Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.08.45

Daniel J. Pullen, The Early Bronze Age Village on Tsoungiza Hill. Nemea Valley Archaeological Project, 1.   Princeton:  American School of Classical Studies at Athens, 2011.  Pp. xxxix, 1047.  ISBN 9780876619223.  $150.00.  

Reviewed by Vassilis Petrakis, National Hellenic Research Foundation (

[A sample of the book (including the Table of Contents) can be downloaded from Sample of NVAP I.]

This inaugural volume in the series of final reports of the Nemea Valley Archaeological Project (hereafter NVAP) presents the results of the excavations of the Early Bronze Age (hereafter EBA) levels on Tsoungiza hill, a site located 1 km to the west of the Sanctuary of Zeus at Nemea in the north-eastern Peloponnese.1 Tsoungiza has been the major component of NVAP’s contribution to Aegean prehistory. It was originally explored by Carl Blegen and James Harland in the 1920s, and systematically excavated (with the exception of a few rescue excavations in the 1970s) in the 1980s. This final synthesis of all available excavation data had been eagerly anticipated. From the outset, it might be stated that the end result was well worth the wait.

The core of the volume consists of fifteen chapters of substantial length, ten of which are written by Pullen himself. The remaining five are final reports on analyses of metal artefacts, lithics and biodata. These are preceded by preface (Pullen and Wright), acknowledgements and lists of illustrations, tables, bibliographic references and various abbreviations and followed by four Appendixes, four Concordance lists and three Indexes.

Chapter 1 describes the physical geography of the site, the history of research as well as several aspects of the NVAP’s procedures and methods, particularly in data gathering and sorting. The structure of the volume and basic data on absolute and relative chronology are very conveniently summarized (pp.12-16).

Chapter 2 deals with the small quantity of pre-EBA activity, mostly dating to the Final Neolithic period. Pullen stresses the fragmentary, but nonetheless extant, Late Neolithic finds. Interested readers should also consult Wright’s publication of a marble figurine.2 Pullen uses stylistic arguments (e.g., the similarity of the Final Neolithic scoops to the EH I askos) to suggest a date close to the transition to EBA (also p.894), but it is a pity that stratigraphic evidence cannot illuminate further this point.

Chapters 3 to 9, preceded by a concise introduction, are devoted to the presentation of the EBA material. Stratigraphy, architecture and pottery are arranged by period (EH I, EH II Initial, EH II Developed and EH III), while special diachronic chapters deal with specific artefact categories other than pottery and stone tools.

Chapter 3 presents the EH I material (responsive to the Talioti phase in the Argolid) found in few, although interesting (storage/refuse? pits/bothroi, Cistern 2), contexts. Despite the significant improvement of our knowledge of EH I ceramics and of the relations between the north-eastern Peloponnese and the broader contemporary Aegean world (Kampos group, Troy I), the material from Tsoungiza cannot help to answer questions about Talioti ware, such as whether it represents the entire EH I period or a later development within the period. It is relevant to note that so far there has been no ceramic definition of an explicitly ‘earlier EH I’ assemblage.3

EH II Initial at Tsoungiza (Chapter 4) corresponds to Lerna III early phase A, according to Wiencke’s periodization.4 Although the entire EH I-II sequence is not observed in toto in any given locus, there is sufficient stratified material to justify this reconstruction. This period has yielded the earliest built structures so far recovered on the hill, most interestingly the curving Wall 38, part of an apsidal building (a rare type before EH III), as well as 1982 House A, a small and apparently free standing structure, with an arguably ‘more-than-domestic’ function. Pullen suggests that EH II Initial be seen as a transition between EH I and EH II Developed (p.200). However, this phrasing potentially conceals that most defining features of EH II are already present in the Initial phase, such as the appearance of urfirnis paint, the ring base, the sauceboat and the disappearance of the EH I fruitstand. Elsewhere, it is more accurately asserted that the difference between EH II Initial and Developed “is one of degree” (p.241).

