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Colonial Encounters in Ancient Iberia: Phoenician, Greek, and Indigenous Relations

Colonial Encounters in Ancient Iberia: Phoenician, Greek, and Indigenous Relations

Edited by Michael Dietler and Carolina López-Ruiz. Pp. xiii + 323, figs. 59, tables 3. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London 2009. $55. ISBN 978-0-226-14847-2 (cloth).

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The Iberian peninsula has long been a unique part of the ancient world. Cut off from the rest of Europe by the Pyrenees, it has both a Mediterranean and Atlantic coast and lies in close physical proximity to Africa. Thus, it has consistently been a nexus of trade, commerce, and cultural relationships between these worlds. It controls the only exit from the Mediterranean to the external ocean, and from the Bronze Age to the Renaissance, explorers and traders used the peninsula as the transition between the environment of the Mediterranean and much of the rest of the world. Phoenicians first came to Iberia in the ninth century B.C.E., and Greeks followed two centuries later. Eventually, Carthaginians and Romans left their own imprints on the region. The Iberian peninsula should be one of the most-studied regions of the ancient world, but interest has largely been limited to efforts by local scholars or to the Roman period. Little has been published in English about the earlier inhabitants. There has been intensive fieldwork on the peninsula—Phoenician sites in Portugal have tripled in the last 30 years—but much of it is not widely available. The goal of this volume is to bring new insight—especially for audiences outside Iberia—into the complex problem of relations between the indigenous population and the Phoenician and Greek merchants and invaders who came to be an essential part of the region’s future.

The 11 papers contained herein represent presentations at an interdisciplinary symposium at the University of Chicago in 2003. The symposium was designed to cross traditional boundaries and provide new understanding about the peculiar conditions of Iberia. Such approaches are always welcome; it is too often forgotten that study of the ancient Mediterranean is essentially interdisciplinary.

The first essay, by Dietler, is an excellent summary of the status of Iberia in the first millennium B.C.E., noting that events that occurred in this dynamic landscape led to the creation of modern Europe, especially in terms of its effect on modern colonialism. The whole issue of the term “colonial” is a difficult one; it is used far too freely today in regard to antiquity, with many layers of modern interpretation affecting the understanding of the past and the modern world (on this topic, see D.A. Lupher, Romans in a New World: Classical Models in Sixteenth-Century Spanish America [Ann Arbor 2006]). The essay skillfully threads a path through numerous semantic nightmares and concludes that the term “colonial” and its relatives can be useful to explain early Iberia, while acknowledging that it is imperfect and even anachronistic.

Sanmarti has provided a strong discussion of the early Phoenicians in Iberia, with emphasis on the material culture and the interdependency that soon developed between the invaders and locals. This is followed by Carme Belarte’s examination of the settlement patterns beginning in the Late Bronze Age that led to urbanism, especially in the lower Ebro valley (the rivers, as expected, provided access to the interior of the peninsula). The catalyst for this transition was the Phoenician arrival.

One might not have expected the Phoenicians to reach the Atlantic coast of Portugal, but Arruda demonstrates the surprisingly intensive settlement in this region, especially in the Tagus and Mondego estuaries. Even as early as the Late Bronze Age, there were eastern Mediterranean imports. Greek contacts with Iberia probably began in the seventh century B.C.E., and by 600 B.C.E., Greeks (i.e., the Phokaians) became a dominant force, especially in the region around Cádiz and up the river valleys to the interior. Rouillard summarizes the evidence, using shipwrecks as one of the major sources of information. Yet both art and writing show that there was in fact an overlap between Greek and Phoenician cultural pressures, although the groups remained small.

Two essays focus on specific yet crucial aspects of the cultural interactions: agriculture and shipbuilding. Buxó explores the former, describing the botanical changes that took place with the Phoenician arrival, especially the removal of the indigenous evergreen oak, expansion of agriculture and the olive industry, and introduction of viniculture. These processes became more intense when the Greeks arrived. Deforestation is not only connected with the spread of agriculture but with a particular industry: shipbuilding, as Treumann demonstrates. The dense forests of the peninsula saw a reduction not only in area but in species. Lumbering settlements became common, and lumbermen used the rivers to move into the interior and seek pristine forests. There is nothing unusual about deforestation as an element of shipbuilding—it was common almost everywhere in human history until the end of the 19th century—but it is particularly well documented in Iberia.

Transformation due to the arrival of the Phoenicians is the subject of Belén Deamos’ essay. The crucial port of Huelva, where a ninth-century B.C.E. emporium has been ex-cavated, is the focus of the early Phoenician presence, laying the basis for the Tartessos region as a major meeting place. Celestino-Pérez explores the move into the interior, where rich grazing lands attracted settlers, but at the cost of deforestation.

The problem of the identification of Tartessos is López-Ruiz’s topic. The issue has a long and difficult history, particularly in regard to whether Tartessos is the Tarshish mentioned 28 times in the Bible. The issue is complex, but it is demonstrated to be a reasonable (although unproven) hypothesis. Gómez Espelsín considers the matter of the evidence for Iberia in the works of Greek geographic authors. Unfortunately, he is far too dismissive of the valuable evidence that can be gleaned from the voyage of Pytheas, and this reviewer, at least, knows of no fantasies in the Periplous of Hanno, whose account should be read with the utmost seriousness.

There are only a few quibbles to be made about this significant volume. A fuller index (not limited merely to toponyms) and a common bibliography (not 12 separate ones) would have been useful. Forcing pre-Roman toponyms into a Roman form (e.g., Ebusus) seems convoluted and even confusing. But there are outstanding maps, plans, and charts (a list of them would have been nice), all of which assist in making this book an exceptionally valuable resource on the pre-Roman Iberian peninsula.

Duane W. Roller
Department of Greek and Latin
The Ohio State University
Columbus, Ohio 43210

Book Review of Colonial Encounters in Ancient Iberia: Phoenician, Greek, and Indigenous Relations, edited by Michael Dietler and Carolina López-Ruiz

Reviewed by Duane W. Roller

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 115, No. 1 (January 2011)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1151.Roller

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