The Oxford Handbook of the Bronze Age Aegean edited by Eric H. Cline (Ed.) with 61 Contributors 976 pp., 162 halftones, 11 line illustrations Oxford University Press, Great Clarendon Street, Oxford OX2 6DP, 2010, £115, ISBN 978-0195365504
Article first published online: 10 FEB 2014
© 2014 The Authors. International Journal of Nautical Archaeology © 2014 The Nautical Archaeology Society
International Journal of Nautical Archaeology
Volume 43, Issue 1, pages 203–206, March 2014
How to Cite
Wachsmann, S. (2014), The Oxford Handbook of the Bronze Age Aegean edited by Eric H. Cline (Ed.) with 61 Contributors 976 pp., 162 halftones, 11 line illustrations Oxford University Press, Great Clarendon Street, Oxford OX2 6DP, 2010, £115, ISBN 978-0195365504 . International Journal of Nautical Archaeology, 43: 203–206. doi: 10.1111/1095-9270.12050_3
- Issue published online: 10 FEB 2014
- Article first published online: 10 FEB 2014
This 963-page book contains 66 articles organized into four sections. Part 1 sets the background with chapters on the history of research, chronology and terminology. In Part 2 the reader receives a vertical overview of the region. The 13 chapters begin with the Neolithic period and continue through the Early, Middle and Late Bronze ages. Each of these subsections is further divided into chapters dealing separately with mainland Greece, the Cyclades and Crete. The final subsection also contains a chapter dealing with the end of the Bronze Age in Crete.
Part 3 gives the reader a horizontal view of the issues, in the form of thematic topics. These are, again, divided into subgroups dealing with art and architecture, with chapters on Minoan and Mycenaean (henceforth, M&M) architecture, figurines and frescoes; ‘Society and Culture’, which includes chapters on state and society, M&M religion, death/burial, trade and weapons. A third subsection, entitled ‘Seals and Writing/Administrative Systems’, includes chapters on M&M seals and sealings, Cretan hieroglyphs, Linear A, Linear B and Cypro-Minoan. Crafts are discussed under ‘Materials and Industry’ in five chapters covering M&M ceramics, textiles and jewelry. A final subsection focuses on events, with chapters covering the Theran eruption, the Trojan War, and the great cultural collapse that ended the Bronze Age.
The fourth and final part contains 29 chapters and focuses on seminal sites and regions for understanding the epoch. These include a section on Crete with chapters on Ayia Triada, Kato Zakro, Khania (Kydonia), Knossos, Kommos, Malia, Palaikastro and Phaistos. A second section on mainland Greece covers the Argolid, Boetia, the central and southern Peloponnese, the northern Aegean, Lerna, Mycenae, Pylos, Thebes, Thorikos and Tiryns, while a third section deals with the Cycladic, Dodecanese and Saronic islands and contains entries on Aegina Kolonna, Akrotiri, the Dodecanese and Rhodes. The final subsection opens up to the wider Mediterranean world and includes chapters on the Cape Gelidonya and Uluburun shipwrecks, Cyprus, Egypt, the Levant, Troy, western Anatolia and the western Mediterranean.
Established scholars wrote many of the chapters. Interspersed with these are chapters by younger, but yet very capable scholars. Each entry comes with a comprehensive and useful bibliography, making each one a good ‘go-to’ resource for initiating research on these subjects.
In general, handbooks, by their nature, do not make for inspired reading and in some places the chapters read like long lists. This is understandable, and to be expected, when experts are trying to cram as much information as possible into a defined word allowance, as is the case here. Given the book's Brobdingnagian size I will touch below only on some of those points that will be of greatest interest to IJNA readers.
S. Manning's chapter on chronology (pp. 11–28) is a valuable overview of both the history of research and the methodologies of determining dating systems for the Bronze Age Aegean. This should be read together with his second chapter focusing on the eruption of Thera, which covers the different forms of evidence, as well as the arguments and counterarguments for dating the eruption (pp. 457–74). When in time should we place the eruption of Thera and with it the nautical iconography from the West House at Akrotiri? The eruption took place in the latter part of the Cretan Late Minoan IA, but the question of absolute chronology remains perhaps the most hotly debated issue in Aegean archaeology. Archaeometric evidence indicates a date in the late 17th century BC, while other more traditional scholars eschew that evidence and argue for a considerably later date. Manning lays out the arguments for the different sides of the dating but notes that anyone arguing for a date for the eruption later than 1530 BC must ‘ignore or dismiss the large body of high-quality radiocarbon evidence available. There is no justification for this position’. So the date of Thera's eruption remains unresolved.
B. E. Burns in his chapter on trade gives a good overview of the archaeological evidence of regional long-distance exchange. He notes the problematic stratigraphical situation of some predynastic stone vessels found in the Aegean. While some have seen these artefacts as evidence for early Aegeo-Egyptian contact, they are better understood as evidence of ‘an antiquity trade during the Bronze Age’ as suggested by L. Pomerance in 1975, in a paper aptly entitled ‘The Possible Rôle of Tomb Robbers and Viziers of the Eighteenth Dynasty in Confusing Minoan Chronology’ (Antichità Cretesi I: 21–30, pls. IV–V.)
