Tag Archives: Mycenaean Greece

Peripheries

In less than ten days (!) I’m giving the first paper at the 3rd international conference dedicated to the periphery of the Mycenaean world:

I haven’t finished writing my paper, but I’ve got some time, including two days exclusively set aside to write in Karpenisi (my grandmother’s home town) before I drive to the conference in Lamia. In the meantime, here’s the title and abstract that I submitted to the conference organizers:

«άγνωστος λησμονημένος απ’όλους»? Why the “periphery” should be central to Mycenaean studies

This paper argues on theoretical and empirical grounds that our understanding of the Mycenaean world is in need to radical revision and explores how these problems affect the study of the Mycenaean “periphery.” Despite a great deal of critical work, it is still customary to think of “the Mycenaeans” as a homogeneous palatial culture characterized by extreme hierarchy and centralization, focused on a core region, namely the mainland of central and southern Greece. In temporal terms, this has led to chronological schemes configure the palace as the telos of Mycenaean culture, its “high point.” Such schemes are not only extremely problematic for most of the Mycenaean world, which apparently lacked palatial structures, but also fail to account for the internal constitution of palatial communities and the variety of developments in palatial regions.

The notion of a Mycenaean core, as opposed to a periphery, is a product of this same approach, but expressed spatially rather than chronologically: proponents of the core-periphery model of the Mycenaean world (e.g., B. Feuer, “Being Mycenaean: A View from the Periphery,” AJA 115.4 [2011] 507-536) have endorsed the view that the core was homogeneous with respect to material culture and ethnicity, suppressing the very real variation that is present. The recent notion of “Mycenaeanization,” which usefully points to the fact that Mycenaean culture is itself a process that unfolds through time, is also problematic in that it too imagines a central and unitary core.

A better approach, this paper argues, is to focus on practices that may be tentatively identified as “Mycenaean” and to study how such practices unfold historically. This approach is preferable because one and the same practice (for instance, the use of chamber tombs) appears at different times in different places and in different historical contexts, and it seems clear moreover that a single practice can mean radically different things to different communities. This focus on discrete practices allows us to discard the problematic notions of Mycenaean unity and identity – and the even more problematic arguments about who or what is really Mycenaean – and to focus our attention instead on the constitutive practices of the Late Bronze Age as they unfolded in space and time.

It follows from the above that the terms “periphery” and “core” are not very useful ways to understand the Late Bronze Age Aegean, since it presupposes a unity that has been shown to be problematic. Instead, areas considered peripheral in the past should be central to Mycenaean studies, since it is at the interface of practices, spatial or temporal, that our understanding comes most clearly into focus.

 

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Arthur Evans on “The Eastern Question in Anthropology”

“Mycenaean culture was permeated by Oriental elements, but never subdued by them. This independent quality would alone be sufficient to fix its original birthplace in an area removed from immediate continguity with that of the older civilisations of Egypt and Babylonia. The Aegean island world answers admirable to the conditions of the case. It is near, yet sufficiently removed, combining maritime access with insular security. We see the difference if we compare the civilization of the Hittites of Anatolia and Northern Syria, in some respects so closely parallel with that of Mycenae. The native elements were there cramped and trammelled from the beginning by the Oriental contact. No real life and freedom of expression was ever reached; the art is stiff, conventional, becoming more and more Asiatic, till finally crushed out by Assyrian conquest. It is the same with the Phoenicians. But in prehistoric Greece the indigenous element was able to hold its own, and to recast what it took from others in an original mould. Throughout its handiwork there breathes the European spirit of individuality and freedom. Professor Petrie’s discoveries at Tell-el-Amarna show the contact of this Aegean element for a moment infusing naturalism and life into the time-honoured conventionalities of Egypt itself.”

page 919 of Evans, A. J. 1896. “‘The Eastern Question’ in Anthropology,” Report of the
Sixty-Sixth Meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, Held at Liverpool in September 1896, London, pp. 906–922.

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.

Reblog: Advanced imaging of the Linear B tablets from Pylos

This summer I co-directed (with Kevin Pluta) a project in which we began advanced imaging (RTI and 3D scanning) of the Linear B tablets from the “Palace of Nestor” at Pylos (modern Ano Englianos). These tablets are now housed in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens.  I’ve written a couple of blog posts elsewhere about the project: one for the website of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA), through which we applied for our permit, and another for the Archaeological Computing Research Group (ACRG) at the University of Southampton, a member of whom, Hembo Pagi, trained us in RTI. The posts say the same thing, more or less, to slightly different audiences. You can read the stories here (ASCSA) and here (ACRG).

