BMCR 2003.09.43

The Archaeology of Colonialism

, , , The archaeology of colonialism. Issues & debates. Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2002. 284 pages : illustrations, maps ; 26 cm.. ISBN 0892366354. $39.95 (pb).

[The editors apologize for the delay in publishing this review.]

This volume, the ninth to appear in the Getty Research Institute’s series ‘Issues & Debates”, results (“evolved”, in the words of the editors) from a session at the Fourth World Congress of Archaeology in 1999 at Cape Town, South Africa. The editors, both trained as classical archaeologists, have assembled a set of eight papers organized into two sections, “Objects”, defined by the editors as comprising comparative case studies (p. 15), and “Ideologies”, glossed as treating the function of myth, religion, and ritual in creating colonial identities. The contributions range chronologically from 4th millennium B.C.E. to 19th c. C.E., geographically and culturally from Iberia to Anatolia, the Andes to South Africa, but the contributions in both sections center on the Old World (half the papers) and on antiquity. The rest, which consider Africa (West and South) and Oceania and South America, all deal with more recent European colonization. The papers encompass the editors’ interest in an interdisciplinary, global, and diachronic perspective, though the topics and methodologies employed in treating them are highly diverse.

The volume is introduced with a jointly authored essay from the editors. In this ambitious and generally useful (if somewhat disjointed and repetitive) overview, they offer observations on the phenomenon of colonialism, a global phenomenon, in their view, that arose with the first complex societies. While acknowledging the massive territories and imperial systems that are sometimes involved in colonization, Lyons and Papadopoulos are careful to note that what they call “the policies of the dominant” are “maintained at the small scale by shifts in social practices through which new ways of being are forged”. As they suggest, archaeology is particularly well suited to investigate the everyday ways that change is effected and expressed. It is also, they claim, able to provide a ‘prehistoric’ perspective, by which they mean a view into processes of change often already underway by means of trade and exchange before colonization proper, and its written histories.1 The essay serves as an introduction to the evolution of scholarly discourses about civilized and barbarian, self and other, indigenous resistance and acculturation, periphery instead of center, and the more recent turn to accepting the ambiguity of colonial situations and the hybridity of their societies along with cultures, not to mention the agency of colonials themselves, rather than their acculturation, elimination, or resistance.2

Lyons and Papadopoulos question both colonialism as an analytical concept and archaeology as a discipline, the latter itself ‘enmeshed’ with colonialism: “It is now generally recognized that colonialist mentalities have been among the most significant structuring factors in the intellectual history of anthropology and archaeology” (p. 2). Early modern and modern European colonizers’ efforts to record and study the pasts of their subjects actually brought those subjects into being, defining by means of particular “privileged relics” the categories of whatever exotic identity. According to the editors, native or indigenous art and artifacts were placed at the lower end of hierarchy or scale of values in which Classical Greek art occupied the pinnacle. The culture and character of the colonized would be demonstrated as debased by comparison and justify the colonizers. Yet it is important to bear in mind that, as they clearly articulate, “Nationalist archaeology valued the indigenous heritage of pre-colonial eras as a cornerstone of the nation’s authenticity and legitimacy” (p. 2) — thus veiling both the ancient and recent colonial pasts of many modern nations. Moreover, though invoking the privileged place of Greek culture, they have little to say about the modern nation state of Greece and its Philhellene students who have also engaged in such an enterprise, suppressing until very recently any consideration of the so-called Tourkokratia of the Ottomans, a period that lasted longer than the archaic and classical phases. Roman Greece as an object of study has been legitimate for only slightly longer. Moreover, the museology that is criticized in this essay, which isolates fine art objects from their context and privileges style over meaning and function is hardly limited to non-Western collections; visit the Greek and Roman collections of any major museum, and the method and conventions of display are much the same.

