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The Collapse of the Mycenaean Economy: Imports, Trade, and Institutions 1300–700 BCE

The Collapse of the Mycenaean Economy: Imports, Trade, and Institutions 1300–700 BCE

By Sarah C. Murray. Pp. xiv + 354. Cambridge University Press, New York 2017. $120. ISBN 978-1-107-18637-8 (cloth).

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As new discoveries and new technologies rapidly expand the ways in which archaeologists can interrogate data and the scope and sophistication of the questions we pose about ancient societies, it can be equally fruitful to step back and take stock of the data we have and the veracity of the assumptions generated over decades of research. As testament to the value of such an endeavor, this volume offers a very welcome contribution to the study of Aegean prehistory by both broaching the traditional Late Bronze (LBA) and Early Iron Age (EIA) divide  and diligently contextualizing imports—often the show-stealing focus of study—within the archaeological, textual, and demographic records. Murray rightly recognizes the significance of clarifying the level of continuity between the Mycenaean Bronze Age and the Iron Age cultures of the Greek mainland to help elucidate the relative influence of preceding Mycenaean culture, eastern contacts, and independent local development on the Greek culture that emerges in the Geometric period.

The project sets three intersecting and ambitious goals: to synthesize the evidence for long-distance trade in prehistoric Greece; to test the efficacy of using trade data to determine economic change; and to assess the shifts in political economy that occurred from the end of the LBA into the EIA. Though acknowledging throughout that the specific ideology underpinning the connection between luxury imports and political and economic power in Mycenaean Greece is unclear, Murray posits the following hypothesis: that significant shifts in the scale of long-distance trade following the end of the Late Helladic (LH) IIIB period corresponds to meaningful changes in political and economic conditions (14–15). This hypothesis is well supported in the analysis that follows, in which it is clear not only that, despite scalar decrease in the Postpalatial period due to economic contraction and population decline, exchange contacts persisted through the EIA, but also that the economic institutions that emerged in the Geometric period reflected different values and practices from those of the LBA. The robustness of the conclusions reached can be credited to Murray’s diligent commitment to the systematic treatment of the data.

Murray begins by surveying documents from the 13th to the 8th centuries B.C.E. that discuss long-distance trade, quickly concluding that there is little that the textual material can add to the question of institutional continuity between the LBA and the EIA. Though this conclusion is well reasoned, the more general project goal of profiling the political economy of each period would justify a broader survey of texts that inform on economic institutions in general, along the lines of McGeough’s analysis of economic documents at Ugarit (Exchange Relationships at Ugarit. Ancient Near Eastern Studies Suppl. 26 [Leuven 2007]). While Murray correctly warns that the political organization of non-Greek sites with adequate textual remains, such as Ugarit, does not necessarily share comparable economic institutions with Greek polities, a broader survey would better ground the later discussion of economic production and extrapalatial agency, which relies largely on sporadic evidence.

The bulk of the volume (chs. 2–6) presents an impressively holistic assessment of the standard narrative of collapse and regeneration from the LBA through the EIA. Patterns of change are assessed according to a four-part chronological system: LB IIIB (LH and Late Minoan), LB IIIC, Protogeometric (PG), and Geometric; later in the volume, 200-year time slices are used for statistical analysis. To assess quantitative change in import distribution, Murray employs a chi-square test of statistical significance to determine whether the observed distribution changes between periods diverge meaningfully from expected import frequencies. Confidence intervals are similarly used to determine whether changes from period to period are accountable by random distribution fluctuations or whether they reflect significant changes in trade (132–33). Demonstrating the statistical significance of import fluctuations then allows the author to assess the causes of these changes—whether real shifts in trade patterns, diachronic population changes, taphonomic processes, or variable excavation and recording practices.

