Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2006.01.30

Birgitta L. Sjöberg, Asine and the Argolid in the Late Helladic III Period. A Socio-Economic Study. BAR International Series 1225.   Oxford:  Archeopress, 2004.  Pp. vi, 157.  ISBN 1-84171-590-5.  £29.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Patrick M. Thomas, University of Evansville (
Word count: 1578 words

This book is a revised presentation of the author's 2000 Uppsala dissertation that has as its focus the author's examination of previously published and unpublished material from the Swedish excavations at Asine. Sjöberg (hereafter, "S.") then employs the evidence from Asine as a basis for a discussion of the social and economic organization of the Argolid. Her careful review of the relevant architecture and artifacts from Asine corrects some earlier published results and clarifies others. With regard to larger issues, S. questions models positing a very high degree of economic centralization in Late Helladic III and offers a diachronic model of the economic and political situation in the Argolid that contrasts sharply with the idea that Mycenae (or Mycenae and Tiryns) was the clear hegemon throughout the entire Late Bronze Age. A certain degree of disjointedness is present in the transitions from discussing Asine to the Argolid as a whole and the book is not an easy read, but even Aegeanists who disagree with the author's views on the degree of centralization will find this a useful and interesting work.

The first three chapters introduce the major themes treated in the book. S. begins with a critique of the dominant paradigm that developed after the decipherment of Linear B in the 1950s and subsequent studies of the operations of the palaces. These led to a common view, as much implicitly accepted as explicitly argued, that direct and centralized palatial control extended over most aspects of life in Mycenaean Greece. S. identifies the influence of the so-called "substantivist" economics of Karl Polanyi as a major factor in promoting this understanding. Although Polanyi's The Great Transformation was a milestone in anthropological thought concerning economic exchange, the absolutism of his school's attitudes concerning the non-existence of profit-oriented exchange and market mechanisms in antiquity has in recent years hindered a better understanding of how ancient societies, such as Mycenaean Greece, actually worked. S. defines and discusses the Polanyian concepts of reciprocity, redistribution, and (market) exchange, which she returns to frequently throughout the book. She concludes the introductory chapters with a discussion of how (or how not) social rank is correlated with material remains.

The next section discusses architectural remains from Asine (Chapter 4) and other sites from the Argolid (Chapter 5). The focus is on domestic architecture, storage areas, and possible workshops. For Asine, S. concentrates on a number of houses in the Lower Town, especially Houses G, H, I, and K. Her careful stratigraphic analysis will need to be consulted by anyone dealing with Asine in the future. The particular consequence of her analyses is (in general) to redate these structures from LH IIIB or earlier into LH IIIC or even later. S.'s attempts to assess household wealth at Asine are less convincing. Although it may be the case in some societies that the amount of serving ware and/or painted pottery serves to discriminate between elite and non-elite households, it is very difficult to show this in the case of Mycenaean Greece, where almost exactly the same proportions of plain and painted pottery are found at sites as diverse as palatial Mycenae and the hamlet Tsoungiza. Detecting social stratification through pottery in domestic contexts in the case of Mycenaean Greece will almost certainly require examining the percentages of particular kinds of vessels and their decoration; even then, the differences between palatial and non-elite sites are subtle and difficult to interpret.

