BMCR 2020.09.10

Regional approaches to society and complexity. studies in honor of John F. Cherry

, , Regional approaches to society and complexity. studies in honor of John F. Cherry. Sheffield, UK: Equinox, 2018. 374 p.. ISBN 9781781797396. £90.00.

[The Table of Contents appears below.]

 The present peer-reviewed volume is based on the International Festschrift conference Regional Approaches to Society and Complexity: Studies in Honor of John F. Cherry held at the Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology and the Ancient World, Brown University on 4-5 December 2015. It collects a number of essays written in Cherry’s honor that build on his research encompassing regional approaches to social complexity from a variety of perspectives and at a global scale.

The volume opens with a short Foreword authored by Colin Renfrew, who acted as Cherry’s supervisor for his doctoral dissertation at the University of Southampton back in the 1970s, in which the importance of the meso-scale regional approach is pointed out. The foreword serves also as overview of the volume’s content and recalls Cherry’s collaborative work with some of the most prominent archaeologists of the English-speaking academic world such as L. Binford. Cherry’s career and academic achievements are also recalled in the Preface. Here the memorable conference organized in his honor is presented by A. R. Knodell and T. P. Leppard. Chapter 1 by Alex R. Knodell and Thomas P. Leppard (pp. 1–22) focuses on the book’s aims: examine the archaeology of complex societies and identify some key points from the viewpoint offered by regional approaches to the archaeological record. In particular they are concerned with the relationship between the archaeology of the Mediterranean world and other world archaeologies, pointing that this relationship should be fostered by maintaining an approach that is at once Mediterranean-focused and yet conceptually comparative. The chapter provides an overview of the state of the art of research on regional archaeology and proposes an agenda.

Part I, Pathways to Complexity in the Prehistoric Aegean, is composed by 4 papers that address crucial issues in Aegean archaeology outlining how this region has served as laboratory for studies and research focusing on complexity. It opens with an introduction (p. 24–28) by the editors outlining the structure and aims of the session.  They discuss how Cherry and Renfrew’s work have profoundly shaped this field of study, and observe how debate has revolved around evolution versus revolution as well as endogenous evolution versus exogenous influence.

Chapter 2 by Sturt W. Manning (pp. 29–58) discusses the emergence of complex society on Crete by identifying 5 different stages of research in this field, shaped by the coming of the “the R2 combination of Radiocarbon and Renfrew (1972; 1973)” (p. 29). The current discussion of Crete in Prepalatial to Postpalatial periods is summed up focusing on 1) timescale/process discussed against absolute dating and gradualist positions versus a punctuated evolutionary model; 2) scale/analysis analyzing the occupation area of Knossos and the change between EM III and MMIA interval described as occurring at unimpressive scale and complexity in comparison to urban developments in 4 and 3 millennia in Anatolia; 3) the question of the balance between internal versus external stimuli mainly assessed trough imported prestige-goods working as power resource. By pointing at Cherry’s role in the critique of infinite regression causation for the emergence of complexity, Manning argues in favour of transformation into a state-level society within a relatively brief period, in which extra-Aegean resources played a critical role in the process.

In the following Chapter 3 John Bennet addresses the link between ‘writing’ and ‘art’. Starting from a 1992 paper by Cherry he explores how writing and image became separated in the Bronze Age Aegean, and the lack of comparative significance of image and texts. Bennet concludes that at the turn of the 3rd and 2nd millennia BC writing could have emerged in a non-functionalist context. A polar opposition between image and text appeared in the Neopalatial period at the same time in which large-scale wall paintings of human and other figures appeared. Art and writing represented complementary aspects of a high-status cultural literacy in the Aegean Bronze Age that also encompassed archaeologically intangible performances.

