Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2014.08.34 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.08.34

Thomas F. Tartaron, Maritime Networks in the Mycenaean World.   Cambridge; New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2013.  Pp. xvii, 341.  ISBN 9781107002982.  $99.00.  

Reviewed by Jason W. Earle, The Institute for Aegean Prehistory (


Mycenaean long-distance maritime trade has been the subject of innumerable studies but comparatively little has been written about the local and regional networks that were vital to many communities in the Aegean. The primary reason for this neglect is a dearth of evidence pertaining to these short- and medium-distance links. With this book Tartaron addresses this deficiency head-on by building a theoretical and methodological framework for the study of seafaring and maritime networks in the Late Bronze Age Aegean. His presentation is well organized, thoroughly researched, soundly reasoned, and sensibly illustrated. While I am persuaded that his approach is both feasible and profitable, the book’s ultimate success will depend on whether or not other scholars follow Tartaron’s lead.

At the beginning of Chapter 1 Tartaron clearly states the problem to be addressed: “the premise of this book is that despite an apparently rich record of engagement with the sea, and the keen interest of scholars have shown in elucidating it, we remain surprisingly ignorant about many of its aspects” (p. 1). Lacunae include the location and use of Mycenaean harbors and anchorages, information regarding local and regional maritime networks, and a body of method and theory for addressing these issues. In order to fill these gaps in our knowledge and present a more balanced picture of Mycenaean maritime interactions, Tartaron advocates for employing the concept of “Mycenaean coastal worlds.” This and other key terms and concepts are defined in this introductory chapter.

Chapter 2, “Mycenaeans and the Sea,” provides a historical and cultural overview of the Mycenaean period and a brief discussion of Mycenaean long-distance maritime activity. The questions of what, where, when, how and why are succinctly addressed. Yet given the title of the book, the reader might expect a more comprehensive discussion of Mycenaean maritime networks than is provided. The chapter concludes with brief forays into the environmental and ethnographic evidence that foreshadow lengthier discussions in later chapters.

Evidence for Bronze Age Aegean sea craft is addressed in Chapter 3. The general characteristics of Bronze Age ships and boats are presented, with visual representations used to illustrate the components discussed. Mycenaean long-distance vessels are divided broadly into merchantmen and galleys. Pictorial evidence for the merchantman is lacking, although the Uluburun shipwreck just off the southern coast of Turkey may exemplify the type. Greater evidence for galleys is known. Prior to the LH IIIB period, the few ships depicted in Mycenaean art are Minoan in style (i.e., similar to those in the well-known “Flotilla Fresco” from Thera). LH IIIB witnessed the first appearance of oared galleys on Mycenaean pictorial pottery; their debut on the seas must be contemporary, if not earlier, than this period. Galleys offered several advantages over Minoan-style ships and merchantmen but made sacrifices as well. These changes seem to have been made in order to build a more effective ship for use in naval warfare, coastal raids, and piracy. An increase in the number of depictions in LH IIIC may reflect the realignment of power from the palaces to maritime communities (e.g., Perati, Lefkandi) and the power of galleys and their warrior-crews in the unsettled political conditions of the Postpalatial Aegean. After discussing long-distance vessels, small boats are addressed, or rather, hypothesized since virtually nothing is known with respect to the Mycenaeans. A variety of information is called upon to fill the gap: contemporary eastern Mediterranean representations, Bronze Age boat models, worldwide ethnographic data on traditional boat-building, and experiments in building and plying ancient ships. Omitted from this discussion (but see Table 6.1) is the recently discovered Middle Helladic boat from Mitrou.1 The results are nonetheless enlightening and suggest the existence of various boat types, including pilots/guides, barges, canoes, rowboats, and coasting vessels used for a host of short-range purposes.

In Chapter 4 the maritime environment of the Aegean Sea is examined. Environmental conditions for navigation, such as regional winds and sea currents, are discussed, while a case study of Kapsali Bay on Kythera illustrates their seasonal variability. Implications for navigation are then considered. Tartaron stresses that while conditions are broadly predictable, they can turn unpredictable quickly. Consequently, coastal sailing and island-hopping were likely the general practice, and night sailing is unlikely to have been common given the perils of shallows and squalls in the Aegean. Knowledge of local coastal conditions was paramount to safe passage. Navigational aids, including landmarks, seamarks and sky marks are discussed, as well as the phenomenology of voyaging. These facets of seafaring have been much discussed by other scholars working in the Aegean over the past few decades. The real contribution here, in my opinion, is Tartaron’s consideration of how this crucial knowledge was transmitted, especially with regard to the medium- to long-distance travels of specialist seafarers. To judge by the ethnographic evidence cited, individuals began learning as children through a combination of games/schooling and practical experience. As is common in much recent research, the concepts of habitus (Bourdieu) and structuration (Giddens) are invoked as ways to understand how traditional knowledge and behaviors are maintained in a society but at the same time permit innovation. From this discussion it is possible to infer that long apprenticeships were needed by Mycenaean seafarers to gain the skills and knowledge needed to voyage safely beyond local waters. Evidence for these individuals, and for Mycenaean maritime communities in general, is sought in the Linear B documents, artistic depictions and the Homeric epics.

