Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1998.11.27

Nick Fisher, Hans van Wees, Archaic Greece: New Approaches and New Evidence.   London and Swansea:  Duckworth and The Classical Press of Wales, 1998.  Pp. 464.  ISBN 0-7156-2809-7.  £48.00.  

Contributors: Deborah Boedeker, Paul Cartledge, Andrew Dalby, Philip de Souza, Lin Foxhall, Stephen Hodkinson, Ian Morris, Daniel Ogden, Robin Osborne, Anton Powell, Kurt Raaflaub, Alexandra Villing, Hans van Wees, James Whitley

Reviewed by Sara Owen, Cambridge
Word count: 2221 words

The study of Archaic Greece has long been dogged by a scarcity of literary evidence, but by the determination of some scholars nevertheless to use this evidence over and above archaeology. A reaction to this approach appeared as long ago as 1980, in the shape of Snodgrass' Archaic Greece, but since then there has been only a trickle of scholarship which both emphasises the importance of systematic study of archaeological material and has a more cautious view of the literary sources of, and concerning, the period. The scarcity of such studies is in stark contrast to the plethora of integrated and systematic studies produced about the so-called Dark Age and the massive changes in material culture in the eighth century BC (linked with the rise of the polis) which have appeared in the last two decades.

The production of a set of essays with the avowed intention of introducing a more theoretical approach to Archaic Greece is not new. The excellent Time, Tradition and Society in Greek Archaeology: Bridging the 'Great Divide' (ed. Nigel Spencer), published in 1995, set the ball rolling with a series of eight essays dealing with, amongst other topics, ethnicity, time, and landscape in a variety of periods ranging from the Early Iron Age to the Classical period, and incorporated several studies on the Archaic period. However, the book under review does constitute an exciting addition to our bibliographies.

The collection comprises fourteen papers with subjects ranging from general and wide-ranging archaeological surveys (Foxhall, Morris) to regional or specialized studies (Hodkinson, Osborne, van Wees, Whitley); from studies of specific iconography (Powell, Villing) to analyses of literary sources, exclusively poetic (Boedeker, Dalby, Ogden, Raaflaub), and more general (Cartledge, de Souza). The articles thus display a wide range of approaches using a wide range of evidence. Space does not allow me to discuss all the papers here published in the detail they deserve, so instead I shall draw out some themes which run through the collection, and reserve more detailed discussion for those articles which address my own interests.

The first paper in the collection, by Ian Morris, stands out, by reason of both its length (at 92 pages roughly three times the length of the average contribution) and its avowedly introductory character. The paper first gives a thorough discussion of the development of the study of Archaic Greece, pointing out the propensity for scholars still to assign to archaeology an ancillary function in their study of the years after c.700 BC, despite the general acceptance of Snodgrass' explanations of "how the systematic study of archaeology could illuminate archaic history" (p.2). This section serves as an introduction to a long and detailed survey of the material culture of Archaic Greece.

The initial part of this survey provides the rationale for such a study. There is a lack of syntheses of archaic archaeology and "the growing theoretical sophistication among ancient historians about the possible uses of archaeology is often held back by empirical ignorance about what actually survives from archaic times" (p.3). Despite his empirical goal, however, Morris acknowledges that his presentation of the material is (and must be) influenced by his theoretical assumptions, which may be broadly labled post-processual. He is keen to stress the symbolic aspects of material culture: "[a]rchaeology has to be about the contextual analysis of meanings" (p.5), and is rightly convinced that the only way to interpret material culture is by looking at contexts of behaviour rather than at decontextualized artifacts. This is what lies behind the categories he has chosen for analysis, the "categories of graves, sanctuaries, and settlements, not the more conventional pottery, metalwork and sculpture," and his statement that "since the ancient users of objects expected them to signify meaning by virtue of their position within the overall cultural system, looking at them as isolated works of art will get us nowhere" (p.8). Morris is also keen to demonstrate that for periods in which we have texts we gain most "by combining archaeological/non-verbal communication acts with textual/verbal ones" (p.6).

These general concerns are brought out in many of the articles in this collection, which illustrate both the approach which Morris proposes and, in some cases, that against which he is reacting.

