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La Mer Partagée. La Méditerranée avant l’écriture, 7000-2000 avant Jésus-Christ.

Jean Guilaine, Paris, Hachette, 1994, 454 pp.
Catherine Commenge
p. 100-102

Texte intégral

1Jean Guilaine’s La Mer Partagée, conceived as a thematic encyclopedia, is an erudite but nonetheless inviting work, a formidable odyssey, the title of which (literally “The Shared Sea”) sets forth the author’s basic conception of the Mediterranean sea. It is epicenter to the civilizations of Asia, Europe and Africa and a sounding-board for processes taking place in the cradle of civilization further to the east, in the Fertile Crescent.

2The period under consideration span five millennia during which the economy of production irreversibly evolved and spread. First hierarchical chiefdom societies emerged and with them new technologies – copper, gold and bronze metallurgy –. Later the first city-states were founded, developed and then went into a cycle of decline.

3Guilaine’ scientific approach is one of multiple views, historical and reflective, showing the rythms of history and the diversity of cultural space in a kaleidoscope of themes that evoke the importance of power, societies and techniques, the framework of daily life, and the fear of the beyond. At the same time he elicits the harmonies and discords of both an open and a partitioned world, bound or isolated by the Mediterranean sea. All the Mediterranean numerous islands constitute the lens of refraction or of reproduction of these multifarious processes.

4The author emphasizes the achievements of the Neolithisation process. Rooted in mobility, it appeared as a ground swell, rising from east to west, overwhelming in its path the Balkan, Italian and Iberian peninsulas. The widespread adoption of pastoralism during in the 5th millennium BC (a type of economic production typical to rural Mediterranean regions to this day) was followed by the advent of multiple crop agriculture (olive, fig and grape) by the 3rd millennium BC. Although these processes “humanized” landscapes, they were ineffective in modifying local and cultural identities, express in architectural, industrial or funerary customs.

5By reconstructing the means of transmission and the dynamics of innovation within their spatial and temporal parameters, Jean Guilaine demonstrates how socio-political structures developed and were modified. They emerged by interaction of specialized craftmen and through the development of elites classes, the increase of trade, rendered possible by the development of navigation, the use of animals for draft and latterly, the introduction of the horse and the wheel.

6By means of firm strokes and lighter touches, the author paints a picture of a world of contrast, developped around powerful cities from Troade to Palestine, the emergence of a federal state in Egypt and the zenith of the Aegean world. The Italian peninsula appears like an obstacle to these influences while the western part of the Mediterranean basin stays cut off from the influence of the east. Spain, in particular, remains a rural universe, protected by modest citadels. Despite this apparent imbalance between the extreme of the Mediterranean world, each end was subject to the same rythms and tides of History, swelling and ebbing, but reaching all shores. At the beginning of the 2nd millennium BC, the socio-economic balance of Levantine and Anatolian city-states was challenged and the resultant upset of systems of exchange brought about a shift back to pastoralism.

7This long chanson de geste is illustrated by voluminous plates and documents depicting the parochialism and the complexity of these Mediterranean societies and cultures. This book offers, for the first time, (and here lies one of its major strengths), an equal quantity of information on the western part of the Mediterranean basin as is available for the eastern portion. More usually, it is the latter that merits the most attention in current archaeological literature. With great ease and audacity, Jean Guilaine sails in topics dealingwith the symbolic and the sacred, realms that usually generate cautious interpretations from archaeologists but justifiably excite the imagination of laymen.

8Megalithic building is the most striking cultural phenomenon in the entire Mediterranean basin. Jean Guilaine wisely evaluates it as a diachronic trend deriving from societies sub-conscious forces. He underlines the variety of this type of building activity, from the first troglodytic hypogeae of Sardinia (mid-5th millennium BC) to the large funerary monuments (places of pilgrimage and possibly even of market and initiation), which flourished from Languedoc to Andalusia, from Maghreb to, of course, Egypt and which were probably foreshadowed by the large funerary tumuli of Catalonia.

9The close links of the spiritual and temporal powers, crucial for this formative and seigniorial societies, are presented and documented with great care, as no written documents are available. They are clarified by the author’s talent for convincing.

10This “History before History” in the Mediterranean, viewed in conjectural terms and in the short range (moyenne durée), is Braudelian. It compiles and explains civilizations dissected and reconstructed by archaeology. This work brightly demonstrates that History does not start with writing as “everything is already germinating in the economy of subsistence: capitalization, specialized techniques, early ranked societies, competition between individuals, communities and regional identities. Indeed, the very structures of the Neolithic period already are the yeast, the ferment for History”.

11Aiming at a large audience, the author tried to avoid the polemics of the current research. Some minor points detract from the work. One can sometimes deplore a lack in the updating of data while the presentation of millennial maps instead of chronological charts can eventually disconcert the reader. But, as nowadays so many books are merely collections of eclectic papers in dubious guise of monographs, we should salute the unique master of this colossal enterprise, a legend for centuries, conjuring the skills of the researcher and of the storyteller.

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Référence papier

Catherine Commenge, « La Mer Partagée. La Méditerranée avant l’écriture, 7000-2000 avant Jésus-Christ. », Bulletin du Centre de recherche français à Jérusalem, 1 | 1997, 100-102.

Référence électronique

Catherine Commenge, « La Mer Partagée. La Méditerranée avant l’écriture, 7000-2000 avant Jésus-Christ. », Bulletin du Centre de recherche français à Jérusalem [En ligne], 1 | 1997, mis en ligne le 30 juin 2008, Consulté le 19 avril 2018. URL :

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Catherine Commenge

Centre de recherche français de Jérusalem

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