Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2000.11.27

Jennifer M. Webb, Ritual Architecture, Iconography and Practice in the Late Cypriot Bronze Age.   Jonsered, Sweden:  Paul Aströms Förlag, 1999.  Pp. xii + 369.  ISBN 91-7081-148-2.  400.00 SEK.  



Reviewed by D.J.I. Begg (ibegg@trentu.ca)
Word count: 2537 words

This book by Jennifer Webb [henceforth W.] is a revised and updated version of her 1988 doctoral dissertation for Melbourne. It is a substantial work, though not well served by its presentation, and W.'s various theoretical goals expressed in the introductions are not always brought to completion.

In the opening paragraph of the introductory chapter on Theory and Context, W. delineates her scope and goals: to identify and elucidate cult places and practices in the archaeological record of Late Bronze Age Cyprus and also to formulate a series of indicators, supplemented by iconographic data, which allow reasonable inference that a particular site was given over to organized ritual activity. (1) Indeed, cult places are well elucidated in detail, but the indicators are not formulated in a discussion. It is not stated but becomes evident in the subsequent text that W. is focusing on communal cult places, thereby excluding burial and domestic rituals, and that "ritual" excludes secular activities. For W., ritual "involves the repeated performance of prescribed activities. Thus artefacts used in ritual should exhibit a non-random pattern of use and discard and yield insights into both the nature and location of ritual practice." (10) W. defines ideology as "the use of religious and other symbolism for political and social purposes or more specifically as 'the capability of dominant groups or classes to make their own sectional interests appear to others as universal ones.'" (2)

The remainder of the chapter briefly discusses Cyprus in the Late Bronze Age and Terminology. For the late phase of the LBA after 1400 B.C., an abundance of evidence indicates that, under the stimulation of external influences, the island was organized into a number of distinctive regions, some seemingly more centralized than others. Among the varying models of organizational structures and relationships currently being discussed for this period, it has been suggested that religion might have been one of the mechanisms of organizational and ideological control, in the absence of more concrete evidence like the forts of the earlier phase. W. later applies this interpretive theme to the evidence, particularly the iconography of the sealstones. Recent studies indicate increasing evidence for continuity after the transition from LC II to LC IIIA, making the dating for some constructions and destructions more problematic, but W. proposes to view the absences of continuities in a new explanatory framework.

In "Terminology," W. explains her preferences among the architectural terms, such as "temples," "holy-of-holies," and "hall," often employed inconsistently in LBA Cypriot studies. Although classical terms like adyton and cella have become embedded in studies of Near Eastern sanctuaries, it would have been preferable for W. to have chosen more appropriate terms for the area describing the precise location of the cult image while being worshipped. The term temenos, as usually employed in studies of Greek religion, properly refers to the entire sacred area of the sanctuary that is cut off or distinguished from the surrounding profane area. W. uses it synonymously with courtyard, which was only a part of the sacred temenos. It would be better for this term also not to be used since there does not appear to be any evidence observed for the marking off of Cypriot sanctuaries from the surrounding areas.

Chapter 2, the catalog of cult sites, begins with a brief general theoretical discussion of the problem of identifying cult installations. W. states that "the present study is restricted to an analysis of material from Late Bronze Age Cyprus, as far as possible avoiding extrapolation from earlier or later times, non-Cypriot cultural systems and ethnographic analogy." (11) The task of identifying Cypriot cult buildings and installations is challenging because "there appear to be few artefacts or architectural or locational indicators exclusively diagnostic of cult activity. Virtually all object types, with the probable exception of horns of consecration, are found in domestic and funerary as well as apparently ritual contexts." Cult usage can be determined "by virtue of their location within or beside a cult building or by associated artefactual material." (11) The potential for circularity of argumentation in the identifications is not addressed. W.'s identifications will require groups of shared features (polythetic approach) but not total correlations of all the attributes. In order to go beyond the operational or 'etic' aspects of cult practices to the 'cognised' or 'emic' elements of belief, W. includes representational data. This theoretical distinction is not subsequently discussed.

