Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2008.08.29

Tamar Hodos, Local Responses to Colonization in the Iron Age Mediterranean.   London/New York:  Routledge, 2006.  Pp. x, 264; figs. 97.  ISBN 978-0-415-37836-9.  $130.00.  

Reviewed by Adam Rabinowitz, University of Texas at Austin (
Word count: 2830 words

Table of Contents

Tamar Hodos has set herself an ambitious task in this book. Turning away from traditional approaches that view cultural interaction in the Iron Age Mediterranean primarily through the lens of Greek colonization, she seeks to create a more complex and extensive archaeological picture of the interrelations between colonists and existing populations in places where Greeks and Phoenicians established "homes away from home." This book is a welcome contribution in an area where theoretical developments have recently outpaced archaeological syntheses, and the book provides an excellent overview of the cultural ferment of Iron Age colonial contexts. It is particularly useful that Hodos focuses on areas (North Syria, Sicily, North Africa) where both Greeks and Phoenicians maintained a permanent presence -- the colonial milieux of these two groups have long been discussed in isolation from or in opposition to each other, to the detriment of our understanding of both. Her more inclusive approach results in a richer picture of the interactions between these two colonizing movements and the different ways in which each was received by existing populations (she chooses to describe these populations as "local," which she sees as a less loaded term than "native" or "indigenous"). Hodos also provides a thoughtful guide to the theoretical concerns that are now driving developments in the study of ancient colonization. In general, the book has two goals: the description of material evidence for change in local cultures in response to permanent Phoenician and Greek settlement, and the theoretical and social explanation of such changes. It meets the first of these goals admirably, especially given the vast body of material involved; but the second is not consistently attained, as the breadth of the evidence restricts the depth of the analysis. This is less a shortcoming of the book, however, than a compelling demonstration of the amount of work that still needs to be done on Mediterranean culture-contact in its local contexts, as Hodos herself recognizes.

The central three chapters of the book present archaeological case-studies of interaction in colonial contexts: North Syria is the subject of (2), Sicily of (3), and North Africa of (4). These case-studies are flanked by an extensive introduction (1) and a very brief conclusion (5). It is worth dwelling on the introduction, for it contains a clear and thorough review of the theoretical shift that has reshaped discussions of ancient colonial contexts over the last two decades. This shift is closely connected to the development of post-colonial theory in disciplines concerned with the more recent past. Post-colonial critiques have been deployed to challenge the Hellenocentric model of Greek colonization put forth by T. J. Dunbabin and later by John Boardman, and Classical scholars are showing new interest in the dynamics of colonization as revealed by the experiences of the peoples the settlers encountered when they arrived. Most recently, such studies have used archaeological evidence to examine social interactions and individual agency in these contexts, relying on what has become a standard assortment of theoretical lenses drawn from history, literary studies, and anthropology. Hodos's introduction touches on most of these, supplying concise explanations and academic pedigrees for each: gift-exchange, trade, and connectivity, from Marcel Mauss to Nicholas Purcell (pp. 4-8); the concept of the 'middle ground,' borrowed via Irad Malkin from the historical work of Richard White on native-European interactions in the Great Lakes region of North America in the 17th century (p. 7); theories of consumption as framed by Pierre Bourdieu and Arjun Appadurai and transferred to the ancient Mediterranean by Michael Dietler (pp. 8-9); and the idea of hybridity, drawn from the post-colonial literary criticism of Homi Bhabha and applied to ancient colonial contexts by Peter van Dommelen and Carla Antonaccio (pp. 16-17). The only surprising omissions are the scholarly background of the concept of acculturation1 and the work of anthropologist Nicholas Thomas, whose writings on the role of material goods in colonial interactions inform some of Dietler's discussions of entanglement.2

These theoretical discussions have cast into doubt the traditional understanding of a number of concepts, and Hodos wisely uses the introduction to define her terms. She begins with her chronological framework, noting the ambiguity and regional variation of the term "Iron Age." The Near Eastern Iron Age conventionally begins in the 12th century BCE. In North Africa, however, the chronological designation is applied along the coast to refer to the period after the foundation of Carthage (archaeologically visible from the 8th century BCE), while in the interior an "Iron Age" does not begin until the 4th century BCE. At the other end of the range, the Sicilian Iron Age ends in the 5th century BCE, but in North Africa the term covers material up to Roman political dominance in the first century BCE -- a fact that will give Hodos some leeway to depart in chapter 4 from her stated concentration on the eighth to sixth centuries BCE. In the end, secure chronological boundaries seem less important to Hodos than the increasing movement of goods and people that she presents as the defining quality of the Iron Age across the Mediterranean. This emphasis on movement, contact and exchange characterizes her approach in subsequent chapters. The introduction also provides an extensive terminological discussion. Hodos eventually settles on the traditional terms "colony" and "colonization," but emphasizes the personal rather than the political or economic implications of these terms. She defines colonization as "a movement of people or individuals who collectively identify themselves with a certain social coherence" (p. 22), and asserts that, unlike trade relations, colonial contexts are characterized by continuous personal interaction between local populations and new residents with their own distinct group identities.

