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The Importance of Geography

January 13, 2009


We have all heard someone say, “The world is getting smaller.” The fact that we can witness events happening around the world in real-time or talk with someone half-way around the world using the Internet or travel to a distant location in less than a day adds credence to the proposition that the world is getting smaller. The U.S. Navy, however, has for years insisted that when it comes to moving goods or forces around the globe, geography still matters and the world remains a rather large sphere. A new book entitled Europe Between the Oceans by Barry Cunliffe highlights the notion that geography still matters. He insists, in fact, that it may be the most important thing that mattered in the past. Benjamin Schwarz wrote a glowing review of Cunliffe’s book in The Atlantic [“Geography is Destiny,” December 2008]. Schwarz begins by admitting that books concerning archaeology are seldom riveting.

“Great archaeologists are often at war with themselves. They aim to explain seismic transformations—social and cultural, economic, demographic, even genetic. But they do so by sifting (literally and figuratively) physical evidence that’s scant and (literally and figuratively) fragmentary. These methods mean that nearly all their publications are narrow and exceedingly dry, even by academic standards. And even on those rare occasions when they venture beyond the journal article or monograph, their writing seldom tempts even the most archaeologically besotted general reader. For instance, although the great archaeologist of Mesopotamia Robert McCormick Adams has revolutionized scholars’ understanding of the origins of urban civilization, his oversize tomes, with their detailed maps of watercourses and settlement patterns and meticulous charts of pottery types, resemble field reports, not works of history. But because archaeology addresses the most basic questions and explores the most profound changes in human history by means of a grossly incomplete record—and perhaps because it was long the province of aristocrats and buccaneers—it has invited the sort of bold interpretations in which speculation can too easily become untethered from evidence. When archaeology is done right, it’s frequently dull; when it’s fascinating, it’s frequently wrong.”

I can’t help but think of the firestorm started by Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code. Historians and archaeologists were quick to point out the gross errors in the story, but it didn’t make the book any less interesting to read. Schwarz implies that in the past readers had to settle either for dull truth or interesting fiction. Cunliffe’s book, he claims, changes all that.

Europe Between the Oceans, at once compelling and judicious, is an extraordinary book. In a work of analytical depth and imaginative sweep, Sir Barry Cunliffe, the emeritus professor of European archaeology at Oxford, has synthesized the voluminous recent record of excavations from Iceland to Turkey, the burgeoning scholarship on DNA and ancient populations, and research on topics ranging from Stone Age shipbuilding to trade in Muslim Spain and from salinity levels in the ancient Black Sea to state formation in Early Iron Age Denmark. This all serves to elucidate the ‘complex interaction of human groups with their environment, and with each other’ in Europe from 9000 B.C. to 1000 A.D.—10,000 years of cultural, social, and material development, starting at the close of the last ice age and ending with the emergence of the European nation-states.”

In a world where people are accustomed to reading about great men and women and how their actions affected the course of history, Schwarz writes that Cunliffe dismisses them as tiny players on a big stage.

“Cunliffe’s approach will jar readers accustomed to being informed of the epoch-making quality of every inauguration speech. Not for him ‘the events and personalities flitting on the surface’ of conventional history. Rather, he focuses resolutely on the underlying forces—primarily geography and climate—that influenced societies, and specifically on the ways those forces shaped and constrained the ‘intricate social networks by means of which commodities were exchanged and ideas and beliefs were disseminated.’ Cunliffe is intellectually indebted to Fernand Braudel and the Annales school of French economic and social historians, which emphasized largely static environmental influences and long-term historical continuity and regarded political events as little more than trivia. The Annales approach works better for the millennia Cunliffe examines, in which very, very few individuals can even be identified, than for the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance, the periods Braudel assessed.”

By examining “intricate social networks by means of which commodities were exchanged and ideas and beliefs were disseminated,” Cunliffe is basically arguing that the forces that make today’s globalization so important are the same things that have been important throughout history. Thanks to modern transportation and communication, the forces shaping history are spread more broadly across the globe but they have not changed significantly in some 12,000 years.

