Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2006.12.20

M. Cultraro, I Micenei.   Roma:  Carocci Editore, 2006.  Pp. 317, b/w figs. 22.  ISBN 88-430-3415-4.  €23.20 (pb).  

Reviewed by Luca Girella, University of Sassari (
Word count: 2854 words

This book is a courageous attempt to present an exhaustive picture of the Mycenaean era. Although British and American scholars in particular have offered extensive contributions on this subject, the quality of this book lies in the effort to emphasize both the long tradition of field research conducted by the Italian Archaeological Missions in Greece, and the scientific results gained through the activity of academic institutes and research centres. Cultraro takes us through the apogee of the Helladic culture, from its initial stages at the beginning of seventeenth century BC to the end of the palatial system.

The book is divided into twelve chapters, with an introduction illustrating the problems of absolute and relative chronologies and the archaeological and epigraphic documentation. Cultraro gives a brief but clear picture of the history of Linear B, its origins and developments, and the palatial archives. Notable is his discussion of the electronic resources, which have acquired in the last ten years scientific dignity (pp. 31-32). He provides a copious bibliography of 42 pages, and selected literature references for all chapters. Very helpful for the reader are the boxes where the author enters close examinations and analyzes specific problems.

The first chapter examines the history of the research through an effective account of the main stages which have marked Mycenaean studies. This short Forschungsgeschichte is a precious opportunity to go over the pioneer undertakings of Heinrich Schliemann at Mycenae and the publication of the 'Mycenae' volume, the exciting discoveries at Crete by Arthur Evans, the explorations with Carl Blegen and the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, the striking contribution of New Archaeology followed by Processual Archaeology. Cultraro also gives us a useful sketch of the most recent fields of research.

The second chapter contains a general historical picture of the Greek mainland between the sixteenth and twelfth centuries BC. Cultraro follows the traditional scheme of Mycenaean history, starting with a brief prologue on the Middle Helladic Greece, and continuing with the Shaft Grave period and the apogee of palatial civilization, and ending with the collapse of the Mycenaean palaces. Although the main proposal is to offer a general introduction, the author provides a thorough discussion of these periods. I shall remark only on the Shaft Grave era. This was the period when Grave Circles A and B were made, and is a subject of an enormous amount of literature over the past 20 years. I agree with the author's emphasis on the Grave Circles at Mycenae as representative of the birth of Mycenaean civilization; nevertheless, the danger of reducing three to four generations of formation processes to the single case of Mycenae is very high. The Shaft Grave Circles at Mycenae are only the tip of the iceberg, the history of a distinctive, elite social group that chose to employ wealth as their instrument of self-identification. The emergence of the Mycenaean era was characterized by a series of phenomena which go beyond the case of Mycenae: (1) regional variations in pottery production burial customs (pits, cist graves, shaft graves, chamber tombs, tumuli, tholoi); (2) the emergence of other elites, such as those from Messenia, who managed in different way to get control of raw materials, such as tin or gold; (3) the relationship with Crete, which suffered a collapse of the palatial system and a reorganization of new administrative centres; (4) the role of western Mediterranean and Aeolian islands, Vivara, and Sicily in the process of formation of new elite groups, which probably acted in competition with the mainland.1 As a recent congress held in Athens has confirmed, Mycenae was an isolated case in a mainland divided between regions that gained strength thanks to the role of Cyclades and Crete in the transmission of material culture, and those who lived in a splendid Middle Helladic isolation.2

In Chapters Three and Four, we enter in the heart of the palatial system. The Linear B administrative documents are the main instruments through which Cultraro sketches the bureaucratic machine of the palaces, as well as their social and military organization, with a valuable connection between administrative and archaeological data. From the palace to the city, the fourth chapter introduce us to the world of the landed and the fiscal system, well known from the archives of Pylos and Knossos. Further information concerning agriculture, sheep and cattle farming, and diet are added.

It is difficult to understand why Cultraro has chosen to place the origin and the characteristics of the Mycenaean palaces (Chapter Five) and the "political geography" of the Mycenaean Greece (Chapter Six) after Chapters Three and Four, as they would have been an ideal introduction to the internal world of the palace itself. Nevertheless, with extreme clarity Cultraro draws the reader to the problem of the origins of the Mycenaean palaces, rightly pointing out the importance of the Helladic tradition in the transmission of architectural knowledge and its synthesis with some aspects of the Minoan one.3 Cultraro illustrates several examples of palaces and provides clear maps. His analysis includes interesting observations on the wall-painting programs and the private residences.

