Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.01.05

Cynthia W. Shelmerdine (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to the Aegean Bronze Age.   Cambridge; New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2008.  Pp. xxxvi, 452; 63 p. of plates.  ISBN 9780521891271.  $29.99 (pb).  



Reviewed by Christina Souyoudzoglou-Haywood, University College Dublin (Christina.haywood@ucd.ie)

[Table of Contents is listed below.]

This volume (henceforth the Companion) is a comprehensive survey of the archaeology of the Aegean Bronze Age intended as an introduction for university students and other interested scholars. The survey covers the period from ca. 3000 BC (the Early Bronze Age) to ca. 1100 BC, the conventional date for the end of the Bronze Age in the Aegean. The primary geographical areas covered are Crete, the Greek mainland and the Aegean islands. The 15 chapters, three of which are split into two sub-chapters, are authored by 18 leading scholars in the period. The authors and chapter titles appear under ‘Contents’ at the end of the review.

The chapters are presented chronologically: three chapters (2-4, 85 pages) cover the Early Bronze Age, roughly 3000-2000 BC; five chapters (5-9, 124 pages) cover the palatial periods of Minoan Crete, roughly 2000-1400 BC; and six chapters ( 10-15, 185 pages) cover the period of the Mycenaean civilization of mainland Greece, but also incorporate earlier developments in the Middle Bronze Age, spanning the period roughly 2000-1100 BC. The material is discussed under a variety of chapter titles, some with the focus on one period in a single geographical area, for example Ch. 2: ‘The Early Bronze Age in Greece’ and Ch. 3: ‘The Early Bronze Age in the Cyclades’, some with a thematic focus on major societal or political developments of a given period, for example Ch. 5A: ‘Formation of the Palaces’ (on Crete), and some have a clearly thematic title, for example Ch 9: ‘Minoan Trade’, Ch. 11: ‘Mycenaean Art and Architecture’ .There is the occasional unevenness in the way the material is distributed across the chapters. The Middle Bronze Age, for example, does not appear as a stand-alone period, but has been subsumed under the discussion of the ‘Formation of the Palaces’ for Crete (Ch. 5A) and, with regard to the mainland, under ‘Early Mycenaean Greece’ (Ch. 10). Neither is there an exact mirroring of the titles of the thematic chapters on Minoan Crete with the thematic chapters on Mycenaean Greece. For instance, what is ‘Material Culture of Neopalatial Greece’ for Crete, is ‘Mycenaean Art and Architecture’ for Greece. This organization outlined above, justified though it may be given the increasing fuzziness of the old labels and the blurring of the traditional boundaries, should not normally be deserving of criticism, but the lack of consistency may make it difficult for a beginner to navigate through this book..

Praise goes to the editor, Cynthia W. Shelmerdine, for an excellent introductory chapter (Ch.1: ‘Background, Sources and Methods’), which gives a clear and succinct explanation of the chronological intricacies of the period, and includes useful, clear chronological tables and maps. The excellent Table of Contents lists not only the main chapters, but also the numerous subsections. There is ample use of cross-referencing within and across chapters. .

The authors have pitched their chapters at a suitable level of thoroughness and at approximately the same level of difficulty, so as to make this a comprehensive, cohesive and well-balanced textbook. There is an overall clarity in the discussion, a consistent, suitably in-depth treatment of many categories of material, and an absence of unnecessary jargon. At the same time there is an avoidance of oversimplification: major questions in Aegean prehistory are highlighted (for example, the differences between the way that the chronological period following the Neopalatial period on Crete has been labeled and viewed), and the material is presented in an appropriately nuanced way. The contributors have their individual approach to their topics, and although some of the chapters deal with the material in a more comprehensive and/or innovative way, there is remarkable compatibility between the contributions. Theoretical approaches are on the whole kept at bay, or are suitably incorporated in the narrative, for example Chapter 3, ‘The Early Bronze Age in the Cyclades’. In Chapter 5B,‘Protopalatial Crete’: ‘The Material Culture’, however, the focus on skeuomorphism, micro-, meso-, and macro-scale ways of interpreting the material culture, using paradigms from Crete , obscures the evidence and deprives the reader of valuable facts.

