Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2006.11.36

Senta German, Performance, Power and the Art of the Aegean Bronze Age. British Archaeological Reports International Series 1347.   Oxford:  Archaeopress, 2005.  Pp. 118.  ISBN 1-84171-693-6.  £27.00.  

Reviewed by Zoë Kontes, Duke University (
Word count: 2274 words

In this publication of her dissertation from Columbia, Senta German looks at figural representations in the art of the Late Bronze Age Aegean, in particular on Crete and the Greek mainland. The appearance and proliferation of human figures at this time in Aegean art has been well noted by scholars and studied from a variety of approaches. In her work, German ties conventional art historical methods used to assess these images together with information gleaned from archaeological excavation in order to examine figural representations more thoroughly. A third method of investigation used is a theoretical approach normally applied in social sciences. Her aim is to expand our understanding of these images beyond their existence as art and to determine their greater "social meaning". German endeavors to connect figural representations in different media to each other and to apply a similar meaning to these different media. The combined art historical, archaeological and theoretical approach allows her to draw some conclusions about the role of these images in Late Bronze Age society.

German's focus is on depictions of performance, defined as sets of often repeated actions, which occur most frequently in glyptic art--seals, seal impressions, and rings. "The one theme or element which unites nearly all of these images is performance, regularized action with specific social meanings."(5) Bull leaping and dancing are two performances in which human figures act out specific motions, and these motions are repeated over and over in depictions of these events. She argues that depictions of performance, particularly those of bull leaping and dancing, not only represent the prestige and power of palace society, as previously suggested by other scholars, but, when depicted on glyptic works, play a role in codifying and perpetuating that status. German argues that glyptics act "as identifiers of palatial authority through their indexical relationship to larger representations and performance of social drama found at the palaces."(9) An examination of archaeological and historical evidence leads German to suggest that these images were particularly useful as signifiers of social identity during stages of political upheaval in the Late Bronze Age Aegean.

In her introduction, German sets forth her goal of examining (non-theatrical) performance, broken down into three components. The first, performativity, a term borrowed from feminist theory, describes human actions and attributes which can be taken to communicate social categories, particularly gender, age and social status. The second is the performance of an act as it relates to building a "social complex", in other words, its role as part of a social ritual. The third is social drama, representations of which incorporate both performativity and the performance of an act and are marked by large numbers of people coming together to witness an event. German's aim is to evaluate how these images were perceived, separate from how the performances themselves were interpreted. To illustrate these three components, German offers the example of the Procession Fresco from Knossos, in which a series of figures proceed mostly to the right, some carrying objects, in a type of ceremony which is observed by figures on either end. "The representation of social drama is the greatest in extent, includes [sic] a public space with spectators. Contained within this representation are discrete representations of performed acts which constitute the social drama. These discrete acts are each executed by bodies which exhibit performative aspects."(14)

In Chapter One, 'Performance and Social Categories', German undertakes study of these three components of performance with a view toward describing the relationship between seals and sealings and larger representations of performance (predominantly wall paintings). She argues that performativity, as represented by the actions of male and female bodies, is distinguished in Minoan and Mycenaean art according to gender, age and social status. Because the human figure is best represented on glyptic works, German uses these objects as the basis for her study. She determines that gender is represented by bodily characteristics, particular poses, and clothing. Age is differentiated by musculature and by hairstyles (which also play a role in gender). Social status is interconnected with these two: both male and female garments and other accoutrements vary according to status, though how they vary differs between the genders. These performative bodies participate in performed acts, among which bull leaping and dancing are the most frequently depicted on seals and sealings. They are also most recognizable to us as performances, and representations of these two types of action in frescoes include key characteristics of performance as identified by German: inclusion of architecture, a paved surface for the event, an audience observing the event. Examining these repeated scenes as representations of performance allows German to depart from a strictly iconographic approach to studying these images, as well as from questions which address the function of the seals themselves in administrative contexts.

Having established bull leaping and dancing as her focus, in Chapter Two, 'Bull Leaping', German collects bull leaping images in Minoan and Mycenaean art from Crete and the mainland (found in various media) and examines them in chronological order. She follows previous scholarship in proposing paved areas such as the central court or theatral area of a palace as the most likely location for these events. She finds that, in general, prior studies of bull leaping have suggested that it is a male activity with some sort of ritual significance. However, German argues that no successful attempt has been made to understand the meaning of this activity, though the process itself--how this activity was performed--has been explained. A concentration on typology and iconography has not addressed the "larger point of the cultural importance of the performance and its representation."(46) German discusses the depiction of bulls throughout history in ancient Mediterranean cultures and compares bull leaping to modern rodeo. She identifies three main characteristics of Minoan bull leaping: movement, danger, and strength/vigor. Through these characteristics, she finds two of her social categories represented--age and gender--young men being depicted most frequently as the actors of these events. No argument is yet made to connect these events to social status, though it would seem to this reader to be rather significant for her thesis.

