Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.04.17

Philip P. Betancourt, The Bronze Age Begins: the Ceramics Revolution of Early Minoan I and the New Forms of Wealth that Transformed Prehistoric Society.   Philadelphia:  INSTAP Academic Press, 2008.  Pp. xx + 136.  ISBN 9781931534529.  $36.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by John F. Cherry, Brown University (

This small book’s boldly declarative title and its wordier subtitle signal that it is a work comprised of two very different parts. In the first six chapters (Part I, 1-90), Betancourt offers a comprehensive, thoroughly illustrated overview of the fabrics, shapes, styles, and wares that together characterize the distinctive pottery of the Early Minoan I period, starting ca. 3100-3000 B.C. (according to the chronology Betancourt prefers, 7) and traditionally marking the beginning of the Bronze Age on Crete. This pottery certainly looks very different from that produced during the several previous millennia of pot-making on the island, and indeed displays some quirky and idiosyncratic features. It is not on these, however, that Betancourt focuses, but rather on improved production technology and a new range of containers that, in his view, provided enhanced opportunities for the storage, transport, and accumulation of edible products. These conclusions form the springboard, as it were, for the main argument set out in the short final chapter (Part II, 93-111)—namely, that an enhanced ability to store food from one year to the next would increase stability and security, encourage the buildup of new forms of wealth, and thus contribute to advances in economy, society, technology, and religion during the Early Bronze Age. This is the sense of the “ceramics revolution” in the subtitle.

Betancourt is indisputably the elder statesman of Minoan pottery studies, to which he has made significant contributions over many years. His up-to-date and well-organized presentation of the range and regionalism of ceramic wares in use on Crete during the first several centuries of the third millennium B.C. will be a resource of value to specialists who work on such material. By virtue of both its detail and the precision of the descriptive terminology employed, it certainly supercedes earlier treatments, both by Betancourt himself and by others.1 As he notes (4), his conclusions are based on “an especially large amount of fresh evidence, most of it excavated in the last 20 years.”

What made EM I pottery so different from what had come before (not itself illustrated) is set out clearly in Ch. 2. The new ceramic technology was evidently transitional in nature, since it was not adopted everywhere in its totality, nor at the same time; but it did involve new practices at all stages of production. Potters made greater use of Neogene marl clays to create a finer texture and a more calcareous composition, resulting in denser and more vitrified fabrics that had greater durability; these, in turn, facilitated the successful manufacture of larger and thinner-walled vessels. The key change was from pit-firing to the use of built kilns that allowed higher, more even temperatures and control of the atmosphere during firing. The latter was what made possible the production of pots with pale surfaces, encouraging their decoration using iron-rich slips that become dark red under oxidizing conditions. The most distinctive type of EM I pottery, indeed, is Haghios Onouphrios ware, which, with its hard fabrics, linear painted designs, and novel shapes, represents an adoption of the entire new technology. The use of high temperatures and reducing atmospheres to smelt copper is a parallel technological development now attested at several Final Neolithic and EM I sites on Crete, and the relationship is an important one to understand; but, oddly, Betancourt does not discuss such pyrotechnological issues except briefly, and at a late stage in the book (100-102).

Two short chapters follow, the first of which deals with the clays and fired fabrics—crucial if we want to assign pottery vessels to their places of origin. Matters are complicated by the clear evidence for the mixing of clays from more than one source. Some fabrics are distinctive enough to be recognized with the naked eye, but others (and their sub-varieties) require time-consuming thin-section examination. In fact, this is a chapter that could not have been written without the considerable efforts devoted to petrographic analysis of Early Minoan pottery in recent years. Ch. 4 concisely surveys the large range of open or closed EM I vessel shapes (Betancourt recognizes almost two dozen). Some are carry-overs from the Neolithic, some are skeuomorphs of natural forms (such as gourds), some are evidently copied from other ceramic traditions (e.g., the chalice, already widely distributed in the eastern Mediterranean and the Aegean islands in the later Neolithic). But most shapes are new to Crete, and Betancourt attaches great significance to this as part of his “ceramic revolution.”

The longest section of the book is ch. 5, in which these various fabrics, shapes, and technologies of manufacture are related to surface treatments and types of decoration, in order to define and describe the diversity of ceramic groups and styles (“Coarse Dark Burnished Class,” Hagios Onouphrios Style,” “Lebena Style,” Pyrgos Style,” “Scored Style,” and so on). This is likely to be the most useful part of the book, partly because it is so liberally illustrated, partly because it includes “text boxes” that list, with bibliographic references, all the sites at which examples of any given style have so far been found. Betancourt discusses, but does not get bogged down in, complicated (and as yet not fully resolved) issues such as the internal ceramic phasing of EM I, or regional variation, or the complex relationships between the various independent variables that represent different aspects of the new technology.

