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Beyond Thalassocracies: Understanding Processes of Minoanisation and Mycenaeanisation in the Aegean

Beyond Thalassocracies: Understanding Processes of Minoanisation and Mycenaeanisation in the Aegean

Edited by Evi Gorogianni, Peter Pavúk, and Luca Girella. Oxford: Oxbow 2016. Pp. x + 224. ₤45. ISBN 978-1-78570-203-7 (cloth).

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Based on a collection of papers presented at the 114th Annual Meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America (Seattle, 3–6 January 2013) and augmented by four specifically commissioned contributions, this volume promises to take us beyond traditional explanations of cultural interaction in the Middle and Late Bronze Age Aegean that have often been grouped under the modern categories of “minoanization” and “mycenaeanization.”

The agenda of “Minoan” or “Mycenaean” influence in the broader Aegean region is a familiar one to AJA readers, with these labels intended as conventional terms for sets of cultural features. The theoretical background to the approach advocated most often originates in Cyprian Broodbank’s highly influential and programmatic revision of his article “Minoanisation” (PCPS 50, 2004, 46–91), calling for a multifaceted, as well as regionally and chronologically sensitive, analysis of the various detectable aspects of “Minoan” cultural influence. Renewed emphasis was placed on the agency of local “recipients,” boosting “bottom-up” approaches to the phenomenon. The book’s editors have been active contributors to discussions over emulative processes and how these, among other factors, contribute to the formation of cultural identities in the southern (Gorogianni on Keos) and northern (Girella and Pavúk on Mikro Vouni, Samothrace) Aegean.

This volume takes this specific agenda certain significant steps further, following original and stimulating pathways. Most prominent among these is the comparison between the adoption of Minoan and Mycenaean cultural features in the same sites or regions, which is what most papers focus on, with the exception of Bryan Feuer’s chapter on the mycenaeanization of Thessaly (186–201). An emphasis on the viewpoint of the local “recipient” communities is prominent in all contributions, as is the emphasis on the diversity of such local responses, effectively demonstrating that these “-izations” should be viewed as taking shape within the fluid and variable matrix of interaction among cultural traditions and local communities. With its extensive geographic and chronological scope, the volume gives us rich material for assessing the variability of these dynamic phenomena.

The first four papers discuss evidence from the eastern Aegean and western Anatolia. Girella and Pavúk (15–42) discuss the involvement of southern Aegean polities in the northeastern Aegean throughout the Late Bronze Age, in the aftermath of Pavúk’s work on the pottery of early Troy VI and their joint study of the pottery from Mikro Vouni on Samothrace. The distinction between “pre-contact,” “contact,” and “hybrid” stages in the adoption of Minoan cultural traits does not downplay the local character of each response within that region. In a contribution focusing on “-izing” elements from southwestern Anatolia and the neighboring Aegean islands, Jana Mokrišová (43–57) reacts against the “disproportionate interpretative weight” (52) of decorated pottery and its distribution and suggests that the small-scale but continuous movement of people in the region, reflecting and perpetuating a considerably broad area of interaction, was the basis for the phenomena that we recognize as minoanization and mycenaeanization, with rigid distinctions between various groups and cultural elements not being of emic significance. Amy Raymond, Ivonne Kaiser, Laura-Concetta Rizzotto, and Julien Zurbach discuss evidence from Miletus throughout the Middle and Late Bronze Ages (58–74). The emphasis is expectedly on ceramics, emphasizing hybrid forms. The long history of the settlement invites a very promising comparative assessment of the gradually intensifying minoanizing and mycenaeanizing phases, viewed in conjunction with analogous developments in the adjacent sites of Teichioussa and Tavşan Adası. Salvatore Vitale compares Minoan and Mycenaean influences on the settlement deposits from the “Serraglio” on Kos as well as the mortuary assemblages from the cemeteries of Eleona and Langadas, drawing on his restudy of the material from Luigi Morricone’s excavations (75–93). His thorough analysis brings forward the contrast between a brief minoanizing phase ending abruptly in a series of devastating Late Bronze Age I events (the Theran eruption, the collapse of the Neopalatial administrations, and the Mycenaean conquest of Crete) and the long-term and more intense adoption of Mycenaean cultural features that resulted in communities “who considered themselves Mycenaeans and were presumably perceived as Mycenaeans by their neighbours” (87) during the Late Helladic IIIA2–IIIC phases.

The next four papers discuss evidence from the Cyclades, assessing material from Melos, Naxos, and Keos. Jason Earle (94–115) compares the adoption of Minoan and Mycenaean features at Phylakopi, discussing architecture, ceramics, cult objects, personal adornment (including weaving implements), and administration phase-by-phase throughout Late Cycladic I–IIIB, with a focus on the variable patterns discerned in each category and through time, and with the goal of emphasizing differences between the minoanizing Late Cycladic I and the later mycenaeanizing phases. Andreas Vlachopoulos gives a comprehensive overview of Bronze Age Naxos (116–35), offering another well-crafted critique of “western string” and other “string” theories (whereby Cretan contact moves along specific linear routes, most famously along the western Cyclades, in the string formed by Thera, Melos, Keos, and Laurion). He proposes instead a pan-Cycladic spiral that gravitated toward Crete. Although it is strongly emphasized that the local character of the material culture was retained, the impression one gains from the presentation of the Late Helladic III material is that of a thoroughly mycenaeanized island. Vlachopoulos stresses the self-sufficiency of Naxos and its potential for forging a special relationship with the Mycenaean palace states, thereby proposing that it constituted an insular polity centered on the main settlement of Grotta (129–30).

