Feb. 15, 1996
Vol. 15, No. 11

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    In vino veritas: Scholar's history of wine brings new insights

    from old bottles photo Wine, enjoyed throughout history for its festive qualities, also helped propel economic and social changes in Iron Age cultures, contends an anthropologist who studies the impact of alcohol on the development of ancient societies.

    In an article published in the Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, "Driven by Drink," Michael Dietler, Associate Professor in Anthropology, argues that the introduction of wine into the societies of southern France in the seventh century B.C. significantly changed social and power relations.

    So important was the trade in wine to the region that it provided an impetus for development of the area surrounding the Mediterranean port of Marseilles, which was founded as a Greek colony about 600 B.C.

    Dietler argues that wine became a driving force in the development of the region because it could be used as a reward for men engaged in community labor projects and in political rituals of hospitality.

    Other scholars have contended that the introduction of wine to the region was just one facet of a more general process of Hellenization -- societies throughout the Mediterranean region adopted wine drinking, along with other aspects of Greek culture, based on their admiration for the achievements of classical Greek civilization.

    In Dietler's view, however, the pleasure and social role of drinking took precedence over any respect for Greek ways of life when a society adopted elements of the Greek culture of wine drinking.

    Dietler's work on the role of alcoholic beverages in ancient society has helped establish a new model for the study of prehistoric cultures that used wine as a form of exchange, and he has shown how this exchange can help explain the contours of ancient political structures.

    Drinking in ancient France

    Dietler's fieldwork is centered in southern France, where he excavates sites associated with the wine trade in pre-Roman times. Evidence for the importance of wine shipping is abundant throughout France, where contemporary farm plows often uncover shards of ancient amphorae used to transport wine.

    Before the arrival of the Greek traders, the people living in the region around Marseilles drank brews made of fermented grain and honey. But imported wine from the Etruscans of Italy soon became popular about a generation before the founding of Marseilles.

    "Imported Mediterranean wine was then incorporated into traditional patterns of feasting and hospitality and used, along with native forms of drink, to mobilize labor and build prestige," said Dietler.

    People did not adopt the Greek methods of drinking wine, however, which included mixing wine with water. The early people of southern France preferred to drink their wine unadulterated, and they also chose to forego the elaborate rituals associated with wine drinking in Greece.

    Imported wine apparently had special appeal because it was less perishable than the native grain- or honey-based drinks, and it could be stored and transported easily. As an imported good, it also conveyed more status than did the indigenous drink. And unlike gold and other precious metals, which retained value without being consumed, wine was valuable only when used.

    "A ruler could thus augment his prestige, assure the support of a larger group of warriors or followers, or step up production for trade or public projects through drink-rewarded [recruited] labor," Dietler writes in "Driven by Drink."

    Wine and systems of power

    Dietler also contends that the use of wine reveals the distribution of power throughout the region. Wine was used in the Marseilles region in ways that differed markedly from the ways it was used in the north, for example, in the Hallstatt region, a Celtic area in and around Burgundy that had a better-defined system of social hierarchy.

    Imported drinking vessels used in the northern area were more elaborate than those used in the south, according to Dietler. Indeed, one of the most elaborate wine vessels ever discovered from antiquity, a bronze wine vessel more than five feet tall, was unearthed in the Burgundy region.

    "In hierarchical systems, ritual drinking practices would be valued mainly for their symbolic functions, and imported drinking gear could be extremely useful in differentiating elite drinking even where the supply of exotic drink was meager or irregular," said Dietler.

    In less hierarchical societies, such as those around Marseilles, "exotic drink would be valued more for its use in fulfilling status obligations of political authority through transfers in the form of hospitality," he said. For example, wine might be used to reward laborers in work-party feasts.

    The less hierarchical societies thus required a greater abundance of wine than did societies in which wine use was reserved for the elite. Conveniently, Marseilles was much easier to reach through the sea trade routes than was the Hallstatt region, which required a trip up the Rhone Valley.

    A model for prehistoric development

    The use of wine in these two contrasting cultures of ancient France, one more egalitarian than the other, demonstrates how the introduction of wine transformed the economic and political dynamics of prehistoric societies, Dietler suggests.

    In hierarchical societies, wine became a vehicle to reinforce the power structure. "There might well be competition among individual members of the elite group in a community or among leaders of neighboring groups, in terms of access to trade sources and manipulation of status display and hospitality," said Dietler. "But the fundamental internal power arrangements would remain unchanged."

    In less centralized societies, the importation of wine could initially increase the power of men who were already leaders in the community. However, others could also benefit, and access to wine would then lead to social competition in which those who could acquire wine could then mobilize labor for their economic benefit.

    It was just this sort of competition for prestige and power among the people of the lower Rhone Valley that made imported wine such a socially volatile item. The new entrepreneurs in the prehistoric society "would be able to host feasts with imported wine and mobilize labor for production, trade or personal projects without first building up a resource base in the traditional way," said Dietler.

    Dietler observes that this new wealth enabled the entrepreneurs to trade with other indigenous societies, establish other trade links and secure the resources needed to engage in the importation of metal goods and other valuable items that were important in local systems of prestige and politics.

    "Drinking is, obviously, not the only social practice through which relations of economic and political power in a society are reflected and manipulated," said Dietler. "However, it is very often an important element in this domain, and it deserves the serious consideration in prehistoric contexts that it has won in ethnographic ones."

    -- William Harms