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Facing the Ocean is a very good summary of European history from the perspective of coastal societies. Professor Cunliffe covers a very long period of history, from 8000 BC to 1500 AD, in about 500 pages. Although slow in some parts-I nodded out a few times during discussions of specific trade items-it was none-the-less a well assembled volume of information.
Although I `ve studied the history of the area on a number of occasions for classes and in personal reading, I was surprised at how well the varied information was pulled into a more coherent whole by simply looking at the experiences of coastal populations. To a large extent these groups were marginal to the events of the major centers of civilization, isolated by distance and by geographical barriers from them. I've found in other cases, too, that it is often from the perspective of the peripheral cultures that more sense is made of global history. Although most historians treat these areas as cultural backwaters waiting to be "enlightened" by the more technologically advanced, in fact they had vigorous and creative cultures of their own that provided the central players with raw materials and a strong market for finished goods. The ebb and flow of trade and of people and the changes in the fortunes of the various participants of the central arena create a much richer historical texture than is usually portrayed, and makes more sense of some of the events of world history. For instance the author's statement that the decline in productivity and birth rate in the Mediterranean world coupled with the denser population of the Germanic tribes north of the Rhine created a "fracture" zone, was very prescient. Taken out of global context, the fall of Rome seems to be a simple matter of internal decay, which to some extent it was. It becomes more a matter of population dynamics and economics when considering the European, African and Asian Continents as a whole. In short, there was a lot more to it than it seems on the surface.
Because the author's primary research seems to be in Celtic studies (he has written an entire volume on the Celts), the book tends to focus rather heavily on periods leading up to the Celtic-Roman confrontations and to periods just after it. He barely touches upon the age of discovery during the 15th Century, which is an age of Atlantic maritime expansion, par excellence. Even though he is neither historian nor archaeologist by profession and his primary focus is Chinese global exploration, Gavin Menzies gives a far more thorough discussion of the age of European discovery in his book 1421, The Year China Discovered America. (He also gives an amazing account of fraud in map making by Bartholomew Colombus in collusion with his brother Christopher that is well worth the reading.)
Interesting, too, is the author's perspective as an archaeologist on the culture of Europe during the long period of habitation, particularly the Roman and post-Roman periods. Historically speaking, written works from the period tend to be vary biased in favor of the Romans. Unfortunately modern historians aren't always "up front" about some of these biases. The magic of the written word tends to give credence to whatever is imparted. For one thing, the ancient writers provide a good story, often times a gossipy one. And who doesn't enjoy a good gossip? For another they sometimes just didn't know, or they quoted as reliable information the reports of other writers who also just didn't know. While archaeology is as prone to errors of interpretation as is historical analysis of written sources, it has the benefit of solid primary evidence. Where one discipline seems to support the other, we probably have a good approximation of what occurred in the past. Where they disagree, we have to admit that for now at least, "we just don't know." The author makes this abundantly apparent throughout the text.
I was particularly impressed that author had such a good sense of geography and geology, particularly with his ability to pull the concept of isostacy into his discussion. It wasn't just that he understood that the coastal environment was subject to change due to emergence or submergence, he knew the mechanisms by which this occurred. This may be because he is an archaeologist, which requires a good understanding of geomorphological processes in interpreting habitation sites and the finds that are made there. I was a little surprised, though, that he made less of the environmental changes that occurred throughout his selected time period, producing major shifts in ecological zones. Though his main interest is Mayan history, Richardson Gill in his book, The Great Maya Droughts, gives a very plausible interpretation of changes in the European sociopolitical picture that takes this factor into account rather well, making even more sense of the shifts in fortunes in the Northern and Southern European venues.
All in all an interesting book. I think that it is more for those with a special interest in European history and pre-history rather than for the general reader. It would make a very useful supplementary text for a college archaeology or European history course. I would certainly have welcomed it when I took my Archaeology of Northern Europe class a couple years ago. I think that at a high school level it would make a good addition to a library for use in research or for the student with a special interest. I suspect most high school age individuals would find it a bit slow going.