The University of Chicago Magazine

February 1997


Vintage Trade-offs

The natives' taste for wine, says anthropologist Michael Dietler, was the Greeks' foot in the door in France.

Days of wine and Romans: Anthropologist Michael Dietler holds a bottle of wine made recently according to instructions left by Columella, a Roman, in the first century a.d.14.

In the year 600 b.c., in what is now southern France, it came time for the princess Gyptis to marry. She would choose her husband by offering the man she preferred a cup of wine. Now, a Greek ship had recently come ashore near her father's lands, and a Greek trader named Protis was among those present at the ceremony. Handing the cup to Protis, Gyptis chose him. As a wedding present, her father, Nannos, gave the Greeks a tract of land surrounding a good natural harbor, enclosed within a semicircular ridge of mountains. There the Greeks founded the city of Massalia, which would later become Marseille.

Well, maybe so, and maybe Native Americans really did sell Manhattan for only $24 worth of merchandise. But the historical veracity of the tale doesn't really concern associate professor of anthropology Michael Dietler. Instead, he takes Gyptis's story as a central metaphor for the colonization of France in his book in progress, The Cup of Gyptis: The Colonial Encounter in Early Iron Age France.

Just as Gyptis decided on a Greek man, Dietler says, so too did the indigenous peoples of France deliberately invite the Greeks into their lives. "What's actually being portrayed [in the story] is the selection of the Greeks in the context of indigenous ritual," the archaeological anthropologist explains. "This is an active process by the natives of choosing somebody." And of choosing something: wine. Though Dietler never set out to study wine (a point, he jokes, that he sometimes has to argue), his research in colonial relations soon revealed wine's importance as a good prized by the natives of France. Dietler's model of colonization proposes that the natives' choice to participate in the wine trade gradually entangled them in the larger Mediterranean economy, effectively "colonizing" them.

Those indigenous peoples were comprised of at least three linguistic groups: Iberian, Ligurian, and Celtic. Dietler began his anthropological career with an interest in the Celts, but soon decided that "you couldn't really understand what was going on in Celtic societies without understanding the dynamic relationship with the Greeks." So he started to examine the initial phase of contact between the two groups: the Early Iron Age in the lower Rhône basin of France.

There, archaeologists had found massive quantities of Greek and Etruscan amphoras used to hold and transport wine. What struck Dietler was that the locals didn't seem to adopt foreign goods and customs unrelated to wine. For instance, Greek Massaliot tablewares included bowls, plates, cups, and pitchers, but only drinking cups and wine pitchers were uncovered at the indigenous sites.

Dietler, who put himself through graduate school at Berkeley by working in the wine trade, set out to understand why the natives desired wine and what the results of that desire were.

He found his answers through a broad ethnographic exploration of alcohol feasts--not the raucous college beer party of Animal House fame, but the entrepreneurial feast intended to increase the host's informal prestige, and the work-party feast given in exchange for a good day's labor. Such methods of acquiring and wielding power, says Dietler, are common in small-scale polities without a marked degree of social stratification, as was true of the indigenous peoples of southern France.

Drinkers of beer and mead, the natives were first introduced to wine about 630 b.c. by Etruscan traders. Not only could they use the wine in their feasting, Dietler argues, the new trade also allowed those natives "who were previously disadvantaged to enter into these venues of social competitions; it allowed them to suddenly get these goods by other means [than labor-intensive production] and become players."

After the arrival of the Greeks, the natives may have traded goods badly needed by the settlers--such as metals, wheat, timber, salt, and livestock--to obtain wine for their own use. "At the same time," Dietler speculates, "the Massaliots probably figured out that they could also get the native peoples to do things for them by offering them wine. Colonial powers are usually pretty quick at picking up those kinds of things."

He emphasizes that the Greeks did not try to impose military control, nor did their "advanced" culture overwhelm the indigenous peoples. "A lot of the prior research has tended to conceptualize things in terms of this concept called 'Hellenization,' which is that things are wonderful in Greece, it's quite obvious why anybody who came into contact with Greeks would want to be like the Greeks," Dietler scoffs. "Well, in fact, anthropologically, that's a rather naive idea." Even though the natives adopted wine-drinking, he points out, classical references indicate that they drank their wine neat--a practice considered barbaric by the Greeks, who mixed it with water. And they rejected other elements of Greek culture, such as olive oil, coinage, and writing, for centuries after they began to drink wine.

Though no Early Iron Age recipes exist, literary references attest to the production of both red and white, sweet and dry wines. The first wine actually made in France was produced by Greek settlers at Massalia about 540 b.c. The natives may not have started making their own until the first century a.d., though recent finds at the site of Lattes--near Montpellier in the Languedoc region--where Dietler has an ongoing collaborative excavation, suggest that date may have to be moved up to the third century B.C.

The most significant discovery to come out of Lattes is the presence of huge quantities of Etruscan and Massaliot amphoras, showing that the town was a major trading port. At Lattes, Dietler can study changes in the wine trade and indigenous society in an area under native control. For a start, to determine the exact geographic origin of the containers that initiated the wine trade, Dietler and U of C geophysical-sciences senior research associate Ian Steele are using a scanning electron microscope and an electron microprobe to analyze mineral inclusions in the clay of the Etruscan amphoras.

Dietler plans to pursue his large-scale study of colonial interaction through the Roman period. Called to Massalia by the Greeks, who needed help defending themselves from hostile natives, the Romans eventually conquered southern France in 123 b.c. Unfortunately for the natives, the Romans chose to forgo wine in favor of that more standard method of colonization, military force.

--Written by Kim Sweet

Also in Investigations:

  • Molecule in Motion: by Keith Moffat, professor of biochemistry and molecular biology, helps to produce a "movie" of myoglobin at work.
  • Bursting onto the Scene:Gamma ray bursts are a big topic at NASA symposium-- and University of Chicago astronomer Don Q. Lamb thinks he can explain them.
  • Just in Time for Valentine's Day:. Daphne Preuss, assistant professor of molecular genetics and cell biology, and graduate student Laura Wilhelmi report in Science that mutant strains in some flowers prevent reproduction.
  • Future Holdings:Gary Becker discusses Hong Kong's return to China in Business Week.

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