Tag Archives: Late Bronze Age

Political unity in the LBA?

The ever-useful academia.edu (which now keeps asking me if I am interested in Roman Archaeology) brought to my attention an article by Jorrit Kelder entitled “Ahhiyawa and the World of the Great Kings: A Re-evaluation of Mycenaean Political Structures” (Talanta XLIV [2012]). The author argues in this paper that the Mycenaean world was unified into a single state ruled by a single king (the wanax) at Mycenae, while the other Mycenaean palaces were subsidiary administrative centers, each ruled by a local king (the lawagetas).

aegean_smThe spur for this argument, which runs totally against the grain of all Mycenaean scholarship, is the fact that in Hittite diplomatic texts, the region called Ahhiyawa (now located by Hittite scholars in the Aegean) is ruled by a “great king.” It is indeed interesting that our usual understanding of the Mycenaean world, i.e. that it is a patchwork of independent peer polities, is so different from the picture we get from the Hittite texts, and Kelder is right to identify this as an important question that needs resolution. His solution, however, is to accept the historical reality of the Hittite texts and then see whether he can fit the Mycenaean evidence into this picture.

In some ways, of course, that’s what we all do. We work from the evidence we know best to solve problems that they impinge upon, or we temporarily ignore a complex reality so that we can focus our attention on a particular problem (what Giddens calls “methodological bracketing”). The difference is the way that we go about treating the material we don’t know well but which is important to our argument.

In this case, the problem is the way that Kelder treats the Mycenaean material. For instance, we read that

The point that various large-scale infrastructural works (most notably the drainage of the Kopais basin in Boeotia, and the evidence for a well-developed network of roads in, especially, the Argolid) are difficult to reconcile with the modest amounts of resources and manpower that, according to the Linear B texts, would have been available to the individual palaces is usually ignored…

This is all we are told (no citations are given). It is not an unimportant statement, for together with the cultural and administrative homogeneity of the Mycenaean world, it allows that author to conclude in the following paragraph that “The argument for a politically fragmented political landscape during the Late Bronze Age thus seems to be based on assumptions, rather than facts.” It thus shoulders a great deal of argumentative weight.

Passing aside the administrative homogeneity of the Mycenaean world, which seems to me to ignore the context in which writing took place in LBA Greece (on which, see Kevin Pluta’s dissertation), this argument doesn’t hold. The author assumes that what is written on Linear B texts is congruent with (“according to the Linear B texts”), or at least indicative of, the total resources commanded by individual palaces. This is to misunderstand the nature of the Linear B texts and the processes whereby we have received them. The amount of labor recorded on the Linear B texts is indeed not very large, but it would be a mistake to conclude from this that the palace could not command large quantities of labor. As many scholars have pointed out, the Linear B texts heavily bias regular transactions, probably because those texts were less often recycled and reused. Thus we are much more likely to have evidence of annual or monthly transactions than ad hoc transactions. A good example of this is the fact that we have much more evidence for dependent groups of women and children at Pylos who are allocated monthly supplies of foodstuffs for their support than evidence for other short-term allocations of foodstuffs. Second, there is some good evidence that the palaces used multiple systems to recruit labor, including the use of intermediaries who were allocated large quantities of staples to recruit various laborers for palatial projects. So what we have in the Linear B texts are fragments of information about the labor that was certainly available to the palace, but in no way can we use this information to determine that the palaces didn’t have enough labor to, say, drain the Kopais or build a road 100 miles long, especially when neither has been adequately quantified.

Kelder makes the important point, and it is a correct one, I think, that it is a mistake to equate administrative borders with political borders (p. 4, bottom). On the other hand, he misrepresents what we know about the two main officials of the Mycenaean state, the wanax and the lawagetas. Although the contexts in which they are appear are similar, it is not true to say that (p. 5, top):

The numerous (and as far as I can see, unconvincing) attempts to make a clear distinction between the two officials, other than the size of their respective temenoi [sic; the plural of temenos is not temenoi, but temene] (at Pylos, the wanax’s is thrice the size of that of the lawagetas), clearly illustrate that there is no real consensus on the exact position and status of either of them.

Actually, there is a clear distinction between the two, which is demonstrated by a number of the secondary sources cited in this article. The adjective formed from wanax is wanakteros, which makes use of a Greek suffix (-teros) that indicates binary opposition (like Greek ἕτερος, “the other [of two]”), while the adjective formed from lawagetas is lawagesios, a regular adjectival ending. Thus it seems possible that the wanax is an important structural concept in Mycenaean Greek (at least among the administrators). There are other differences. The wanax appoints the damokoros, a regional official who administers one of the two main provinces of Pylos. He is thus directly involved in regional administration.

This much is consistent with Kelder’s argument that the wanax is the real king, whereas the lawagetas is a sub-king. But where is the evidence that the lawagetas is a “ruler-like figure”? This is crucial because the presence of two “ruler-like figures” is what Kelder finds so problematic about traditional interpretations of the Mycenaean political order. The answer is that there is no such evidence. The lawagetas appears in a number of important contexts, as does the wanax, but there is no evidence that he is a ruler-like figure. Why couldn’t he be something like the grand vizier, for example? This possibility is never entertained.

pylos-dejongAlso strange is Kelder’s reference to “two throne-rooms.” Here he elides the important difference between a throne-room and a megaron. The former is an interpretation of the function of a space; the latter is a designation of a particular architectural configuration. It is true that the rooms that we consider throne-rooms are megara, but it hardly follows that all megara are throne-rooms. In fact at Pylos, the lawagetas is not thought to hold court in the smaller megaron (room 23), but in Halls 64-65. It’s not certain what the other megara at Mycenaean palaces are for, but nowhere are the possibilities (except the one favored by the author) entertained.

