Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1999.11.18

Helène Whittaker, Mycenaean Cult Buildings: A Study of their Architecture and Function in the Context of the Aegean and the Eastern Mediterranean. Monographs from the Norwegian Institute at Athens. Vol. I.   Bergen:  The Norwegian Institute at Athens, 1997.  Pp. x, 337.  ISBN 82-91626-03-0.  

Reviewed by D.J.I. Begg, Trent University (ibegg@TrentU.Ca)
Word count: 3543 words

According to the acknowledgements, this book is the somewhat revised version of the author's 1996 doctoral dissertation, as well as the first volume in an international series planned by the Norwegian Institute at Athens. Earlier versions of Chapters 4, 6, and 8 were presented at conferences in 1991. Chapters 1, 2, 3, and 7 are in effect discussions of the book's four catalogues; these latter are quite readable and ought better to be read before each relevant chapter. The book is good as far as it goes but generally is too narrowly focussed for its conclusions to be more broadly applicable without more evidence being considered. Some of its clearest discussions and best arguments also suffer from a strongly felt bias permeating every chapter which detracts from their contribution and skews their significance. In what follows, I am not necessarily disagreeing with any of the author's conclusions, merely with her methodology for arriving at them. Any criticisms are offered as suggestions to build upon what has already been accomplished by Whittaker [henceforth W.].

W.'s Introduction places her work in the context of ongoing work by several scholars, including two of her advisers. Although W. states that the "main part of this book concerns the origin and development of Mycenaean sacred architecture" (2), unlike Albers whose work has mostly avoided the question of origins, this is rather her goal than her journey. W. necessarily concentrates on the Late Bronze III period, and accepts the need to distinguish between Minoan and Mycenaean cult practices and sanctuaries. This is in contrast to Rutkowski who claims an undocumented continuity from the Neolithic period and suggests that the Minoan and Mycenaean cult buildings are related in origin, possibly both derived from shrines located in the house of the chief or ruler (2-3).

Since the discovery of the cult buildings at Tel Qasile in Israel in 1979, numerous articles have suggested religious or cultural links with Aegean sanctuaries. Reacting strongly against these, W. believes that Mycenaean cult buildings developed from local architectural traditions going back to the Middle Helladic period (3). More fundamentally, however, W. does not analyse cult symbols, burial practices, or textual information. Unless the reader is aware of the limited nature of the evidence being considered, the resulting conclusions may be misleading, particularly because of the omission of any detailed consideration of the Linear B tablets.

W. begins Chapter One ("Mycenaean Cult Buildings in the Late Helladic III Period") by explaining what has been included or excluded from her catalogue. This latter is selective rather than comprehensive since she excludes without discussion Mylonas' House of the High Priest with its frescoes of goddesses and figure-eight shields while including the so-called Megaron, etc. She later admits, however, that, since the plans of Mycenaean cult buildings and houses are so comparable, a determination of cult usage requires relevant finds and decoration, not just architecture, and is less inclined than Hägg to dismiss the cult objects from Asine 32 as indications of cult use of this room (11). W. does not discuss why there are so many cult buildings in this area at Mycenae or why they are so different from one another. While Pylos 93, which W. does include, has often been adduced as a cult area, there is no supporting evidence of finds apart from the frescoed platform; in its final phase at least, the tablets here indicate an industrial use of this area (9-10).

W. discusses both assemblages of cult objects without architectural remains, and architecture without cult objects below later sanctuaries at Delphi, Eleusis, and Delos. Although some cult rooms had central hearths and an off-center row of columns, the possibility of partially hypaethral cult rooms is not considered (19-21), nor the nature of the roofing (flat or gabled) although W. does discuss the evidence for multiple storeys (22). W. devotes only one paragraph to listing cult areas with evidence for workshops; a more detailed analysis of the industrial use of cult areas might clarify possible correlations or which, if either, came first (23-24).

W. states that it "seems very probable that the megara in the palaces at Pylos, Tiryns, and Mycenae had symbolic significance and that ceremonies of a religious nature took place within them" but she dismisses any further discussion of these with the comment that "it is questionable whether the palace megara were used exclusively or even mainly for cultic activity." (8). Just because the megara may have fulfilled other non-cultic functions does not eliminate their role in mainland religious practices; i.e., what was the relationship between W.'s cult buildings as defined and megara? And should this relationship not be an integral part of mainland religion when compared to contemporary Late Minoan?

W. mentions that since mainland fresco depictions of tripartite shrines do not correspond to architectural remains, these can be discounted as conventional and not realistic (24) but is it valid then to suggest that the fresco from Mycenae Room 31 portrays a contemporary mainland shrine (19)?

