Scholia Reviews ns 9 (2000) 16.

R. Leighton, Sicily before History: An Archaeological Survey from the Palaeolithic to the Iron Age. London: Duckworth, 1999. Pp. viii + 312 pages, incl. 148 illustrations and four tables. ISBN 0-7156-2770-8. UKú14.95.

Matthew Fitzjohn
Department of Archaeology, University of Cambridge

Sicily has traditionally been relegated to a secondary position within discussions of central Mediterranean prehistory. Despite much research into prehistoric Sicily the island has tended to be defined as an extension of prehistoric southern Italy and (in later periods) in terms of dominant Graeco- Roman colonial influences. Only in recent years has Sicily's rich history been seen in a different light. Cultural transformations are explained as being the result of indigenous modifications and maintenance of cultural traditions stimulated by a series of interactions with Italy, nearby islands and the Mediterranean world (p. 7).

Despite the redirected research there are still problems within Sicilian prehistoric archaeology. Few university departments within Sicily teach prehistory and the majority of work focuses upon classical material. It is only relatively recently with the conference at Corleone (1997) and the publication of Prima Sicilia (1997) that there have been noticeable improvements in the diffusion and discussion of research.[[1]] Sicilian archaeology is also restricted by the dominance of material culture studies and there is clearly a need for more survey, environmental, and scientific analyses to take place in order to improve our understanding of Sicilian prehistory. There is also little written in English that discusses this field.[[2]] It is therefore refreshing to finally see a text, which sheds light onto the wider scope of research on prehistoric Sicily for both the student and general reader.

Leighton's aim in Sicily Before History is to chart the development of the prehistoric cultures of the island from the Palaeolithic until the middle of the first millennium BC ending with the early period of Greek and Phoenician colonisation. As most archaeologists are specialists in a particular period or region, writing a coherent and comprehensive account of the whole of Sicily's prehistory is no easy task. Nevertheless, Leighton, whose research usually focuses on the last two millennia of prehistory, has produced an extremely well-written synthesis, which should be seen as a substantial contribution to our understanding of the prehistory of the island.

In the Introduction (pp. 1-9), Leighton provides a short history of the prehistoric archaeology of the island. This account not only sets the archaeological context of this work but also illustrates the biases in the archaeological material. The geology and geography of the island are presented subsequently and their influence on the processes of diffusion, cultural interaction and transformation clearly position the book within a processual framework. Unfortunately, limitations in space prevent the author from being more explicit about his own theoretical position. It is clear, however, that he regards cultural change as the result of interaction and transformations as opposed to more traditional reasoning that argues for the diffusion and cultural domination of people and ideas. Instead of relying on conventional artefact studies to discuss Sicilian prehistory, Leighton utilises a whole suite of environmental, dating and artefact data to construct a more complete understanding of the past.

Rather than depend on a chronological framework to structure the work, Leighton has written thematic chapters that roughly correspond to the traditional divisions of prehistory. De-emphasis of the rigid chronological divisions of cultural periods successfully creates a sense of the continuities and discontinuities that occurred throughout this time.

Covering such a huge chronological range in just under 270 pages could have induced the author to be highly selective in his choice of topics. However, Leighton provides a lucid and wide-ranging account of the archaeological material throughout prehistory. The book not only provides coverage of a wide body of material but also goes into sufficient detail about individual sites and regions not to be too general. Information about individual sites such as the Uzzo cave (p. 32) and Thapsos (p. 150) is well focused and concisely presented. Leighton's discussion of specific sites is supported by theoretical approaches that are not only integral to our understanding of the prehistory of Sicily but also to the rest of the Mediterranean.

In Chapter 1 (pp. 11-50) the changing landforms, floral and faunal assemblages of the Palaeolithic and Mesolithic are briefly discussed. The environmental data and cultural material is presented to indicate movement into Sicily of both animal and human populations. This creates an impression that Sicily was an extension of southern Italy in the earliest phases of prehistory. The processes of migration of early faunal and human populations are argued to be the main factors for change in the Palaeolithic and Mesolithic periods. However, adaptation to localised environments are proposed to have resulted in regional variations of cultures within Sicily. Although there were identifiable similarities between the populations in Sicily and Northern Europe in the Late Palaeolithic, those in Sicily appear to have been less specialised than their neighbours and more similar to the later Mesolithic peoples than was the case further north.

