Tag Archives: Aegean prehistory

How Aegean is Aegean prehistory?

To those of us in the field, the argument of this blog post won’t be a surprise: Aegean prehistory isn’t very Aegean. In fact, this came up at a conference at the University of Michigan published as Prehistorians Round the Pond in 2005. The editors (Despina Margomenou, John Cherry and Lauren Talalay) wrote in their introduction that “what Aegean prehistory comprises is perhaps largely unproblematic: the prehistoric archaeology of the Greek mainland, the Aegean islands, and Crete.” (2) They continue to discuss the common definition, and flag this usage of Aegean as peculiar. In his contribution to the publication, Colin Renfrew pointed out how absurd the situation was. As he put it: “No Ancient Greek would for a moment have ignored the great cities of the Ionian Coast, no Byzantinist [sic] would omit Ephesos, let alone Constantinople, and since we are prehistorians together, what about Troy, or Iasos, or Miletos, or even Kum Tepe?” (154)

In writing a book chapter about the Aegean for an edited volume, I’ve come to realize more clearly how un-Aegean my sub-discipline is. It’s really not about the Aegean, but about (modern) Greece: the Greek mainland, the Aegean islands, and Crete are all part of what is now (and has been, for some time) the modern Greek state. The editors of Prehistorians Round the Pond aren’t wrong: those areas are the traditional focus of the discipline.

For example, in the Oxford Handbook of the Bronze Age Aegean (2010), western Anatolia gets 13 pages in a book of 930 pages; that’s not much, especially compared to 36 pages for the Greek mainland, 41 pages for Crete, and 35 pages for the Cyclades. Specific sites in the eastern Aegean account for 67 pages of discussion, compared to 101 pages dedicated to specific Cretan sites, 136 pages to mainland sites, and 10 pages to a single Cycladic site (Akrotiri). In Aegean Prehistory: A Review (2001), not a single chapter deals primarily or exclusively with the Anatolian mainland, and Anatolia is indexed on only 49 pages of 473 total in the book (10.3%). In the Cambridge Companion to the Aegean Bronze Age (2008), Anatolia is indexed on 36 of 431 pages (8.3%); of the 15 chapters, two chapters include sections on the Dodecanese (2 pages), northern Aegean, Troy and the Black Sea (3 pages), Anatolia (2.5 pages), Trianda on Rhodes (1 page), and coastal Asia Minor (1 pages).

To those of us who have taken and taught classes called “Aegean prehistory,” this isn’t surprising — “Minoans and Mycenaeans” takes up a huge percentage of the real estate of the discipline — but it’s shocking when you think how little the discipline actually conforms to the Aegean, understood as a geographic descriptor. It’s bizarre that a discipline that effectively began with Schliemann’s excavations at Troy (but see Fotiadis 2016) pays so little attention to the eastern coast of the Aegean Sea.

It’s hard not to see this as a reflection of modern politics, even if we concede that there are other factors at play, like the archaeological obsession with wealthy tombs and palaces, which in the Aegean appear at particular places (like the southern Greek mainland and Crete). As I mentioned above, “Aegean prehistory” took off with Schliemann’s excavations first at Troy, then at Mycenae, sites that Schliemann associated with the myth of the Trojan War. The connection between the Trojan mythic cycle – and especially the Homeric epics – with this prehistoric archaeology is what captured the imagination of the public and scholars. As Moses Finley put it in the New York Review of Books: “without Homer and the Greek Tragedians, without the Greeks and what they have meant to western civilization, the Bronze Age palaces would rank in intensity of interest with, say, the Aztec or Maya ruins.” Greek prehistorians, many of them, were convinced of the essential connection between Classical Greece and the prehistoric past. As Alan Wace wrote in the forward to Documents in Mycenaean Greek (1956): “In culture, in history and in language we must regard prehistoric and historic Greece as one indivisible whole.”

Prehistoric and historic Greeks, and what they mean to western civilization. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that this is why the field chooses to focus so obsessively on the Greek mainland – and especially the southern Greek mainland, the geographical home of the Greek city-state (the polis) – the Cyclades, and Crete, and why it has so little time for the eastern edge of the Aegean.


Image courtesy of the Earth Science and Remote Sensing Unit, NASA Johnson Space Center