The fundamental premise of the book as articulated in this essay is that excavated material culture is not simply the residue of past actions but actively created past societies and identities (p. 8). Each paper is presumably intended to elucidate this thesis and to encourage even broader cross-disciplinary investigations. Within their sections the papers are arranged chronologically, though not strictly. Thus the initial essay under the “Objects” rubric is Gil Stein’s consideration of Mesopotamian trading enclaves in 4th millennium B.C.E. Anatolia, the second is Adolfo Domínguez’s paper on Iberians and Greeks in Spain, and the third, by Kenneth Kelly, is devoted to 17th through 19th century West Africa. The section ends with Peter van Dommelen’s contribution on Punic and Roman Sardinia. Part II, under the rubric “Ideologies”, begins with Irad Malkin’s consideration of early colonial Campania, moves on to Nicholas Thomas’s analysis of 19th c. Oceania, and to Tom Cummins’s of colonial Andean settlements of the 16th c. Stacy Jordan and Carmel Shrire close the volume with their offering on colonial Cape Town in South Africa. Given the limits of space and the readership of the BMCR, I have opted to devote more space to the essays dealing with topics of most interest to Classicists.

Stein begins “Colonies with Colonialism” by observing that early states in both the Old and New Worlds included colonies among the mechanisms of “expansionary dynamics” (along with trade, military conquest, and alliance, p. 27), but argues against the strong influence of European colonialism of the past four to five hundred years. Contradicting, among others, a paper by Moses Finley, Stein rejects the domination and asymmetry that characterize this model as particularly inappropriate. The comparative case suggested by Stein is a “trade diaspora” model developed for commercial enclaves in contemporary West Africa; Stein’s distinction between colonies and colonialism is particularly salutary. Thus, the aim of Uruk trade colonies that were established in Syria and Anatolia was access to raw materials. As an alternative to the commonly-accepted view of these settlements as dominating exchange and also the local populations at the same time, Stein argues, on the basis of recent excavation at Hacinebi in southeast Anatolia (i.e. Turkey), that “the Uruk enclave was a socially and economically autonomous diaspora”. Among the most valuable aspects of this paper for archaeologists is Stein’s list of archaeological correlates for both the dominance model and the trade diaspora case (p. 50).

Domínguez’s title, “Colonialism without Colonization” inverts that of Stein. The author observes that while the Greeks never dominated Iberia economically, nor founded colonies per se in the southeast of the peninsula, their cultural influence was very intense, particularly in just this zone. Endorsing van Dommelen (whose paper follows his), Domínguez argues for asymmetric relations and domination, but also against wholesale adoption of the European model, with its emphasis not merely on domination but on the economic dominance of the metropolis which exploits the resources of the region in which the colonies are situated. What Domínguez wants to argue for is a “colonial relationship” between the Greeks and Iberians without the colonies themselves. Using the archaeological evidence, Domínguez maintains that a “Greek colonialist agenda” can be detected in the manifestations of Greek culture that bespeak “colonial action” (p. 68). As Malkin observes for Campania, Greeks mapped the territory of Iberia (their word, as opposed to ‘ispanya, which was the Phoenician term for the peninsula) in their own topography and mythology. At the same time, small amounts of Greek pottery dating to the first half of the 6th c. testify to limited economic activity at the beginning of the period of contact, but the intensified ‘colonialist’ activity can be detected later in the century, without settlement. Domínguez suggests, however, that Greeks did settle among the native Iberians: The introduction of Greek cultural practices through material artifacts and the visual arts worked as an instrument of [cultural] hegemony” (p. 70). He, too, draws on the trade diaspora model invoked by Stein to explain the relations between Greeks, who provided the new and unique technologies. Domínguez pays particular attention to sculpture, writing and building as transmitted to Iberians and deployed by them. He concludes that “colonial action relied mainly on the trade in commodities introduced by the Greeks at a time when the indigenous societies were undergoing a process of profound sociopolitical transformation” (p. 86) and were particularly open to aspects of Greek culture for which there were no local correlates.