The subject of the sixth chapter deals with regional surveys of the last 40 years, which have increased our knowledge of the landscape variability of the Late Helladic Greek mainland. I agree with the author, who points out the validity of Wright's model for reconstructing the palatial landscape of the Argolid through three different interpretative models (central place model, dependency model, periphery model),4 but I have some reservations on the adoption of the same model as a general approach for the other parts of the Mycenaean world. One of the main tasks of the extensive survey projects is to explain the varieties of settlement patterns across space and through time, but, at the same time, the definition of "sites", their extents and limits, can hardly be determined yet. The descriptions of the single Mycenaean "states" or regions reflect the limits of data at our disposal: effective reconstruction can be drawn for the Argolid, thanks to exceptional concentration of palatial sites, and Messenia, whose political geography can be reconstructed thanks to the textual evidence;5 likewise Crete and Boeotia. Nonetheless, our knowledge of other regions, such as Laconia and Attica, is limited solely to archaeological data. The Aegean islands offer a varied picture, where different landscapes and the distance of the palatial model created diversified systems of control and administrative policy.

The seventh chapter deals with Mycenaean funerary practices. These are increasingly recognized as a crucial factor in any definition of culture. Cultraro offers a complete archaeological framework of the gradual settling of Mycenaean funerary habits towards the two main types of tomb: the chamber tomb and the tholos tomb. The diversity, very pronounced in the Early Mycenaean period, becomes uniformity in the palatial period, and he convincingly describes the spread of the chamber tombs as a process of social and political consolidation. Strategic for his reconstruction are the pages dedicated to Grave Circles A and B at Mycenae, where he summarizes the history of Circle B, through the three-phase sequence of G. Graziadio, and offers a clear account of the events of Circle A, from its construction to the monumentalization during LH IIIB. In approaching the Mycenaean funeral he gives us a complete picture of the treatment of the corpse, the characterization of the dead through the offering, the feasting and funerary meals, and the sacrifice and post-burial rites. As far as the treatment of the body is concerned, he claims that cremations are rare in the Mycenaean world and distinguishes isolated from common cremations. Nevertheless, structured necropoleis with cremations are very rare in the Aegean, aside from Elounda (Crete) during LM IIIA2. If for this last case one thinks of foreign customs by a foreign community, the author warns us of the various interpretations for this rite: marriage with strangers or sporadic adoption of a foreign custom. I am surprised not to find here or in the chapter on post-palatial Greece any mention of cremation during LH IIIC. The author mentions only briefly the sporadic cremations in the Dodecanese during the palatial period (LH IIIA-B). Nevertheless, this rite is quite widespread during LH IIIC: aside from isolated cases of Achaia, Elis, Thebes, Naxos, the cemeteries of Ialysos (Rhodes), Langada (Kos) and Perati (Attica) provide the best information to understand this rite and its fusion with inhumation, which remained predominant. The important element of such necropoleis was the homogeneity of ritual practices: the affinities in the pottery assemblages, the concentration of imports and luxury objects, and the association of cremations with inhumations inside the same chamber tombs.6 Therefore, it may be concluded that in these cases cremations were the marker of social differentiations through which new elites distinguished themselves.

A large amount of textual, iconographical, and archaeological evidence can be cited for Mycenaean religion. New finds and interpretation improved in the last 20 years, so that now we can know more about the rituals and the divinities worshipped. The picture drawn by Cultraro in the following chapter is really helpful, as he offers a complete framework of the main cult places, and other indoor and outdoor cult areas. Likewise, through Linear B evidence, we enter with him directly in the Mycenaean pantheon, the structure of the feasts, and the organization of the religious staff involved in the ritual practices.

Chapter Nine deals with material culture, presenting a good overview of the palatial craftsmen and handicraft. Cultraro centres his analysis on the role of palatial administration in controlling industrial activities. Recent studies have proved the centralization of most industries (bronze-working, the production of prestige goods such as perfumed oils and textiles), which operated in a redistributive fashion referred to as ta-ra-si-ja, or allotment system. The chapter presents a complete picture of the main palatial industries and adds interesting hints at the specialized personnel that was fully dependent on the palace for their upkeep.

