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Customer Review

416 of 438 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Devil's Advocacy Review, June 16, 2008
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This review is from: The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World (Hardcover)
I'll play the Bad Guy here, offering a more critical review than the others. Not that I disagree with the favorable reviews -- but I think that readers should realize that the book is not quite as advertised.

It starts off great with Part I, which is an excellent explanation of the linguistic questions associated with Proto-Indo-European. Anthony offers the latest results clearly and thoroughly. Unfortunately, Part I is only 120 pages long. Part II, 340 pages long, is the real meat of the book. And while Part II has lots of merit, it's not at all what the title or the subtitle suggest. Part II is best summarized as "A thorough summation of the archaeological results from the areas thought to be the homeland of the Proto Indo-European peoples". Here the author departs substantially from the subject matter as suggested by the title, subtitle, and Part I. We are subjected to endless detailed descriptions of archaeological digs all over southern Russia and Siberia. We are told (many times) what the percentage of sheep/goat bones, cattle bones, and horse bones were at every site. We are told the direction in which the bodies were placed in burial, how many flint tools of each type were found, and other details that are surely appropriate for a compendium of archaeological results, but not for the larger synthesis promised by the title and subtitle.

I will concede that the author does thread a larger narrative through the endless site reports. There's a section, for example, on "The Economic and Military Effects of Horseback Riding", which explains the impressive idea that the real impact of horseback riding was that it made it possible for nomads to travel further from the river valleys while grazing their animals. Another example: "The First Cities and Their Connection to the Steppes", which describes the trading patterns that arose once cities appeared in Mesopotamia.

But these delightful sections are lost in the numbing freshet of details. Here's a quote, from page 293:

"The bronze tools and weapons in other Novosvobodnaya-phase graves included cast flat axes, sleeved axes, hammer-axes, heavy tanged daggers with multiple midribs, chisels, and spearheads. The chisels and spearheads were mounted to their handles the same way, with round shafts hammered into four-sided contracting bases that fit into a V-shaped rectangular hole on the handle or spear. Ceremonial objects included bronze cauldrons, long-handled bronze dippers, and two-pronged bidents (perhaps forks for retrieving cooked meats from the cauldrons). Ornaments included beads of carnelian from western Pakistan, lapis lazuli from Afghanistan, gold, rock crystal, and even a bead from Klady made from a human molar sheathed in gold (the first gold cap!)"

The author simply couldn't make up his mind what kind of book he wanted to write. Let me speculate on how this chimera of a book could have been written: the author, having spent years with Russian archaeologists accumulating a huge store of information about their work, approaches the publisher with a great idea for a book. "These Russians have been digging up all sorts of wonderful things", he says, "but here in the West we don't know much about their work. I'd like to write a book putting all their results together into a coherent story."

To which the publisher replies, "Sounds great, but what's the hook? We can't call this book 'A Summary of Results of Russian Archaeological Field Work Over the Period 1980 - 2000'. We need something sexier."

Anthony: "Well, their research certainly sheds a lot of light upon the beginnings of the Indo-European peoples."

Publisher: "Perfect! Let's make the book about how the Indo-European languages got started! That's always a good topic!"

So Anthony writes some extra chapters to slap up front, and we get two books for the price of one:

1. "Beginnings of the Indo-European Languages"
2. "A Summary of Results of Russian Archaeological Field Work Over the Period 1980 - 2000".

Now, there's nothing wrong with this. However, buyers should be aware of the fact that three quarters of the book consists of site reports and only one-quarter deals with Indo-European languages.
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Tracked by 6 customers

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Showing 1-10 of 20 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Jul 4, 2008 5:06:28 PM PDT
Mr Crawford, this is an excellent review of the text. I as well as other would have had some strange surprises if we did not view your insights in how the book is actually written in terms of subject matter and style. Thank you for taking the time to write it.

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 7, 2008 5:39:42 AM PDT
[Deleted by Amazon on Aug 8, 2008 8:07:05 AM PDT]

Posted on Jul 21, 2008 5:21:06 AM PDT
Anyone looking for an interesting site report could do worse than consult JIES (Journal for Indo-European Studies) vol. 34, nos 3 & 4, p. 273, "The Rediscovery and complete excavation of Ordek's necropolis", by V. H. Mair. And see also the articles about Tocharian (D.Q. Adams) in the same double issue.

