Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2017.02.29 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.02.29

Margreet L. Steiner, Ann E. Killebrew (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of the Archaeology of the Levant c. 8000-332 BCE. Oxford handbooks in archaeology.   Oxford; New York:  Oxford University Press, 2014.  Pp. xxi, 885.  ISBN 9780199212972.  $175.00.  

Reviewed by Thomas Kiely, British Museum (

The Roman jurist Cassius Longinus is said to have begun every case put before him with the simple interrogative Cui bono—who benefits? A strange question with which to start an academic book review perhaps, but when confronted by an expensive scholarly behemoth of the kind under scrutiny here, one that claims to provide a comprehensive, up-to-date and—more tellingly—ground-breaking approach to the subject, the question is not merely whether the contents reflect the title but also if the editors and authors have been well served by their publishers to whom they have entrusted their scholarship. At £110 one wonders if the chief beneficiaries are the publishers who continuously exploit the trend for volumes promising to be the comprehensive handbooks, companions and encyclopaedias that scholarship clearly needs, but whose quality, coherence and usefulness varies wildly—despite the best efforts of many of the contributors.

At the outset, it is only fair to say that the editors of this 58-chapter and almost 900-page compendium on the archaeology of the Levant between around 10,000 BC and the conquests of Alexander the Great, deserve to be congratulated on their attempt to present an up-to-date survey for scholars and advanced students. The scale, scope and aims of the book are certainly impressive, especially since even the most assiduous and energetic modern reader could not possibly master the geographical and temporal range presented here. Writing as a Cypriot specialist, it is great to see a very full and coherent inclusion of the island (chapters 18, 24, 32, 38, 43, and 53), while my broader Bronze and earlier Iron Age interests appreciate the accessible overviews of both earlier and later periods. Many regional or chronological specialists will find much useful comparative material in the clusters of essays on the Neolithic (Part IIIA), Chalcolithic (IIIB), Early and Intermediate Bronze Age (IIIC), Middle Bronze Age (IIID), Late Bronze Age (IIIE), Iron Age I (IIIF), Iron Age II (IIIG). The last period alone is represented by a dozen chapters, though with a narrower geographical coverage than the essays in the preceding sections. All but one of these chronologically defined groups of papers are prefaced by useful commentaries on the main themes emerging from the succeeding essays.

Furthermore, the increasing demands for cross-cultural and inter-regional teaching and research are such that volumes of this sort are absolutely necessary to avoid the balkanisation of the subject that has emerged with ever-greater specialisation and modern political frameworks. The latter is an under-current of much of the book, even if somewhat replicated though the organisation of the chronological sections of the book according to more-or-less modern political units (as Sherratt notes in chapter 33). Add to this the practical problems of conducting research in much of the region which—as the multiple tragedies unfolding in Syria and Iraq demonstrate—is once against plagued by crisis. Accessible overviews of this region have never been more needed to remind modern readers of its rich archaeological diversity, how our understanding has been distorted and occluded by successive interest groups, and why we should care about and study it, especially in an era of severe economic stress for academic programmes and public museums.

Yet despite the editors’ laudable concern to cut across the traditional boundaries of the subject, it is questionable if they have entirely succeeded in this aim, or indeed convincingly justified why the Levant—as defined in the Introduction (pp. 1–3 and see below)—should continue to be seen as a ‘natural’ unit of study and especially as a long-term cross-roads between surrounding areas (especially empires). This old cliché still has some truth about it, but only if carefully argued with the help of more fully integrated presentation of long(er)-term trends. While issues of geography and climate are discussed throughout the book by individual authors, these fundamental parameters should have been explored at the outset as part of the definition of the Levant. This is not adequately provided by Suriano’s contribution (chapter 1) on historical geography. Most of the historical citations are biblical, with quite limited use of other textual data; while his discussions of landscape development—the actual descriptions of geography landscape, region by region, are supported by a handful of poorly (and sometimes inaccurately) labelled relief maps and neither will help the uninitiated—are minimal and the references lack some quite basic works such as Toby Wilkinson’s seminal Archaeological Landscapes of the Near East.1 On a micro-scale, across the volume as a whole there is no attempt to integrate discussions of key sites (or favoured areas) with long habitation histories which feature in successive chapters. A diachronic approach, perhaps with focused boxes for major sites or regions, would surely have helped to illustrate longer-term patterns for both the inexperienced and the specialist alike.

