and historical material. More problematic is the concept of Syria. The area of concern tends to coincide with the borders of the modern nation state, but wherever necessary this study has ranged beyond those boundaries to include relevant evidence from neighboring countries. Inevitably there is some incongruity between the concept of a region called Syria and the modern country or, for that matter, the Roman province. Definition of the region, and of sub-regions, is further complicated by shifting parameters from the earlier to the later periods. One of the great strengths of this book is the authors' extensive first-hand knowledge of sites and material, which is clearly an overriding advantage.

Comments on particular aspects of the book will be restricted to broad issues. To be applauded is emphasis on the relationship between evolving environment and the beginnings of permanent settlement. The pace of new research in this area, not least at the crucial site of Göbekli Tepe, but also now in the Ilusu area of the Tigris headwaters, will expand the dimensions of our understanding but is unlikely, perhaps, to shake the foundations so clearly outlined by Akkermans. Turning now to the end of the neolithic it is of note that the recent trend of including the Halaf culture within the neolithic is followed. This scheme has the benefit of stressing socio-economic continuity, rather than suggesting that the Halaf phenomena represent some major development. Further, the evidence presented does not indicate anything other the smooth transition from Halaf into Ubaid. On the other hand, the designation of Halaf as neolithic represents a revision of earlier terminologies wherein Hassuna was seen as transitional from the late neolithic into the early chalcolithic of the Halaf. The main point, doubtless, is that terms such as "neolithic" and "chalcolithic" are becoming increasing less useful as soon as specific cultural assemblages are discussed. Be that as it may, students new to the Ancient Near East will need to be aware of this change, which may not find favor with all scholars if only because it goes against an older idea that the prolific occurrence of painted pottery in the Halaf, at Çatal Höyük West and at Hacilar (to take the best known examples and disregarding problems of relative chronology) is a convenient marker for the beginning of the chalcolithic.

Moving into the late chalcolithic Schwartz describes the Syrian evidence for an Uruk expansion, which he adroitly demonstrates is intrusive along the Syrian Euphrates. Possible causes of this expansion and its subsequent collapse are discussed and, sensibly, no firm conclusions reached. The first half of the third millennium in Syria is seen as a period of growing complexity and regionalization leading, in the middle of the millennium to "the full-fledged adoption of urban life and its associated institutions". From the rise of Ebla onwards three aspects become even more dominant; regionalization, ethnic diversity and the impact of neighboring powers. The growing prominence of these aspects reflects, of course, the wealth of information that becomes available from written sources from both within and beyond Syria. Nevertheless the thrust of the book continues, true to its title, to concentrate on the archaeology, with enlightening and pertinent reference to textual evidence used to illuminate particular issues. The breath of the survey is excellent with sufficient references provided for the reader to be able to delve deeper into any issue.

In discussing the collapse of Late Bronze Age states Schwartz is rightly cautious about attributing widespread destruction and abandonment solely to the Sea Peoples. The ensuing Iron Age is characterized by the growing dominance of aggressively expansive empires, Neo-Assyrian, Neo-Babylonian and Persian, the centers of which lay beyond Syria. Coastal development, parallel in time, is seen in the growth and expansion of Phoenicia, the evidence for which, as the book laments, is mostly buried beneath later urban centers. The complexity of the relationships between foreign imperial rule and Phoenicia, as well as the mechanisms by which Greek influence spread along the Syrian coast, is reflected in the overlapping discussions in the consecutive sections entitled "Phoenicians and Greeks on the Syrian coast" and "Neo-Babylonians and Achaemenid Persians". Discussion about the nature of Al Mina, at the mouth of the Orontes River, highlights the impossibility of resolving the question of whether or not is was a Greek colony by means of repeatingly studying sherds of pottery. The penultimate chapter, on the Iron Age, highlights the extent and importance of the differences between polities and empires of the Late Bronze Age and those of the Iron Age. That much of interest is barely, if at all, mentioned reflects the enormous amount of available material that required squashing into the all too few pages that were allowed by the balanced structure of the entire volume.

Profuse, clear, well-chosen and well-placed illustrations, some specially prepared, are integral to the book. Some might be disturbed by the westward extension of the border between the modern states of Syria and Turkey that isolates the Amuq from both on all of the maps. The inclusion of one or more maps showing Syria in relation to the larger area of the Near East and the Eastern Mediterranean would have been helpful to non-specialists.

It is inevitable, and no fault, that the two halves of the clearly written text exhibit some differences in style. These perhaps give some additional emphasis to differences between the earlier periods and those beginning with the impact of literate urban civilization from the south in the fourth millennium. Doubtless this division is false but, as the authors note in their concluding chapter, the use of "ecofactual data", and indeed of environmental archaeology in its most general sense, continues to hold a less emphatic position in the archaeology of more complex societies where emphasis has (naturally) tended towards investigation of more monumental remains. To niggle, English readers might be irritated by frequent use of "hypothesized", while the awkward "civilizational" occurs twice.

To conclude, the authors are to be thanked for making their broad spread of shared knowledge together with their deep insights into the archaeology of Syria available in such an accessible fashion. It will, of course, serve as a textbook, but that is no more than a part of its great value as a stimulating overview of a vast and rapidly advancing subject. This volume should find a place on the shelf of every student and scholar involved in the archaeology of the Ancient Near East in general, not only specialists in Syria, as well as in university and public libraries.

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