Book Review

Kristian Kristiansen

Books reviewed

HARRY FOKKENS & ANTHONY HARDING (ed.). The Oxford handbook of the European Bronze Age. xxxi+979 pages, numerous b&w illustrations, 17 tables. 2013. Oxford: Oxford University Press; 978-0-19-957286-1 hardback £120.
The Oxford handbook of the European Bronze Age.

There are basically two types of handbook: short descriptive articles tightly packed with references to literature—the encyclopaedic approach—or longer articles with more interpretation and debate. Many handbooks fall into the first category, or present a mix of the two; rarely do you read one that allows the personalities of the contributors to come through. While The Oxford handbook of the Bronze Age Aegean (Cline 2010) clearly belongs to the first category, The Oxford handbook of the European Bronze Age belongs to the latter. The encyclopaedic approach is boring but useful, the longer articles of the more interpretative approach promise a more interesting read—but will they stand the test of time and do they sacrifice detailed reference to the less favoured literature? In short, is it possible to be both interpretative and balanced? Given the fact that archaeological research progresses with increasing speed, and most publications are out of date after 10–15 years (perhaps even less), it seems a wise choice to allow for longer, more interpretative articles. The increasing speed of change also challenges the whole handbook genre—is it really possible to keep up and bring forward new handbooks at such a rate? Or will the format become updateable through the web?

A handbook should cover all major research themes across time and space and be up to date. This demands some seniority—but not too much. A good balance should see younger researchers well represented. Coverage and balance are most easily assessed via the table of contents and the editor’s introduction.

This handbook is divided into 49 chapters, spanning 919 pages, plus an extensive 50-page index. Following the editors’ introduction in which they present the book’s concept, ‘Part I: Themes in archaeology’ comprises Chapters 2–29 and ‘Part II: The Bronze Age by region’, Chapters 30–48. It must have been a daunting task not only to gather this impressive number of contributors, but also to edit their chapters. It is clear from a cursory glance at the list of contributors that they have succeeded rather brilliantly in enlisting top researchers, many from the younger generation (meaning 15–20-or-so years younger than me) to write on their specialisms, both by region and theme; those like myself who have already published book-length statements about the Bronze Age have not contributed—quite rightly, I think. The editors instead summarise the theoretical and interpretative debate of the past 20 years as one between a World Systems approach represented by this reviewer and a more regionalised—small world—approach represented by Harding, which gives students something to deliberate and choose between. There is of course no doubt about the editors’ theoretical priorities, but they have wisely chosen contributors from both camps, and indeed also from other recent theoretical perspectives, such as gender and materiality studies. The editors clearly state their goal is to produce a different handbook, one that is much more concerned with interpretation (Part I), leaving Part II to do what earlier handbooks were mostly occupied with—the regional and temporal summaries. In their introduction, the editors also discuss the usefulness for the northern European region of the major monograph series ‘Prähistorische Bronzefunde’ (PBF) published by Franz Steiner Verlag and Aner & Kersten’s ‘Die Funde der älteren nordischen Bronzezeit’ series published by Wacholtz Verlag. Here, I should have liked to have seen some statistics as to their use and effect, because even if PBF in some respects may seem stuck in a typological approach, I would suggest these volumes have provided a valuable database for many modern re-interpretations. Finally, the editors quite rightly point to the advances of new scientific techniques such as lead and strontium isotope analyses and their great potential to resolve some of the debates of recent years; a chapter on strontium isotope analysis is included.

In Part I we are first presented with a useful chronological overview followed by the historical background to the Bronze Age in the mid to later third millennium BC including Bell Beakers by Marc Vander Linden and a major culture historical survey of Europe 2500–2300 BC by Volker Heyd. We are presented with the idea of monumentality, so prevalent in the Bronze Age, and an up-to-date presentation of the history of Stonehenge. Settlements and households are also given full treatment, as well as burials and the deposition of metalwork. These chapters attempt to scrutinise variability and possible interpretations; rather than going into too much detail they instead present some well-chosen case studies. Some chapters are more theoretical than others, some more polemic. ‘The myth of the chief: prestige goods, power and personhood in the European Bronze Age’ by Joanna Brück & David Fontijn is evidently polemic and inspiring although, at least in part, I tend to disagree with the relational approach to personhood as presented here which is contradicted by thousands of burials from Central and Northern Europe that speak of a normative, institutionalised social personhood. This issue is also the topic for much of Marie Louise Stig Sørensen’s chapter, ‘Identity, gender and dress in the European Bronze Age’, which in some ways balances and indirectly responds to Brück & Fontijn. But the latter also wish to challenge the whole idea of an advanced Bronze Age political economy based on commodity trade. Here Tobias Kienlin indirectly lends supports in his chapter on Bronze Age metalworking, seeing specialisation but not beyond local kinship groups. One only needs, however, to read a handful of the other contributions on trade, transport, technology and mining, or Christopher Pare’s chapter on ‘Weighing, commodification and money’ to find a different perspective. In this way, the thematic chapters engage the reader in an ongoing theoretical and interpretative argument, which also includes a ‘Rethinking of Bronze Age cosmology’ by Joakim Goldhahn and new interpretations of rock art from the Alps to Scandinavia. Many chapters deal with what adds up to an economic history of the Bronze Age: fields and land divisions, animals, plant cultivation, salt production and trade. Thus, Part I is full of engaging culture historical and interpretative articles that will provide a useful starting point for both the student and the Bronze Age researcher alike.

The regional presentations of Part II are more in the tradition of the encyclopaedic handbook, but again with much new research presented, and with good illustrations, they provide useful and at times inspired reading. We are presented with some new, astonishing findings, such as the anthropomorphic figures of olive wood from the Balearic Islands, or the small family group who took shelter and died during a siege of the Italian Middle Bronze Age fortification of Rocca Vecchia. But what is most striking through all these regional contributions are the advances in our knowledge of settlement and environment and, indirectly, Bronze Age demography and economy.

Is there nothing to criticise? Perhaps as a result of the interpretative approach, perhaps also an editorial policy, the bibliographies for most chapters in Part I are rather meagre. That is probably inevitable, but it should be added that the regional summaries do much to fill the gaps.

Having followed the appearance of the new Oxford handbooks over the last few years, and contributed to some, I must admit that this one rates among the most inspiring and readable, precisely because the editors selected the right contributors and allowed longer and more personal contributions. And, as noted above, the polemic in one contribution tends to be answered in another. There is no homogeneous Bronze Age, and therefore there is room for many perspectives, each of which provides an important aspect of the whole; even in the Bronze Age, people may have perceived and experienced the world from different perspectives as we do today. This handbook provides a multitude of voices on, and entry points into, a complex historical epoch we are perhaps only just beginning to understand. It is now the starting point for anyone interested in knowing more about the European Bronze Age.


  • CLINE, E.H. (ed.). 2010. The Oxford handbook of the Bronze Age Aegean. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


  • Kristian Kristiansen
    Department of Historical Studies, University of Gothenburg, Sweden (Email: kristian [dot] kristiansen [at] archaeology [dot] gu [dot] se)
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