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Mycenaean Greece, Mediterranean Commerce, and the Formation of Identity

Mycenaean Greece, Mediterranean Commerce, and the Formation of Identity

By Bryan E. Burns. Pp. xii + 246, figs. 35, tables 2, plans 3, maps 3. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2010. $85. ISBN 978-0-521-11954-2 (cloth).

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Mycenaean Greece, Mediterranean Commerce, and the Formation of Identity is a clear and informative book on the perception, formation, and development of Mycenaean identity. The title of the volume juxtaposes three important topics, though the contents focus on exotic artifacts in Mycenaean Greece and the role of such artifacts in local social and political dynamics. Burns uses contexts from Mycenaean Greece to consider Mediterranean commerce, but this reveals a "local" rather than "global" perspective. The volume develops and expands the doctoral thesis of the author, and it is aimed at a specialist audience, with some chapters presenting a thorough and intensive review of the available archaeological evidence. The result is a methodologically sound and detailed analysis of the consumption of exotic artifacts in Mycenaean Greece, with particular relevance to their functionality for strategies of social power.

The major problem of the book is that the two initial chapters appear as self-contained papers that do little to progress the narrative of the volume, at least in considering the focus of the last few chapters and the conclusions. The first chapter presents the methodology of the volume, which emphasizes the study of archaeological contexts and the use of anthropological approaches to consumption. Although this chapter uses older bibliographic sources than the rest of the volume, those sources are used to criticize past research in the field and justify Burns' contribution. The methodology is sound, but it covers areas that are only marginally discussed in the following chapters. For instance, Burns discusses world-systems theory (19) and assesses other broad-scale analyses (20); but throughout the volume, he is concerned primarily with local and regional contexts. Indeed, only one page later he presents his own methodology with a few examples in a section entitled "Assessing Individual Imports," which denies the relevance of the broad-scale analyses just discussed. The final section of the chapter focuses on how exotic artifacts are identified, suggesting that this process is subjective (36), and it is difficult to disagree with the author.

Chapter 2 is an extensive review of how modern perceptions of Mycenaean society and civilization came to be and how they affect contemporary scholarship. It is an absorbing chapter about pioneers of archaeology such as Arthur Evans and Heinrich Schliemann that shows how multiple and different perspectives have been formulated depending on whether scholars have considered Mycenaean Greece on its own or within some broader perspective. The chapter offers almost exclusively artistic approaches, which contrast with the methodological concepts presented in the first chapter. It is precise and well documented, referring to several 19th-century publications of materials unfamiliar to most archaeologists, including specialists. Such discussion is largely unnecessary, however, because it summarizes how the perception of Mycenaean Greece changed with new discoveries, resulting in a history of research.

After the narrative pause represented by chapter 2, the volume picks up a consistent and focused approach in chapter 3 with the earliest imports to Mycenaean Greece, particularly those from the Shaft Graves of Mycenae. The author recognizes that Minoan intermediaries acted in early Mycenaean exchange networks and substantiates his statement with a precise analysis of several exotica, which seem to have been modified in Crete before being imported into Mycenaean Greece. The presence of two groups of burials at Mycenae—Grave Circles A and B of the Shaft Graves—leads to the idea that two elite groups competed to control Late Helladic I Mycenae. Exotic artifacts were symbols of prestige and were used to obtain social power and legitimize status. Burns' masterly analysis of hundreds of artifacts demonstrates how such social conflicts can be recognized throughout the history of Mycenaean Greece, both at a regional level amongst competing settlements and within settlements (e.g., Mycenae and Tiryns [161]), as groups attempted to affirm themselves using exotic artifacts. In later periods, it becomes apparent that the Mycenaeans were able to source materials without using the Minoans as intermediaries (104), and they locally produced imitations or reworked ("embellished") materials (94). The author points out that rather than being based on material or distance from the location of manufacture (both of which may have been unknown to most ancient Mycenaeans), the competition was grounded in the availability of increasingly sophisticated artifacts that were perceived as exotic. While in the Shaft Graves, a piece of raw ivory was deemed to meet this ancient perception, in later periods, artisans had to work ivory for artifacts made of this material to be used in the social dynamics of power.

The exact role of palaces remains unclear. Evidence for internal conflicts, substantiated by an increase of imports in the later archaeological contexts and the relative absence of an established trading system comparable to royal gift exchange, produces a lively and dynamic view of Mycenaean society. In particular, the existence of private traders not controlled by palatial authorities seems not only possible but probable in such situations. Burns discusses varying palatial control over local societies and economies but touches only marginally on broader issues of long-distance trade. Recent scholarship has recognized the role of private traders in the spread of Mycenaean-style pottery in the Mediterranean—from Egypt to Iberia (e.g., G.J. van Wijngaarden, Use and Appreciation of Mycenaean Pottery in the Levant, Cyprus and Italy (1600–1200 BC) [Amsterdam 2002]; C. Bell, The Evolution of Long Distance Trading Relationships Across the LBA/Iron Age Transition on the Northern Levantine Coast [Oxford 2005]; A. Vianello, Late Bronze Age Mycenaean and Italic Products in the West Mediterranean [Oxford 2005]). As a result, for artifacts to be recognized as "exotic" in antiquity and maintain their desirability through extensive periods of time, it was necessary to transfer onto them some symbolic idea of "exoticness." Such symbolic transfers occurred locally, often through the production from raw materials of artifacts that only imitated or adapted foreign artifacts, to suit local needs and tastes. The concept that new meanings are embedded in artifacts as they are transferred from one culture to another has become a staple of anthropology and archaeology, but the concept that exotica could be manufactured locally according to local ideas of what an exotic artifact "should be" is relatively new, at least in Aegean archaeology.

The book seems to have suffered from an unnecessary complexity of historical argumentation in chapter 2 and from a general paucity of illustrations, which are essential for detailed artifact-by-artifact analyses, especially for objects of gold, ivory, amber, glass, and precious stone. No color illustrations are present, and only 35 illustrations grace the book as a whole. It is a pity that readability (significant prior knowledge of some topics and artifacts is required) and access (the price of the volume) have been compromised, because this is an excellent contribution, with the potential of promoting further research on Late Bronze Age Mediterranean trade and the social dynamics of Mycenaean Greece.

Andrea Vianello
University of Oxford
United Kingdom

Book Review of Mycenaean Greece, Mediterranean Commerce, and the Formation of Identity, by Bryan E. Burns

Reviewed by Andrea Vianello

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 115, No. 2 (April 2011)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1152.Vianello

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