Chapters Ten and Eleven are devoted to the relationships between the mainland and the eastern and western Mediterranean. Cultraro introduces useful comments on the theoretical models that have characterized the long debate in evaluating the Mycenaean trading system. Shipwrecks are important for understanding the varied nature of Mycenaean trade. The tenth chapter gives us an updated overview of the contacts with the main regions or kingdoms of the eastern Mediterranean: there is a valuable summary of the Mycenaean presence in western Anatolia, the role of the Hittite kingdom and the problem of the identification of the Ahhiyawa, and the significant relationship with Cyprus. Valuable is the summary of the archaeological record of Israel (pp. 214-215), as well as the Levant and Egypt (pp. 216-219). However, one more comment should be addressed. Cultraro mentions briefly the secondary role of Linear B documentation in evaluating the Mycenaean trading system. But this is one of the major problems in reconstructing the role of the Mycenaean palaces in the Mediterranean trade system, because of the absence of any indication about the movement of goods from and to abroad. That is the case of the stirrup jars, which functioned as oil containers and are well represented in the archaeological record, but there is no textual evidence for their deployment outside the kingdom. Aside from the possibility that there were documents written in material other than clay, scholars explain this silence with the indifference of the Mycenaean palaces to the organization of trade.7 According to some scholars, the palaces would have selected economic activities oriented towards the maintenance of luxury palatial production, whereas perishable or non-precious items, such as pottery, seem to have been subject to direct reciprocal exchange. In other words, apart from a few textual points which suggest the employment of conscripted groups of foreigners, the chief evidence for a Mycenaean role in Mediterranean trade remains the pottery found in Western Anatolia, Cyprus, Syria-Palestine, Egypt, and Italy. Facts like these seem to support the hypothesis that there was a 'palatial economy' interested in controlling luxury goods and in organizing raw materials coming from abroad, and that a wider economic sphere was over the control of the palaces (village economy). At the same time, it seems reasonable to think the palaces as "consumers of trade, but not active promoters of trade".8 Recently, the existence of two different models has been hypothesized: the Mycenaean palaces were actively involved in palatial trade with the eastern Mediterranean, whereas they did not have regular trade contacts with northern Greece and the regions of central and western Mediterranean.9

The eleventh chapter is organized in three parts, as the author presents a large overview of the Mycenaean presence in Italy, and two brief but clear and useful accounts of the archaeological record of the southern Balkans and the Iberian peninsula (pp. 237-239). As for the first part, the description of the evidence is divided in single geographical areas: Sicily and Aeolian islands, the Italian peninsula, and Sardinia. This section is followed by a synthesis, on a diachronic level, of the archaeological record with useful historical considerations, which allow the author to deal with the delicate problem of the relationship between archaeology and myth during the process of formation of early Greek societies (pp. 234-237). Vivara is unexpectedly placed in the section on Italy, but this island, should be grouped with the rest of the Flegreo archipelago (Capri, Ischia and Procida) and with Lipari and Filicudi/Capo Graziano. What emerges from the clear account is again a varied picture of Mycenaean presence: the differentiation in the diffusion of Mycenaean shapes in Sicily and Southern Italy, the dichotomy in the selection and local imitation of Mycenaean pottery in the same macro-areas, and the late entrance of Sardinia to the Mycenaean trading system. As far as Sicily and Southern Italy are concerned, the author explains the differentiation with the diverse trading routes (he imagines the existence of a southern route beside a northern one), but at the same time he admits the existence of other factors (pp. 233-234). Beyond the existence of several routes, where even the different natures of imports are reflected, other variables have influenced and made even larger the dichotomy between these two macro-areas. These variables are associated with Mycenaean elements as well as with local components.10 The analysis of Cultraro uses only ceramic distribution, and he seems to forget that Mycenaean influence in Sicily played an important role also in domestic and funerary architecture, to which nothing comparable existed in southern Italy. Through the combination of all these data, it reasonable to think that local communities made selective choices, and that, because of their different social organization, those choices had different purposes and consequences. Likewise, the Mycenaean elements seem to have played a major role, especially if we think that the bulk of the Mycenaean or Mycenaeanizing pottery in southern Italy concentrated during the Late Palatial period, when phenomena of economic crisis, disruption of central authorities and social competitions have been recognized. It has been suggested that sub-elites supplied in Italy themselves with those resources that in Greece were under palatial control, such as the oil, and that, at the same time, this fact gave them the opportunity to maintain economic and political power, supporting local craftsmen and stimulating pottery production.11

