I just got back to Athens from the 3rd International Symposium on the Periphery of the Mycenaean World. It was an exciting and demanding conference: there were 60 talks over three days. Most days started at 9 am and didn’t finish before 8 pm. So today I’m exhausted and sleep-deprived, and my head is spinning with new information and new ideas. My observations on the whole event are:
- Lamia is an incredibly welcoming place. The symposium was co-hosted by the archaeological ephorate of Phthiotis and Evrytania and the Demos of Lamia, and both were amazing hosts. The δήμαρχος was present – and not in the usual way. He didn’t just speak at the start of the conference and disappear; he sat in on a lot of sessions and personally thanked many of the speakers. The director of the ephorate and everyone associated with it were also super hospitable; at the end of the conference we got great tours of the castle of Lamia and the archaeological site of Kynos.
- Who runs the world (of Greek archaeology)? Women. More than two thirds of the speakers at the symposium are women (41 out of 60 by my count), and that doesn’t take into account that eight of the male speakers aren’t Greek or don’t have positions in Greece. It is a noticeable difference if you are used to archaeological traditions in which men are dominant (numerically and otherwise). Of course it’s the archaeologists in the Greek Ministry of Culture that are overwhelmingly female (rather than, say, University professors), but they are the ones supervising and doing almost all of the archaeology in Greece.
- The Greek archaeological service is chock full of talent. The archaeologists of the service work under extremely difficult conditions, to be sure. Their intellectual ability, work ethic, and dedication to archaeology is unmatched. I don’t know enough to compare the archaeologists of Greece to other countries, but it’s hard to imagine that Greece is second to any other country in terms of talent and devotion.
- The “periphery” is so ’90s. By the end of the conference, it seemed clear that most participants were dissatisfied with the title of the conference and especially the use of the term “periphery.” It came up in a bunch of the talks (including mine) and in the concluding remarks too.
- The “periphery” is where it’s at. There’s so much coming out of the ground in these “peripheral” areas that it’s dizzying. I came out of the conference feeling like an ignorant fool for not keeping apace of these developments.
- I really need to improve my Greek.
Here’s the text of the paper that I delivered:
«άγνωστος λησμονημένος απ’όλους»? Why the “periphery” should be central to Mycenaean studies
Dimitri Nakassis, University of Colorado Boulder
From the very beginning of its study, it has been traditional to understand the Mycenaean world as a homogeneous culture. Christos Tsountas had concluded already at the end of the nineteenth century that the Mycenaeans constituted “a distinct and homogeneous civilization” («πολιτισμός…ομογενής») whose “central hearth” was the site of Mycenae (η πόλη των Μυκηνών «παρουσιάζεται σήμερον ως η κυριωτέρα εστία του πολιτισμού εκείνου») and whose northern frontier lay at Thessaly. In my paper today, I’d like to suggest that this view, venerable as it may be, presents us with a number of problems that affect the study of the “core” regions of the Mycenaean world as well as its so-called “periphery.” After briefly reviewing these problems, I will very briefly suggest some solutions, which point to the importance of the periphery for the study of the Mycenaean world.
I should say from the start that my paper will be intentionally challenging and unorthodox. I want to destabilize established ideas about “cores” and “peripheries” in the Mycenaean world. My discussion is premised on two arguments: one, that Mycenaean archaeology radically overestimates the importance of the palaces, and two, that heterogeneity across time and space has too often been overlooked. The homogeneity of the Mycenaean world is closely linked to the presumed centrality of the palaces, so much so that it is difficult to separate them conceptually.
To begin: the notion of a Mycenaean “core” is both temporal and spatial, for it is normal to define the “core” with respect to the establishment of the palaces.
For example, traditional definitions of “Mycenaean” typically invoke, as Jim Wright does here, a temporal scheme in which the “high point” – or in this case, the “fullest expression” – of the Mycenaean world is located temporally in the 14th and 13th centuries BC, and specifically in the material culture associated with the palaces.
By “Mycenaean” I mean the assemblage of artifacts that constitutes the characteristic archaeological culture that originates on the mainland of Greece in the late Middle Bronze Age, finds its fullest expression in the palaces during the Late Helladic (LH) IIIA-B, and can be traced through the postpalatial LH IIIC period.
