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Ιερά και Θρησκευτικές Τελετουργίες στην Ανακτορική και Μετανακτορική Μυκηναϊκή Περίοδο (Sanctuaries and Cult Practices in the Palatial and Postpalatial Mycenaean Period)

July 2020 (124.3)

Book Review

Ιερά και Θρησκευτικές Τελετουργίες στην Ανακτορική και Μετανακτορική Μυκηναϊκή Περίοδο (Sanctuaries and Cult Practices in the Palatial and Postpalatial Mycenaean Period)

By Dimitra Rousioti. Athens: Maistros 2018. Pp. 490. €38. ISBN 978-960-6846-28-1 (paper).

Reviewed by

Mycenaean religion has occupied a sizable part of the bibliography pertaining to the Bronze Age Aegean, as relevant scholarship has grown exponentially during the last 150 years. A boost to the field was afforded by the decipherment of Linear B in the mid 20th century and by its revelations regarding actual people’s roles in cult activities. Our principal source, however, has been the increasingly rich archaeological record, despite methodological pitfalls and publication gaps: from the spectacular finds of the Cult Center in Mycenae to less religiously conspicuous architectural refurbishments (e.g., in the lower citadel of Tiryns). Consequently, our knowledge and reconstruction of Mycenaean religious places and practices has been enriched to a degree that enables us to gain an appropriately detailed picture of cult spaces and practices, as well as, crucially, to understand their evolution and how that was affected by pertinent social and political circumstances. 

Rousioti’s tome (in Greek with English summary) is based on her doctoral dissertation (Aristotle University of Thessaloniki 2012) but has been substantially reworked. This magnum opus is divided into straightforward, easy-to-follow sections, subdivided into chapters and subchapters. Section A sets the scene: it offers a research review and discussion, establishes rules for the definitions and interpretations of sanctuaries, and it explains the goals and methodology of the book. Section B offers a historical overview of, respectively, the Palatial and Postpalatial Mycenaean phases. Section Γ principally deals with topographic, architectural, and contextualized artifactual data, by phases and, within those, by site. The sites examined are Tiryns, Mycenae, Midea, Methana, Dimini, Phylakopi, Ayia Irini, and (only in the Postpalatial) Asine. Section Δ discusses the same sites again from the point of view of cult behaviors detected in the archaeological record, per phase. Section E focuses on specific elements of cult, examining the sites of Kalapodi, Tsoungiza, Maleatas, Arachnaio, the Argolid, Amyklaio, Delphi, and Olympia. Section ΣΤ distills all discussions into conclusions regarding cultic and sociopolitical organization through space and time. This is followed by an epilogue and an appendix dedicated to selected Linear B evidence from the Cult Center in Mycenae and its interpretation. The end matter includes a six-page abstract in English, an appropriately extensive bibliography, illustrations, charts, and an index. 

Two arguments in Rousioti’s Section A set the tone for the rest of the work and explain eloquently why it is important for the field of Mycenaean studies and beyond. Much to this reviewer’s agreement, Rousioti argues that although there has been much progress in the theoretical approaches to cult and in the excavated data, a careful, nuanced, and comprehensive composition had not previously been achieved. Furthermore, most of the bibliography relating to this subject is in English, and Rousioti’s publication in Greek is a conscious effort to redress the balance. Indeed, the very high standard of Greek used throughout is a pleasure to read. Although I completely sympathize with this intention, I also believe (hence this review) that this work should reach wider audiences; perhaps a full English translation will not be too long in coming.

Rousioti’s methodology for gathering and using data is as careful as the amount of current data is impressive and their composition remarkable. She includes in her arsenal meticulous descriptions not only of archaeological finds, stratigraphy, dating, and, only occasionally, written records and references to representations, but also of topographic and circulation analyses. She does this with full acknowledgment of the synchronization of spaces and practices, which leads her to discern patterns of behaviors and changes. The latter would otherwise be incomprehensible to us, if we were to continue to rely only on either single-site reports or intersite comparisons of particular artifacts, installations, or representations. In fact, she rightly avoids using the iconographic (and to some extent epigraphic) evidence extensively, as these may or may not be representative of ritual spaces and practices, and they have invariably been skewed as evidence. Whenever she does use these data (e.g., when discussing the Cult Center frescoes in Mycenae), she offers an all-important contextual analysis and discussion of the relevant spatial and chronological significance. While some scholars consider this to be a conservative methodology, I disagree. Unlike those who perpetuate the 1980s and 1990s theoretical polemics by proposing a (usually single) theory and then finding the data to support it, Rousioti uses theory to inform and guide her analyses, but is not driven by it. While recognizing that evidence does not “speak for itself” (as the reductionist criticism of such analysis often goes), Rousioti nevertheless has her eye firmly on the data and what careful and informed interpretations can be applied to them. It is refreshing to see a grounded approach to the data, which forms a solid basis for discussion.

There are two mild criticisms that I could express about this work, one on content and one on illustrations. Crete has been excluded from the discussion, apart from occasional references to its material culture in the frame of wider discussions. One reason for this exclusion seems to be the very close focus on mainland and Cycladic sites, which offer the most abundant incontrovertible data for Mycenaean cult places and activities. Nevertheless, and even though Crete was admittedly not the center of Aegean attention in the Mycenaean Palatial and Postpalatial phases, a section discussing its complex colonial and postcolonial cultic and related sociopolitical presence within the Mycenaean world would have enriched the book. But perhaps this would have required an additional (and different) volume. In terms of illustrations, most are ground plans, which are very useful, especially for the comprehension of Rousioti’s topographic discussions. Perhaps the publisher, Maistros, could revise its production process, however, so that these could appear in black, rather than sepia. And, although I would have liked more illustrations of artifacts, physical remains, and excavators’ reconstructions, I can imagine, from my own unpleasant experience, that such additions—for which permissions take months or even years to come through—would have made the publication of this volume almost impossible. 

Rousioti’s book is essential for a number of audiences. Students not only can acquire an overall idea regarding the data available, expertly categorized within, but also can observe how careful contextual methodology and interpretation ought to work. More specialized scholars can use the book as a good reference resource, as a textbook, and as the basis for discussion on wider issues, such as different sociopolitical entanglements expressed through cult spaces and behaviors. Scholars, as a result, may also redress more proactively several sweeping assumptions too often repeated in lecture halls and conferences (e.g., the notion that all the elements of the Mycenae Cult Center were contemporaneous) and move toward more nuanced explorations of datasets as indicators of ever-changing cultic patterns. It is noteworthy, after all, that the volume was awarded a publication subvention by the Institute for Aegean Prehistory (INSTAP), a fact that in itself is an indication of the favorable specialist evaluations that this volume has already received. Consequently, the book will be a valuable addition to libraries serving audiences concerned with Mycenaean and, more generally, archaeological matters. In summary, it seems to me that this book is firmly rooted in archaeological research and is a valuable and substantial contribution to the field of Mycenaean studies and beyond. This is why I thoroughly recommend it.

Anna Simandiraki-Grimshaw
Bath Spa University

Book Review of Ιερά και Θρησκευτικές Τελετουργίες στην Ανακτορική και Μετανακτορική Μυκηναϊκή Περίοδο (Sanctuaries and Cult Practices in the Palatial and Postpalatial Mycenaean Period), by Dimitra Rousioti
Reviewed by Anna Simandiraki-Grimshaw
American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 124, No. 3 (July 2020)
Published online at
DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1243.SimandirakiGrimshaw

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