Chapter 5 deals with the coasts and harbors of the Bronze Age Aegean. Significant changes in coastlines have occurred since the Mycenaean period, obscuring much of the archeological evidence for Mycenaean coastal anchorages or harbors. Consequently, Tartaron theorizes about how these features may be recovered and what information such investigations might yield. He outlines a systematic process for working back to the Late Bronze Age coastline through examination of geomorphology, long-term coastal evolution, and coastal landforms. Built harbors are deemed uncommon in the Bronze Age Aegean, but some evidence of coastal facilities is known (e.g., the Minoan ship sheds at Gournia and Kommos and artificial harbor basin at Romanou near Pylos). Relevant to, but missing from, this discussion is the virtual absence of stone anchors—a common enough Late Bronze Age artifact in the eastern Mediterranean—from the Aegean.2 Tartaron’s strategy for identifying Bronze Age Aegean anchorages (p. 176) is of great importance in that it provides other scholars with a blueprint for future research.

In Chapter 6 Tartaron develops concepts for examining “Mycenaean coastal worlds.” He first establishes the centrality of the coast as a zone mediating between land and sea, and thus its essential place in maritime networks. From these characteristics, the uniqueness of coasts and their inhabitants is stressed to justify employing this specialized concept for their analysis. Tartaron builds upon Westerdahls’ idea of the “maritime cultural landscape”3 by formulating a tiered framework that consists of, in order of increasing geographical extent, the coastscape of everyday life, the maritime small world of habitual experience, the regional/intracultural maritime sphere, and the interregional/intercultural maritime sphere. Of particular note here is the discussion of maritime small worlds, which comprise many neighboring coastscapes and cohere due to regular contacts instigated by social and economic ties. Intervisibility and proximity can be important to their cohesion but Tartaron rightly notes that adverse winds and currents, not to mention political relations, may result in geographic discontinuities. Failure to fully account for these and other variables lay behind Tartaron’s critique of earlier models of Bronze Age Aegean maritime networks.4

Chapter 7, the lengthiest in the book, presents a case study of a Bronze Age Aegean small world and two preliminary assessments of regions with potential for analysis. For the case study, Tartaron establishes the physical environment and experience of living in and around the Saronic Gulf. The site of Kolonna on Aegina is defined as the preeminent settlement of this small world from the Early Bronze Age through the early Late Bronze Age, at which time its influence in the region was eclipsed by that of Mycenae. While informative, discussion of the site’s early history seems to depart from the topic at hand. Next, a selection of the known sites ringing the gulf (e.g., Ayios Konstantinos, Kalamianos, Kanakia) are presented, but a “complete” analysis of the region’s sites and interconnections based on data gathered by various archaeological surveys is not attempted. Detailed study of Kalamianos—interpreted here as Mycenae’s major Saronic harbor during LH IIIA–B— and its environs does, however, provide a model for thinking about inter-site, especially coastal–inland, relations. Discussion of Kalamianos concludes with an important account of oral histories from elderly residents of the region, which offer local perceptions of the region, agricultural and craft specializations within the region, kinship relations, the transmission of maritime knowledge, and rarity of maritime ventures beyond the Saronic. This ethnographic evidence fleshes out what ancient experiences may have been like and is a welcome addition to the traditional corpus of archaeological data mustered. The chapter ends with cursory assessments of two regions with potential for similar analyses: the Latmian Gulf (on which Miletus is located) and the Bay of Volos in Thessaly. Since both bodies of water are/were smaller than the Saronic Gulf (the Bay of Volos significantly so), reflection on the implications of scale is warranted but missing. “How small is a small world?” is a question unasked, whereas how large a small world may be was directly addressed earlier (p. 192).

Chapter 8, the concluding chapter, recapitulates the central topics of the book and offers thoughts on where the approach advanced might lead. Importantly, Tartaron notes that “it is first essential to recognize that coastscapes and small worlds are theoretical constructs devised by archaeologists to bring order to a world they know only dimly from fragmentary evidence” and that “they have no empirical reality independent of our typological frameworks; thus we designate coastscapes and small worlds, we do not discover or recognize them” (p. 287). These statements effectively remind us of the nature of the archaeological enterprise and highlight the fact that the models in question are only hypothetical.

With this book, Tartaron has begun to blaze a new trail for Aegean archaeologists. If others are encouraged to think about Mycenaean short- and medium-range maritime networks in terms of “coastal worlds,” and to pursue systematic and integrated archaeological and geological research agendas along the lines Tartaron puts forward, I believe there is great potential to significantly enrich our understanding of the maritime world of the Mycenaeans.


1.   Van de Moortel, A., 2012. “The Middle Bronze Age Boat of Mitrou, Central Greece,” in N. Günsenin (ed.), Between the Continents. Proceedings of the 12th International Symposium on Boat and Ship Archaeology, Istanbul 2009, 17–26. Istanbul: Ege Yayınlari.
2.   Sherratt, S., 2001. “Potemkin Palaces and Route-based Economies,” in S. Voutsaki and J. Killen (eds.), Economy and Politics in the Mycenaean Palace States: Proceedings of a Conference Held on 1–3 July 1999 in the Faculty of Classics, 219–221. Cambridge: Cambridge Philological Society.
3.   Westerdahl, C., 1992. “The Maritime Cultural Landscape.” International Journal of Nautical Archaeology 21: 5–14.
4.   Broodbank, C., 2000. An Island Archaeology of the Early Cyclades. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; Knappett, C., T. Evans, and R. Rivers, 2008. “Modelling Maritime Interaction in the Aegean Bronze Age.” Antiquity 82: 1009–24.

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