Robert Van de Noort’s new book

Posted on May 22, 2011


VAN DE NOORT, R. (2011) North Sea Archaeologies: A Maritime Biography, 10,000 BC – AD 1500, Oxford University Press.

This book is the result of more than a decade of research focused primarily on the development of the maritime cultures of the North Sea. Van de Noort’s immense experience in wetland archaeology and human/environment relationships meet in this work, presenting a very complete insight into human behaviour. It strongly highlights the lack of appreciation and attention from terrestrial archaeology in considering the sea as an active agent in the creation of social identities. Through a comprehensive analysis of archaeological, oceanographic, and historical evidence, considering the coastlines of Scotland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, France and England, the author offers an epistemological alternative towards the study of Mesolithic through to the 16th century maritime communities.

This first edition, published by Oxford University Press and presented in a high-quality hardcover binding, appropriately showcases the author’s own photographic view, that of a contemporary fishing scene of the Shetland Islands – a graphic statement of the central positions rooted in this volume. More practically, the book benefits immensely from high quality grey-scale maps and illustrations, giving the text enough presence without compromising the balance between these two components. However, the inclusion of orientation on the reference maps would have been beneficial, particularly for readers unfamiliar with the geographical areas.

Structurally, the volume is organised around three main arguments: the nature of research examining interactions between the environment and culture in maritime contexts, the development of social identities and dynamics, and finally the importance of travel in object biographies. For Van de Noort, these areas join the essential ‘theoretical toolkit’ with which to develop an archaeology of the North Sea, where the latter should be investigated in the context of society, a hybridity reached through corporeal and cognitive experience of the sea. It is from this sensuous hybridity that the author suggests that an ‘other-than-human’ agency could have been attributed to trees, animals, and of course boats and the sea. As such, chapters one and two are formulated as a preamble to such arguments.

Chapter one makes up the book’s general introduction and as such there is little detailed discussion here but key controversial issues are brought to the fore. In setting out the book’s purpose, Van de Noort lays down his first, and explicit, contention with the comfortable attitude taken by landlocked archaeology towards the sea. In chapter two, he further develops this, stressing the reductionist approaches commonly adopted, which have focused on exploitation and commerce, and until relatively recently have considered the sea an obstacle for human development, and not as an opportunity.

Landscape dynamics join one of the main areas where the idea of agency of the sea could be nested, a constant reconfiguration through climatic change and siltation of rivers and banks, perceived for generations. It is with this in mind that chapters three and five are arranged as a way to better understand the North Sea as an entity and as an agent. In particular, chapter three discusses the presence of deliberate deposits from the Mesolithic through to Middle/Late Bronze Age, of materials recovered by modern trawling. Van de Noort suggests the possibility of prehistoric societies believing in other-than-human agency, could have extended to the sea. He considers these finds as a structured response by societies to the preserving of social memory – a way to record it in the landscape. These events, and the early exploitation of marine resources, stretching back to the ninth century BC, sustains the idea of hybridity between the environment and society, but also the preservation of the other-than-human agency about the sea, which could be traced up to the 19th century’s rural myths.

Even though the isolated study of subsistence strategies are highly criticised by the author in his opening statement, chapter four presents an extraordinary analysis of the variations of marine resource consumption and the ways to explore social identities through such studies. The concept structuring this chapter is to consider the sea as a ‘taskscape’, where food and social identities are closely connected. The consumption of fish and sea mammals in the North Sea has been recorded for the tenth millennium BC in Norway and Scotland, the latter presenting little direct evidence at Star Carr but sharing similarities in other aspects with the Scandinavian archaeological assemblages. Within this section, Van der Noort introduces the idea that although the role of fish and sea mammals in the North Sea were important, evidence for a decrease in marine consumption by 4000 BC, and subsequent recovery by 1000 BC, implies that these resources were not valued equally through time. Based on isotopic analysis and dietary studies, the author reintroduce, with the added science, the debate generated by Julian Thomas, where a rejection of fish could be a marker of social identity.

As a way to integrate and more fully comprehend  maritime social identities developed, the author uses Michel Foucault’s concept of heterotopia – an alternative space, which could explain the alienation of sea-societies, and counterpoise those created on land. In a way, this other-place works as non-hegemonic (terrestrial) or free space, a creation yielded from the constant struggle against nature and not its domination or, as the author might say, from its ‘enculturation’. Additionally, the concept works as an amalgamation of Van de Noort’s ideas throughout the book, considering the lived space and the means by which this is achieved – the latter being by moving on a boat through the landscape or fishing. Most importantly, the North Sea heterotopia is based on the distinct way to face the environment, the activities carried out within it, and the differing perceptions of landscape, whether by foot or sail. Furthermore, Van de Noort finds in Muckelroy’s idea of a shipboard society, the perfect balance between these themes, seeing shipboard societies as the maritime heterotopia par excellence. Examples of shipboard societies as heterotopias are presented here as being reflected in the Neolithic and Bronze Age creation of hierarchies through the specialisation of seafaring knowledge or the insurrection towards land authorities as could be seen in the case of Viking piracy.

Finally, the last chapter is more than its name denotes. Beyond merely concluding general themes, it is all-encompassing. Here, Van de Noort’s remarkable ability to synthesise his ideas regarding multi-period landscape and maritime archaeological research, also shows how these could survive in todays North Sea social identities. This leaves an open door towards not only research on the sea but equally on land as well. Whether this could be considered a starting point, more than a conclusion, the book importantly emphasizes throughout, the idea of an alternative way to think about social phenomena and how far our research could develop if we step outside the pre-established research constraints.

This book is a must-read for all those engaged in maritime and land-based archaeological research, regardless of period or locality of interest.

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