Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.11.40 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.11.40

H. W. Catling, Sparta: Menelaion I. The Bronze Age (2 vols.). BSA Supplementary volume No. 45.   London:  British School at Athens, 2009.  Pp. xxxvi, 487 p., 344 p. of figures, 138 p. of plates; CD-ROM.  ISBN 9780904887594.  $410.00.  

Contributors: H. Hughes Brock, N. Brodie, G. Jones, R.E. Jones, and J.E. Tomlinson.

Reviewed by James C. Wright, American School of Classical Studies at Athens (

This hefty book reports on the excavation between 1973-1985 at the Menelaion, east of Sparta. The work is in six parts. Parts 1-3 present the architecture and stratigraphy from the Menelaion (pp. 21-142), North Hill and Prophitis Elias (pp. 143-180), and Aetos Hill (pp. 181-263). Parts 4 and 5 (pp. 265-441) present the objects. Part 6 concludes (pp. 443- 462). Nine important appendices are on CD. The Foreword and Acknowledgement overview early work and draw attention to new methods employed; unfortunately no geomorphological work was undertaken.

Catling cautions that the work is designed to "be consulted, rather than read." Still the dense text could have used more editing. This is a consequence of Catling’s extraordinary effort to study all the artifacts and compose this account single-handedly, surely a token of his personal commitment to seeing the prehistoric portion of the project through to its completion. Unfortunately, the separation of specialist reporting in multiple digital appendices, especially on data as significant as the faunal evidence, precludes a fully integrated presentation.

A summary of the Menelaion architecture is followed by description of the remains of Mansions 1 and 2. Late MH occupation precedes LH IIB built remains of Mansion 1, and the LH IIIA1Mansion 2 follows. Catling feels that small amounts of LH IIA recovered deserve a building. Problematically no LH I was recognized. The relationship between the two edifices is carefully considered, especially the logistics and engineering. The succeeding Mansion 3 (Dawkins’ House) had two phases within LH IIIA2-IIIB. LH IIIA2, IIIB1-2, and IIIB2/C from the entire ridge demonstrate the spread of settlement. No cemeteries were discovered.

Catling appreciates the strategic location of the ridgeline in relation to settlements along the Eurotas, including the palatial site of Ayios Vasileios, now being excavated by Adamantia Vasilogamvrou. The narrow nature of the ridge with its crown of friable conglomerate necessitated terraces, most of which have collapsed. At the Menelaion this terrain led to adjustments for successive buildings to fit onto the plateau. Remarkable in the development of Mycenaean architecture is the application of the "Korridor Haus" plan to Mansions 1 and 2. Mansion 1 imposes a planned building flanked by corridors over the bedrock and a terraced fill. Catling's bold reconstruction (Fig 23) of Mansion 2 anticipates the recently reported complex at Dimini.1 He believes the short history of Mansion 1 is explained by overhanging conglomerate susceptible to water run-off from the plateau. The solution of the more ambitious plan of Mansion 2 rotated the plan 90 degrees clockwise and based the eastern wing on a terrace constructed from the remains of Mansion 1.2

Chronologically intermediate between the destruction of Mansion 1 and the construction of Mansion 2 were a metal- working establishment and what Catling takes as preparatory installations for the construction of Mansion 2. Among the finds from the LH IIIA1 construction debris of Mansion 2 are a terracotta house model and figurines, whose early context of discovery is easily missed because they are only discussed in Part 4 of the report.

Features of Mansion 1 of special importance for Mycenaean architecture are the earliest preserved timber insets in walls and worked poros limestone blocks. Of the latter, some may have been employed for flooring but the majority were built into Mansion 2 walls. This evidence of the mason’s craft is matched by decorated plaster and even a curved plaster curb (perhaps for an ornamental hearth rather than a column base surround). These were in the construction fill of Mansion 2 and therefore likely LH IIB—a date that agrees with painted plasters known from Tiryns and Mycenae and from framing entrances to chamber and tholos tombs.3

MH and Palace Style pottery and some earlier (MH?) burials indicate earlier occupation, which Catling believes argues for a building before Mansion 1. It is hard, however, to track the evidence. His preoccupation with the Mansions lead away from a chronological presentation. The reader must turn to sections that follow the description of Mansion 2 in order to locate the evidence for earlier edifices. The five building phases attributed to the North Building are frustrating. Catling wants Phase 3 associated with Mansion 1, which ignores re-used cut poros blocks in the walls of Phases 1-2, which, as noted above, are elsewhere found re-used in Mansion 2 walls.

