You are here

Intercultural Contacts in the Ancient Mediterranean: Proceedings of the International Conference at the Netherlands-Flemish Institute in Cairo, 25th to 29th October 2008

July 2013 (117.3)

Book Review

Intercultural Contacts in the Ancient Mediterranean: Proceedings of the International Conference at the Netherlands-Flemish Institute in Cairo, 25th to 29th October 2008

Edited by Kim Duistermaat and Ilona Regulski (Orientalia Lovaniensia Analecta 202). Pp. xxix + 597, figs. 102, tables 5. Peeters, Leuven 2011. €85. ISBN 978-90-429-2451-2 (cloth).

Reviewed by

The volume under review publishes the proceedings of a conference that was held in Cairo in 2008. The conference, which dealt with cultural connections in the ancient Mediterranean (mostly before, and no later than, the Roman period), was a forum in which relatively young and up-and-coming scholars presented their research alongside several papers by more senior scholars. The 35 papers in this volume deal with a broad range of issues. While in a review of such a publication one cannot discuss in detail all (or even most of) the papers, all told my impression is that it is a mine of fascinating, and in many cases important, papers. I believe that anyone dealing with these issues will find important insights in this volume. Following the introductory chapters, the papers are organized into six sections.

The first set of papers is grouped under “Theory and Methodology.” The first paper, by Sherratt, serves as a general theoretical overview of issues relating to cultural contact, many of which are touched on in this volume. Sherratt reviews the ups and downs of the interpretive trends in the understanding of cultural contacts in archaeology over the last decades. Castigating much of the discussion for being too tightly entwined with specific, polarized stances of this or that side of theoretical understandings and too often deeply influenced by passing fads of interpretation, she urges archaeologists to make greater use of one of the unique strengths of the field in comparison with most human sciences—the ever-expanding databases, which enable new and developing directions of research. While theory is important, Sherratt believes that empirical approaches should not be overlooked.

Panagiotopoulos attempts to conceptualize the cultural contacts in the Mediterranean zone through the lens(es) of a postmodern “transcultural” view. This is to be commended, as it enables a more nuanced and multidimensional understanding of the types of connections and their interactions.

Asouti’s contribution, the only one in the volume that deals with pre–Bronze Age cultures, deals with interactions attested in the Neolithic period. She stresses that in the end (1) they appear to be much more elaborate than often assumed; (2) even when labeled, detailed socioeconomic explanations of this are not suggested; and (3) all too often, the explanations are based on historical and/or contemporary cultures, which may be inadequate for the understanding of Neolithic societies. Asouti argues that a much more complex and nuanced understanding must be put forward, one that takes into account both the macro and micro picture and at the same time is sufficiently flexible to incorporate an understanding of subsistence patterns that are very different from what is known at present.

Mac Sweeney discusses the evidence for nonlocal contacts at the site of Beycesultan, Anatolia, during the Late Bronze and Early Iron Ages. While in both periods there is evidence of foreign connections, the context and meaning of these connections are different at different phases. Elaborating on an oft-noted point, the presence and/or lack of nonlocal objects, while important, does not reveal the entire story of foreign connections. No less important is how these foreign objects are used by the receiving culture to construct group identities and in political maneuvering.

Simandiraki-Grimshaw discusses the evidence and meaning of religio-cultural exchange between Crete and other cultures (particularly Egypt) during the second millennium B.C.E. Because of the complex nature of these connections, as manifested in various symbolic items, she suggests that in addition to the “standard” archaeological interpretations, perspectives such as “corporeality” and cognitive lenses should be incorporated as well.

Cappel attempts to understand the appearance, use, and meaning of sealing practices in Minoan Crete through a Bourdieuian perspective. She argues that with the introduction of sealing practices in Early Bronze Age Crete, not only is a new type of material object introduced, but also a whole new genre of social action, which changes the way commodities are related to and, in turn, changed the social and economic reality.

The second group of papers is “Identifying Foreigners and Immigrants.” Hulin examines the evidence of the material culture of the Libyans during the Late Bronze Age. While the historical and iconographic evidence suggest a complex and ever-changing society in Libya at this time, previous archaeological studies stressed its simplicity and that these were largely nomadic, technologically unsophisticated cultures. Hulin argues that evidence, even if limited, of metallurgical technologies at various sites implies that this simplistic understanding is not necessarily accurate.

Wasmuth delves into a topic that has been discussed often in the past: how does one identify a foreign person and/or objects in a nonlocal context (in this case regarding Egyptians outside of Egypt)?

Hassler essentially debunks a commonly quoted assumption, based on Petrie’s work at Gurob, Egypt, that there were Mycenaeans at the site during the New Kingdom, mainly on his claim that there were several burnt burials of “light-haired people” at the site, which he believed indicated burials of Mycenaean origin.