Gorogianni in one chapter (136–54) and Natalie Abell and Jill Hilditch in another (155–71) review evidence from Ayia Irini on Keos. Gorogianni focuses on material from the Northern Sector, tracing specific elements of the “Minoan” (Ayia Irini IV–VI) and “Mycenaean cultural packages” (Ayia Irini VII–VIII) (145-147, Tables 8.4-8.5), in both ceramic materials and other facets. The multicultural character of the site since period IV (Middle Bronze II) is stressed, with minoanizing elements becoming more prominent in period VI (Late Bronze I) tied to what is aptly termed “the visual language of power” (148) (e.g., wall paintings and architecture), while the mycenaeanization of Ayia Irini is interpreted as effected by elite groups interested in the metal trade. The intended audience of the prestige expression conveyed by the control of this trade is argued to be regional competitors for the resources at Laurion, notably the Thorikos elites. Abell and Hilditch focus specifically on ceramic technology and the differences between the deep and constructive Minoan technological impact (e.g., the potter’s wheel) at Akrotiri, Phylakopi, and Ayia Irini and the mycenaeanized Late Cycladic II–III phases when fine decorated pottery was imported rather than locally produced at Ayia Irini and Phylakopi.

The next chapter, by the late Joanne Cutler, discusses the two processes from the perspective of textile production, focusing on innovations indicated by the appearance of discoid loomweights or the so-called “spools” (172–85). A most interesting aspect of her discussion is the emphasis on the role of women in the minoanization of southern Aegean communities, as both producers (weavers) and as consumers (wearers) of Minoan dresses (181).

Feuer assesses evidence bearing on the mycenaeanization of Thessaly within the broader confines of contact-induced culture change (186–201), making the point that the phenomenon is geographically variable and divisible into core (fully mycenaeanized by Late Helladic IIB–IIIA1), border, and frontier zones emanating inland from the Gulf of Volos, where the core area and the more complex sites lie (“Iolkos” he generally identifies with Volos Palia but “Dimini/Iolkos” [189] causes some confusion). The case of Thessaly brings forward an interesting aspect of a phenomenon that is not included in the volume: the relationship between the adoption of Mycenaean features in various regions of the mainland, particularly north of the Isthmus of Corinth (e.g., in Mitrou in East Lokris, or in Kontopigado in Attica, where recent studies by Vitale, Konstantina Kaza-Papageorgiou, and Elina Kardamaki have presented pertinent ceramic analyses).

Carl Knappett (202–6) and Michael Galaty (207–18) provide some closing thoughts. Knappett stresses the intricate connection between minoanization and mycenaeanization processes forming “a necessary sequence” (205), while acknowledging the important differences noted in some of the papers.

Galaty takes a rich, broad, comparative perspective on mycenaeanizations (in the plural), focusing on the potential relevance of ethnographic evidence on exogamy to a model for the mycenaeanization of Epirus (where a site map would be useful) and its similarities and differences from similar acculturation processes in the (mostly insular) regions discussed elsewhere. This is very stimulating, but the term “Mycenaean” is occasionally used as if Mycenaeans were a people with a fixed cultural (and genetic) makeup who came into contact with other cultures (“gene flow ensued . . . between locals and Mycenaeans. . . . These peoples . . . were . . . hybridized products . . . with Mycenaean blood running through their veins” [215–16]). To continue the analogies with evolutionary biology explored in this paper, cultures cannot be reproductively isolated as biological species commonly are (cf. J.A. Coyne, “Ernst Mayr and the Origin of Species,” Evolution 48.1, 1994, 19–30); in cultural evolution, “fertile hybrids” (and their transformative potential) are the norm.

The volume ends with two special indexes of geographical names and the personal names of scholars cited; it might have been accompanied by an even more useful subject index.

This valuable volume will certainly stir discussion and encourage further inquiry into culture change throughout the Aegean Late Bronze Age, hopefully encouraging the comparison between “-izations” in other sites and contexts. But there is more. Prospective readers should be aware that the path that takes us Beyond Thalassocracies is not the only one currently followed. Malcolm Wiener, the volume’s dedicatee, has supported, on many occasions, the historical existence of a rather aggressive Knossian expansion in the southern Aegean, initiated by Cretan economic interests, boosted by Minoan cultural prestige, and materialized in the—not necessarily peaceful—establishment of colonies (see primarily his “Realities of Power: The Minoan Thalassocracy in Historical Perspective,” in R.B. Koehl, ed., Amilla: The Quest for Excellence. Studies Presented to Guenter Kopcke in Celebration of His 75th Birthday, INSTAP Academic Press 2013, 149–73). Are these two paths incompatible? There lies a great interpretative challenge for the future.

Vassilis Petrakis
Hellenic Ministry of Education and Religious Affairs
Department of History and Archaeology
National and Kapodistrian University of Athens

Book Review of Beyond Thalassocracies: Understanding Processes of Minoanisation and Mycenaeanisation in the Aegean, edited by Evi Gorogianni, Peter Pavúk, and Luca Girella
Reviewed by Vassilis Petrakis
American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 125, No. 4 (October 2021)
Published online at
DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1254.Petrakis

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