BMCR 2021.08.26

Mediterranean archaeologies of insularity in an age of globalization

, , Mediterranean archaeologies of insularity in an age of globalization. Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2020. Pp. 256. ISBN 9781789253443 $55.00.

[Authors and titles are listed below.]

The scope of the volume is to examine the process of culture change conditioned by insularity, through a global lens. Recent scholarship[1] on globalizing approaches in archaeology acknowledges the wide-reaching interpretative framework that globalization studies embraces in tackling complex comparative case studies within highly connected places like the Mediterranean region. As the title suggests, this volume explores the archaeology of Mediterranean island cultures and how they experienced insularity (both literally and figuratively) within such a framework in order to re-examine and explain the multifaceted and ever-shifting social, economic and cultural processes that island cultures exhibit within their wider regional context.

This collection of ten contributions (an introduction, eight research papers, and an afterword) stems from a panel organised at the 118th Archaeological Institute of America (AIA) conference in Toronto, Canada (vii).[2] This volume seeks to address how island identities, reflected in their material culture, were shaped and negotiated during periods of increasing connectivity (5). The authors each present a case study from a different Mediterranean island or archipelago, and discuss island connectivity through a globalization approach. Significantly, a wide chronological net was cast, with papers covering the Middle Bronze Age to the Late Roman period, and a Mediterranean-wide approach ensures that the whole region is equitably covered.

The preface (vii-viii) and introduction (Chapter 1) by the two editors succinctly outline the background, scope, and aims of the volume. This is followed by an informative section that delineates the current definition and debate surrounding the globalization approach, and its use as an interpretative model that has gained increasing traction by scholars tackling complex comparative themes of connectivity, culture change, agency and insularity in a Mediterranean setting. The editors define globalization, specifically within an ancient Mediterranean context, as “involv[ing] connected regions and their peoples in interdependent ways that result in novel forms of social awareness that change is happening” (9). The tell-tale markers extracted from material culture datasets (4, 9-10) are examined within this framework to interpret social change, and how change manifested itself within these island communities. The interplay between ‘local’ and ‘global’ is not seen as mutually exclusive; rather, the perceptions by islanders, as evidenced by the archaeological evidence, demonstrates the apparent undulating spectrum of connectedness, insularity and social change between these two poles, and the need to approach ancient societies using a broader pluralistic approach.

The first case study (Chapter 2) opens with an examination of 2nd-millennium-BCE indigenous islanders in Sardinia. Here, Russell considers whether Late Bronze Age Nuragic cultures were globalized communities, and explores how they perceived outsiders by identifying potential ‘reactions’ visible in the material culture. Late Helladic pottery and copper ox-hide ingots present in the Late Bronze Age Nuragic archaeological record are used to signal extra-insular connectivity in Sardinia’s Nuragic culture. Based on the archaeological evidence Russell convincingly argues that although Late Bronze Age Sardinian society participated in a connected Mediterranean network, especially marked by material contacts with the Aegean cultures in the east, he concludes that Nuragic communities were not themselves globalized communities in the way we consider Aegean Bronze Age communities to be. Russell goes on to conclude that although aspects of this globalizing perspective are useful as interpretative frameworks in which to understand the Nuragic builders of Sardinia, the approach would elicit more nuanced insight if applied to the archaeology of the island in the subsequent period, which saw more persistent contact and cultural exchange with the Phoenicians in the early first millennium BCE.

Moving eastwards, Gorogianni (Chapter 3) presents an interesting case study on Bronze Age island societies in the eastern Mediterranean by looking at a range of artefact assemblages from the Middle and Late Bronze Age site of Ayia Irini on Kea (Greece). Gorogianni’s central argument here is that a globalized approach offers a refreshing paradigm in which complex cultural processes, which at times can appear incongruous and mutually exclusive, can be examined and understood within the same framework (55). Gorogianni examines imported pottery, local cooking pots, and textiles from Middle and Late Bronze Age deposits from Ayia Irini highlighting, through a visual network (77), the evident links that tie the site to other key players in the Aegean and the wider region. However, rather than focus on the obvious display of connectivity within the Aegean, Gorogianni uses the evidence to argue for mobility as an important component in the expression of alterity and culture change.

Barnett and Ugarković (Chapter 4) look at globalizing effects on insular coastal communities in the Dalmatian archipelago in the Iron Age. These communities acted as intermediary nodes between the Dalmatian hinterland and the burgeoning commercial Adriatic region between the 5th and the 1st centuries BCE, a situation that was set in motion by Greek and later Roman economic and political interests. Here the authors argue that within this connected region, the material evidence from the island communities of Pharos, Issa, Korčula and Brač indicate that despite being active participants within this globalized and highly connected region, deliberate choices were made to uphold and define their cultural identities according to their own localised tendencies, demographic make-up, and identities.

In Chapter 5, Lieberman examines the impact the shifting fortunes of 5th-century-BCE Naxos had on its inhabitants and those of the surrounding territories from its initial colonisation as the first Greek colony in the Sicily, to its subsequent depopulation and eventual destruction. Lieberman argues that iconographic representations of Dionysus and Apollo on coins minted by various east Sicilian cities reveal the selective ways each community chose to portray themselves as somehow linked, through perceived collective memory, to episodes in Naxos’ turbulent history.

Smith (Chapter 6) explores cultural re-embeddedness in an increasingly globalized world with a discussion of Late Talayotic stone house architecture on the island of Menorca (Spain). Despite evidently increasing extra-insular contact between the inhabitants of Menorca and the Romans, a new form of elite domestic architecture that harks back to megalithic structures built in the 9th to 7th century BCE is seen as a marker of persisting indigenous traits, consciously fashioned as a way of projecting the local identity.

