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A Silent World

Ancient Europe from the Beginnings of Agriculture to Classical Antiquity

by Stuart Piggott
Aldine, 243 pp., $7.50

I wish I knew who invented the word “preliteracy” to indicate the illiteracy of certain extinct or living cultures. The word is not to be found even in the 1959 edition of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary. In American dictionaries it has made its appearance only in recent years. Neither “preliterate” nor “preliteracy” are registered in the 1942 Chicago Dictionary of American English. The 1949 edition of the Funk and Wagnall New Standard Dictionary lists “preliterate” only. In the end I found both “preliterate” and “preliteracy” in the 1961 edition of Webster’s New International Dictionary. What makes me curious about this word is that, though apparently of very recent origin, it reflects the attitudes of prehistorians and anthropologists of several decades ago. Preliteracy points to literacy as the next step in human evolution. Professor Leslie A. White was correct in substance—even if slightly anachronistic in form—when in his 1964 Presidential Address to the American Anthropological Association he declared: “The cultural anthropologists of the latter part of the nineteenth and of the early part of the twentieth centuries…conceived of their task as the study of preliterate cultures, both for the living and the extinct or prehistoric.”1

True enough, in the latter part of the nineteenth century illiteracy was still illiteracy—not preliteracy—and implied some inferiority not only for those who lived in it but also for those who studied it. To quote the author whom Professor L. A. White has recently reedited with such loving care: “Without literary records neither history nor civilization can properly be said to exist” (L. H. Morgan, Ancient Society, ed. White, p. 34). But the notion of a uniform evolution of human society seemed to provide two means of ensuring the correct interpretation of material remains of past cultures when written records were lacking. Any literary civilization was supposed to have preserved clearly recognizable survivals of its illiterate antecedents. Furthermore, the study of living illiterate societies was assumed to provide sound comparative material for the interpretation of beliefs and institutions of extinct societies in the same stage of evolution. The prehistorian, in his study of the illiterate societies of the past, relied on the cooperation both of the historian of literate societies and of the social anthropologist.

THERE IS NO NEED to emphasize the fact that both elements of this faith in the uniformity of human evolution have been shaken in recent years. We no longer have safe criteria for separating what is “primitive” from what is “civilized” in literate societies. Even less do we find sufficient uniformity in contemporary preliterate cultures for them to be an indisputable model for preliterate cultures of the past. As a consequence the prehistorian finds himself much more isolated than he used to be from ordinary historians and social anthropologists. The absence of written records weighs heavily against him when he tries to establish the social institutions or the religious beliefs of the people he studies. Even in economic history the gap between the student of extinct preliterate societies and the student of literate societies has widened against all expectations. No doubt the ordinary historian is increasingly interested in the material remains of civilization; and it may be argued that the study of technology or town-planning is the same for preliterary or literary societies. But if one wants to distinguish between a gift and a market transaction or to establish the rules of land-tenure, explanatory words are needed. As Mr. C. E. Stevens has recently reminded us: “You can dig up a villa but you cannot dig up its land-tenure. Here it must be literary evidence or nothing.2 Words are what nowadays the prehistorian misses so badly. The words uttered in other societies can no longer be transferred to his own world. Only now is the prehistorian beginning to realize fully what a disheartening operation it is to question people who cannot answer.

What makes Professor Piggott’s Ancient Europe such an event is that his methods correspond so precisely to the present limitations of his own subjects. He writes about the last 8000 years of preliterate Europe, which means that he excludes Greeks and Romans. He tells his story with all the command of archaeological facts and the clarity of presentation one expects from him. But the emphasis is not on what the prehistorian can do with the materials at his disposal; it is on what he cannot do. “A prehistorian, in the sense of the student of non-literate societies in the past, does not and cannot write history as the historian does”^3. Professor Piggott cannot accept the famous dictum by his Cambridge colleague Grahame Clark, to whom in many other ways he is so near: “To the peoples of the world generally…I venture to think that Palaeolithic Man has more meaning than the Greeks.”4 He never forgets what literacy—and therefore Greece—implies. This is what makes him the most humanistic among the prehistorians, but also, paradoxically, so distrustful of any bold inference to be drawn from material remains.

The extent of his renunciation is enormous. He gives up any attempt at ascertaining the languages, political institutions, and religious beliefs of Neolithic and Bronze Age Europeans. Megalithic chambered tombs are seen as monuments to a lost faith, and no effort is made to recover what is lost. For the same reason Professor Piggott abstains from giving any interpretation of those female figurines which are usually taken as representations of a Mother Goddess. He approves of P. Ucko’s cautious approach to the problem (Journal Royal Anthropological Institute, 92, 1962, p. 38). I do not know whether he would equally approve in general A. Leroy Gourhan’s interpretations of prehistoric religion. But he would agree with Leroy Gourhan’s verdict that all you can deduce from the presence of such figurines in a country is the existence of women in that country. Even in the interpretation of the material aspects of the economic and social organization, where one could expect him to be more confident, Professor Piggott is reluctant to go beyond an analysis of the distribution of the objects. Excavations are shown to be good enough to differentiate between various types of settlements and therefore presumably between various types of communities. But there is a bare hint that for instance the long house settlements of the Tripolye culture (about 3000 B.C.) correspond to a special type of family structure.

