Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.01.38 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.01.38

Naoise Mac Sweeney, Community Identity and Archaeology: Dynamic Communities at Aphrodisias and Beycesultan.   Ann Arbor:  University of Michigan Press, 2011.  Pp. viii, 266.  ISBN 9780472117864.  $75.00.  

Reviewed by Jeremy LaBuff, Northern Arizona University (


As its title suggests, this book aims to demonstrate how our picture of two sites of Aphrodisias and Beycesultan, and in particular to what extent these communities self-identified, can be illuminated through the concept of community identity. Yet Mac Sweeney does not see her work as merely contributing to the body of scholarly literature on Bronze and Iron Age Western Anatolia; in fact, Mac Sweeney’s aim is above all to establish the viability of community identity as a concept fit for (and useful to) archaeological study generally, while her case studies serve the subordinate function of providing specific examples of this viability.

The structure of the work corresponds to the title and subtitle. In the first part, the author relates the history of the use and misuse of the concept of “community” in social theory and by archaeologists specifically, advocating instead the concept of “community identity” and detailing a careful method for its application to archaeological evidence. After a brief introduction to these aims in Chapter 1, Chapter 2 traces the evolution of theories of community from the nineteenth-century conception of a natural unit, through the ecological unit of the Chicago School, to the resuscitation of the concept in the 1980s as a socially constructed unit. Particularly important is the distinction between a broader notion of relational communities, which encompasses essentially all social groups, and geographic communities, a subset of this category that stresses the importance of locality for self-definition without implying that proximity of residence guarantees community.

Chapter 3 turns to the field of archaeology, whose ambivalent relationship with the concept of community entails both a persistence of the natural unit theory (site = community), and an utter rejection of the value of community as an analytical concept, especially by processual archaeologists. The past decade has seen an attempt to establish an archaeology of communities, but this has been ill-defined and uncertain, and Mac Sweeney sees her own work as developing the first coherent approach for such a project. This approach is based on three criteria: perception of commonality created and maintained through social practice, distinction of members (those who perceive commonality) from non-members, and the location of shared experiences in a communal space. This latter criterion makes archaeology especially suited to investigate geographic communities.

There follows a brief chapter on community identity, which makes more explicit the concept of community as a form of identity, and elaborates the way in which community identity is constructed and perpetuated. Chapter 5 then outlines the specific method for identifying community identity from material culture, centered on the ideas of “enactments of community” and “social rationale.” Enactments of community are to be associated with open spaces and large quantities of objects similar in appearance, which foster the sense of a shared experience. Social rationale, by contrast, deals more with perception, and is thus mostly detectable as a sense of Otherness expressed through items that act as symbols of external groups (“performative representation”). Mac Sweeney is acutely aware of the difficulties and dangers of identifying objects as evocative of what is foreign, and urges a flexible use of stylistic typologies that considers the broader social and cultural context and mode of use of an object.

With this thorough theoretical basis established, Mac Sweeney can now test it on Late Bronze Age and Iron Age Western Anatolia. Here is revealed the other main aim of her study: to provide a counter-narrative to the characterization of Western Anatolia as an “in-between” or periphery, an account informed almost solely by external perspectives in the Aegean, Central Anatolia, or Egypt (summarized in Chapter 6). Traditionally, sites in Western Anatolia have been evaluated in terms of influence from the Mycenaean and Hittite, and subsequent East Greek and Phrygian, political and cultural spheres. In contrast to this one-sided approach, looking at community identity reveals a valuable internal perspective that indicates a much less dependent region. The chapter ends with an outline of Mac Sweeney’s classification scheme for the ceramic evidence in terms of decorative type (which can evoke the Other) and vessel shape (which can suggest enactments of community, particularly dining vessels—serving bowls and dishes, drinking and pouring vessels—or contain external associations).

The final two chapters apply the methodology outlined in the preceding chapters to the sites of Beycesultan and Aphrodisias, chosen for their relatively large quantity of LBA and Iron Age finds, which are catalogued in four appendices organized by site and small finds versus ceramics (pp. 201-240) and supported by nine tables providing a statistical analysis of the finds for each site based on the categories of function, characteristic shape, decorative type, excavated structure, and floor space (pp. 195-199). The author traverses the four occupation phases at Beycesultan, Levels III, II, Ib, and Ia, which “span the LBA and IA” (p. 96) She infers a strong sense of community identity in the first and last phases from the high percentage and concentration of standardized dining vessels, and a weakened sense of community identity in the intermediate two phases, where lack of standardization in the ceramics and the presence of “prestige items” (e.g., jewelry) suggest social distinctions and unequal concentration of wealth. Linking this picture to the broader narrative of the eastern Mediterranean, she identifies a correlation between community identity and external threats, with the inhabitants of Beycesultan coming together in response to the Hittites and the Arzawan confederacy at the end of the LBA, and the general instability of the late 11th century having the same effect in the last phase.