Bader discusses the possible evidence for people of Levantine origin in a specific portion of Middle Kingdom Tell el-Dab’a, Egypt (Area A/II). Basing her study on an analysis of the local and imported ceramics, she considers whether one can see (as assumed in earlier research on the site) a process in which foreigners, who arrived at Tell el-Dab’a at the beginning of this period, slowly acculturated and adopted more and more of the local Egyptian culture. Based on the very small number of local pottery types and the continued use of typically Canaanite forms (even if locally made), she argues that, in fact, the population in this part of the site retained its nonlocal uniqueness at least until the end of the Middle Kingdom. Only later, during the Second Intermediate Period, did they incorporate significant aspects of the Egyptian culture.

Wilson examines the Late Iron Age Greek pottery from Late Period Sais, Egypt, and discusses whether this is to be seen as evidence of the presence of people of Aegean origin, of trade, or perhaps of the incorporation of some Greek customs and items into the Egyptian cultural world.

In a very interesting study, Perkins touches on the origins of cultural and ethnic groups based on ancient DNA studies. Based on a summary of the evidence, he suggests that while the DNA evidence does not provide clear-cut proof of an eastern origin of the Etruscans, there is evidence for genetic connections with the East. But he believes this should be seen not as testimony of the Etruscan origins but rather as the general influx of eastern genetic material to the West in various periods and cultures.

The third group of articles is “Material Evidence for Contact: Ceramics, Imports and Imitations.” Bretschneider and Van Lerberghe present a “bread-and-butter” paper on cultural contacts, surveying the Bronze and Early Iron Age evidence from their excavations at Tell Tweini.

Badre presents a similar study, surveying the evidence of foreign pottery wares, and imitations thereof, at the site of Tel Kazel in the Akkar Plain on the Syrian coast during the Late Bronze and Early Iron Ages. In addition to the Cypriot and Aegean imported pottery, she reiterates her previous discussions of the appearance of the Handmade Burnished Ware and Gray Ware pottery groups with western connections, which are important in the discussions on the processes occurring in the southern Levant at the beginning of the Iron Age, perhaps connected with the Sea Peoples.

Van Wijngaarden surveys the evidence of relations between the Mycenaeans and Egypt during the Late Bronze Age, focusing primarily on pottery evidence. As opposed to the connections of the Aegean with Cyprus and the Levant, in which a much larger repertoire of Aegean pottery types is found in the East—most probably indicating that the Aegeans were exporting specific vessels to cater to newly developed cultural modes in the East—the evidence of connections with Egypt are of a different nature. We see a more limited corpus of vessels and other objects, much of which can be interpreted as exotica. Van Wijngaarden stresses, though, that despite this very different character, one should not conclude that the Aegean-Egyptian connection was less significant, but rather that it operated less on economic terms and more on symbolic terms.

Burns discusses Egyptian objects found in Late Helladic Mycenaean contexts, with specific focus on Tsountas’ Tomb 55 from Mycenae. As repeatedly demonstrated regarding this period, but other periods as well, he stresses that one should not simply look at these imported objects as evidence of trade and/or presence of Egyptians in Mycenaean Greece, as often done in the past, but attempt to understand the cultural appropriation that these objects went through in the Mycenaean culture.

Ownby and Smith present a very important study of the provenance of Canaanite jars found in Middle and Late Bronze Age Memphis. Based on a petrographic analysis of a large sample of jars, they attempt to define the regions in the Levant from which jars were imported in these two periods, noting changes in the locations between these periods. Significantly, there is no evidence of importation of jars from southern Canaan during the Late Bronze Age, despite the intense Egyptian presence in these parts of Canaan at the time.

Ahrens examines Aegyptiaca found in the northern Levant during the second millennium B.C.E. As in other studies in this volume, Ahrens attempts to move forward from simply seeing these objects as evidence of trade and gift exchange between polities in Egypt and the Levant. Instead, he suggests a focus on the social role that these objects had, in particular how the Levantine elites appropriated these objects.

Returning to a more traditional mode of interpretation, Graziadio and Guglielmino discuss the evidence of Late Helladic objects (particularly pottery) in Italy. Based on the types and quantities of objects and their dispersal, they attempt to delineate the trade routes bringing these objects to Italy, whether directly from the Aegean, or, as they suggest, also in an indirect manner via Cypriot merchants.

Gernez attempts to demonstrate connections between various cultures in the Bronze Age Mediterranean based on the appearance of specific types of weapons in the Early and Middle Bronze Ages. Based on what is almost completely a typological perspective, he suggests that there were intense connections between cultures during these periods, mostly moving from east to west.