There follows an interesting consideration of deep, stratified occupation debris along the east slope. It covers features, such as the so-called post-holes in H25, burials in H and J24, and the LH IIIB2 pottery deposit in J24. Catling attributes this debris to erosion after abandonment. Some evidence, e.g. 7th c. material, may confirm this view. He neglects human dumping, for which the LH IIIB2 debris seems a good candidate since it might be associated with purposely disposed food waste (see the NE Wash Deposit layers with over 50% kylikes). That this was a habitual area for disposal is demonstrated by the burials of infants and children. A re-analysis might suggest purposeful dumping, as hinted in G. Jones' analysis of the cattle bones.4 Catling concludes that the occupants mined the ruins and used the surface for other purposes, possibly related to the hero shrine to the southwest. Work around the hero shrine in 2005 disclosed LH walls at the west.

On the North Hill occupation extends from MH through at least LH IIIB2 with significant Archaic. Buildings begin in LH IIB-IIIA1 and four phases cover LH IIIA1-IIIB. Of particular interest is a wheelmade figure, not mentioned in the description of the buildings, and associated with the LH IIIB Structure C.

To the south investigations disclosed EH and LH IIB-IIIC Early remains in a gully below Prophitis Ilias. Beyond is Aetos Hill, the most southerly of the occupied knobs of the ridge, with an array of buildings. Here MH II and III pottery is likely associated with two kilns and five burials, one a slab-covered cist containing an adult female with traces of cloth and gold leaf. These remains were preserved by a massive terrace wall that supported upslope a rectangular LH IIB-IIIA1 three-phase Building B.

At the base of the terrace wall was Building A, with a threshold block cut straight by a saw (Pl 53). It may have been cut by a pendulum saw, otherwise known only at Mycenae and Tiryns.5 A second such block was reused in a 'squatter' phase that followed the collapse of the terrace wall.

At each area of occupation along the Menelaion ridge there is a penchant for terraces supporting 'Korridor Haus’ structures. The comparison with examples at Mycenae and Tiryns demands scholarly attention.

Part 4 presents the objects. Unfortunately key finds are not previously mentioned in Parts 1-3. Catling argues persuasively for metallurgy. Among the terracottas is the remarkable house model discovered in Mansion 2 and fragments of wheelmade figures along with a wide range of LH IIIA1-IIIC anthropomorphic and animal figurines. A fragment of a west Cretan inscribed stirrup jar is catalogued in this section rather than being placed with the pottery. A seal impression, jar stopper, and carnelian and jasper seals add to the evidence of administrative activity. Ground stone implements are admirably recorded. Wall plasters, especially LH II painted pieces, will draw attention for comparative study.

The discussion of pottery attends to methods of collection and study across 44 deposits. The pottery catalogues and the pottery drawings are frustratingly organized by context rather than by fabric, shape and decoration. The reader must constantly flip back and forth between text and illustration. The deposits are not assessed in terms of their likely function nor is there a comparative study of their different character. Hence there is no assay of deposits by function among different spaces, buildings, and areas of occupation.

A querulous discussion of MH classification led this reviewer to wonder if it might have been simpler to assign this pottery to a specialist in this period. Given the interest in connections with the northeast Peloponnesos, more attention to work there was merited.6 Treatment of the Mycenaean pottery benefits from consultation with French and Mountjoy with the focus on establishing the chronology of the settlement phases. MH III and LH IIA are present but LH I is missing. Is it possible some of the LH IIA has been misidentified? Are there fragments of LH I that were not recognized?7 The dearth of LH IIIA2 is noted but understood now as less problematic.8 The notorious Handmade Burnished Ware here is well dated to the earliest phase of LH IIIC.