Chapter 2, a case study of North Syria, quickly reveals the difficulties presented by chronology, terminology, and interpretation in such contexts. This chapter, like chapters 3 and 4, begins with a brief introduction, followed by subsections on (in this order) local populations (on an ethnic/historical level), chronologies, communities (on a settlement/archaeological level), burial customs, religious practices, patterns of consumption, artistic styles, and written voices. Like the other central case-studies, it ends with a brief conclusion. In contrast to chapters 3 and 4 and to the introduction, however, Phoenicians and Greeks are treated in chapter 2 more as traders than as colonizers, and the Assyrians -- and arguably even the North Syrian locals themselves -- play the more colonial role. For a reader without a background in the Iron Age Near East, the riot of names and cultures presented in the beginning of the chapter is hard to follow, and it is harder still to see how the material presented can be framed in terms of "local responses to colonization." What does come through quite clearly, however, is the cultural ferment brought about by constant interactions among different groups, and by the steady stream of material objects back and forth between them. Here Hodos excels in her discussion of the goods themselves and the patterns visible in their distribution, and she tackles a number of thorny archaeological questions -- for example, the dating of the settlement of Al Mina and the ethnicity of its inhabitants (Greek, Phoenician, or other?) -- in a comprehensive and even-handed manner. One hopes, after the summary of the evidence, to encounter in the sections on consumption and artistic styles an equally stimulating exploration of the possible meanings behind those distribution patterns. I was therefore disappointed to find that this discussion was fairly general, with only occasional attempts to place consumption patterns or artistic developments in specific social contexts (e.g. the varying uses of seals of the Lyre Player group in different western Mediterranean contexts: pp. 68-69). Hodos focuses more on the cultural identity of those making or distributing the products than on the meanings they may have had for their recipients, and one is left with a better picture of the economic preferences of North Syrians, Greeks, and to a lesser extent Phoenicians than of the social effect of their interactions on each other.

The remaining two case studies fit more closely with the stated goals of the book, both in the settings they describe and in their theoretical discussions. This is especially true of chapter 3, on Sicily. This impression may be partly due to my own greater familiarity with the Sicilian material record, but objective differences in Hodos's approach in this chapter may also be the result of the more explicit theoretical attention colonial Sicily has recently received. The interaction between populations is also clearer here in both the historical and the archaeological records. The arrival of Greeks and Phoenicians, documented in both sources, corresponds with specific changes in local settlement patterns and material culture, and Hodos provides a well-organized and accessible review of this complex body of evidence. Her discussions of domestic space and burial practices, which consistently set local and Greek practices side-by-side to reveal variation and overlap, are particularly fine. The sites she includes are rarely compared in print either to each other or to Greek Sicilian sites on a general level.3 The sections on consumption and artistic styles are more sensitive to the meanings behind local choices than those in the previous chapter. The discussion of artistic styles provides an especially compelling summary of the active process of stylistic change in local contexts, following particular items (e.g. the trefoil oinochoe) and particular themes (e.g. figural decoration) through a series of changes and regional variations in both form and use. The section on writing is somewhat harder to follow, since Hodos seems to conflate ethnic and geographic boundaries ("central Sicily," on p. 148, must be meant specifically to refer to areas traditionally considered to be inhabited by "Sicans"), and it is unclear what she means when she refers to the "dialects" of various Sicilian populations, not all of whom belonged to the same language groups. Her conclusions for this chapter are detailed and thought-provoking (this is the longest concluding section among the three case studies, and it is as long as the concluding chapter of the book itself), and the evidence presented is contextual enough to allow her to apply theoretical frameworks more successfully.

The case-study of North Africa in chapter 4 is the shortest of the three and provides an interesting contrast to the first two. Where those chapters highlighted energetic trade and extensive cultural interaction, the North African discussion dwells on the almost total absence of evidence for local responses to colonization until the very end of the Iron Age -- here, essentially the Roman period, which stretches the chronological and cultural framework of Hodos's work somewhat beyond its stated concentration on Greeks and Phoenicians. Pre-Roman chronology in North Africa is problematic, as Hodos notes, and as a result it is sometimes hard to place in time the examples she uses. Most of them, however, seem ultimately to date from the last century or two of the first millennium BCE, and Hodos can only speculate that her late evidence reflects earlier practice. That said, the late evidence for cultural continuity, change, and interaction is very compelling, especially in the spheres of religion and burial. It is hard to think that there were not interrelations in earlier periods as well, and the reader is disappointed, like the author, that contextual archaeological evidence is lacking. One area in which the literary and material records might be usefully compared is that of communal feasting: Herodotus observes that pork and beef are taboo for the Libyans, and that the women of Cyrene thus do not eat cows, while the women of Barca eat neither pork nor beef. Drawing on this statement, Hodos argues that the prevalence of pig bones in the sanctuary of Demeter at Cyrene is evidence for cultural hybridity. We are not informed, however, if there is any contrasting faunal evidence from Barca, where one might expect a more dramatic contradiction or confirmation of the written source.

