The Connected Iron Age - Review

By Owain Williams

The ‘typical’ areas of ancient history that readers are most familiar with, based on general trends in popular history publishing and on our own reader survey, are likely to be the Late Bronze Age eastern Mediterranean (ca. 1600–1150 BC), Classical and Hellenistic Greece (ca. 500–30 BC), and the Roman imperial period (ca. 30 BC – AD 500), with each period having a particular emphasis on Greco-Roman cultures, whether that be the Mycenaeans or the Roman Republic. The 600 years between the Late Bronze Age Collapse and the Greco-Persian wars – the Early Iron Age – are rarely, if ever, the subject of popular enquiry, often focusing on Greek colonialism, which reached its apogee in this period, or the rise of the Assyrian empire. This is, of course, unsurprising, as the reliance on archaeology makes for rather dry reading that does not translate well into popular history (although the recent publication of After 1177 by Eric Cline might change that). The period is regularly the focus of academic works, however. The Connected Iron Age: Interregional Networks in the Eastern Mediterranean, 900–600 BCE, edited by J.M. Hall and J.F. Osborne, is a recent book offering an overview of the current state of the academic field.

According to the publisher, the book “adopts an interdisciplinary approach to understanding the social and political significance of how interregional networks operated within and between Mediterranean cultures”. The various essays included in the book, each by a leading archaeologist or historian, are based on talks given at a conference held in 2018 (save one or two written specifically for this volume). They are unevenly split between chapters offering a discussion of the merits of different methodological approaches and offering new approaches and chapters offering specific case studies from throughout the eastern Mediterranean either applying new methods or reevaluating the evidence for previous ideas. 

With most of the essays being case studies, readers are presented with a great deal of information about the cultures of the eastern Mediterranean on every page. Moreover, while the usual suspects, the Greeks and the Phoenicians, are discussed, some chapters open the discussion to less well-known cultures, such as the Phrygians and the Trojans – “not Homer’s mythological Trojans but the actual human communities living in Ilion” (p. 142) – moving away from maritime connections and instead discussing overland routes. I particularly enjoyed the discussion of the relations between Anatolian groups, primarily the Phrygians, and the Assyrians, and the role these relations played in creating an alternative network between Mesopotamia and the Aegean. Despite general readers being unlikely to know much about these cultures – I certainly did not know much about the Phrygians – the authors do a good job communicating the necessary context for their areas of discussion. That said, as this book is not intended for a general audience unfamiliar with the subject matter, this contextualising is not necessarily enough for readers without some prior familiarity with the subjects. Indeed, such familiarity is assumed on the part of the authors. However, rarely did I feel lost or lacking the necessary context. 

While some of the essays were less convincing than others, the book as a whole was an insightful and up-to-date look into the study of the Early Iron Age eastern Mediterranean, revealing both the huge variety of evidence available to us and the methods academics use to examine it. I would certainly recommend this to readers who are familiar with the general outline of the Early Iron Age, even if this book does, in several ways, challenge that outline. 

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