Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2015.09.16 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2015.09.16

Emma Blake, Social Networks and Regional Identity in Bronze Age Italy.   Cambridge; New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2014.  Pp. xiv, 325.  ISBN 9781107063204.  $99.00.  

Reviewed by Gert Jan van Wijngaarden, University of Amsterdam (


The book under review is in line with the growing popularity of Social Network Analysis in archaeology. The Mediterranean region in particular is witnessing a surge in studies on ancient networks and their significance for cultural development in different regions and periods. The importance of maritime connectivity has eloquently been made clear by N. Horden and P. Purcell,1 C. Broodbank2 and several others. Social Network Analysis is emerging as a powerful tool to quantitatively map and evaluate connectivity and its effects on material culture.3 Time will tell whether this popularity of Social Network Analysis constitutes a veritable paradigm shift in the study of the ancient Mediterranean. But it does lead to new perspectives on established fields in archaeology, of which this book is an example.

Among the publications about networks in the ancient Mediterranean, Emma Blake’s book is special for a number of reasons. First of all, it specifically addresses local and regional connections among groups of prehistoric people, rather than long-distance exchanges, which are the focus of many other studies. Related to this is the fact that the book reconstructs land-based networks, probably augmented by riverine and coastal routes. Even though the mode of transport, in principle, is of secondary concern in network analysis, many Mediterranean studies are about maritime connections. Thirdly, the book is not so much concerned with reconstructing economies and trade relations, or even with material culture in general. Rather, it specifically addresses group identity formation over a long period. By doing so, it provides a fresh perspective on prehistoric Italy. In other words, this is an important book, both for the development of network analysis in archaeology as for our understanding of prehistoric Italy.

The introduction to the book explains the main goal of the author, which is to investigate the origins of the regional groupings in Italy during the first millennium BC, which we know through Roman sources. The basic hypothesis of the book is that many of the ethnic groups that were eventually conquered by the Romans, have their origins in networks of contact during the much earlier periods of the Recent and Final Bronze Ages (ca. 1300-900 BCE). The book’s goal came as a surprise to this reviewer, since it essentially means that the Bronze Age is studied in this book to explain regionalism in a later period, rather than to understand better the Bronze Age itself.

The basic hypothesis of the book causes the author to argue for a connection between patterns of contact and identity formation. This is done in Chapter 1, but more fundamentally in Chapter 3 on the connections between social networks and regional identities. This chapter gives a solid overview of the difficulties to study group identity and, especially, ethnicity by means of archaeology. Not explicitly mentioned is the particular practice of archaeology in Italy, which relies heavily on minute culture-historical classifications of archaeological artifacts and methods of seriation to identify cultural groups. This practice could also account, at least partly, for the strong regionalism that is apparent in Italian prehistory. Blake makes a very interesting choice for a framework in which ethnic identity can be studied as a process that encompasses various stages. This theoretical framework is coupled with the notion of Path Dependence, which underlines the necessity to study identity formation in sufficient time depth. The result is that the basic hypothesis of the book is theoretically well-anchored.

The Italian Bronze Age is a difficult period in which to study material interactions, since the archaeological record shows a fairly homogeneous material culture over a large area. In order to study the Bronze Age networks of contacts, Blake uses recognizable imports and specialized products, which are discussed in detail in Chapter 2. A wide range of such products are presented, ranging from Aegean pots to amber beads and glass items, to metal jewelry, weapons and tools and even the presence of donkeys. One of the problems with this approach is that the author does not qualify in any way the differences between these types of objects. Socketed shovels, for example, are considered in exactly the same way as jewelry, weapons or imitated pottery. The social significance of these items in different types of interaction is ignored. However, at various points in the book it is stated that these objects may be considered as valuables, suggesting a social aspect to the artifacts. Another problematic point is that the ways in which these objects are recognized as foreign, or ‘specialized’ is not addressed, thus avoiding the possibility that their foreignness is to some degree the result of archaeological classification. At the end of Chapter 2, Blake acknowledges many of the problems that are inherent in relying on identifiable imports. I would agree with her that, given the nature of the archaeological evidence, we have little else to study interaction. However, precisely in Italy where many material categories have been subject to various kinds of analytical study,4 I feel that a differentiation among different groups of objects with regards to function or provenance would have been necessary, as well as possible.