The editors wisely resisted the initial invitation to produce a handbook of biblical archaeology, opting instead for a more holistic framework, though the Iron Age II sections includes some suspiciously recusant biblical geographical entities (Israel, Judah, Ammon, and Moab). Yet it is not at all clear how and why the basic parameters of the actual volume came to be defined. Why, for example, begin with the Neolithic, thus omitting the region’s arguably most significant contribution as a genuine bridge in the spread of modern homo sapiens, and leaving the hardly less seismic millennia immediately prior to 10,000 BC—the extended Epipalaeolithic prelude to developments in the Neolithic? The exception is Clark’s overview of the relevant period on Cyprus (chapter 13), but this is a necessary prelude to much of her subsequent argument. Other authors in this section handle these issues in passing (notably Goring-Morris and Belfer-Cohen in chapter 11). What is lacking is a focused overview of current thinking on the subject of Neolithic origins (though see Finlayson’s editorial in chapter 9).

At the other end of the scale, it seems somewhat perverse to end the book with the Achaemenids as if the region’s constant interaction with its imperial neighbours—defined from the beginning as a key theme of the volume (and facilitated via four useful chapters on the role of Egypt, the Hittites, the Assyrians/Babylonians and Persians in shaping Levantine cultures and identities external players: chapters 5 to 8 by Mumford, Klengel, Schneider and Elayi respectively)—somehow ended with the appearance of Alexander the Great. One might ask why the impact of Ptolemaic, Seleucid and Roman/Byzantine interventions would not be of importance here—in all three of these cases, one can argue or at least search for the existence of local cultural and material identities nestling within larger political entities. Conversely, this basic approach is arguably questionable in itself and all too easily translates the metaphor of the ‘Levant as bridge’ into ‘Levant as doorstop’, placing too much emphasis on older metanarratives or even on more recent post-colonial concerns with issues of dominance versus resistance as a stifling polarity. Furthermore, the fact that Steiner, in her introduction to the Iron Age II, ponders the limited material influence of the Assyrians, Babylonians and Persians in their conquered territories, suggests that the following chapters have not addressed this question sufficiently.

Space may have been an issue, but the decision to include over 160 pages of individual chapter bibliographies, with the abundant repetition that this entails, is highly questionable in a digital age—though admittedly striking a balance between print and digital media remains a challenge. At almost two kilograms, this is not really a book to read on the bus or in bed so it seems misguided to devote almost 20% of the expensive (especially to non-Western scholars) hardcopy to material that could have been published online, leaving the printed version—and the typically over-priced digital downloads—for texts and, more importantly, images. The limited number (and sometimes quality) of the latter is an unconscionable aspect of a volume claiming to be a handbook. While some authors have squeezed an admirable range of material into their choices for graphic support, others seem not to have bothered much (or indeed at all). The maps are also generally inadequate throughout, both in terms of design—the lack of even token attempts at showing the complex topography of the area is hopeless—and content. The latter is often vague, inconsistent and inaccurateFor example, on Fig. 1.2, Larnaca and Kition are different sites, the latter near the mouth of the Tremithos river; the Mesaoria plain (spelt ‘Messaria’) is represented as a place; random and irrelevant locations are included (e.g. Pano Amiandos and Zygi) while others of importance are omitted (e.g. Enkomi and Palaepaphos). In other areas, Gaza/Tell el-Ajjul moves around even within its limited cartographic box, while Hazor’s location is also mutable. Constantly repeated modern national boundaries, which we should be thinking across in this context, are unnecessary and distracting details given the absence of other more useful lines on the map, such as river courses. These are rarely labelled and appear or disappear between successive versions of the same area. Overall, it is somewhat alarming to read the acknowledgements to the graphic artist ‘who struggled with the (sometimes very) approximate maps that the contributors provided’ (p. 4). A more proactive and integrated approach, and certainly more investment from the publisher, would surely have benefitted this aspect of the volume.

