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D2 Materiality and Practice

Prehistoric Transculturality in the Eastern Mediterranean

The assessment of the role of the Eastern Mediterranean as a unique interaction sphere linking 2nd millennium BC societies in parts of Europe, Asia and Africa has been hampered by the retroactive projection of much later political and cultural constellations as well as by the underestimation of the effects of material culture flows. Since the time of their discovery the first palace-based civilizations of the Aegean were claimed for the heritage of Europe and juxtaposed to the synchronous societies and cultures of the Near East and Egypt which were assigned to various „oriental“ traditions (Morris 1992; Bahrani 2003). These notions found their long lasting reflection in the differentiation of the disciplines studying Bronze Age cultures and languages into European and Non-European branches, a fact further contributing to the reification of the imagined dichotomy between “Europe” and “ Asia ”.

Matters matter!

(c) Deutsches Archäologisches Institut

The disregard of the transformative capacities of material culture flows, on the other hand, was rooted in the long-time indifference of social anthropology (and social archaeology) towards the material world. Materiality was solely identified with artifacts, typology and chronology, while the realms of social studies were thought to be the “really important” and seemingly purely immaterial issues, such as ideology, politics and social relations. However, as D. Miller (1998) has succinctly remarked, “matters matter”, inasmuch as ideas and things are related dialectically. Thus, immateriality can only be expressed by material means, and in turn the material world gains its meaning through values and ideas assigned through agency and discursive practices (Miller 2005). A turning point for the attitude of social studies towards materiality was marked by P. Bourdieu (1979) who investigated the use of cultural traits in the shaping of the habitus of social actors and emphasized the need to link material culture with agency and practice. 

Glocalizing Objects

(c) Deutsches Archäologisches Institut

As of the late 1980s the revised stance of social studies towards materiality led to a new emphasis on the importance of geographical distance and views of the world for the construction of the value of objects introduced from far away (Helms 1988; 1993) and on the fluidity of meaning assigned to such objects in intercultural relations (Appadurai 1986; Thomas 1991). These insights formed the background for studies investigating “third space” phenomena of cultural hybridity and “glocalization” (Bhabha 1994; Miller 1994; Robertson 1995; Featherstone 1990; 1995), but perhaps the most radical reappraisal of the significance of materiality came with A. Gell (1998) arguing that due to their special causal properties, things should be regarded as an elementary factor in the exercise of social agency. In line with these discourses in the social sciences and cultural studies, issues of materiality have become a major topic in social archaeology (DeMarrais/Gosden/Renfrew 2004). 

Cultural Hybridity in the Past

Until recently, the discussion of long-distance relations between 2nd millennium BC Greece and Near Eastern civilizations has either focused on chronological aspects or on the reconstruction of trade networks. Without belittling the importance of these issues, it has to be said that such studies have tended to treat the objects under discussion as foreign, while questions concerning possible shifts in their meaning through the integration in a new cultural environment were usually not pursued. Recently, this has begun to change as exemplified by studies of E.S. Sherratt (1999), G.J. van Wijngaarden (2002) as well as A.B. Knapp and I. Voskos (2008), who have pointed to the importance of investigating the relation between the import of certain groups of foreign items and the contexts of their appropriation and usage on Cyprus and in the Northern Levant, or by the study of M.H. Feldman (2006) who focused on the interplay of “globalized” 2nd millennium BC political relations and the emergence of hybrid “international” art styles. 

Approaches and Aims

Based on the insights of the last-mentioned, new generation of approaches towards material culture, our project argues that the mutual cultural entanglement created by the flows of ideas and goods between societies of the 2nd millennium BC in the Near East and Greece was not merely a side-product of certain social and political conditions, but rather one of their constituting features. If relations between the members of a given society are actively mediated through the use of material items by social actors, then agency and practice are to be identified as the crucial factors linking the realms of the material and immaterial. Therefore the project aims at investigating how and by whom novel traits were appropriated and how through such acts of re-contextualization new patterns of practice and material forms were created conforming neither with what had existed in the receiving society, nor in the area of origin of what was received. In differentiating between the use of objects in practices of administration (Sub-Project 1), practices of domestic and public cults (Sub-Project 2) and practices of public and domestic commensality (Sub-Project 3), the transformative potential of the appropriation and adaptation of new ideas and goods will be explored. 

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