Forging Identities in the Prehistory of Old Europe: dividuals, individuals and communities, 7000-3000 BC

This solid 459-page work by John Chapman summarises his life-long work in the Balkans and, as he states in the preface, was first conceived as a synthesis of Balkan prehistory but subsequently developed along a specific research path focusing on social narratives. The book is composed of 11 thematic chapters, each of which presents a summary at its end that underlines the most salient points discussed, making the volume particularly useful for students.

Chapman begins by describing the study region, its palaeoenvironment, and the timeframe and cultural framework addressed in this book, as well as putting forward the research questions that it aims to answer: 1) How were social relations created in the past? 2) Why were there so many settlements and so few cemeteries in this region? and 3) Why was there such an amazingly diverse and rich material culture, especially in the domestic domain? He then goes on to lay out the theoretical foundation of the book, explaining the terminology used to describe social practices and the demographic scales adopted in approaching different types of relations, including the individual (rational personhood) and dividual (relational personhood), which Chapman uses as a key concept in his research. These concepts are particularly prevalent in chapter 4, which addresses ideas of personhood, using well-known case studies to demonstrate how dividuality was an important characteristic of the Balkan Neolithic, and to highlight the fact that Neolithic persons had ontologies (ways of categorising the world around them) that cannot easily be identified through the archaeological record.

The connection between social relationships and the material record is a focus throughout much of the book, but is especially prominent in chapters 5 and 6, which present a thorough discussion of settlements in Balkan prehistory. Chapter 5, ‘Houses and households’, opens with the fascinating story of an archaeological experiment in which one of the two replicas of a prehistoric house was burned in an attempt to investigate the destruction process and the consequent formation of archaeological traces. Chapman follows this with an examination of different dwelling typologies, which are described diachronically (looking at their development through time). Also interesting is the discussion of household structures compared to house-models. Of particular interest in chapter 6, ‘Settlement planning’, is the examination of spatial order between households and communal spaces, which can be well understood in the Trypillia mega-sites of the 4th millennium BC. The subject is also raised in chapter 7, ‘The mortuary zone’, where Chapman points out the extreme paucity of burials in comparison to the remains of settlements, before offering an overview of different burial practices – empty burials, burials with disarticulated bones, complete body burial – together with an overview of the most relevant burial sites in the Balkans.

Other subjects covered include the development of foodways (practices related to food and drink) and the crucial information they can provide about prehistoric societies (chapter 3), and variations in settlement form and nucleation-dispersal over time and the networks established among them (chapters 8 and 9). Chapter 10, ‘Change and continuity’, sums up the issues discussed in the previous chapters, focusing on the most important periods for the Balkans in late prehistory, while chapter 11, ‘Summary and conclusions’, tries to answer the key questions put forward at the beginning of the book, particularly those pertaining to how relations were formed and their connections to material culture and the settlement domain.

The volume has the great strength of being a wide and thorough overview of Balkan late prehistory from 7000 to 3000 BC. Among the most valuable qualities of this monumental work are the clarity of exposition, which is achieved through a systematic structure, and the large quantity of high-quality illustration that supply each chapter. Some critical points are, in my opinion, the lack of comparative perspectives for long-term cultural trajectories for regions outside the Balkans, which would have further solidified some of the author’s arguments. However, I would recommend this book to archaeology students, who will enjoy the richness of archaeological data presented here as well as the rich choice of outstanding archaeological contexts of Balkan late prehistory that are presented. Furthermore, the abundant recourse to anecdotes from the author’s life-long work in the Balkans contribute to make this book valuable reading for non-specialists as well.

Review by Maja Gori

Forging Identities in the Prehistory of Old Europe: dividuals, individuals and communities, 7000-3000 BC, John Chapman, Sidestone Press, £65, ISBN 978-9088909481.