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Consumerism in the Ancient World: Imports and Identity Construction

April 2016 (120.2)

Book Review

Consumerism in the Ancient World: Imports and Identity Construction

By Justin St. P. Walsh (Routledge Monographs in Classical Studies). Pp. xx + 218, figs. 45, tables 4. Routledge, New York 2014. $125. ISBN 978-0-415-89379-4 (cloth).

Reviewed by

The consumption of goods in the ancient Mediterranean and Europe has been a frequent subject of discourse among scholars both past and present. The pottery manufactured in Greece has long received the lion’s share of attention as a product consumed by other cultures. This volume is no exception, yet it clearly defines the social significance of such imports and employs new geospatial methods to explore the role of Greek vessels consumed in distant lands. The author divides the work into seven well-defined chapters and also provides a concise list of abbreviations used in the volume, a brief preface, an appendix presenting the numbers of different vessel types studied from different sites, and a bibliography.

Walsh begins with an introduction that outlines five key research questions: (1) What reasons persuaded people in the western Mediterranean and trans-Alpine Europe to consume vessels from Greek cities? (2) What qualities did these imports have that convinced buyers to choose them? (3) What, if anything, did these consumers know about the culture where the imported vessels had been made, or about the use of those vessels in their home societies? (4) What, ultimately, did these imports mean to their buyers? And (5) What did they mean to other people in the community who saw the consumption of imported Greek vessels? In addressing these questions, Walsh explores the context of Greek pottery in the western Mediterranean and central Europe from ca. 700 to 350 B.C.E. This volume is the product of a study of more than 24,000 pottery vessels and fragments from more than 233 sites spread across France, Germany, Portugal, Spain, and Switzerland, a feat testifying to the significance and broad scope of the research questions presented. In order to contextualize this broad geographic span, the author presents a concise overview of primary historical sources from the ancient Greek world, focusing on those sources that discussed Greek migration to the western Mediterranean. A cursory discussion of the indigenous populations in the West is included here, but Walsh advises caution, as these sources preserve the Greek perception of the non-Greek populations.

Walsh then presents a cultural history of Greek colonies in southern France, southern Hallstatt sites, and Iberian sites based on the archaeological evidence; this complements the historical overview of the various sites and cultures presented in the preceding chapter. Particular emphasis is placed on production capabilities, evidence for industry, consumption patterns, and mortuary behaviors.

In chapter 4, “Developing a Theoretical Basis for Understanding Consumption,” Walsh presents various approaches to “explain the place and role of ... imported objects in new cultural contexts” (65). He discusses the appropriation of foreign (in this case Greek) goods to communicate identity and, in the process, presents various theoretical approaches exploring the topics of identity and trade/exchange. He begins with a discussion of colonialist approaches, bringing attention to the biases inherent in older works by authors such as Freeman and Dunbabin. This is followed by a brief discussion of theories of Hellenization and romanization—terms that characterize popular approaches often employed to account for the adoption of Greek, and later Roman, goods among indigenous populations. Walsh then moves to discussion of world-systems theory and network theory, touching on the concept of a social middle ground (attributing it to Malkin, without any mention of R. White’s The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650–1815 [Cambridge 1991]). Modern postcolonial concepts such as orientalization, hybridity, and entanglement are presented alongside discussions of consumption, acquisition, and costly signaling, contextualizing the theories among material culture studies in general. Overall, a wide variety of theoretical approaches coupled with ethnographic analogies are presented in a logical progression, facilitating a detailed understanding of the potential for such theories to be applied to this study as well as elsewhere.

The purpose of chapter 5, “Greek Pottery at Home and in the West,” is to “describe the importance of pottery within Greece and the Greek world” (94). This is accomplished admirably through discussion of topics ranging from definitions of vessel forms and quantification methods utilizing both art historical and anthropological approaches to discussion of commensal behaviors as expressed in various cultural contexts. Furthermore, Walsh uses this chapter to define the symposium through a brief historical narrative coupled with a discussion of the archaeological and pictorial evidence for sympotic equipment and spaces. This chapter also delves into a discussion of Greek pottery in foreign contexts, an important discussion, since most sites sampled by Walsh are in fact not Greek. Textual evidence for ancient Celtic and Iberian banqueting behaviors is presented, contextualizing the differences and similarities between Greek and non-Greek commensal behaviors through the words of Greek authors such as Poseidonios, Polybios, and Phylarkhos.

Following this section, Walsh presents the results of his data analysis, which are the product of kriging of data using ArcGIS, a function that models spatial patterns. Presented graphically, the results are accompanied by detailed explanations of the data broken down chronologically, by function, by form, and finally by context. While presenting the data in this manner may seem overcomplicated, it illustrates the diverse and dynamic manner in which Greek vessels were consumed—something not easy to accomplish.

In the final chapter, “Interpreting the Evidence: Consumerism, Signaling, and Identity,” Walsh presents a detailed discussion of consumption trends for Greek pottery at the site-specific and regional levels. He succinctly brings the evidence together to relate the consumption of Greek pottery to elite feasting behaviors. Evidence from cups, the predominant vessel form identified in his study, supports his conclusion that such vessels were consumed as displays of wealth during feasting and/or mortuary activities. He emphasizes that the consumption of such vessels is not universal, but that each site and region employed different mechanisms because of differential access to such imported material and local cultural practices. Walsh then proposes that future research mapping the consumption of other luxury goods could significantly contribute to our understanding of the ancient consumer.

In general, this volume is well constructed, clearly presenting research questions, theory, methods, results, interpretations, and future applications. It is an excellent presentation of the realistic potential of large, regional studies of material culture. This publication is well suited for advanced students and any scholar interested in material culture studies.

William M. Balco
Department of History, Anthropology, and Philosophy
University of North Georgia

Book Review of Consumerism in the Ancient World: Imports and Identity Construction, by Justin St. P. Walsh

Reviewed by William M. Balco

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 120, No. 2 (April 2016)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1202.Balco

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