Online Review: Book

Individuals and Society in Mycenaean Pylos

Katie Lantzas


By Dimitri Nakassis (Mnemosyne Suppl. 358). Pp. xvii + 448, figs. 18, tables 42. Brill, Leiden 2013. $171. ISBN 978-90-04-24451-1 (cloth).

Approaching and understanding the past at the level of the individual is one of the key problems and recent fascinations of archaeology. In Individuals and Society in Mycenaean Pylos, Nakassis draws on the corpus of Linear B documents from the palatial center of Pylos and successfully demonstrates that individuals participated in a variety of economic activities that took place on a more nuanced spectrum than previous models of the palatial administration and economy suggest. Through an examination of 800 persons identified by name, their relationships to one another, their specific geographic locations within the wider kingdom, and their role in the Pylian region, Nakassis challenges static models of palatial organization and social status. Focusing on smiths and herders (ch. 3) and soldiers and landowners (ch. 4), he challenges static models of palatial organization and social status, concluding that named individuals in the documents frequently participated in a variety of functions, even if they were considered “elite.”

The book presents its objectives and approach clearly in chapter 1, which also offers an excellent review of the Mycenaean palatial economy. Here, Nakassis establishes that previous models were read as inflexible, with clear boundaries between the wanax and his followers (palatial elite) and the laborers or commoners. He argues that prosopography provides information about the composition of the palatial elite, their relation to the palace, and their role in the process of state formation (5).

Chapter 2 focuses specifically on the Linear B documents from the palace of Pylos and the difficulties of making prosopographical identifications of individuals (29), and Nakassis acknowledges that Pylos presents a unique situation, ideal for this type of approach. Unlike the other palatial centers that have produced Linear B texts, the evidence from Pylos is unique in its chronological unity, quantity, and centralized location within the Archives Complex. Indeed, one of the strengths of the book is that it does not attempt to rewrite a blanket model for the organization of all of Mycenaean Greece, but remains focused on Pylos, while still offering a useful, common-sense reinterpretation of social roles and interactions among commoners, elites, and the palace.

Chapter 2 also clearly describes the methodology of Nakassis’ new prosopography. He uses two groups of evidence to establish an identification: (1) lexical, consisting of titles, patronymics, and ethnics; and (2) contextual, consisting of the analysis of name clusters at the same geographic locations within the same series of tablets or within individual tablets (49). He then rates the various identifications as probable, possible, or tenuous based on the strength of these connections.

These connections form the basis for groupings presented in subsequent chapters. In chapters 3 and 4, Nakassis demonstrates his approach. Those identified as smiths and/or herders (and this is an important distinction made by the book) are discussed in chapter 3, and those identified as landowners/soldiers/others are discussed in chapter 4. The grouping of individuals reinforces the conclusion that those important enough to be named in the tablets were “multitaskers” with the resources to undertake, and contribute to, palatial economic activities. This is particularly clear in the discussion of men identified as smiths. Nakassis establishes the multiple occurrences of specific individuals operating as smiths in different tablets. These individuals are also recorded as holding land; they received allotments of raw materials at disparate named sites throughout the region and were sometimes stationed with military units away from their usual locations. This evidence strongly suggests that one individual could participate in or oversee a variety of economic activities (80).

Nakassis demonstrates clear patterning in the names between particular series of texts and prosopographical identifications throughout these two chapters. For example, lexical and contextual evidence strongly suggests that many of the same individuals are named in the Jn series, detailing the names of smiths and their allocations of raw materials, and the o-ka set, which records men assigned to watch the coast (91). This provides further support to his conclusion that the job of smith or soldier was not necessarily a low-status or common position. Based on the evidence as presented, it appears instead that “craftsperson” and “member of the elite” were not mutually exclusive designations.

Based on the two previous chapters, Nakassis then argues for an expanded definition of “elite” in chapter 5. As the idea of the palace has expanded from the seat of the ruler to a central point for the collection and redistribution of various raw materials and finished luxury goods, so, too, must the idea of who occupied positions in the palatial economy. Nakassis argues that identifiable individuals with multiple responsibilities must have been important, particularly when their activities took place in different locations or economic fields (158–59). This further suggests that these individuals should potentially be viewed more as overseers; they did not necessarily perform the task of herding and accounting for sheep and goats, but ensured that the job was done and assumed responsibility for any shortfalls.

Even for the nonspecialist, Individuals and Society in Mycenaean Pylos is easily comprehensible and not weighed down by translations, terminology, or reproductions of texts. The transparency of the methodology and recognition of the various limitations do more to stimulate consideration about the use of prosopography rather than weaken the arguments based on this approach. Furthermore, the addition of an appendix containing the individual identifications allows for more detailed examination of the evidence without overloading the text itself with reproductions and translations.

As Nakassis reminds us, however, approximately 90% of the Pylian kingdom remains unnamed, and we are therefore still examining only those individuals important enough to be noted by the palace, even though he has successfully broadened the definition of “elite” (156). The question remains, then, as to how we can come to an understanding of the nameless individuals who operated outside the notice of the palatial administration.

The book also raises the question of how similar examinations can be undertaken in areas less rich in textual evidence. It clearly demonstrates that roles were much more fluid than previous models accounted for and that the idea of what constituted palatial management needs to be reexamined. A one-size-fits-all approach to the Mycenaean palatial centers throughout Greece is not effective and only reinforces a perceived homogeneity in practices and composition, and Individuals and Society in Mycenaean Pylos is an excellent step forward in suggesting new ways of approaching Mycenaean society.

Katie Lantzas
Rutgers University
Camden, New Jersey 08901

Book Review of Individuals and Society in Mycenaean Pylos, by Dimitri Nakassis

Reviewed by Katie Lantzas

American Journal of Archaeology Volume 118, Number 2 (April 2014)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1182.Lantzas

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