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Globalizations and the Ancient World

July 2012 (116.3)

Book Review

Globalizations and the Ancient World

By Justin Jennings. Pp. viii + 207, figs. 11, tables 3, maps 4. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2011. $85. ISBN 978-0-52176-077-5 (cloth).

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In archaeology’s quest for relevance, prehistorians often refer to the lessons of the past, suggesting the existence of recurrent trends. The problem is fitting these trends into an explanatory framework that imposes some analytical rigor and avoids facile generalities. Jennings succeeds admirably in this task by focusing on globalization as an old process that has occurred on numerous occasions in the past. Since globalization involves increased levels of interaction, with concomitant enhanced exchange of goods and information, it is an important way to conceptualize overall cultural, as well as specific economic, assimilation. To demonstrate the broad utility of his comparative approach, Jennings lays out the argument carefully and illustrates it well with three case studies from different parts of the ancient world. He brings the examination full circle by demonstrating how the concepts apply to the modern era. Thus, the link between antiquity and the present is demonstrated and not just conjectured. By showing that globalization is not a phenomenon unique to modern times, Jennings makes it possible to determine what we can expect as the process unfolds in the 21st century.

The first three chapters set the stage for the examination of case studies from three diverse geographic areas in which Jennings identifies important trends. Chapter 1 suggests that scholars must dismantle the “Great Wall,” that is, the view that there is an unbridgeable divide between modern and ancient worlds and that globalization belongs strictly in the former (4). This perspective inhibits the opportunities to learn from the past by understanding the multiple forms that globalization has taken. The author argues that the two main ways of studying past globalization (world-systems theory and what he calls the long-term approach) operate at too general a level to help us see the plural forms that the phenomenon took previously. Here he is a bit too cavalier in dismissing or not fully considering the work of world-systems analysts who have repeatedly addressed this issue and demonstrated the ability of peripheral groups to negotiate with economically more potent intruders. Nonetheless, by borrowing elements from these perspectives, he suggests it is possible to identify earlier phases of large-scale integration by looking for a dramatic increase in interregional interaction and the “social changes that are associated with the creation of a global culture” (13).

In the second chapter, Jennings pursues the question of how to pluralize globalization, by which he means how to come to grips with the various ways that this phenomenon can be expressed. He notes that the cultural sequences worked out by archaeologists and historians demonstrate a cyclical pattern in which there are what he calls “surges of interaction” followed by collapse and decentralization. His review of the expansion of connectivity since the 16th century that makes up the modern era acts as preamble for the enumeration of eight trends linked to contemporary globalization, whose presence he searches for in the ancient world: time-space compression (i.e., the world is getting smaller), deterritorialization, standardization, unevenness, homogenization, cultural heterogeneity, re-embedding of local culture, and vulnerability.

Jennings argues in chapter 3 that the emergence of cities, with their multiple needs and complex webs of relationships, led to previously unknown levels of interregional interaction. An interesting discussion of the impacts of the early cities focuses on the long-distance movement of people, goods, and ideas in a cascading effect that simultaneously expanded the system and accelerated the interactions between urban dwellers, people in the hinterland, and those from more distant regions.

Appropriately, the first case study Jennings examines is Uruk-Warka (ch. 4). The development of arguably the earliest city had a significant impact on events in Egypt/North Africa, eastern Europe, and the Middle East. The economic and social ferment in Uruk reverberated well beyond the city through colonization, assimilation, and other processes and is evident archaeologically in burial goods that reflect a creeping level of social differentiation, the use of seals suggesting increased bureaucratic control, and the ubiquitous beveled-rim bowls for transporting basic foodstuffs. The large and varied urban population stimulated production and exchange both locally and over great distances. The nature of the Uruk expansion varied from place to place as people selectively accepted and rejected various elements of Uruk culture. Jennings describes material from Tepe Gawra, Tell Brak, and other sites to demonstrate the variation that reflects how local populations managed the flow of goods and ideas that made up Uruk global culture. Jennings paints a complex picture in which “[m]any people shared ideas, some people combined new ideas from one source with those from another, and still others tried to check out of the game entirely by embracing local traditions” (76).

The next case study is Cahokia (ch. 5), an interesting choice, since there is still some debate concerning its status as an urban site. Jennings argues persuasively for Cahokia as the epicenter of a global Mississippian culture whose effects were felt throughout the great river drainage and beyond into the southeast at sites such as Moundville and Etowah. Situated on the highly fertile American Bottom and at the nexus of numerous trade routes that brought exotic materials (e.g., galena, mica, copper, marine shells) from great distances, Cahokia’s population increased significantly beginning ca. 1000 C.E., accompanied by mound construction on a massive scale. Specialization in the production of beads, elaborate carved shell, and Ramey pottery was part of the economic and social intensification that started at the site and then spread rapidly throughout the Midwest and Southeast. However, the adoption of the various motifs, artifacts, and ideas about social distinction were not accepted uncritically. Jennings notes, for example, that Mississippian influence is evident in Kentucky in the form of mound plaza groups and imported goods, but evidence for craft specialization is lacking. As in the Uruk period, people molded their particular local version of society from the elements offered by the Mississippian global culture.

