Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2008.08.49

Eva Rystedt, Berit Wells (ed.), Pictorial Pursuits. Figurative Painting on Mycenaean and Geometric Pottery. Papers from two seminars at the Swedish Institute at Athens in 1999 and 2001. Acta Instituti Atheniensis Regni Sueciae, series 4, 53.   Stockholm:  Svenska Institutet i Athen, 2006.  Pp. 313.  ISBN 91-7916-053-0.  $177.50 (pb).  

Reviewed by Sarah P. Morris, UCLA (
Word count: 1500 words

Twenty-five years have elapsed since the heroic collaboration between Vassos Karageorghis and Emily Vermeule brought together the diverse pictorial record of Mycenaean vase painting into one volume.1 Since that time, new examples have multiplied as new sites have appeared, while new approaches have sent us back to these fascinating and imaginative scenes, produced at Bronze Age centers, and indeed largely after the demise of palatial life. It was in the spirit of celebrating such new discoveries and their implications that the Swedish Institute in Athens convened a symposium on Mycenaean pictorial vases in 1999, from which 13 papers are published in Part I of the volume under review, along with a comprehensive bibliography. Even familiar pieces are amply or newly illustrated, and an index contributes greatly to the volume.

By design rather than accident, the proceedings of an additional, later seminar on pictorial vase painting, this time on the Early Iron Age, came to be published in the same volume. In fact, the first gathering generated the second, as participants eager to pursue the pictorial from Mycenaean to Geometric pottery agreed to reconvene after two years, and widened their circle of participants to specialists in later eras. Thus a second crop of thirteen papers is collected in Part II of the volume. This deliberate exercise in intellectual continuity attracted more than one author to contribute to both events. Readers can now enjoy some 300 pages of Greek pictorial art on ceramics, from 1200-700 BC. For those of us firmly wedded to the notion of cultural continuities between Bronze and Iron Ages in Greece, this joint publication serves as its own apologia for considering images across the centuries, not only within a single volume, but more widely towards understanding this crucial era of transition in Greek art and history.2 Moreover, by the second session, scholars responded to the desire for greater attention to "supra-pictorial questions" expressed by the editors/conveners, well summarized in Eva Rystedt's introduction.

Perhaps one of the most valuable features of this publication is that it celebrates new documents of Aegean and Geometric pictorial painting as they have emerged in context, over the last two decades, in both salvage excavations and systematic projects. Indeed, as the first symposium was aimed to appreciate new discoveries, it is not surprising to find the latest from Lokris (Kynous), Aigina (Kolonna), and Anatolia (Troy, Miletus), as well as new contextual material (including fresh joins) from the Argolid (Mycenae, Tiryns and Midea) and Cyprus, in Part I of this volume. It also offers novel approaches, among which those based on gender (Louise Steel), design element analysis (Christine Morris), and trade mechanisms (Nicolle Hirschfeld) deserve special attention from readers, as well as crucial reflections on function from Lisa French, Diana Wardle and Kim Shelton. Individual artists, first isolated decades ago by scholars focused on the LH IIIB period, are more difficult to define in LHIIIC, but Güntner demonstrates how. The most distinctive hand of the period remains the artist who painted both the Warrior Krater from Mycenae and the carved stone stele from the Shaft Graves, plastered and painted for reuse at a later chamber tomb.

In Parts I and II, several authors address the knotty subject of continuity directly, with reference to pioneers in this pursuit, such as Jack Benson. In one of his last published papers, the late Nicolas Coldstream sought to close the "long, pictureless hiatus" through innovative images from Cyprus and Crete, the former probably inspired by the Near East, and the latter by Late Minoan larnax art (echoed by Maria Iakovou, who sees 12th century precedents for Iron Age Cyprus). Indeed, the Near East is given a formative role in the development of iconography, as in Stefan Hiller's provocative paper on the origins of Minoan pictorial traditions in the art of Amarna. Bull and chariot, those mainstays of Mycenaean vase painting, would derive from Egyptian art, although vital links for Hiller's theory are still missing from Knossos. The same author sees connections on Aigina between Mycenaean and archaic (Proto-attic) vase painting, and in a third paper within the same volume, resumes his study of early Greek mourning customs under Egyptian influence. It is Hiller who raises the important question of whether such foreign traditions could have affected the Greek imagination twice, in separate phases of contact, or were revived or re-discovered, within Greece.

If "horse, bird and man" once served as elements linking early Greek pictorial art to its Mycenaean predecessors, researchers in the twenty-first century can enjoy proper transport across this divide on land and sea, thanks to continuities in the representation of chariots and ships (set forth by Joost Crouwel and Michael Wedde, respectively). A crop of new prothesis scenes (from Elis and Crete), along with a possible mourner on the new lion krater from Troy, help close the gap between Bronze Age and Iron Age practices as well as images. Most striking are new sea battles, well known from recent finds at Kynous in Lokris, but amplified by a magnificent panorama of two ships manned by differently equipped figures, at war with each other, from Bademgedigi-tepe (near Metropolis) in western Asia Minor.3 In a world without palaces, an active imagination peopled narratives with heroic fighting on land and sea, just as it probably did in poetry (see below).