Put another way, our internal periodization of the Mycenaean world revolves entirely around the establishment and destruction of the palaces. There are, no doubt, good reasons to organize the material this way, but this mode of organization nevertheless creates problems, both empirical and theoretical.
For example, what do we do with regions that never developed palaces? Does Arkadia have a “palatial” period if there is no Arkadian palace? The answer to this question is usually “no.” Thus, for instance, Cynthia Shelmerdine and John Bennet suggest that
regions such as Achaea and Laconia apparently never developed a monumental center like Mycenae or Pylos. These areas may have continued to operate at the level of the Early Mycenaean village-centered societies, outside the control of any particular center.
(Shelmerdine and Bennet are obviously writing prior to the discovery of Ayios Vasilios in Lakonia).
Likewise, Emiliano Arena suggests that “chiefdoms characteristic of the Early Mycenaean era probably survived alongside Mycenaean palatial states” in Achaia and other non-palatial parts of the Mycenaean world. That is to say, it is usual for scholars to assume that non-palatial parts of the Mycenaean world do not participate fully in the palatial period. Indeed, they effectively remain – socially, politically, and economically – in the pre-palatial Early Mycenaean period.
We can see, therefore, that time and space are connected in this schema. The core isn’t just more central spatially, but it is more advanced temporally. It experiences a palatial period, whereas the periphery remains stuck in the prior pre-palatial period. The schema is reminiscent of the remark of Thucydides (1.5) that καὶ μέχρι τοῦδε πολλὰ τῆς Ἑλλάδος τῷ παλαιῷ τρόπῳ νέμεται (“up to the present much of Greece lives in the old manner”): so the Ozolian Lokrians, Aitolians and Akarnanians continue to carry weapons ἀπὸ τῆς παλαιᾶς λῃστείας (“from the piracy of old”).
This situation is unsatisfactory for many reasons. It is obviously teleological: the Mycenaean world’s end goal is a monolithic and rigid palatial system. But for the purposes of my talk today, I want to highlight two other problems with this scheme. First, it does a poor job of understanding the operation of the palaces; and second, it underestimates the capacity for complexity in non-palatial regions. It is frankly depressing that it seems so logical to us that a place as dynamic and as interesting as western Achaia (for example) can be understood as essentially “pre-palatial” – that is, it is depressing that we don’t have better models with which to come to grips with such regions, and that we assume that the Mycenaean world is capable of only one form of complexity.
I would also argue that our conception of the palaces as highly rigid and hierarchical structures is an impediment. I have argued that this image isn’t consistent with the internal evidence of the Linear B tablets. At Pylos and other sites, it seems clear that the palatial system depends on the participation of a large number of individuals who appear in the texts identified by personal name. Almost all of the most important systems of production, from the manufacture of textiles to metallurgy, are premised not on palatial systems per se, but on what we might anachronistically call “private enterprise” harnessed to serve palatial interests. Just as there are no large palatial estates (as Julien Zurbach has recently argued at some length), so too are other areas split up into small pieces for which named individuals are responsible.
Even interregional exchange seems to have been transacted through the agency of elite intermediaries. Although the evidence is slim – Linear B famously tells us very little about trade – the evidence that we do have is consistent with this picture. Here, for example, we have one of two tablets from Pylos (An 35) that refers to the palace “purchasing” alum, an astringent and mordant, from a named individual probably named Aithalos (“Smoky”, Καπνώδης), who is also a smith (appropriately, given his name) elsewhere in the tablets. Because alum isn’t available in the Peloponnese, it must have been imported, perhaps by Aithalos himself as it was by another smith (named Kyprios) mentioned elsewhere as a palatial alum supplier.
This research matters, I think, because in conjunction with new discussions about how the palatial economy operates, it gives us a different view of the palaces. Rather than being monolithic institutions that are separate from society at large, the palaces function by interfacing with complex economies that either pre-existed these palatial systems or emerged in tandem with them. That is to say, the palatial system was both deeply rooted in, and densely entangled with, broader socioeconomic practices and processes.
