Rivers in Prehistory

The long-delayed volume Rivers in prehistory  is finally in press and hopefully should be on sale at next EAA annual meeting in Glasgow. The book contains an extended essay on the humans-environment dynamics prompted by thinking about rivers, and ten case studies (one mine).

From antiquity onwards people have opted to live near rivers and major watercourses. Both freshwater and navigable routes provide the obvious reasons for settling near a river, but there are also many drawbacks, such as flooding. This volume explores rivers as facilitators of movement through landscapes, and it investigates the reasons for living near a river, as well as the role of the river in the human landscape. Ultimately, it focuses on the delicate relationship between humans and their environment, looking at the origins to help understand the present.

The symbolic and philosophical perceptions and understanding of rivers, the cultural and social behaviour associated with their presence, and the effort and engineering required to subdue and control their flowing waters are all deeply embedded in human cultures. Through an extended essay and ten case studies, this book introduces the reader to how rivers have been perceived as gateways to wilderness and the environment for humans across the world, and how they have affected behaviour and ideas throughout human history. Students and researchers of human environment dynamics, and/or the colonisation of new lands, will find in this volume a network of bridges to facilitate the exploration of different research paths towards historical narratives of human cultures, through which rivers, and their environments, run.

This volume was initially planned to be the proceedings of 3 successful sessions (at WAC and EAA) on inland water courses and wetlands, with particular focus on movement. The broadness of the topic, already evident in difficulties to describe the topic, and many refusals to contribute from authors, resulted in abandoning that project and produce instead a focused thematic volume. Rivers appeared to me as the connecting element, and expressed intrinsically the original idea of movement. Even so, the volume proved challenging because of a risk of being obvious (read: textbook-like) or holistic (read: unfocussed). This was my first time approaching environmental archaeology for research, and I had in mind trade, boats, geoarchaeology and biology as suitable approaches for the contributions to the volume.

Rivers in prehistory cover

Eventually, I was fortunate to have committed and competent authors from different places and backgrounds, none of whom was involved in a big dig near a river. The result was mesmerising, because at first reading I thought none of the papers focused on rivers (me included), at least not as I expected. But I liked those papers, they were discussing problems and aspects that are not usually found in the literature, and I found myself changing my ideas on rivers, their role and importance. The resulting book has nothing to do with the sessions, save for some selected contributions, and is a fresh take on the topic.

Ilze Loze prepared a paper on my instructions to focus on Latvian wetlands, where the amber route originated. Trade and movement were at the heart of my interests and she really nailed the topic with an exceptional example of scholarship, showing how trade and wetlands changed together as time passed, but without adopting a functional or causal perspective. She could not recognise automatic changes, rather constant influences back and forth. More trade meant a larger number of people living in the area and therefore affecting the environment. Changes in the environment eventually affected human activities, making more or less viable some activities. But both natural and artificial changes affected both. She had exposed a link in a region that she knows profoundly and loves, but perhaps because of different scientific traditions (Latvia and Loze were under Soviet rule in past years), she did not try to explain it or justify it. She was just content in exposing this link.

Peter Chowne and Tim Malim presented the great scholarship and case study of Britain on the subject of wetlands, focusing on the landscape, new technology such as the LiDAR, and a way of living the wetlands, that honestly remembered me a lot the way of life in Venice (my place of birth). The wetlands of Veneto remain unique for their continuous adaptation as time progressed, but many solutions adopted were in use here or there across Europe. Prehistoric Britain in particular seems to have been particularly exceptional in managing and living wetlands, and it is disappointing that today rivers, wetlands and floodplains are so badly managed. The love and care for the landscape is the same throughout time however. The network of canals developed within Britain and grown to make possible the Industrial Revolution is perhaps the most eloquent aspect of a tradition that was never truly abandoned. The navigli of Milan, developed since the Middle Ages, improved in the Renaissance (also by Leonardo, who was fascinated by the technological challenges) and developed till early 20th century (they fascinated Japanese movie director Hayao Miyazaki enough to form the backgrounds of his Porco Rosso, together with the isles of the Adriatic) are also very similar in nature. In both cases, the Po Valley and Britain, water-rich wetlands have been developed into networks of canals for the rapid movement of people and goods. The volume presents the origins of both areas, with Chowne and Malim focusing on Britain and Paolo Bellintani & Massimo Saracino plus Andrea Vianello focusing on the Po Valley. Each with a different approach on rivers, but all ending up in showing how the wet landscapes were settled.

Nicolás Lira San Martin focuses on indigenous boating in South America, presenting the prehistory of people still living in what appears an unchanged environment that never prompted the use of better technologies. The paper is structured very similarly to any European study of log boats, with much emphasis on radiocarbon dating. The particular subject makes it more exotic for the typical reader and the use of ethnographic and anthropological approaches more complete. The daunting photographs of similar  boats in actual use are simply impossible to find for log boats and canoes such as those from Neolithic La Marmotta in Italy (Lake Bracciano) or Bronze Age Dover. The modern fluvial routes, reconstructed on actual use, are also most effective in showing that these networks actually existed. The widespread presence of waterways and archaeological evidence does not imply a unitary system, and it made me think that in Europe we do not even know the path of rivers at most times in antiquity, and we can say very little about the “system” at any time.

