Facing The Ocean: The Atlantic and Its Peoples by Barry Cunliffe


Basic Book Information

Title: Facing the Ocean: The Atlantic and Its Peoples 8000 BC-AD 1500

Binding: Hardcover

Publishing Date: June 28th 2001

Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA

Page Numbers: 608 pages

ISBN Number: 0199240191 (ISBN13: 9780199240197)

Synopsis: In this highly illustrated book Barry Cunliffe focuses on the western rim of Europe–the Atlantic facade–an area stretching from the Straits of Gibraltar to the Isles of Shetland.We are shown how original and inventive the communities were, and how they maintained their own distinctive identities often over long spans of time. Covering the period from the Mesolithic hunter-gatherers, c. 8000 BC, to the voyages of discovery c. AD 1500, he uses this last half millennium more as a well-studied test case to help the reader better understand what went before. The beautiful illustrations show how this picturesque part of Europe has many striking physical similarities. Old hard rocks confront the ocean creating promontories and capes familiar to sailors throughout the millennia. Land’s End, Finistere, Finisterra–until the end of the fifteenth century this was where the world ended in a turmoil of ocean beyond which there was nothing. To the people who lived in these remote places the sea was their means of communication and those occupying similar locations were their neighbors. The communities frequently developed distinctive characteristics intensifying aspects of their culture the more clearly to distinguish themselves from their in-land neighbors. But there is an added level of interest here in that the sea provided a vital link with neighboring remote-place communities encouraging a commonality of interest and allegiances. Even today the Bretons see themselves as distinct from the French but refer to the Irish, Welsh, and Galicians as their brothers and cousins. Archaeological evidence from the prehistoric period amply demonstrates the bonds which developed and intensified between these isolated communities and helped to maintain a shared but distinctive Atlantic identity.

My Review:

I’m going to start by describing the chapters in the book, then I will tell you what I thought of the book as a whole. The book has thirteen chapters, and a guide to further reading on the subjects covered in the book.

The first three chapters discuss the land, the ocean, and ships and sailors. They were a survey of how the land and ocean look geographically interspersed with myths from different peoples in the area and what the ancient (and not so ancient) geographers thought of both. The third chapter is about sailing vessels of the different peoples and the ancient (and again not so ancient) sailors of the Atlantic Ocean.

Chapter four talk about the Mesolithic period from 7000 – 4000 BCE. It talks about mainland Europe and the Atlantic zone and all the social and economical changes that could have shaped the identity of the Atlantic Peoples. It is an amazing survey of archeology and thought provoking statements that are so simple and yet so important for example on page 134 Prof. Cunliffe says: “The extent to which a community defines its identity, to distinguish itself from others, depends on the need which it perceives to do so.” At that time the need would have been more people coming into their territory for example, but this could also be true today, where most people are looking to define themselves in one way or another.

A discussion of the religious belief systems of mainland Europe and the Atlantic Zone follows in chapter four. It was really fascinating to read how the two affected each other. The time frame this chapter talks about is between 4000 -2700 BCE.

Chapter six studies the period between 2700 – 1200 BCE. It talks about the different networks and how the availability of this network help culture spread among the indigenous people of Europe and the Atlantic zone.

The next two chapters discuss the period between 1200 – 200 BCE, each one from a different perspective. Chapter seven talks about the sailors of the two seas (the Atlantic and the Mediterranean) and how they affected each other as well as a discussion on the manufacture of metals and a brief discussion on the Celtic languages. Chapter eight is all about the identity of the Atlantic peoples.

Chapter nine is a discussion of the Roman impact on Europe. It discusses the Roman conquests of Iberia, Gaul and Britain and the goods it was able to get out of it.

The Middle Ages, the period between 200 – 800 CE was the subject of chapter ten. Cunliffe talked about the decline of Roman authority and the movements of the Germanic tribes. He also talked about the changing face of Europe, Christianity and its effect and trading.

Of course no discussion of the Atlantic is complete without the Vikings and that was what chapter eleven was all about.

Chapter twelve is about the period between 1000 – 1500 CE and all the changes Europe and the Atlantic went through during that time period.

The final chapter is a summation of all that came in the previous chapters and how they tied into each other.

Now let me talk about my impressions.

At first I was not sure what to think of the first three chapters, then I remembered how Prof. Cunliffe did the same thing in his book (which came after this one) Europe Between the Oceans. He was setting the stage for the historical stuff and giving you an idea of how the land ocean look like and later he will show you how the physical features shaped the people that live on that land and sailed that ocean.

I think what I liked most about this book was that the author was not afraid to include his conclusions (clearly stated as such) on the whys of things, like why the Vikings came raiding to give an example. I also liked the fact that while this book was obviously geared towards the layman or at least the college student the author still didn’t treat his readers as simpletons by over simplifying things. Of course I also love the way the book was full of photos, illustrations and maps. I also appreciate the further reading section at the end of the book which tells you where to look for further reading on each chapter.

IMG_0016   IMG_0017 IMG_0018

Now let us address the elephant in the room and that is the latest theory about the Celtic Origins which this book is supposed to have presented. And really, you have to look pretty hard to see it. I’m going to make it easy on you and tell you that it can be found in chapter seven. Cunliffe gives you the short version of it when he is summing up his book in the last chapter and I’m quoting here:

“It was, no doubt, during this first cycle of maritime contact that a lingua franca developed allowing travelers by sea to communicate one with another. If, as we might reasonably suppose, the ships were the prerogative of the elite, then the language which evolved over the millennia would have become the language of the elite. In such a situation the disparate languages which might have been spoken before contact intensified would soon have converged to become a similar tongue, understandable throughout the lands of the Atlantic facade. By the first millennium BCE the common language spoken across most of the region was a branch of Indo-European known, since the seventeenth century, as ‘Celtic’ – the language which still survives, though in modified form, in parts of Scotland, Ireland, Wales, the Isle of Man, and Brittany.”