The paper by Lin Foxhall, 'Cargoes of the heart's desire: the character of trade in the archaic Mediterranean world,' is a good example of the kind of study which relies strongly upon analysis of how material culture was used in society. Her paper combines archaeological study with analysis of the insights gained from literary sources (mainly archaic poetry) and uses consumption theory to argue that not demand, but the "more complex" desire for goods should be our starting point; that it is not production, but the use of goods within societies which gives us a better way of understanding archaic trade. In this version of trade, the focus upon what we categorize as luxury items as the backbone of archaic trade is dismissed as dangerous, as indeed it must be. As Foxhall states, "surely what makes a 'luxury' must depend on who is consuming it and where it originated in relation to the consumer" (p.299).

Foxhall instead places the focus upon foodstuffs, using literary sources to show that "[a]ncient peoples in the Mediterranean and the Near East were demonstrably connoisseurs of specialness in foodstuffs from overseas" (p.303). Nor, it is claimed, were these special foodstuffs limited to an elite, "even though poorer people undoubtedly consumed less 'Biblian' wine or Samian oil than rich people" (p.305). However, at no point is a mechanism for such trade (I prefer 'exchange') discussed. Reciprocity is deemed too crude, but nothing is put in its place and one is left with the uneasy feeling that the notion of a modern-type market has crept in here, with elites just able to "afford" more (p.303). The exciting suggestion that the products may have been consumed by non-elites at festivals and rituals (pp.305-6) is not developed, and I suggest that such a forum, perhaps with elites providing 'foreign' foodstuffs which may have become central to the rituals,1 would have bolstered the power of elites.

The focus upon trade is also present in Osborne's paper. In 'Early Greek Colonization? The nature of Greek settlement in the West' Osborne questions the use of the term (and thus the concept) of colonization for the archaic Greek settlements. Indeed the term not only carries with it imperialist assumptions, but misrepresents the very nature of the Greek settlements. With this discussion, Osborne has moved the debate on from the simplistic comparison with the British Empire, conscious or unconscious, which still dominates studies of the phenomenon. However, he still engages primarily with the debate over motivation (land-hunger vs trade) for his final discussion. Here he uses Homer and Hesiod to build up a picture of high mobility in the Late Geometric and Archaic periods, concluding with the snappy comment (which no doubt will form the title for undergraduate essays for years to come) that "[t]alk of whether or not there was 'trade before the flag' is inappropriate, not because talk of trade is anachronistic, but because there was no flag" (p.268-9). Apart from a general uneasiness with the type of trade envisaged (called, at one point, "private enterprise" (p.268)), I would suggest that we need to move away from such Hellenocentric approaches and study the 'Greek' settlements in their contexts. Such regional study may indicate that the nature of the settlements was dictated not by Greeks alone, but by the nature of the societies with which they lived and the nature of the interactions. Such an analysis can only be made with a sensitive and thorough study of the archaeology of the native populations, and a rejection of the theoretically outdated concept of 'Hellenization'.

The contextualizing approach is followed by many of the contributions. Whitley in his 'Literacy and Law-Making: the case of archaic Crete' makes a detailed study of the region, emphasizing its peculiarity by comparison with the widespread use of writing in Attica. We have already been introduced to the enigma of the missing evidence for sixth-century Crete, the 'period of silence', by Morris (pp. 59-68). It seems even more bizarre that the only substantial evidence we have for this period in Crete should be legal inscriptions, a fact contrasted with the "distinctly odd" absence of any surviving legal inscriptions before 520 BC in Attica (p.317). The contexts of these inscriptions are public: many have been found in temples or sanctuaries, but there is little evidence for widespread literacy. The evidence put forward for 'scribal literacy' is convincing and the conclusion that law codes (and the Gortyn law code in particular) "should be seen first and foremost as a monument, and not a text" which was "...there to represent the majesty of the law to a population that was largely illiterate" (p.322) is one which I hope will be followed up.

A constant feature of the papers is the variety of sources drawn upon. For example, in his study of when and why Greek men abandoned wearing arms in civilian contexts, van Wees uses a variety of literary sources, iconographical analysis, epigraphic material and the evidence from 'Dark Age' graves to propose the interesting conclusion that weapons were eventually abandoned in favour of staffs and more cumbersome clothing which signalled leisure in the wearer. Interestingly enough, van Wees declares, with reference to the deposition of weapons (or rather lack of such) in burials, that "Homer reflects a state of affairs which in most of Greece did not exist until the seventh century" (p.343). This reinforces the view espoused by both Raaflaub and Dalby in this collection that Homer (inasmuch as the name has any meaning) should be located in the seventh century BC. I remain to be convinced of the advisability of attempting to link Homer to one period of archaeological material. However, an important point to come out of Dalby's paper is that over-reliance upon Homer and the Lyric poets by historians has led them to assume that they belong to different worlds (and periods) rather than just different genres.