Edith Ortiz Díaz presented a memorable paper at WAC, very energetic and convincing. She starts from the idea of movement on rivers in terms of indigenous boating, but the time is now and relatively little is explored about mechanisms and details. In fact, she presents how the indigenous people perceive their way of life (something lacking in the previous paper), and shows how different people have constructed a different perception of the same environment, pitting two cultures sharing the same environment one against the other, each misunderstanding the other. The paper has great importance for the cause of conserving indigenous ways of life and cultures, but it did for me what a thousand papers on phenomenology and theoretical models about the construction of perceptions, cultural landscapes, human views never could: it shows how messy the perception of one environment can be based on relatively small starting differences. There is no single model here able to reconstruct the perception of the environment, since every perception will be unique. It is a case where a link forms between one human culture and its environment and the landscape records this changing, and often not univocal perception. Can we make sense of a landscape as the archaeological recording the link between some humans to their environment? No, it is a record of multiple views, even at an arbitrary time. Alas, different interpretations are not necessarily alternative.

Dragoş Gheorghiu focuses just on the symbolic perception of the surrounding environment, to the construction of the artificial landscape from the lived and perceived environment. It is a very different view from all others, because the river is in the head (although one may have existed in antiquity). Hi chosen site, Göbekli Tepe, is an exceptional place, at the transition between mobile hunter-gatherers and sedentary farmers. Agriculture was probably known and practised with very limited success, to integrate the diet, but the “revolution” was yet to come. This is a particular period that is now being explored more from a biological perspective, but that it was of some importance also for its cultural traits. Gheorghiu takes a snapshot of the moment when the environment becomes fully cognised and is expressed into distinctive cultures. A further example of this time in between is featured in my introductory essay, Shinto Japan.

Amy Bunce also focuses on rivers that are not physically there, and more specifically on lakes not always there, the turloughs of Ireland. Rivers often produces intermittent watercourses (e.g. wadis), subterranean and hidden streams, rapids, falls and other variants to the typical flowing river. This paper presents the adaptations and use of different and unusual rivers, particularly focusing on discontinuous and seasonal waters. Cave rivers are featured in my introductory essay, but this is a more detailed case study of a very interesting and unusual situation.

Ulla Rajala concentrates on THE river, at least for anybody who has studied a little Classical antiquity: the Tiber. I expected wonders, but it appears that the river, as interesting as it may have been, and the cultures forming along its course were very “normal”. Nothing is particular about the river itself, it just happened to be located in an area crucial for the development of human civilisations. One of the last papers to be consigned took me to what the first one (by Loze) glimpsed: a cycle in which both natural and artificial occurrences contribute to the development of lands and cultures, without a particular type of link among such occurrences. In this case, the Tiber rose to fame and its heavy human modifications because Rome happened to be along its path.

My introductory essay briefly reviews many famous rivers, showing that there is no specific link between a river or some of its characteristic and greater human civilisations. There is however a link between humans and rivers in how they decide to explore and settle any land, because rivers are proactively sought after at all moments in history. It is also a link that continues in time, after rivers are cognised as a key element of the natural world, which stays accessible even in the most urbanised locations on Earth.

There are no typical conclusions, since the book aims to increase awareness of the relationship between humans and environment maintaining an open-ended invitation to investigate local areas, rather than generalise or outline specific cases. The contributors as the introductory essay avoid to present unrelated cases in detail for some encyclopaedic desire of completeness, or to present too many data on very specific localities. As I already suggested above, no single landscape at any one time was probably even perceived in just one way. It is futile therefore to attempt any conclusions since research anchored on some local perspective will have to reveal, as it is doing, the many nuances of this ever-changing relationship. The book will be successful if scholars will learn that there are multiple approaches to look at the environment, and avoid generalisations. Rivers are particular, so particular that indeed characterise the local in many cases, through the peculiarities of the landscape being inhabited. Humans tend towards globalising and generalising with their minds, but nature prefers to maintain diversity. Perhaps even local and global are just a dichotomy mirroring the humans-environment relationship.

Key topics discussed in the volume are

  • humans-environment dynamics, with each component affecting the other in very long chronological sequences
  • the importance of the local and the development of particular adaptive solutions to specific environments and needs
  • the physical and metaphysical dimensions of rivers, which profoundly affect human cultures through physical constraints, phenomenological perception, symbolism, and cognised perception
  • the changing perception of rivers, both physical and metaphysical, especially with the introduction of sedentism
  • the construction of understandings of the landscape and natural world based on flowing waters, which have been seen in time as natural features, obstacles, symbols of fertility, evidence of the immutability of nature, etc.

There are therefore recurring topics and elements, but none is necessarily relevant to all cases and I opted for readers to appreciate the sheer diversity of environments and cultures and make their own judgement if they have specific interests on a given area and want to introduce the local watercourse in their narratives. Some readers will find this decision confusing, very probably, because they are used to prepared models or argued statements. The book is not for them, as I could not generalise or categorise rivers in a few items. Other readers will instead find many perspectives and a rich discussion of making sense of the environment, despite its variability. These are the readers that want to learn with an open mind and apply some ideas to specific cases they are working on. They will build many more narratives and tell unique stories from the archaeological record.

I kept the introductory essay short to avoid wandering into the temptation of finding common patterns or too localised perspectives. But it took much reading and thinking before I was able to write it. The book is an open invitation to explore the multitude of local situations, where particular behaviours towards and relationships with the environment are recurring, but they never form a pattern or any predictable sequence: the local is always dependent upon very specific situations, and although there are similarities (Po Valley and Britain, for instance) to be found, each is characterised by unique events and peculiarities.

It is an edited book, although the introductory essay makes it a hybrid book, with a monographic section followed by case studies. Like my previous Exotica in the prehistoric Mediterranean it attempts to be a unitary volume, with the same purpose shared by all contributors. Almost a collaborative effort. I avoided it to become a collection of loosely connected papers, or a textbook-like approach, as abound nowadays. I hope readers will enjoy it.

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