The weakest part of this chapter is W.'s summary of her typology: "Mycenaean cult buildings can tentatively be classified into four groups"; she then lists only three, of which the first two consist of examples whose inclusion was questionable in her catalogue for lack of corroborating evidence (25). An editor ought to have caught this.

Although few would object to W.'s conclusion that the LH III A2 sanctuary at Phylakopi reveals mainland inspiration, it does not logically follow then that all the mainland shrines also had a mainland origin (26-31), as W. apparently infers. W.'s catalogue does provide chronological information but her discussion makes little attempt to analyse the material chronologically within the Late Bronze Age. Were platforms or posts added, or were they an integral part of the original construction? The south platform containing the ivory head was a late addition to the Room of the Frescoes at Mycenae but is neither mentioned nor indicated on the plan. W. makes no comment on the symmetrical or tripartite facades opposite the entrances at Kea, Phylakopi, and Tiryns 117 as a possible architectural subtype.

In Chapter Two ("The Relationship between the Mycenaean Cult Buildings and the Late Minoan III Sanctuaries on Crete") W. endeavours to establish LM III comparanda for the mainland. This is challenging since the nature and extent of mainland influence on Crete in this period is unclear and still being debated. W. is aware of these complexities, for which any historical reconstructions require as objective an analysis as possible.

Again, however, the catalogue is selective and subjective. W. chooses to focus on possible sanctuaries with snake tubes and/or goddesses with upraised arms; i.e., her selection in this chapter is based on the finds and not on the architecture, on which she is essentially focussing in the rest of the book. Her discussion here is nonetheless useful, but excluding some rooms enables her to separate the contemporary Minoan and Mycenaean cult rooms more neatly than the evidence allows. For example, in the Knossos Throne Room complex, there is no mention of the so-called kitchen with the plastered stepped platform and central installation, perhaps most closely comparable on the mainland to Tsountas' House at Mycenae. Similarly, the Spring Sanctuary at Knossos has a tripartite far wall with ledges or platforms; although it was built in the Neopalatial period, it was used at least during the Mycenaean occupation as a sanctuary. Nor is there any mention of the stepped platform depicted on the Hagia Triada sarcophagus. W.'s comments on the small but ashlar structure XXIII at Malia would also have been welcome.

The discussion of the Kommos Snake Tube House omits any reference to a possible association with bronze working in the adjacent room (35), as proposed by Blitzer. For W. the main difference between Minoan and Mycenaean bench sanctuaries is that the former lack the "focus-of-direction" of the latter (48). W. interprets the goddesses with upraised arms as dedications of (possibly local) goddesses by community groups and the proliferation of the small built shrines with them in the LM III period as a regularization of earlier sporadic customs (57). This innovation is to be attributed "to the changed political and social conditions on Crete in this period" but not through the imposition of Mycenaean religion on the Cretan population (60).

After nearly thirty pages discussing the relationship between Late Minoan and Mycenaean cult buildings, essentially rejecting any close relationship, W. devotes only two paragraphs to the Linear B tablets. Since these indicate at some level of society a close religious syncretism, whose origins W. does not discuss, this is hardly a balanced treatment of the evidence. It also vitiates her conclusion that "Minoan influence on Mycenaean religion was in reality quite superficial, limited mainly to iconography" (65), based as it is primarily on the lack of architectural parallels or predecessors cited in her catalogue.

In Chapter Three ("The Hypothesis of a Connection between Palestinian Temples with Irregular Plan and Indirect Access and the Mycenaean Cult Buildings") W.'s strong bias against this current hypothesis becomes apparent. While it is legitimate to argue that there are significant differences between Palestinian and Mycenaean sanctuaries, it is less so to build that argument on "quite possibly", "generally assumed", and "debatable" (74). The lack of precise terminology does not help in the discussion to distinguish between the stepped platforms and concentric parallel benches in the Palestinian cultrooms; these latter are assumed to be too low and close together to have served as seats. Given the likelihood of immigration into Palestine at the end of Bronze Age, the argumentation might be clearer and more convincing if the Palestinian cult buildings from the Bronze and Iron Ages were considered separately instead of as a single cultural entity.

Although W. mentions the suggestion that some votives may have been placed in the so-called storerooms after some time had elapsed (75), she makes no effort to analyse the archaeological finds to support or refute this proposal. Similarly, no effort is made to distinguish between columns and posts based on their relative circumference and location within the cultroom, and there is no attempt to evaluate Stern's proposal for their supporting a canopy in a partially hypaethral cult area (75). W. mentions hearths at Mycenae, Methana, and Lachish but does not try to discuss or compare the evidence (75-76). Having rejected consideration of Asine 32, W. omits including its buried vessel in her discussion of buried vessels in Palestine and Mycenae (76). Both Palestinian and Mycenaean cult buildings lack a rigorously canonical plan; for W. this lack makes them less comparable but for others it might suggest one more basis for comparison. Similarly, both regions lack a common orientation for these cult buildings inside settlements. W. discusses archaeological evidence for the sacrifice and consumption of meat in courtyards outside the cult buildings in both Mycenae and Palestine but rejects their comparability because the Palestinian courtyards are larger than the Aegean ones (78-79). The benches in these courtyards might also have been discussed for comparative purposes. After consistently rejecting any connections between the two regions' sanctuaries, W. states that "it is not clear which conclusions can be drawn from this survey" (78).

