Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2010.12.67

Brendan Burke, From Minos to Midas: Ancient Cloth Production in the Aegean and in Anatolia. Ancient Textiles Series 7.   Oxford/Oakville, CT:  Oxbow Books, 2010.  Pp. xv, 206.  ISBN 9781842174067.  $60.00.  

Reviewed by Daniel J. Pullen, The Florida State University (

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This book, a revision of the author’s doctoral dissertation (UCLA 1998), is a study of the political economy of textiles in three cultures: Minoan Crete (including Neolithic Knossos), Mycenaean Greece (including Late Bronze Age Knossos during the “Mycenaean occupation”), and Phrygian Gordion in the Early Iron Age. While Aegean prehistorians might dismiss the inclusion of Gordion as irrelevant, Burke makes a convincing argument for Gordion to be considered as another case in his comparison of textile production at palatial or regional economic centers. Along with some additional examples, both Old and New World, brought into the discussion in the last chapter (chapter 5: Comparative Textile Production and Conclusions), Burke has attempted a cross-cultural comparative study of one component of palatial political economy, that of textile production.

In an admirably honest preface (ix-x), Burke describes both what this book is not about as well as what his focus is. As he points out, this is not a guide to ancient textiles or to the archaeology of ancient textiles and the tools of their production.1 Rather, his focus is on “how people in the past mobilized resources, organized labor, and produced cloth for exchange,” and “how the state financed itself with cloth industries” (ix-x). His objective is “to assemble as much evidence as possible… and to present a coherent picture for organized cloth production on a scale beyond the household level at regional economic centers” (x).

This focus on the regional economic centers leads to a particularly narrow definition of craft specialization: “repeated, surplus production of one type of good … by attached, dependent specialists for exchange directed by a central authority (the palace)” (6). While such a definition is pertinent to the subject of his book, I think that most archaeologists would prefer a broader one (such as that of Costin, discussed briefly by Burke in chapter 5) that would incorporate such craft specialization as Mycenaean ceramic production which is not produced by attached dependent specialists under palatial administration.2 The importance of the non- or para-palatial economy in Mycenaean Greece has been firmly established, and one wonders at the scale of textile production outside of the watchful eyes of palatial administrators.

Nevertheless, the focus of Burke’s book is on palatial production, and he makes supple use throughout his book of important concepts in the study of political economy such as wealth and staple finance. He does not see a simple dichotomy between wealth and staple finance, but rather suggests that textiles can function in multiple ways. Thus he argues that textile production was so important to the Mycenaean palaces that cloth served as both wealth financing in that the product was used as a standard of value or payment for services and as staple financing in that the product (cloth) could be converted into staple goods. Likewise Burke does not lump all economic activity into a single mold and, though he does label the political economy of the Mycenaeans as “redistributive” (67) despite his earlier (34) caution against that term, instead he prefers to break down economic activity and its transactions into various forms and components in order to illustrate the central role of textile production in the economy (67, 104ff). He characterizes the Minoan palatial economy as one that mobilizes raw materials and products from producers to the consumers (34), rather than saying the goods are “redistributed.”

The first chapter provides an introduction to the production of textiles in antiquity, followed by a brief introduction to the three cultures under study. Additionally, Burke sets out the methodology used, and discusses some of the concepts behind the study of political economy.

The main body of From Minos to Midas consists of three chapters, dealing with textile production in Minoan Crete, Mycenaean Greece, and Gordion, respectively. Because of the varying degrees of preservation of different types of evidence (e.g., the Linear B tablets documenting Mycenaean administrative activities), these three chapters are not directly comparable to one another, yet Burke has gone to great lengths to bring together much of the pertinent evidence for palatial textile production for the three cultures.

Chapter 2 presents a history of textile production on Crete, beginning in the Neolithic and running through the Palatial period, intertwined with a discussion of the emergence of complex social organization and the Minoan palaces. Much of the chapter is devoted to a presentation of the various tools used in textile production, especially spindle whorls and loom weights, within the context of increasing specialization and palatial production. Two interesting sections in this chapter caught my attention: his discussions of purple dye and of Minoan seal stones. Burke argues for the appearance of purple dye from murex snails to occur in Minoan Crete before anywhere else in the Mediterranean (34ff). He brings together textual sources, bioarchaeological evidence, artifacts, and archaeological facilities and contexts in his discussion, and extends it to consider the role of textiles in ancient overseas trade between Minoan Crete and other cultures in the eastern Mediterranean.

Burke argues for the administration of textile production in the Old Palace Period, based on seal impressed loom weights and spindle whorls as well as a certain type of prismatic seal. He suggests that a motif found on more than twenty-five different seal stones represents three to five loom weights suspended from a bar at the bottom of a warp-weighted loom (44ff, especially fig. 30).3 Burke concludes that the standardized weights of loom weights and their concentrated numbers indicate a “regulated textile industry administered by the Old Palace at Knossos” (58).

Unfortunately the last section of chapter 2, called “summary,” does not summarize the information presented about the political economy of textile production in the First and Second Palace periods, but instead discusses briefly the Final Palatial period. While Burke does present much evidence for textile production, the central topic of his study – the political economy of textile production in Minoan Crete – is presented in a diffuse way throughout the chapter and not in a single, synthetic section. He cites Mitello’s 2007 article “Textile Industry and Minoan Palaces”4 in a general context but Burke does not address Mitello’s thesis, that Minoan palaces were “consumers” of textiles, in contrast to Mycenaean palaces as “producers.” A discussion of this issue by Burke would have made a very welcome conclusion to chapter 2.

