Palestine: Social Transitions, Diverse Concerns

By Wright, Katherine I. | Antiquity, March 1996 | Go to article overview
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Palestine: Social Transitions, Diverse Concerns

Wright, Katherine I., Antiquity

This volume, the outcome of a symposium held in San Diego in 1993, is the most recent synthesis of the archaeology of the southwestern Levant. It is the first reference work to address diverse issues of a social or anthropological nature along with detailed presentations of basic data. Its geographical scope is mainly Palestine/Israel, although some Jordanian material is included; its temporal scope extends from the Lower Palaeolithic to the 20th century. Drawing on a wealth of specialist studies by Israeli, American and French scholars, it is destined to remain a classic for some time to come.

The ambitious goals of this volume are twofold:

1 to present up-to-date and comprehensive syntheses of research on each period; and

2 to explore a 'social archaeology' of Palestine/Israel by reference to the paradigm of the Annales school of French historiography as exemplified by the work of Fernand Braudel.

The first of these goals is admirably achieved. The second goal - an especially ambitious one - meets with partial success.

The book is divided into six main sections, 32 chapters and a series of special features or 'windows' which highlight special topics. Each chapter is lavishly illustrated, often presenting masses of primary data in tables or graphs and unusually useful site-distribution maps superimposed on aerial photographs. An initial section (chapters 1-5) focuses on general themes. Chapters 1 and 2 respectively present a discussion of the study of 'social archaeology' with an argument for the relevance of Annales thinking (Levy & Holl) and a survey of the history of research and exploration (Silberman). Chapters 3-5 present detailed surveys of modern environment and vegetation (Danin), geomorphology and long-term changes therein (Goldberg) and demography and physical anthropology (Smith). Subsequent sections are ordered chronologically. A final chapter by Yoffee draws together and comments upon the themes explored in these papers.

On the whole, the chapters are excellent; some stand out in scope and originality. Goring-Morris' discussion of the Epipalaeolithic entities is of particular interest, bringing up to date themes which were explored in his earlier work concerning identification of social groups from lithic assemblages. Particularly laudable is his systematic incorporation of relevant data from beyond the borders of Israel (a merit regrettably not shared by all of the chapters). Goring-Morris highlights the contrasts between arid-zone sites in the Negev and Sinai and in eastern Jordan. For the exceptionally large sites in eastern Jordan, he suggests an environmental explanation emphasizing the behaviour of local species of gazelle and a rich 'lakeside setting' permitting seasonal aggregation of large bands. This interpretation may need to be revised in view of Martin's (1994) detailed modelling of gazelle behaviour in eastern Jordan as well as the distance of these sites from the Azraq lake (Garrard et al. 1988:43-44).

In chapter 14, concerning the Chalcolithic, Levy presents one of the most explicitly 'Braudelian' analyses of all of the chapters. Levy argues (convincingly) that in this period a series of ranked societies emerged and then experienced not an evolution into a 'stratified' society but a total breakdown, or, to use a fashionable term, a 'collapse'. Levy suggests that these societies were the last to evolve independently of developments in Egypt and thus represent the attenuation of fully indigenous social 'evolution' in the region. Levy also presents a model for the emergence of Chalcolithic elites which suggests that risk management and resource competition and 'aggressive' gift-giving resulting in social 'indebtedness' (Gosden 1989) were critical. Evidence cited for resource competition includes a massive rise in the quantities of maceheads (interpreted as weapons) in this period, a pattern which is certainly very clear; and the use of subterranean dwellings ('hiding places') notably in the Negev.

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