Yet space cannot be the sole reason. The final two essays, on the Babylonian (Zorn, chapter 54) and Achaemenid (Lehmann, chapter 55) periods, abandon the multi-authored and multi-regional approach completely—though here Cyprus is also an exception, as Iacovou surveys the entire later Iron Age in chapter 53—in favour of rather short and inadequate surveys of the periods in question. The section therefore also lacks the editorial overview provided in earlier chronological surveys. While Lehmann rightly observes that political and material developments are not directly related, but also that the material culture of this period has been neglected in favour of textual data, it is odd that the chapter did not address this specific issue, at least with a few focused case studies that would set a good methodological example for future work. The text lacks a single illustration, and for examples of the coins discussed in a sub-section (p. 848) one has to turn to Elayi’s excellent historical survey back in chapter 8 or to Iacovou in chapter 55 for similar coverage. This is unfortunate because this is an ideal context in which to place discussions about the origins and dynamics of regional cultural and material identities within broader imperial structures, including the interplay of Achaemenid, Hellenising and diverse local elements across the region in the century before the conquests of Alexander.

So, cui bono? It is unfortunate to conclude that this is not really a handbook in any meaningful sense, that the uneven and at times neglectful treatment of material culture in some sections is disappointing, and that the volume is more of a vast and at times somewhat unprincipled compendium (though of often very good scholarship). This is regrettable because, apart from the qualities of the individual contributions in the diachronic or thematic sections, such as Gzella on peoples and languages (chapter 2) and Sharon on the complexities of chronology (chapter 4), some of the period clusters fit at least together quite nicely, even if the authors do not explicitly cross-reference their neighbours. Likewise, the commentators on the individual sections generally do an excellent job in making overall sense of the theme. Perhaps had the publishers invested more in the basic presentation of the book and given the authors—and perhaps editors—far more scope for better visualizing the masses of data cited, they would have provided a better investment for the punter.

In the Introduction, by way of defining their understanding of the Levant as a cultural unit, the editors set aside what they see as a welter of theoretical positions on cultural interactions employed to explain what they see as the particular qualities of the region, proposing ‘Levantinism’ in their stead. Does archaeology really need yet another semantically-ambiguous buzz-word, one that—like hybridity, which Levantinism is intended to replace—needs to be redeemed from earlier unsound applications to become useful? The inevitable comparison is with the long-running debate on the integrity of the Mediterranean and ‘Mediterraneanism’. Harris questioned whether such over-arching terms were, inter alia, a ‘romantic delusion’, ‘Eurocentric cultural imperialism’, or simply a ‘recipe for boredom’. If, he added, Mediterraneanism is ‘something of a danger (and in effect a cousin of Orientalism)’, might we apply precisely the same charge to ‘Levantinism’ as proposed here? In any case, the editors’ manifesto is actually presented very fleetingly and not subjected to extended discussion, which could have been a fascinating contribution in itself. The concept—which is missing from the index—was evidently not taken up by the individual authors and it seems that in the end, like Jonah’s shipmates during the storm, each prayed to their own God.