Similarity and difference are themes further developed in The First Farming Societies (Chapter 2, pp. 51-85). The origins and growth of farming societies in Sicily are discussed with reference to changes that occurred over the wider geographical area and the associated relative chronologies, settlement patterns, subsistence practices and broader economic and social questions. Sicily is presented as part of the broader European Neolithic culture as defined by similarities in ceramic sequences with those in southern Italy and the Balkans. Other forms of stylistic variation and cultural difference, however, are interpreted as indications of distinctive cultural groupings that are the result of growth in regional networks and movements of goods and ideas.

Chapter 3, 'New Territories and Tombs' (pp. 87-146), and Chapter 4, 'Interaction and Trade' (pp. 147-86), examine the metamorphosis of societies in the Copper and Bronze Ages. Whereas external forces and long- distance connections with the east and west of the Mediterranean have previously explained cultural change in the Copper Age, Leighton argues that local originality, diversity and a propensity for innovation are hallmarks of the period. Changes in burial customs during this period of prehistory are explained as an organic process rather than as a radical departure from previous practices caused by outside influences. In the analysis of the Middle and Late Bronze Age external contacts are seen as having 'stimulated' and 'encouraged' existing social organisation with ideas being absorbed from outside and applied within the context of the existing settlement and culture.

It is characteristic of this volume that questions are raised of the terminology that is used to explain prehistory. Definitions of chronology and phasing are queried as material-culture distinctions between different phases that have become increasingly blurred. In the concluding chapter (pp. 219-68) definitions of cultural interaction and change are also critically evaluated. Traditional explanations of the end of Sicilian prehistory are dominated by the use of analogies from more recent colonial experiences, which have been used to explain the changing indigenous cultural practices and identities as a result of interaction with more civilised Greek populations. There is a wide body of material that now questions our definitions and explanations of cultural identity and change during the colonial period.[[3]] Utilising an assortment of archaeological and literary evidence, indigenous identity during the period of Greek colonisation is redefined as a combination of indigenous cultural practices with adopted and transformed Hellenic influences.

The presentation is excellent throughout. The text is accompanied by 148 figures which include well-drawn maps at the beginning of each chapter that illustrate all of the major sites that are mentioned in the text. There is also a wide range of drawings, photographs and tables that provide a certain depth to the work. Four tables at the end of the book provide chronological, dating, and burial information.

Overall the book provides a detailed and up-to-date account of the prehistory of Sicily. It manages to be a general introduction, textbook, and source book in one that will be a welcome resource for anyone studying Mediterranean prehistory, general reader and academic alike. Leighton succeeds in illustrating Sicily's interconnectedness with Europe and the ability of the indigenous populations to absorb and transform external influences throughout prehistory, forcing readers to reassess their interpretation of the island.


[[1]] Regione Siciliana: Assessorato al Turismo (ed.), Prima Sicilia: alle origini della societa siciliana (Palermo 18 ottobre - 22 dicembre 1997).

[[2]] Apart from L. Bernabo Brea, Sicily Before the Greeks (London 1957); R.R. Holloway, The Archaeology of Ancient Sicily (London 1991); R. Leighton, Early Societies in Sicily: New Developments in Archaeological Research (London 1996).

[[3]] R.M. Albanese Procelli, 'Greeks and Indigenous People in Eastern Sicily: Forms of Interaction and Acculturation', in Leighton [2] 167-76; C.L. Lyons, 'Sikel Burials at Morgantina: Defining Social and Ethnic Identities', in Leighton [2] 177-88; G. Shepherd, 'The Pride of Most Colonials: Burial and Religion in the Sicilian Colonies', in T. Fischer- Hansen (ed.), Ancient Sicily: Acta Hyperborea 6 (Denmark 1995) 51-82.