Chapter 4, authored by Michael L. Galaty, discusses in a comparative perspective prestige-good economy and exchange networks in Minoan and Mycenaean societies and modern northern Albania, using the latter to investigate and explain the former. The paper addresses the question of meaning and value to understand if the minimal quantity of imported goods was enough to have had any meaningful impact, and even stimulate state-formation process. Even if small and limited in number these objects were playing a key role in stabilizing and changing political-economic systems, especially when used in mechanisms of competitions linking to building and augmenting social status. Chapter 5 by William A. Parkinson (pp. 94–108) closes part I by addressing the role of microregional approaches in the study of settlement nucleation in the Neolithic of southeastern Europe. By pointing to the need of adopting multiscalar approach and being explicit on how these macro-scales relate to regional processes, he discusses two case studies from present Hungary and Greece, demonstrating the importance of micro-regional scales studies in understanding macro-regional patterns.

Part II, Crossing Scales in the Later Mediterranean, comprises three chapters preceded by an introduction by the editors (pp.110-113). In Chapter 6 (pp. 114-131) by Bradley M. Sekedat some threads of discussion based on preliminary observation of industrial landscapes in the central and eastern empires are developed. The paper presents a large-scale synthesis of different survey projects and suggests that new research questions in Roman economy could help in making sense and understanding the ever-increasing quantity of survey data. Sylvian Fachard addresses in Chapter 7 (pp. 132-157) political borders in Pausanias’s Greece. After inscriptions, Pausania represents the richest source available for positioning and nature of borders as well as about conception of political territory in Greece. The arrival of Rome added more complexity to such patterns, however Fachard argues that the territorial intelligence of the Romans—the preservation of precedent divisions and borders—was one of the characteristics that allowed them to rule effectively for a long period of time.

Chapter 8 (pp. 158-181) authored by Alexander Smith and Peter van Dommelen focuses on West Mediterranean, and on the afterlives of monuments in Sardinia and the Balearic Islands of Mallorca and Minorca in periods following their constructions. Discussing the cases of Torre d’en Galmés (Talayotic period) and its persistence and the transformation of the site in the following Post-Talayotic and Roman periods, and of the nuraghe S’Urachi in West Sardinia and its persistence across most of the 1st millennium BC, the paper contextualizes monumental constructions and outlines their role as both witness to change as well as inspiration of new traditions. The relationship of these monument after the time of their construction and local communities is a complicated one. The role of both the sea and foreign influences on these islands is also influencing the attachment of local and foreign communities to these monuments, forging new connections.

With 8 papers Part III, Comparative, Theoretical and Disciplinary Concerns, is the largest one, and comprises essays that are theory-focused and which draw on Cherry’s self-reflective approach to scholarship.  It also contains essays that deal with regions other than the Mediterranean.  Following the Introduction to Part III (pp. 184-187) by the editors in which the main characteristics and focus of this session are summarized, Chapters 9, 10 and 11 discuss island archaeology. The first two focuses on wide-ranging theoretical and methodological aspects, while the third one addresses issues and challenges of a case study. In Chapter 9 (pp. 188–206) Cyprian Broodbank reflects on the self-isolation of practitioners of island archaeology, and discusses the relevance of such sub-field of study by pointing out: a) the intrinsic importance of island archaeology a means of improving our understanding of the long-term history and culture of islands and islanders that can be compelling for the past and the future; b) the utility of islands in comparative socio-political analysis; and c) the role of islands in global deep history. Focusing on oceans and transoceanic contacts, and on inner seas and their islands pointing at—among other things—technological aspects of seafaring, Broodbank addresses the relevance of islands in different contexts in transforming wider dynamics. In the conclusion, he sets an agenda for the discipline by stressing on the relevance of the “historical sense of potential distinctiveness of deep islands histories and concept of insularity in different theaters, and of intersection and relatedness of these over the past few centuries of global convergence” (p. 200). In Chapter 10 (pp. 207-224) by recalling milestones in the history of research on islands, Scott Fitzpatrick addresses the relevance of inter-island analogies and of Cherry’s work in the development of the island sub-field of studies. Chapter 11 (pp. 225-245) by Krysta Ryzewski focuses on the Caribbean Lesser Antilles as a case study for discussig multi-method archaeological survey approaches. By comparing it with survey traditions in other areas such as the Mediterranean, North America and Mesoamerica, the chapter highlights the contribution of, and challenges facing, survey archaeology on the Caribbean Lesser Antilles. Environment and scale represent the greatest  challenges limiting the widespread adoption of survey in this region. The paper concludes by sketching possible future methodological and theoretical directions for Caribbean historical archaeology.

