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On the Ocean

The Mediterranean and the Atlantic from prehistory to AD 1500

Barry Cunliffe

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Oxford University Press
12 October 2017
For humans the sea is, and always has been, an alien environment. Ever moving and ever changing in mood, it is a place without time, in contrast to the land which is fixed and scarred by human activity giving it a visible history. While the land is familiar, even reassuring, the sea is unknown and threatening. By taking to the sea humans put themselves at its mercy. It has often been perceived to be an alien power teasing and cajoling. The sea may give but it takes.

Why, then, did humans become seafarers? Part of the answer is that we are conditioned by our genetics to be acquisitive animals: we like to acquire rare materials and we are eager for esoteric knowledge, and society rewards us well for both. Looking out to sea most will be curious as to what is out there - a mysterious island perhaps but what lies beyond? Our innate inquisitiveness drives us to explore.

Barry Cunliffe looks at the development of seafaring on the Mediterranean and the Atlantic, two contrasting seas - the Mediterranean without a significant tide, enclosed and soon to become familiar, the Atlantic with its frightening tidal ranges, an ocean without end. We begin with the Middle Palaeolithic hunter gatherers in the eastern Mediterranean building simple vessels to make their remarkable crossing to Crete and we end in the early years of the sixteenth century with sailors from Spain, Portugal and England establishing the limits of the ocean from Labrador to Patagonia.

The message is that the contest between humans and the sea has been a driving force, perhaps the driving force, in human history.
By:   Barry Cunliffe
Imprint:   Oxford University Press
Country of Publication:   United Kingdom
Dimensions:   Height: 253mm,  Width: 205mm,  Spine: 34mm
Weight:   1.550kg
ISBN:   9780198757894
ISBN 10:   0198757891
Pages:   624
Publication Date:   12 October 2017
Audience:   General/trade ,  ELT Advanced
Format:   Hardback
Publisher's Status:   Active
GUIDE TO FURTHER READING; ILLUSTRATION SOURCES; INDEX

Barry Cunliffe taught archaeology in the Universities of Bristol and Southampton and was Professor of European Archaeology at the University of Oxford from 1972 to 2008, thereafter becoming Emeritus Professor. He has excavated widely in Britain (Fishbourne, Bath, Danebury, Hengistbury Head, Brading) and in the Channel Islands, Brittany, and Spain, and has been President of the Council for British Archaeology and of the Society of Antiquaries, Governor of the Museum of London, and a Trustee of the British Museum. He is currently a Commissioner of English Heritage. His many publications include The Ancient Celts (1997), Facing the Ocean (2001), The Druids: A Very Short Introduction (2010), Britain Begins (2012), and By Steppe, Desert, and Ocean (2015), all published by Oxford University Press. He received a knighthood in 2006.

Reviews for On the Ocean: The Mediterranean and the Atlantic from prehistory to AD 1500

Cunliffe writes sparse, clear, uncluttered prose that never tires... The maps are staggeringly good, all drawn with great freedom, in defiance of hidebound cartographical conventions... The copious illustrations are well chosen, too - always engaging, often dramatic... Overall, the total effect of On the Ocean is to encourage a new way of looking at European history using a maritime perspective. I hope it changes the way people think: it is good enough to do so. * Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, Literary Review * A grand and beautifully illustrated work, offering a fascinating perspective from which to understand human development and achievement. * Michael Scott, BBC History Magazine * An absorbing and lively account of the early Atlantic and Mediterranean. Importantly, it reflects the latest research and delves deeply into the motives of those who sailed them: not just where and how they travelled, but what fears these seas evoked. * David Abulafia, History Today * Another magisterial tour de force replete with informative charts and beautiful illustrations... [On the Ocean is] an extraordinary achievement, all the more so for its engaging and elegant style. * David Lorimer, Paradigm Explorer * The book adopts a familiar format to Cunliffes other recent volumes and supplies everything we have come to expect. It is hugely ambitious in scope, fluently written and beautifully illustrated with panoramic photographs of landscapes and monuments, plus trademark mapping... In between, the narrative takes in deep geological history, the nature of winds, tides and currents, the night sky, the peopling of islands and coastal areas and details of ship- and boat-building technology. * Robert Witcher, Antiquity Reviews, December 2017 * On the Ocean is a book all nautical (and terrestrial) archaeologists should read... It provides a comprehensive overview from a seafaring perspective of the Mediterranean and Atlantic from the beginnings of humankinds voyaging in these waters to the discovery of the Americas. * Colin Martin (University of St Andrews), The International Journal of Nautical Archaeology * On the Ocean is a magnificent book, being carefully crafted and requiring all of Barry Cunliffe's encyclopaedic knowledge. The image portrayed, through multilateral means, offers a coherent narrative that can be followed through different times and spaces, offering both the overall view and the detailed developments. * Stefan Vasilache, Journal of Ancient History and Archaeology No. 4.4 * On the Ocean is about overcoming the bias of traditional land based narratives, emphasising maritime Europe and what this reveals about our past. As such it is an important and enjoyable book, and one that deserves to be widely read. * Jon Henderson, The Prehistoric Society * This beguiling, thought-provoking, sumptuously illustrated, and engaging book is essential reading. * MS, Current World Archaeology *


  • Winner of Winner of the Keith Muckelroy Award from The Nautical Archaeology Society.

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