2013 EAA pdf

Entangled Aegean-type wares

Paper read at the 19th Annual Meeting of the European Association of Archaeologists, Pilsen, 4-8 September 2013.

NOTE: Some pictures in the slides have been deliberately modified to look like drawings, because I have no permission to publish them online. This has been done in order to enable the reader to follow my discussion.

Entangled Aegean-type wares

Andrea Vianello


Figure 1

Figure 1: Cover slide with some Aegean-type vessels from Thapsos.

I have researched Aegean-type wares in Italy and Iberia for over a decade now. My first methodological approaches included the study of contexts and the application of the then fresh and promising perspective offered by globalisation. The problem has been known for well over a century now: pots of Mycenaean style or inspired by that ceramic style have been found in Italy since the end of the nineteenth century. Long distance exchanges are evident, but their nature and development is less clear due to poor contexts and substantial variability. I liked the approach offered by globalisation because I was unhappy with the ways that cultural exchange was addressed, and I liked the new perspective that suggested different people were in touch and influenced each other in multiple ways without assuming that any side was predominant. In the specific case, the Greek colonisation of historical times in the same lands interested by the Bronze Age exchanges had opened up the possibility that the exchanges could be a form of proto-colonisation. Although this particular suggestion has since been abandoned in mainstream research, terms such as hybridisation and creolisation, borrowed from post-colonial approaches, could be misunderstood and appeared inadequate. In the end, the globalisation approach helped in advancing interpretative frameworks where all players could be seen as equal, at least at the beginning, and for-profit trade along with market economy could be proposed. It was a significant step forward, but hardly a satisfactory or revolutionary model, for the exchanges still appeared complex. In other words, they were not fully understood.

We have gone through several circular arguments without reaching a conclusion (Figs 2 and 3).

Figure 2

Figure 2: Examples of circular  arguments. 1. Aegean influences.

Aegean-type wares have been found in Italy and recognised as evidence of long-distance contacts. After the discovery of local productions and some Italic artefacts in the Aegean, the focus has moved back to the Aegean, trying to find evidence of Italic influences. No step or region is more important of the other, and it is only normal that cultural exchanges work on two-ways. Focus on economic (prestige/luxury), technological (imported/exported) and colonial approaches have come to little understanding because they assumed that one particular aspect had to be most important.

Figure 3

Figure 3: Examples of circular arguments: 2. Sophisticated theoretical approaches.

More sophisticated arguments founded on theoretical approaches have been proposed. Concepts of hybridisation and glocal however have cast doubts on what actually these approaches have found out. More specifically, hybrid here depends on the perspective, with both Italics and Mycenaeans at some point considering Mycenaean-style pottery their own and producing it according to their free choice. Furthermore, concepts such as "global" that seemed to provide the alternative to local and help produce some narrative had to be tamed using new terms, effectively admitting defeat that the narrative cannot be constructed on the tensions generated by two alternative social and economic dynamics.

Today a new buzzword is exciting archaeologists: entanglement. It is the most sophisticated approach yet, but is it another step forward or a methodology leading to some conclusions? In this presentation, I shall focus on entanglement theory by using Aegean-type wares as a case-study. I hope to advance a little on both fronts.

At its heart entanglement is recognition of a series of dependences and resulting dependency between humans and things. This is a basic view of the mechanisms that transform cultures. Entanglements do not push towards any specific perspective, human condition, or social structure. Their directionality is open and this is an important point. There may be directionality in that interlocking entanglements may lead to some situation, but the directionality is not determined. This is very different from other perspectives. For instance, colonialism study the processes leading to colonisation, which will be intentional at some point. Globalisation may be less intentional in all its stages, but it still describes a series of processes homogenising culture, there is therefore a predefined ending point. Entanglement instead produces a perspective that may make use of network analysis, providing a focus on basic actions and consequences rather than a spatial view built from data that can only emphasise the complexity of intercultural exchanges, and evidence the major routes of exchange. Hodder does not substantiate this possibility with a case-study. I think that entanglement suits perfectly the mathematical nature of network analysis, but I worry that network analysis is aimed at emphasising multiple links whereas entanglement focuses on links that have produced some effect. Both also depend heavily on the quality of data. The diversity of focus may result in entanglement theory being incorrectly applied to insignificant links, producing mistaken interpretations.

Entanglement theory emphasises multivariate connections, essentially allowing to link some seemingly unrelated actions, often through some causality link. The theory, at least as proposed by Hodder, describes the causality link as some form of dependence that entraps humans. I cannot subscribe to this view as pertinent to our case study. Entanglement helps recognising some inter-linked social processes.

