On the Ocean: The Mediterranean and the Atlantic from Prehistory to AD 1500
Barry Cunliffe
Oxford University Press
632pp, 223 colour and black-and-white illustrations and 131 maps
Hardback, £30


'Go West, young man!' may sound like advice from the 19th-century, but American settlers were at the end of a long line of pioneers and adventurers who had been chasing the westering sun since, well, just about the dawn of time. Barry Cunliffe takes this idea as a main theme of his book, which explores the history of the Mediterranean and Atlantic from the Last Glacial Maximum to the first European steps in the New World. To emphasise the direction he is taking, an abundance of specially drawn maps put west (rather than north) at the top of the page, tilting the world as Europeans know it clockwise through 90 degrees.

The westward march has been long, from Neolithic and Beaker cultures to monks heading for western Ireland to find the isolation earlier generations had known in the deserts of the Middle East. But although the subject of On the Ocean is broad, it stresses that it is 'connectivity' that links movements in trade and populations. Winds and currents are a driving force, but there are other elements at play. The Mediterranean lands of southern Europe are mountainous and sailors like to keep in sight of land, so they became adventurous, travelling further out to sea than people from the flatter North African coast.

Professor of Archaeology at Oxford University from 1972 to 2007 and author of many books including Facing the Ocean and By Steppe, Desert and Ocean, Cunliffe believes that, in the absence of evidence, archaeologists of the past have tended to underestimate the ability of our prehistoric ancestors to engage with the sea. As an example, he cites the recent discoveries of palaeolithic tools on Crete made by people who must have arrived by boat 130,000 to 100,000 years ago, far earlier than had been thought that sea voyaging began.

The Strait of Gibraltar, connecting the two great bodies of water, was a barrier to early seamen, as unfavourable currents and winds could prevent Mediterranean ships from entering the Atlantic for weeks on end. But the Phoenicians, master mariners from the Levant, sailed through, seeking flint and ores in Brittany and Cornwall, and in the 4th century BC Pytheas, a Greek from Marseille, reached Britain, reporting on the tides that were related, he said, to 'the fullness and fastness of the moon'.

'The western ocean has always had a supernatural aura,' says Cunliffe. 'It was the place where paradise lay and where the imagination could run wild.' The first to arrive in Madeira and the Canary islands may have been 80 Arab mugharrirun ('intrepid explorers') who set out from Lisbon in the 11th or 12th centuries 'to sail the sea of Perpetual Gloom, to discover what it was and where it ended'. Columbus headed west, thinking the Canaries were en route and on the same latitude as Cipangu (Japan). Archaeologists refer to the maritime zone from Iberia to the Shetlands as the Atlantic Bronze Age Community. The substantial rivers flowing into the Atlantic here provided havens, says Cunliffe, and were the prime reason for the Atlantic zone being a focus of energy and innovation.

Descriptions of boats from earliest times sort out cogs from hulks, carracks from caravels, helped by a glossary of nautical terms, while a 36-page guide to further reading seems more than adequate. Most of the information in this well produced and highly readable book is not new, but its approach to the subject, and the connecting links it explores, help to give a greater understanding of the sea as fundamental to the passage of Western history.
Roger Williams

 

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