“Geography forms the essential basis of Cunliffe’s history. The waters encircling Europe, the transpeninsular rivers that penetrated it, and its topography, currents, tides, and seasonal wind patterns all determined millennia-old sailing routes, and thus the goods and beliefs transported along them. From Cunliffe’s perspective, even the Roman Empire was just an interlude, and perhaps its main achievement was to institutionalize through its ports, roads, and market centers Europe-wide networks of exchange that had been operating since the Middle Stone Age.”

One of the reasons that Enterra Solutions focuses on global supply chain management and port and harbor security, is that we believe that sea lines of communication remain critical to the growth of the global economy. Schwarz continues:

“By stressing historical continuity and adroitly employing a wide-ranging archaeological record to highlight mobility and interconnectedness, Cunliffe draws a startling picture. Europe, he demonstrates, was geographically and culturally merely ‘the western excrescence of the continent of Asia.’ His archaeological and topographic analysis shows how for thousands of years the steppe lands linked central Asia to the Great Hungarian Plain, thus providing ‘easy access’ from China to the Atlantic Ocean. Here was a corridor for trade and migration, starting with nomadic groups deep in prehistory and continuing through the preclassical, classical, medieval, and early modern eras with great hordes of Cimmerians, Scythians, Sarmatians, Alans, Huns, Magyars, Bulgars, Moguls, and Tatars. Knowledge of, for example, the chariot seems to have moved from the Russian forest steppe (the earliest known examples date to 2800) to the Carpathian basin in Hungary and, by the 16th century, to Mycenaean Greece and Sweden. Sarmatian horsemen, originally from central Asia, served in northern England as mercenaries in the Roman army.”

So that you don’t have to rush off to your dictionary to find out the meaning of “excrescence,” Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines it as: 1) a projection or outgrowth especially when abnormal (such as warty excrescences in the colon); 2) a disfiguring, extraneous, or unwanted mark or part (a blot); and 3) a by-product.” In other words, Cunliffe believes that Europe was simply a sideshow to Asia’s main historical storyline. Europe, according to Cunliffe, was the beneficiary of sea and land trade routes that connected it with the wealth of Asia.

“By water and over land, through far-flung webs of trade and tribute, the most disparate cultures reached and changed each other. The beliefs and technologies behind megalithic tombs found along Europe’s Atlantic coast as far north as the Orkneys spread to Minoan Crete by 3000 B.C. Identical amber jewelry is found only in southern Britain and Mycenaean Greek sites, strongly suggesting direct contact between the societies of Homeric Greece and prehistoric Britain. Images of the same type of warrior are found in Sardinia, Egypt, and Scandinavia by about 1300 B.C. Archaic Greek building techniques were used in southern Germany in the sixth century B.C. At a Dark Ages trading center in central Sweden, active from the sixth through ninth centuries A.D., archaeologists have excavated coins from the eastern and western Roman empires, a ladle from Egypt, a bishop’s crosier from Ireland, and a bronze statue of Buddha from India. In the Byzantium of the 900s, the Varangian guard was made up wholly of Scandinavian mercenaries. ‘It may have been a member of the guard,’ Cunliffe notes, ‘who scratched his name, Halfdan, in runes … in the church of Hagia Sophia, leaving a poignant reminder of the confrontation of two very different cultures.’ Lavishly illustrated and replete with a sumptuous array of creatively conceived color maps, Cunliffe’s book is further proof that its publisher produces the most beautiful and intelligently designed works of scholarship in the humanities. I can’t think of a better gift this year for the historically minded reader. No book so well exemplifies what Cunliffe joyously calls ‘the vibrancy of archaeology.’ More important, its focus on what Braudel called the longue durée will jolt the temporally complacent (and aren’t we all?), just as its bracingly materialist approach—which leads to the inescapable conclusion that trade has always laid the foundation for the exchange of ideas and beliefs, indeed for most cultural transformations—nicely tempers our blather about the power of ideas and the individual.”

Schwarz’ recommendation must have had some impact over the holidays. When I checked Amazon.com, the book was out of stock. I agree with Schwarz that “trade has always laid the foundation for the exchange of ideas and beliefs, indeed for most cultural transformations.” Critics of globalization often lament the fact that it changes cultures. Cunliffe reminds us that history of mankind revolves around such changes and that the flows of globalization (people, resources, and capital) have been around since the dawn of recorded history.

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