Figure 4

Figure 4: Pedestalled basins of Thapsos, from large open vessels with a supernatural figure to smaller size and less care for the divinity. Middle to Late Bronze Age.

Figure 5

Figure 5: The basin eventually turns to a monumental vessel that has to be mediated by someone since the divinity is hidden in symbols and people can no longer drink/eat directly from the basin. Late Bronze to Iron Age.

For instance, the pedestalled basins found in the Thapsos (map) area of Sicily present a somewhat egalitarian society, where it was fundamental to maintain society united through communal feasting (Figs 4 and 5). Only the divinity itself could mediate this relationship and seal the social agreement. However, after Aegean-type pottery arrives and wealth display strategies become evident in funerary contexts, it is obvious that social hierarchy emerges, though it does not develop fully. By the end of the period, early Iron Age, the shape is increasingly closed, forcing pouring by someone of the contents. It also requires someone to mediate with the divinity that is not shown any more, though it is still hinted. This is an entanglement: the arrival, acceptance and consumption of Aegean-type wares has produced a transformation in the society, which spills into all cultural manifestations, such as the communal feasting, once a defining element of the Thapsos culture.

I disagree with some aspects of entanglement theory when we move away from its basic proposal of revealing and perhaps mapping multivariate connections. According to entanglement, dependence on Aegean-type pottery or at least exotica should be evident for this process to be. In fact, there is no evidence of this, and the social processes continue despite the contacts withering after Late Helladic III A and no replacement exotica substituting those wares in the subsequent Pantalica culture. This is not the case elsewhere, where local productions begin, but it is the case in some places. I also recognise a significant problem with entrapment and generally directionality, which should lock people into a path, even if the direction itself is insignificant (e.g. it could lead to any of colonisation, social hierarchy, warfare, etc.). In our case, social hierarchy seems the direction undertaken and there should be diminished freedom in choice and greater entrapment in the social process towards social hierarchy. This is not the case, with evidence that suggests that Aegean-type pottery, as well as Cypriot pottery, was introduced consciously and manipulated locally for specific social reasons. I recognise that local social processes take priority over any globalising push. Even if material culture becomes similar, this similarity is only apparent as local social processes transform and appropriate new cultural influences.

Figure 6

Figure 6: is entanglement really transformation? And if it is, have not archaeologists talked about it for decades? See John Bintliff's review of Hodder's book in Antiquity.

Hodder suggest that there is a positive correlation between entanglement and rate of change (Fig. 6). In fact, it seems that entanglement can be described as transformation. Considering instead globalisation (Fig. 7), it seems that its agency produces similar cultural artefacts, even culturally shared artefacts, and in so doing reduces difference as it grows stronger, effectively producing stability in the system, including any social systems. If even only Hodder's original definition is accepted, then interesting narratives emerge in our case. Entanglement would be evidence of transformation, and for that to happen the people involved must be unhappy with the existing system. Thus, the people that feasted together at Thapsos may have benefited from the apparent stability, but they also craved for access to new technologies, such as advanced metalwork that only appears in the area in the Bronze Age with the Aegean-type pottery, and for social differentiation, maybe to some degree. If that is the case, the social system was already cracking and it was open to such influences, which would have come sooner than later. This also means that there was a conscious choice early in the process of adoption of Aegean-type wares, so that the dependency on such wares and resulting social effects were intentionally accepted. People was not entrapped by some complex mechanism, rather they entrapped themselves, and consciously too.

Figure 7

Figure 7: inverse correlation between entanglement and globalisation about rate of change.

Since the LH III B, there was a massive production of Aegean-type pottery that eclipsed imports in the Italian peninsula. Following blindly entanglement theory, one may conclude that the success of Aegean-type pottery was such that it became an open invitation to migrant potters, who turned the social process into some globalising effort. They overproduced the pottery that could not be any more be used for social processes leading to social hierarchy and instead strengthened the direct contacts between Italy and the Aegean, eventually leading to the ineluctable conclusion of colonisation. Entanglement on its own did not favour this end, but after a series of connections, this was the only possibility. I disagree with this view entirely. Entanglement is very useful again to expose the basic links. Beyond that, however, entanglement describes agencies that are short lived and cannot decide directionality, not even accidentally. If that was true, humans would not be free and could not be free, prisoners of past choices, prisoners of their ancestors. Human agency here plays a role in determining the directionality: in the Italian peninsula, Aegean-type pottery was used for ethnic self-determination, to contrast the stabilising, but also overwhelming effects of globalisation. At the time, proto-Apennine and Apennine cultures embraced almost the entire peninsula, and before the proto-Villanovan there are stylistic similarities in some classes of pottery on a vast area from Romania to Italy. That massive culture however had very little relation to coastal sites. People at coastal sites use Aegean-type pottery to break off from the overarching culture. Eventually in the Iron Age to become distinct ethnicities. Once again, entanglement by helping to recognise transformation seems to infer also discontent for the previous situation.

