Bryn Mawr Classical Review 97.8.1

Nigel Spencer, Time, Tradition and Society in Greek Archaeology. Bridging the "Great Divide". New York: Routledge, 1995. Pp. 179. $59.95. ISBN 0-415-11412-8.

Reviewed by Balbina Baebler, University of Bern, Switzerland.

This book is a collection of eight (partially revised and enlarged) papers most of which were originally delivered at a session (under the title "New Directions in Classical Archaeology") of the Theoretical Archaeology Group (TAG) Conference at Southampton in 1992. The aim of TAG, to which the authors have contributed with uneven success, is -- in the words of the General editor's Preface -- "to raise the profile of discussion about the theories of the past" (xiv).

After Colin Renfrew's Foreword (xvi-xviii) and the editor's Introduction (1-5) -- which both deal with the still uneasy relationship between more traditional Classical Archaeology and a more theory-based New Archaeology as presented in the papers of this book --, Jonathan M. Hall explores the "Approaches to Ethnicity in the Early Iron Age of Greece" (6-17). The debate on this issue goes back to the 19th century (K. O. Müller); over time, there developed a kind of dichotomy between the "primordialist view" (regarding ethnicity as "innate, inescapable and deterministic") and the "instrumentalist view" (holding that ethnicity is but a transient strategy adopted by groups for ulterior, often economic, purposes), a view shared by most classicists today, who regard 'ethnic' groups merely as linguistic communities with a number of common customs. Hall wants to show that an ethnic group is rather a conscious social construction than an "objective" category; therefore archaeological artefacts have to be seen not as defining criteria of ethnicity, but rather as indications of a consciously projected one. To confirm this thesis, Hall looks into the archaeological profile of the Argolid, where, e.g., the status of gods seems to vary markedly from region to region (13); even within e. g. the Argive plain there are differences that prove that this culture was not so homogeneous as it seemed.

In "Challenging Preconceptions of Oriental 'Barbarity' and Greek 'Humanity'" (18-27), Louise Steel deals with "Human sacrifice in the ancient world". She looks at equivocal evidence for Minoan scapegoat sacrifices (19), for "Suttee" sacrifice at Lefkandi and on Cyprus (23) and at somewhat better evidence for "retainer burials" on Cyprus (23-26). More problematic seems the section (19-22) about human sacrifice in Phoenician and Carthaginian society, mentioned by several ancient authors (as well as in the Old Testament), but supported by little archaeological evidence. S. rightly notes that there is little proof of sacrifices of the first-born; on the other hand, she takes for granted that there were Moloch-sacrifices until as late as the destruction of Carthage 146 B.C. Observing that the tophet of Carthage has its greatest extension in the 4th century, S. concludes that human sacrifice, far from being characteristic of more primitive societies (and gradually displaced by animal sacrifice), actually became more frequent as Carthage became more urbanised and civilised (26). One may, however, still doubt whether the tophets are unquestionable evidence for human sacrifice; moreover, one should take into account that every ancient report about this practice was written by Carthage's fiercest enemies. Several scholars1 today argue that the human sacrifices of the Phoenicians were only a theme of Roman and Greek propaganda.

Most interesting is the contribution by the editor of the volume himself, dealing with "Multi-Dimensional Group Definition in the Landscape of Rural Greece" (28-42). Despite the existence of several studies about the importance of symbols denoting a specific culture in border areas, archaeological data have not yet been used to explore "group identity and interaction at the margins of territory" in ancient Greece (29). Spencer examines rural towers and enclosures on Lesbos, which are concentrated in the center and the western part of the island. Nine of them are built with isodomic Hellenistic masonry, nineteen with the polygonal "Lesbian" masonry, an expensive 'prestige style' of the Archaic period. Most of these towers are 6-12 km distant from the nearest polis, and many of them lack an enclosure or features like mills, cisterns etc., which means that they had neither an agricultural nor a military purpose. This leads to the question: who in the polis had interest and means for such investments in the hinterland? As Spencer shows (37 ff.), it was probably the elite of the asty enacting a kind of "peer emulation", combined with an effort to emphasize links between chora and asty; on the other hand there was also an "inter-polis side" of this phenomenon, playing out a rivalry between the Lesbian poleis which vied for the best land against their neighbours.

In "Tomb Cult and Hero Cult. The Uses of the Past in Archaic Greece" (43-63), James Whitley explores the symbolic values of tomb cult, various possibilities of its interpretation and the links between change of cult and social changes; he shows (49 ff.) the possibilities and limits an ancient society had in using the past to legitimize the present. The paper stresses that an anthropological "theory of the past" is still only in its beginnings (51), and that the definition of "hero" and "hero cult" is still far from clear. Against a rigid distinction between of heroes of epic and heroes of cult W. convincingly draws up a more differentiated list of major heroes of epic poetry, lesser named heroes (e. g. Phrontis, Akademos), real, i.e. historical, individuals (e. g. Harmodios and Aristogeiton) and anonymous figures of only local significance. According to W., the hero cult of the classical period cannot simply be projected backwards to the much lesser known circumstances of early Archaic Greece; very probably the cults springing up around the Mycenean tombs in the eighth century were not originally conceived as hero cults but as cults to a previous race (60); still, the idea of the epic hero itself may have had a significant effect on mortuary practices of the archaic period (cf. the tomb at Marathon).

In attempting to show "that settlement histories, whether they concern the Bronze Age or the present day, are ultimately palimpsests of local actions and decisions -- a record of each group's differing aims in the use of space and the imposition of boundaries in the landscape -- rather than reflecting global processes" (65), Kyriacos Lambrianides' paper "Present-day Chora on Amorgos and Prehistoric Thermi on Lesbos. Alternative views of communities in transition" (65-88) presents an interesting and original approach. He traces the historical development of the Amorginian village of Chora since about 1800 and of the settlement of Thermi, the second site of the Troadic culture after Troy itself (72). As the history of Chora shows, changes in a traditional, pre-industrial society are mostly the result of actions at the individual level, so that there is no need to invoke a 'macro-scale process' at a place like Thermi in order to explain the developments documented in the archaeological record (86).

