Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2014.06.50 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.06.50

Justin St P. Walsh, Consumerism in the Ancient World: Imports and Identity Construction. Routledge Monographs in Classical Studies, 17.   London; New York:  Routledge, 2014.  Pp. xx, 218.  ISBN 9780415893794.  $125.00.  

Reviewed by S. Rebecca Martin, Boston University (


This is one of several recent Greek pottery studies that aim explicitly to understand context.1 It is clear from the beginning that Walsh is not interested in Greek pottery for the sake of Greek pottery, but rather for what can be done with it. The question he asks at the beginning is timely—Why Greek pottery?—and the answers are compelling. Rather than focus on a specific Greek institution, such as the symposion, Walsh frames his study in terms of consumption. That is to say, his focus is not on artistic intention but on the motivations of buyers—especially non-Greek buyers—and how they used Greek pottery to construct locally meaningful identities. His specific subject is Greek pottery made between 800 and 300 BCE and found in the western Mediterranean and trans-Alpine Europe (the regions of modern Portugal, Spain, France, Switzerland, and Germany). Walsh brings a new approach to this topic and from the start it is clear that he will not follow the well-worn grooves of a field long committed to cataloguing and Beazleyan attribution. Moreover, the region in which Walsh conducts his work is one that has not received much attention from Anglo-American Greek pottery specialists, with the notable exception of the late Brian Shefton. It is not for lack of Greek vases, either, as some 24,000 fragments from over 230 sites were available to Walsh through publication, and a synthetic study of the role of Greek ceramics in the West is overdue.

In the preface the author spells out his intellectual debt to the post-colonial approaches to the study of western Europe found in the work of Michael Dietler, a connection apparent also from the book’s title and its emphasis on consumption.[2] The first two-thirds of the book, chapters 1-5, set up the project’s subject and analytical structure. The book’s last third, chapters 6 and 7, analyzes the data and offers brief conclusions. The conclusions are followed by an appendix of all surveyed sites recording artifact counts by function (more on this below), bibliography, and a very brief (two-page) index.

Chapter one gives a short introduction in which the author lays out his overall approach, explaining the unique value of Greek pottery for a study of this sort. Even very small fragments of Greek pottery recovered in the areas under study tend to be collected and published; he will use this archaeological bias toward things Greek to his advantage —to create his large database. Walsh proposes to use the anthropological theory of “consumerism” (consumption) to guide the statistical analysis of these data. For the unfamiliar, consumption theory can be employed in studies of culture-contact that reject acculturation teleologies (such as Hellenization). A consumption-based approach to foreign objects shifts focus from what the objects mean at the site of their manufacture to perceptions and functions of imports at the site of their consumption. The chapter includes detailed maps of the study area including all 233 sites and, critically, a map of the entire survey area with the major rivers labeled (figure 1.1). The reader will need to refer back frequently to this section. Unfortunately none of these maps is labeled according to cultural groups, which creates some difficulties as the analysis proceeds for those unfamiliar with this region.

An introduction to Greek colonization in western Europe is found in the second chapter. The author discusses the first and second waves of Greek settlers in the West and the groups that they encountered: besides Phoenicians and Etruscans, the indigenous peoples represented by the Hallstatt and La Téne cultures and the mixed occupants of the Iberian Peninsula (Ibero-Languedoc and Tartessos cultures). The discussion is uneven, with some sites, such as Cerro del Villar (p. 21), getting the bulk of the attention. One assumes that this choice is deliberate, although, as a reader who specializes in the Mediterranean East, I could not always understand the reasons behind it and wished for more guidance.

Some interpretive problems present themselves already here, such as whether or not Greek pottery even signals the activity of Greek traders (p. 18 versus p. 31). The tendency to view this area through the Greco-Roman record — from a colonialist perspective — is raised, a problem that extends even to the naming of regions such as Iberia/Hispania. Of course this “geographic violence” (after Said, p. 25) is a real challenge, but a parallel one is found in the way that virtually all comparative studies use the term “Greek” to describe both the people and the pottery of the late Archaic-Hellenistic periods. In other words, it is important to acknowledge the reductiveness of the word “Greek”, and I craved more insight into the author’s understanding of that term in these colonial contexts (see also p. 90 where Walsh makes it clear that “Greek” does not refer to a monoculture).

Chapter three describes the key sites. Here it was not always clear what mattered most or how the site descriptions fit within the study’s fairly broad chronological range. I found myself skeptical of the cultural parsing offered in the summary on pages 62-3, which is quite brief and seemed somewhat reductive, even though some reduction in nuance is to be expect as one distills the description of an unruly corpus of archaeological material down to something more useable. A thematic or issue-based approach (with more illuminating images or plans) would have been helpful here.

The author outlines his theoretical approach in chapter four. In the course of setting out his interest in consumption, Walsh touches on many big topics — historiography, identity, Hellenization, ethnicity, and so forth. I was a little perplexed by the rapid and light treatment of these major topics and wonder if it might not have been a better choice to signal the massive bibliographies on each in the context of discussing the focus of this particular project —consumption. Of course Walsh rightly uses this discussion to locate himself intellectually. He creates some distance between what he is doing and other approaches, both essentialist (e.g., John Boardman’s; p. 70 and n. 1) and theoretical (specifically network theory and the work of Irad Malkin).

