Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.07.02 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.07.02

Bernd Steinmann, Die Waffengräber der ägäischen Bronzezeit: Waffenbeigaben, soziale Selbstdarstellung und Adelsethos in der minoisch-mykenischen Kultur. Philippika, 52​.   Wiesbaden:  Harrassowitz Verlag, 2012.  Pp. 626.  ISBN 9783447067072.  $186.00.  

Reviewed by Margaretha Kramer-Hajos, Indiana University (

Table of Contents

The German term “Waffengräber,” although roughly the equivalent of the English “warrior graves,” means literally “weapon-graves.” The English phrase implies an interpretative step in which a grave with weapons becomes equated with the grave of a warrior, and it is exactly this assumption that has come under critique of postprocessualist scholarship that argues that the presence of weapons may suggest no more than a claim to status by those making the interment.1 The more objective German term shifts the perspective from the nebulous identity of the deceased to the reassuring hard facts of the presence of metal, bone, or stone weapons. This hefty volume excels in presenting these data; although Steinmann is well aware of scholarship that problematizes the warrior grave, he has little patience for it and explicitly rejects attempts to interpret grave goods in the light of social-political motives of the living (p. 16).2 This traditional and straightforward approach to the evidence is typical for the entire book. as is Steinmann’s conclusion that, since mainland-style warrior graves become common on Crete only in LM II, Crete was conquered by Mycenaean warrior elites (p. 201). Thus it is unsurprising that early in the introduction the author states that graves with weapons are virtually synonymous with graves of warriors (p. 13).

Focusing on ‘weapon graves’ allows Steinmann to include not only graves with swords and spearheads, traditionally viewed as warrior graves, but also those with only arrowheads. These are not often considered warrior graves since, it is argued, the bow-and-arrow is rather associated with the hunt than with battle on, e.g., seal representations.3 Steinmann points out (p. 60) that as early as the Shaft Grave period bows-and-arrows feature in battle scenes (best known is the Siege Rhyton) and that these weapons occur next to other, ‘nobler’ weapons in graves (visible at a glance in Steinmann’s figures 1, 2, 4, and 5). He rightfully notes that imagery of hunting and of battle often served the same ideological aims, and that, moreover, several other weapons (swords and daggers; spears and lances) may have been used as implements of warfare, the hunt, and sacrifice depending on the situation; especially archaic forms of weapons may have held religious meaning (p. 51). But Steinmann does warn that in cases of a single arrowhead the arrow can be the cause of death, since he finds it unlikely that the arrowhead would have been removed from the body. Thus he posits, somewhat arbitrarily it seems, that only where three or more arrowheads occur, the arrows formed part of the grave goods (p. 61). He does not make clear if or how many graves with only 1-2 arrowheads are omitted from his discussion and catalogue.

The stated aims of the book are to trace and interpret the development and importance of the Aegean warrior graves from the beginning of the MBA until the end of the LBA.But as the subtitle of this book suggests (“weapon-grave goods, social self-representation, and aristocratic ethos”), it is about much more than just warrior graves. The book also discusses the types of weapons current in the Aegean between the beginning of the MBA and the end of the LBA, the implications of the existence of warrior graves for society, and other grave goods common in warrior graves (among the latter are, for example, cosmetic equipment and bronze vessels suggesting a role in feasting). Hence the perhaps unexpected sections on shields (pp. 71-76) and chariots (pp. 76-80), neither of which have been found in graves: clearly, the aim is to get a complete picture of Mycenaean weaponry and warrior paraphernalia. Steinmann interprets bronze phalera, which may occur in large numbers in a grave, not as shield bosses, as has been customary, but as adornments of a leather corselet or girdle (75). He discusses the prominence of figure-eight shields in iconography, but makes no mention of the LH IIIC depictions of incurved shields from Kynos or Volos. Elsewhere Steinmann usefully compares the depictions of lances with their actual finds to stress the limitations of a purely iconographic approach to weapons and their use: the long lances, combined with tall shields, would have been most effective when used in close formation (50); at the same time, he treats the imagery as reflecting reality.

The treatment of warrior graves in the narrative (chapters 4-9) is chronological; within each period a further division separates Cretan from mainland warrior graves. In the catalogue, consisting of 455 warrior graves, the main divisions are geographical. After the mainland and Crete, a third category comprises a hodge-podge of islands (from Aegina and Euboea, both adjacent to the mainland, to the geographically remote islands of the Dodecanese), and a fourth category, titled “other warrior graves,” lists graves that are impossible to date with any precision. Within each geographical unit, there are further chronological distinctions. There are some inconsistencies in reference system in the catalogue, however, rarely to the extent that it makes tracking references difficult.4 As to the completeness of the catalogue, I have checked for the area I know best, Central Greece. Only the most recent finds from Mitrou (boar tusk plates, found in 2009 and so far only mentioned in newsletters and in the ‘Archaeology in Greece’ database) are missing.5

