Iconoclasm and Later Prehistory

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Henry Chapman
  • New York, NY: 
    , February
     246 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In Iconoclasm and Later Prehistory, archaeologist Henry Chapman applies the theoretical frameworks of iconoclasm research to illuminate analysis of first millennium BCE northwestern European material culture. The book consists of six chapters. Chapter 1 introduces iconoclasm by surveying historical periods in which iconoclastic actions have received the most attention from scholars: antiquity, the Byzantine period, the Protestant Reformation, and the French Revolution. The chapter also discusses modern examples of iconoclasm, especially Nazi iconoclasm, the dismantling of the Berlin wall, and the ongoing iconoclastic campaigns of the Taliban and ISIS. Following this, Chapman examines definitions of iconoclasm ranging from the classic Greek etymology of icon (image) and clasm (breaking) to modern deconstructions of the concept of iconoclasm, which have led to the emergence of nuances to iconoclasm including “iconoclash” (destruction with uncertain motivation), “semioclasm” (destruction of meaning), “hieroclasm” (destruction of the sacred), and “iconomachy” (image struggle). In the light of this conceptual complexity, Chapman appeals to the term “transformation” as a way to encompass all of these concepts and acknowledge that objects retain meaning, albeit transformed meaning, following the iconoclastic acts performed upon them.

Chapters 2 through 5 comprise the body of the book, all bearing interrelated titles: “Breaking objects,” “Breaking bodies,” “Breaking monuments,” and “Breaking landscapes.”. In each of these chapters, Chapman first illustrates the symbolic value of each item and subsequently addresses evidence of ways that they were broken. Accordingly, chapter 2 lays out the meaningfulness of prehistoric objects especially given the difficultly of their manufacture. Following this, it examines a broken stone head from Bohemia, statues broken at the feet from Germany, an abundance of swords deliberately bent to be unusable, dismantled chariots buried with people, the practice of breaking spears and shields in funerary contexts, and hoards deposited in wetlands. Chapter 3 surveys meaningful body transformations displayed by symbols of clothing, jewelry, hairstyles, and tattoos. It explores bodily punishment including bondage and shaving, and it provides an extensive examination of bog bodies, presumably victims of human sacrifice. Chapter 4 investigates hillforts and urban centers as symbols of political power, regarding both direct attack and neglectful abandonment as forms of destruction. It also covers accounts of Romans attacking sacred groves as natural monuments. Chapter 5 presents the meaningfulness of landscapes and traces the transformation of landscapes through clearing woodlands, establishing field boundaries through barrows and ditches, enclosing portions of land, establishing trails and roads, and quarrying. Furthermore, it explores natural landscape transformation that prehistoric peoples could interpret as the result of divine agency. The book concludes with a concise sixth chapter that provides an abbreviated reiteration of the material within the previous chapters.

For those who want to learn about the material culture of northwestern Europeans in the first millennium BCE this book is excellent. Chapman does an outstanding job of categorically arranging the archaeological evidence in order to provide a comprehensive picture of prehistoric northwestern European culture. He effectively balances abstract theoretical frameworks with an abundance of concrete examples in order to provide the reader with a satisfying reconstruction of prehistoric northwestern European society. Especially impressive is the manner in which Chapman is able to persuasively elicit prehistoric cultural values through his analysis of material remains.

Nevertheless, despite the excellent qualities of the book, it suffers from two major problems related to the focus, framing, and outlook of the book. Ironically, the title of the book encapsulates both problems: one problem pertains to “iconoclasm,” and the other to “later prehistory.” First, the designation “later prehistory” is strikingly vague. Prehistory is a relative term that varies by millennia depending upon the focal people group. Judging by the blank designation of “later prehistory,” one might justifiably assume that Chapman offers a global survey of multiple prehistoric societies. However, this is far from the case. Chapman’s use of “later prehistory” presumes a northwestern European (especially British) referent. Inclusion of a reference to northwestern Europeans in the title of the book, along with the presentation and defense of formal geographic boundaries in the introduction of the book (aside from the brief mention on page 32), would have alleviated this problem. Yet, in the absence of these, the book seems somewhat Anglocentric. Furthermore, on a minor note, Chapman’s use of BC and AD instead of BCE and CE is distracting, unhelpful to his topic, and, once again, seems to reflect Anglocentrism.

Second, it is evident that Chapman diligently tries to impose the concept of “iconoclasm” upon his subject matter. However, as one reads through the four chapters that comprise the body of the book, it becomes clear that Chapman drifts further and further away from traditional notions of iconoclasm. The first chapter of the body of the book, chapter 2 (“Breaking Objects”), fits squarely with what one might expect of a treatment of iconoclasm: analysis of smashed, snapped, stabbed, bent, buckled, and dismantled objects. Chapter 3 (“Breaking Bodies”) broadens the umbrella of iconoclasm to include human sacrifice. Chapter 4 (“Breaking Monuments”) broadens the definition much further by labeling hillforts as monuments and considering their abandonment as an act of destruction. Finally, by Chapter 5 (“Breaking Landscapes”), we seem to have lost any traditional sense of iconoclasm as Chapman includes marking field boundaries and the building of roads and enclosures as iconoclastic acts. Although these may serve as examples of transformation, they clearly do not comport with Chapman’s own examples of iconoclasm such as the destruction of sculptures during the French Revolution, the tearing down of the Berlin Wall, or the programmatic attacks on statues and buildings by the Taliban. 

Readers who turn to this book due to interest in iconoclasm may be disappointed. The book is not really about iconoclasm. Rather, it is a book about the manner in which archaeological investigation sheds light on the cultural value systems of 1st millennium BCE northwestern Europeans, supplemented by insights from iconoclasm research. However, with that said, there are many people who will greatly enjoy this book. Archaeologists will appreciate the effective manner with which Chapman utilizes material remains to reconstruct prehistoric culture, as well as his application of iconoclasm research as a viable framework for further research. Students of early northwestern European history will value the broad yet detailed coverage of prehistoric societies. Enthusiasts of Roman history will appreciate how it fleshes out the otherwise mysterious northern rivals of the Romans. Philosophers and scholars of religion will benefit from Chapman’s attentiveness to systems of meaning and cultural transformation.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Craig Evan Anderson received his doctorate in Religion from Claremont Graduate University in 2011 and is currently an Independent Scholar.

Date of Review: 
September 6, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Henry Chapman is Reader in Archaeology at the University of Birmingham. His principal research interests are later prehistory, bog bodies, iconoclasm, wetland archaeology and the application of digital technologies to the study of the past. He is a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries.


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