Basically he is saying look more closely to the Atlantic maritime networks for the development of the Celtic languages as opposed to Central Europe. Koch says it best in his 2009 book:

“Barry Cunliffe, 2001, 261-310, has proposed the origins of the Celtic languages should be sought in the maritime networks of the Atlantic Zone, which reached their peak of intensity in the Late Bronze Age and then fell off sharply at the Bronze-Iron Transition (IXth-VIIth centuries BC).”

Should we jump on this theories band wagon? Well, let’s see. Some linguists are happy with it but most are not. Most geneticists though are VERY happy with it. I would suggest keeping it in mind when reading books in the future, it is a plausible theory but without more information and more evidence this theory is just that. A theory. John Koch’s 2009 book on a language called Tartessian, which was spoken in Southern Spain, identifies it as Celtic, and this seems to support the Cunliffe theory but there has been no real challenge or agreement with this from other quarters (at least not that I have heard off, if you have something please let me know). So basically the jury is still out…

In the end here is what I want to say. If you are looking for a more rounded book on the history of Europe then I would suggest Europe Between the Oceans, which is an amazing tomb that came after this book. It doesn’t out right talk about this theory but is very obviously colored by it. If however you are more specific and want to read about the history of the Atlantic peoples alone then this book is very much for you, just don’t expect a lot of talk about the Celts alone, they are one group but not the only group in that part of the world.


5 thoughts on “Facing The Ocean: The Atlantic and Its Peoples by Barry Cunliffe

  1. Good review of a good book. ‘Facing The Ocean’ is an excellent overview of Western European history covering a huge swathe of time while remaining highly accessible to experts and general readers alike. It influenced a lot of my thinking in the area of early European (and Irish) history and remains a treasured part of my book collection.

    I think the theory of the ‘Western Celts’ was discussed in academic circles for decades but it was only when someone as respected as Professor Cunliffe brought it into the mainstream that it started getting the attention it deserved. I first came across the vague outlines of it in the early 1990s in Irish college circles and immediately took to it. It simply made sense to me on all sorts of levels though I understood the reluctance of others to abandon the old familiarities of the ‘Central European Celts’: even if it never looked quite right (like an ill-fitting suit no matter how much people poked and pulled at it there was always something not quiet right about it).

    Not sure that pushing the Celtic languages (or Proto-Celtic) back into Late Bronze Age is linguistically untenable at all. A broad continuity in languages and cultures in Western Europe seems to be an entirely reasonable suggestion for the 1st and 2nd Centuries BC (and beyond?).

    I would argue that ‘Celtic from the West’ is very much a case of archaeology, linguistics and genetics all dovetailing together rather nicely. It answers more questions than it raises. The previously accepted Urnfield>Hallstatt>Le Tene theory looks so old hat now. And damned inelegant too 😉

    Have you heard of the Irish documentary-maker Bob Quinn and his ‘Atlantean’ TV series from the early 1980s? He got so much completely wrong, and was a wee bit out there in the ‘fringe’, but he clearly knew something of the jumble of ideas that were floating around for the last several decades amongst scholars about the particular nature of the relationships between the peoples and cultures of Europe’s westernmost edges. It took the likes of Barry Cunliffe and Koch to bring academic rigour and knowledge and study to those theories creating the new paradigm of a Celtic West.

    I look forward to more of it!


    • celticscholar says:

      So do I, I’d like to see Professor Cunliffe develop this a little more. Europe Between the Oceans is very much colored by this concept but not very evident if you don’t know what you are looking for.

  2. Dafydd says:

    Great review!

    On the matter of Prof. Cunliffe’s ideas on the spread of Celtic language – there is one problem with it. If it really was spread by trade, then why did it become the language of the people, and not just the ‘merchants’?
    Take for instance English. Today it’s the language of commerce across Europe, but this hasn’t led to the whole of the European population adopting English as their everyday language – the same could be said of Latin under the Roman Empire, or Norman French in Medieval England – these were all languages of politics, trade and entertainment – but were never adopted wholesale by the common people.
    Celtic languages on the other hand seem to be the first languages of parts of Western Europe during the Iron Age – and there are several different languages belonging to the Celtic group (Gaulish, Brittonic etc), so it would make it hard to trade if these Celts all spoke different dialects. The Celts also traded with Greece, Rome and Carthage (or so it would seem from evidence in Marseilles) but these people did not take up Celtic languages, and the Celts didn’t take up Greek, Latin or Carthaginian either – so in my opinion the origin of Celtic languages and its spread across Europe is probably more complex than having it spread simply through trade. It was probably imposed on much of Western European population by elites, or perhaps through migration.

    Still, this book looks fascinating; and I’ve enjoyed Sir Barry’s books in the past, so I will probably be giving this a look in the future. Thanks for the review!

    • celticscholar says:

      It isn’t just about trading actually, you should read the book to get the full effect. I just read a book called The Iron Age in Northern Britain and it is a very good archeology book, however, I found that in a round-about way it actually helps the Celtic from the west theory. Also you should read John Koch’s latest offering. I’m still making my mind up about this theory and I think it has a lot of work to be done in the future. But so far it seems a plausible theory.

      • Dafydd says:

        You’re right about that – it’s worth reading the book before I make any judgements on it. It does sound like an interesting theory though. Thank you for the reply!

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