Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2000.10.22

Iphiyenia Tournavitou, The 'Ivory Houses' at Mycenae.   London:  British School at Athens, 1995.  Pp. xx, 341, 815 microfiche.  ISBN 0-904887-12-X.  $104.00.  

Reviewed by Bryan E. Burns, University of Southern California
Word count: 919 words

The group of structures known as the 'Ivory Houses' were set apart from other Mycenaean houses by their remarkable contents, including imported goods and Linear B texts. The function of these buildings and the connection of their occupants to the palatial administration of Mycenae has been a matter of debate for some years -- a debate which can now, with this publication, make reference to the full range of evidence . Given the time elapsed since the publication of this volume, the text of this review is brief, but detailed footnotes are provided for those interested.1

The book represents the official publication of British and Greek excavations to the west of the citadel from 1950 to 1959, directed by A.J.B. Wace and N.M. Verdelis. Four separate structures were uncovered: the West House, the House of Shields, the House of the Oil Merchant, and the House of Sphinxes (in likely order of construction). They are legitimately considered as a single group on account of their overlapping functions and close grouping on a large built terrace, all constructed and destroyed during the first half of the Late Helladic IIIB period (13th century BC). This volume is of tremendous value in clarifying certain aspects of these buildings and is of even greater importance in light of how relatively little of the Mycenae excavations has seen final publication.

The initial chapter describes each of the four houses in terms of architecture and gives a general account of the finds from each room. There are mentions of post-Mycenaean occupation, of which the Hellenistic is most extensive, but none of the later finds is published here. The following nine chapters then present individual classes of material: pottery; ivory and bone; wood; stone; vitreous materials; metals; obsidian; Linear B tablets and sealings; and "other materials," ranging from plant remains to painted plaster. These chapters provide summaries of typology and distribution, with the actual catalogue of objects on extensive microfiche. A final chapter discusses the overall nature (i.e., function and status) of each house. Brief appendices then present preliminary results of chemical and petrographic analyses of different classes of stirrup jars and their stoppers, which indicate the importing of vessels from Crete.

Extensive as this volume is, the involved reader must look elsewhere for other aspects of the material. Certain classes of material have been previously published, especially the Linear B texts, terracotta figurines, and carved ivories. Tournavitou is, of course, well aware of the situation and gives full references. It is also advisable to consult the original BSA and Prakitka reports for a sense of the actual excavations and additional illustrations.

As indicated by the book's title, the vast numbers of ivory pieces from these buildings are of major interest -- over 18,000 pieces, mainly from the House of Shields and House of Sphinxes. A significant portion of these objects were published by Poursat some years ago, and his companion volume to this catalogue remains the best art-historical discussion of the Mycenae ivories.2 Tournavitou's analysis of the ivory finds (and those of wood and stone vessels as well) is guided by an interest in determining their stage of manufacture. With this more technical investigation, she demonstrates that the 'Ivory Houses' were not a location for the primary working of ivory, but did perhaps house the secondary activities of joining ivories to wooden furniture.

The detailed analysis of such a vast quantity of ivory carvings is unparalleled, and this provides the student and scholar with an impressive body of material for further study. It is, therefore, unfortunate to find errors among the numbers and listings of finds. Tournavitou provides references to Poursat's catalogue, but there are cases of confusion among museum and catalogue inventories.3 Given the large number of pieces and the many years since their excavation, a few such lapses are not surprising. Inconsistencies within the book, however, are less understandable, such as when the counts in the text conflict with those in tables and references to the catalogue.4 This kind of difficulty is exacerbated by the inclusion of the catalogue on microfiche, which makes involved use of the book somewhat cumbersome. This is, in fact, the perfect example of material that would be better presented in an electronic format. A searchable version of the catalogue would make so great a number of artifacts (concurrently numbered by three different systems) much more accessible and would also permit the reader to more easily overcome any miscalculations.

A more troubling omission is the total absence of a Canaanite jar fragment (no. 50-513) from the pottery chapter and catalogue, one of only nine such vessels from the site.5 This is curious, since Tournavitou discusses the foreign origin of other artifacts, for example faience vessels, at great length. And indeed the international contacts evidenced by such objects contribute to her conclusion that the activities of the houses most likely fall under the palatial administration.

A major contribution of this work is that it enables others to fully consider issues of state control over local and long-distance economic systems. Indeed the function and administrative-affiliation of these buildings can now be more accurately compared to private and palatial establishments at other sites in the Aegean and eastern Mediterranean. The book has already become an essential resource to anyone considering issues of crafting, exchange, and administration in the Bronze Age Aegean. The microfiche catalogue makes involved use of the book more appropriate for use in a library rather than the home or office. It is nonetheless a necessary item for any research library.


1.   Though now five years old the book has not been widely reviewed, only twice to my knowledge: P. Rehak, AJA 100(3) 1996, pp. 615-16; J.-C. Poursat, Revue Archeologique 1999(1), pp. 111-12.
2.   J.-C. Poursat, Catalogue des Ivoires Myceniens du Musee National d'Athenes; Les Ivoires Myceniens, Athens, 1997.
3.   For example, the two ivory rosettes Poursat (p. 37 no. 108) lists as NMA 7995 are surely the same ones recorded as NMA 7795 by Tournavitou (p. 401 no. 55-263). A simple inversion of numbers prevents this identification, which is assured by description and measurements.
4.   In her description of the "horse's tail" motif of ivory inlay (sometimes described as a "panache" or plume) she states that there are five examples from the houses (p. 157), but only one can be found among the distribution tables (p. 194 Table 9, p. 202 Table 15). One of the missing inlays can be found in her catalogue entry for NMA 7642 (pp. 349-50 no. 53-652); another is listed by Poursat (p. 54 no. 184). This example may seem trivial, but it stands out because of the low numbers involved. Also, it does not inspire confidence in other cases with much greater quantities spread across several contexts, e.g. 95 model columns (p. 160).
5.   It was originally mentioned by A. Akerström, "More Canaanite Jars from Greece," OpAth 11, 1975, p. 187 and further described by E.H. Cline, Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea: International Trade and the Late Bronze Age Aegean, Oxford, 1994, p. 170 no. 307.

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