While her conclusions may or may not be historically acceptable, her argumentation renders them unreliable. Her approach is analogous to comparing the nouns in two distinct languages to evaluate their relationship without considering the grammar, syntax, etc. The architectural evidence needs to be considered in the context of the people who created and used it. Even applying the same approach as in Chapter Six by comparing the cult buildings with Palestinian houses would help to contextualize them.

While few would go so far as to suggest the worship of identical deities in Palestine and Greece, it is the possibility of similar ritual procedures that requires investigation. They share in common among the moveable finds vessels for drinking, votives of carved ivory pieces, and even bronze figurines of the Canaanite god Reshep (at Phylakopi). W. rejects the evidence for animal sacrifice on the grounds of earlier local evidence in both cases and the snake figures at Tel Mevorakh and Mycenae because they are portrayed differently and in different media (84). The one case for a religious borrowing that W. does accept is the female holding grain in both hands, portrayed in ivory at Mycenae and Minet el Beida and on the Mycenaean fresco from Room 31 (84-85). She rejects the possibility that the Palestinian cult areas were built by Greeks because, although they are located on the fringes of settlements, it would "seem very unlikely" that the Mycenaeans could have been established in Palestine as early as the beginning of the Late Bronze Age (86).

If, as W. states, "certain categories of finds from the Mycenaean cult buildings could indicate a Canaanite connection", and "their significance can be interpreted in various ways," how can she conclude that "it is clear beyond reasonable doubt that the hypothesis that either the Palestinian temples ... were Mycenaean or that the Mycenaean cult buildings were built and used by Canaanites can be ruled out" (87)? There has been no discussion to demonstrate that "the finds from the Mycenaean cult buildings show quite clearly that Canaanites were not the primary users of them" (87). Rejecting the koine explanation as diffusionist and completely lacking any corroborative evidence (87-88), W. narrows the discussion of possible connections to one of purely architectural influence. Nonetheless, W. ends this chapter by stating "if there is a connection between the architecture of Mycenaean cult buildings and Palestinian temples ..., it can only be seen as a question of Palestinian influence on Mycenaean religious architecture" (93). W. does accept the LH III C1b pottery and Ashdoda figurines and possibly the hearths at Tel Qasile and Ekron as evidence for limited Mycenaean influence on isolated features in Philistine sanctuaries (89).

Chapter Four ("Contacts between the Levant and the Aegean in the Late Bronze Age") is an extensively revised version of a 1991 paper in Hydra 10 (1992) in which W. emphasizes the assumed importance of Cypriot involvement in LH III trade east of Cyprus and accordingly downplays the significance of direct Mycenaean involvement in such trade. Evidence for contact at the time of the Shaft Graves, like Grave Rho, Canaanite jars in Greece, the niello inlay technique, and Type B swords, is dismissed as sporadic and incidental to regular contact or trade between Greece and Palestine. Mycenaean pottery began to be imported to Palestine extensively in LH III A and even more so in the LH III B period at the same settlement, cemetery and sanctuary sites (99-100). W. accepts Bass's interpretation of the Ulu Burun wreck as having been a Syrian ship, based on the anchors, while rejecting Pulak's attribution of Aegean nationality based on the Mycenaean eating and drinking vessels, on the ground that this latter is an uncertain argument and that it was the nationality of the shipowner that was important (106). W. assumes Mycenaean trade with Cyprus in LH III A and B without mentioning Catling's paradox, i.e., the absence of evidence for Cypriot copper in the Aegean during the period of greatest trade. Although she refers to the lack of onomastic evidence for Greeks at Ugarit, she omits mentioning Cline's suggestion, based on the absence of Mycenaean pottery in Anatolia, of a Hittite trade embargo of Mycenaean goods affecting Ugarit. In arguing that objects of Canaanite origin in Greece came from Cyprus, W. admits, to her credit, that the few analysed jars are definitely from the Levant but insists that "there is a possibility that some of them might have been made in Cyprus and not in the Levant" (113).