The last chapter describes the end of the palatial system, the transition to LH IIIC, and the continuity of normal Mycenaean life, with no abrupt changes either in ceramic production or in religious practices. Cultraro illustrated in the second chapter a complete scheme of the theories related to the collapse of the palatial system: foreign attacks, internal troubles, natural disasters. We can now follow the irreversible breakdown of the palatial economies and bureaucracies, the subsequent period of reorganization, during early LH IIIC, when several palatial buildings were partially renovated (such as Pylos, Tiryns, Mycenae) and pottery production moved through different channels. The emergence of regional pottery styles reflects a process towards a general regionalism. But the first stage of LH III, as the author points out, was also a period of renewed trading contacts. It would also have been worthwhile to take into consideration the reorganization of the post-palatial and inter-regional trading systems, when the diffusion of weapons, Italian bronzes, pottery, and amber suggests that in LH IIIC, an exchange system connected eastern with central Mediterranean. Attention is also paid the crisis of middle and late LH IIIC on Crete, and a window to the Sea Peoples. Cultraro concludes with one of the most delicate issues, which continue to fascinate: the passage to the early Greek societies through the transformation of the Mycenaean social structures and palatial authorities. It is remarkable how the author deals with the enormous amount of scholarly literature.

The book is well written and accessible to a wide range of readers, thanks to a well-balanced use of bibliography and analysis of issues. In the preface, Cultraro expresses the wish to provide a manual for experts, as well as to university students: I think that he has hit the target with this volume. The closed eyes of the golden face of Agamemnon, reproduced on the cover, invite us to open our own eyes to a fascinating world, which has unknown until now to most Italian readers.


1.   J. Rutter, "Review of Aegean Prehistory II: The Prepalatial Bronze Age of the Southern and Central Greek Mainland," AJA 97 (1993), pp. 135-144.
2.   Mesohelladika: La Grèce continentale au Bronze Moyen. Colloque International, Athènes, 8-12 March 2006.
3.   For the problem of Near Eastern parallels, see T. Mühlenbruch, Zu vorderorientalischen Parallelen der mykenischen Palastarchitektur, Archäologisches Korrespondenzblatt 33 (2003), pp. 479-491.
4.   J.C. Wright, "Comparative Settlement Patterns during the Bronze Age in the Northeastern Peloponnesos, Greece," in S.E. Alcock, J. F. Cherry (edd.), Side-by-Side Survey. Comparative Regional Studies in the Mediterranean World, London 2004, pp. 114-131.
5.   See now M.B. Cosmopoulos, "The Political Landscape of Mycenaean States: A-pu2 and the Hither Province of Pylos," AJA 110 (2006), pp. 205-228.
6.   L. Girella, Ialysos: Foreign Relations in the Late Bronze Age. A funerary Perspective, in Emporia. Aegeans in Central and Eastern Mediterranean. 10th International Aegean Conference, Athens, 14-18 April 2004, R. Laffineur, E. Greco (edd.), Aegaeum 25, pp. 129-139.
7.   P. Halstead, "The Mycenaean Palatial Economy: Making the Most of the Gaps in the Evidence," ProcCambridgePhilSociety 38 (1992), pp. 57-86.
8.   E. Borgna, P. Cassola Guida, "Some Observations on the Nature and Modes of Exchange between Italy and the Aegean in the Late Mycenaean Period, in Emporia (note 6, above), pp. 498-499. P. Militello, "Mycenaean Palaces and Western Trade: a Problematic Relationship," in Emporia, pp. 586-587.
9.   R. Jung, "Aspekte des mykenischen Handels und Produktenaustauschs," in B. Horejs, R. Jung, E. Kaiser, B. Terzan (edd.), Interpretationsraum Bronzezeit. Bernhard Hänsel von seinen Schülern gewidmet, Universitätsforschungen zur prähistorischen Archäologie, Band 121, Bonn 2005, pp. 45-70.
10.   D. Tanasi, "Mycenaean Pottery Imports and Local Imitation: Sicily vs Southern Italy," in Emporia, ( note 6, above), pp. 561-569.
11.   Borgna and Cassola Guida (note 8, above), pp. 503-504.

Read Latest
Index for 2006
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review

HTML generated at 13:31:30, Friday, 03 April 2009