As an example of Steinmann’s interpretative work, I summarize his observations on swords (pp. 25-40) and on LH IIIB warrior graves (pp. 210-221). The long but thin Type A swords of the Early Mycenaean period required practice, only affordable for a warrior aristocracy that specialized in a highly showy fighting style. In the 14th century a change to shorter, sturdier swords that are easier to handle coincides with the disappearance of ‘ceremonial’ swords with gold decoration. Steinmann attributes these changes convincingly to a substitution of these individual aristocratic highly trained promachoi by larger ‘professional’ armies equipped, as and when needed, by the palace. Since the palace now equipped soldiers with the new swords, the traditional aristocratic warriors became obsolete (220), and this is Steinmann’s ultimate explanation for the virtual lack of warrior graves from palatial areas in LH IIIB. One may well wonder if a politically motivated restriction of funerary display by the palaces at the expense of local elites played a role as well, but this is the type of explanation that Steinmann eschews.

Somewhat problematic is Steinmann’s suggestion that the wanax probably was interred with weapons (220), since the warlike themes on wall paintings point to his need to legitimize his rule towards other elites. First, at Pylos, the war themes seem focused not on the megaron but on Hall 64, which has been suggested to represent the seat of the lawagetas exactly because of these.6 More questionable is the assumption that despite a lack of evidence, there must have been warrior graves at palatial sites. Of course much evidence has been lost to the ravages of time, but the very nature of archaeology demands that we try to reconstruct a picture of prehistorical reality based on the evidence, and when we start suggesting that the picture demands the existence of a class of evidence that is simply not attested, we find ourselves in a methodological quagmire.

The book is a revision of the author’s 2010 dissertation. The author is disarmingly honest in the Preface where he states that although chapters have been slightly revised and bibliography from after 2010 has been listed, new study has rarely been undertaken: the book is, essentially, the dissertation. This is visible in the exhaustive overviews over previous research and summaries of other authors’ findings or typologies, and in the equally exhaustive descriptions and analyses of weapon types and other grave goods. Although these qualities occasionally mar the flow of narrative, they add to the value of the book as a reference work. Occasionally Steinmann fails to engage fully with the work of scholars he cites: for example, he acknowledges Fortenberry’s work on single greaves, but dismisses her suggestion that greaves were worn on only one leg before the LH IIIC period,7 because in three LH IIIC graves pairs of greaves were found (p. 69).

An English translation (ch. 14) of the summary (ch. 13) is obviously a valuable service to many readers and it seems petty to criticize it; let it suffice to say that this section should have been edited by a native English speaker. The photos and drawings in the back illustrate typologies and provide useful overviews over the range of grave goods discussed, although the amount and the sort of goods illustrated for each grave vary widely. A scale is typically lacking. Interspersed between the main text are 17 useful tables and diagrams; more tables are found in the addenda.

In summary, this is a wide-ranging, ambitious work characterized by thorough description and analysis. The volume is at times a bit heavy on reviewing opinions; its main strength lies in the meticulous collection and presentation of warrior graves and their finds. Yet, it is sprinkled with interesting observations and interpretation. As a result, one may use this work as a reference book but also to get an up-to-date overview of Aegean weapons and the debates surrounding them. For scholars interested in Minoan and Mycenaean weapons, warrior graves, or the aristocratic warrior ethos, this is an invaluable resource. ​


1.   E.g. J. Whitley, “Objects with Attitude: Biographical Facts and Fallacies in the Study of Late Bronze Age and Early Iron Age Warrior Graves,” CAJ 12 (2002) 217–32.
2.   One may agree or disagree with this premise. Unfortunately, Steinmann occasionally subjects himself to criticism by making questionable assumptions: e.g. on p. 219 he states that religious considerations would not be subject to such rational strategies. Both this assumption and the underlying assumption that burial goods reflect primarily religion can of course be disputed.
3.   Graves with arrowheads are not, for example, included in Deger-Jalkotzy’s overview over LH IIIC warrior graves: S. Deger-Jalkotzy, “Late Mycenaean Warrior Tombs,” in S. Deger-Jalkotzy and I.S. Lemos (eds.), Ancient Greece: From the Mycenaean Palaces to the Age of Homer, Edinburgh (2006), 151-179.
4.   On p. 434, for example, the reference CMS V 1 B, 161 occurs next to CMS V Suppl. 1 B, 162. More confusing are CMS V Suppl. 3,2, 406 on p. 435 and CMS V 2, 479 on p. 432.
5.   For the Archaeology in Greece database, see Chronique des fouilles; for University of Tennessee newsletters see Quest and Classics Newsletter 2010 p. VII).
6.   By Stefan Hiller. See J.L. Davis and J. Bennet, “Making Mycenaeans: Warfare, Territorial Expansion, and Representations of the other in the Pylian Kingdom.” In POLEMOS: le contexte guerrier en Égée à l’âge du Bronze (Aegaeum 19), ed. R. Laffineur, Liège and Austin (1999), 117–8.
7.   D. Fortenberry, “Single Greaves in the Late Helladic Period,” AJA 95 (1991) 623-7. ​

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