Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2019.09.59 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2019.09.59

Francesco Iacono, The Archaeology of Late Bronze Age Interaction and Mobility at the Gates of Europe: People, Things and Networks around the Southern Adriatic Sea.   London; New York:  Bloomsbury Academic, 2019.  Pp. xvi, 286.  ISBN 9781350036147.  €102.60.  


Reviewed by Emma Blake, University of Arizona (ecblake@email.arizona.edu)

Preview

Iacono’s book offers something new in anglophone scholarship: a study of Bronze Age Apulia and the southern Adriatic that does not privilege encounters with Mycenaeans. The book traces the evolving connections within and beyond the region through the Middle Bronze Age, Recent Bronze Age, and Final Bronze Age, recentering the focus onto what has been a peripheral region in traditional scholarship of the Mediterranean Bronze Age. As an examination of this region through the lens of interaction and connectivity, the book showcases the decades of excellent fieldwork at south Italian sites such as Coppa Nevigata and Roca Vecchia, well known in Italy but less so elsewhere. This focus on one of the microregions of the Mediterranean is particularly welcome, taking up, as others have done, the mantle laid by Horden and Purcell.1 It is in these close examinations of local dynamics that we expand our understanding of the Mediterranean as a whole.

Chapter 1 puts forth the theoretical grounding and methodological toolkit of the book, that interactions shape societies, and so by documenting the material traces of interactions—their nature and intensity—within and between groups we can understand social structures and why they change. In this respect Iacono’s approach is informed by the current scholarly interest in networks in archaeology, with an emphasis on how connectivity, rather than say, identity or resources, can shape behavior. Indeed, Iacono employs formal network analytical methods to characterize the links between people within Apulia. He interprets his networks through a neo-Marxist lens, applying such concepts as capital, means of production, and relations of production, while introducing the connectivity-specific concepts ‘Modes of Interaction’ and ‘Relations of Interaction.’ In their application to a prehistoric context, the terms sit oddly, as when the author interprets shared ceramic decorations at various settlements as evidence of some form of ‘capital exchange.’ Nonetheless the emphasis on interaction at various scales is timely.

Chapter 2 provides the geographic and historiographic background to the book, presenting the Apulian landscape and the Adriatic Sea. Although the coasts of Apulia and Albania are separated by as little as 70 km at the Strait of Otranto, Iacono deftly explains why the conditions of winds, currents and landing points made cross-Strait connections tenuous, particularly with Bronze Age maritime technologies. This point becomes relevant in later chapters when the reader is confronted with the seemingly surprising low frequency of contacts across this narrow body of water. A regional chronology and brief summary of earlier periods in the region set the reader up for the chapters that follow.

Chapters 3, 4, and 5 examine the Apulian societies and their interactions in the Middle, Recent, and Final Bronze Ages in turn. Each chapter works at several scales, from the scale of a site (which Iacono terms ‘individual community’), to the regional level networks in Apulia; and finally to longer distance Mediterranean-wide interactions. It is only at the regional scale that Iacono employs network analysis, a choice which may make practical sense but made this reader long to see formal networks of ties across the Adriatic and beyond. Of greater concern, Iacono’s regional scale networks themselves are not fully convincing proxies of connectivity. Iacono constructs his networks using common decorative motifs on indigenous pots as his ties between sites (the nodes), rather than actual goods moving between sites. Are shared motifs on ceramics a valid proxy for interaction between settlements? I am not convinced. The common motifs may represent interaction between potters only, working in linked communities of practice. This matters because the inferential scaffolding of the book depends on accepting that ceramic decorations repeated across multiple sites reflect interactions beyond the potters themselves. Iacono contends that women are likely producing the pottery at the household level and were thus integrated into the community at large, but this is also speculative. The motifs may tell us more about production than about consumption and interaction around the region at large.

Even more problematic is how the motifs themselves are interpreted as revealing social structure. Thus, on p. 110 Iacono writes, “We can tentatively assume that the number of motifs can stand as proxy for the number of social units (more motifs, more pottery, more variability and thus more people) and therefore of the relative prosperity of the communities (more people, more agricultural surplus).” I do not find the initial assumption in this line of reasoning persuasive. However, looking beyond this highly speculative means of assessing a community’s wealth, some interesting patterns emerge from his networks. In particular, the analysis reveals that the sites that were central in local networks in the Middle Bronze Age were often the ones to become important findspots of Mycenaean pottery later. This observation suggests that local agency did play a role in how the contacts with the Aegean played out, a point that Iacono goes on to develop effectively in the subsequent chapters.

Iacono is at his strongest when giving detailed descriptions of the key sites and their assemblages, which he knows extremely well. His discussion of the broader Mediterranean connections seems unnecessary at times, as in Chapter 5’s digression into the Cypriot-west Mediterranean metal exchange, which bypassed the Adriatic. Indeed, even more on the Adriatic itself would have been welcome. To return to a point made earlier, what the book reveals about interactions across the Adriatic is particularly significant. There is little evidence of direct contact across this rather narrow and island-dotted strait. While similar pottery motifs on both sides of the southern Adriatic suggest interactions, these motifs are not always synchronous in occurrence, so Iacono rightly hesitates to infer close contacts from them. Bitumen sourced from Albania did apparently circulate in Apulia, and shared bronze object types indicate trans-Adriatic encounters, but the overall impression is intermittent contacts at best. This contrasts with Apulia’s contacts with the more distant Mycenaeans over many centuries, and with movement up and down the Adriatic itself in some periods (notably the Final Bronze Age). The southern Adriatic, therefore, exemplifies Broodbank’s claim that in the Mediterranean proximity alone is not always sufficient to engender connections.2

To conclude, Iacono’s informative book offers a fresh picture of the Apulian region over 700 years of the Bronze Age. While I may quibble with the some of the analysis, the book serves as a valuable account of the key sites and, as inferred, the society of the region. This centering of the often neglected Adriatic contributes to a growing literature that questions the inherent superiority of Aegean pots, seafaring, and culture in the Bronze Age, and seeks other explanations for their circulation that grants agency to the societies the Mycenaeans encountered. While the theoretical terminology and the networks are not always convincing and the writing is dense, the overall premise that multiscalar interactions shaped these communities is well-placed.


Notes:


1.   Peregrine Horden and Nicholas Purcell, The Corrupting Sea: A Study of Mediterranean Prehistory. Oxford: Blackwell, 2000.
2.   Cyprian Broodbank. The Making of the Middle Sea. Thames and Hudson Limited, 2013.

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