Review online

'Rivers in prehistory' reviewed

Colin Martin has reviewed Rivers in Prehistory in the International Journal of Nautical Archaeology, Vol 45 Issue 1, with positive comments and appreciation for the work done. The volume, which was started from selected papers presented at 2 conferences (3 sessions), has also some commissioned papers.

For the volume, I deliberately tried to avoid presenting a single conclusion or push a particular view or interpretation. It became clear soon enough that rivers mean different things to different people, but they have been undoubtedly important to many for a very long time. Two the key messages: first, never underestimate the role of a river in the landscape, and second never believe that one particular perspective can explain it. Rivers are never the same, and never perceived as the same. They are a dynamic entity that is constantly mediated by human societies, communities, households, and individuals. The introductory essays and case studies make clear that this dynamism results in a variety of human responses, which can be synchronic and diachronic.

I think that contemporary explanations, interpretations, and generalisations end up presenting a single, monolithic perspective, which can be the author's position, the best solution proven by the archaeological record or often both. This is sometimes unsatisfactory. Rivers are a gateway to the complexity of humans and their societies, and can be used in different and sometimes competing explanations most effectively, and correctly. This happens because we tend to recognise most significant events and chain them in historical sequences, but human responses are often mixed and incoherent, and sometimes even apparently illogical. A culture opting for some way of doing something can still be aware of and appreciate a different way, and influence others into appreciating it, because not all members of one culture necessarily agree with the mainstream thinking. And different solutions may be borrowed, on necessity, within the same culture. All this is what the study of rivers has reminded me, the exceptional diversity of human beings. The book is indeed about rivers as a dynamic force in nature and among human societies, and is not a collection of static views about what we think they meant in prehistory.

The first 34 pages are devoted to an ‘Introduction’ and two scene-setting essays (by) Andrea Vianello. His philosophy and approach are non-prescriptive, emphasizing the dichotomy between the physical attributes of riverine environments and the varied and not always logical responses of human societies to them. (...) Slick generalizations and explanatory theories are notably absent; in their place are factual observations, questions and paradoxes. This combination of papers does not constitute a text book, but it is a good foundation for debate and progress in this neglected field. (...) The volume as a whole carries an important message. Like the sea and things nautical, rivers and lakes have for too long been ‘elephants in the rooms’ of archaeologists and historians, so obvious that they are effectively invisible. Andrea Vianello and his fellow authors have revealed them as essential elements in holistic landscape studies, without which life could not function. It is up to others to follow their example. (...) An excellent book. Some of the illustrations are outstanding, especially of the Yangtze and of Arab marshlands.


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