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The Philistines and Aegean Migration at the End of the Late Bronze Age

The Philistines and Aegean Migration at the End of the Late Bronze Age

By Assaf Yasur-Landau. Pp. xii + 389, figs. 245, tables 10, plans 45, maps 14. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2010. $95. ISBN 978-0-521-19162-3 (cloth).

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Even if we can accurately “read” individual migrations in the archaeological record, how important were migrations generally to changing ancient societies? This book offers an up-to-date discussion of evidence for one putative migration—from the Aegean to the southern Levant in the early 12th century B.C.E. A permanent, partly organized migration/colonization by up to 10,000 “Aegean” people is argued for by identifying certain “migrant” material culture correlates. The main sources used are traditional: ceramics, settlement and architecture, ancient texts, and historical analogy. Progressive, mature elements are the recognition of very complex, multiscale movements in the eastern Mediterranean through this period and the rejection of any single, unified migration model. The “Philistine” identity is characterized as multivalent, and several migrations (to different points within Philistia) are envisaged. The characterization of the 12th-century eastern Mediterranean as a radically freed-up social and economic context is powerful.

The thoughtful introductory discussion examines the sociocultural correlates of various migration and acculturation modes. Other pertinent areas of theory, though, often seem nodded at rather than fully engaged with. The book’s relevance to gender archaeology is highlighted, but treatment of textile production sometimes borders on assuming that wherever it is identified, women are found also, with automatic implications about marriage patterns or immigrants’ family structure. Social and ethnic structure is sometimes simplistically treated, with assertions gradually becoming reified—e.g., fortifications are equated with generalized “elites,” yet they appear at several sites identified here as having very different rulership structures; by page 96, fortified settlements are taken to signify mainland Greek elites on the move. Cemetery data is used in an untheorized way: for example, the presence of unspecified “elites” is assumed from tombs simply described as “rich” (83). Given that social and cultural identity is at the core of the work, these gaps stand out. Sections on ceramic iconography (e.g., 83–95) contain interesting ideas but make little reference to issues around iconographic interpretation. Any study of the charged subject of the Philistines also demands a more substantial historiographical analysis (2–7). This could usefully have highlighted Yasur-Landau’s particular angle (applying an Aegean lens to a solid base of Levant data that has emerged in the last 30 years) and his qualifications. Definitions of some important concepts shift around confusingly. For example, Yasur-Landau says that the term “Aegean” may describe people from any part of the Aegean region or people in adjacent regions adopting aspects of Aegean culture, yet he very often uses it to imply people with actual origins in the Aegean region. “Colonization” is loosely defined, despite heavy analogy with later Greek colonization processes: the latter is surprising, given their trade-linked origins (Yasur-Landau distances the Philistine migration from trade) and their co-occurrence with state consolidation, not fragmentation, in Greece.

The Levantine data forms the narrative climax, from chapter 5 on, where Yasur-Landau argues that new elements can only be explained by migration. The author prepares the ground (chs. 2–4) by trying to characterize the Aegean area and its external relations in Late Helladic (LH) IIIB–C and argues that conditions there from ca. 1200 B.C.E. encouraged migration. Given the complexity and variable quality of Aegean data for this period, achieving an authoritative short synthesis is difficult, and selectivity is apparent. A long section on the Pylos “rower tablets” PY An 610 and PY An 1 is included to demonstrate the possibility of organized migrations in LH IIIB, but this seems marginally relevant to LH IIIC, in which Yasur-Landau suggests an absence of centralized elites/organization and downplays maritime migration. Long-distance interactions in the latter part of the Late Bronze Age (LBA) cannot be properly characterized or identified, the author suggests, because material culture is similar across the region. This argument sidesteps the issue of how such similarities emerged and tends to undermine the book’s whole aim. It also weakens Yasur-Landau’s own claims that mass migration was rather rare, and Aegean-led trade limited, in the Late Palatial period. The book needs the Philistine migration to be different, large-scale, and distinct and so cannot link its character closely to any type of LBA interaction: the LBA must mainly provide a template of contrast. Yet the period’s rich, deep, and varied interactions make it hard to simplify in this way.

Yasur-Landau concludes this discussion by suggesting a range of probable “push” factors were present in the 12th-century Aegean. He then offers an innovative focus on the ways and means of migration. Detailed evidence on shipping is presented and the possibilities of sea vs. land transport in any large-scale migration are weighed up, with a land movement favored (102–21). Chapter 5 maps the route of “Aegean” groups through western Anatolia and the Levant, explaining developments as diverse as the destruction of Ugarit, the transformation of Cypriot pottery manufacture, and defensible sites on Cyprus. Historical sources are used impressively, but the map is based mainly on material culture traits, especially clay spools, Aegean cooking pots, and locally made Aegeanizing fine wares. Yasur-Landau rightly highlights combinations of artifact changes pointing to a deep change, a sudden change, and a household-based change in lifeways as most likely to reflect significant migration.