The following chapters are more heterogenous than the previous ones as regards the case studies that they discuss. The first two address different ways of dealing with complexity. Thomas G. Garrison in Chapter 12 (pp. 246–267) addresses the case study of Maya heterarchies by proposing an Embedded Heterarchy Model (EHM), inspired by the peer polity interaction proposed in the volume edited by Renfrew and Cherry (1986). The issue of scales of analysis and of choosing the appropriate ones is central in this chapter, as choice of right spatial and temporal scale facilitates the interpretation of cultural phenomena as contained within their appropriate level of influence. The EHM is proposed as a middle ground in which the well-reasoned analytical hierarchy derived from environmental and cultural information is combined with relevant theoretical approach, representing thus a direction for further developments in Maya archaeology. The following Chapter 13 (pp. 268–287) by Christopher Witmore focuses on the way in which we understand complexity rather than on scales of change and long-term explanations. Emergence of complexity are discussed for the case-study of Argos by emphasizing and how Argos self-defines as sociopolitical entity.

The following Chapter 14 (pp. 288–308) by A. Bernard Knapp moves away from the theoretical issues discussed so far and turns to theoretical approaches that, following Witmore (2014), can be included in the definition of “new materialism”. By expressing his concerns about the usefulness of approaches that embrace material or object agency, he argues instead in favour of an approach that embraces and explores mutual emergence of people and ideas. Properties and qualities of things, their materiality and biographies are discussed for slags from archaeometallurgical site of Phorades on Cyprus, which is used as a case study to propose a critic of the approach to materiality and its agency proposed, among others by Ingold (2007; 2012). Chapter 15 (pp. 310–319) by Camilla MacKay focuses on an issue that is too often neglected, archaeological publication. Discussion on the traditional way of publishing data in archaeology and its relationship with digital=only scholarship is still very rare. The question posed by MacKay is crucial: “why has online publication and the reuse of archaeological data not significantly advanced”? and why “can excavation and survey monographs and synthetic articles (…) not live side-by-side with digital data-driven publications that are (…) used and cited within academic scholarly communication?” (p. 312). The point of quotability seems to be a crucial one together with solidity and durability of online digital repositories. The last chapter belonging to Part III is Chapter 16 (pp. 320-337) authored by T.P. Leppard and A. R. Knodell, in which the editors trace past and future of regional archaeology by discussing issues outlined in the previous chapters. While the similarities are unsurprisingly many, the most interesting part is represented by the points of dissonance, in particular the ones concerning the way in which theoretical approaches are used to relate to the appropriate scale at which undertake regional archaeology above the level of the site.

The volume is closed by a heartwarming Afterword (pp. 338-341) written by Jack L. Davis, on his life-long friendship with John Cherry.

The volume is a large collection of interesting and challenging essays written by some of the most influential scholars in Aegean and Mediterranean archaeology. Its impact on future research agendas on issues of complexity and scales of enquiry in Mediterranean archaeology and beyond is unquestionable. There are just few minor weaknesses that may be mentioned here. One is the way in which the volume is divided, with three thematic parts that appear unbalanced in respect to each other, in particular part II in respect to part III. While part III comprises 8 papers, part II is composed by only 3 chapters. The problem is not so much one of length, but that the latter feels conceptually weaker than the other two parts.  For one thing, chapter 6 is the only one of the three papers forming this part that has a larger and later Mediterranean focus fitting in the session’s concept. The remaining two are focused on the Aegean, although in a later period (Chapter 7), and on Sardinia. Both Chapter 7 and 8 adopt a multi-scalar approach that is not different from the ones forming part I or are concerned with theoretical issues (Chapter 8). Another minor issue is the choice to repeat the editors’ biographical data, which are presented for the first time at p.14 and repeated at p. 26, p.112, p. 186 and p. 333. I understand that this is a choice based on the way in which the volume can be purchased online—whole or in single chapters—however in the printed version this repetition looks avoidable. The volume is provided with an useful index that facilitates the reading and cross searching of key concepts and issues.

