Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2011.07.05

Daniel J. Pullen (ed.), Political Economies of the Aegean Bronze Age. Papers from the Langford Conference, Florida State University, Tallahassee, 22-24 February 2007.   Oxford/Oakville, CT:  Oxbow Books, 2010.  Pp. vi, 266.  ISBN 9781842173923.  $60.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by John C. McEnroe, Hamilton College (

Table of Contents

The papers in this volume were originally presented at the Langford Conference at Florida State University in Tallahassee, February, 22-24, 2007. The goal, Daniel J. Pullen tells us in his Introduction, was to employ “a comparative approach in examining political economies in the Aegean Bronze Age in the light of current archaeological theory” (p. 1). While the charge sounds open-ended, Pullen points out that it would mean addressing a dichotomy that has existed in Aegean studies for a generation: the tension between the general (the search for common laws of social development) and the particular (descriptive studies of sets of data). If we focus too much on general theory, we are apt to lose sight of the variability that characterizes Aegean archaeology; if we focus too much on the particular, we risk insignificance and irrelevance.

Let’s begin this review with the particulars. In Chapter 2, William A. Parkinson introduces a theme that will be central to many of the papers in this volume, the need to consider political economies at a variety of geographical scales: local, regional, transregional, and long distance. For example, in Chapter 8, Cheryl A. Ward is concerned with long-distance trade, providing a handy review of the evidence for Bronze Age seafaring in the Eastern Mediterranean. She lists several categories of data including settlements that have been interpreted as colonies, imported objects, and the three known LH III shipwrecks. Parkinson’s model for looking at long-distance trade is more refined. He converts Eric Cline’s database of foreign objects found in Aegean contexts into an estimate of the minimum number of contacts those objects represent.1 This allows him to re-consider the scale and the sporadic character of contacts, to compare the different roles of individual polities, and to examine changes in long-distance exchange patterns over time.

In Chapter 3, Jan Driessen zooms in on a smaller social scale. Driessen offers an important new understanding of that most familiar of Minoan entities, the House (Joyce and Gillespie 2007).2 Troubled by the longstanding approach to Minoan houses as the passive architectural settings for the activities of nuclear families, Driessen suggests that we might more appropriately think of the Minoan House as a multi-generational social entity on the model of Shakespeare’s houses of the Capulets and Montagues, Poe’s House of Usher, or the French corporate Maison. With this apparently simple maneuver, Driessen animates the House : it is not just a building, but a body of active participants in intergenerational history. With its associated landholdings and production centers, Driessen argues that the House was also the most important unit in the political economy of the wider community.

Driessen’s concept of the House could be applied directly to Protopalatial Malia as described by Ilse Schoep in Chapter 4. In this essay, Schoep expands an argument that she has introduced elsewhere, that the elites of Quartier Mu – a House, in Driessen’s terms – played a role that complemented that of the palace.3 She argues strongly that Cherry’s Peer Polity Interaction model (PPI) does not fit the situation at Malia. Material from Quartier Mu shows that the palace did not have monopolistic control of the production and distribution of material and symbolic goods. Extending her line of thought to the island as a whole, Schoep's chapter argues that the PPI model, consisting of a few large, equal-sized polities is now giving way to a model that envisions much more complex and varied interactions among and within numerous polities of different sizes.

In several ways, Kim Shelton’s report on her ongoing excavations in the Petsas House at Mycenae (Chapter 10) parallels Schoep’s reading of the evolving political economy in Middle Minoan Malia. Like Quartier Mu at Malia, the multi-generational Petsas House lay in the shadow of the rapidly emerging palace on the adjacent citadel hill. As in Quartier Mu, the elite residents of the Petsas House were involved in craft production, storage, and long-distance trade. They even make use of the earliest known Linear B tablets in the Greek mainland (LH IIIA2). As at Malia, this body of evidence raises interesting questions: to what extent will we have to re-evaluate traditional top-down, palace-centered models? Did Houses, as Driessen understands them, play complementary/competitive roles?

Two essays deal specifically with Pylos. Dimitri Nakassis (Chapter 7) bases his reconsideration of the economy of Pylos on a close study of the Linear B tablets. While traditional models have tended to overemphasize the role of wealth finance (including the exchange of prestige items) in generating elite ideology, Nakassis argues that staple finance played an even more significant ideological role. While staple finance included rations for a small group of dependent textile workers, more than half of the staples were distributed in the form large public feasts that played a key role in creating and maintaining political allegiance.

In Chapter 12, Michael L. Galaty considers the pottery used in those feasts. He finds that while most pottery production was decentralized, the production of fine-ware (kaolinite) kylikes, the quintessential feasting vessel, came from a single workshop at Pylos, probably associated with pi-ri-ta-wo named in Linear B tablets. Outside the palatial center, at places like Koukounara, local workshops produced imitations of these ritually significant kylikes in a different fabric. On the one hand, these seem to represent challenges to the emerging palatial center, while on the other they speak clearly of emulation.