Table of Contents

Introduction, Ann E. Killebrew and Margreet L. Steiner
Section 1: Archaeology of the Levant: Background and definitions
1. Historical geography of the ancient Levant, Matthew J. Suriano
2. Peoples and languages of the Levant during the Bronze and Iron Ages, Holger Gzella
3. History of research, Thomas Davis
4. Levantine chronology, Ilan Sharon
Section 2: The Levant as the crossroads between empires: Egypt, Anatolia, Mesopotamia, and Persia
5. Egypt and the Levant, Gregory D. Mumford
6. Anatolia (Hittites) and the Levant, Horst Klengel
7. Mesopotamia (Assyrians and Babylonians) and the Levant, Tammi J. Schneider
8. Achaemenid Persia and the Levant, Josette Elayi
Section 3: The archaeological record
Subsection 1: The Neolithic period
9. Introduction to the Levant during the Neolithic Period, Bill Finlayson
10. The northern Levant during the Neolithic period: Damascus and Beyond: Neolithic settlement dynamics in Syria and Lebanon, Peter M. M. G. Akkermans
11. The southern Levant (Cisjordan) during the Neolithic period, A. Nigel Goring-Morris and Anna Belfer-Cohen
12. The southern Levant (Transjordan) during the Neolithic period, Alison Betts
13. Cyprus during the Neolithic period, Joanne Clarke
Subsection 2: The Chalcolithic period
14. Introduction to the Levant during the Chalcolithic Period: Regional Perspectives, Thomas E. Levy
15. The northern Levant during the Chalcolithic period: The Lebanese-Syrian Coast, Gassia Artin
16. The southern Levant (Cisjordan) during the Chalcolithic period, Yorke M. Rowan
17. The southern Levant (Transjordan) during the Chalcolithic period: Jordan (c. 4500-3500 BC), Zeidan A. Kafafi
18. Cyprus during the Chalcolithic period, Edgar J. Peltenburg
Subsection 3: The Early and Internediate Bronze Ages
19. Introduction to the Levant during the Early Bronze Age, Raphael Greenberg
20. The northern Levant (Syria) during the Early Bronze Age, Lisa Cooper
21. The northern Levant (Lebanon) during the Early Bronze Age, Hermann Genz
22. The southern Levant (Cisjordan) during the Early Bronze Age, Pierre de Miroschedji
23. The southern Levant (Transjordan) during the Early Bronze Age, Suzanne Richard
24. Cyprus during the Early Bronze Age, Jennifer M. Webb
25. The northern Levant during the Intermediate Bronze Age: Altered trajectories, Harvey Weiss
26. The southern Levant during the Intermediate Bronze Age, Kay Prag
Subsection 4: The Middle Bronze Age
27. Introduction to the Levant during the Middle Bronze Age, Aaron A. Burke
28. The northern Levant (Syria) during the Middle Bronze Age, Daniele Morandi Bonacossi
29. The northern Levant (Lebanon) during the Middle Bronze Age, Hanan Charaf
30. The southern Levant (Cisjordan) during the Middle Bronze Age, Susan L. Cohen
31. The southern Levant (Transjordan) during the Middle Bronze Age, Stephen J. Bourke
32. Cyprus during the Middle Bronze Age, David Frankel
Subsection 5: The Late Bronze Age
33. Introduction to the Levant during Late Bronze Age, E. Susan Sherratt
34. The northern Levant (Syria) during the Late Bronze Age: Small kingdoms between the supra-regional empires of the international age, Marta Luciani
35. The northern Levant (Lebanon) during the Late Bronze Age, Marlies Heinz and Sabina Kulemann-Ossen
36. The southern Levant (Cisjordan) during the Late Bronze Age, Nava Panitz-Cohen
37. The southern Levant (Transjordan) during the Late Bronze Age, Peter M. Fischer
38. Cyprus during the Late Bronze Age, Louise Steel
Subsection 6: The Iron Age I period
39. Introduction to the Levant during the Transitional Late Bronze Age/Iron Age I and Iron Age I periods, Ann E. Killebrew
40. The northern Levant during the Iron Age I period, Helene Sader
41. The southern Levant (Cisjordan) during the Iron Age I period, Ayelet Gilboa
42. The southern Levant (Transjordan) during the Iron Age I period, Larry G. Herr
43. Cyprus during the Iron Age I period (Late Cypriot IIC IIIA): Settlement Pattern crisis (LC IIC IIIA) to the restructuring (LC IIIB) of its settlement pattern, Maria Iacovou
Subsection 7: The Iron Age II period
44. Introduction to the Levant during the Iron Age II period, Margreet L. Steiner
45. The Aramean states during the Iron Age II-III periods, Stefania Mazzoni
46. Phoenicia during the Iron Age II period, Maria Eugenia Aubet
47. Philistia during the Iron Age II period, David Ben-Shlomo
48. Israel during the Iron Age II period, Ann E. Killebrew
49. Judah during the Iron Age II period, James W. Hardin
50. Ammon during the Iron Age II period, Randall W. Younker
51. Moab during the Iron Age II period, Margreet L. Steiner
52. Edom during the Iron Age II period, Piotr Bienkowski
53. Cyprus during the Iron Age through the Persian period: From the eleventh century BC to the abolition of the city-kingdoms (c. 300 BC), Maria Iacovou
54. The Levant during the Babylonian period, Jeffrey R. Zorn
55. The Levant during the Persian period, Gunnar Lehmann


1.   T. Wilkinson, Archaeological landscapes of the Near East; see also his opening essay in D. Potts (ed.), A Companion to the Archaeology of the Ancient Near East, Oxford, 2012, pp. 3–26.
2.   W.V. Harris, ‘The Mediterranean and ancient history’ in (ed.) W.V. Harris, Rethinking the Mediterranean, Oxford, 1999.

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