The conclusions reiterate many of the observations made in the descriptions. Missing is reference to Kilian's study of the origins of the palace, Nelson's study of the palace at Pylos, and Küpper's study of Mycenaean architectural practices.9 Catling’s questions about the decorated terracotta building model were prescient in view of the palace now being unearthed at Ayios Vasileios, a discovery he would have delighted in.

Catling's attention to detail, his relentless search to understand even the most fragmentary remains, and his interest in 'site formation processes' make this an engaging and rewarding report. Difficult but thorough, it requires intellectual engagement with the author. This is an outstanding closing chapter of Catling’s considerable archaeological legacy.


1.   Pantou, P. 2010. Mycenaean Dimini in Context: Investigating Regional Variability and Socioeconomic Complexities in Late Bronze Age Greece. AJA 114: 381-401.
2.   Wright, J. 1980. Mycenaean Palatial Terraces. AthMitt 95: 59-86.
3.   Catling, H. 1984-1985. Archaeology in Greece. Archaeological Reports 31: 20-21; French, E. and K. Shelton. 2005. Early palatial Mycenae. Autochthon: Papers presented to O. T. P. K. Dickinson on the occasion of his retirement. A. Dakouri-Hild, and S. Sherratt, eds. Oxford, 177 and pl. 18; Pelon, O. 1976. Tholoi, tumuli et cercles funéraires. Recherches sur les monuments funéraires de plan circulaire dans l'Egée de l'âge du bronze (IIIe et IIe millénaires avant J.-C.). Athens, p. 319 and note 3.
4.   Dabney, M.. P. Halstead, and P. Thomas. 2004. Mycenaean Feasting on Tsoungiza at Ancient Nemea. The Mycenaean Feast. Wright, James C., ed. Hesperia 73: 77-95.
5.   Küpper, M. 1996. Mykenische Architektur: Material, Bearbeitungstechnik, Konstruktion und Erscheinungsbild. Espelkamp, p. 16-17.
6.   Rutter, J. 1990. Pottery Groups from Tsoungiza of the end of the Middle Bronze Age. Hesperia 59: 375-458; Dietz, S. 1991. The Argolid at the Transition to the Mycenaean Age. Aarhus; Gauss, W. and R. Smetana. 2007. Early and Middle Bronze Age Stratigraphy and Pottery from Aegina Kolonna. Bietak, M. and E. Czerny, eds. The Synchronisation of Civilisations in the Eastern Mediterranean in the Second Millennium B.C. III. Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften Denkschriften der Gesamtakademie 37, Wien. p. 451-472.
7.   Davis, J. 1979. Late Helladic I Pottery from Korakou. Hesperia 48: 234-263; Rutter, J. 1989. A Ceramic Definition of Late Helladic I from Tsoungiza. Hydra 6: 1-19.
8.   Mountjoy, P. 2008. The Late Helladic Pottery. Taylour, W. and R. Janko. 2008. Ayios Stephanos: Excavations at a Bronze Age and Medieval Settlement in Southern Laconia. BSA Supplementary Volume 44, London, p. 358-361; Thomas, P. 2011. A Deposit of Late Helladic IIIA2 Pottery from Tsoungiza, Hesperia 80: 171-228; Vitale, S. 2011. The Late Helladic IIIA2 Pottery from Mitrou and its Implications for the Chronology of the Mycenaean Mainland. W. Gauß, M. Lindblom, R. Smith, and J. Wright, eds. Our Cups Are Full: Pottery and Society in the Aegean Bronze Age. Oxford. p. 331-344.
9.   Kilian, K. 1987. L’Architecture des Résidences Mycéniennes: Origines et Extension d’une Structure du Pouvoir Politique Pendant l’Âge du Bronze Récent., E. Levy, ed. Le Système Palatial en Orient, en Grèce et à Rome. Leiden, p. 203–17; Nelson, M. 2001. The Architecture of Epano Englianos, Greece. Ph.D. dissertation, University of Toronto; Küpper 1996, above note 5; see also Darcque, P. 2005. L'habitat mycénien: Formes et fonctions de l'espace bâti en Grèce continentale à la fin du IIe millénaire avant J.-C. Athens.

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