The catalog of sites is divided into three parts based on the reliability of interpretation: almost certainly cultic (16), less reliably cultic, and highly improbable, i.e., misidentified sites. (9) W.'s catalog provides new identifications of cult installations and new publications of details (20), as well as a systematic examination of all the sites analyzed on a chronologically consistent basis. This is particularly useful because of the ongoing debate over the dates and ceramic definitions at the transition from LC II to LC III. There is a significant omission, however. As W. states in Endnote 1 on p.149, her catalog of Misidentified Sites does not include sites once but no longer considered as sanctuaries. This extends to those sites identified solely on the basis of the presence of bull figurines. While W.'s opinion rejecting these figurines as adequate criteria is arguable, the omission affects her database and its interpretation. The result is that for W. there are no certain domestic cult areas but a high proportion of elite sanctuaries.

Most of the sites belong to LC IIC and/or LC III, and most of the ritual paraphernalia derives from just two sites: Enkomi and Kition. Figure 1 is a map of the site names, but the regions for potential analysis are not indicated. Table 1 is a chart listing the Reliably Identified and the Less Reliably Identified sites combined in chronological order to illustrate the relative time spans of each site. The catalog benefits greatly from the illustrations, which include many of the more significant finds. (The plans all have North to their top, although plans on facing pages have North toward the inside, i.e. in opposite directions, e.g., Figs. 9 and 10 of the same temple, a minor quibble.) The architecture and finds for each site are listed with bibliographical references included in the text before the discussions. The clear organization and fullness of descriptions make the catalog a most useful reference work.

Chapter 3, on "Architecture and Artefacts," constitutes W.'s analytical conclusions, comprising discussions arranged by each of the many types of furnishings, vessels, terracottas, bronzes, other portable finds, and faunal remains. It begins with a discussion of the architectural remains. "The primary function of ancient cult buildings appears to have been to give shelter to the deities and their belongings (offerings, cult equipment). The building itself may not have been an assembly place for worshippers or performances or public ritual, which were more probably located in the temene.... With regard to the Near Eastern evidence, it is widely believed that only libations, the burning of incense, the preparation of sacrificial meals and the storing of votives and cult objects took place inside the cult buildings and that only priests were allowed access to hall and adyton.... A similar situation is likely to have existed in Cyprus." (162) Thus W. locates the public rituals in the temene, by which she means the courtyards adjoining the buildings.

Methodologically, W. is right to have confined her initial analysis to the Cypriot material, as stated at the beginning. If the interpretation of that evidence, however, is to be based even partly on comparative material, to the extent of employing Near Eastern terminology such as the "adyton," then there ought to be some discussion of this comparative material as well. The focus resulting from her approach emphasizing Cyprus would be made even sharper by means of the comparative material. In a similar though less significant way, her discussion of Aegean immigrants in Cyprus would benefit from the inclusion of the substantial evidence for Aegean sanctuaries. Having taken the time and trouble to establish more or less what is Cypriot, W. is ideally suited to articulate the distinctions between Cypriot and non-Cypriot artifactual types. Also unfortunately lacking at this stage are any attempts to analyze the Cypriot material itself chronologically, regionally or topographically.

W.'s analysis is quite good as far as it goes, and inevitably many more questions are raised than answered. There is no discussion of such problems as burnt animal offerings, although all hearths produced burnt and unburnt animal bones (169); the ritualistic breaking of artifacts, although most of 120 figurines found in the Sanctuary of the Ingot God at Enkomi were deliberately broken (107); or the criteria for the identification of cult storage facilities as opposed to ritual areas like the adyton. The problem of continuity of cult practices over the short-term transition from LC IIC to LC IIIA is raised in various discussions of sites or artifacts but is not dealt with by itself. Even less is said, perhaps wisely, about the possibility of continuity into the classical period, although there is some archaeological and/or literary evidence.

In contrast to sanctuaries, whose only distinctive feature consists of horns of consecration, burials include zoomorphic (bull- and, later, bird-shaped) and annular rhyta, and Red Lustrous Wheel-made spindle bottles and arm vessels.(199-202) The unique site of Dhima, which is so rich in distinctive finds but lacking in architecture, might have been better treated as central to a separate chapter on funerary rituals, with the inclusion of sufficient burial data to contextualize both it and its contents. It is a measure of W.'s objectivity that she states that bull figurines "were probably items of cult equipment rather than votives" (219) while nonetheless providing evidence susceptible to a contrary interpretation.

W.'s attempts to identify various iconographic images of deities, while not necessarily persuasive, have the merit of rejecting diffusionist theories in favor of indigenous origins with overseas influences. (223-235) Evidence for music and/or divination in the sanctuaries is more suggestive than convincing. Given its rich potential for clarifying interpretations, more analysis of the faunal remains might have been undertaken and discussed, e.g. distribution within sanctuaries, gender analysis, and evidence for burnt animal offerings, although osteological evidence is seldom adequately published for such analysis.

