Among other things, the criteria upon which I base that judgement is an intuitive mix of such things as economic disparity between rich and poor, acceptance and intermixing by and among people of different ethnic, cultural and religious backgrounds, and especially, the status of women - i.e., if you step outside at night in a big city, the more women you see walking around by themselves, the higher the probability that city is a safe one, with a reasonably robust social infrastructure or "civil society".
In other words, I see in this country an historical, clumsy lurching towards a future world that will truly be one of liberty and justice for all for the very first time in history.
Having, with so many, believed that civilization (defined here as city-dwellers, including government more complex than those found in hunter-gatherer societies) first emerged in the "fertile crescent" only five or six thousand years ago as savage, war-like city-states, which immediately set-upon conquering and/or slaughtering their neighbours, Eisler's The Chalice and the Blade offers a provocative analysis of recent archaeological discoveries, one that asserts the late Neolithic Age harboured actual cities (of up to 100,000 people(!) and a Mediterranean/European civilization with sophisticated trading relations. And more, that these were cities without defensive walls or much at all in the way of weaponry.
When my mum pushed the book on me, I resisted, thinking it would be yet another piece of feminist historical fantasy, of some Golden Age when a universal Matriarchy ruled over all under the beneficent gaze of the Great Goddess. I had to force myself through the first chapter, but was gradually won over enough to at least take her thesis seriously (although, having now had the chance to glance over her website, I am less sure than I was about her general credibility. As they say, more research is required before I come to any firm conclusions. But I digress).
In short, Eisler does not claim that the late Neolithic civilization(s?) she describes were matriarchal, although she does assert that a Goddess appears to be the primary divinity. Rather, her thesis is that those cities were structurally organized differently from all known historical civilizations, in which a top-down hierarchy is the structural basis of organization. In Eisler's view, these society's were instead organized according to a "partnership model", which featured cooperation rather than coercion as the organizing principle.
Although some of these cultures (in particular the late civilization on Crete) apparently possessed at least a rudimentary written language, most if not all the evidence Eisler presents is based on physical rather than textual evidence. Thus, by definition, her conclusions about ways of life are inferential and deductive.
Nevertheless, that evidence seems to me to be compelling. And mostly, because of what isn't found in the digs, rather than what is. No defensive fortifications; no weapons, save for those appropriate for hunting; no significant differences in the size of habitations; little or no depiction of warfare; no monumental palaces or other buildings suggestive of extreme hierarchy; no significant difference in the lavishness of grave-sites. She further asserts that the artistic evidence (painted pottery and frescoes, for instance) suggests that men and women played roles in all aspects of society, from the ceremonial to sports and even, to some degree, in work.
She claims that these civilizations flourished for about 3,500 years, from circa 7,000 B.C.E. to 3,500 B.C.E. when Crete was over-run by one of the patriarchal barbarian hordes we know so well from everything from the Bible to general history.
If her reports of the archaeological findings are true, The Chalice & the Blade appears to me to make a strong case for the idea that the common view of our past is quite simply wrong.
Eisner believes the findings summarised above are not only of historical importance but are also important in that they provide "proof" that humanity is not foredoomed to exist according to a hierarchical model (or "dominator model") of civilization. She believes that knowing something different existed in the past will help us to build a better (and different) tomorrow. (As she repeatedly points out, in a world bristling with nuclear weapons, there will be no future history for humanity if we don't find ways other than war to settle our conflicts.) But as modern feminism and other progressive movements have shown in the past few decades, we are quite capable of imagining a different future without having recourse to a similar past; nevertheless, it can't hurt to know that - yes! - things were different once upon a time.
It is as a prognosticator that she lost me towards the end of the book. The final chapter provides an overview of what a future Partnership Civilization might look like and here Eisner does in fact come across as a naive, New Agey, thinker, with all the silliness that implies (she goes so far as to predict that her future will include "improved yoga techniques").
Unfortunately, I am not (yet) in a position to judge the quality or honesty of the evidence Eisler presents, but the book is copiously foot-noted and I caught no significant errors in areas in which I do have some knowledge. On the surface, she makes a very strong and very interesting case for her historical thesis. So, despite my reservations, this is a provocative and exciting look at what - to me, at least - had hitherto been a long chapter in human history about which I had been almost entirely ignorant. Recommended, if only for now.
If anyone out there can point me towards recent archaeological findings which might support or refute her, I'd be most grateful.