By Published: April 17, 2018

Archaeology helps us understand the lives led by everyone, not just the elite or male or adult or freeborn, observes Elspeth Dusinberre

Throughout history, people who lived within or near empires have faced fundamentally similar problems, and archaeology helps scholars explain what kinds of problems and how people responded. That’s one conclusion of Elspeth Dusinberre, a professor of classics at the University of Colorado Boulder’s College of Arts and Sciences.


Elspeth Dusinberre

Dusinberre will deliver the 112th Distinguished Research Lecture at CU Boulder on Tuesday, May 1, at 4 p.m. in the University Memorial Center’s Glenn Miller Ballroom. Her talk is titled “Archaeology, Imperialism and What it Means to Be Human.”

Dusinberre, who has won 12 teaching awards is a President’s Teaching Scholar, is an expert in the Achaemenid Persian Empire (ca. 550-330 BCE), ancient imperialism and the give-and-take between different cultures. She combines study of texts with visual and material culture to try to understand both details and larger implications.

Her work on Anatolia—­­roughly the same area as modern Turkey—proposes a new model for understanding imperialism that focuses on human behavior; this model seeks to understand different kinds of authority wielded and autonomy exerted in such contexts as governing, the military, eating and drinking, mortuary practices, religion and education.

Recently, she answered five questions about her work and lecture:

You’ve devoted much of your scholarly life to studying the Achaemenid Persian Empire; how did you come to be interested in this topic?

My love affair with the Achaemenid Persian Empire (ca. 550-330 BCE) began during my first season excavating in Turkey in 1991, just after I graduated from college. I was digging at a site named Sardis that had been the capital of Lydia and then became the regional administrative headquarters for that part of the Achaemenid Empire. A ceramic sherd turned up in my trench from a cup shape I had never seen before, merrily painted with narrow horizontal stripes in lively white and red.


Achaemenid Persian Empire, ca. 550-330 BCE. Courtesy of Professor Karl Mueller, Department of Geological Sciences CU Boulder.

When the project director next came by, I asked him what it was. "That," he said, "is a sherd of the so-called Achaemenid bowl." I was hooked. In the following months in graduate school, I took first a course on ancient Near Eastern art and archaeology and then a seminar on Achaemenid art. I was particularly smitten by the imagery of a sealstone excavated from Sardis and now in Istanbul, which showed an overtly Achaemenid imperial scene including a hero-king, lion-griffins, and bearded sphinxes even though it was found at the remote edge of the empire. 

Overall, I love the art of the Achaemenid Empire—in both literal and figurative terms. Its visual culture makes my heart go pitter-pat, and the artistry involved in ruling such a variegated array of people and landscapes fascinates me. 

What challenges do you face as you study imperialism through the archaeological record, and how do you surmount those challenges?

Imperialism is such a vast and knotty concept, let alone process, that it defies easy definition or facile study. That makes archaeology, with its many kinds of evidence and ways of getting at human behavior and ideas, an ideal avenue for its investigation.

Archaeology is great at letting us see change over time, at allowing glimpses of human behaviors and sometimes the reasons underlying those behaviors and the ways they develop. It offers evidence for the lives led by everyone, not just the elite or male or adult or freeborn. In this way it provides a chance to see the impact of imperialism on people living at all levels of society, evidence that can complement, correct, or fill in gaps we might find in textual sources (that is to say, if texts even exist for the places and periods under study). But the archaeological record is always fragmentary, and archaeological research requires piecing together a lot of different things to gain as clear a sense as possible of behavioral patterns. 


This bracelet, found in a tomb dating to about 525 BCE, is typical of the kind found throughout the Persian empire. Photo Dr. Gebhard Bieg, © Gordion Archaeological Project.

Some challenges are inherent in the archaeological record—what evidence has been preserved, what has been discovered. You can get around at least some of those problems by incorporating as great a variety of evidence as possible. 

For instance, if you are interested in the fundamental question of what and how people ate and drank, you can make use of the dishes out of which people ate and the cups from which they drank, the pots and pans used to make food, the vessels used for serving food and drink, residue analysis, paleobotanical and paleozoological evidence, palynology, landscape and spatial analysis, and the textual record as well. Or if you are interested in a different kind of social issue—like, say, the cooption of local elites to participate in positions of authority within a new and burgeoning empire—there might be little direct evidence, but you can get a sense of what was happening and how by triangulating between historical texts, mortuary sculpture, the architecture of power, changing table manners and drinking customs, and imagery on the sealstones used by the elite in a new imperial context.