In terms of the auxiliary and supporting material, there is a comprehensive and up-to-date bibliography at two levels: a more topic-specific bibliography appears under ‘Suggestions for Further Reading’ and ‘Notes’ at the end of the chapters, and a ‘Select Bibliography’ is placed at the end. The index is good, and comprehensive insofar as place- names and sites are concerned, but less consistently inclusive in the case of subjects (for example, I could find ‘ostrich-eggs’ and ‘fibulae’, but not ‘tumuli’ or ‘ox-hide ingots’). There is a short, but useful Glossary. The illustrations, consisting of drawings, plans and black-and-white photos are on the whole good, although quite a few lack scales, or any other means of assessing the size. It is a shame that, cover apart, and presumably due to budgetary constraints, none of the photos are in color in a book about what is arguably an extraordinarily colorful age.

This volume will replace many of its predecessors aiming at the same audience. Of the comparable monographs of the last decade, O. Dickinson’s The Aegean Bronze Age (CUP, 1994) is a rather factual survey of the material; despite the excellent scholarship behind it, it fails to inspire the reader of today. As an aid to the student, the Companion compares favorably with J. B. Rutter’s excellent online The Prehistoric Archaeology of the Aegean in 28 lessons. Published more recently than the Companion, the large multi-authored volume The Oxford Handbook of the Bronze Age Aegean (OUP, 2010) is a rather different book; the contents overlap (so do three of the authors), but the latter presents itself mainly as a reference book not as an alternative to the Companion.

The Companion is an ambitious project, mainly because of the complexity of the material it contains and the thoroughness with which it is treated. This becomes more evident when the volume is compared with other ‘thinner’ volumes of the series (in terms of the number of chapters, pages and authors, but also content), for example with The Cambridge Companion to Archaic Greece (ed. H.A. Shapiro, 2007). We have to be thankful to the high standards of collaboration between the authors, and to some highly intelligent editorial work, for the success of this book, which will certainly remain prescribed reading for students of Aegean archaeology. It offers the added bonus of presenting the Aegean Bronze Age as an exciting period for study, in a way that has not been achieved since the seminal, but naturally grossly out-of-date survey: Greece in the Bronze Age (1964, 1972) by Emily D. T. Vermeule, one of the two scholars to whom this volume is dedicated (the other is Mabel L. Lang). A last comment: the reader of the Companion, will find minimal evidence of Homeric analogies in this volume. Not a criticism, of course, but a liberating experience.

Table of Contents

1. Background, sources, and methods. Cynthia Shelmerdine
2. The early bronze age in Greece. Daniel Pullen
3. The Early Bronze Age in the Cyclades. Cyprian Broodbank
4. Early Prepalatial Crete. David Wilson
5. Protopalatial Crete:
a. Formation of the Palaces. Sturt W. Manning
b. The Material Culture. Carl Knappett
6. The Material Culture of Neopalatial Crete. John Younger and Paul Rehak
7. Minoan Culture: Religion, Burial Customs, Administration. John Younger and Paul Rehak
8. Minoan Crete and the Aegean Islands. Jack L. Davis
9. Minoan Trade. Philip P. Betancourt
10. Early Mycenaean Greece. James Clinton Wright
11. Mycenaean Art and Architecture. Janice L. Crowley
12. Mycenaean States:
a. Economy and Administration. Cynthia W. Shelmerdine and John Bennet
b. LM II-IIIB. Laura Preston
13. Burial Customs:
a. Death and the Mycenaeans. William Cavanagh
b. Mycenaean Religion. Thomas G. Palaima
14. Mycenaean Greece, the Aegean and Beyond. Christopher Mee
15. Decline, Destruction, Aftermath. Sigrid Deger-Jalkotzy
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