3D scanning with Jim Newhard and Ben Rennison

3D scanning with Jim Newhard and Ben Rennison

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RTI with Dimitri Nakassis

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RTI with Jami Baxley

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RTI with Kevin Pluta (left) and Hembo Pagi (right)

Alice Kober, Aegean prehistory, and the media

The strength of the publicity being showered on Alice Kober’s work at the moment is quite striking. The recent interest has been sparked by a new book by Margalit Fox, entitled The Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code (Harper Collins). The book and Alice Kober’s pioneering work have been the subject of articles in the BBC, the New York Times (by Margalit Fox), and PRI’s the World. (One article that is not in the popular media but ought to be read by all prehistorians interested in Kober is this blog post).

Alice Kober

The evident interest in Alice Kober generated by this popular book, has made me reflect on the fact that Aegean prehistorians have not done a good a job as they might have in communicating the excitement and interest of Greek prehistory to a popular audience. This is not to say that we haven’t been good at outreach — prehistorians give many public lectures through the AIA’s lecture tours, for example, and Greek prehistory has a fairly strong presence on the web. It nevertheless remains the case that few books for a popular audience have been written about Aegean prehistory, and when they have, they haven’t received much attention. I think that this is because such books have been written as handbooks or textbooks, not as narratives. That narrative is important seems clear from the first sentence describing Margalit Fox’s book on the Harper Collins website:

In the tradition of Simon Winchester and Dava Sobel, The Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code tells one of the most intriguing stories in the history of language, masterfully blending history, linguistics, and cryptology with an elegantly wrought narrative. (emphasis mine)

It is, it seems to me, a mistake for archaeologists of Greek prehistory to ignore the fact that we could be doing a much better job communicating the excitement of our work to a broader audience. We might begin by thinking about narrative. In some ways this is difficult. The nature of archaeological work is such that it’s not so much based on lone detectives,  but on teams of scholars. These teams work in different places at different times, engaging in a multiplicity of scholarly narratives that intersect and dovetail. But if we want to make our work accessible and interesting, and if we want to control the narratives about our discipline, some of us will need to think in these terms.

Geography and a Greek “culture of freedom”?

I recently had the opportunity to begin reading Christian Meier’s “A Culture of Freedom: Ancient Greece & the Origins of Europe” (Oxford University Press 2011), a translation of the first two parts of his seven-part history of Europe. Several reviews of the book have already come out in academic journals (CJ, CP) and in the popular press (THES, WSJ). The book seeks to answer “how the Greeks came about… how they developed into a culture that was so different from all the other magnificent high cultures that emerged before and beside them in world history.” (286) The answer, not surprising given the title, is freedom: “With the Greeks, the motor [of culture] was freedom, specifically, a broad circle of free men in many cities, who saw themselves challenged to secure and expand their free way of life against all encroachments.” (286)

I have to say that so far I find the book deeply problematic. For the moment, I’ll leave aside the politics, which I would characterize as triumphant Occidentalism. Meier is writing to a broad audience, and he is covering a massive topic, so a certain amount of oversimplification is probably inevitable. But when an author talks over and over again about “the Greeks,” it’s hard not to think about bad undergraduate essays in introductory classes. For instance (14):

The Greeks’ defining characteristics were that they were first and foremost human beings, and not emperors, consuls, or senators; that they refused to be constrained by the rules of a class-segmented society…

I really don’t understand this. Was Augustus an emperor first and a human being second, whereas Perikles was a human being first and a general second? How could we know? Similar problems occur when Meier tries to explain the big events in Greek history. Thus, when discussing the 8th century “renaissance” and the rise of the polis, he writes (65):

In fact, it was probably only their intense contact with the Orient that allowed Greeks to jump immediately, almost without any transition, up to the next rung of the ladder of civilization without drastically changing their original nature.

What can this possibly mean? The “rung of the ladder of civilization” seems to appeal to some notion of unlineal evolution, a theory jettisoned already by the beginning of the 20th century. And how can Meier know what the “original nature” of the Greeks was, given that all of our literary evidence begins precisely during this early period?

The result of this extremely broad and diffuse level of discourse is that Meier is forced to manipulate the evidence so that it fits his schema. I doubt that this is intentional; he is simply not a master of all the material he discusses. But when this material is the end of the Greek Late Bronze Age, I think it is legitimate to take him to task. Here I want to focus on Meier’s discussion of geography and politics.

In his chapter on the “new beginning” in Greece after the destruction of Mycenaean palatial culture, Meier points out that the early city-states of the 8th century were typically small, and he points out that “landscape and climate encouraged the formation of small communities” (53). He then goes on to say that (53-54)

But geography alone cannot explain why Boeotia contained ten independent, only loosely associated poleis, or Rhodes three. Already in the Mycenaean period, topography had not proved a serious obstacle to the formation of larger political units. In that era, however, neighbouring territorial powers — Minoan Crete as well as the Hittite Empire in Asia Minor — seem to have provided the impetus for the formation of larger centrally ruled kingdoms. This may be part of the solution to the puzzle: in this sort of landscape, external impulses were necessary to stimulate the development of larger political units. In the centuries after 1200 BC and the collapse of the Hittite Empire, however, no Oriental power took an interest in the Aegean region.