Kenneth Kelly’s paper on West Coast African trade with Europeans beginning in the 1660s centers on what he regards as the unique cases of the states of Hueda and Dahomey, its successor. This is the first of the papers in the volume to draw extensively on historical documents as well as archaeology spanning three centuries, from the latter half of the 17th c. until the late 19th. Uniquely, Hueda/Dahomey traded with many European nations, not just one, which allowed the Africans to sustain their autonomy. The analysis “acknowledges the creative and ongoing renegotiation of the contact setting” (p. 97), drawing on the notion of “entangled objects” formulated by another author in the volume, Nicholas Thomas. Kelly is particularly sensitive to the issue of the slave trade, which left few archaeologically-recoverable traces either in the form of direct evidence for the slaves or of the return trade, much of it in consumables. Particularly interesting is the impact of enslaved Africans returning from Brazil (as well as the influence of a particular Brazilian slave trader). He concludes that African agency is the key factor, however: “the exercise of chosen strategies was materialized in both intentional and unintentional ways through the expression of material culture.” (p. 117)

Peter van Dommelen’s contribution centers on Sardinia in the Carthaginian and Roman period, a matter of concern to him for some years now. This piece includes a very valuable consideration of the Greek and Roman terminology on settlement abroad that has been subsumed under the rubric of ‘colonization’. His analysis emphasizes local meaning and argues against a firm “colonial divide” (p. 124); he also rightly notes that racism, a major concern in the study of more recent colonialism, is not an important issue in classical antiquity. Adducing colonial Algeria of the early 19th c., he discusses how census records reveal the incredibly complex demography that developed in one town over time, the result of intricate patterns of immigration, seasonal residence, intermarriage, and birth, so that within 100 years “nearly everyone in Annaba was ‘native’ in a literal sense’ — i.e. from that place. While he is undoubtedly right that scholars have begun to see that artefacts of a given origin do not indicate the presence of individuals of that origin, it is worth considering further to what extent the objects retained their original, distinct identifications and how those who used them in colonial situations viewed themselves: as native, colonial, colonizer, or all of these identities at a particular time. His treatment of Sardinia is predicated on the insights of Bhabha, who has articulated many of the basic ideas of the postcolonial theory, in particular the ambiguity and stereotyping that accompany colonialism. Van Dommelen attempts to examine whether these are detectable in the adoption and imitation by native populations of the colonizers’ material culture. His major conclusions are that the term “colonial” must take into account not only the cultural aspects of this process, but also the military occupation and economic exploitation that are its adjuncts; and that colonialism is locally-grounded.

Irad Malkin reprises the arguments of his recent book3 and several related articles on the Greek epic hero Odysseus as a mediating figure in the colonial and pre-colonial encounters between voyaging, trading, and colonizing Greeks and the non-Greeks they became involved with in the western Mediterranean. The “Middle Ground” of his title is adopted from Richard White’s study of the Great Lakes region of North American in the late 17th to early 19th centuries,4 a term Malkin takes to represent the creation of “a common, mutually comprehensible world” (p. 152). Malkin focuses on Campania (and especially its coast) as a geographical, cultural, and political Middle Ground for the Greek-Italian encounters there that began with Greek voyages westward as early as the 10th c. B.C.E. This metaphor and model structures all of the features of this independent society (i.e. an independent but colonial city-state): linguistic, legal, material-cultural, ritual and mythic. As in the book, Malkin’s main focus, however, is “the interaction and occasional adoption of Greek narrative frameworks that provide the terms for constructing collective identities” (p. 156). In pursuing this tack, Malkin insists upon the relations not of Greek-Other (or Hellene-barbaros) but of xenoi or guest-friends, and suggests that the flexibility of ancient religious systems (and the absence of a proselytizing mission) and politico-military equilibrium allowed for an early non-confrontational situation. Malkin points to the importance of the symposium (or the “sympotic lifestyle”) as a mechanism of mediation which provided a venue and structure for exchange of prestige goods, images and ideas of the ‘heroic lifestyle” — including epic poetry and in particular the songs of nostoi, that of Odysseus chief among them, which also facilitated mutual comprehension. Malkin’s emphasis on the epic nostos is appealing, yet the very salient status of kleos and the occasion of epic recitation not in Greek Iron Age “symposia” but in ancestor cult focussed on funerals — anything but egalitarian — cannot be ignored.

