Online Review: Book

Archaeologies of Colonialism: Consumption, Entanglement, and Violence in Ancient Mediterranean France

Gocha Tsetskhladze


By Michael Dietler. Pp. xi + 464, figs. 95. University of California Press, Berkeley 2010. $60. ISBN 978-0-520-26551-6 (cloth).

Dietler is a specialist in cultural contacts in the western Mediterranean from an anthropological perspective—hence an early reference to Greg Dening, Melbourne anthropologist-cum-historian, begetter of the appropriately Australian phrase “the beach” for what others would call a contact zone (13). Here, he brings together—partly through reworked papers, partly through new writing—many of the questions he has previously addressed, focusing on the pivotal Lower Rhône region (Marseilles/Massalia and environs) from the late seventh to the first century B.C.E., to explore “the nature and consequences of interaction between indigenous peoples and Greek, Etruscan, and Roman foreigners” (11).

Dietler considers that the image proffered by ancient authors has been accepted too uncritically by present-day academics; thus, the nature and outcome of the process whereby colonists and natives “became increasingly entangled in webs of new relations and through which there developed a gradual transformation of all parties to the encounter” (9) require reexamination. His chosen term for this complex process is “colonialism” (a word even more loaded than “colonization”), and much of the rest of chapter 1 navigates the terminological minefield that is such an obsession of Anglo-Saxon scholarship: colonialism, colonization, imperialism.

Chapter 2, “Archaeologies of Colonialism,” inveighs against the pervasiveness of the “sweeping 'colonization' of modern consciousness by the ancient Graeco-Roman world” (27) and spurns the “'Graecolatry' and 'Graecomania'” (29) and misidentified ancient parallels it has spawned, giving many a self-deluded example, not least from modern colonial-imperial powers, their official rhetoric, and monumental and general culture (Gilbert Murray is a prime target). Concepts such as Hellenization, Romanization, and acculturation are duly criticized, as are modern theories inadequate to the task—in Dietler's opinion—of describing the ancient situation (e.g., world systems, core-periphery, Marxist paradigms). His sympathies overall are with postcolonial theory, but not uncritically: contacts are seen as a “phenomenon of consumption,” permitting more focus on “entanglement” between the various parties to the encounter, a fundamental aspect of his interpretation, whereas “hybridity” is more suited to describing the cultural aspects of contact (51–3).

To understand why and how societies in contact chose à la carte from the objects available, we must consider what was consumed and how that consumption took place, as well as its intended and unintended consequences—an “entanglement that links societies together in colonial relationships in a variety of new ways … [with] a wide variety of possible transformative effects” (74). A key commodity in these interactions was wine, accepted early and enthusiastically by the native peoples, compared with a general indifference to most other aspects of Etruscan and Greek culture and goods. Dietler probes why this was so but, using much data, reaches the conclusion that wine was just a supplement to other indigenous forms of alcohol (215) and was thus less significant than once thought. The excavated remains of amphoras are used to calculate very meager consumption figures of wine per household (correctly, I think). On the one hand, what percentage of the whole do the excavated remains of amphoras represent? On the other hand, amphoras may have contained commodities other than wine, or they could have been reused, their original cargo replaced by something more suitable for the locals. A common trap has been to overestimate the importance of amphoras in proving how locals were “bought” by Greeks and Romans, to see drink as a parallel to trinkets to Native Americans. Many recent publications have understood this.

Dietler does admit potential symbolic significance attached to wine's exotic origins, yet he gives little importance to the prestige of wine arising from the aristocratic modes of consumption developed by the Greeks. This seems to be missing a trick: weightier consideration of aristocratic involvement in archaic forms of interchange would lend a more nuanced view to the phenomenon of wine consumption. He avers throughout that Greek traders were from the lower ranks of society, and that the well-to-do looked down on people in trade, but literary evidence (and the nature of some finds from shipwrecks) shows aristocratic participation in archaic trade (e.g., Demaratus, Solon).

With regard to wine, native agency is stressed; the producers and carriers of it, the Greeks, are left in the wings. Whereas ancient authors stress the strong Greek identity consciously assumed by classical–Hellenistic Massalia, Dietler contends that the Phocaeans appeared to the locals not as representatives of a common Panhellenic culture but more as a gaggle of dirty, incomprehensible, strangely behaved outsiders. It has become commonplace for studies of cultural contact to downplay the identity of the colonists to enhance the prospects of interaction with the natives. So, when he summarizes the main differences between native and Greek urban landscapes, Dietler uses the evidence from the numerous excavations of local settlements to suggest that the changes observed may owe more to local experiment than to outside influence. A survey of evidence from archaic and classical Massalia concludes that what was on show was no classical Athens but a rather unimpressive fortified town of mostly mudbrick structures. Dietler has castigated a European tradition driven by blind admiration for Greece and Rome; he seems driven, contrarily, to the contrary position of minimizing the role of colonists wherever he can. Archaeological evidence from archaic Massalia is not rich but does indicate the presence of monuments that outstripped anything erected by the natives until Roman times. Perhaps these did not impress the locals and nor did the vast wine trade. What this fails to explain is why the (Hellenized? Romanized?) Gallo-Roman historian Trogus, a quotation from whom opens this volume and whose “powerful and pervasive legacy” is berated in its last lines (346), could write that, “from the people of Massalia … the Gauls learned a more civilized way of life” (1). Of course the big question is: what is a more civilized way of life and for whom—Greeks, Romans, locals, or all of the above?

We lurch to extremes. Before, simplistic models stressed the superiority of Greek culture in a colonial context and assigned a passive or lesser role to the locals. These have rightly been criticized and generally discarded. Now, the locals find the Greeks “dirty and unimpressive,” and colonialism is just “a highly contingent process of entanglement in which asymmetries of power emerge from unintended consequences” (346). We borrow vocabulary too easily from other disciplines and more recent colonial and postcolonial studies and become trapped in terminology wars. I would say that the relationship in the spotlight was mutually beneficial; otherwise, how would these two very different peoples with very different ways of life cohabit for several centuries with little manifest friction and enter into economic, cultural, and other contacts?

Dietler's book is full of interesting (and challenging) insights woven from a particular anthropologically driven perspective, which the theme of cultural contact invites, but it is too heavily theoretical for beginners to the region or the subject.

Gocha Tsetskhladze
School of Historical and Philosophical Studies
University of Melbourne
Victoria 3010

Book Review of Archaeologies of Colonialism: Consumption, Entanglement, and Violence in Ancient Mediterranean France, by Michael Dietler

Reviewed by Gocha Tsetskhladze

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 116, No. 1 (January 2012)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1161.Tsetskhladze

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