It seems odd to characterize Mycenaean kingdoms are large political units. Were they really so anomalously large? Pyos, the kingdom whose political geography we know best, occupied about 2000 sq km, comparable to the territory of the polis of Athens. And in fact, the Classical polis that later occupied the same land was in fact larger than its Mycenaean predecessor — by over three times. As Meier himself points out, after the conquest of Messenia, Sparta controlled a territory of 7400 sq km.

We understand the political geography of other Mycenaean kingdoms less well, but they are not gargantuan in size. Knossos maximally controlled a territory of some 6400 sq km — which is still smaller than Classical Sparta. But Jan Driessen (2001) has argued that in fact the evidence from the Linear B texts suggests that Knossos “was not so much a territorial state as an economic enterprise” (99) that focused on particular types of activities in particular places. He suggests that the Knossian kingdom “monitored only one-third or one-fourth of the island” — that is, 2100-2800 sq km, about the same amount of territory at Pylos. The political geography of the Argolid is difficult to assess, but it is worth noting that there are a large number of Mycenaean centres in and around the Argive plain. The modern municipality of Argos covers only some 1000 sq km, although it does seem likely that the kingdom of Mycenae extended north and east into the Corinthia and the Epidauria. Thebes may have controlled a very large territory, although a note of caution has been sounded by Tom Palaima (2011) and Dakouri-Hild, who imagine a Theban polity in the 1000 sq km range, with influence extending to Amarynthos and Karystos. And I’d add, as a coda, that neither were the Neopalatial (“Minoan”) predecessors of the Mycenaean states very large: John Bennet (1990) has estimated that their territories were about 1000 sq km, with the largest being 1500 sq km.

In sum, then, Minoan and Mycenaean polities were not particularly large. They were probably larger on average that Classical poleis: for instance, according to Bennet, Classical and Hellenistic poleis on Crete had on average territories ca. 500 sq km, compared to the Minoan polities with territories twice as large on average. But it is also the case that there may have been many independent Mycenaean polities — say, for example, Aidonia — that skews our data towards the larger, better-known, and better-studied, Mycenaean polities.

So why does Meier insist on the large size of Mycenaean polities? Why doesn’t he cite Colin Renfrew’s (1975) Early State Module, which suggested that in many early civilizations, we find many small (ca 1500 sq km) polities? Perhaps its simple ignorance, but if so it is willful. Meier needs to differentiate Mycenaean culture from Greek culture (49):

As far as we can tell from the numerous and often grandiose remains, Mycenaean culture was monarchic in both organization and character. It was a palace culture, and Mycenaean kings seem to have ruled over large territories. These are two of the major differences between Mycenaean and post-Mycenaean Greek culture.

There is no road that leads from Mycenaean to polis-based culture. All the fundamentally new aspects of this latter culture, which turned world history on its head, could not have arisen easily, had the foundations, forms (and limitations) of the preceding epoch not been destroyed, and, notwithstanding a small and on the whole insignificant number of continuities, had the post-Mycenaean Greeks not had the chance to begin again from scratch.

So, Mycenaean polities are large because that makes them fundamentally different from Greek poleis, and it makes them fundamentally similar to other contemporary eastern kingdoms. Hence Meier mentions the large size of the Minoan palaces (which actually aren’t very large) and the Hittite Empire. But to compare the fairly small Aegean polities to the Hittites is absurd. For some reason, I can’t find any estimates of the size of the Hittite empire, but even if it was on quarter the size of modern Turkey, it covered 196,000 sq km. Meier seems to imagine that the Hittites influenced the Mycenaeans and stimulated the development of larger kingdoms, but how would this have actually worked? It’s entirely unclear.

I think it’s more likely that Meier sees the Mycenaeans are fundamentally non-Greek. After all, they did not create a culture “for freedom’s sake” (14), a phrase that recurs throughout the work. So the Mycenaeans weren’t really Greek, not in their politics (monarchy, not oligarchy or democracy), not in their political geography (big territorial states, not small independent poleis). So Meier needs to assert that Mycenaean polities were big territorial states, even when they’re not. By cutting the Mycenaeans out of Greek history, Meier can begin his history of Europe with the emergence of the polis. This is Europe’s elusive “zero hour.”

Maybe some people won’t mind that Meier stretches the truth a bit to capture a complex reality. To me, however, this is less history than European myth-making.