EH II Developed (Chapter 5) corresponds to Lerna III A-B and perhaps incipient phase C (it has been possible to subdivide most of the material into three phases). Certain distinctive features of Harland’s House A, such as off-centre entrances, open porch with central support and walls of considerable thickness (suggestive of a second storey) and a relative architectural ‘simplicity’ would support its interpretation as a “proto-corridor house” (p.906), anticipating the more elaborate structures in Lerna III C-D, e.g. the Lerna ‘House of the Tiles’ (pp.288-297). A lead stamp-seal found in a plausibly associated context (also pp.634-635),5 would suggest an administrative use for the building, although we unfortunately lack actual sealings. Pullen advocates the association of the sixteen drinking/eating vessels of the ‘Burnt Room deposit’ with collective inter- household activity (p. 378). Both EH II Initial and Developed correspond largely to EH IIA,6 with EH IIB material unrepresented.

EH III at Tsoungiza (Chapter 6) corresponds neatly to Lerna IV and the presentation and discussion of ceramics owes much to Jerry Rutter’s excellent volume on Lerna IV pottery. 7 Alongside the absence of later EH II activity, the lack of the earliest EH III phase (in Lerna terms) suggests an occupation hiatus that virtually excludes Tsoungiza from discussions over the EBA II/III transition. The EH III settlement was apparently densely built, but insufficient architectural remains can be properly considered in order to determine its actual extent or the existence of an organized planning. The overall picture seemingly supports the argument for a disintegration of social complexity after EH II. The latest EBA pottery on the site seems to correspond with Lerna IV Phase 3. Tsoungiza was apparently destroyed by fire and did not recover before the end of the Middle Helladic period.

Chapter 7 presents terracotta artefacts (other than textile production equipment) and ornaments. Attention is drawn to the four or six EH II oxen figurines with yokes indicated by the application of clay strips.8 Following Pullen’s earlier argument that ownership of working oxen is a further indication of emerging inequalities in EBA society,9 one may suggest that the association of these figurines with specific households could hint at a hierarchy within the community. In this regard, these figurines can be considered alongside the EH I dagger of arsenical copper, properly discussed in Chapters 9 (pp.631-633) and 15 (pp.897-898),10 whose non-functional small size suggests its use as a marker of individual status, one of the earliest such evidence on the Greek Mainland. Interestingly, the EH II Developed lead stamp-seal might have been originally pierced (p.635) to be used as a pendant, a rather personal insigne dignitatis.

Chapter 8 exhausts all relevant evidence for textile production (spindle-whorls, ‘anchors’, loom-weights, copper needles, spools, textile/mat impressions). In particular, the documentation of terracotta ‘anchors’ in early EH II should remove them from the list of EH III innovations.

Chapter 9, besides the dagger and the lead seal, discusses interesting evidence for in situ metalworking, as well as bone and stone artefacts, including the excellent pyxis lid with spiral decoration. Chapter 10 (Kayafa, Stos-Gale and Gale) discusses the results of analyses of metal artefacts. Besides Laurion (properly considered a “quite local” source), two copper needles matched the lead isotope composition of Cypriote ores. Given that one of these needles (no.849) dates to the beginning of EH II Developed, its provenance might indicate the earliest (albeit indirect and sporadic) Cypro-Aegean link.

Chapter 11 (Karabatsoli) discusses the chipped stone industry and includes a commendable analysis of the chaîne opératoire. The ground stone tools are presented in Chapter 12 (Krattenmaker).

Halstead (Chapter 13) publishes the zooarchaeological evidence. His analysis demonstrates that the quality of documentation is at least as important as the quantity of the material. We should note that the similarity of the Tsoungiza assemblages with Lerna and Tiryns “offers no hint of hierarchical asymmetries between sites” (p.803). Valuable results regarding the use of metal knives/cleavers were yielded by the meticulous study of butchery marks (pp.797-800).

Hansen and Allen (Chapter 14) publish plant macro-remains, suggestive of small-scale farming. Given the scarcity of archaeobotanical reports from EH sites, this contribution is highly welcome.

