Online Review: Book

Ambiguity and Minoan Neopalatial Seal Imagery

Anna Simandiraki-Grimshaw


By Erin McGowan (SIMA-PB 176). Pp. xii + 96, figs. 47. Åström Editions, Uppsala 2011. €35. ISBN 978-91-7081-244-6 (cloth).

Glyptic is one of the most intensely studied yet most intriguingly surprising categories of Bronze Age Aegean (and within it, Cretan) material culture. As a disciplinary field, it has attracted heterogeneous, often conflicting but increasingly standardized scholarship, depending on the paradigm, institutional agendas, and even cultural background. The concern of this subdiscipline with the imagery of seals and sealings forms the backdrop of McGowan’s book. This volume aims to both review and refresh this field, with particular emphasis on Neopalatial, mostly figural, iconography.

The volume is divided into five chapters. The introduction (ch. 1) sets out the strategy and aim of the book, which is the recasting of “ambiguity” as “multivalence,” away from its current, convenient marginalization. The chapter, in effect, serves three purposes: (1) to contextualize and acknowledge epistemic bias in Aegean glyptic studies, with special reference to Crete; (2) to equip the reader with essential information on the chronological nuances, sphragistic practices, and social and intermaterial aspects of seals/sealings; and (3) to highlight interpretational pitfalls. Chapter 2 explores how the issue of ambiguity in Minoan glyptic studies has been recognized, often negatively problematized, and/or completely marginalized. Therefore, this chapter also serves as a short overview of the rich stratigraphy of glyptic academia and its workings, from Evans’ collection and interpretation of “galopetres” to the huge project that is the CMS (Corpus der minoischen und mykenischen Siegel). During this discussion, McGowan identifies the structuralism of the 1980s and 1990s as the main period/paradigm when ambiguity of image (and therefore interpretation) became a “problem” for clear, static definitions of seals and sealings (16–28). The author deconstructs the many ways in which this occurred, from arguments for lost cultural code to accusations of bad scholarship. However, McGowan argues, the consideration of ambiguity as problematic is unsatisfactory because it disempowers other types of interpretation: “Aegean iconographic elements were utilised in multiple contexts with multiple readings and … multiple factors played a role in determining these in their various contexts” (31). Consequently, chapter 3 addresses how we may perceive categories (epistemologically and psychologically speaking) by raising issues about the role that different factors (e.g., color) play. The author also discusses how cognitive styles (e.g., field dependency) can influence or even construct visual perception. This chapter, ultimately, sets out a theoretical framework through a “bricolage . . . of poststructural thought” (33). Chapter 4 is where theory and application to material come together. Here, the author uses specific, selected examples not only to trace purpose in multivalent depiction but also to explore how a simultaneous multitude of meanings may have been conveyed depending on the image’s or object’s associative, physical, and conceptual contexts. Among several arguments and interpretations is McGowan’s suggestion that one of the devices for multivalency, the distillation of detail, may not only be attributed to size restrictions or symbolism (54–6, 66–7). It also may have been an attempt at conflating messages previously depicted on many surfaces (e.g., the sides of Protopalatial prismatic seals) onto a single (Neopalatial) surface (66–7). The examples used, of a bird/boat and a bird lady/bucranium plus helmet, are particularly apt. Chapter 5 concludes by summarizing the major thesis of the volume: a change of paradigm to accommodate purposeful (Neopalatial) glyptic ambiguity, with the cautionary note that this would, of course, apply to some and not all imagery. McGowan also suggests future avenues for research.

The volume has several strengths. First, it is a critical review of Aegean glyptic as a genre, as well as a stratified discipline in need of change. Thus, the book serves as a complementary gateway for academic and nonacademic audiences, from students of Aegean glyptic to seasoned researchers and field practitioners. Second, McGowan’s book serves as a sustained, serious attempt at integrating wider archaeological and extra-archaeological thought with Aegean material culture, away from naturalized, axiomatic methodologies or wholesale dismissal of theory as irrelevant for interpretation. Third, the book successfully demonstrates, building on a few other relevant studies, that the agency of an image for both its original and current users was and is much more dynamic, fluid, and shifting than has hitherto been recognized or admitted. This is particularly important for a more empathetic (ground-up) understanding of the material rather than a more hierarchical (top-down) imposition of meaning onto it.

The volume also presents some weaknesses, mainly regarding its structure. First, the theoretical chapter (ch. 3) contains unusually dense passages that need more unpacking, enriching with more Aegean illustrative examples, or perhaps spreading out throughout the book. The chapter is nevertheless well written and logically developed, and the writing style in the rest of the book is as taut as it is pleasurable. Second, after the theoretical chapter and the application chapter (ch. 4), the latter mainly illustrating the potential for multi­valence due to orientation, the reader is left wanting more. For example, the use of light could have been further explored in an additional chapter, rather than touched on in passing (e.g., 52–3). A case could have been made for the possibility that different individual scenes on gold Neopalatial rings could have been highlighted depending on the light angle, using specific examples (e.g., the Isopata ring), as in chapter 4. The structure or balance of the book, in other words, could perhaps have been different, so as to allow the application of McGowan’s methodology to counterbalance her theoretical groundwork (chs. 1–3), which currently takes up three-quarters of the main text. But that is not to say the book is not successful in its current form: it still delivers a thoroughly argued and innovative approach.

The aim of the book is best put by its author: “to demonstrate that there are glyptic images which elicit different associations under different physical and conceptual conditions. In doing so, I hope to have forged a new path for future investigation of glyptic imagery” (74). This McGowan has certainly done, in my opinion. Her book succeeds in showcasing the potential that reflexive and multimodal engagements have for our understanding of Minoan and Aegean material culture’s fluid agency and networks. It is for this reason that I recommend this book.

Anna Simandiraki-Grimshaw
Classical and Archaeological Studies
School of European Culture and Languages
University of Kent
Kent CT2 7NF
United Kingdom

Book Review of Ambiguity and Minoan Neopalatial Seal Imagery, by Erin McGowan

Reviewed by Anna Simandiraki-Grimshaw

American Journal of Archaeology Volume 117, Number 1 (January 2013)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1171.Simandiraki-Grimshaw

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