You are here
The Cambridge Companion to the Aegean Bronze Age
The Cambridge Companion to the Aegean Bronze Age
Edited by Cynthia W. Shelmerdine. Pp. xxxvi + 452, b&w figs. 50, b&w pls. 67, maps 7. Cambridge University Press, New York 2008. $29.99. ISBN 978-0-521-89127-1 (paper).
This readable book stands alone as a current account of the Aegean Bronze Age. In layout and level of content, it resembles the Cambridge Companions to the Ancient World series. The editor, Shelmerdine, and her impressive team of 17 other authors have done a terrific job distilling more than a century of scholarship. The result is informative enough for the specialist, engaging enough for the public, reasonably priced, and user-friendly. Maps, located in the front of the book, are easy to find from any chapter. Cross-references between chapters, extensive endnotes, and a generous index allow quick access to information.
Chapter topics are traditional (material culture, economy, administration) and organized chronologically. Especially valuable is the integration of data from less-traditional sources—surface survey, ceramic petrography, and Aegean texts—with new information from recent excavations and research at familiar sites such as Pylos and Knossos.
Each chapter is divided into several sections, includes line drawings (of varying quality) and tables scattered through the text, and ends with a short list of recommended reading and endnotes, which are mostly (though not entirely) bibliographic. Limitations on chapter length make the endnotes critical resources for specialists. Black-and-white photographs (some surprisingly poor) are collected in two plate sections. There are no color illustrations. One would have thought that in this digital age, color photographs could have been placed in text at little or no extra cost.
The opening chapter by Shelmerdine discusses the absolute chronology of the Aegean Bronze Age, the benefits of excavation and surface survey, new scientific techniques used to elucidate the past, and the nature and variety of Aegean Bronze Age documents. She covers many salient points, including ethnicity (2), the ongoing “high” vs. “low” absolute chronology debate (3–7), and the contributions of ceramic petrography (10) and geophysical mapping (11).
Three chapters cover the Early Bronze Age (EBA). Pullen demonstrates that Early Helladic (EH) cultures were more varied than previously thought. He also proposes that changes in agricultural practice underlay settlement shifts from EH I to EH II (26–7) but provides little detail about what they were or why they happened. These changes led to the sophisticated societies of EH IIB immortalized in monumental corridor houses and complex sealing systems (30–5). This world collapsed at the end of EH II. Sites were burned and regions abandoned across the Peloponnese and central Greece. This horizon is no longer considered the result of monolithic invasion or migration but is attributed to multiple factors, including climate deterioration (36). His final section, “The Coming of the Greeks,” notes the potential of genetic analysis for providing more concrete answers.
Disproportionate to their small size and low population, Cycladic island cultures influenced development in the EBA Aegean. Broodbank’s “island archaeology” approach helps explain why (47–51). Mortuary and settlement data suggest that Early Cycladic (EC) culture was a stronghold of rugged individualism (58–9) and interisland and maritime exchange—friendly and hostile—based on paddled canoes and dugouts (63–7). As on the Greek mainland, this world collapsed at the end of EC II. Broodbank considers climate deterioration a factor in the demise of EC II culture, but he also emphasizes the impact of new nautical technology on the economic base of the islands (68–9).
Wilson stresses the natural diversity of Crete and the regional diversity of its Early Minoan (EM) cultures. Gateway communities along the north-central and northeast coasts—Poros-Katsambas, Hagia Photia, Mochlos—emphasize the importance of Cycladic interaction (82). They contrast strongly with inland communities such as Knossos, which had markedly fewer Cycladic features. West Crete was different again, exhibiting ties to the western Greek mainland, probably via Kythera (92). Significant deposits of EM I–II drinking and feasting paraphernalia at Knossos, Hagia Triada, and Phaistos suggest that their ceremonial importance was established long before “palaces” were constructed (84).
Regional histories continued to diverge in EM IIB, when central Crete declined and east Crete prospered (94–7). Nevertheless, monumental buildings and courtyard compounds were built in both areas (e.g., Knossos, Malia, Vasilike, Palaikastro), foreshadowing the construction of the first palaces in EM III/Middle Minoan (MM) IA (99–100, 108–10). Although the destruction horizon at the end of EM IIB is largely confined to east Crete (97–8, 109), significant changes occur across the island in EM III–MM IA. Both Wilson and Manning (coauthor of the next chapter) believe that climate deterioration contributed to these changes (98, 109, 116–17). The degree of discontinuity between EM IIB and MM Crete continues to be debated (106).