Chapter 15 (Pullen) synthesizes and summarizes the main conclusions by period. There is a little overlap with the concluding sections of Chapters 3-6, but the scope is more synthetic and the results of the specialist studies have been brilliantly integrated. As this is the segment of the book that more casual readers might wish to read first and then be diverted to the previous chapters for a proper justification, more cross-references would have facilitated its use.

Appendixes and Concordances are excellently organized. The special Indexes of catalogued finds and deposits/features are necessary as well.

Overall, the structure of the book is remarkably user-friendly, with very effective division of the material and minimal overlap among chapters. Given the size of the volume, this is a significant achievement. Inventory numbers of artefacts are continuous through Chapters 2-9. Detailed catalogues are placed at the end of pertinent chapters and sufficient illustration (tables, graphs, plots, drawings and photos) is integrated in the text. While this often necessitates lowering the printing quality of images, this has not been the case in the volume under review.

As Pullen’s stated11 intention was to include all the information in a single volume, a book of this bulk was inevitable. Even if the result of this decision may, at first, look overwhelming, the advantage of having everything at hand within a single book, instead of having to browse many volumes written with little reference to each other should not be overlooked. This first Tsoungiza volume demonstrates very aptly and successfully that archaeological interpretation is essentially a product of synthesis. This book brings together all the relevant information one needs to take into account in order to make sense of the excavation data.

The excavations at Tsoungiza have been a major supplement to our picture of the EH world. The insights we gain into EH I and the earlier EH II, the formative period of the first Aegean complex institutions, are truly invaluable.12 This meticulous publication is a work of breathtaking quality in discussion and presentation. Pullen’s goal to enable readers of this volume “understand the deep history behind some of the achievements of the later EBA”13 is definitely fulfilled.


1.   This volume is one of a projected two on prehistoric Tsoungiza. The second will present the late Middle Bronze Age and Late Bronze Age material.
2.   J.C. Wright, “A marble figurine from Tsoungiza” in P.P. Betancourt, V. Karageorghis, R. Laffineur and W.-D. Niemeier (eds.) MELETEMATA. Studies in Aegean Archaeology Presented to Malcolm H. Wiener, Volume 3 (Aegaeum 20:3), Liège 1999, pp. 945-951.
3.   A point raised by Joseph Maran as an argument that Talioti assemblages could represent the entire EH I in the region (Kulturwandel auf dem griechischen Festland und den Kykladen im späten 3. Jahrtausend v. Chr, Bonn 1998, p.9).
4.   M.H. Wiencke The Architecture, Stratification and Pottery of Lerna III (Lerna. A Preclassical Site in the Argolid IV), Princeton 2000.
5.   D.J. Pullen “A lead seal from Tsoungiza, Ancient Nemea, and Early Bronze Age Aegean sealing systems”, American Journal of Archaeology 98 (1994), pp.35-52.
6.   D.J. Pullen, “The Early Bronze Age in Greece” in C.W. Shelmerdine (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to the Aegean Bronze Age, Cambridge 2008, pp.19-46, at pp.26-30.
7.   J.B. Rutter, The Pottery of Lerna IV (Lerna. A Preclassical Site in the Argolid III), Princeton 1995.
8.   D.J. Pullen, “Ox and plow in the Early Bronze Age Aegean”, American Journal of Archaeology 96 (1992), pp.45-54.
9.   Ibid., p.53; cf. the we-ka-ta bulls on Knossos Linear B tablets, apparently owned by the ‘palace’ and leased to individuals.
10.   D.J. Pullen, “Early Aegean daggers: An example from Tsoungiza, Ancient Nemea”, MELETEMATA (endnote 2), pp.693-697.
11.   p.12 and Interview with Daniel Pullen.
12.   Certain important conclusions had been already integrated in Pullen’s recent synthesis on EH Greece (supra n.6).
13.   Interview with Daniel Pullen.

Comment on this review in the BMCR blog
Read Latest
Index for 2012
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review
Bryn Mawr Classical Commentaries

BMCR, Bryn Mawr College, 101 N. Merion Ave., Bryn Mawr, PA 19010
HTML generated at 17:09:08, Monday, 10 September 2012