The tension between generalization and the application of theoretical approaches to specific bodies of material is the main theme of the concluding chapter. Here Hodos calls for increased attention to individual agency and for the investigation of local contexts. She also concludes that Greek and Phoenician colonization were in fact very different, especially when seen from the local perspective, and that this may be due to the differing interest of Greeks and Phoenicians in occupying agricultural territory. Finally, she restates her emphasis on consumption and the movement of consumer goods as foundations for social interpretation. The conclusion, like the rest of the book, is in many ways a manifesto about the future of archaeological research in the Iron Age Mediterranean: Hodos asserts that the most interesting and productive studies will be those that pay more attention to local contexts and interactions between neighbors than to global patterns of unidirectional cultural influence (e.g. "Hellenization").

At the same time, the scope of the work and the absence of existing contextual studies undermine Hodos's own attempts to apply theoretical concepts. This is a general risk in this area of research, since the concepts involved are usually drawn from historical or ethnographic research, and it is hard not to oversimplify them when objects are substituted for human voices. Hodos has clearly been strongly influenced by Irad Malkin's use of the concept of the "middle ground," and the term is used throughout the book to characterize areas of cultural interaction. Yet it is not always easy to understand in this setting how the concept enriches our understanding of that interaction. In Richard White's original formulation, the "middle ground" is more than simply a space in which different peoples meet and exchange objects or ideas. It is also a mental zone of negotiation and mutual misunderstanding, in which very different groups absorb and reinterpret enough of each other's material and immaterial culture to create new meanings and relationships that each group seeks to use for its own purposes.4 White's focus is very much on these meanings and relationships and on the way they are understood by the different parties involved. When this concept is applied on an archaeological rather than an historical level, however, it runs the risk of being reduced to the simple observation that new styles or objects are borrowed by one culture from another. Since the choices involved in this borrowing and the social meaning of those choices can only be explored archaeologically through a close reading of the material record on a local level, the "middle ground" loses most of its explanatory power in generalizing discussions. At that scale, the individual choices that define it disappear. Hodos's book provides a sense of the variety of decisions made by the producers and traders of objects, and -- to a somewhat lesser extent -- an impression of the diverse reactions of consumers to those objects, but it does not always leave the reader with a better understanding of the social and economic dynamics that conditioned those choices on either side.

The book is very well illustrated with both plans and photographs, and for the most part the illustrations complement the text nicely (the maps in chapter 2, which show some information that does not appear in the discussion and omit other information that does, are an exception). The notes for the North Syrian case-study are extensive, but there are fewer for the Sicilian chapter, and fewer still for the North African case-study (66 for North Syria, compared to only six for North Africa). The editing of the book is surprisingly poor. There are too many typographic and editing errors to enumerate, although it is worth pointing out several that affect the reader's understanding of evidence: the inscription (pictured in figure 2.15) that is interpreted as "halios emi" must be "haliou emi" (p. 56), and similarly the graffito on a krater from Morgantina should be transcribed as "kuparas emi," not "kupara emi" (p. 151). A reference included in the chapter on Sicily, but strangely absent from the bibliography, should read "I vasi attici ed altre ceramiche coeve in Sicilia," not "II vasi offici ed altra..." (p. 130). Other errors are simply jarring or confusing to the reader: for example, "The subheading designates reflect..." in the explanation of the book's structure (p. 24), or the occasional use of "evidence" as a plural (e.g. "Material evidence... date only to the early sixth century," p. 91).

Overall, Hodos's book is a very important addition to the body of literature on early Mediterranean colonization. It shows, clearly and comprehensively, that culture-contact, like politics, is fundamentally a local issue. One hopes that it will encourage more close studies of regional and local contexts in colonial areas, and help to move research beyond the rigid ideas of cultural boundaries that characterized previous investigations of colonial interactions. The variety of areas the book covers and the level of detail it presents would make it difficult to use in undergraduate courses, but for graduate students and scholars it will provide an excellent introduction to the study of cultural interaction in the melting-pot of the Iron Age Mediterranean.


1.   M. Herskovits, Acculturation, the Study of Culture Contact, New York 1938; S. Gruzinski and A. Rouveret, "'Ellos son como niños': histoire et acculturation dans le Mexique coloniale et l'Italie méridionale avant la romanisation," Mélanges de l'École française de Rome: Antiquité 88:159-219; J. Cusick, ed., Studies in Culture Contact, Carbondale 1998.
2.   N. Thomas, Entangled Objects: Exchange, Material Culture, and Colonialism in the Pacific, Cambridge 1991; idem, "Colonizing cloth: interpreting the material culture of nineteenth-century Oceania," in C. Lyons and J. Papadopoulos, eds., The Archaeology of Colonialism, Los Angeles 2002, 182-98.
3.   The most important exception is R. M. Albanese Procelli, Sicani, Siculi, Elimi: Forme di Identità, Modi di Contatto e Processi di Trasformazione, Milan 2003.
4.   R. White, The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815, Cambridge 1991; extensive discussions of the concept appear in the introduction and in chapter 2.

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