I would like to conclude this review with a remark on an aspect of Cherry’s legacy as it emerges from this volume. I could not help but notice a strong gender bias among the contributors. Including the editors, of the 19 scholars participating to the volume only 2 are women. Even though among those who attended the conference but did not in the end submitt their papers there were only three additional women:  Susan Alcock, Lori Khatchadourian and Laurie Talalay.  The proportion is still strongly unbalanced towards men. In a genuine Cherry-like insistence on the importance of a self-aware and reflexive approach to scholarship, this closing remark aims at stimulating debate on the role of women in complexity and cross-scales studies in Aegean and Mediterranean Archaeology.


Ingold T. 2007. “Materials against materiality” Archaeological Dialogues 14: 1-15
Ingold T. 2012. Towards an ecology of materials. Annual Review of Anthropology 41: 427-442.
Renfrew C. & Cherry J. F. (eds.). 1986. Peer Polity Interaction and Socio-political Change, Cambridge University Press
Witmore C. 2014. “Archaeology and the new materialism” Journal of contemporary archaeology 1: 203-224

Table of Contents

List of Figures and Tables,  pp. ix-xii, Alex R. Knodell, Thomas P. Leppard
Foreword, pp. xiii-xv, Colin Renfrew
Preface, pp. xvii-xix, Alex R. Knodell, Thomas P. Leppard
Chapter 1: Regional Approaches to Society and Complexity: Setting an Agenda, pp. 1-22, Alex R. Knodell,Thomas P. Leppard

Part I: Pathways to Complexity in the Prehistoric Aegean
Introduction to Part I, pp. 24-28, Alex R. Knodell,Thomas P. Leppard
2. The Development of Complex Society on Crete: The Balance between Wider Context and Local Agency, pp. 29-58, Sturt W. Manning
3. Gelb and Gell in the Aegean: Thoughts on the Relations between ‘Writing’ and ‘Art’, pp. 59-74, John Bennet
4. Prestige-Goods Economies: The Prehistoric Aegean and Modern Northern Highland Albania Compared, pp. 75-93, Michael L. Galaty
5. Continent, Region, Micro-Region, Site: Settlement Nucleation in the European Neolithic, pp. 94-108, William A. Parkinson

Part II: Crossing Scales in the Later Mediterranean
Introduction to Part II, pp. 110-113, Alex R. Knodell,Thomas P. Leppard
6. Industrial Landscapes, Spatial Politics and Settlement Change in the Roman East, pp. 114-131, Bradley M. Sekedat
7. Political Borders in Pausanias’ Greece, pp. 132-157, Sylvian Fachard
8. Monumental Engagements: Cultural Interaction and Island Traditions in the West Mediterranean, pp. 158-181, Peter van Dommelen,Alexander Smith

Part III: Comparative, Theoretical and Disciplinary Concerns
Introduction to Part III, pp. 184-187, Alex R. Knodell,Thomas P. Leppard
9. Does Island Archaeology Matter?, pp. 188-206, Cyprian Broodbank
10. Islands in the Comparative Stream: The Importance of Inter-Island Analogies to Archaeological Discourse, pp. 207-224, Scott Fitzpatrick
11. A Thorny Endeavor: Historical Archaeology and Diachronic, Regional Landscape Survey in the Caribbean Lesser Antilles, pp. 225-245, Krysta Ryzewski
12. Embedded Heterarchies of the Maya: Political Structure and Interactions Inspired by Peer Polity Interaction, p.  246-267, Thomas G. Garrison
13. Complexities and Emergence: The Case of Argos, pp. 268-287, Christopher Witmore
14. The Way Things Are… , pp. 288-308, A. Bernard Knapp
15. Tradition and Divide in Archaeological Publication, pp. 310-319, Camilla MacKay
16. Retrospect and Prospect in Regional Archaeology, pp. 320-337, Thomas P. Leppard, Alex R. Knodell
Afterword: My Life with John F. Cherry, pp. 338-341, Jack L. Davis
End Matter
Index, pp. 342-351