Höflmayer provides a survey of Egyptian stone vessels imitating Cypriot Base Ring Ware vessels in New Kingdom Egypt.

Commenting on the appearance of red-on-black pottery decoration in the seventh and sixth centuries B.C.E., Gürtekin-Demir debates whether this new style appears in Lydia as a result of Greek or eastern (Phoenician/ Cypriot) influence, and opts for the latter.

In the fourth group of articles, “Maritime Trade and Sea Ports,” Gates presents an important overview of the role of ports in the second-millennium B.C.E. eastern Mediterranean. Among other points, she stresses the need to look at not only large, central ports that are spread around the Mediterranean but also at the smaller-scale ports.

Samaes and Coenaerts argue for the need for a more in-depth and subtle examination of the trade mechanisms and modes in southwestern Cyprus during the Late Cypriot period, taking into account changing settlement patterns, local production, and related topics.

In a very compelling paper, even if building on similar trends in recent years, Vianello argues that the “explosion” of trade throughout the Mediterranean during the Bronze Age must be seen as a major engine for cultural and technological changes that occurred throughout the entire region at this time.

Sauvage’s paper attempts to bring together the evidence mainly from the Late Bronze Age, but also from the Iron Age, of internationally recognized maritime and trade regulations that enabled the intense trade of this period to flourish. Highlighting examples for issues such as looting, piracy, and shipwreck rights, she demonstrates that a well-structured and internationally recognized system existed.

The fifth group of papers is “Influences in Iconography, Ideology and Religion.” Iren studies the cultural influences seen in an unusual decorated bowl (with the image of a male subduing animals) of north Ionian origin found in the excavations of Pitane, Turkey, suggesting that it is evidence of Greek and eastern Mediterranean influences prior to the Persian Wars.

Pappa discusses the bidirectional cultural influences that are seen in Iberia during the period of intense commercial and colonial activities of the Phoenicians beginning in the seventh century B.C.E. As one of the examples of these influences, Pappa accepts an earlier suggestion by Celestino Pérez and López-Ruiz that a cultic stele found in Beth-Saida, Israel, can be seen as an example of the original Phoenician influence of stelae that appear in Iberia.

Poggio’s paper studies iconographic details in Lycian and Phoenician sarcophagi of the period before Alexander’s conquests. Based on similar motifs from these two regions, Poggio argues that in western regions of the Achaemenid empire, there existed a unique cultural style, and not simply a “middle ground” in which Greek and Persian elements were mixed.

Discussing evidence for the use of perfumed oil in the Late Bronze Age eastern Mediterranean, both in the Levant and in the Aegean cultures, Fappas suggests that this was an eastern custom that was introduced into the Aegean but then adopted and modified for the specific needs of Aegean elites.

Erdil-Kocaman and Ögüt discuss the development and transformation of the iconography of the Hittite god Teshub from the Bronze Age until it was incorporated into the iconography of the Roman-period deity Jupiter Dolichenus.

Yalcin suggests that the well-known religious motif of the Hittites, the winged disk, was incorporated into Hittite iconography because of Egyptian influence during the Amarna period, a time of intense contact between the Hittites and the Egyptians.

The sixth and final group of papers, “Administration and Economy,” includes three contributions. Jirásková attempts to reassess the evidence of relations between Egypt and the southern Levant during the latter parts of the Early Bronze Age/Old Kingdom (4th–6th Dynasties).

Murock Hussein argues that the importance of the goat in Minoan culture went beyond the iconographic and cultic realms. She suggests that various products made from goats were an important part of the international trade between the Minoans and Egypt.

In the final paper in the volume, Müller-Wollermann discusses the appearance of coinage in Egypt. She argues that this is to be seen as a direct result of the Graeco-Persian wars, when both Egyptians and Persians struck coins in order to pay mercenaries as well as to build their navies.

All told, this volume is chock-full of studies that deal with a wide range of issues relating to cultural contact in the ancient Mediterranean. While many of the papers grapple with these topics through postmodern lenses, in particular through a transcultural, cultural appropriation–oriented point of view, quite a few papers resort to what might be considered old fashioned but nevertheless important studies on the basic details of intercultural contacts. While not all the papers in this volume are of the same quality, the editors should be thanked for bringing together a wide variety of studies on this topic. The full table of contents with titles can be found at

Aren M. Maeir
Institute of Archaeology
Bar-Ilan University
52900 Ramat-Gan

Book Review of Intercultural Contacts in the Ancient Mediterranean: Proceedings of the International Conference at the Netherlands-Flemish Institute in Cairo, 25th to 29th October 2008, edited by Kim Duistermaat and Ilona Regulski

Reviewed by Aren M. Maeir

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 117, No. 3 (July 2013)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1173.Maeir

Add new comment

Plain text

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.