Textile production in the Mycenaean palaces is the subject of chapter 3. As opposed to chapter 2 in which he dealt with mostly artifactual evidence, in chapter 3 he devotes nearly thirty pages to a discussion of the Linear B evidence for textile production and administration. While there are summaries within individual sections (e.g., 92-93 on the Knossos Le tablets dealing with receipt of cloth), there is no overall synthesis of the Linear B evidence. There are, however, several important points that Burke makes. He divides the transactions apparent in the tablets into five types (mobilization of goods and services; agricultural production; personnel maintenance; distribution of offerings; and craft production) and shows that cloth is featured in all five, indicating its overall importance to the palace economy. He makes a strong argument for cloth being a part of the wealth financing strategy of the Mycenaean palaces: some types of cloth, such as the ke-se-nu-wi-ja clothing (found in the Knossos Ld tablets) “have such a standardized value that they can be used as payment for service” (90). He supports the notion that the ke-se-nu-wi-ja is a specific type of clothing for mercenary soldiers, even proposing that it may appear on the Amarna pictoral papyrus, worn by two distinctive participants (90, 103-104).5

At the end of chapter 4 Burke presents a neat summary of the question of whether textiles were prestige goods, in a wealth-finance model of the Mycenaean political economy. He tantalizes us with a chart of Homeric words referring to types of cloth, offering this as a parallel to the “high value of Bronze Age cloth and its use as a medium of exchange” (105). I look forward to Burke developing this line of research in the future.

The Phrygian capital of Gordion was a major center in Early Iron Age Anatolia. In chapter 4 Burke concentrates on the Early Phrygian destruction levels, now dated to ca. 800 BC, in large part because of the wealth of preserved materials including actual textiles. Though we lack administrative records such as those of the Mycenaean palaces, a large industrial sector has been excavated with evidence for large-scale production of textiles and food preparation, and perhaps production of other goods and storage. This industrial quarter is adjacent to the “elite quarter” that includes Megaron 2 with its early pebble mosaic floor with imitations of textile designs.

Burke devotes twenty-six pages to a discussion of the individual components of the industrial quarter. Each of the eight units, or “megaron,” comprised an anteroom and a main room, often with columns indicating lofts or balconies. While Burke has done an admirable job in piecing together the information for each unit, there is no overall summary of the textile production and food preparation such that he can apply his definition of craft specialization here: large-scale textile production by attached, dependent specialists.

The concluding chapter briefly presents textile production in cultures as disparate as Egypt, Mesopotamia, Aztec Mexico, and Inca Peru in order to highlight some of the observations Burke made about Minoan, Mycenaean, and Phrygian textile production. In this chapter too Burke presents Costin’s “types of specialization”6 and tries to place the evidence for Aegean textile production into the various categories (Table 19), from the earliest evidence from Neolithic Knossos through that from Gordion. I wish he had made greater use of Costin’s types throughout the book, as in this table he puts Mycenaean palatial production into the type “nucleated corvée laborers working part-time, recruited by government for special purposes,” and thus by his narrow definition of craft specialization presented in chapter 1 (“repeated, surplus production of one type of good … by attached, dependent specialists for exchange directed by a central authority”), Mycenaean textile production does not fall into his category of specialized production. Costin’s typology is very useful for it has a broad range of degrees of specialization, with several dimensions.

Overall, Burke has marshaled a tremendous amount of evidence to study the political economy of textiles.


1.   The standard introduction to Aegean textiles remains E. Barber 1991, Prehistoric textiles: The development of cloth in the Neolthic and Bronze Ages, with special reference to the Aegean. Princeton: Princeton University Press. See also numerous of articles in C. Gillis and M.-L. B. Nosch (eds) 2003, Ancient Textiles: Production, Craft and Society (Ancient Textile Series 1). Oxford: Oxbow Books.
2.   See M.L. Galaty 2010, Wedging clay: Combining competing models of Mycenaean pottery industries. In Political Economies of the Aegean Bronze Age, edited by D. J. Pullen, 230-247. Oxford: Oxbow Books.
3.   While this interpretation is convincing in many instances of the motif, Burke can only explain the numerous instances where a person is shown standing next to a vertical placement of the motif as a “sword beater” for compacting the weft. But the orientation of motifs on Minoan seals is not always consistent.
4.   P. Militello 2003, Textile industry and Minoan palaces. In Ancient Textiles: Production, Craft and Society (Ancient Textile Series 1), edited by C. Gillis and M.-L. B. Nosch, 36-45. Oxford: Oxbow Books.
5.   An illustration of the Amarna papyrus would have been very useful for this discussion. In a similar vein, the long discussion of Linear B ideogram *168 is not accompanied by an illustration (94-95), yet in chapter 2 appears a large photograph of a very familiar Vasiliki-ware teapot (fig. 20).
6.   C. Costin 1991, Craft specialization: Issues in defining, documenting and explaining the organization of production. In Archaeological Method and Theory, edited by M. Schiffer, 1-56. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

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