Bryn Mawr Classical Review

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Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2016.11.08

Elizabeth C. Banks, Lerna, VII: The Neolithic Settlement.   Princeton:  American School of Classical Studies at Athens, 2015.  Pp. xxi, 331; 53 p. of plates.  ISBN 9780876613078.  $150.00 (hb).  

Reviewed by Lily A. Bonga, Institute for Aegean Prehistory (


This volume presents the stratigraphy, architectural phases, small finds, and catalog of the previously unpublished artifacts from six small trenches where Neolithic levels were reached at the prehistoric site of Lerna in the Argolid, which was excavated by John Caskey from 1954 to 1957.

Most of the movable finds were published in other venues including: pierced triangular terracotta plaques or “tangas” (Banks 1977),1 faunal remains (Gejvall 1969),2 human skeletons (Angel 1971),3 millstones (Runnels 1981),4 chipped-stone (Kozlowski, Kaczanowska, and Pawlikowski 1996),5 and pottery (Vitelli 2007);6 for Urfirnis see also Cullen 1985.7 This volume reincorporates them into their correct stratigraphic contexts with abbreviated descriptions of the published pieces and summarizes the previous findings; however, the other publications must be consulted for illustrations and full catalog entries (the Appendices and Concordances assist in cross-referencing).

Chapter 1 (Introduction and Organization) briefly outlines the excavation history, the contents, and the structure of the volume. Chapters 2 (The Settlement in Areas JA and JB) and Chapter 3 (The Settlement in Supplementary Trenches and Pits) concisely present the stratigraphic sequence by trench and context, beginning with the lowest levels. The small finds in each phase are listed by type and have abbreviated descriptions, while those not previously published are also assigned catalog numbers (and fully cataloged in Chapter 7). It should be noted that Pits PB and BE are really soundings/sub-trenches of larger trenches and should have been referred to as such, in order to avoid confusion with the numerous pits found in all levels and areas of the site.

Chapter 4 (Unphased Neolithic) lists the small finds by Neolithic pottery lots from units without architecture or other features and that were not explored to any great depth. Banks chose the term “Unphased” to distinguish pottery units that were combined post- excavation from the term, “mixed fill,” which the excavators used during excavation to describe Neolithic/EH II sherds found with stony soil and no architecture/features. The “mixed fill” was produced from EH earth-moving operations and is discussed in Chapter 5 (Mixed Fill).

Chapter 6 (The Burials) recapitulates contextual details of the 11 burials, but Banks refrains from interpretive discussion due to the “paucity of the mortuary evidence” (p. 178).

Chapter 7 (The Minor Objects) consists of catalogs of previously unpublished small finds organized by material (copper, ground stone, bone tools, and terracotta) and then sub-divided by type, date, and area. Brief remarks on their contexts, chronology and wider parallels with their implications are provided.

Chapter 8 (Concluding Discussion) reiterates the nature of the finds, dating, similarities with other Neolithic sites, and provides brief interpretations. Based on the Franchthi-Lerna parallels, tentative dating is given in calendar years, as there are no radiocarbon dates from Lerna. The chipped stone and ceramic assemblages are also summarized. Notably, Banks (p. 268) does not accept Vitelli’s interpretations of the ceramics (e.g., gender of potters, low estimates of vessel output, or women as healers).

The interpretations proposed in the concluding chapter (and peppered throughout the book) are conflicting. Banks seems to draw on opposing interpretive paradigms for social evolution during the Neolithic (i.e., views of Balkan archaeologists like Chapman and Gaydarska vs. Aegeanists like Halstead and Wright).8 Both acknowledge an increasing amount of social stratification during the Neolithic period, but the Balkanists emphasize ways of communally negating social tensions, whereas the Aegeanists emphasize acts of aggrandizement performed by individuals or select groups.

Banks does not clarify why she alternates between these divergent interpretations. For instance, Banks describes a collection of stone celts in room W-17 (p.191) as a “hoard,” which implies (by its definition) that it had restricted visibility and circulation within the community, yet she states that the hoard was “a community resource to be shared with other villagers as needed.” Similarly, Banks interprets the paucity of grave goods (p. 269) as a lack of “social hierarchy,” but defines other artifacts (e.g., marble bowls, ear studs/labrets, stone pendants, beads, etc.) as “prestige” items (pp. 209–214) without explaining her rationale in choosing one perspective over the other, or considering how the two paradigms could have operated simultaneously.

The appendices and concordances are indispensable for using the previous publications with the current volume. Appendix I (Walls and Buildings) lists the walls and to which buildings (if any), they belong, their orientation and level, their page numbers in the text, but unfortunately, it does not include their Lerna phase date (new or old). Appendix II (Lot List) is a concordance of pottery lots, their context, new and old phase dating, and page numbers in the text. Appendix III (The Fauna) consists of Reese’s restudy of a portion of the material published by Gejvall.2

The three concordances are also crucial for working between publications. Concordance I (Inventory and Catalog Numbers) correlates the excavation inventory number with catalog numbers assigned in the volume. Concordance II (Lithics Illustrations in Kozlowski, Kaczanowska, and Pawlikowski 19965 and Inventory/Lot Numbers) lists the previously published text figure and illustration numbers, Lerna inventory/lot number, the new Lerna phases, and their pages in the current volume.

