Blog Post #70: Deconstructing Orientalization with Jessica Nowlin

Our blogs posts this month explore the modern constructions of “East” and “West”: how these influenced the study of the ancient Mediterranean, and how the ancient Mediterranean was used in turn to further entrench these constructs. Authors take a range of approaches for evaluating how we deal with the persistence of “East” and “West”, interrogating the ways in which we study and understand the materials, motifs, and people who moved around this ancient world.

Introduction – What is “orientalization/orientalizing”?

“Orientalization” is a concept in the study of the ancient Mediterranean that takes many forms. “Orientalization” refers to the process of cultural change attributed to peoples in the western Mediterranean when they receive objects, practices, iconographies, and ideologies from the Near East, Egypt, and eventually Greece during the 8th and 7th centuries BCE (Figure 1). In this sense it is similar to terms like “Hellenization” and “Romanization” as noted by Nicholas Purcell (see quote), but “Orientalization” is even more ingrained in our framing of the past because it has been used to describe an art historical style and define a chronological period, which are both called “Orientalizing”. In the process of “orientalization”, western groups are believed to adopt the hallmarks of western civilization – writing, monarchy and increased social hierarchy, art, and urban centers – from already established eastern powers such as Egypt and Assyria.

For a scholarly world which is having such difficulty over Hellenization and Romanization, it is surely incautious to continue to identify a period as Orientalizing.”

Purcell 2006, 26
Figure 1: Map of migrations and overseas settlements. Uploaded by Simeon Netchev, published on 16 August 2021. The copyright holder has published this content under the following license: Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike. See original here.

In Italy, the Etruscans are most closely connected with the “orientalizing” style, process, and period. The Regolini-Galassi tomb (7th c. BCE, discovered in Cerveteri in 1836) is often featured as the quintessential example of “orientalizing” culture, with its elaborate grave goods illustrating Near Eastern art, banqueting, writing, and an overt display of aristocratic wealth (Figures 2 and 3). In interpretations of this and other “orientalizing” tombs, adoption of eastern materials and ideas by Etruscan elites marks a sign of civilizational advancement, from Iron Age villages to Archaic Etruscan civilization, as Pallotino noted in his 1955 Art of the Etruscans (see quote) The Etruscans are believed to pass these critical building blocks to the Romans, who became revered with the Greeks by European groups as the founders of Western civilization.

“In a short time the stagnant backwater of Etruria was transformed into a high and wealthy civilization complete with great buildings, exquisite works of art of its own, as well as goods imported from abroad on a large scale.”

Pallottino, Dräyer, and Hürlimann 1955, 12
Figure 2. Grand gold fibula from the Regolini-Galassi tomb (675-650 BCE, Museo Gregoriano Etrusco, Musei Vaticani). Original here.
Figure 3. Bronze cauldron with lion protomes from the Regolini-Galassi tomb (675-650 BCE, Museo Gregoriano Etrusco, Musei Vaticani). Original here.

Why was it necessary to write a history of the term?

I wrote Etruscan Orientalization because of the deep impact political ideologies had on how we’ve interpreted this period of ancient history. Many scholars have brought up issues with the term on a Mediterranean-wide basis, such as Corinna Riva and Nicholas Vella’s Debating Orientalization, and others have specifically explored the history of the term’s use in Greece (Morris 1992; Brisart 2011; Gunter 2009, 2014; Martin 2017), but I had not seen a systematic history of how the term had been used in Italy.

Figure 4. October 15, 1911 issue of Le Petit Journal depicting Italian forces bringing civilization to Tripoli through occupation.

The relationship between the debate on Etruscan origins, Italian nationalism, and “orientalizing” objects added another dimension of complexity. The question of whether the Etruscans were eastern or originally from Italy and influenced by eastern groups would have a large impact on the make up of the new Italian nation and shaped scholarship on the subject during the 19th century. During the 20th century, Italian colonial actions in Libya and Ethiopia and concerns about racial purity helped create frameworks for understanding cultural change without the need for population replacement or intermixing (Figure 4). The modern political climate within Italy and the broader Mediterranean had affected how we viewed this period of interconnectivity in antiquity.

The Persistence of “orientalization/orientalizing”

The root of “orientalization/orientalizing” is the Orient, an artificial term invented by Europeans to categorize and often negatively stereotype peoples located east of Europe, creating an East-West/Orient-Occident bifurcation (Said 1978). The historic process of “orientalization” describes how Western peoples encountered Eastern objects, ideas, and practices, adopting elements viewed necessary for the development of Western civilization while leaving behind Eastern traits they viewed as negative. From here the West is believed to continue its advancement while the Orient remains frozen in time (Figure 5). By serving as the historic origin of this Orientalist divide, terms like “orientalizing” have been able to persist.

Figure 5. The Evolution of Civilization by E.H. Blashfield in the dome of the rotunda at the Library of Congress (1896-1900).

I wanted to lay out these modern political connections because I don’t think that scholars who study this period are fully aware of the ramifications of this terminology. Most scholars use “orientalizing” simply for the sake of convenience. Periods of cultural interaction are complex and produce a wide variety of outcomes, so “orientalizing” is a catch-all summarization. There have been calls by some (Rathje 2010; Brisart 2011) to change the chronological designation (the most entrenched use of the term) to the Proto-Archaic period, which would avoid the Orientalist binary and emphasize the connection to later social developments.

Fully abandoning the term will require not applying it to processes of cultural change and revising chronologies to utilize either phases of the Iron Age or Archaic period, particularly in textbooks and handbooks. Editors insisting on this revision will likely serve the most important role in making this change.