This observation, in turn, allows us to explore a second area of concern: internal heterogeneity. If the palaces emerged through dynamic processes that responded to local conditions, as recent research has suggested, then we would expect some heterogeneity within the Mycenaean “core,” and indeed this is exactly what we find. Although many scholars have stressed the homogeneity of the Mycenaean world, in my view this has been over-emphasized. Even burial in chamber tombs, so often understood as an important marker of “Mycenaean-ness”, is practiced in a very uneven way across the Peloponnese. (This map is by now well out of date but it still illustrates the general point). Even where the material culture is superficially similar, the historical developments may differ so much that the same forms clearly have different meanings. So, for example, tholos tombs aren’t used in the same way in Messenia as they are in the Argolid or in Boeotia.
One way to deal with this heterogeneity is to speak of “Mycenaeanization,” which is a useful concept insofar as it points to the fact that Mycenaean culture is itself a process that unfolds through time. On the other hand, Mycenaeanization is vulnerable to all of the problems that have plagued Romanization: the implication that cultural change is unilateral and unilinear, the emphasis on elite culture, the deemphasis on local variation at the expense of uniformity, and so on. As Carl Knappett has perceptively observed, “Mycenaeanization” is also problematic if it imagines a central and unitary core from which “Mycenaean-ness” radiates, especially since such a core is empirically difficult to define, and so (and I quote), “it is easier to entertain the idea that Mycenaeanisation is a set of processes happening across a wide area.” At first glance, Knappett is clearly correct: many of the practices that characterize the Mycenaean world have very different histories. The history of the tholos tomb, for instance, looks nothing like the history of Linear B: neither in terms of their chronologies (that is, neither their timing nor their pace), nor in terms of their geographical origins, nor in terms of their coherence (that is, Linear B is much more homogeneous across the Mycenaean world).
A problem that I have been dancing around but have not yet fully confronted, then, is the issue of the integrity of Mycenaean culture. Many scholars stress its homogeneity; a growing number stress its heterogeneity, following the tendency in affiliated fields like anthropology to stress cultural contradictions and contestations. I think that these positions can be reconciled through the notion of “thin coherence,” as articulated by William Sewell. He points out that while culture is inherently contradictory, loosely integrated, contested, mutable, and highly permeable, it also possesses “a real but thin coherence that is continually put at risk in practice and therefore subject to transformation.”
This notion of ‘thin coherence’ has proved a useful way to think about the historical Greek world in the edited volume by Carol Dougherty and Leslie Kurke, The Cultures within Ancient Greek Culture (2003). As Josh Ober points out in this volume, umbrella terms like “Greek” or “Mycenaean” are analytically meaningful, but they do “offer only very limited purchase” when we ask questions about specific communities.
I think that “thin coherence” does a good job characterizing the patterns that we see in the Mycenaean world. The term “Mycenaean” has validity for a general analysis, but it clearly lacks explanatory value at the regional or sub-regional level. For instance, if we look closely at Mycenaean Arkadia, as Eleni Sallavoura has done, we see that certain standard Mycenaean practices, like burial in chamber tombs and the use of figurines, are rare. On the other and, Sallavoura declares that it is “unfair” to label Arkadia a periphery, since Arkadian burial customs are unexceptionally Mycenaean in character and even the most remote mountain communities use Mycenaean pottery. Calling Arkadia “Mycenaean,” then, doesn’t tell us what the archaeology looks like in specific terms, but it rather points to the fact that the region participates in a number of Mycenaean practices. This is, for me, a good illustration of Mycenaean culture’s “thin coherence.”
Another good illustration is the way that Mycenaean administration works. Here, even in the most homogeneous of Mycenaean practices, there are significant temporal and regional variations, as Cynthia Shelmerdine and others have emphasized. On the one hand, it seems logical that administration is the most homogenized field of practice. As Sewell observes, dominant actors and institutions try to impose coherence on cultural practice through a variety of strategies, and the coherence of administrative practices is plausibly due to such efforts. Yet it is clear that there is no single Mycenaean administrative system. For example, while Pylian administrative practice entails a centralized and centripetal Archive Complex managed by a single master scribe (Hand 1) and a well-organized hierarchical territory, other Mycenaean centers are not so organized. Even if the North Entrance Passage at Knossos represents a central archive, the Knossian administration is not comparable to the Pylian. Because the people who wrote our tablets were administrators, not just scribes, such differences are not just epiphenomenal but cut to the heart of administrative practice and organization. In terms of territoriality, Jan Driessen has convincingly interpreted the Knossian state as territorially discontinuous beyond its administrative core, and I suspect that the same is likely to be true for the Theban polity as well. In this context, as in many others, Pylos appears to be atypical.