The final papers in the volume will be of less direct interest to Classicists, but are well worth reading. Nicholas Thomas contributes a paper on the material culture of 19th c. Oceania (especially native bark cloth and imported missionary cloth) in which he emphasizes the transformation not only of economic and social structures but notions of space and time, habits of living, and concepts of embodiment. In this paper he turns from an earlier exploration of how ‘exotic’ objects are valued and assimilated in native communities to “a more variable and nebulous sense in which objects may be intimately linked with the transformative workings of colonialism”. In his view, objects are not merely mediators but empowering (p. 182). The discussion of the new “Christian clothes” is subtle and fascinating. Tom Cummins’s paper on colonial Andean settlements combines a study of town planning and building with kinds of ordering: native grammars, and norms of relations as implemented in (Catholic, Spanish) marriage. Jordan and Shrire’s paper on “Material Culture and the Roots of Colonial Society at the South African Cape of Good Hope” traces what they call a “creolized” society in the earthenware used by it — a “material signature of colonialism”. For them, material culture is a discourse that is articulated by artefact style, production and use and often produces an ambiguous statement. Their focus on household pottery will be of particular interest to classical archaeologists.

The Archaeology of Colonialism will take its place on the bookshelf of any classical scholar interested in ancient colonization and its material culture and the dynamics that produced the objects and other remains that are the archaeologist’s stock in trade. Old disciplinary habits die hard: despite the effort to situate the project and its constituent essays in the wider discourse on colonialism it struck me that in the opening essay, the terms “colony”, “colonization” and “colonialism” were never clearly defined (just as Domínguez did not clearly articulate what “colonial action” means). Several scholars have observed how slippery such terms are, and pointed out that the communities referred to by the Greek apoikia, or even the Roman colonia, are not rendered accurately by the word ‘colony’.5 While the editors strongly critique the construction of such categories as “ethnographic” and “indigenous” they (and many of the authors) still use them, as in their discussion of the use of the concept of object biographies to investigate material culture: “Refracted through ethnographic comparison, familiar objects that we assume are self-evident can be deflected into very different categories” (p. 8).

Nonetheless, the volume succeeds brilliantly in contributing to the ongoing shake-up of the still-powerful paradigms of Greek vs. Barbarian, colonialism-as-domination, artefact-origin-equals-user identity. It joins a discourse well underway in archaeologies other than classical, which maps the effects of colonization and colonialism on indigenous populations and their environment, as well as the reciprocal effects on the colonizers, and the creation of new, colonial societies that are neither native nor foreign, as the editors themselves note. 6 This discourse is closely related to another vigorous debate currently taking place, that on ethnicity. Some of the papers make more of an effort than others to engage their fellow authors; one has the sense that the papers on Mediterranean cases are making extensive use of the theory and data produced in other subdisciplines, while the reverse is less true. One hopes that the time will come when classical scholars will be producing models and data that will be compelling to other scholars.


1. The editors’ statement that “Prehistoric archaeology after all, is the only social science that has no direct access to human behavior”, because in historical situations written records will inform researchers of trade in perishable commodities, seems at odds with their observation elsewhere that objects are central to history and can be read as text.

2. Lyons and Papadopoulos n. 19 refers to H. Bhabha’s formulations. Hybridity is a critical term deployed in the discourse of Postcolonial Studies, and originally applied to politics rather than to material culture: see C. Antonaccio, “Hybridity and the Cultures within Greek Culture,” in C. Dougherty, L. Kurke, ed. The Cultures within Ancient Greek Culture (in press, Cambridge University Press, 2003).

3. The Returns of Odysseus: Colonization and Ethnicity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998).

4. The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991).

5. Osborne, n. 27 in Lyons and Papadopoulos; see also van Dommelen’s essay in the volume on the dubious translation of colonia into colony.

6. For a recent example, see Jane Webster, “Creolizing the Roman Provinces,” AJA 105, 2001, 209-225.