Mazurek (Chapter 7) looks at the spread of Isaic cultic statues at port and mainland contexts in the Hellenistic Aegean. The author plots the distribution of the variety of statues in the Knotenpalla, a costume that the Greeks came to associate with the goddess Isis and other Egyptian deities throughout the course of the 2nd and 1st centuries BCE. Mazurek uses this evidence to identify distinct stylistic clusters of Knotenpalla statues, which she interprets as marked spheres of shared values. She argues that that Greek port communities’ Isiac cult practices stemmed from a common source dispersed by migration and increased maritime mobility across the Aegean Sea.

In Chapter 8, Francis demonstrates the existence of two seemingly opposing sides to Cretan society two centuries after the Roman conquest of the 1st century BCE. Rather than argue that Crete was a homogenised society, she paints a more nuanced picture of open and globalized ports and cities located within easy access to the coast, which contrasts to the pronounced insularity evident at sites further inland. The latter situation was no doubt the result of the geographic barriers that hindered the persistent flow of globalizing Roman processes.

Gordon and Caraher’s paper (Chapter 9) continues the discussion on the globalizing effects ushered in during the Roman period, in this case, on Cyprus. Here the authors assess the shifting reactions to globalization by making a comparison between the material cultures of the Early and Late Roman periods, two moments in Cyprus’ ancient history which saw the most connectivity with extra-insular influences. They convincingly argue that while Cypriot inhabitants embraced these globalizing influences, they nonetheless absorbed them selectively, and expressed the effects of their interactions by embedding them within the objects that surrounded them. Cyprus’ geography played a significant role in how its inhabitants interacted with these globalizing forces, which predominantly emanated from the shift of imperial administration from Rome to Constantinople in the 4th century CE.

The papers in the volume are succinctly summarised in a thought-provoking afterword by Kardulias, who brings together the overarching themes and approaches that are explored in the collection.

The volume itself covers a wide temporal and geographic remit, with the theme of insularity tackled from multiple perspectives, across different chronological periods, and by examining varying datasets. At first glance, the project seems to have too wide a scope, appearing indecisive in not focusing on a common and explicit theme, such as hybridisation or maritime connectivity. The latter are more often than not tackled as individual approaches themselves. However, this soon transforms into one of its central strengths in that the volume showcases the usefulness of adopting a globalizing approach for the interpretation of different iterations of complex archaeological datasets and at times often contradictory processes. The approach’s strength is demonstrated in its important integrated discussions on topics such as connectivity, insularity, seascapes, colonisation, indigeneity, hybridisation and other complex issues that have been the subject of much lively scholarly debate over the last few decades.

Three particular themes recur in this volume. The first, and perhaps most pertinent to such a title, is that of insularity, particularly the manner in which islanders were conscious players in the ways they perceived, interacted with, and ultimately expressed their own interpretations of global ideas. The expressions of the distinct identities resulting from these processes were also constantly shifting and being renegotiated with the introduction of new external stimuli. Secondly, it is highlighted that the sea and island geography played a crucial role as the primary conduit through which these globalizing forces reached the islands and stimulated change. Finally, and no doubt linked with the latter, is the effect of trade, exploration, colonisation and migration on island life, which provided the means by which ideas and influences spread. There is little doubt that this volume will be of great interest to those whose research touches upon Mediterranean connectivity and the concept of insularity. However, what it also offers is a fresh perspective on how the interpretive dichotomies that exist between ‘islanders’ and ‘the other’ can be slowly blurred, making the reader appreciate the nuance and subtlety that can be observed in the archaeology of Mediterranean cultures, particularly those with a long and complex history of interaction amongst themselves and those beyond their shores.

Authors and titles

1. Introduction (Jody Michael Gordon and Anna Kouremenos)
2. Nuragic Networking? Assessing Globalization and Glocalization in a Late Bronze Age Sardinian Context (Anthony Russell)
3. Mobility and Globalization: The View from the Bronze Age Cyclades (Evi Gorogianni)
4. Globalization Processes and Insularity on the Dalmatian Islands in the Late Iron Age (Charles Bennett and Marina Ugarković)
5. Apollo Archegetes as a Globalizing Divinity: Numismatic Iconography and the Memory of Sicilian Naxos (Leigh Anne Lieberman)
6. Balearic Indigeneity in a Global Mediterranean: Considering Circular Domestic Structures of Late Iron Age Menorca (Alexander Smith)
7. Fashioning a Global Goddess: The Representation of Isis across Hellenistic Seascapes (Lindsey A. Mazurek)
8. Globalization and Insularity in (Dis)Connected Crete (Jane E. Francis)
9. From the Land of the Paphian Aphrodite to the Busy Christian Countryside: Globalization, Empire, and Insularity in Early and Late Roman Cyprus (Jody Michael Gordon and William R. Caraher)
10. Afterward (P. Nick Kardulias)


[1] Hodos, Tamar. (ed.) 2017. The Routledge Handbook of Archaeology and Globalization. London: Routledge.

[2] The editors, Kouremenos and Gordon, conceived of the panel following a meeting at the 24th Theoretical Roman Archaeology Conference (TRAC) at the University of Reading (United Kingdom) several years earlier. The discussion of that panel focused on insularity and identity on islands in the Roman Mediterranean, and the panel’s contributions were published in an edited volume by Kouremenos in 2018. (Insularity and Identity in the Roman Mediterranean. Oxford: Oxbow).