Thus far my work has been largely critical, but in my conclusion I want to turn to an approach that I think is more profitable and addresses the second part of my paper’s title, “Why the “periphery” should be central to Mycenaean studies.” If we accept Knappett’s suggestion that “Mycenaeanisation is a set of processes happening across a wide area” and we accept that this area cannot (or need not) be divided into a “core” and a “periphery,” then the obvious job of Mycenaean studies is not to focus on categories such as core/periphery or Mycenaean/non-Mycenaean (especially because our understanding of ethnic identity in the Late Bronze Age is effectively zero). We should instead focus on practices and study how they unfold historically. This approach is preferable because one and the same practice may appear at different times in different places and in different contexts, and it is clear that a single practice can mean radically different things to different communities. This focus on discrete practices allows us to sidestep 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 were reproduced in space and time.
From this perspective, which is broadly representative of how archaeologists work anyway, areas traditionally understood as “peripheral” now become central to Mycenaean studies. From the traditional core/periphery perspective, someone like me who works in the “core” of the Mycenaean world – in my case, Messenia and the Argolid – the Mycenaean periphery isn’t strictly necessary, because as interesting as it may be, it is a passive recipient of “Mycenaeanization.” If, on the other hand, the practices that collectively constitute “the Mycenaean” are widely distributed, then the “periphery” becomes central insofar as it contributes as much as the “core” does to our understanding of how Mycenaean practices are organized and how they interface with other practices in different contexts.
For example, Girella and Pavuk (2016) have recently summarized the evidence for weaving activity at Troy in a broad-ranging discussion of the Mycenaeanization of the northeast Aegean, and note that the implements are largely preserved in the vicinity of the lower terraces of the citadel and in the fill of the ditch encircling the Lower Town. They then suggest “some kind of central control over the textile production at Troy during LH IIIA2 and IIIB,” presumably because “it is proved that [in the Mycenaean core] … specific segments of production, such as the textile industry, were controlled by the palatial elites.” Actually the situation is not so simple. Certainly we can conclude on the basis of the Linear B texts that some textile production was administered by the palace, but the palace actually obtained textiles in at least three ways: (1) direct production from attached workshops, (2) taxation, and (3) through direct purchases from specialists.
This last mechanism is attested by this beautiful tablet at Pylos (PY Un 1322), which records a payment to a weaver (or weavers) of a whopping 1,152 liters of grain.
This minor example is illustrative of my critique, and perhaps suggests a way forward. With respect to the former, I want to point out how quick Girella and Pavuk are to assign the entire field of textile production to total palatial control across the entire Mycenaean world in the core and even to central control (however that is imagined) in the periphery. This is a good example of how we have radically overestimated the role of the palaces and the uniformity of Mycenaean practice. But Girella and Pavuk put their finger on something important: the archaeological evidence at major centers on the Greek mainland does not allow us to understand the place of weaving in the Mycenaean economy: recent publications of the evidence at Tiryns and Midea, for example, lament how slender the evidence is. If we want to understand Mycenaean weaving, sites like Troy, where the evidence is more robust, are good places to start exploring this issue, which will undoubtedly be complex, at least as complex as the textual evidence and likely much more than that.
In his poem The King of Asine, Seferis imagines a careful search up and down the rocky hill for the ruler who is “unknown, forgotten by all, even by Homer.”
κι ο βασιλιάς της Ασίνης που τον γυρεύουμε δυο χρόνια τώρα
άγνωστος λησμονημένος απ’ όλους κι από τον Όμηρο
μόνο μια λέξη στην Ιλιάδα κι εκείνη αβέβαιη
ριγμένη εδώ σαν την εντάφια χρυσή προσωπίδα.
Seferis’ search is in vain. So too, I suggest, will our search be in vain if we presuppose simple, binary forms for a highly complex and heterogeneous Mycenaean world. We should embrace the full complexity of the archaeological and textual evidence, especially in areas considered peripheral. These so-called “peripheries” should be central to Mycenaean studies, since it is at the interface of practices that our understanding comes most clearly into focus.
Photo by Jan Driessen