Reviewed by Benjamin Schwarz
January/February 2013 ATLANTIC
North Sea Archaeologies Robert Van de Noort OXFORD
Drawing on an array of archaeological findings, anthropological and environmental studies, historical records, and investigations of such varied subjects as shipbuilding techniques and the DNA of ancient cattle populations, this fascinating book examines the cultural persistencies and complex interactions of human groups with the North Sea and with each other for 11,500 years, from the end of the last ice age to the emergence of the modern European states. Taking in the coasts of France, Britain, the Low Countries, Germany, and Scandinavia, Van de Noort, a professor at the University of Exeter, illuminates how underlying forces—fish habitats, climate, topography, tides, currents, wind patterns—influenced societies, and specifically how those forces determined the ways that commodities, ideas, and techniques were exchanged.
The North Sea, as Van de Noort shows, has been as much a highway connecting disparate and seemingly isolated peoples as a barrier—which is why, as the English writer J. B. Priestley noted in the 1930s, the atmosphere and appearance of the city of Hull, on England’s northeast coast, were in many ways closer to those of Scandinavian and Baltic cities than to those of, say, Liverpool or London. Throughout, the author emphasizes mobility and continuity across millennia, challenging our temporal parochialism. The result: a breathtakingly long-term perspective on human history and cultural interaction that puts such ephemeral and inconsequential matters as political borders in their place, and that demonstrates the survival of ancient beliefs and practices in the modern era.