The network approach is introduced in Chapter 3, but discussed in detail in Chapter 4. The author warns us that this chapter may be fairly dry and she advises the reader to skip ahead to its conclusion. I would disagree with her, since I found this an excellent explanation of formal network analysis. The approach is based on the assumption that the presence of the same item at different sites is indicative of interaction between them. A geographic aspect is introduced by assuming that direct interaction is likely when such a co-presence of objects occurs at sites that are situated not more than 50 kilometers from each other. The type of site (burial, settlement, hoard etc.) is taken into consideration, but the initial overview in Chapter 4 is based on settlement and burial sites only. Together with the range of artefacts considered, these criteria lead to several networks that cover parts of the peninsula. In the Recent Bronze Age, one enormous network can be distinguished in north-eastern Italy, with an extension into the Apennines. In contrast, in the Final Bronze Age, the author shows us several smaller autonomous networks. It would have been interesting to include Sicily, the Aeolian Islands, Sardinia and the north-western Balkans in the methodology, since several parts of Italy, which now appear to have been somewhat left out of the main networks, such as Calabria, probably were interacting with these nearby overseas regions. Nevertheless, the overview in Chapter 4 clearly shows the potential of Social Network Analysis to map networks over a long period of time, noting significant changes in the patterns of interactions.

Chapters 5 to 8 discuss in detail the networks in different regions of Italy during the Recent and Final Bronze Ages. The author uses these chapters to adjust and vary the criteria that led to the networks that were introduced in Chapter 4. For example, hoards and undefined find spots are taken into account as well, and the effect on the networks is studied. Also, in the case of Etruria (Chapter 6), an additional material group, local ceramics, is introduced into the network that is otherwise based upon imports and specialized products. The inclusion of these local ceramics make clear that the RBA network in Etruria is connected to Le Marche and Umbria. Very interesting is the discussion on what happens when the factor distance is left out, leading to networks based on artifacts only. This enables the author to distinguish between networks resulting from local and regional contacts and networks in which long-distance contact play a significant role. An important conclusion is that a distinction should be made in southern Italy (Chapter 8) between networks in which Aegean pottery circulated and in which foreign agents may have played a significant role and networks in which other objects circulated and which may have been primarily due to local and regional interaction. These chapters contain several such observations on aspects of Italian prehistory, which become visible through the fresh perspective of network analysis.

Blake’s detailed regional discussion also shows some of the problems involved in the adopted approach. A particularly worrying point is that several networks appear to be founded on very few objects only. For example, a sub-network of 4 connected sites is visible in the Recent Bronze Age in Northern Italy (Chapter 5), each of the sites having one Matrei A knife only. There are several of these cases and one wonders what happens to these networks with the discovery of new finds. Indeed, considering the rate of publication of archaeological materials, the fact that many nodes are identified on very few materials constitutes a significant problem. Moreover, for different networks, different parameters are introduced. For example, to connect the Etrurian network of the FBA with Latium, the possibility of finds from Rome is introduced, which, to date, are purely speculative. These different parameters make the networks hard to compare and sometimes shed doubts on their reliability.

The networks that are identified in this book are evaluated by comparing them to the established archaeological narrative. Regularly, the book shows that additions or adaptations of the established view are necessary, for example, in the case of the Canegrate culture in northern Italy that seems to be have interacted more with the Terramare culture than hitherto thought. However, most networks appear to confirm the established archaeological picture. Actually, only a limited number of networks have been exposed by the author, with large parts of the peninsula seemingly void of interaction networks. The strongest networks that are identified are those of the FBA in the north-east of Italy (Garda and the Veneto) and those from the same period in south Etruria. The author argues that these may indeed be the precursors of identifiable ethnic groups in during the Iron Age. Even if this could be the case, it is also clear that other ethnic groups identified in Roman literature do not have such a precursor. Moreover, these two groups of networks show substantial differences in their extent, the materials on which they are based and the degree to which they actually survive into the Iron Age, which is not the case in Etruria. In the end, the author fails to convince this reviewer that regional identities in Iron Age Italy are primarily shaped by much earlier networks. By exploring this hypothesis, however, considerable insight in the archaeology of Bronze Age Italy is gained.

As stated above, this book is also important for its clear application of Social Network Analysis. The identification of connected nodes on the basis of imports and specialized items clearly shows the importance of local and regional communications and exchanges on cultural developments. Moreover, because the networks are discussed in the context of broader archaeological narratives, a highly interesting perspective on the Bronze Age of Italy emerges. Unfortunately, the book does not address the nature of the interactions that are supposed to be the basis of these networks. Surely, objects that circulate in systems of (gift) exchange constitute different archaeological markers than similar objects gained by conquest or theft. Also, it would have been helpful, especially for the non-informed reader, if some of the archaeological objects on which the interactions are identified had been depicted. Nevertheless, this book is an important contribution that will enable readers to assess the significance of Social Networks Analysis in archaeology.


1.   Horden, P., N. Purcell 2000. The Corrupting Sea. A Study of Mediterranean History, Oxford: Blackwell.
2.   Broodbank, C. 2013. The Making of the Middle Sea. A History of the Mediterranean from the Beginning to the Emergence of the Classical World, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
3.   Knappett, C. 2013. Network Analysis in Archaeology: New Approaches to Regional Interaction, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
4.   Jones, R., S.T. Levi, M. Bettelli, L. Vagnetti, 2014. Italo-Mycenaean Pottery: The Archaeological and Archaeometric Dimensions, Roma: CNR – Istituto di Studi Mediterraneo Antico.

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