Economy and Society in Prehistoric Europe consists of twenty papers written by Andrew Sherratt over the past quarter of a century.footnote Taken together, these articles represent a uniquely coherent and consistent vision of Old World prehistory. They present the Neolithic and the Bronze Age periods in Eurasia as a formative era in world history, which established the conditions for the eventual emergence of capitalism and industrialism. It is perhaps only now that they have been published in a single volume that it is possible to recognize the way in which Sherratt has been slowly unfolding his grand design, and it is remarkable that elements of his earliest formulations have survived unscathed throughout this period. The book is dedicated to Sherratt’s late teacher, David Clarke, and the papers are sandwiched between two meditations on the work of the most influential of all European prehistorians, Vere Gordon Childe. These two figures appear to no small extent to have dominated Sherratt’s intellectual development. Indeed, many of his essays can be read as dialogues with one or the other, and it seems that over the long term Childe has gained the upper hand.

Like Clarke before him, Sherratt recognizes the importance of placing the development of archaeology in the broader history of Western thought, and into a social and political context. In his introduction to the volume, his predilection for the large-scale and the long-term first reveals itself with his proposal that the past three centuries of social philosophy can be read as an alternation between two modes of knowledge, one concerned with rationalism and system-building, the other with romanticism and deconstruction.footnote1 This is partly a rhetorical move which allows him to situate himself somewhere between the two currently prevailing schools of archaeological theory in the Anglophone world, generally referred to as ‘processual’ and ‘post-processual’ archaeology. Much of what divides these two approaches is their understanding of materiality, which underpins quite different perceptions of what can be learned about the past from material evidence. Processual archaeology is informed by systems theory, ecology, and various forms of Darwinism, and tends to present archaeological evidence as a material record of past behaviour.footnote2 Post-processual archaeology, an even more diverse agenda, results from the meeting of archaeology with the full range of contemporary social and cultural theories, including Marxism, feminism, post-colonial thinking and post-structuralism. Perhaps the only common element within the post-processual approach is a concern with the symbolic character of material culture. However, this can range from a neo-structuralist attempt to ‘crack the code’ behind material things,footnote3 to an insistence that the meanings of artefacts are multiple and undecideable, so that their interpretation in both the past and the present must ultimately be seen in a context of power and politics.footnote4

In an article which has curiously been omitted from this volume, Sherratt makes clear his commitment to ‘the grand narrative’ and to forms of explanation which operate at a global scale.footnote5 These, he argues, have been neglected by recent generations of archaeologists. Some processual archaeologies, for example, have stressed the autonomy of societies as adaptive units locked in to local ecological systems.footnote6 Similarly, particular forms of post-processual archaeology have been critical of totalized accounts, on the grounds that they dehumanize the past, divorcing historical change from the scope of human agency and experience.footnote7 However, Sherratt’s attempt to cast these two positions as the respective inheritances of the Enlightenment and romantic traditions is something of an oversimplification. Intellectual history involves more complex processes of hybridization and recombination that his scheme allows. This is evident in the way that Sherratt identifies Marx as a ‘rationalist’ follower of Montesquieu and Morgan, neglecting the implications of the latter’s debt to Hegel and his influence—via the Frankfurt School—on what are identified as the contemporary ‘romantics’.

Where Sherratt follows both Clarke and Childe is in writing a prehistory based upon the notion of the ‘culture’. For Childe, cultures were the material signatures of distinct groups of people. Assemblages of pots, stone and metal tools, house-forms and burial practices were expected to form clear and bounded distributions, which corresponded with the areas inhabited by ethnic—rather than racial—groups in the distant past.footnote8 These assemblages maintained their integrity over time because human beings were inherently conservative, and adhered to ‘ways of doing things’ which they had learned during childhood, watching pots being decorated and tools being manufactured in the domestic setting. Innovation was the exception rather than the rule in human evolution, and where new ideas found their way into a community they were most likely to have been learnt from another group. Thus it was that cultural forms could spread geographically without the extensive movement of population: diffusion rather than migration.

Childe’s notion of cultural practice being transmitted from generation to generation in the form of ideas was derided by the American ‘New Archaeologists’ of the 1960s as ‘normative archaeology’.footnote9 Following an evolutionary and ecological conception of human development, Lewis Binford and his associates argued that culture was a means of adaptation, which was participated in rather than automatically held in common by an entire society. However, while sharing Binford’s aspiration to transform archaeology into a ‘science of culture change’, David Clarke sought to refine Childe’s culture-concept. In his Analytical Archaeology,footnote10 Clarke imagined cultures as information-processing systems, goal-directed toward achieving homeostasis within their local environment. In presenting culture systems as hierarchically-nested groupings of attributes, artefact types and assemblages, Clarke famously separated the goals of archaeology from those of history, setting up a time-space systematics which virtually erased any human presence from the past.

Clarke’s later work moved away from this position, opting instead for an attentive investigation of the relationships between the social, economic and ecological circumstances of prehistoric communities.footnote11 However, this rather left the issue of ‘cultures’ hanging. Childe had established these entities as the building-blocks of prehistory, and archaeology now seemed unable to either reject or reform the concept. This is the situation which Sherratt inherits, and appears unwilling to move beyond. As he recognizes, prehistoric archaeology is a product of the modern era, charged with the task of uncovering the primordial origins of the European nations. If the nation-state is the characteristic political form of modernity, it has constantly been legitimated by reference back to a mythical golden age of ethnic purity and wholeness. This much is evident today in the Balkans and the Caucasus, where culture-histories proliferate as new nationalisms are spawned. The archaeological ‘culture’ represents an imposition onto the past of a modernist dream of unity, closure and boundedness. This may be entirely anachronous when applied to prehistory, and consequentially the use of the concept must now be viewed with some suspicion.

Despite this, Sherratt’s deference to Childe is merited. Whether as a result of his Marxist sympathies or not, Childe was virtually alone amongst the prehistorians of the inter-war years in seeking to use archaeological materials to address questions of general interest. As Sherratt points out, the great issues of social evolution, technological change, the distinctiveness of the West and the character of ‘oriental despotism’ had been much discussed at a hypothetical level, but rarely in relation to the evidence which could most helpfully enlighten them.footnote12 Childe’s contribution is perhaps most clearly seen in his discussion of the two great prehistoric ‘revolutions’, in Man Makes Himself footnote13 and The Prehistory of European Society.footnote14 According to Childe, the Neolithic revolution—the domestication of plants and animals—occurred in south-west Asia, and from this heartland of cultivation, agriculture spread out across the Old World by diffusion. Later, the conditions established by food production in Mesopotamia allowed the development of craft specialization and higher densities of population, fuelling an urban revolution. The early cities provided the context for the first metallurgy, but they were rigid theocracies where craft specialists remained the powerless servants of the priest-hood. It was only when the techniques of bronzeworking spread into Europe that a class of free smiths could emerge. The resulting contrast in the conditions surrounding industry provided the long-term background for the emergence of capitalism in Europe.