All the chapters in the section dealing with seals, writing and administration are recommended for a background on the functioning of palace bureaucracies. It is good to have these overviews all in one volume for easy reference. T. G. Palaima's chapter on Linear B gives an excellent introduction to that script and contains a history of the research and the state of knowledge to date of these fascinating documents. While the Linear B documents are frustratingly laconic on trade and seafaring—as Palaima has documented elsewhere (Thalassa: L'Égée préhistorique et la mer , 273–310, pl. LXIII)—they are of extreme importance in contextualizing aspects of the contemporaneous nautical milieu, and do give some narrow glimpses into Mycenaean seafaring. Given the fact that these texts were basically palace receipts and survive only thanks to the conflagrations that burnt and hardened them, it is truly remarkable what Mycenaenologists have been able to learn from them.
Tablets from Pylos (Vn 46 and Vn 879) possibly refer to timbers used for ship construction (p. 367), while three other tablets (An1, An 610 and An 724) refer to ‘rowers’ in their title line (p. 360). One of these, An 1, lists the collection of 30 oarsmen required for a single ship, presumably a triakonter, for a trip to Pleuron. What is particularly interesting about this document is that rather than being recruited from a single site, the men are collected from five settlements: J. T. Killen in a brilliant article referenced by Palaima has demonstrated that this list represents a type of proportional call up, or conscription, from each of the locations listed which also appear in An 610.
N. Hirschfield's chapter on the Cypro-Minoan script covers this enigmatic, and as yet, undeciphered script. Readers should note her discussion of its distribution outside Cyprus (p. 379). As she has demonstrated in previous publications, potmarks incised and carved on Aegean wares strongly suggest that this trade was in the hands of merchants using ‘Cypriote bureaucratic methods to keep track of their wares’ (p. 379), in other words, Cypriot traders.
The ‘Materials’ section contains a number of chapters that readers will find useful as starting points for the study of different types of artefacts that may be encountered in excavations. I was awed by Doniert Evely's ability, in this section, to cover so much ground in such limited space (pp. 387–404).
The Trojan War is dealt with by T. Bryce, who notes wryly that Thucydides, in what appears to have been a rounded-up figure, was off by 14 in giving the number of the Greek fleet at 1,200 instead of the actual 1,186 (p. 477). Details like this make the study of the past, and those who have transmitted it to us through their writing, so much fun. Bryce also points out (pp. 480–1) how Troy has served as a rallying point by rulers of both east (Xerxes) and west (Alexander the Great), as it represents the earliest clash of the cultural divide that continues to this day. One can only ponder who among today's states(wo)men wish to be standing atop Hisarlık and claiming it as their own.
The period of turmoil that straddles the Bronze and Iron ages is one of the most complicated, most studied and also the least understood. There are few periods with as many moving parts, which is what makes it is so interesting. In O. Dickinson's chapter on this perplexing period, he rightly warns that ‘it is a waste of effort to try to isolate a single cause or prime mover for the Collapse’ (p. 489).
Readers should not miss the entry on Kommos, by Joe and Maria Shaw, the site's excavators, as this was a distinctly Cretan maritime settlement and shows much evidence of international connections. Note particularly the discussion on the Late Minoan III period Building P, identified as a series of ship sheds (p. 548). Found here were two eastern Mediterranean three-holed stone anchors, probably from Cyprus, in secondary use (see IJNA 24.4 , 279–291). Notably, and to the Shaws’ credit, their fieldwork at Kommos has been completely published and an excellent website contains materials from the various studies, as well as the excavation reports (https://tspace.library.utoronto.ca/handle/1807/3004).
W. Gauss's chapter on Aegina Kollona (pp. 737–51) can serve as a good background reference to anyone studying the important ship representations from there, published by L. Basch (Mariner's Mirror 72 , 415–38).
The site of Trianda, described in the chapter on Rhodes by T. Marketou, represents a good example of overseas expansion, first by the Minoans, followed by the Mycenaeans (pp. 779–88). The mechanism behind these population movements, necessarily carried out in wood-planked hulls, remains, unfortunately, one of the least-discussed aspects of Aegean culture: this deserves far more attention than it has received and would make an excellent PhD dissertation topic.
IJNA readers will find the section on the wider Mediterranean world of particular interest as, by their nature, ships and seafaring belong to the world of inter-regional connectivity exemplified in the Bronze Age Aegean. The chapters in this section fulfill the goal of bringing to the fore the main evidence for connections between the Aegean and points east, south and west.
