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Who Needs Culture When We Have Coke?

May 02, 2017

A brief rumination on archaeology and Coke.

Ai Weiwei, Coca-Cola Vase, 2014, Han Dynasty (206 BC–AD 220) vase with paint (courtesy Flickr/Ungry Young Man)
"[They are] the children of Marx and Coca-Cola."

—Jean-Luc Godard, Masculin féminin, 1966

With apologies, Godard could have been referring to archaeologists. Eric Wolf (1982:20) suggested that the social sciences “constitute one long dialogue with the ghost of Marx.” With its materialist bent and focus on production, archaeology fits well into this conception. To this disciplinary progenitor, I would add Coca-Cola. Although historically the concept of culture has been fundamental to anthropological archaeology, there is, as Leslie White (1959) observed, “an absolute lack of agreement as to what this term refers.” I suggest that Coke has usurped culture and is therefore positioned as the central object of archaeological inquiry. Of course, I make this suggestion with tongue planted firmly in cheek, but it is born of an experience I had almost ten years ago and have been turning over in my mind ever since—my visit to the World of Coca-Cola. In this sense, and with further apologies to Kent Flannery (1982), what follows is a brief rumination on archaeology and Coke, and no one should look for anything too profound in it.



"Drink Coca-Cola 5¢," 1890s advertising poster showing model Hilda Clark in formal nineteenth-century attire drinking Coke (LC-USZC4-12222; color film copy transparency)


Per its website, the World of Coca-Cola is “an attraction dedicated to the heritage of The Coca-Cola Company” and “the only place where you can explore the complete story—past, present and future—of the world's best-known brand.” Since its opening in 1990, it has received over 23 million visitors. The 60,000-square-foot facility features more than 1,200 artifacts from 30 different countries (“from France to Korea to Zimbabwe”) that “represent more than 125 years of Coca-Cola memories.” In essence, as Ted Friedman (1992:642) described its original iteration, it tells “a loose chronological history of Coke through an annotated, museum-like display of advertising memorabilia, punctuated by video presentations, live demonstrations, and interactive technology.” Visitors can do the following:

  • Taste over 100 international and domestic beverages made by The Coca-Cola Company.
  • Visit the vault where the legendary secret formula for Coca-Cola is secured.
  • Enjoy the best of Coca-Cola TV advertising throughout the years and across the globe.
  • Be amazed by a fully functioning bottling line and take home a free eight-ounce bottle of Coca-Cola.
  • Discover how the Coca-Cola system benefits people and communities around the world.
  • Meet and have your photo taken with the Coca-Cola Polar Bear.
  • View works by artists such as Andy Warhol, James Rosenquist, Elena Zolotnitsky, and Haddon Sundblom in the Pop Culture Gallery.

And so much more.

The one activity that remains etched in my mind is the “thrilling 4-D Theater” (a 3-D movie theater with moving seats) in which visitors “take a journey around the world In Search of the Secret Formula.” In this “multi-sensory movie experience,” we join a suitably eccentric scientist, his well-meaning assistant, and a lovable ferret in their search for Coke’s “secret ingredient.” Spoiler alert: the “secret ingredient” is you. My experience at the World of Coca-Cola gave me a refreshing pause for reflection on an idea central to anthropological archaeology.

The dominant message of the World of Coca-Cola is that this soft drink is the one thing that makes us all human. We see Coke being delivered to remote Amazonian communities, hear testimonies of what Coca-Cola means to a schoolteacher in Inner Mongolia, relive antiquated advertisements in which doctors extoll the virtues of Coke (“helps kids stay healthy!”), and so on. Visitors are encouraged to share their own stories (“we may feature it online!”) about how Coca-Cola has affected them: “Whether it is a childhood memory, a reminder of family gatherings, or a recollection of good times with friends, Coca-Cola has impacted the lives of people all over the world.”

This exploration of the Coca-Cola universe shares, as Friedman (1992:643) noted, “the Disney ideology of utopian internationalism”—itself rooted in Roland Barthes’s (1972) notion of the “Family of Man.” Essentially, Barthes argued that although distinct cultures are superficially different, deep down we're all the same. In other words, ethnic or cultural “diversity is only formal and does not belie the existence of a common mold” (Barthes 1972:100). Friedman details many more parallels between these attractions. As my colleague Michael Carrasco and I have recently argued (2016), what is presented at Disney or the World of Coca-Cola is both real in the sense that it exists, but it is also a fabrication to the extent that it represents a reality apart from itself. The spaces, environments, rides, and other features of the park have real dimensions and create a real space. These spaces are populated with fragments of the past, often nostalgic in nature, intermixed with the fictional worlds of the movies or other similar narratives. In the end, however, such spaces are the materializations of fictive realities.