This collection is not just the proceedings of a conference. Care has been taken with the structuring of the book and with providing a good database of information, as well as a methodological discussion, in the shape of Morris' paper. There are some problems in Morris' contribution. For example, the decision to take the boundaries of Greece as that of the modern nation state has resulted in the partial treatment of 'cultures' which cross modern national boundaries, such as those of Macedonia or Thrace. Whilst I am very happy to find interest being shown in Early Iron Age Thrace, my own area of study, some slips follow from this. For instance, the statement that we find megalithic dolmens south of the Rhodope range only in Roussa is incorrect. There are over 100 such structures dotted over the nome of Evros. There are even some on Samothrace. Although burial dolmens seem to be built only into the eighth century BC (not the ninth as Morris claims), these are reused down into the sixth, and a new type of dolmen has been identified in Bulgaria which is built from the eighth century onwards purely as a locus for feasting.2 The statement that the Thracians did not take part in the great expansion of grave goods after 550 BC (p.48) can be put down to an inability to gain access to Bulgarian literature. Whilst such an impression may be gleaned from the evidence south of the Rhodope, north of these mountains there is an impressive leap in burial display from the sixth century onwards, and not just at Duvanli.3 These are problems inherent in studying only 'Greek Thrace'. However two slips about which we can be less forgiving are the omission to mention Teian as well as Clazomenian settlers of Abdera,4 and the incorrect implication that eighth and seventh-century burials in Thasos (Kastri) were under small stone cairns (they are in built tombs) (p.47).

Despite these problems, however, this introductory paper enables the reader both to supplement the other articles and to place them theoretically. The contrasts in treatments of the material are emphasized by juxtaposition of papers which have a very different view of similar material. The best example of this must be the papers by Hodkinson and Powell. The former attempts to lay the groundwork for a new way to view Spartan material culture rather than from the literary notion of decline into Lycourgan austerity. He recommends the contextual analysis of all types of artifact, how they were used (cf Foxhall), rather than the traditional concentration upon black-figure pottery. Powell's article, a primarily iconographical analysis entitled 'Sixth-century Lakonian vase-painting: continuities and discontinuities with the 'Lykourgan' ethos,' demonstrates well the approach against which Hodkinson reacts.

The choice of first and final papers reinforces the overall structure of this exciting new book. Cartledge's contribution (he himself calls it a Denkschrift) not only successfully whets our appetites for his forthcoming Political Thought in Ancient Greece but takes up some of the concerns already introduced by Morris, reinforcing Morris' parting polemical note that "there will be no proper cultural, social, and economic histories of archaic Greece until archaeologists become historians, and historians become archaeologists" (p.79). I hope that this book will encourage more scholars to heed this message.


1.   See her fair assertion, p.298: "Desirable things from far away may become so entwined with the specialness of special occasions that they become part of their constitution and without them the event is not deemed to be 'right'."
2.   Triandaphyllos, in fact describes them as scarce in the hills above Roussa, and most dense in those of Kotronia and Kila. See D. Triandaphyllos "Les Monuments Mégalithiques en Thrace Occidentale," in Pulpudeva 4, 145-163 (Plovdiv 1983); for Samothrace: N. Moutsopoulos, "Tournée au Rhodope du Sud et à Samothrace," in J. Best and N. de Vries, Thracians and Mycenaeans, (Leiden 1989), 246-279; also T. Shalganova and A. Gotzev "Problems of Research on the Early Iron Age" in D.W. Bailey and I. Panayotov, Prehistoric Bulgaria (Madison, Wisconsin 1995).
3.   See Z. Archibald, The Odrysian Kingdom of Thrace, (Oxford 1998), eg 71ff, 151ff.
4.   The chronological gap between the Klazomenian and Teian settlements has not yet, to my knowledge, been bridged archaeologically. Whilst it is interesting to posit that the seventh-century burials in the mounds at Abdera were influenced by Thracian practices, the main Abderite seventh-century cemetery is not mentioned. This has a striking resemblance to such burials (mainly sixth-century) as we have at Klazomenai. In both places bodies are several deep; at Abdera two or three, at Monostirakia, Klazomenai, up to six deep. The pattern is thus probably more complex than Morris allows. In addition to Morris' bibliography, see R.M. Cook, Clazomenian Sarcophagi (Mainz/Rhein 1981).

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