Manning and Knappett contribute separate sections to the chapter on Protopalatial Crete. Both view the period as one of significant regional diversity: Manning in the nature and timing of events (111), and Knappett in the nature and character of material expression (126–27). EM III–MM IA is the pivotal period for the formation of the first Minoan palaces (109–10). Manning lists nine “ingredients of explanation” for their development, including external stimuli (esp. Egyptian and Levantine), internal processes, and climate change (114–16). By MM IB, numerous polities emerged, suggesting power was decentralized. At the palaces, storage and craft production were small-scale. How Protopalatial palaces were ruled (and who ruled them) are questions still poorly understood (118–19).
Knappett’s vibrant discussion brings MM material culture to life. He views the Protopalatial explosion of arts and crafts (e.g., pottery, fresco, metalwork) as a feedback media network linked in novel ways on three (or more) scales (125–29). This was not a smooth process, but one punctuated by “considerable discontinuities” and finally brought to a close by the destructions at the end of MM IIB (130).
Younger and the late Rehak apply their considerable expertise to Neopalatial Crete. This period, which begins in MM IIIA (140), exhibits a striking decline in regionalism (141)—perhaps attributable to the artistic, spiritual, and possibly political dominance of Knossos (150–52). Although few new crafts were introduced, those that existed were expanded and mastered exquisitely (152–61).
Neopalatial burial customs remain enigmatic (170–73), as does much about Minoan religion (167). Links between “palace” and “peak” cults are strengthened (166), but the identification of sacred sites unconnected to palace centers, such as Kato Syme (165–66), and peculiar deposits of cult paraphernalia (170) suggest an unexpected religious diversity. The still-undeciphered Protopalatial and Neopalatial scripts are described in some detail, revealing complex accounting systems, religious dedications, and song (173–77). Younger and Rehak’s closing section, “How Minoan Society Operated,” may raise some eyebrows (178–82). Although most scholars agree that a female deity (or deities) formed the nexus of Minoan religion (167–68), the view that Minoan society was a matriarchy continues to be controversial (181–82). I also take exception to Younger and Rehak’s statement that along the south coast, west of Kommos, “there were few Minoan sites and the inhospitable southwest corner of Crete was virtually uninhabited” (143). Although unexcavated and spottily published, work by Hood (“Minoan Sites in the Far West of Crete,” BSA 60  99–113), local Greek archaeologists, and the Sphakia Survey (L. Nixon et al., The Sphakia Survey: Internet Edition  http://sphakia.classics.ox.ac.uk/ [1 May 2010]) have found many Minoan sites along this coast between Hagia Galini and Khrysoskalitissa, some of them quite large.
Davis explores the Neopalatial Minoanization of the Aegean islands and southwest Anatolia. He provides individual discussions of Hagia Irini (Keos), where excavations provide a diachronic picture of the “process” of Minoanization (193–96), and Akrotiri (Thera) and Trianda (Rhodes), which provide a picture of “full-blown” Minoanization two centuries later (189–93, 198). Miletus and Iasos (southwest Anatolia) and Phylakopi (Melos) are also discussed. Davis suggests that these sites became Minoanized because they were along maritime routes connecting Crete to Attica and to southwest Anatolia, where metal ores and other commodities could be obtained (200–5). Even after the Late Minoan (LM) IA eruption of Santorini, Cretan contacts with the Aegean remained strong. By LM IIIB, however, Minoan features on the islands were replaced by Mycenaean ones (205–6).
Betancourt contributes an overview of Minoan trade from the Neolithic to the end of LM III. It is a good, up-to-date summary that focuses on the quantities, types, and origins of the commodities exchanged, rather than the mechanisms of the trade itself.
