Ever since my best friend from graduate school and I first started hanging out, I’ve been tangentially interested in the Indo-Europeans. I will never forget seeing Troy with him in the giant cinema in Toronto, sharing our excitement that Brad Pitt actually pulled off the Feat of the Shield Rim in the first five minutes of the movie and laughing that it ought to have been called either Clash of the Indo-Europeans or The Cast of Braveheart does Greece – minus BraveMel and the Irishman of course. I first met J.P. Mallory through my friend, when the distinguished editor of the Journal for Indo-European Studies gave a very funny and informative paper on the history of the field. His book from 1989 felt like the book version of that, his movie.
Not only enjoyable, this book is marvelously informative, but not so dense that it is unreadable. In many places it almost seems to be intended as a series of lectures as the tone sometimes seems jocular, almost tongue-in-cheek. Of course the field has moved on considerably since 1989, but like any great contribution to the field this text will remain a touchstone for me as it marks a point at which Mallory calls the academy to an unparalleled and perhaps unprecedented perspective of honest clarity and humility. It is, in effect, a call to common sense.
Organized into nine chapters, his book provides a clear and perspicacious argument for the reliability of the Indo-European hypothesis while simultaneously undermining most of the assumptions and accompanying models that scholars have attempted to maintain. If I were to reformulate it here I would say that his thesis is that there certainly was a cohesive culture which we might recognize as Proto-Indo-European, but it would have possessed a range of cultural variations in its roughly Eastern European areaq of origin.
J.P. Mallory, In Search of the Indo-Europeans: Language, Archaeology and Myth (London: Thames & Hudson Ltd., 1989).