G. F. Bass's ground- (water-?) breaking excavation of the shipwreck at Cape Gelidonya (sank c.1200 BC) in 1960 was a seminal event for nautical archaeology. It represented the first time that diving archaeologists carried out an underwater excavation using the exacting methodologies of terrestrial archaeology. IJNA readers who are not focused on Bronze Age studies may not be aware, however, of how Bass's interpretation of his findings from the shipwreck resulted in a literal sea change in our understanding of the identity of seafaring traders in the eastern Mediterranean during the last centuries of the Bronze Age (pp. 800–1). Scholarship till then had assumed that the appearance of Mycenaean pottery in the Levant indicated that Mycenaeans had done the trading on Mycenaean ships. Bass concluded that the Gelidonya ship had been either Syro-Canaanite, or perhaps Cypriot. This was a radical departure from prevailing opinions and, as science can be as dogmatic as religion, it took time, as well as more evidence from other sources, to prove this paradigm shift, which is now accepted by the scholarly community.
The Uluburun shipwreck (sank late 13th century BC) is undoubtedly the most important vessel for our understanding of Bronze Age trade. This merchant trading ship has benefited from first Bass's, and subsequently, C. Pulak's, meticulous excavation and the latter's ongoing research, which has given us a true ‘porthole into the past’. Pulak summarizes the artefacts uncovered and pulls together all the strands of evidence (pp. 862–76). He concludes that the ship probably originated from a Syro-Canaanite site, and suggests Tell Abu Hawam, located inside modern-day Haifa, Israel, as a likely candidate. Unfortunately, to be truly appreciated, the wealth of artefacts contained on the shipwreck need to be seen, not just listed. For colour photos readers should go to Pulak's chapter in the Metropolitan Museum's 2008 exhibition catalogue, Beyond Babylon (New York), or visit the shipwreck's virtual museum on the Institute of Archaeology's (INA) website (http://nauticalarch.org [see under projects]).
Now, everything comes at the expense of something else, so I do not envy E. Cline, the volume's editor, in having the Herculean task of deciding what subjects to cover in the book at chapter length and which to leave out. Each of us, in his place, would vary on the weight we placed on the importance of some topics versus others. That having been said, this book could have benefited from one or more chapters dealing specifically with seafaring.
This volume is clearly a terrestrial-based view of the Aegean Bronze Age. The topic of ships and seafaring in the book is limited almost entirely to the chapters on the Uluburun and Cape Gelidonya shipwrecks neither of which, it is worth pointing out, actually sank in the Aegean. Undoubtedly, these wrecks are crucial to our understanding of trade as practised in the latter part of the Late Bronze Age and deserve their place in this book. But there is more—much more—to seafaring in the Bronze Age Aegean and to a large degree that is missing here, beyond short descriptions interspersed among the chapters. It is difficult to underplay the importance of ships and seafaring in the evolution of Aegean Bronze Age societies, particularly in the second millennium, and yet this book glosses over this crucial aspect of society: in fact, the term ‘seafaring’ does not even appear in the comprehensive index. From a purely nautical perspective the result is a somewhat Flatlander's view of the Aegean Bronze Age.
While chapters cover contacts east, south and west of the Aegean, the book, somewhat surprisingly, lacks a chapter with a view to interactions with Europe, indicated by the sharing of sword technologies, the amber trade, ship iconography and other forms of evidence. This is all the more needed now that copper from Cyprus has been identified in Swedish(!) Bronze Age artefacts (Journal of Archaeological Science 41 : 120 Table 3, 121).
Also, the book could have been made much more ‘user-friendly’. It would have benefited from a series of maps, placed at the beginning of the book, which displayed all the sites, regions and locations mentioned in the text. A few of the entries do include maps (for example Boeotia, figs. 46.1–3), but these, unfortunately, are exceptions rather than the rule. Also, there are relatively few images per entry and some of the site plans have been reduced to the point that the details are lost. Try, for example, to locate the sea ‘road’ referenced on p. 545 on the opposing Kommos site plan (fig. 41.1) without the aid of a magnifying glass.
True, it would have been difficult in a book this size to add many more illustrations. Today, however, alternate solutions exist. For a limited investment Oxford University Press could have generated a companion website and populated it with as many high-resolution colour and B&W photos, plans and maps as the chapters’ authors wished to provide in order to illustrate their chapters.
This is reminiscent of the situation at the turn of the 20th century. When Sir Arthur Evans began excavations at Knossos in 1900 he documented his work—thankfully!—with a, then, new-fangled invention, a camera: but when W. M. F. Petrie sent his assistants to excavate tombs at Gurob at the entrance to Egypt's Fayum in 1920, they went into the field without one. Thus, anyone working on materials from that exploration, as I have done, is left today without any photographs at all from that field season. We seem to have here a similar ‘Evans-Petrie Retrograde Paradigm Shift’. The editors of a prestigious series at one of the leading university presses have published here a book of such high quality and calibre that—no doubt about it—it will serve as an excellent source of information for almost all things Bronze Age Aegean for many years to come, but have chosen to leave it ‘visually impaired’ despite the fact that the technology to supply the necessary imagery has been readily available in a financially viable manner for quite some time.
In summary, this book is an excellent resource for a basic understanding of any of the topics covered and serves as a valuable compendium: it should be on the bookshelf of anyone interested in the Bronze Age Mediterranean. For the record, it was on mine even before I was asked to do this review. I recommend this book subject to the comments above.