Posted on May 14, 2009 11:56:44 AM PDT
This is an interesting review, and I don't want to discount most of the points made. However, the reviewer is missing the point when he says that 3/4 of the book is site reports and only a quarter dealing with the IE languages- the significance of this book to IE studies lies almost entirely in the 'site reports', which are actually a detailed attempt to a) link features of steppe culture to reconstructed PIE culture, and b) to examine cultural spreads out of the steppes, the most difficult area for anyone supporting a steppe homeland. Anthony is actually quite selective in the site reports he uses, leaving out some details in his specialty and including areas outside his main studies. And of course, Anthony's intent with this book was entirely to contribute to Indo-European studies.

However, these things might not be so apparent to someone without some background in Indo-European studies (I'm speaking as a hobbyist- I certainly don't mean an academic background). When I first read this book I didn't have any background at all, and my impressions were much the same as this reviewer. It's only as I've gotten deeper into the subject and read more that I've really gotten to appreciate the full significance of Anthony's book, and just how important those dull site reports really are to Indo-European studies.

Posted on Jan 14, 2010 5:54:01 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Jan 14, 2010 5:55:26 PM PST
Rostyslav says:
While there is certainly some truth to the assertion that much of this book contains a fairly detailed (to the uninitiated numbing) review of recent eurasian archeological data, Mr Crawford gives the apperance he gave up and did not read it to the end. This is where this data is tied together to show why PIE originated in the pontic stepps (southern Ukraine and Russia) and how and why it spread. (To give a backhanded comment, he does give a backhanded concession that the author did tie this data together. The title clearly states that it is about the horse and wheel (as found by archeology) as well as IE language.

It is not the fault of Prof. Anthony, that archeologists (especially the Russians) identify ancient cultures by pots and names (difficult to western ears) derived from the villages/towns where these "cultures" were fist dug-up.

But the book makes a valiant, and mostly successful, attempt to bridge the gap between insular linguists and archeologists, who feel only part of the elephant, and explore the culture whose language became so dominant.

Posted on Jul 31, 2010 4:30:36 PM PDT
This book is not about "Russian" digs. It is about Trypillian Civilization, which existed on the territory of present day Ukraine. For more info. see website Russians have nothing to do with this ancient culture. Ukrainians did!

Posted on Oct 19, 2011 7:07:08 PM PDT
Dick Miles says:
Well, "one man's trash is another man's treasure." While reading the book--and before I read this review--I found the detailed passage about the items found in the Maikop kurgan (p. 293) so interesting that I read it out loud to my wife.

True, the book is flawed--the author does skip about and he never quite proves his major thesis.

And I thought the index was inadequate, for example, the words Georgia or Georgian aren't to be found despite the fact that much of what is described in the book is located in present day Georgia. True, "Kartvelian language" is listed but who in the world except a Georgian or someone who had lived in Georgia would make that connection even if they thought to look up "Kartvelian language".

Having said all that, I thought the author did a remarkable job combining his own research with that of others in the field and he should be especially commended for pulling together so much of the little known research done by Soviet scholars and even present day scholars from the former Soviet Union and Eastern European countries. I thought it was a fascinating read and heartily recommend it to anyone interested in this important topic--OK, topics.

Posted on Feb 15, 2012 11:28:04 PM PST
J. Shonder says:
Your review summarizes my impression of this book exactly, and I wish I had read it before I purchased the book. I wouldn't even call it "A Summary of Russian Archaeological Results", since summarization implies brevity. Part 2 of the book was an exhaustive listing of findings from Russian archaeological sites. It read more like an appendix.

Posted on Mar 30, 2012 8:05:56 PM PDT
It's further disappointing that he translates as "Sweet Water" the name of one place he mentions: Kislovodsk, which actually means "Sour Water."

Posted on Sep 3, 2012 8:33:54 AM PDT
rkmvca says:
I am currently slugging my way through part 2, and doubled back to Amazon to see if the reviews could give me a clue. I find Mr. Crawford's review to be spot on.

Note I still think the book is very worthwhile (as does Mr. Crawford -- he gives it 4 stars). There *is* a bright thread of narrative history that winds its way through the morass of part 2, but it's not continuous, and very easy to lose track of. There's also the interesting section on horse dentition which appears to be the author's own research.

I'm looking forward to finishing the book and finding a summation, and I'll probably update this "review" when I finish.
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