In Chapter Five ("The Role of Cyprus"), having emphasized the importance of Cyprus in Late Bronze Age trade, W. discusses the role of Cyprus in the transmission of religious architecture. W. accepts Karageorghis' attribution of Kition Temples 2 and 3 to Near Eastern prototypes while noting the absence of platforms as a cult focus in Cyprus (116-117). W. points out that the Kition temples are too late to have influenced the LH III B Aegean temples and that they themselves do not correspond to the local Cypriot tradition of religious architecture in the Late Bronze Age. W. quotes the Kition excavators' comment that "arguments based on architectural form alone seem inadequate for determining origin and influence" (118), but does not apply the reasoning to her working hypothesis in this monograph.

It is typical that W. begins Chapter Six ("Comparison between Mycenaean Sacred and Domestic Architecture"), the book's main contribution, by rejecting the similarities with Palestine as coincidental and explaining Levantine objects in Mycenaean cult buildings as deposited because they were "unusual objects of some value" (120). She finally proceeds to discuss the Mycenaean cult buildings within their own cultural context, discussing plans of Late Helladic III houses, their entrances and axiality, lack of symmetry, subsidiary rooms, orientation, platforms, hearths, posts, and staircases. W. comes to the reasonable conclusion that "it is unneccessary (sic) to look beyond the Greek mainland for architectural parallels to Mycenaean temple architecture and there is no need to explain its origin by surmising the existence of foreign models" (136). Indeed, based solely on their architecture, Mycenaean cult buildings would be indistinguishable from domestic buildings were it not for their moveable finds and fixed interior installations. This conclusion, however deserving on its own terms, becomes for W. merely "the main argument against a Levantine origin of the Mycenaean cult buildings" (138). In other words, W. frames or contextualizes the most substantial part of her research within the Palestinian controversy.

Her discussion in Chapter Seven ("The Relationship between the Temple at Ayia Irini on Keos and the Mycenaean Cult Buildings") of the cult building on Keos would be perfectly valid on its own but again becomes an argument to demonstrate that not even the idea of buildings specifically dedicated to cult emanates from the Near East (138). W. minimizes the Minoan aspects of the terracotta statues and uses the building to suggest that Mycenaean religious architecture originated "during, perhaps towards the end of, the Middle Bronze Age" (142).

In Chapter Eight ("The Function of the Mycenaean Cult Buildings"), W. discusses the contents of mainland cult rooms including lamps, triton shells, and evidence for ritual meals, drinking and libations. It is not clear yet whether specific types of animals were appropriate for particular cult areas, as suggested at Methana, or the precise nature of their use, i.e., sacrificed and offered to the deity, or cooked and consumed by the worshippers (148-149). W. would see the figures as dedicated images of deities perpetually reenacting a ritual rather than as cult images to be worshipped but even so this still implies the worship of more than one deity inside some sanctuaries like Phylakopi which, unusually among known Aegean sanctuaries, included male figures as well. W. accepts Konsolaki's explanation of the bovid figures and bones at Methana as indicative of a connection with Poseidon.

W. believes that the mainland sanctuaries should be considered as part of the official cult because of their proximity to megara and/or fortification walls and the association of fresco decoration and motifs with palatial architecture but she rightly questions whether they were solely connected with palatial cult because of their continued use after the destruction of the megara. In contrasting the "temple culture" of classical Greece with the Mycenaeans, W. finally concludes that "the Mycenaean elite expressed its power and status through palatial and funerary architecture and not through religious architecture" (159). W. might not have arrived at this conclusion, which makes the Mycenaeans unusual if not unique in the ancient Near East, if she had included the palatial megara among her considered corpus of Mycenaean cult buildings.

In her concluding Chapter Nine, W. briefly summarizes her previous conclusions. This reviewer would have preferred a less polemical and more positive approach to the subject matter, beginning by establishing what Mycenaean cult buildings were, i.e., Chapters 1, 6, 7, and 8 before proceeding to discuss what they were not, i.e., the Late Minoan situation in Chapter 2 and the Near Eastern comparanda in Chapters 3, 4, and 5. W.'s emphasis on the domestic comparanda on the mainland is useful but limited by her omission of the megara in the same context.

The Bibliography is substantial and useful. After an Index, there are three charts summarizing the arguments for and against links between Palestinian and Mycenaean sanctuaries and listing them in chronological order. Of fifteen tables, five concern Mycenaean sanctuaries, seven Palestinian sanctuaries, two Mycenaean houses and one Minoan sanctuaries. There are sixty-two figures of line drawings of plans and four maps.

The text should have been more carefully edited, especially regarding subject-verb agreement.

W.'s book is convenient, incorporating descriptions and plans of many of the relevant cult rooms and their finds, but its arguments might have been presented more consistently and persuasively with better editing. The emphasis on local developments within the Greek mainland is refreshing but the conclusions need to be used with caution because of the limited evidence discussed. Since we do not, and never will, have all the relevant evidence for Mycenaean cult, it is better to try to keep an open mind to the surprises that undoubtedly await.

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