Alternative models of culture change are not pursued at any length, however, and the highly unusual region-wide post-collapse circumstances in which changes occurred seem under-stressed. Most of the spools are known from Greek findspots, but they are newly present also, as the text notes, in other parts of the eastern Mediterranean. Their lack of Aegean precedent means the same factors bringing them to the Aegean (changes in textile production?) might have spread them to adjacent areas. “Aegean” cooking jugs are characteristic of only some LH IIIC Aegean regions, as the author notes. The type existed already in LH IIIB; although it was not exported at that time, many other pottery products were. Yasur-Landau stresses the wider range of Aegean-type pottery shapes in the Levant, whether in imported (often Cypriot-made) or imitated forms (such as the cookpots) in LH IIIC. He claims Philistia is distinguished by its lack of Aegean-type pottery imports in LH IIIC, so the increased range of Aegeanizing forms here must be because of migrants—in other words, without imports as patterns, the potters needed an Aegean origin to make the new range of pots. The book never clearly explains how or why both Aegean migrants and Philistia locals remained isolated from the contemporary import trade. Exports affirm that the region was in contact with others, such as northern Israel, which did import Aegean-type wares. Even if there was no need to import, thanks to high numbers of skilled migrant potters, the book provides no explanation of how migrants could prevent alternative markets emerging in this high-value good. Too little seems made of the following points: (1) that the collapse of the major LH IIIB polities produced a vacuum in luxury pottery production, which seems likely to have resulted in a variety of groups stepping in to fill the exchange gap (whether Cypriots, Aegeans, or Levantines, manufacturing locally or at certain main regional supply points); and (2) we would expect that Aegeanizing products, now made without any reference to an original palatial template, would have a newly increased variety. New cooking and drinking fashions are most likely to have spread with generally increased physical mobility, as the author points out. But despite the extensive use of later Greek colonization as an analogy, he pays little attention to the evidence for the rapid, significant take up of new drinking practices and vessel types through contact short of mass migration during the eighth–seventh centuries B.C.E.

Yasur-Landau goes on to cite similarities between architecture on Philistine sites and LH IIIB (not LH IIIC) Aegean architecture (raising the issue of emulated prestige traditions, not addressed here) and a rise in the representation of domestic pig remains (not paralleled widely in the sheep-and-goat favoring Aegean in either LH IIIB or IIIC, so potentially reflecting the advent of smaller-scale subsistence farming, which is touched on). The same approach, of identifying a cultural change and arguing for its “Aegeanness” to support the migration case, is consistently used. However, since this material is less widespread than the object types already mentioned, and not easily identifiable as “Aegean” on style grounds in the way they are, weak points have to be covered by highlighting the possible strength of continuing local traditions in a migrant context. Readers would be helped by more rigor here—for example, the provision of more extensive statistical information on novel/foreign vs. traditional local elements at the four Philistine sites discussed, compared with others in the LBA/Early Iron Age (EIA) Levant. More statistics to support the proposed migrant numbers would also be of use. Yasur-Landau halves the estimated 25,000 population of Philistia in the 12th century, but because no spatial zoning of Aegean vs. “local” architecture or finds is identifiable at the sites, there are few ways to test his estimate. Given that the size of the claimed migration is one of the main justifications offered for studying it, this is an important issue.

In view of the pivotal role in LBA/EIA cultural change often attributed to them, Cyprus and Cypriots are discussed rather lightly overall, despite a dedicated section (138–54). Sherratt is acknowledged as influential in the development of change models that exclude mass Aegean migration, but her characterizations of the economic and ethnic world of the 12th–11th centuries could be more fully cited. From an opposing perspective, the views of Karageorghis on Aegean migrations into Cyprus are never really dissected, though they are extensively cited: it suits the thesis to favor them, but there is little reflection on their besetting issues (e.g., the nature of “Greek” ethnicity and its representation in material culture; the assumed continuation of ethnic and other social identities on the island between the prehistoric and historic periods).

Overall, this is a useful contribution to the debate on LBA/EIA interactions, addressing a number of specific issues head-on in one place. A self-evident need for an updated work proving the truth of this particular migration is assumed, and the author focuses on achieving this. But whether or not we consider it proved, what is its value as a migration (rather than any other kind of contact/culture change) to our interpretative understanding? Does accepting a migration model suggest the 12th-century Mediterranean was more consistently violent, or the post-collapse Aegean more socially organized, than we might previously have assumed? A final chapter discussing these points would have served the book well. Instead, rather as the putative migrants came up against the borders of Egypt after their voyage through the Levant, we come up against the book’s conclusions as something of a dead end. As the author warns us in his final paragraph, “the journey begins here” (345).

Saro Wallace
Heidelberg University
Institute Of Prehistory, Early History and Near Eastern Archaeology
Marstallhof 4
69117 Heidelberg

Book Review of The Philistines and Aegean Migration at the End of the Late Bronze Age, by Assaf Yasur-Landau

Reviewed by Saro Wallace

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 115, No. 2 (April 2011)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1152.Wallace

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