Piecing together prehistory of Europe

July 15, 1994|By Patrick T. Reardon | Patrick T. Reardon,Chicago Tribune

History is hard enough to write when it happens in front of

your eyes. It's difficult even when you have access to files, records, witnesses, newspaper accounts, diaries and letters. But prehistory, that's another matter entirely.

Prehistory is the story of a people before they became literate, before they could begin to write their own history. It can cover huge swaths of time -- more than 600,000 years, in the case of "The Oxford Illustrated Prehistory of Europe."

Editor Barry Cunliffe of Oxford University and his fellow British archaeologists set out to tell the prehistory of the continent of Europe from the age of the Neanderthals to the time of Clovis (A.D. 465-511). It is a task of breathtaking sweep and complexity.

As Dr. Cunliffe notes in his introduction, the Europe of these epochs "is a peninsula divided by mountain ranges and joined by its systems of great rivers. Areas of old, hard, and often infertile rocks yielding a rich array of metals contrast with younger fertile plains. Wine and oil produced in the sun on the southern side of the peninsula find their way to the forest communities of the north while amber and furs are passed south. . . . The variety is immense; the contrasts are endless."

How does an archaeologist tell the history of a people when the usual raw material of the historian is missing? By becoming a detective. By examining such clues as the remains of beetles, holes driven into the earth for tent poles and the stomach contents of human bodies preserved in peat bogs.

Archaeology is a science of inference, of suggestion. The beetle remains indicate that, in the aftermath of the final Ice Age, northern areas soon grew warm enough to support insect life. The post holes show sites of encampments, although it's often unclear whether the pattern of the holes is evidence of a large grouping of families in many tents or of the same family erecting their tent several times in the same vicinity. The stomach contents show that, in a certain area of barbarian Europe between A.D. 300 and 700, crops included barley, wheat, oats, ** millet and rye.

A wealth of insights can be gleaned from such mundane materials, but an archaeologist's excitement can have its humorous overtones for the non-expert. It's hard not to smile when, in a section on settlements in early agrarian Europe, Andrew Sherratt of the Ashmoelan Museum writes: "Preserved in peat, these sites have yielded some of the most vivid evidence of Neolithic existence -- birch-bark containers, wooden bowls and implements, linen textiles, piles of fodder and manure (complete with fly pupae!), and even a piece of resin 'chewing gum' with tooth-marks."

Art is another important indicator about the life and people of the continent. The dancers in a scene painted on rock by a Mesolithic-era artist in what is now Spain pulse with the same life and exuberance as the horned animals leaping along the edges of the scene.

Yet art can raise as many questions as it answers. Consider the Azilian painted pebbles, found in southern Europe and dating back 11,000 years.

"These are small, flat or ovoid pebbles mainly of a blue-grey LTC schist which were selected from a river and then painted. This decoration is in the form of dots, lines, and, occasionally, more complex motifs such as chevrons and crosses," writes Steven Mithen of the University of Reading.

"Although we describe these as art, they have none of the elegance or craftsmanship that we find in the antler harpoons or woven fishtraps that convention required us to discuss under 'technology.' But these pebbles have their own beauty, part of which is contained in the mystery as to what they were used for."

Such detective work becomes less important later on, when parts of Europe, such as Greece, become literate and begin writing not only their own histories but also those of their non-literate neighbors.

Timothy Taylor of the University of Bradford notes that, according to Greek writers, the Danubian plain was the home of "werewolves, warrior women with excized breasts, cannibals, transvestite shamans, and head-hunters who drank from skulls, all living in a state of constant warfare. . . . Astonishingly, modern archaeological discoveries for the most part corroborate [these descriptions]."

"The Oxford Illustrated Prehistory of Europe" is a scholarly work, dense with facts and stingy with generalizations. It is erudite and nuanced. It is also rich with the stuff of life -- however dimly glimpsed today -- on the other side of the past.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "The Oxford Illustrated Prehistory of Europe"

Editor: Barry Cunliffe

Publisher: Oxford University Press

0$ Length, price: 532 pages, $39.95

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