I argue that people maintain control of the entrapment that is produced by entanglement. For instance, to follow one of the examples suggesting the contrary used by Hodder, if people wanted to return to hunter-gatherer ways of life, they could not do so immediately because there is no environment that can support the present human population without farming and herding. Thus, people are entrapped by past choices in their present way of life. In fact, if people decided not to have babies for some time, the human population would easily collapse, soon hitting the number that would enable for people to reintroduce that life style. The point is that people consciously do not want to do that, and accept happily the entanglement. The case with Aegean-type pottery is also similar: at Thapsos there was never the intention to reach full social hierarchy, rather there was an effort to differentiate people and activities. This is achieved and maintained in following periods, without dependence on Aegean-type pottery or any substitute. In the Italian peninsula they wanted ethnic affirmation, probably to stress the maritime vocation of some communities that would have had greater economic success in adopting different subsistence strategies. They do so by producing Aegean-type pottery (something that does not happen in Thapsos) but they do not end up entrapped into dependence from the support of the Aegean people. They do not borrow a material culture becoming subjects to the Aegean people. They learn and adopt the new material culture as a symbol of differentiation, and use some Mycenaean style material culture to distinguish themselves at the arrival of Greek colonisers. They self-determine themselves using that material culture deliberately, showing little willingness to embrace the original culture or become entrapped in dependence from Aegean people.

Entanglement theory is however useful by revealing the link between Aegean material culture and neutral maritime culture. Aegean-type wares are found all over the Mediterranean despite the minimal political influence of Mycenaean palaces in that political arena. Sea Peoples come to mind.

Entanglement theory can advance our understanding of material culture. It has drawbacks and may support assumptions however. Methodologically it helps dissect the connections and assess their relevance and correlation. How detailed the resulting perspective will be still depends on the quality of the context. Furthermore, caution must be exercised with a theory that programmatically does not wish to construct a narrative and tries to maintain an objective balance without suggesting any directionality or outcome. It can support any view one wishes. Colonial and globalising models can be particularly problematic because they already include concepts of dependence and entrapment. Materialistic views where humans become enslaved by their own technology are also at risk of forcing entanglement to support such ideas.

Figure 8

Figure 8: correlation between entanglement/transformation and globalisation.

Entanglement and globalisation are correlated (Fig. 8) since both focus on cultural change, and this correlation is particularly evident when cross-cultural influences are at play.

I cannot choose between one theory that may suggest humans are enslaved by their own material culture and choices and one that suggests that culture is bound to be homogenised loosing vitality: both are unsatisfactory. Useful for certain aspects but nonetheless unsatisfactory. I take a less pessimistic path.

Figure 9

Figure 9: Mariners were welcomed in Filicudi (ca. 1800 BC) and then in Thapsos (ca. 1500 BC) despite the changes triggered, including the necessity to move the Filicudi settlement in a fortified position.

Mariners (Fig. 9) from far away (probably the Aegean) are likely to have arrived in Sicily at Filicudi (Piano del Porto), Aeolian Islands, as early as 2200 BC. They were welcomed, their arrival being an event to celebrate. The event also triggers negative changes, such as the need for fortified settlements: soon after the first arrival the settlement has to be relocated. A long period of rapid cultural change ensues. Yet, by 1500 BC, mariners from the Aegean are still welcomed in the region, and their arrival celebrated. To me, this means that the advantages outweighed the disadvantages.

A narrative that weighs advantages and disadvantages must accept that local needs and conditions prevail on cross-cultural and globalising forces. Consider the case of the modern World Wide Web. It helps bring down national barriers allowing multiple groups of sparse people to connect, sometimes intensively if shared interests are at stake. However, people remain firmly connected to their localities and filter anything with their own culture. Even concerted events in the physical world must adapt to the diversities of the localities in which the members are located. Any breach of the local perceptions will have to be mediated, voluntary, and probably time-limited. Thus, the locality in which people are immersed will always prevail in the many entanglements that produce disparate connections. These are unstable connections, which imply change, and because of that will necessarily end as stability will return. Constant change in all matters can only result in chaos.

The case of Aegean-type wares has demonstrated that these were indeed entangled, but the entanglements were not all products of necessity, causality or accident. Many were very much voluntary. And changes within entanglements and strategies suggest that there was some control on them, although the entanglements themselves may have imposed short delays on changes, or contributed to advantages or disadvantages.

