Study of the ancient Mediterranean region tends to be dominated by a focus on the Greek and Roman empires. The other side of the story — the indigenous populations living throughout the region when the great empires moved in — has received much less attention.
Archaeologist Peter van Dommelen is working to change that. He’s spent 20 years working in the western Mediterranean, exploring a rich cultural heritage that existed before the arrival of the Greeks and Phoenicians and endured beyond it.
This fall, van Dommelen joins the Brown faculty as the Joukowsky Family Professor in Archaeology at the Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology and the Ancient World.
During the early part of the first millennium B.C., the Greeks and Phoenicians were just beginning to establish settlements in the western Mediterranean. Classical archaeologists who study the Greeks and Romans tend to view this colonial expansion entirely from the Greek or Phoenician perspective, van Dommelen says.
“They write about these colonial settlers as if they were coming into empty countries,” he said. “But of course it’s far more complicated than that. My fieldwork, for example, is on the island of Sardinia, which has a very long and rich, very distinctive indigenous culture.”
Evidence of developed civilization on Sardinia dates to the Bronze Age, and those cultures were far more complex than many may imagine. The production of wine is a case in point. “It’s often thought that it was the Greeks or the Phoenicians who introduced the technique for making wine to the Mediterranean and there was no decent wine before,” van Dommelen said. “But that’s far from certain.” Solid proof is hard to come by, but van Dommelen and his team found a wine processing plant that suggests a specifically Sardinian tradition of making wine.
And it’s not as though these indigenous cultures were steamrolled out of existence by Greek and Phoenician occupation. Van Dommelen’s work has shown that the material culture in rural areas of Sardinia was very slow to change. Even after the Phoenicians had come and gone and the Romans moved in, rural Sardinians continued to use much the same pottery, perform the same rituals, and perhaps use the same language. “The name of the tax man changes, but life, especially in these rural areas, basically goes on,” van Dommelen said.
The classical bias that often ignores these indigenous cultures is reinforced by a peculiar arrangement of academic silos, van Dommelen says. Most archaeologists in the United States work in anthropology departments, but those who study the Mediterranean generally work in classics departments. So while anthropology has a long history of studying the interactions between colonial powers and indigenous populations, classical archaeologists are less often exposed to that perspective.
“They’ve got separate conferences, separate journals, just totally separate academic structures,” van Dommelen said. “They wouldn’t necessarily talk to each other.”
That’s not a problem at Brown, however, because the Joukowsky Institute brings archaeologists from varying backgrounds together under one roof.
“The Joukowsky really sits between the disciplines,” van Dommelen said. “Every member of the faculty has to have tenure somewhere else. That automatically creates contacts everywhere — with anthropology, classics, Egyptology, public humanities, and more.”
Van Dommelen himself was tenured in archaeology at the University of Glasgow, where he taught for 15 years before coming to Brown. A native of The Netherlands, he holds degrees in archaeology and classics from the University of Leiden. He is co-editor of two journals, World Archaeology and the Journal of Mediterranean Archeology. The latter he co-edits with John Cherry, a professor at the Joukowsky Institute, and Bernard Knapp, a Glasgow emeritus professor.
Van Dommelen has written several books, including Rural Landscapes of the Punic World, which was published in 2008. He’s currently collaborating with his wife, archaeologist Ayla Çevik, on a topographic guide to the island of Sardinia.
He looks forward to continuing his fieldwork on the island with the help of Brown students and his new colleagues at the Joukowsky Institute, along with Italian and Spanish colleagues he’s been working with for years.
“Archaeology,” he says, “is not something you do on your own.”