Jennings turns to the site of Huari in South America for the third case study (ch. 6). The center of the Wari empire, which dominated Peru in the Middle Horizon (600–1000 C.E.), Huari grew from a collection of hamlets into a huge urban complex with many residential and ceremonial compounds where people from throughout the valley gathered. The needs of this large site required both local and imported items, transforming the surrounding landscape through the construction of terraces and canals and establishing colonial outposts where architecture mimicked that of Huari. The Wari state could not sustain these colonies for very long, but even in the absence of imperial control, there was still significant interaction, as witnessed in the distribution of religious iconography, architectural forms, and various artifact types. One of the key points Jennings makes is that Wari global culture was the result of local populations adopting certain styles and artifact forms, but not in the context of political domination. In short, he makes the case for what can be called active peripheries, something that world-systems analysts such as Thomas Hall have argued for more than two decades. Jennings concludes that “[t]he story of Wari that emerges from the current data is not a story of empire but rather the story of the unintended consequences of a city struggling to survive” (119 [emphasis original]). This instance of globalization, as well as the other case studies, reflects a series of contingent events that grew out of efforts to meet certain immediate needs.

In the final two chapters, Jennings assesses the degree to which ancient societies constituted global cultures and what lessons one can draw about current and future globalization from studying the past. First, he examines the degree to which the eight hallmarks outlined in chapter 2 were present in the past, being careful to note that, while visible, these traits would not be equally expressed everywhere. In an excellent series of well-argued sections, the author presents a lucid exposition of how each attribute was manifested in antiquity. He selects archaeological examples that clearly support his argument. As a case in point, he deftly illustrates that deterritorialization (in which “the ties to a single location are weakened as a result of the myriad of long-distance interactions that connect that place to other regions” [125]) can be traced in the adoption and reproduction of certain pottery styles across broad regions so that the difference between what is local and what is global is obscured. The author provides a tight argument for the presence of each of the hallmarks, leading clearly to his conclusion “that globalization, not globalization-lite or something like globalization, has occurred at least three times in human history prior to modern globalization” (142 [emphasis original]).

Jennings uses the concluding chapter to press his argument that globalization is a cyclical process and that tracing its ancient forms can provide deep insights to its present and future manifestations. He sees a focus on current globalization studies as a way to make archaeologists abandon simplistic models of the past. Greater familiarity with current scholarship on globalization would make scholars engage past complexity more fully. In addition, archaeologists could then address the issue of disciplinary relevance—of what importance is prehistory to the modern world? Jennings pointedly states that examination of past cycles of expansion and contraction indicates that our current era of globalization is drawing to a close, with increased balkanization to follow. Demonstrations against major economic summits and the turn to parochial interests in various parts of the world are examples the author uses to highlight that in many ways, the world is getting smaller. The important lesson that we should take away is “that our similarities to earlier generations outweigh these differences” (153); I could not agree more. Exploring how past societies dealt with the wide range of new social and economic relationships generated by enhanced interregional interaction provides markers for making our way through the complexities of modern globalization, especially by keeping local, smaller options viable.

This book is one of several recent publications that have made fruitful use of broader frameworks, including world-systems analysis, to examine antiquity. The study of three geographically and chronologically diverse cultures by Jennings complements the work of Greaves, who focused on one region using a similar model in his Land of Ionia (Malden, Mass. 2010). These are very welcome developments, since world-systems theorists for some time have urged archaeologists to join the dialogue because we can add great time depth to the conversation about the evolution of intersocietal relationships. I have some minor quibbles with Jennings but see his work as an important contribution to the growing literature on general models for understanding the past. In this compact volume, Jennings provides a concise overview of relevant literature, a lucid argument supported by archaeological data, and a compelling case for a unified approach that eliminates artificial distinctions between past and present. This book would work well in advanced undergraduate and graduate classes on theory and others that deal with comparative analysis more generally.

P. Nick Kardulias
Department of Sociology and Anthropology and Program in Archaeology
College of Wooster
Wooster, Ohio 44691-2363

Book Review of Globalizations and the Ancient World, by Justin Jennings

Reviewed by P. Nick Kardulias

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 116, No. 3 (July 2012)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1163.Kardulias

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