In Chapter 4 on "Images of the Supernatural" on vases and sealstones, W. recapitulates the evidence for a multiplicity of deities, emphasizing the distinctively Cypriot aspects of cult assemblages and the continuity of practices even when subjected to outside influences. Employing Porada's stylistic groupings of seals into Elaborate, Derivative and Common, W. observes a correlation between some artifacts often associated with cult assemblages, such as tools, weapons and ingots, and those depicted on seals of the Common Style variety, in contrast to the more mythological scenes portrayed on the more elite Elaborate and Derivative Styles.(237-240) This series of correlations is particularly interesting as there is otherwise little concordance among images as represented in the different media of figurines, seals, and vases.(279) She does not examine, however, what this might imply about the status of the various performers of rituals; e.g., did varying levels of bureaucrats act as varying levels of priests? A distinction between sacred and secular rituals might be useful here. There is also a risk of circularity of argument in using the artifacts depicted on the seals to identify ritual assemblages in otherwise ambiguous contexts.

W. believes that seals "appear to have served as symbolic markers of high intrinsic and ideological value and as bearers of a coercive imagery designed to promote existing socioeconomic structures by direct reference to religious authority. (262) Since only one sealing has been found after more than a century of exploration, it is later suggested that seals were applied to non-durable materials like papyrus, leather, or wax writing boards.(306) The manner of transmission and the intended audience of the "coercive imagery," however, are not discussed.

In the concluding chapter on "Ideology, Cult and Politics," W. briefly reexamines the evidence for each of the major sites. Although the limited number of excavated sites renders interpretation challenging, W. discerns five possible cult site types: domestic, extramural, mortuary, small-scale regional and elite-controlled urban, but no natural sites like caves or peak sanctuaries. She does not make explicit, however, the promised series of indicators that were to allow reasonable inference that a particular site was given over to organized ritual activity except to state passim that horns of consecration are uniquely religious artifacts -- terracotta bulls do not qualify, and the rest would all be unremarkable if not for their contexts. W.'s analysis reveals a diversity of modes of rituals; i.e., incised ox scapulae, miniature tools and vessels, evidence for opium and deer are found only at some sanctuaries. It is unfortunate that W. does not pursue this potentially productive approach for any other correlations -- ceramic, chronological, or regional. Concerning metallurgy, W. accepts both an ideological and structural connection between cult and metallurgy. She does not offer any evidence, however, to support her conclusion that "scrap metal and metallic waste can have had no practical function in a ritual context and may be presumed to have been votive or symbolic in character."(237, repeated almost verbatim on p. 300)

At the end of the concluding chapter, W. allows herself to be diverted into peripheral controversies on archaic state formation in the LC I period, although she has consistently maintained that remains of cult, apart from one ceramic assemblage, "are otherwise lacking from the whole period during which Enkomi is believed to have been engaged in the establishment of a unitary state" before 1400 B.C. (284). She nonetheless rebuts arguments on state formation in LC I as based on retrospective interpretation of later (burial) evidence while retrojecting her own LC II/LC III evidence to the LC I period. Otherwise W. is careful to distinguish between evidence for LC IIC and LC IIIA, the periods for which she has so much material. Even within the LC II and III periods, however, there is too much unexamined evidence from settlements and burials for generalizations about trade patterns and state formation to be accepted without question.

W.'s presentation does not do her work justice. Various topics like adyta or continuity are not the focus of separate discussions despite references scattered throughout the text. Other focused discussions are buried in the text; for example, W.'s observations on metallurgy in sanctuaries are hidden in a section entitled "Artefacts and Ideology" and are not included in the index. The five page index itself is curiously incomplete especially when compared to her commendable fifty-five page bibliography; the only reference to "elite ritual practice" in the index, although certainly not the only one in the text, is to several consecutive pages in the chapter reviewing some of the sites discussed and enumerating site types. The result of all this is that W.'s book is well written but its organization is not reader friendly.

In summary, it is a substantial achievement for W. to have assembled and put most of the relevant evidence including plans on a chronologically level playing field, and it is the quality of this work that makes one wish she had gone further. The presentation would have been more effective and useful with a clearer arrangement of discussions and headings and a complete index.

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