Treasure from Dilmun: Some Thoughts on Geoffrey Bibby’s “Four Thousand Years Ago”

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Categories: Ancient, Not an expert
Photo of a faded hardcover book with torn paper dust cover
One thoroughly used copy of Geoffrey Bibby’s “Four Thousand Years Ago” (Collins: St James’ Place, London, 1962)

I first encountered Geoffrey Bibby’s Four Thousand Years Ago in a “Best-of” volume of the Robert E. Howard fanzine Amra where the reviewer enthused that the second millennium BCE was a time when Conan could have lived again. For a younger self that was recommendation enough, and I tracked down a copy in the library. On a whim I decided to order a copy and have a look with more scholarly eyes. The volume which arrived in the mail has an old bookseller’s stamp from The Public Bookshop, PO Box 1, Bahrain which is very appropriate, for Bibby excavated there and believed it was the Dilmun of the Sumerians, the place through which all good things came.  Like the statuette of Lakshmi from Pompeii, who can say how it made its long way to its current home?

Four Thousand Years Ago is a remarkable book.  Bibby tries to present an overview of life in the Old World in the second millennium BCE.  After a four-chapter introduction he walks forward one seventy-year lifetime at a time, stopping twice to step back and give a quick overview of the world as a whole.  Each chapter concentrates on an individual or a handful of men- almost always men, for although he took pains to talk about children as well as grownups, peasants as well as politicians, and merchants as well as mercenaries and missionaries, he still had some blind spots- and explores what happened during their lifetime in the world that they knew. He apologizes that archaeological explorations had concentrated in Europe and Southwest Asia, so that it was difficult to say as much about other parts of the world. He resolutely refuses to provide a bibliography, instead ending each chapter with a note on how much he had to make up and some suggested further reading.  As he makes clear, his goal in writing the book was something very different from teaching details about the distant past. A paragraph will give a sense of what that goal was:

For those remaining in Britain, time passes- not uneventfully, for no life is uneventful, but without cataclysmic change.  The rhythm of the seasons and the rhythm of the years plays on.  The generation of 1860 BCE are grown men now, the fathers of families, settled in their ways.  We may speculate- it is an instructive exercise- to what degree they are in touch with what is happening elsewhere in their world, while bearing in mind the danger of generalizing on the word “they.”  There would exist all degrees of intellectual- and commercial- curiosity, from the farmer who never raises his eyes from the furrow scratched by his straight wooden ploughshare to his neighbor who will eagerly devour and embroider every rumor from distant lands. (p. 100)

By drawing on ethnological reports and archaeological work, Bibby manages to give a genuine picture of life in societies of foragers or farmers or herders. His description of the foundation of Shang will give a sense of his style, even if one of his stories about foraging and crafts and childrearing and clearing ground for farming would be more distinctive:

In the year 1300 B.C. a city is rising at An-yang. The river Huan, cutting deep into the loess soil, here makes a wide curve, providing a natural moat around three sides of the chosen site. On the fourth side, towards the south, the defenses are already going up, a broad wall of earth pounded to cement hardness within the wooden shuttering, which is gradually raised a the wall rises. Within the area cords mark out the streets, and along them platforms, also of pounded earth, are being constructed, the floors and foundations of houses, palaces, and temples. (p. 285)

As I read Four Thousand Years Ago my academic side is sputtering and crying “but what about … you can’t say … we proved that was wrong twenty years ago!” But Bibby knew exactly what he was doing, and it is not his fault that some of the stories which seemed convincing in his day have not endured the test of time. The most that I can say is that his enthusiasm for describing people’s “diverse physical types” and assigning those types labels which often are the names of a language family was already controversial in the 1960s and is more so today. Few people have been as fascinated with differences in hair colour and skin tone as 19th and 20th century Europeans, and somehow every attempt to “scientifically” classify human phenotype confirms one of the folk theories in the researcher’s home country. Yet he never suggests that these physical traits determine personality or intelligence. He mentions many of the methodological dangers which a modern archaeologist would, even if he cheerfully goes on to tell his stories anyways:

In three other parts of the world, each of them an area comparable with Europe in size, there were at the beginning of the millennium groups of communities which farmed the earth for their livelihood … Each of them knew that his own community was the centre of the universe, was actively conscious of the neighbouring communities within a few days’ journey, and was vaguely aware of the total extent of the farming area which we, in our wisdom, ascribe him (though he himself would have protested that the distant peoples in ‘his’ area were completely foreign- as different as a Labrador lumberman and a Mexican cattle rancher). (p. 28)

This sort of gentle warning that archaeology can show us that two villages had similar pottery and burial customs, but not whether the inhabitants saw each other as part of a common ethnicity, may have been more effective than a dozen expressions of learned outrage at the methods of popular writers and TV producers. So instead of complaining, I marvel at this book which refuses to fit itself into the conventions of a single genre.

I would not recommend that anyone read this as their first introduction to the Bronze Age. Details do matter, and quite a lot of the details about the Bronze Age which we thought we knew in 1962 have turned out to be incorrect. On the other hand, if they want to learn about the world before electrification, this will certainly do better than most fantasy novels. And Bibby’s book does project that the second millennium BCE was populated by real people with real loves and hates and fears who did just as much living as any other population the same size. That we can only imagine the details tells us not that the Bronze Age was a dull and shadowy time but that Chronos incessantly gnaws on the record of the past.

Further Reading: Bookfinder is a good resource for locating obscure used books like this.

4 thoughts on “Treasure from Dilmun: Some Thoughts on Geoffrey Bibby’s “Four Thousand Years Ago”

  1. Greg says:

    Hi, Bibby’s book seemed to be the book to read to know about bronze age during the sixties. Which book or author would you suggest today as a remplacement and actualization, in the same line of work?

    1. Sean Manning says:

      The closest things that come to mind are some of Barry Cunliffe’s books, and maybe The Horse, The Wheel, and Language. Eric Cline’s 1177 BC: The Year Civilization Collapsed is supposed to be good but it only covers a few hundred years from Sardinia to Iran. There might be a volume with a title like The {fancy university OR fancy publisher} {companion OR handbook} to the Eurasian Bronze Age with each chapter by a different author, but those tend to be a bit dry because they are writing for other academics, and the different chapters usually don’t mesh together well. To get a book like this you need someone monstrously learned (or maybe two close friends) to sit down and tell a story about ancient people rather than about how modern people go about reconstructing the past.

      1. Greg says:

        Thank you! Those are helpful. May I specify a bit my inquiry by asking you which book from Barry Cunlife? And maybe, what books would you advice to somebody who has already read Bibby today, but wants to know which parts are obsolete? Maybe that would be the role of a [Editor companion] to Eurasian Bronze Age?

        1. Sean Manning says:

          Yes, good companions have a ‘select bibliography’ of a few key books at the end of each chapter, if you can get into a university library it can be worthwhile to flip through them and copy out the ones which sound interesting.

          I think Barry Cunliffe’s Europe Between the Oceans has a section on the European Bronze Age, I liked By Steppe, Desert, and Ocean which goes up to the Mongol empire.
          I hear good things about Eric Cline’s 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed on the Late Bronze Age
          Marc Van de Mieroop, The Ancient Mesopotamian City also goes in to how he thinks these cities worked
          Barbara Mertz, Red Land, Black Land on Bronze Age Egypt was fun
          Elizabeth Wayland Barber, Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years is a big book on fibres and textiles
          Peter James’ Centuries of Darkness lays out the problems of dating the Bronze Age / Iron Age transition, its controversial but I see quite a few other archaeologists who say something is wrong with the current chronology based on Egyptian king lists summarized in Christian chronicles

          I think this goes to show how special this book is! I hope someone takes the risk of trying to write another book like this which talks about Bronze Age people as people, alongside the ‘big idea’ books by a Jared Diamond or a Peter Turchin or a Gregory Clark and the books on a theme like ‘salt’ or ‘the Mediterranean’ or ‘elephants and kings.’

          Edit: A couple of companions which might suit and are available for 30-60 USD in softcover are:

          Harry Fokkens and Anthony Harding (editors), The Oxford Handbook of the European Bronze Age

          Daniel C. Snell (editor), A Companion to the Ancient Near East (Wiley-Blackwell)

          Cynthia W. Shelmerdine, The Cambridge Companion to the Aegean Bronze Age (Cambridge University Press, 2008)

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