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Selevac: A Neolithic Village in Yugoslavia.

Selevac is a very large Vinca site straddling a shallow valley in the hills of the Sumadija, on the western border of the upper Morava before it joins the Danube. The occupation dates to the central portion of the development of the Vinca culture, with eight radio-carbon dates which span 4390-3650 b.c.

It is becoming exceptional to be able to afford extensive publication of results in book form. We must be grateful for this site monograph, which stands among southeast European publications as one of a handful of substantial and useful descriptive accounts of data recovered during regional study and excavation. It represents a lot of hard work and will be a useful point of reference for a long time. The volume gives us a picture of the Neolithic settlement of the Vinca culture at Selevac, with its flora and fauna (large bovids and small sheep), pottery and artefacts.

Major chapters are contributed by specialist investigators, notably Chapman on the regional settlement patterns; the Field Report and non-ceramic uses of Clay by Tringham & Stevanovic; Animals and the Environment by Legge; Archaeobotany by McLaren & Hubbard; Fish by Brinkhuizen; Figurines by Milojkovic; Pottery by Vukanovic, Radojcic, Kaiser & Rasson; stone by Voytek and Spears; Bone and Antler by Russell; and the Copper minerals by Glumac & Tringham. The Conclusions are drawn up by Tringham & Krstic.

A question which bears on the interpretation of the site, and of regional settlement during the period, is whether such a large site was completely occupied at any given time. Tringham in fact argues interestingly enough that vertical stratification at the site documents discontinuous occupation and that the later horizontal displacement is evidence of a greater degree of permanence. The evidence from recent ethnoarchaeological fieldwork in southeast Europe for the complexity of interaction between occupational sub- groups is as striking as the inherent difficulty of reconstructing coeval prehistoric systems, which affects many of the conclusions in this volume.

The overall interpretation lays a good deal of emphasis on trying to demonstrate 'intensification of production' (as defined on p. 589) at the site and in the culture. This was set as one of the perfectly cogent objectives of the research from the outset.

The framing of such an explanation goes well back into the good old days when western intellectuals thought that Marxism offered them a future which worked. Intensification of production entails increased complexity of organization and distribution, and transformations of behaviour. The point must now be to try to penetrate the terminology, to see if there is any valuable insight to be had into what can in any case be recognized as complexification and change (sometimes away from complexification) during this period of European prehistory. We already know that these sorts of processes were taking place in Neolithic Climax societies, some of which such as Cucuteni are not considered in the book. The Vinca culture never achieved the degree of intensification of production which can be seen in the Neolithic Climax societies of Gumelnit a, or Cucuteni and Tripolje; so that it is perhaps nugatory to ask whether the processes involved started any earlier in Vinca, although copper-mining certainly did.

The acquaintanceship with terminology, like that with facts, has to be periodically monitored, because once in circulation it readily mutates. The terminology of the First Temperate Neolithic as used in this volume does not always fit the concept as it was originally defined. The FTN certainly was not characterized by the exploitation of a 'narrow zone of maximum productivity', nor does Sherratt claim it was. Similarly, the idea of 'climax societies' as used by Sherratt clearly does not correspond to the concept of that name as defined by Nandris in 1978. Sherratt's concept of the 'secondary products revolution' has probably already suffered the same general fate, namely careless usage once in circulation, and coming to mean what its author did not quite intend.

The map of southeast Europe showing the area encompassed by the exchange networks of Selevac looks plausible until one examines its foundations and the probability that the situation was actually as it is represented there. For example, the references to obsidian take no account at all of recent work since 1975, and the data are far too flimsy to bear the weight of the conclusions. The evidence for obsidian sourcing is based on 'clearly's and 'must have been's. The locations in map figure 2.13 just do not correspond to the sites on the ground. Amzabegovo is not in fact on a 'plateau' but on a low, pointed spur narrowing the valley of the Bregalnica; Vrsnik is misplaced and mis-spelt; and Zelenikovo is on the flat top of a major terrace within a meander of the Vardar, not on a 'hillside'. As a random sample of checked facts these are not encouraging.

The terminology of the late Neolithic and Copper Age in the discussion also seems to adumbrate something unresolved, which is often the unacknowledged function of terminology. When calling up a strong hypothetical process such as intensification of production it should surely not be necessary to be cautious and elaborate about 'the mature neolithic (middle-late neolithiclearly eneolithic cultures) including the Vinca culture' and 'the copper age-late copper age (late neolithic-early bronze age cultures)'. Such constantly recurring phrases as 'co-resident, kin-based domestic groups (households?)' seem a little over-cautious.

Terminology unfortunately is explanation. It would have been nice to have cleared some of these terms from the explanatory undergrowth. Climax Neolithic societies are Copper Age, but one does not need the term, because they are so much more. They were defined in 1978 in a way in which 'Copper Age', 'Eneolithic' and 'Late Neolithic' never have been, by reference to a wider framework, which is more biologically aware, more scientific and more recent than that employed by Marxist explanation.

It is contended that at the stage of development of the Neolithic represented by the Vinca of Selevac 'the strategy of food production first became successful and the scale of resource exploitation began to expand through the intensification of production'. It rather depends what is meant by successful. Let us hope it does not mean progressive. Cultures do not survive into the archaeological record if they are not successful, especially in food production. The First Temperate Neolithic defines a culture which was successful for well over a millennium. Indeed, it is not new to say that with the benefit of hindsight we see that one of the main features of the Neolithic itself was its success. It represents the evolutionary success of a mode of behaviour adaptable enough to make possible successive variation and differentiation, which may lend some meaning to the term progress.

Although Selevac is not one of the great Vinc a tells, the stratigraphy nevertheless attains 3 m of deposit in places. Inevitably this has to be sampled, and 279 cu. m were excavated during the 1976-78 seasons. The unavoidable methodological reality is that if excavated to a depth of 1 m this represents an area about 16 m square, out of a total of 53 ha. The excavation of large sites is a massive, almost biological investment, carrying with it the danger of an excess of attributed meaning. The excavation and publication of Selevac is nevertheless a significant achievement of sustained co-operation between Yugoslav and foreign scholars, which is to be admired and emulated.

JOHN NANDRIS Institute of Archaeology, University College London


NANDRIS, J. 1978. Some features of Neolithic Climax Societies, Studia Praehistorica 1: 198-11. Sofia.
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Author:Nandris, John
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 1993
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