So far, so good. While it is doubtless true that Betancourt is writing for a very limited specialist readership, it is nonetheless pleasing to see a scholar, with unrivalled knowledge of his material and a solid grasp of the underlying technology, bring to it an unprecedented order and clarity. It is all the more disappointing, therefore, to see this excellent research put to work in support of an implausible and speculative thesis concerning “the transformation of Cretan society” (the title of ch. 7). This is laid out in Part II, but there are various hints of it at earlier stages in the book.

In his very first paragraphs (3-4), Betancourt makes clear that he subscribes to a “gradualist” view of culture change on Crete in the Early Bronze Age. As he puts it, “…the set of complex urban experiences we term ‘civilization’… developed as a long and gradual process with small changes in economics, agriculture, social advancement, technology, and many other areas of human achievement” (3). This view is a restatement of opinions espoused by a long line of scholars, including Sinclair Hood, Peter Warren, Keith Branigan, and Colin Renfrew. The last-named made a case in The Emergence of Civilisation (1972) that the second stage of the Aegean Early Bronze Age was the one in which the evidence pointed to an intensification of complexity, with advances in trade, technology (especially metals), economic development, and social organization. Betancourt’s alternative proposal, however, is that, on Crete, these advances need to be pushed back to the preceding period, primarily on the basis of the ceramic evidence laid out in the pages of this book. He is not alone: a new book that brings together the thoughts of many of the Young Turks in Minoan archaeology appears, if anything, to place the origins of the transformations that took place early in the second millennium BC even earlier, in the fourth millennium BC 2.

Yet constant restatement does not make these arguments correct. What does the EM I-II evidence indicate? Settlement sites were tiny—barely hamlets, let alone towns—and they provide little secure evidence for the existence of social elites or “emerging complexity” (105). The famous tholos tombs of the Mesara represent the long-term burial-places of relatively egalitarian societies comprised, in most cases, of no more than a couple of extended family groups. Evidence that “foreign trade reached as far as the eastern shores of the Mediterranean” in EM II has been vastly exaggerated.3 Of course, these settlements and the very small-scale communities they housed were inevitably in contact to ensure demographic survival, and it is hardly surprising that material culture played a role in such interactions—indeed, the very fact that the ceramic repertoires at many EM I sites clearly reveal products that are both local and from some distance is itself testimony to such spheres of exchange. Nonetheless, Todd Whitelaw has recently demonstrated, using an analysis of settlement data that is hard to contradict, that “ a dramatic transformation in the possibilities for social organization, with widespread implications throughout many aspects of Cretan life, took place late in the Prepalatial period” 4 – not, as Betancourt would have it, a thousand years earlier.

Betancourt’s book quotes as its epigraph, seemingly with approbation, a sentence from Sinclair Hood’s 1971 book The Minoans: “The transition from the Neolithic to the Minoan Bronze Age is defined in terms of radical changes in pottery fashions.” The logic of the argument, then, is that mere fashion created, whether knowingly or unwittingly, the circumstances for wealth accumulation, without specifying the factors that enabled surplus beyond subsistence needs to be generated, or the conditions that promoted certain producers rather than others to generate economic and social inequality, or the development of social networks that facilitated the transformation of economic disparities into social capital. I am reminded here of the oft-cited butterfly whose wing-flaps in the Amazonian jungle lead to typhoons on the other side of the globe. Our understanding of Minoan state formation demands a far more subtle and complex model than the one Betancourt seems to be suggesting. Part I of his book is a very useful contribution to the field; but Part II should be taken with a grain of salt.


1.   E.g. P. P. Betancourt, The History of Minoan Pottery (1985); D. E. Wilson and P. M. Day, “EMI chronology and social practice: pottery from the early palace tests at Knossos,” Annual of the British School at Athens 95 (2000) 21-63; D. E. Wilson, “Early Minoan I-II,” in N. Momigliano (ed.), Knossos Pottery Handbook: Neolithic and Bronze Age (Minoan) (BSA Studies Series 14, 2007) 49-77.
2.   I. Schoep, P. Tomkins, and J. Driessen (eds.), Back to the Beginning: Reassessing Social and Political Complexity on Crete during the Early and Middle Bronze Age (2012).
3.   Compare C. S. Colburn, “Exotica and the Early Minoan elite: eastern imports in Prepalatial Crete,” American Journal of Archaeology 112 (2008) 203-224, with J. F. Cherry, “Sorting out Crete’s Prepalatial off-island interactions,” in W. E. Parkinson and M. L. Galaty (eds.), Archaic State Interaction: The Eastern Mediterranean in the Bronze Age (2010), 107-140.
4.   T. Whitelaw, “The urbanization of prehistoric Crete: settlement perspectives on Minoan state formation,” in I. Schoep, P. Tomkins, and J. Driessen (eds.), Back to the Beginning: Reassessing Social and Political Complexity on Crete during the Early and Middle Bronze Age (2012), 114-176.

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