Sofia Voutsaki and Thomas F. Tartaron address the regional scale. Voutsaki’s essay (Chapter 5) focuses on the processes of political centralization in the Argolid from the beginning of the Middle Helladic period to the palatial era in LH IIIB. Looking at data from both tombs and settlements, Voutsaki argues that there was little differentiation based on wealth during the early part of the Middle Helladic period when the driving organizational force was kinship rather than status. This began to change in MH III – LH II. Shifting patterns of wealth (measured by the distribution of prestige goods and tholos tombs) among the various centers of the Argolid signal the transformation of the MH kinship economy into the LH IIIB palatial economy centered on Mycenae and her allies. In this new hierarchical, status-driven, specialized economy, vestiges of the earlier kinship networks came to serve as another tool for palatial exploitation.

What was happening in the sub-regions outside the major palatial territories? This is the subject of Thomas F. Tartaron’s essay (Chapter 9). Drawing on extensive data from survey projects in the Nemea Valley, Eastern Corinthia, and the Saronic Gulf coast, Tartaron finds distinct patterns at work in each of the three sub-regions of the Corinthia: the Southwestern Corinthia that only gradually came into the sphere of LH III Mycenae, a scatter of interdependent settlements in the Northeastern Corinthia, and the critical Saronic coast, drawn between first Kolonna on Aigina and then Mycenae. Each of the three sub-regions differs significantly from Voutsaki’s picture of the Argolid.

The concept of “political economy” is usually linked with the emergence of social complexity and centralized political organization. If we want to understand how the “political economy” operated previously, Peter M. Day, Maria Relaki, and Simona Todaro argue in Chapter 11 that we will need to reconsider several traditional presumptions. These include the arbitrary distinction between “subsistence economy” and “political economy,” rigid notions of craft specialization, and the supposition that the term “political economy” implies centralized control over the production and distribution of goods. Their close reading of the distribution of pottery fabrics from Neolithic through the EBA allows the authors to propose more varied patterns of interaction in which pots, generally regarded as practical implements for subsistence, also serve as signifiers of local, regional and inter-regional identities.

In Chapter 6, Joanne M. A. Murphy looks for evidence of ritual activity at Pre- and Protopalatial Knossos and Phaistos. At Knossos Murphy points to a series of deposits of pottery specifically associated with feasting found in the West Court The deposits range in date from EM I through the Protopalatial period. Similarity between these deposits and deposits found at the entrances to contemporary tombs suggest to Murphy that the West Courts had been the main sites of religion going back to a period that preceded the construction of the palaces themselves.

In sum, the papers in this volume present a picture of enormous complexity. The contributors look at a variety of issues at scales ranging from an individual potter at Pylos to trans-Mediterranean contact. They consider different sets of data (obsidian blades, pottery fabrics, Linear B tablets, etc.). They approach their topics from distinct perspectives, and employ different analytical models. It falls to James C. Wright to see the general pattern in this potpourri of particulars (Chapter 13).

Wright finds a common denominator in the shared focus on what Cyprian Broodbank called “small worlds”.4 They might also be called “microstates,” “city-states” or even, with inevitable qualifications, “poleis.” These “secondary states” of the Aegean have long been marginalized by those archaeologists who focused on “pristine states,” using sweeping models to graph the “rise of civilization” and the formation of empires. Yet there is much to be gained by studying these “small worlds.”5 If we look at them closely, as do the papers in this volume, we see complexity and variability at the scale of the House, the polity, the region, and beyond. Each “small world” had a unique history. Social structures and relations with other “small worlds” differed. However the small worlds were part of a larger pattern. Wright observes that they “in many ways resemble the later poleis and ethne that flourished in the Black Sea, along the Aegean coasts, on the Mainland of Greece and on Crete, throughout much of the Italian peninsula, in Sicily, along the North African coast, and from the mouth of the Rhône down the east coast of Spain” (p. 250). “Small worlds” constituted the predominant pattern in the greater Mediterranean area for a very long time. Perhaps the “small worlds” also speak to a contemporary current of post-globalization that values the diversity of local traditions over claims of universality. In any case, the “small worlds” model allows Wright and the contributors to this volume to resolve the tension that Pullen stressed in his introduction: they find the general in the particulars.

I found Wright’s concluding words eloquent and a little startling. He writes, “it is unwise to underestimate the microstates, for the pristine is fleeting, only the beginning, and quite likely ineffable, whereas what is ‘secondary’ is most everything when it comes of recovering and writing history” (p. 260). The last two words struck me. After decades of New Archaeology, processual archaeology, and post-processual archaeology, Wright identified what many of us, somewhat to our surprise, find ourselves doing: writing history.


1.   E. Cline, Sailing the Wine Dark Sea: International Trade and the Late Bronze Age Aegean. BAR International Series 591, Oxford: Tempus Reparatum, 1994.
2.   Driessen profitably draws on R. A. Joyce and S. D. Gillespie, Beyond Kinship: Social and Material Reproduction in House Societies, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000.
3.   I. Schoep, “Looking beyond the First Palaces: Elites and the Agencies of Power in EM III – MM II Crete, American Journal of Archaeology 110 (2006) 37-64.
4.   C. Broodbank, This Small World and the Great: An Island Archaeology of the Cyclades, Unpublished Ph. D. thesis, University of Cambridge, 1995; An Island Archaeology of the Early Cyclades, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
5.   See especially W. A. Parkinson and M. L. Galaty, “Secondary States in Perspective: An Integrated Approach to State Formation in the Prehistoric Aegean,” American Anthropologist, 109 (2007) 113-129.

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