The other sites from the Argolid treated in Chapter 5 are Mycenae, Tiryns, Midea, Argos, Prosymna, Berbati, Lerna, and Iria. A summary section for each site listing buildings excavated at each site, with a summary of the finds and relevant bibliography is provided. This is a handy and compact reference that many readers will be happy to see and use. The limited selection of sites, though, seems to hamper her goal of trying to understand the economy of the Argolid. To be fair, S. explicitly restricts her study to the main Argolid Plain, but then why is Berbati included, and not Zygouries, Kleonai, Aidonia, Phleious, Tsoungiza, etc.? Those places, whether politically dependent or not, certainly were closely involved with the exchange networks of the Argolid proper. The structure discovered at Chani in the 1990s, a couple of miles away from Mycenae, might also have been worth mentioning, since it includes storerooms. As was the case with the houses at Asine, S.'s primary interest is to distinguish residential, storage, and workshop areas, as well as to assess the degree to which they reflect a centralized economic system dependent on a palace. She does well to point out that the lack of large bulk storage facilities at the palaces argues against the wide-ranging "redistribution" of agricultural products throughout the Argolid. It seems very clear that the modest storage facilities associated with the palaces are appropriate for redistributive activities only for the rulers and their immediate dependents. Although I am very sympathetic to her attempts to discover explicit evidence and/or argument of what we could call the "private sector" in the Argolid, it does not seem to me that she makes that strong a case. Certainly structures such as the "House of the Oil Merchant," "West House," and others at Mycenae could have belonged to "private" individuals whose activities were not directly controlled by the palace, but it is difficult to show that from the evidence. S.'s primary success in this chapter is to demonstrate that alternate models besides centralized control are possibly consistent with the archaeological evidence. I think that more attention to some formal characteristics of these buildings, such as overall size, form, building materials, and other aspects might have been helpful.

A feature of these chapters that could have been suppressed is the frequent mention of the incompleteness of the archaeological record: after being remarked on a time or two, this goes without saying, and the frequent belaboring of this point throughout the rest of the book becomes superfluous. Another issue throughout the book is repetition: a number of points appear and then re-appear several paragraphs later, as though they had not been discussed before.

The next section of the book concerns mortuary evidence. Chapter 6 is a review of previous literature concerning the connection of burial type and grave offerings to social status; Chapter 7 examines previously excavated chamber tombs at Asine; and Chapter 8 considers some major cemeteries from the Argolid, such as the chamber tombs. S.'s goal here is to examine variations in the social status of the deceased from the contents of datable burials, and to see whether these change over time. I am skeptical that "symmetrical" and "asymmetrical" grave assemblages can be correlated as directly with the economic concepts of reciprocity, redistribution, and exchange as the author seems to think.

In the final chapter, S. presents a synthesis of her ideas concerning the socio-economic and political organization of the Argolid. Many readers will find it more helpful to read this chapter before the ones concerning the actual architectural and mortuary evidence since the conclusion clarifies why particular aspects of those are discussed. The author argues that the generally unquestioned dominance of Mycenae and Tiryns throughout the Late Bronze Age is to a large part the result of aggregating evidence from different periods and that, when the evidence is examined diachronically, changing patterns of elite status and links between what are essentially peer polities become more apparent. "Vertical" relationships between sites at different hierarchical levels are much more clearly established than "horizontal" links between peers in the site hierarchy. S. makes use of both the evidence she developed in the previous chapters and information concerning Mycenaean roads in the Argolid. In her reconstruction, during LH II, Mycenae and Asine play the leading roles in the Argolid; in LH IIIA, Midea emerges as another center in addition to the preceding two. In LH IIIB, Asine's role declines, with Mycenae appearing as the main center, and Tiryns, Midea, and Argos as important secondary centers. Only in LH IIIB2 does the classic bipolar pattern of equal and powerful centers at Mycenae and Tiryns hold good. In LH IIIC, S. sees peer centers at Mycenae, Tiryns, Midea, and Asine.

A number of typographical errors are present, although on the whole this volume has been more carefully proofed than others I have seen recently from this publisher. Few of the mistakes are confusing; the only one that puzzled me for more than a moment was on p. 115, col. 1, para. 2, where "The LH IIA2 period follows the symmetrical pattern from the previous period" should read "LH IIIA2."

The author set herself a very ambitious task, and, at the end of the day, I suspect that many would reach the old Scottish verdict of "not proven." S. herself is well aware of the ambiguities and gaps in the evidence, and she is not dogmatic in asserting the correctness of her model. The real accomplishments here, in my view, are to provide good grounds for skepticism concerning the very high degree of centralized control posited for the Argolid and to lay out reasons to look for market-based economic transactions and peer-polity relationships among the settlements of the Argolid Plain. The author's insistence that the archaeological evidence be examined diachronically and that we allow the possibility of changing status and relationships among the settlements are highly useful principles that should be adopted by future researchers. I think that specialists in Mycenaean studies will find the ideas presented here intriguing, if not entirely convincing.

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