I decided to specialise in the archaeology of colonialism many years ago when I was studying in Egypt. Wandering around Cairo’s European quartier – a colonial imposition –, and visiting the former Bronze-Age/Phoenician/Greco-Roman/Crusader/Mamluk/Ottoman/French city of Ṣūr (Tyre) in Lebanon, I realised how much our history and daily experience is shaped by colonialism.

Maybe it was because I was disappointed not to find Phoenician traces in the old city of Tyre (due to the later Roman colonisation), or because I stared at the Mediterranean sunset from Byblos’ harbour thinking of the many Phoenician boats navigating the ancient Mediterranean, the fact is that the material traces of colonialism instead of disillusioning me, they were deeply attracting. Things are unwritten and thus can unveil the voices of underprivileged people forgotten by texts and mainstream discourses, and that mere prospect is fascinating! This is especially true for colonial contexts, since written sources tend to favour the conquerors and rarely the vanquished.

From diet analysis, cooking and tableware, to urbanism and architecture – among many other material remains –, archaeology challenges the master narratives and recovers subaltern histories.

– Remains of Roman Tyre (Author, 2008)

Food is one of the most important aspects in human life; but food can also be imposed onto others, forbidden, or controlled by colonists. Bread, for instance, or olive oil were unknown in southern Iberia before the arrival of the Phoenicians in the 9th century BC, and the same is true for fish sauce (no, the Garum was not invented by the Romans!). Since the Phoenician and Greek colonisation, bread, fish sauce, and especially olive oil spread and were adopted by many Indigenous communities in the Mediterranean – freely or forcedly is still open to debate.

– Boeotian terracotta of women making bread, 6th-5th century BC, from the Musée du Louvre (© Marie-Lan Nguyen)

Architecture and urbanism are also crucial in establishing colonies and ways of moving through and relating to the inhabited space. Wandering years ago through Damascus in Syria (today unfortunately mostly destroyed by war), I had flashbacks of my (many!) visits and wanderings in Cordoba, once the capital of the Caliphate in Islamic Iberia. The Arabs arrived in Spain and Portugal in the AD 8th century and imposed onto the local landscape they encountered their own conception of space, including their religious buildings, completely different from the early Christian churches in Iberia.

The wonderful Islamic heritage of Spain embodies the violence of conquest and subjugation, but also the arts, culture, and practices of one of the most important historical periods of the Iberian Peninsula – al-Andalus. Today this heritage does not escape controversy, since there are continuous efforts to Christianise the Islamic monuments.

– The mosque-cathedral of Cordoba in Andalusia, Spain (Author, 2013)

The colonial Americas are a great example to dig into colonial architectural and urban impositions. In Chile, as in many other countries colonised by Spain, the Spaniards transformed the local landscape following their own conceptions and use of space. Gradually, the Reche-Mapuche (Indigenous people of central-southern Chile) way of inhabiting the space and their type of houses (ruka) disappeared – a process that was not complete until the independence and subsequent ‘Pacificación de la Araucanía’ (a euphemism used by the Chilean government to conquer the Reche-Mapuche land). Yet, the Reche-Mapuche proved their resilience and resistance against both Spanish and Chilean colonisations, and many of them continued to live in their rukas.

– Above, archaeological remains of a Reche-Mapuche house (ruka) (© C. Ocampo, D. Munita & R. Mera), and below, an old postcard showing a ruka Mapuche in the 19th century.

Today, you can experience years of community memories and belonging in the ruka reconstruction at the Museo Mapuche de Cañete. It is a wonderful museum whose exhibition was organised and structured communally with local Mapuche communities. Definitely worth a visit!

My current project in Cambridge focuses particularly on the material traces of colonialism and subaltern agency. Stay tuned for more exciting archaeological insights into colonialism!