ONLY WHEN HE COMES to the Iron Age does Professor Piggott feel free to admit that the Celts exist and that we can form some idea of their political organization and religious beliefs. By then he has reached the borders of the literate world. The Celts were noticed and described by classical writers and later originated what is possibly the oldest vernacular literature in Europe north of the Alps. Professor Piggott feels that he can use the so-called Law Tracts and the Ulster Cycle to supplement what archaeology and classical writers tell him about the Celts. Before the Iron Age there is only one point at which Professor Piggott seems to deflect from the rigid rules he has imposed upon himself, but soon it becomes clear that even that exception is not real. He identifies the “Corded Ware, Battle-Axe, Single-Grave folk” of 500 B.C. with an Indo-European group when there is no evidence that they spoke an Indo-European language. But consider the exact words of his identification: “I would not say that our late third millenium immigrants from the south Russian steppes spoke Celtic, or Italic or Germanic or any other known Indo-European language of central or west Europe. But the likelihood that they did speak one or more dialects within the Indo-European group seems to me a very strong one. They need not have survived; many languages must have been lost without trace in the absence of even conditional literacy…” (p. 91). As the last words show, Professor Piggott allows his identification to die out as soon as he has expressed it.

Indeed such is the austerity of Professor Piggott that, though I am instinctively in complete sympathy with him, I feel bound to ask the question whether he has not gone too far. The question is worth asking because the answer to it will determine the direction of prehistoric studies for some time to come.

We are back at the starting point: for any reasonable analysis of religious beliefs and social and political institutions, we need words. The question therefore is: Can prehistory get words from somewhere? Of course there are the lucky discoveries which from time to time turn a province of prehistory into a province of history. When Michael Ventris deciphered Linear B he transformed the study of Mycenaean civilization overnight. But, as Professor Piggott knows only too well, such discoveries can only touch the fringes of prehistory. If words have to be introduced into prehistory at large, they must come from comparative philology.

There has been so much abuse of linguistic arguments in historic and prehistoric research that one is naturally suspicious of any book or article which promises to reveal what Indo-Europeans or Iberians or Mediterraneans were like in 2000 or even 1000 B.C. The most recent and ambitious attempt in this direction by Giacomo Devoto (Origini indoeuropee, 1962) is not likely to reassure the skeptic. Though Devoto has a unique command of linguistic facts and is entirely free from racial prejudice, he operates with too many unknown quantities to be able to produce satisfactory results. His main thesis that there was a social and spiritual revolution in the middle of the Indo-European area some time in the second millenium B.C. seems to me without sufficient basis. The special monograph his pupil Gianna Buti has written on the Indo-European house (La Casa degli Indoeuropei, 1962) makes the speculative character of the whole enterprise even more obvious. But any student of Neolithic and Bronze Age Europe is less concerned with Indo-European origins than with that stage in which various Indo-European groups superimposed themselves on, or alternatively got into contact with, other linguistic groups. Research on place-names can give us even now a fair picture of the linguistic stratifications of prehistoric Europe. Hans Krahe, who until his death in 1965 was the driving force behind this research, perceived its implications for the study of the tribal institutions of the Bronze Age (see his summary in Saeculum 8, 1957, 1-16). On the other hand, as early as 1896 P. Kretschmer had shown how the study of one individual language (in his case, Greek) can take one back into prehistory. His example has been followed by scholars in other fields, not least by Professor Piggott’s colleague in Edinburgh for Celtic languages, K. H. Jackson. Monographs on groups of words of special cultural significance—such as numerals (O. Szemerényi), personal names (F. Solmsen, E. Fraenkel), names of stars (A. Scherer), tribal terminology (F. R. Adrados), gifts (E. Benveniste), etc.—have provided other points of departure for a reconsideration of the mental and material equipment of the Western Indo-Europeans and their neighbors.

PREHISTORIANS CANNOT of course simply pick up the results of such studies and introduce them into their own books. Inferences from language to society are a controversial matter even for less remote epochs than Bronze Age Europe. Each student of prehistory must make up his own mind on linguistic problems. But he may get as a reward some of the very words he so badly needs to put nations on the map and to recognize their institutions. Even negative conclusions are sometimes important. For instance, as it is very unlikely that the original Indo-European community had a word for “1000,” the German and Latin military institutions based upon 1000 (the very name “miles” in Latin seems to be connected with “mille”) cannot be an Indo-European inheritance. This conclusion does not fit into G. Dumézil’s theory, which links primitive Roman and German social organization to Indo-European prototypes, but is in agreement with other indications of contacts between Italics and Germans in the Bronze Age.

Professor Piggott’s splendid archaeological puritanism has its counterpart in the indifference to historical problems that is characteristic of the more modern trends of linguistics. But I venture to concur with Professor Dell H. Hymes in his recent prediction: “The salient trait of linguistics, in the first half of the twentieth century…has been its quest for autonomy…In the second half of this century the salient trait will be a quest for integration, and the noted accomplishments will concern the engaging of linguistic structures in social contexts…5 When in 1916 Edward Sapir included linguistics in his survey of the methods available for a reconstruction of time perspective in aboriginal American culture-history he was fundamentally applying nineteenth-century criteria of Indo-European linguistics to the study of American Indians. The time has now come to commend the study of all the work of the great Sapir to the archaeologists concerned with the Indo-European (and non Indo-European) populations of prehistoric Europe.

  1. 1

    American Anthropologist, 67, 1965, p. 629.

  2. 2

    Rural Settlement in Roman Britain, Research Report 7 of Council for British Archaeology, London, 1966, p. 108.

  3. 4

    Antiquity 17, 1943, p. 118

  4. 5

    A perspective for linguistic Anthropology in Sol Tax (ed.), Horizons of Anthropology, 1965, p. 92

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