But the reality of Coke’s world domination is anything but fictive. It is viewed as many things, including a religious fetish (Chidester 1996), a beacon of cultural imperialism (McBride 2005), and even a sexual stimulant or inhibitor (Time, Inc. 1950). It has been served on the space shuttle (Orloff 1996), and its distribution network is seen as a model for the delivery of life-saving medications (Enserink 2008). I live in Mexico, the world’s top consumer of Coca-Cola products, with an annual per capita consumption of 728 eight-fluid-ounce servings, according to the most recent available figures. That is nearly six gallons of Coke per person each year or sixteen ounces per day for 122 million Mexicans. I have seen Coca-Cola served to infants in baby bottles. In the church of San Juan Chamula, in Chiapas, Coke is employed in the syncretic ritual practices of the indigenous Tzotzil population.

Daniel Miller (1998:169–70) suggests that Coca-Cola exists on a metasymbolic level, a “higher, more mystical level of symbolization,” and has come to stand “for the general sense that there exists a symbolic quality of things above and beyond the ordinary world.” Coke is therefore a “dangerous icon,” Miller argues, at once both material culture and “symbol that stands for a debate about the materiality of culture.” Coke replaces larger metanarratives—it explains everything, does everything, is everything, and binds us together, defining us as members of the human race. Thus, Coca-Cola supplants culture as the essential aspect of the human condition. Which brings us back to archaeology. One might think that describing and explaining cultural diversity is the central goal of anthropological archaeology. I say pah! Who needs culture when we have Coke?

Immediately after visiting the World of Coca-Cola, I had a dream—a dream about doing archaeology in the distant future. I was excavating a midden and unearthing a mountain of Coke bottles and cans. I found some advertisements for Coca-Cola, and even some remnants of the short-lived Coca-Cola clothing brand. In more elite contexts, I found examples of Ai Weiwei’s Coca-Cola vase series. I thought about what future archaeologists would make of this material configuration. The sheer volume of Coke-related material in modern societies—particularly those countries, like Mexico, that are leading consumers—might lead the researchers of the future to conclude that Coca-Cola was a central aspect of both our material and ideological lives, something that primitive people long ago venerated. The raw force of Coca-Cola was at once base and superstructure.

Maybe this assessment would not be that far off the mark. Perhaps we also worshipped Mickey Mouse as the head of a pantheon of Olympian deities, Zeus to Minnie’s Hera. We made offerings of Coke and McDonald’s hamburgers to these gods, and they blessed us with a bountiful harvest of Vin Diesel blockbusters. Of course, that potential interpretation may be simply a function of ongoing commentaries regarding consumerism and commodity fetishization in modern capitalist society. But to end with another reference to Godard, as the producer Jerry Prokosch said to Fritz Lang in 1963’s Le Mépris—itself a commentary on commercialism—“Whenever I hear the word ‘culture,’ I bring out my checkbook.”


Barthes, Roland. 1972. Mythologies. Translated by Annette Lavers. London: Paladin.

Carrasco, Michael D., and Joshua D. Englehardt. 2016. Representation and Reality: The Archaeological Object in the Age of Digital Reproduction. Paper presented at the 8th World Archaeology Congress. Kyoto, Japan.

Chidester, David. 1996. "The Church of Baseball, the Fetish of Coca-Cola, and the Potlatch of Rock 'n' Roll: Theoretical Models for the Study of Religion in American Popular Culture." Journal of the American Academy of Religion 64(4): 743–65.

Enserink, Martin. 2008. "Malaria Drugs, the Coca-Cola Way." Science 322: 1174.

Flannery, Kent V. 1982. "The Golden Marshalltown." American Anthropologist 84: 256–78.

Friedman, Ted. 1992. "The World of The World of Coca-Cola." Communication Research 19(5): 642–62.

McBride, Anne E. 2005. "Have Your Coke and Eat It Too: What Cooking with Coca-Cola Says about Cultural Imperialism." Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture 5(1): 80–87.

Miller, Daniel. 1998. "Coca-Cola: A Black Sweet Drink from Trinidad." In Material Cultures: Why Some Things Matter, edited by Daniel Miller, 169–87. London: University of Chicago Press and University College London Press.

Orloff, Richard W. 1996. "Space Shuttle Mission STS-77, Press Kit: National Aeronautics and Space Administration." Electronic document, Flight_077_STS-077_Press_Kit.pdf, accessed April 20, 2017.

Time, Inc. 1950. "The Sun Never Sets on Cacoola." Time 55(20): 30–37.

White, Leslie. 1959. The Evolution of Culture. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Wolf, Eric R. 1982. Europe and the People without History. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Joshua D. Englehardt is a research professor at the Centro de Estudios Arqueológicos of El Colegio de Michoacán and a CONACYT Level I National Investigator. His research focuses on the development of Mesoamerican writing systems and the correlation of emerging scripts with diachronic changes in material culture. He is codirector of The Mesoamerican Corpus of Formative Period Art and Writing and the Proyecto Arqueologico Teuchitlán. Recent publications include Agency in Ancient Writing (2012), Archaeological Paleography (2016), Diálogos sobre la Relación entre Arqueología, Antropología, e Historia (2017), and the upcoming These "Thin Partitions" (with Ivy Rieger).

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