Kelder’s put his finger on an important question, but although he concludes his article with the statement that “the growing body of circumstantial evidence for a unified Mycenaean state now seems overwhelming,” I am afraid that we are no closer to solving this thorny problem. That will require close, sustained engagement with the Hittite and the Mycenaean evidence.

Climate and Collapse in the LBA Mediterranean

Through my Twitter feed I was recently alerted to a new article published in PLOS-ONE entitled “Environmental Roots of the Late Bronze Age Crisis“, co-authored by D. Kaniewski, E. Van Campo, J. Guiot, S. Le Burel, T. Otto, and C. Baeteman, all of whom are geologists and/or environmental scientists working in France and/or Belgium. The authors argue that the collapse of various states in the eastern Mediterranean at the end of the LBA can be attributed to an environmental stimulus, specifically a 300-year drought. The new evidence for this argument is a core from the Larnaca Salt Lake near the important LBA site of Hala Sultan Tekke, which shows that the area slowly transitioned from a Mediterranean woodland to a dry steppe over the course of the LBA in two distinct steps:

The first step was recorded at 1450–1350 cal yr BC, and a second step was reached at ca. 1200 cal yr BC. The drivers of environmental changes for the second step are quite different as no fire activity or changes in the lagoon are attested. The agricultural activity, rich around the site, also strongly declined since 1200 cal yr BC. The PCA-biplot (Fig. 4) indicates that agriculture only became one of the main components of environmental dynamics since ca. 850–750 cal yr BC.

The authors then compare this development to Gibala-Tell Tweini in northwest Syria, where evidence for a long drought correlates with the core evidence from Larnaca. So the authors conclude that

Both proxies [Larnaca and Gibala-Tell Tweini] reveal a hydrological anomaly for the 1200–850 cal yr BC period, indicating a similar, although not uniform, drought event, recorded both on the island and on the continent. The onset of the drought event seems to be chronologically close to the LBA crisis and the Sea People event.

From this, their ultimate conclusion is that

this study shows that the LBA crisis coincided with the onset of a ca. 300-year drought event 3200 years ago. This climate shift caused crop failures, dearth and famine, which precipitated or hastened socio-economic crises and forced regional human migrations at the end of the LBA in the Eastern Mediterranean and southwest Asia. The integration of environmental and archaeological data along the Cypriot and Syrian coasts offers a first comprehensive insight into how and why things may have happened during this chaotic
period. The 3.2 ka BP event underlines the agro-productive sensitivity of ancient Mediterranean societies to climate and demystifies the crisis at the Late Bronze Age-Iron Age transition.

Here is where the authors and I part ways. My main problem lies in the gap between the first and second sentence. Even if we accept the modest conclusion that “the LBA crisis coincided with the onset of a ca. 300-year drought event,” why do we need to link the two causally? This is a post hoc ergo propter hoc-esque logical fallacy. This is especially so since we don’t have evidence for a large-scale drought. The two proxies they are using are under 250 km apart. This might seem like a long distance, but it’s positively tiny considering that they are using them to explain a collapse that spans the Greek mainland, Anatolia, the Levantine Coast, and Egypt. Mycenae on the Greek mainland, for instance, is about 1200 km away from Gibala-Tell Tweini in Northwest Syria, and almost as far away as the Hittite capital Hattusa, which is about 1000 km away from Egypt. Even if we were 100% sure about the 300-year old drought in Cyprus and Syria (unlikely given that we have only two proxies), can we really use the drought to explain the collapse of the Mycenaean political order some 1000 km away?

The rest of the concluding paragraph is, frankly, a guess. We don’t have evidence that allows us to claim, for instance, that “This climate shift caused crop failures, dearth and famine, which precipitated or hastened socio-economic crises and forced regional human migrations at the end of the LBA in the Eastern Mediterranean and southwest Asia.” Even worse is the claim that “The 3.2 ka BP event underlines the agro-productive sensitivity of ancient Mediterranean societies to climate” since it claims to show what it assumes. That is, the authors assume that drought led to collapse (I say assume because they don’t actually know that), then they claim that this shows that these societies were prone to collapse because of droughts! This is called begging the question.

I could go on and on, but I don’t want to belabor the point. The Mediterranean is climatically heterogeneous. Even if it weren’t, it is a huge stretch to assume that a drought in one part of the eastern Mediterranean can be used to extrapolate another drought elsewhere in the eastern Mediterranean. Even if it could, we can’t be sure that because the two “events” (they’re really processes, of course) are simultaneous or nearly so, that one explains the other. I’d concede that the drought contributes to our understanding of the collapse, but it’s simplistic to argue that this climate shift caused political collapse. In general, I’d add that the authors naively accept many archaeological and historical arguments as facts — the “Sea Peoples” are a big historiographical problem, for instance — and they clearly aren’t totally comfortable with the archaeological scholarship on this very difficult problem.

What all of this shows is the weakness of research that isn’t really interdisciplinary. If the authors really wanted to argue that climate and political collapse in the LBA were interrelated, they should have brought historians and archaeologists on board. They didn’t, and the results were as predictable as if I (an archaeologist of the Greek LBA) had tried to write an article interpreting their palynological analysis.