Lisa Nevett examines "The Organisation of Space in Classical and Hellenistic Houses from Mainland Greece and the Western Colonies" (89-108), an area little enlightened by literary sources; her underlying assumption is that the structuring of domestic space is conditioned not only by practical and economic reasons but also by patterns of social interaction and by the cultural norms and expectations of society.2 She examines many houses in Greece, Sicily and Southern Italy which show -- notwithstanding substantial variation of detail -- a "consistent pattern of domestic spatial organisation", namely a single entrance from the street, a dominant court and the restriction of sight-lines, which suggests a conscious regulation of social relations between the house and the outside world (107), in particular between women and unrelated male visitors (94).

Karen Stears' article "Dead Women's Society: Constructing female gender in Classical Athenian funerary sculpture" (109-131) is primarily based on the methodology of semiotics (110 f.) and focused on the portrayal of women on grave stelai. Examinations of the development of classical stelai (113 ff.), age categorisation (123 f.), occupations, and qualities lead to the conclusion that death was "at the very centre of Athenian life" (128), but also that the reliefs -- as they were placed in highly visible topographical positions -- served above all to display the signs of status, wealth, age categories and gender roles; all of which is true, but not a totally new finding.3 Stears believes that the reliefs "may reflect the ... reality of female life less obliquely than the female ... characters of tragedy and comedy" (129): this, however, remains open to question, in the light of the highly stereotyped images (and epigrams) on the stelai and the depictions of women, which are generally shown without any signs of age and presented in a rather restricted number of typical patterns (bidding farewell to their husband, together with slave and baby, or with a slave tending a small box to her) which didn't change for a long time.

Lin Foxhall's "Monumental Ambitions: The significance of posterity in Greece" (135-149) distinguishes between "human time", a time span of three or four generations, and "monumental time", which transcends the temporal limits of human (oral) memory and approaches the 'permanent' realm of legend through various means (e.g. poetry and the monumentalisation of the Athenian polis in the Parthenon), and tries to say something about the relationship between these two concepts and their significance. The idea looks quite original, but one cannot help but feel that solid archaeological evidence here is sometimes neglected in favour of theory: Funerary periboloi, e.g., may have been in possession of an oikos for only three to four generations (134), but in any case they were carefully restored after 338 and still in use later; one cannot flatly state that Greek art did not individualise people before the fourth century (140);4 "authenticity" was indeed not an important issue for Greek artists (144 ff.), nevertheless the level of self-confidence and self-reflection of artists was already very high in Classical Greece, as is shown by many theoretical/philosophical treatises written by artists about their work and by the favours and prices they could obtain.5 Individuality certainly starts earlier than this paper suggests. Foxhall's perception of the historians Herodotus and Thucydides is open to the gravest doubts: in light of the wealth of archaeological evidence which confirms Herodotus, this author should be taken more seriously as a historian (133. 139); and when she states Thucydides' achievement as "to transform the living present into a ... permanent monument for posterity" (146), she misjudges (and neglects) his very explicit didactic intentions (as expressed in 1.22.4).6

The discussion of theories, methods and models, which started in the Sixties in anthropology and prehistory, was carried over into classics above all by A. Snodgrass,7 but barely noticed in German-speaking archaeology. This "New Archaeology" seeks not to classify objects and findings for their own sake, but to reconstruct historical contexts and social processes; topics like ethnical identity, gender-related work, and instrumentalisation of the past (cf. Spencer, Introduction 2 f.) are important. In some of the papers discussed above there is a lurking danger of simplification in confronting theoretical models with very complex historical realities and traditions; nevertheless the new approaches undertaken in this volume provide new approaches to areas of ancient life which up to now have been little explored (being not reflected in ancient literature). It is to be wished, therefore, that this book will motivate more traditional archaeology to face up to the challenge and widen its areas of discussion.


1. Most prominently S. Moscati, Gli adoratori di Moloch (Milano 1991).

2. In the last ten years these issues have aroused greater interest among German-speaking archaeologists, as is shown by the second, revised edition of W. Hoepfner and E. L. Schwandner, Haus und Stadt im klassischen Griechenland (1994).

3. See, e.g., J. Schmaltz, Griechische Grabreliefs (1983) and U. Knigge, The Athenian Kerameikos (1991).

4. Cf. the "philosopher of Porticello" (about 460 B. C.) and the portrait of Pindar (about 450 B. C.).

5. See H. Philipp in: Polyklet: der Bildhauerder griechischen Klassik (Frankfurt 1990), 79 ff.

6. One may indeed wonder how she can declare that Thucydides "redefines the human deeds of his own time as 'legendary'", when in her quotation of 1.22.4 (only a few lines below) Thucydides himself tells us "that the facts described are not legendary". It even seems ironic that, although Foxhall states that lasting memories can be achieved only through spoken words (141f.), her own footing in these (Greek) words seems rather insecure: Her translation of Herodotus' first sentence has a very clumsy beginning (137), she persists in calling the Stoa Poikile Poikilos (139. 146. 148), and the name forms "Aeschylos" (139) and "Oedipos" (145) are not only awful hybrids, but in the second case actually incorrect.

7. Cf. A. Snodgrass, An Archaeology of Greece. The present state and future scope of a discipline (Berkeley/Los Angeles/London 1987); also I. Hodder (ed.), Archaeological Theory in Europe. The last three decades (London 1991).