Book Review: How Ancient Europeans Saw the World by Peter S. Wells

Review by Tom Siegfried

Human vision is a curious sense, providing the brain with information about the external world, but not interpreting it. Vision provides only raw data; the brain’s innate Photoshop software constructs a visual reality that depends on how the brain has learned to comprehend what it sees. In other words, thinking and seeing are not separate. So when Wells writes about how ancient Europeans “saw the world,” he means that both literally and figuratively — how they saw the world, and how they thought about it, as reflected in the objects they made.

Wells focuses on temperate Europe (north of the Mediterranean) from about 2000 B.C. to Rome’s conquest of those areas (roughly 50 B.C. to A.D. 50). Historical knowledge about those ancient Europeans is based mostly on Roman sources. Consequently, Wells contends, much of that history is misleading. He relies on archaeological evidence to reconstruct the visual world of early Europeans, emphasizing their most salient surviving objects — pottery, fibulae (clothing pins, like brooches), swords and scabbards.

Until about 500 B.C., styles of such objects reflected their connection to the natural environment, and designs and decorations on them expressed individuality. But as Europeans became more aware of the rest of the world and their place in it, object designs reflected concern with the social environment and a sense that individuals belonged to a community. About three centuries later came a second design revolution, influenced by the constraints of mass production as commerce developed with distant lands.

With painstaking detail, Wells documents how objects tell the early European story, making a compelling case that historians ought to rethink the standard views. 

Princeton Univ., 2012, 285 p., $35