Banks should be commended for putting together such a clearly organized and succinct volume, despite the numerous obstacles she faced in reconstructing an old excavation from antiquated field notebooks. Some of the encumbrances she encountered include a lack of thoroughness and standardization in the notebooks, post-excavation combining of pottery lots (90% of which were discarded), the discard of faunal material post-study, and the lack of wet-sieving. On top of that, she had to synthesize and reintegrate the various reports on the movable finds. Thus, it is no surprise that Banks readily concedes that, “what today’s scholars look for in an excavation report often will not be found in the volume or others in the series,” (p. 3), and this admission encapsulates her cautious and straightforward handling of the stratigraphy and its interpretations.

The photographs and illustrations of artifacts are excellent, although a legend on the site map and a plan of the House of Tiles/EH II fortifications superimposed over the Neolithic remains would have visually helped the reader to understand the limited areas of excavation, which prevented the exposure of a large horizontal area and failed to fully reveal a complete house plan.

A drawback of the volume is, perhaps, that it focusses too literally on the physical remains of settlement itself (architectural and movable) and does not consider in enough detail the importance of Lerna’s location in the broader landscape, natural or social (e.g., relationships with other contemporary sites in the Argolid and the Corinthia).

Arguably, one of the most defining features of Lerna is the site’s proximity to both the sea and freshwater resources, but these are understated in the volume. Given its mythological significance and the recent emphasis on paleoenvironments (particularly wetlands and lakes) in the Greece Neolithic (e.g., rescue excavations in the Kitrini Limni and the Amyntaion Basin in Western Macedonia), it is surprising that there is no mention of Lake Lerna/Alcyonian Lake (Zanger 1991).1 Similarly, the coastal advantages/disadvantages of Lerna’s location deserve more attention; its location may have led to its abandonment due to rising sea levels and the loss are arable land (an analogous situation with Halai in East Lokris; O’Neill et al., 1999, p. 295).1

Despite the inherent shortcomings of the volume (so freely admitted to by Banks and which are not her fault), this long-overdue volume is essential for placing the finds from Lerna in their proper stratigraphical context and for the publication of the architectural remains. Lerna is now the best documented open-air settlement in the Peloponnese. This book is an essential volume for those working on the Neolithic period in Greece, although it may not be of much use to a wider audience.


1.   Banks, E.C. 1977. “Neolithic Tangas from Lerna,” Hesperia 46: 324–339.
2.   Gejvall, N.-G. 1969. Lerna. Volume 1: The Fauna, Princeton: American School of Classical Studies at Athens.
3.   Angel, J.L. 1971. Lerna II. The People. Princeton: American School of Classical Studies at Athens.
4.   Runnels, C. 1981. A Diachronic Study and Economic Analysis of Millstones from the Argolid, Greece, Ph.D. Diss., Indiana University: Bloomington.
5.   Kozłowski, J.K., M. Kaczanowska, and M. Pawlikowski. 1996. “Chipped-Stone Industries from Neolithic Levels at Lerna,” Hesperia 65 (3): 295–372.
6.   Vitelli, K.D. 2007. Lerna V. The Neolithic Pottery from Lerna. Princeton: American School of Classical Studies at Athens.
7.   Cullen, T. 1985. A Measure of Interaction Among Neolithic Communities: Design Elements of Greek Urfirnis Pottery. PhD. Diss., University of Indiana: Bloomington.
8.   Chapman, J. 2000. Fragmentation in Archaeology. People, Places and Broken Objects in Prehistory of South-eastern Europe, Routledge: London; Chapman, J. and B. Gaydarska. 2006. Parts and Wholes: Fragmentation in Prehistoric Context, Oxbow Books: Oxford; Halstead, P. 1995. “From Sharing to Hoarding: The Neolithic Foundations of Aegean Bronze Age Society,” in R. Laffineur and W-D. Niemeier, eds., Politeia: Society and State in the Aegean Bronze Age (Aegaeum 12) , Université de Liège: 11–20; Wright, J. C.(ed.). 2004. The Mycenaean Feast (Hesperia 73:2) American School of Classical Studies: Princeton.
9.   Zangger, E. 1991 “Prehistoric Coastal Environments in Greece: The Vanished Landscapes of Dimini Bay and Lake Lerna,” JFA 18 (1): 1–15.
10.   O’Neill, K., W. Yielding, J. Near, J.E. Coleman, P.S. Wren, and K.M. Quinn. 1999. “Halai: The 1992–1994 Field Season,” Hesperia 38 (3): 285–341.

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