Some challenges are created by modern scholars ourselves.

For instance, the study of the Achaemenid Empire was hindered for a long time by anti-Persian prejudices emerging already in ancient Greek literature and art and perpetuated by subsequent European and North American scholars. Also for a long time people just weren't interested in the Achaemenid Empire: For those who studied the ancient Near East it was too late, while for those who studied the Greek world it was too far east. And even in the latter half of the 20th century it took a while before people realized that imperial presence and action could be seen not only in obviously identifiable ethnically Persian imported artifacts but also via the impact of imperial hegemony on the behaviors and practices of those living within the empire.

I feel very fortunate to be working now in a time when the full array of archaeological and textual evidence can be brought to bear on broad, complex and interesting questions to do with imperialism, how it worked, and how political and military change affect(ed) the lives of people living within and around an empire. It is exciting to be part of a changing intellectual world that keeps identifying new problems and figuring out new ways to solve them.

Do imperial powers throughout history tend to make the same kinds of errors, and, if so, what might that tell us?

I think it is important to think about what actions imperial powers throughout history have taken in order to solve what kinds of problems, to consider the ways that people living both within and outside an empire might respond to fundamental human problems and to consider also the potential solutions they found in terms of how they lived or expressed themselves. 

It's not only imperial powers that have agency but also individuals and groups. That matters a lot in thinking about what we might learn from past imperial actions."

One of the really important things to recognize, I think, is agency: It's not only imperial powers that have agency but also individuals and groups. That matters a lot in thinking about what we might learn from past imperial actions. What kinds of agency can we ourselves exert in our various different capacities? What have the consequences of past actions been under circumstances akin to those in which we find ourselves now? What kinds of agency do we therefore want to exercise now and in what sorts of directions, to enable the outcomes we think best?

Many of the problems faced by people living in, or next to, or in a situation that requires interaction with, an empire remain fundamentally similar. But the solutions people find to resolving those issues change with time, geography and cultural background. 

What role did official rhetoric play in supporting the Achaemenid Persian Empire?

Official rhetoric, both verbal and visual, played an essential role in establishing, consolidating and perpetuating the Achaemenid Persian Empire. Indeed, its impacts can still be sensed.


A little bit of Persian imperial rhetoric is reflected here.

Our own coinage owes its notional beginnings to the official visual rhetoric of the Achaemenid Persian Empire! The first instance of a human head shown on the obverse of a coin dates to the Achaemenid period, when the kings appropriated this spot—that had previously been reserved for gods—for their own image. This visually equated king with god. The first portrait heads on coins (a portrait of an individual ruler, as opposed to a head denoting an idea of "kingship") also were struck during the Achaemenid period. Alexander the Great and his successors followed suit, and the idea was taken up by the Hellenistic kings and then the Romans. This inspiration is ultimately the reason that our American coins bear a portrait head on the obverse (e.g., George Washington on the quarter). 

The effectiveness of Achaemenid imperial rhetoric is demonstrated also in its propagation across vast tracts of land—in addition to the millions of square miles the empire controlled directly, we see imperial Achaemenid visual rhetoric showing up even in areas outside Persian hegemony such as Greece or the Altai Mountains in Siberia near the borders with China, Kazakhstan and Mongolia.
A legitimizing ideology is an important factor in establishing imperial authority; without the participation of an empire's inhabitants in power relations, the legitimacy of authority dissolves. The Achaemenid kings were adroit at combining texts and images, and at disseminating images, that conveyed the same basic notion: The king stands at the fulcrum of balance, and with the king at its center, the world enjoys peace and harmony. The king enjoys this position thanks to the blessing of the gods and indeed is close to the gods himself. This idea was proclaimed throughout the empire in all kinds of ways, including through images on coins as well as many other avenues. 

If you go
What: “Archaeology, Imperialism and What it Means to Be Human”
When: 4 p.m., Tuesday, May 1
Where: Glenn Miller Ballroom, University Memorial Center
How: Free, but registration is requested
Also: Reception to follow at about 5 p.m.

The title of your May 1 talk prompts a final question: What does it mean to be human?

The quickest of internet searches highlights the variety of responses to this question! Archaeology offers a lot of ways to understand human action, reaction and interaction in an imperial setting. On May 1, I will offer some different kinds of evidence for thinking about the question and understanding our connections to each other and the past.

The Distinguished Research Lecture is sponsored by the CU Boulder Research and Innovation Office. Learn more about the lecture at the office’s website.