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L’art égéen. Vol. 2, Mycènes et le monde mycénien

July 2016 (120.3)

Book Review

L’art égéen. Vol. 2, Mycènes et le monde mycénien

By Jean-Claude Poursat. Pp. 303, b&w figs. 387, color pls. 82, maps 4. Éditions Picard, Paris 2014. €65. ISBN 978-2-7084-0945-3 (cloth).

Reviewed by

This volume is the second of a pair dedicated to a comprehensive presentation of Aegean art, from the Neolithic through the end of the Bronze Age. In an age when handbooks and companions comprised of chapters written by area specialists proliferate, it is a little surprising to see so ambitious a project undertaken by a sole author. Poursat demonstrates one of the great advantages of the latter approach, maintaining a taut organization and consistent tone throughout, providing a coherence often lacking in edited collections. The author’s writing style is a model of clarity and directness that is appropriate for this kind of reference work. Add in abundant citations and up-to-date references, and this set is probably the best survey of Aegean art currently available.

As the title makes clear, the focus of the book is art: this is not a work designed as a comprehensive treatment of Aegean archaeology, although Poursat provides useful background information and references in some summary sections. “Art” is here broadly defined to encompass architecture, sculpture, wall painting, painted ceramics, jewelry, seals of various kinds, and other items that bear decoration; one limitation is that undecorated artifacts are for the most part not dealt with here. One of the great strengths of this book is the attention the author pays to a wide range of objects made of different materials. In particular, the sustained treatment of ivories is welcome, as is the consideration of terracotta sarcophagi in the second half of the work. In a work of this scope, one of course may object to the omission or inclusion of particular pieces, but the author does an admirable job of selecting both representative works and oddities that convey a good picture of the whole topic.

The book begins with a brief, but necessary, consideration of what is meant by “Mycenaean.” Poursat then employs a chronological organization, dividing the work into four large sections, each of which is subdivided by different artistic types and media. The first section examines the Greek mainland during the Second Minoan Palace Period (1700–1450 B.C.E.), with a particular focus on funerary material, especially that of the Shaft Graves at Mycenae. The second section surveys the arts of the whole Aegean during the Third Minoan Palace Period (1450–ca. 1350 B.C.E.), the third, the period of the mainland Mycenaean palaces (ca. 1350–1200 B.C.E.), and the last, twilight years of the Bronze Age (1200–1050 B.C.E.). The volume concludes with a short chapter considering to what degree Mycenaean art affected that of the Geometric period (not much, in the author’s view); an appendix considers some works of disputed authenticity. Notably, Poursat rejects claims made over the last few decades by some scholars that the “Mask of Agamemnon” is a fake.

On the tricky question of what is really Mycenaean in “Mycenaean” art, Poursat provides a nuanced view that balances local ideas and preferences of the Greek mainland with the strong current of Minoan influence during the formative stages of the Late Bronze Age Greek mainland, while also taking into account influence from the Cyclades and other places. As his account proceeds, the author weaves in the undeniable impact of Near Eastern and Egyptian art and the creation of an eastern Mediterranean artistic koine. For Poursat, the essence of “Mycenaean” art is in fact its unambiguously hybrid nature.

Some observations about two of the author’s positions are worth mentioning. Poursat continues to adhere to a “low” chronology in which the eruption of the Thera volcano is dated to ca. 1530 B.C.E. (17, 26); having discussed this controversy in the first volume (147–48), he does not return to it here, although it appears to me that the evidence now favors the “high” chronology. He also expresses skepticism, shared by me, about the conventional destruction date of Pylos around 1200 B.C.E., preferring a date nearly a century earlier (147), although I do not know whether the evidence can bear quite so precise a backdating.

The standard of editing is overall very high, but a few errors or points of confusion have crept in. In his discussion of the mainland Ephyraean-style goblet (128), a type-marker of Late Helladic IIB, Poursat employs an illustration of the Minoan variant of the Ephyraean goblet, which has both a painted rim and foot (fig. 158). In the mainland variety, the entire surface is reserved except for the large central motif and the accessorial decoration under the handles; figure 157a shows the mainland type. Figure 180, which is supposed to show the corbeled southern galleries of the citadel at Tiryns, is in fact the corbeled entrance tunnel to the “Secret Spring” at Mycenae. Figure 181 might more helpfully be labeled as the sally port of the west bastion of Tiryns, rather than simply the “west bastion.” In the discussion of Cyclopean fortifications (147), he illustrates walls at Asine (pl. 6), but the polygonal masonry of the bastion shown is certainly of Hellenistic date. Also, it is difficult to understand why the Shaft Grave diadem from Mycenae (fig. 23) and the “Camp Stool Fresco” from Knossos (pl. 49) are cited in reference to the motif of the triglyph with half rosettes (153), since this motif is not readily visible in either.

The book has been laid out attractively and is convenient to use. Text is in two columns per page, with the citations in the page margins. Most of the black and white figures are on the same page or within one page of their call in the text. Color illustrations are less conveniently placed on dedicated groups of plates interspersed through the text. Both photos and drawings are clear and of high quality. A nice added touch is an attached ribbon bookmark.

This volume and the earlier one should certainly be owned by any research library, and Aegean prehistorians or specialists in ancient Mediterranean art will find them useful additions to their own libraries. The combination of the author’s erudition, abundant illustrations, and the modest price make this book a bargain.

Patrick M. Thomas
Department of Archaeology and Art History
University of Evansville 

Book Review of L’art égéen. Vol. 2, Mycènes et le monde mycénien, by Jean-Claude Poursat

Reviewed by Patrick M. Thomas

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 120, No. 3 (July 2016)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1203.Thomas

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