The same method is applied to Aphrodisias, but with different results, based mostly on the ceramic evidence, as the number of small finds is quite small. Six phases correspond to the LBA and (much more so) the Iron Age: Levels 4.III, 4.II, 4.I, 5.II, 5.I, and IIID (this latter occupied almost two centuries after the preceding phase). Community identity is strongest at Levels 4.III (LBA-EIA) and perhaps 5.I (more difficult to date precisely), at which relatively large numbers of standardized dining ware were found in seemingly public dining structures. Where external associations are inferred from ceramic decoration (Levels 4.II through 5.II and IIID), “it seems like there was more emphasis on the articulation of individual identities and status differentiation” (p. 180). Mac Sweeney suggests that long-distance trade activity and influence from Mira in the Hermos valley and, much later, Lydia, seem to have encouraged division rather than unity within the community of Aphrodisias by creating inequalities of wealth. At both sites, however, Mac Sweeney sees community action and response to these external stimuli, rather than passive reception of foreign presence and influence.

Mac Sweeney infers commensality and enactments of community from a large concentration of highly standardized dining vessels at both sites. For example, in Level III at Beycesultan, over 87% of all ceramic vessels were of a shape to suggest dining, and 68% of these were found in two buildings. Moreover, 75% of all ceramics were of only two decorative types, warm-colored burnished wares (a local style, type C1), and warm-colored slipped wares (type C2). By contrast, although Level Ib has a somewhat larger concentration of dining vessels of the same shape in two buildings (inadvertently omitted from Table 5), these vessels are highly non-standardized, representing all contemporary decorative styles in Mac Sweeney’s typology, most of which were available in Level II as well. This, combined with the emphasis on bodily adornment indicated by the small finds, implies for Mac Sweeney status competition and division rather than a sense of community.

This handling of the material evidence raises a number of questions for the archaeological study of community identity. First, do all shared dining experiences contribute to community identity? Mac Sweeney stresses a distinction based on the homogeneity or heterogeneity of the material objects used in commensality, but one can think of other distinctions, e.g., in terms of seating arrangement or even separate dining quarters, that her analysis does not account for. If the structures identified as “dining rooms” were the site of meals for a certain class of citizens or even an extended family, then a very different type of identity was being promoted. Beyond the site plan itself, however, there is very little information on or discussion of the spatiality of the two “dining” buildings and how many people these could have accommodated in relation to the entire site. For instance, Mac Sweeney emphasizes the concentration of dining vessels in two buildings, but does not discuss the seating capacity suggested by the size of the buildings (68.25 m2 for building iii, unknown for building iv) or room division within these buildings (Fig. 5 suggests that no room was much more than half the total area of each building). Finds from a limited area of a site permit multiple, conflicting interpretations, and this conflict cannot be resolved against or in favor of community identity without a more representative sample or consideration of other factors.

The interpretation of Level Ib at Beycesultan as lacking in signs of community identity despite evidence for commensality also raises the question of the relationship between community identity and social hierarchy. Mac Sweeney seems to assume that status distinctions and a sense of community cannot be fostered on the same occasions. Yet unless there was “state” control of all the material evidence we have found, it is just as possible that the shared dining experiences suggested by the evidence, if they were in fact communal, were the occasion for social differentiation and the fostering of community identity. This assertion makes more sense if we think of a meeting of the Assembly or a jury trial in Athens, where certain wealthier citizens/speakers wore their status on their sleeves, both visually and rhetorically, while at the same time advocating a sense of Athenian-ness. As Josiah Ober has argued quite often, status competition before a community, either by service or appealing to public opinion for affirmation, reinforces the ideology of that community.1

The failure to consider such alternate interpretations suggests a commitment to a narrow range of conclusions, and ultimately rests on an implicit argument from silence, that if there is no sign of enactments of community, then community identity did not exist. This type of logic raises a very crucial question for archaeology: at what point does a paucity of evidence cease to warrant conclusions? This issue is most salient in the analysis of Aphrodisias, which is riddled with caveats about the fragmentary, inadequate, and spatially limited nature of the finds. Even the conclusions are ruled by the subjunctive. With the evidence available, this is all to Mac Sweeney’s credit. But given her stress on context in interpreting material evidence for a sense of community identity, stricter methodological principles are needed to define what minimum context there needs to be before we are justified in talking about community identity. In cases where other more important central spaces might exist and the true extent of the site remains unknown, as is true for both Beycesultan and Aphrodisias, what are we actually learning from the data by insisting on talking about community identity?

Another implication of the argument from silence is that where literary evidence is lacking (as with LBA and IA Western Anatolia), we do not need to consider whether a sense of community identity was enabled by non-material means, i.e., language. While we cannot study nothing, I do propose that an archaeology of communities would benefit greatly from considering the interaction between material objects and language in the construction of community identity where we do have both types of evidence. This would allow a greater familiarity with just how much the kinds of enactments of community and representations of the External Other that leave material traces contribute to a sense of community identity in relation to the written word. It would then be possible to better inform our reading of evidence at sites like Mac Sweeney’s case studies where literary evidence is absent.

In raising these challenges, I wish to echo Mac Sweeney’s hope that her “first formulation of theory...will be developed much further in years to come.” (p. 4) In light of this primary aim, her work is successful in showing the viability of an archaeology of communities, for none of the above challenges is unanswerable. Her convincing reformation of our understanding of Western Anatolia in the Late Bronze and Iron Ages also demonstrates the incalculable value of a methodology that considers local perspectives. I found few errors (“and when and” on p. 134). The work should be read by anyone interested in identity and archaeology.


1.   E.g., J. Ober, Mass and Elite: in Democratic Athens. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989.

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