Basic Book Information
Title: Facing the Ocean: The Atlantic and Its Peoples 8000 BC-AD 1500
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.
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.
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.