Mycenaean civilization is covered by five chapters. Wright picks up the story at the end of EH II. He, too, believes that climate change contributed to the cultural break between EH II and Middle Helladic (MH) I, noting that inland Greece was more strongly affected than its coasts (232). MH I–II Greece was largely composed of subsistence villages and hamlets (239), except for the impressive citadel at Kolonna (240) (see F. Felten, “Aegina-Kolonna: The History of a Greek Acropolis,” in F. Felten et al., eds., Middle Helladic Pottery and Synchronisms [Vienna 2007] 11–34). MH regional diversity highlighted in other studies, however, is not discussed (see S. Voutsakis, “Social and Cultural Change in the Middle Helladic Period: Presentation of a New Project,” in A. Dakouri-Hild and S. Sherratt, eds., Autochthon. BAR-IS 1432 [Oxford 2005] 134–43; J. Bennet and I. Galanakis, “Parallels and Contrasts: Early Mycenaean Mortuary Traditions in Messenia and Laconia,” in Dakouri-Hild and Sherratt  144–55).
In MH III–Late Helladic (LH) I, the cultural landscapes of mainland Greece were dramatically reorganized, but, unlike on Crete, this transformation was unmarked by site destructions (238–42). The resulting Early Mycenaean polities varied in size, style, and emergence (245–50). The Minoan contribution to this metamorphosis is emphasized by Wright (242–43, 251–52) and Crowley (author of the next chapter) (280–81), although other factors are also considered.
Crowley discusses Mycenaean architecture, crafts, and art. She divides the material into eight sections ranging from tombs to seals and skillfully untangles Mycenaean style from its numerous influences (280–82). Some points, however, need clarification. Crowley writes that human figures first appear on pottery in LH IIIB (274). That, however, depends on whether Middle Bronze Age (MBA) Aeginetan pottery is considered Helladic (J. Rutter, “Review of Aegean Prehistory II: The Prepalatial Bronze Age of the Southern and Central Greek Mainland,” in T. Cullen, ed., Aegean Prehistory: A Review [Boston 2001] 129). She says the stirrup jar was a new shape in LH III (273), but this shape had been on Crete since MM III (P. Betancourt, The History of Minoan Pottery [Princeton 1985] 105). She also presents the “artificial” harbor at Pylos as a fait accompli (269) (as does Mee ), even though it has not been proven.
Chapter 12, on Late Bronze Age (LBA) III economy and administration, is in two parts: Shelmerdine and Bennet present the Linear B evidence, and Preston describes the situation in Crete. Shelmerdine and Bennet’s expertise in Linear B texts, site survey, and artifact analysis results in a lively account of palatial interests inside (290–98) and outside (298–303) the Mycenaean centers. The texts date from a period of more than 200 years (LM IIIA1–LH IIIB/C) (292), throughout which Mycenaean states were ruled by kings and managed by a number of officials (292–303). Some industries, such as perfume making, metalworking, and textiles, were closely monitored by the palace (303–6). Others, such as pottery making, were not (307). The nonpalatial economy is not mentioned in the tablets and remains poorly understood (306–8).
Preston wrestles with the changing political organization of Crete from LM II through LM IIIB. In central Crete, warrior graves and especially the shift in administrative language from Minoan to Greek demonstrate a profound Mycenaean influence between LM II and LM IIIA1 (311–12). Few of these features, however, are entirely Mycenaean: most are combined with Neopalatial Minoan elements. Thus, it remains unclear whether a Mycenaean elite brought these features to Crete, or whether they were adopted by an indigenous elite for “strategic social and political reasons” (312). Either way, Preston is convinced that Knossos dominated all but the far east of the island during LM II–IIIA1 (312–16). The emergence of local ceramic styles and elaborate tombs in LM IIIA2 are believed to mark the end of Knossian hegemony (316–18). A few generations later, in LM IIIB, changes in the cultural landscape suggest that Khania in west Crete may have emerged as the dominant center (318).
Cavanagh and Palaima contribute sections to chapter 13, which is on Mycenaean death and religion. Cavanagh focuses on artifacts (tombs, grave goods, iconography), while Palaima focuses on the Linear B texts. Differences in tomb construction and grave goods show that Mycenaean funerary customs varied within and between regions (330–33). Death rituals could be extravagant, with lavish grave goods and animal sacrifice (337, 339). Evidence for funerary feasting other than drinking, however, is surprisingly poor (340). Imagery on LH III larnakes reveals women as chief mourners, sometimes with shorn hair and scarred faces (338). Most tombs were communal and many involved secondary burial, suggesting that ancestor worship may have been a pan-Mycenaean phenomenon (334–37, 339–40).