Is there interest in other forms of Mediterranean contact? How can contact between the Mediterranean and continental Europe be incorporated (often taught as separate history)?

Removing the term “orientalizing” will expand the possibilities of who we consider when we think of Mediterranean interconnectivity in the beginning of the 1st millennium BCE. We will be able to include imported objects traveling from west to east and objects coming from the Hallstatt culture and other parts of continental Europe whose impact is underplayed because they do not fit into the “orientalizing” narrative. Removing the “orient” from this framework will also force researchers to investigate the specific eastern groups who created these objects, providing a more detailed knowledge of Egyptian, Cypriot, Phoenician, and Assyrian traditions.

How does this historiography change your study and teaching about the ancient world?

In my own research, I have explored how far this phenomenon of connectivity traveled inland into the Apennine mountains, into areas not always defined as having an “orientalizing” period (Figure 6). In these regions, Italic groups felt the impact of Mediterranean connectivity, but did not display the vast array of eastern imports that appeared in Etruria and showed contacts with continental Europe and trans-Adriatic peoples. Additionally, they showed selective engagement with Mediterranean-wide trends such as funerary feasting.

Figure 6. Picture of large tumulus burial at the site of Fossa, Abruzzo (photo by author).

Ancient globalization: a solution or repeat of the same issues?

The current push toward globalization (Hodos 2020) breaks the artificial East-West dichotomy and does not privilege Western groups as the sole active agents in the process of cultural change. This flattening of power dynamics in representation is productive, but we should make sure that we also study how connectivity creates, disrupts, and exacerbates power structures around the Mediterranean.

Like the other modern concepts I examined in my historiography, globalization will place modern assumptions on the ancient world and threatens to repeat the mistakes of the past. However, since it is impossible to divorce ourselves from modern influences, we can only reflexive about how these trends are shaping our scholarship. Applying models such as globalization will expand our knowledge in some ways and obfuscate others, but future critiques will open new avenues of research to grow our knowledge even further.

Main message of the book

My main message in the book is to be critical of the terminology we use and understand how language can restrict our interpretations about the past. I hope that by laying how the study of this period has been influenced by the modern political ideologies of Orientalism, nationalism, and colonialism, others will see how such a framework limits our interpretations and makes this period susceptible to those trying to use the beginnings of “Western civilization” for their own political aims.

Acknowledging this history and abandoning the term will be critical for developing new ways of study, breaking free of Orientalism, and conceiving of the Mediterranean as a unitary whole. By not explaining complex processes through “orientalization”, writing about the topic might become more difficult, but I would push us to sit in this discomfort, and find better ways of explaining social change and not assume that the outcomes of this change will be universal across the entire Mediterranean.

Bibliography and Further Reading

Brisart, Thomas. 2011. Un art citoyen: Recherches sur l’orientalisation des artisanats en Grèce proto-archaïque. Brussels: Académie royale de Belgique, Classe des lettres.

Gunter, Ann. 2009. Greek Art and the Orient. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gunter, Ann. 2014. “Orientalism and Orientalization in the Iron Age Mediterranean.” In Critical Approaches to Ancient Near Eastern Art, edited by Brian A. Brown and Marian H. Feldman, 79–108. Boston: De Gruyter.

Hodos, Tamar. 2020. The Archaeology of the Mediterranean Iron Age: A Globalising World c.1100–600 BCE. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Martin, S. Rebecca. 2017. The Art of Contact: Comparative Approaches to Greek and Phoenician Art. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Morris, Sarah P. 1992. Daidalos and the Origins of Greek Art. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Nowlin, Jessica. 2021. Etruscan Orientalization. Research Perspectives in ancient History. 3.2. Leiden: Brill.

Pallottino, Massimo, Walter Dräyer, and Martin Hürlimann. 1955. Art of the Etruscans. New York: Vanguard Press.

Purcell, N. 2006. Orientalizing: five historical questions, in C. Riva & N.C. Vella (ed.) Debating Orientalization: Multidisciplinary Approaches to Change in the Ancient Mediterranean. London: Equinox.

Rathje, Annette. 2010. “Tracking down the Orientalizing.” Bollettino Di Archeologia on Line 23–30.

Riva, Corinna, and Nicholas C. Vella. 2006a. Debating Orientalization: Multidisciplinary Approaches to Change in the Ancient Mediterranean. London: Equinox.

Said, Edward. 1978. Orientalism. New York: Pantheon Books.

Jessica Nowlin

Jessica Nowlin is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Philosophy and Classics at the University of Texas at San Antonio. She completed her B.A.s in Classics and Archaeology at the University of Texas at Austin and completed a Ph.D. in Archaeology at Brown University. Her most recent work, Etruscan Orientalization, interrogates the historiography of the term “orientalizing” within European scholarship on early Etruscan history. Currently a co-director of the Sinis Archaeological Project, she has published on burial practices, exchange, and connectivity in central Italy and Sardinia. As a native Texan, she’s been excited to bring her focus on digital methods of analysis, visualization, GIS, and public humanities to local research on the history of San Antonio. She is currently the Principal Investigator for the Bexar County Historical GIS Project, a collaboration between UTSA, Bexar County’s Heritage and Parks Department, and numerous local historians and archaeologists, which makes scholarship and primary source documents, especially historic maps, related to San Antonio history accessible to the general public.

Published by Peopling the Past

A Digital Humanities initiative that hosts free, open-access resources for teaching and learning about real people in the ancient world and the people who study them.

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