In Chapter Three, 'Measured Movement: Dance and Procession', German examines dance, one of the most frequently represented performances. She first reviews the archaeological evidence for dance, and suggests that as in bull leaping, courtyard or theatral areas which resemble those depicted in wall paintings are possible locales for this type of performance. References to dance in the historical record are examined, as are depictions of dance by artists of the modern period. What constitutes dance in Late Bronze Age art must be identified in order to study images of dance in a collaborative way, and German proposes 'visual cues' which indicate that dancing, and not some other kind of activity, is taking place. She outlines seven arm gestures which she believes can be used to identify dancing in Aegean art, though she admits that these visual cues can be misleading. The same gestures are more often than not also used by figures participating in processions, in which successive figures move towards something or someone and are often carrying objects, as can be seen in the Procession Fresco mentioned above. Therefore, because it is often difficult to distinguish dance from procession when the same movements are involved, German considers them together henceforth. Having established how she identifies images of dance, German lays out and describes, in chronological order, the body of works on which these images appear. In order to understand how these images were viewed in Aegean society, German offers ideas about dance and culture from a variety of theoretical and anthropological viewpoints. She ties images of dance in Aegean art back to performativity and to the social categories which she wants to explore. Both genders are represented in dance, and, as in bull leaping, youthfulness is depicted. Here the third social category is tacked on at the very end; the author cites images of procession in which figures carry objects of value as representative of social status.

Chapter Four, 'Issues of Archaeological Context and Interpretation' begins with a clear discussion of archaeological theory as the background to German's concentration on archeological context. "As it is posed here, that each representation of a performed act is a reference to actual performance or social drama, the fixed or intentional contexts for these images are important. Therefore, by association, the interpretation of the context for images of performance reflects on the contexts and ultimate meanings of the performances themselves."(73) The general contexts which German examines are: palaces, burials, storage/administration sites, and non-palatial settlements. In this order, she describes each context, followed by a summary of all images found in that particular context, in chronological order. Overall, German determines that images of bull leaping and dancing come mostly from burials and that more representations of bull leaping exist than do those of dancing and procession. Chronologically, more images of bull leaping and dancing are found on Crete than on the mainland during the second palace period, and they were most often associated with settlement and storage areas. In the third palace period, fewer of these images exist, and they are associated mainly with burial and palatial contexts. Conversely, many more images were found on the mainland in this period, and these predominantly in wealthy funeral contexts. This data leads German to suggest that bull leaping and dancing images on the mainland are borrowed from Crete in the third palace period, and she is interested in the idea that "what these images might have symbolized socially was suddenly useful outside of Crete. But why predominantly in tombs?"(84)

German attempts to answer this question in Chapter Five, 'Meanings of Performance: Interpreting the Images'. Her aim here is to connect the images of performance which she has discussed to some social meaning, in particular to social status, and to determine how this social meaning was important first on Crete and subsequently on the mainland. She returns to the three components of performance as outlined originally in her introduction and reiterates that depictions of performance in glyptic art, particularly bull leaping and dancing, express aspects of social categories, specifically gender, age, and status. For example, a female dancing figure is represented clearly as female, and clearly as a youth, and, German argues, her elaborate garments can be understood to be a luxury item. She adds that if this dance is depicted with architectural details, this can be taken as a special location (related to the palaces) and also associated with elevated status. Bull leaping, as well, is clearly depicted as an activity of young males within an architectural framework, whose skill, according to German, suggests elevated status. Here, as in her previous chapters, this reader would like to see a stronger argument for these ideas, particularly because the connection to status has to be the glue which holds together the entire thesis.

To continue, German underlines that the bull leaping and dancing events can be connected to the palaces, based on both the elite contexts of works bearing these images, as well as the particular images depicted, and the fact that the palaces produced these objects and used them for administrative purposes. Thus, she suggests that representations of these performances on seals act "as signs of identification for the social authority of the palaces, first on Crete and later on the mainland." They act as an index to larger representations, which depicted actual events, or social dramas, in German's terminology. She imagines glyptics working as commemorative badges of sorts; an observer would recognize them as referential to these social dramas. Palatial elites would have lived in areas with storage/administrative functions (villas) in second palace period Crete, and subsequent to the Mycenaean intervention into the Minoan palace system, would have been buried in wealthy graves on the mainland in the third palace period. As determined in Chapter Four, these are the two periods and locations where the majority of glyptic objects are found, and these elites would have borne or worn these objects to indicate their connection to the palaces. What, then, was the origin of these social dramas to which the glyptic works referred? German argues that they came about in reaction to consolidation of political control: "In the second palace period human representation suddenly occurs and is coincidental with the growth of a palatial administrative system. . . .The social dramas of dancing and bull leaping. . .emphasized extra-familial social groupings such as gender, age, and class. . ."(94) She concludes that these social dramas were likely rites of passage ceremonies (as suggested previously by other scholars), which reiterated social groupings and were means of social control during political change.

Due to its nature as an unedited dissertation, German's work is at times repetitive and cumbersome. Her use of theoretical models and comparison to modern day situations can be illuminating but not decisive. Abundant typographical errors, misspellings of names of authors and sites, and unidentified or misidentified sources are distracting, but do not create significant confusion.1 The appendices could be useful for quick reference but would prove more helpful with an explanation of how they are arranged.2 Overall, however, German's work is a valuable attempt to gain some idea of culture though images, beyond an examination of iconography or typology alone. The combination of art historical, archaeological and theoretical approaches, which has become a useful practice for examining prehistoric culture in the Aegean, allows a more comprehensive understanding of Late Bronze Age imagery. Chapter Five, in particular, effectively combines previous scholarship on Aegean culture with German's conclusions about representations of performance, and makes a convincing argument about the meaning of these representations and their role in social organization.


1.   One incorrect figure reference should be noted: on page 57 a reference to fig. 19 actually refers to fig. 18; this mistake is repeated on pages 61, 67, and 78.
2.   Appendix One (List of Performed Acts) seems to be alphabetical by name of performance, then chronological, and includes only glyptic works; Appendix Two (The Catalogue) seems to be chronological first for seals and impressions, and then for wall paintings. Inexplicably, catalogue numbers 70, 77, 97, and 101 are missing from both the body of the work and the catalog.

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