In Part II of the volume, among those contributions devoted to Geometric vase painting, the papers by Sue Langdon and Mark Stansbury-O'Donnell stand out for their originality and theoretical enrichment. In particular, both scholars seek to identify the terms of social discourse behind novel imagery in the Geometric period, by moving beyond mythological paradigms to the social conditions that shaped representation in an era of emerging statehood. In a similar vein, Eva Rystedt focuses on differences rather than continuities in subject matter, and on symbolic rather than narrative forms of representation, to explore the discursive nature of Greek Geometric art.

Regional styles benefit from close attention in both parts of this volume, with local Mycenaean workshops in Central Greece and Asia Minor producing some of the most innovative post-palatial imagery. Argive pottery of the Geometric period is examined by Evangelia Pappi, who uncovers some of the same social dynamics detected in work from Attic and Crete. Even Ithaka, while modest in figural narrative, emerges as a locale rich in distant connections both west and east, and active in ritual symbolism, thanks to Cathy Morgan's insightful assessment of six vases from Aetos and Pithekoussai. Perhaps most provocative of all is the final paper in the volume, where Photini Zaphiropoulou puts two Late Geometric amphorae from Paros into vivid historical context. Not only does she identify a heroic biography across three scenes on a single vase, from battle to funeral, but she links its details to a later poem of Archilochus, and even suggests that the elusive Lelantine War on Euboia ended the lives of Parian warriors brought home for a grand, mass cremation funeral. Again, the virtues of context reward hard work in salvage archaeology that revealed these exciting discoveries to modern eyes, and exposed them to modern viewers.

To summarize twenty-six such diverse papers in 1,500 words is inherently an injustice to their breadth and depth. And to find fault with any, or cite omissions, seems churlish, but everyone will miss something (is the stunning master of animals on an LH IIIA:2 conical rhyton from Rhodes, too early for this volume?4). This reader expected fuller references to the cultural and poetic continuum implied behind this "longue durée" of narrative art, the epic and heroic longings that characterized the Aegean since the 12th century as an arena of creative anachronism. While references to Homer (largely technical terms) are sprinkled throughout the text, the topic of epic memory and poetry rarely raises its own head. Instead, this volume formalizes the important shift in recent scholarship towards the social and historical dimensions of continuity, brought out by several papers in Part II. For example, Wedde inaugurates the concept of "partial system survival" to explain why shipbuilding skills endured, while palatial architecture and fresco painting did not, and others focus on how social institutions (marriage, leadership) were transformed over the once-dark ages. As Maria Iakovou puts it poignantly in analyzing the "retrospective narrative" she identifies in Cypriote pottery of the eleventh and tenth centuries:

"It was memories, myths, stories from this other world [i. e. the Aegean world of the previous century] that these particular vase painters wished to record--a world left behind." [p. 200].

In art as in history, it is this "world left behind" that stimulated a critical experience, what some have called an "archaeology of nostalgia," that re-created in image and in verse a lost world of palaces and kings, while it supported the development of a vastly different model of community-centered life, the Greek polis. It is the great reward of this collection of essays that it allows the reader and viewer to appreciate in rich visual detail, as well as in thoughtful discussion, just how this evolution transpired.


1.   Emily Vermeule and Vassos Karageorghis, Mycenaean Pictorial Vase Painting. Cambridge 1982.
2.   By time of publication, this volume joined other testimonia to the importance of the centuries between 1200 and 700 BC, notably O. Dickinson, The Aegean from Bronze Age to Iron Age: Continuity and Change between the twelfth and eighth centuries BC (Routledge 2006) and Ancient Greece: From the Mycenaean Palaces to the Age of Homer. Eds. S. Deger-Jalkotzy and I. Lemos. Edinburgh Leventis Studies 3 (2006). See also the workshops on LHIIIC convened by the Austrian Academy of Sciences.
3.   P. Mountjoy, "Mycenaean connections with the Near East in LH IIIC: ships and sea peoples," in EMPORIA. Aegeans in the Central and Eastern Mediterranean. Proceedings of the 10th International Aegean Conference. Athens, Italian School of Archaeology, 14-18 April 2005. AEGAEUM 25. Eds. R. Laffineur and E. Greco (Liège and Austin 2005) 423-427.
4.   From the Pylona cemetery, first presented by E. Karantzali, "A New Mycenaean Pictorial Rhyton from Rhodes," in. Eastern Mediterranean. Cyprus - Dodecanese - Crete, 16th - 6th c. BC. Eds. N. Stambolidis and A. Karetsou (Heraklion 1998) 87-104.

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