The author acknowledges and addresses many of the issues plaguing the efficacy of statistical studies of archaeological finds, accounting as well as possible for many of the distortions created by post-depositional processes. She recognizes, for instance, that the small size of the import corpus allows large distortions to be created by statistical outliers, such as the Theban cylinder seals from LH IIIB. Despite these complications, some intriguing patterns are noted regarding changes in imported object types and consumption contexts through the periods of study. For example, the imports from Crete shift in deposition from nonmortuary contexts (in LB IIIB) to mortuary (LB IIIC and PG), despite a consistent proportional frequency of nonmortuary contexts excavated on Crete from these periods (123). Though the total archaeological dataset is never presented in full (for that see the author’s 2013 Stanford University dissertation), the rates of discovery of sites and context types from the Palatial through the Geometric will be particularly valuable for future quantitative studies of material from these periods.

After discussing import consumption, Murray assesses changes in other economic markers, including bulk commodity circulation, exports, and demography. The former proves particularly fruitful in corroborating the patterns noted in import distribution. For instance, the decline in imports in the LB IIIC and PG periods matches declines in both the total number of bronze objects recorded in these periods and in the estimated volume of metal represented by these finds (169–70). The author then tests corresponding diachronic shifts in bulk commodity and import consumption against projected population levels to determine whether declines reflect internal economic contraction or trade route disruption. The changes in accumulation rates (imports per year) between periods, once controlled for population, appear enticingly consistent (table 5.3), although the unreliability of population estimates and the meager sample size should temper conclusions based on changes to the rate of import accumulation per year (table 3.3).

One of the most intriguing conclusions reached by Murray is that luxury imports do not appear to be used by the Mycenaean elites as performative markers of social status, despite the common assumption to the contrary. This conclusion is based on the concentration of imports in nonelite contexts such as workshops and cult spaces at sites like Tiryns, Thebes, and Mycenae. Murray’s thought-provoking rejection of elite interest in exotica should encourage further reconsideration of the ideology of import consumption in Mycenaean Greece, with models for the expected deposition patterns from conspicuous consumption proposed and tested against intact deposition contexts. In addition to questioning elite interest in imported finished goods, Murray also challenges the exclusive role of palatial elites in administering long-distance exchange—though the concentration of imports at palatial centers is acknowledged. The recognition of extrapalatial agents as active participants in a complex multimodal system of supraregional exchange is logical and convincing, and it helps account for the continuity of contact and trade—at a reduced scale—through the transition from the LBA to EIA. This is a welcome contribution to the discussion of economic centralization in prehistoric Greece.

The reporting of analysis in the book is somewhat variable; some research questions are presented with clear hypotheses and testing parameters (e.g., the assessment of quantitative change in the archaeological record in ch. 3), while other sections make connections between method and theory less clearly (e.g., between distribution patterns and exchange institutions in ch. 6). Certain contradictions also exist in some conclusions reached, such as the conflict between the consistency of calculated rates of import accumulation when controlled for population across the period of study (table 5.3) and the argument that the complex palatial systems of the LBA enjoyed significantly greater economies of scale than the oikos-centered production of the EIA (245, 263). This pattern could instead be accounted for if the author is correct in suggesting that the counts for the LBA specifically are artificially low because of the loss of organics and commodities (138). The main weakness of this volume, however, lies in the quality of the illustrations. The grayscale nodes in object distribution figures are often hard to interpret (e.g., figs. 2.1–3), while font size and color coding on maps make some names illegible (map 2.1). Still other images are impaired by the obfuscation of node markers (fig. 2.5) or poor resolution (fig. 2.9). It is unfortunate that the illustrations do not do justice to the important findings of the text.

Aside from image issues, the book is highly successful in meeting Murray’s stated research objectives and in demonstrating that meaningful conclusions on the political and economic history of Greece can be drawn from the import data. For scholars of Greek prehistory, this volume offers both a valuable contribution to understanding the economy of early Greece and a model for the profitability in broaching traditional disciplinary divisions and challenging long-standing beliefs. Murray herself acknowledges the overly prioritized place that imports and exotica have played in academic discourse relative to their paucity in the material; however, this study reflects the value of continued research when the right questions are asked and holistic methods are employed.

Christine L. Johnston
Department of History
Western Washington University

Book Review of The Collapse of the Mycenaean Economy: Imports, Trade, and Institutions 1300–700 BCE, by Sarah C. Murray

Reviewed by Christine L. Johnston

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 123, No. 1 (January 2019)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1231.johnston

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