Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Boo, Brian Fagan

Just finished The Long Summer: How Climate Changed Civilization by Brian Fagan. It was a fascinating read, up to a point. I planned to get his newest book (The Long Summer is from 2004) when I was done. How fascinating to read about ancient people and how they were shaped by climate, right?

Towards the end comes a chapter called "Celts and Romans: 1200 BC to AD 900." Wow, right up my alley! I've been studying the Iron Age Celts for years! What insights would I glean?

Unfortunately, almost every paragraph about the Celts contained errors of fact and unsubstantiated exaggerations and generalizations. I'll try not to nitpick, but if I can pick out inaccuracies, to me that casts aspersions over the entire book.
Here are some quotes:

  • (speaking, I think, of the time immediately after 1200 BC) "In the well-wooded north [of Europe] the egalitarian farming societies of earlier times had given way to small competing dynasties of local chiefs. . . chief vied with chief in the acquisition of the currency of success. This currency was in the form of prestigious ornaments--Baltic amber, and above all, shiny bronze." I'm suspicious. I can't disprove this, but I don't think it can be proven, either. The presence of Baltic amber and bronze in graves does not imply the other generalizations about their society.

  • "These people had no powerful kings or centralized bureaucracies. . . Most people dwelled in small, round houses. . . " Suspicion gives way to skepticism. How would he know how powerful or bureaucratic kings/chiefs were 3,000 years ago? He can't. Also, he refers to finds in Germany in this paragraph, so presumably we're talking about the continental Celts. Round houses were popular only in Britain.

  • (speaking of the period after 850 BC) "Raiding and warfare were now an integral part of daily life. In some places, war became endemic, so much so that chiefs built strong fortified settlements. . . By 600 BC, temperate Europe was a landscape of hill forts. . . " His cited source here is Barry Cunliffe's The Ancient Celts. I have that book; Cunliffe speaks of a period of stability around 1000 BC that sparked a rise in population "in some areas" and increased use of farmland. "Hill forts . . . were constructed in some number, indicating that the coercive power of some sector of the population was now able to command surplus labor to aggrandize or protect a chosen settlement. . . " Cunliffe also points out that around 520 BC in the Hallstatt zone, some hill forts were abandoned and others grew larger. But I don't think that translates into any of Fagan's generalizations. OK, at this point I am nitpicking; I admit it.

So I'd better stop. Read Barry Cunliffe yourself, or Peter Beresford Ellis, or Simon James, if you want to know about the Celts. Do not trust Fagan's words--I think most experts would not even accept his broad definition of Celt, which seems to cover every tribe in Europe, except those on the Italian peninsula.

This picture, btw, is of the remains of an oppidum, or hill fort, in France near Huelgoat forest. (Fagan claims that the Celts pretty much deforested areas building their hill forts. But the ancient forests were not cut away, and were quite large back then, according to other sources.)

My point, to re-iterate, is when an authority (which Fagan certainly is) gets the facts wrong in one section of his book, or indulges in generalizations so broad that they become fiction, it shadows all his work on the rest of the book. What parts can I trust?

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