Figure 10

Figure 10: Some conclusions.

The complexity that was first detected in the study of Aegean-type wares outside the Aegean is still there even after adopting entanglement theory. The reason is simple: there were many people, each with different ideas. The people had to contribute constantly to the culture of their world. There was constant mediation between different ideas. Cross-cultural influences added impulse for change and transformation. However, exotica are found in the archaeological record in almost all contexts pertaining to modern humans, so they must be treated as a normal part of cultural change. Luckily for us, their material culture fixed in time their ideas and perceptions of the world. They constantly assembled different sets of material culture, each representing a moment in the life of one person or many people. Entanglements reveal the underlying motivations for the change. The act of assembling material culture recorded those changes for us. They may be small or huge, relevant to many or few, have persisted for long or disappeared as soon as produced, but they are there for us to discover.

To conclude, entanglement theory provides the possibility to probe the perception of the social and economic system before a change. It also provides an unusual opportunity to use a theoretical approach that seems to maintain some objectivity. It is very basic and hardly new, however, and Hodder's recent discussion fails to reveal its possibilities and rather entraps him in depressing arguments. As is the case for all theories, the narrative resulting from entanglement theory depends very much on the context: the more defined it is, the more satisfying will be the conclusions. At least the theory does not impose or favour a particular perspective. As Koji Mizoguchi has remembered in his presentation, the production of valid narratives requires endless work mediating among different perspectives: there is no definitive answer and no definitive discourse because reality is varied and always changing. I recognise that I was naïve on my first attempt to interpret data on my own to expect a theoretical model to provide understanding and explanations. It would be a success if it only provides some of these. To answer my own question, entanglement theory provides another step forward, but no conclusions. I think that both globalisation and entanglement have provided this, but I also recognise that they are two sides of the same coin. When transformation takes place, a culture changes from one to another (even if these are two evolutionary moments of the same culture). When globalisation takes place, elements of two or more cultures are spread across the area of these cultures. Thus, globalisation is the moment when there is no real change, just adaptation to use the full potential of a change. The moment of change is when a cultural element is refused by society and replaced with another. It may appear at first that globalisation changes culture, but in fact the moment of change there is no globalisation in place, so it is not a process operating within globalisation. Globalisation is also not the trigger for change, because different cultural traits are almost always present. Entanglement is simply revealing how a set of changes triggered by local necessities and contexts is always followed by a period of stability when cultural traits are spread. What either theory does not say is what triggers the change. This means that the local context, the "local" that could not be abandoned by globalisation and was reinvented as globalised local or glocal, is very often the most important part of the system of changes and stability.

I like the mathematical simplicity of entanglement theory, and the help it offers in examining changes (transformations) and the reasons that triggered them. Like a mathematical formula, entanglement theory always provides an answer, which needs to be tested. Entanglement theory only validates hypotheses. In our case study, pre-colonisation or social stratification sought for by local people proved to be both valid hypotheses. However, only one passes testing. For pre-colonisation to be true, increased influences ought to be recognised at least in one area consistently. This has not been the case. For social stratification promoted by local people, we should recognise a variety of social dynamics in which Aegean-type artefacts are inserted, without a single strategy emerging. This has been proven, since imports, local productions, and even abandonment are all detected. These are evidence of free choices by local people, rather than impositions from a separate group of people. Testing is an extremely important aspect for any theory. According to Koji Mizoguchi (pers. comm.), testing should take place at each stage of the interpretative process, and testing should be part of the flow of narratives produced by theories. This is essential because testing allows to discriminate between hypotheses, unproven claims and probable narratives. Factual evidence is only possible for the archaeological record, not narratives. However, probable narratives are very close to what happened in the past, and certainly are more satisfying than the raw archaeological record. A pessimistic position on the impossibility to access the past directly is unnecessary, testing is instead very much necessary. Anyone wishing to use entanglement theory can do so probably with good results, as our case-study demonstrates. However, applying the theory without some testing will always produce a result, like a valid mathematical formula will always produce a number: the problem is finding out whether the result is valid, or a mistake. Most mathematical formulas will not highlight any error of calculation, and so is the case for entanglement theory that will not reveal any flawed logical process or mistakes in analysing the archaeological record. I think this is a good development because it is time to introduce robust testing procedures into archaeology. Entanglement theory may just force archaeologists to do that. I am also happy to see archaeologists moving away from attempts to produce ONE interpretation, and embracing instead an interpretative flow that more closely resembles human complexity.