Walsh characterizes network theory as simply descriptive and uninterested in interpretations that tell us what these networks mean — why it is that agents in a network do what they do. While this criticism has some validity, it assumes that meaning matters more than systems-based interpretation (cannot these be seen as two of many ways to interpret the past?). It implies also that Malkin’s Middle Ground approach (which builds in a sophisticated way on the work of historian Richard White —who is not cited here) ignores what matters most (I would disagree). Nonetheless, this chapter achieves a clear explanation of three points critical to the study: objects have meaning; post-colonialist models can help correct for the bias in the ancient and modern records; and consumption, acquisition, and “costly signaling” (a theory of consumerism that explores how goods enhance social prestige) were significant cultural activities in antiquity.

An overview of Greek pottery is offered in chapter five, touching on many topics, from trade to art history to anthropology to the many difficulties that one faces when attempting to quantify archaeological material. Some of the treatment of these topics is perhaps too basic and not strictly relevant to the project at hand, but other subjects, such as Greek texts describing non-Greek banquets, are illuminating despite the bias of that record. I wished that the discussion of the intended function of Greek vases had been given more extensive treatment, since the emphasis on interpreting vessels by function -- how modern scholars think the vessels were meant to be used at their place of manufacture or consumption—is relatively recent and therefore not yet established firmly. Function is also very important to the author’s analysis, and some tensions exist between how modern scholars go about determining intended function, a practice that relies still on a combination of archaeological contexts and ancient texts, and how imports might have been used. In general, Walsh is perhaps too uncritical of some of the publications from which his data is drawn; comment on their quality and character would have been welcome. The rush to precision in analyzing sometimes tiny fragments of Greek pottery encourages hastiness or leaps in attribution that are likely to undermine even the most careful statistical analysis.

Information about quantification strategies and the data set is the most important part of this chapter. Walsh promises to attack the data in three ways. First, by presence/absence analysis according to one of five intended functions: eating, drinking, household, storage, and transport. Of course some vessels could fall into more than one of these groups, but Walsh has chosen what he believes to be the most common functions. Second, by sherd counts (a still necessary evil, as the author makes clear). And third, according to diversity, for which Walsh employs a variation of Simpson’s Index of Diversity, a widely used statistical formula developed originally to measure ecological diversity.

In chapter six the data are analyzed. The chapter begins with an invaluable list of twelve clear observations (“characteristics”). Some highlights include the predominance of drinking vessels, the uneven distribution of the pottery (89% was found in South Hallstatt, Greek, and Iberian sites), and the fact that almost all of the pottery was found within 100km of the coast. The chapter includes several tables and figures to help understand these data. The pie charts showing distribution were not printed with enough contrast between sections, making them less useful than one would hope.

At the core of Walsh’s approach is a complex form of distribution mapping that will be unfamiliar to many readers. Walsh employs a geostatistical method called kriging in order to plot known data and to predict and map diversity for areas without data. The results are compelling and go far to illustrate how geographic information systems can be exploited to interpret large, but of course incomplete, archaeological data sets. It is here that the book calls in its eResources. Routledge and Walsh have made the data and kriging maps available to the reader, who must download them in order to follow the discussion. The electronic database includes various spreadsheets as well as maps in a variety of formats, including some very accessible ones (PDFs). Instructions for manipulation of these maps appear in note 3. These data are available for public use through Creative Commons licensing. This is a promising development and one that we should hope signals a new trend of open access in archaeological publishing.

To decipher the maps, the reader will need to follow the instructions given on p. 133. In general this system works, although some of the file names given in the text are not identical to what is found on the PDFs. What I missed here most of all were cross-references back to the maps in chapter one, where all the sites and key rivers are plotted. When mapping a data set of this size, tough decisions must be made, but this critical section could have been made more user-friendly by increasing the number of layers on each map to include, at minimum, labels of regions, key rivers (which are used frequently to orient the reader), and key sites.

Brief conclusions are given in the book’s seventh and final chapter. Some are familiar but are strengthened by this study. The local populations were not somehow Hellenized through the use of Greek pottery and did not practice the Greek symposion or some version thereof. (We would do well to remind ourselves that not all wine drinking, even among Greek males, took place in a sympotic setting.) Instead, Greek pottery was used to satisfy local social needs. One misses here address to iconography, which might have had some bearing on how these objects were used to signal identity. The discussion for the most part remains on the same macro-level as the data, so, although regional and site variations are pointed out, the specific address of the consumption of Greek pottery within these communities is a topic left for another study.

There are other questions that could have been raised here, such as what the pots signaled as imports — was it their Greekness, scarcity, or other qualities that non-Greeks admired? Is “Greek” even the right word to use for this pottery coming from many productions sites over such a long range of time? It was a bit frustrating to have so little information about the specific characteristics of the corpus at individual sites. I found myself wishing, too, that I knew more about the local pottery in order to understand the extent to which these imports were introducing new functional possibilities or just new shapes/colors/techniques/etc. More images would have helped clarify some of these points.

In sum, one answer to the question Why Greek pottery? is that this over-emphasized class of objects makes an excellent data set for fresh analysis. Walsh shows us that we can take advantage of this particular bias in archaeological publication by using this material in new and creative ways that challenge outdated ideas about the imperfect emulation of Greek practices through the use of Greek products. Objections to Walsh’s approach can be put aside to commend him for asking the right kinds of new questions about Greek pottery.


1.   For example, K.M. Lynch , The Symposium in Context: Pottery from a Late Archaic House near the Athenian Agora. Hesperia suppl. 36. Princeton: The American School of Classical Studies, Athens, 2011. BMCR 2012.07.40
2.   M. Dietler. Archaeologies of Colonialism: Consumption, Entanglement, and Violence in Ancient Mediterranean France. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010. See also M. Dietler and C. López-Ruiz, eds. Colonial Encounters in Ancient Iberia: Phoenician, Greek, and Indigenous Relations. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009.

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