Religion permeated Mycenaean life. Palaima writes, “Rituals designed to secure divine favor ... would have been practiced scrupulously at all levels of society” (345), the best documented forms being feasting and processional offering (353). Overall, however, Mycenaean religion was probably “uncanonical, undogmatic, and improvisatory” (344). It had roots in Minoan and MH belief systems (352), and, according to Palaima, it had more in common with the Homeric world than is fashionable to accept (348, 354–55). Besides the names of deities (348–50), Homeric descriptions of ceremonial feasts are uncannily similar to archaeological realities excavated at Mycenaean centers (353–54).
Mee discusses Mycenaean involvement abroad, excluding Crete. Trade, diplomacy, and raiding/warfare were the main vectors of Mycenaean influence (381–82), and pottery was its most visible export. The Argolid did a brisk trade in ceramics, customizing its products for different markets (369). The southwest Peloponnese turned its eyes west to Italy (380). Other manufactured goods, such as textiles and perfumed oil, were also exported (365). During LH IIIA, sites in the Dodecanese, coastal Anatolia, Cyprus, the Levant, and the Cyclades were Mycenaeanized to varying degrees. “Mycenaeans” may have lived in some of these settlements, but none seems to have been a colony or under mainland control—except perhaps Phylakopi (365–68). Although exported Mycenaean pottery decreased in LH IIIB, it increased sharply at some sites in LH IIIC—Emporio, Enkomi, Kition, Ashod, and Tel-Miqne-Ekron—suggesting that small groups from the Greek mainland may have settled there (371, 376, 378).
The book’s final chapter, by Deger-Jalkotzy, concerns the collapse of Aegean civilization at the end of the LBA. Most of the evidence presented comes from mainland Greece. Cyprus is covered better than Crete, which is treated only superficially in spite of many recent publications (e.g., D. Jones, External Relations of Early Iron Age Crete, 1100–600 B.C. AIA Monograph 4 [Dubuque, Iowa 2000]; K. Nowicki, Defensible Sites in Crete c. 1200–800 B.C. Aegaeum 21 [Liège 2000]). Her discussion of proposed causes for the decline concludes that no one can be singled out (388–90). Although the decline was gradual and probably began in LH IIIB2, the destructions and abandonments themselves were sudden and abrupt (390–92). The 120-year LH IIIC period (1190–1070 B.C.E.), which continued to be plagued with destructions, is subdivided into three phases (early, middle, late) largely on the basis of ceramics. In spite of apparent instability, it “was by no means devoid of creativity and innovations” (406).
A final summary highlighting trends and unusual features revealed in the 15 chapters would have been welcome. Still, Shelmerdine’s light but firm editorial hand turned what could have been a collection of individual articles into a cohesive book, each chapter tying into the next. Achieving this without muting the unique voices of 18 contributors is remarkable. Indeed, controversy, data gaps, and differing interpretations of the same material are frankly acknowledged (e.g., Betancourt and Preston cross-reference their disagreement on the date of the “final” destruction at Knossos [219, 310]), providing the reader with a less homogenized, more representative view of Aegean prehistory and the prehistorians who write it.
A general reservation I have is the lack of discussion of the natural environments and climates in which Aegean civilizations developed and declined. For example, the momentous Minoan eruption of Santorini is only briefly mentioned (205). A welcome exception is the consensus that climate deterioration at the end of EB II contributed to the sociopolitical changes seen in EB III–MB I. Environmental and paleoclimate studies are poorly integrated, probably because the data is rarely presented in a way meaningful to most archaeologists. A chapter synthesizing this work would have made a valuable contribution.
In sweeping books like The Cambridge Companion to the Aegean Bronze Age, omissions are inevitable, and the few mentioned here by no means detract from this book’s lasting contribution to Aegean archaeological scholarship. It is an excellent teaching textbook and a valuable research reference. It is also a good read, and I highly recommend it for academic and personal libraries alike.
Department of Classics
University of Texas
Austin, Texas 78712
Book Review of The Cambridge Companion to the Aegean Bronze Age, edited by Cynthia W. Shelmerdine
Reviewed by Jennifer Moody
American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 114, No. 4 (October 2010)
Published online at www.ajaonline.org/book-review/717