Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2017.04.13 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.04.13

Margaretha Kramer-Hajos, Mycenaean Greece and the Aegean World: Palace and Province in the Late Bronze Age.   Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2016.  Pp. xi, 218.  ISBN 9781107107540.  $99.99.  

Reviewed by Alex R. Knodell, Carleton College (


This book examines the rise and fall of Mycenaean palatial society in central Greece, with a particular focus on the area of the Euboean Gulf. It employs a dual theoretical approach that draws on aspects of network theory to explain large-scale societal transitions and agency theory to investigate the role of individual actors in such processes, chiefly through iconographic analysis. The goal is to deliver a historical and explanatory account of social change in this part of Greece during the Late Bronze Age.

Chapter 1 provides an introduction to the geography of the Euboean Gulf and the theoretical orientation of the book. It focuses especially on network theory, which has become increasingly popular in Mediterranean archaeology and history, although approaches vary widely between different applications (24-25). Kramer-Hajos states that she is drawing on networks “to explain phenomena across various scales, rather than attempting to model the intensity or frequency of interactions” (27). The book uses the language of networks as an explanatory metaphor alongside abstract schemata (of centralized and decentralized networks and “small worlds”), rather than producing models or visualizations based on archaeological evidence in geographic space.1 The author describes how long-distance exchanges and the consumption of imported exotica exhibit the strength of “weak ties” (where the infrequency of connections makes them meaningful), which become socially significant status markers employed by individual (elite) agents in their new contexts. As the book proceeds, it is not always clear that the theoretical language is necessary to describe much of what the author presents. While discussions of centrality are meaningful, I am less convinced that referring to regional relationships as “a small world…held together by weak ties” (69) bears any more analytical weight than describing these relationships more literally. So, too, with the application of agency theory. While the author cites Bourdieu, Giddens, Gell, and Helms in her introduction (28-31), discussions of agency throughout the body of the text are mostly descriptive accounts concerning “symbols of power” (84), elite consumption, iconography as ideology, and occasional references to habitus (39, 69, 128, 145).

After the introduction, the book is organized chronologically. It begins (Chapters 2-3) with the Early Mycenaean period (LH I-II), arguing that a coastal orientation of settlement distinguished the Euboean Gulf from the interior. Iconography is used to describe the emergence of a sailor-warrior elite, which came to dominate small—especially coastal—centers in a set of decentralized networks. Kramer-Hajos refers to shared iconographic interests and practices in the consumption of exotica as the “Mycenaeanization of the provinces” (Chapter 3). The weak ties exploited by long-distance exchange thus allowed for the emergence of an elite class.

Chapter 4 focuses on the transitional period of LH IIIA1, as elites begin to concentrate power at emergent palatial sites (in network terms, through preferential attachment to dominant centers). Kramer-Hajos notes several iconographic shifts in this period, especially on seals, which indicate changing ideologies and attitudes toward leadership. Images of combat and warriors are replaced by more “palatial” iconography, especially animals associated with kingship (lions, griffins, sphinxes), through which both sub-elites from palatial areas and elites from “peripheral” zones could associate themselves with palatial power (99-100). She concludes that the rise of the palaces resulted in the displacement of the warrior ethos of the previous period: the “domestication of the warrior” (100-106).

Chapters 5-6 shift to the palatial period (LH IIIA2-B), arguing that central Greece was dominated by the palatial sites of Orchomenos, Gla, and (most importantly) Thebes. A high level of network centralization toward these sites led to the marginalization of coastal areas. The palaces came to dominate politically through the exclusive control of the consumption of exotica, which they used to “advertise their status and reward lower level officials” (127). In an excursus on Gla, Orchomenos, and the Kopaic Basin (115-125) Kramer-Hajos argues that the construction of Gla and the drainage of the Kopais was a cooperative venture between Thebes and Orchomenos, pointing to the extensive system of fortifications along the northern Kopais, with nothing facing Thebes to the south. This contradicts the standard narrative in which Gla and the Kopais are affiliated with Orchomenos, a major rival to Thebes, and does not explain the numerous destructions at Thebes and at Gla that follow soon after this reconfiguration of the Boeotian landscape.

Chapter 6, “Palatial concerns: ships and exotica,” examines how elites manufactured status through the consumption of small prestige items. Evidence of ships in Linear B and wall paintings is limited to Pylos, although examples of ship iconography exist in several other forms, including boat models and painted pottery. Kramer-Hajos dismisses the latter as non-palatial (I would agree), noting that a real abundance of ship iconography does not appear until postpalatial times. The author highlights the dearth of evidence for ship iconography in the palatial period while also arguing that ships and their crews were central concerns of the palaces. She writes that “although the palaces were invested in the building, manning, and operating of ships, they seem surprisingly reluctant to depict these ships on their walls” (138). The argument that ships were a central concern, then, has a hard time staying afloat. It seems more likely that the palaces were not invested in ships per se, but rather simply in the consumption of exotic imports, which happened to arrive via ships.

The final part of the book (Chapters 7-8) considers the postpalatial period (LH IIIC), during which the Euboean Gulf enjoys a resurgence. Settlement numbers increase along the coast and these communities fill a power vacuum left by the palace at Thebes, coopting overseas trade networks. There is no real discussion, however, about how the palatial collapse actually played out in terms of direct causation or process. Its preceding circumstances (palatial over-centralization) and aftermath (reorganization of settlement, trade, and elite culture) are made quite clear, but the author does not weigh in on debates concerning the actual mechanisms of collapse. One of the more interesting and important points in the book is that the postpalatial era in many ways represents a return to prepalatial times, in terms of settlement pattern, maritime outlook, and iconographic indications of a “warrior ethos” (171).

I am in general agreement with this book’s conclusions concerning palatial over-centralization, vulnerability to collapse, and the postpalatial ascendency of the Euboean Gulf.2 The main points I would critique concern some geographical imbalance, comparison within the Mycenaean world, and the role of exotica.

There is much discussion of the “interior” sites of the mainland, but very little mention of the many non-coastal sites in Euboea dating to the Mycenaean period. North of Chalkis, Psachna is an under-researched—though long known—site of considerable importance. South and east of the Euripos, Amarynthos, Aliveri, Avlonari, and Kymi form an arcing corridor that connects the Euboean Gulf and Aegean coasts, with several examples of small tholoi. Oxylithos is mentioned in the context of a seal find (96), but the importance of this area could have been emphasized further by discussion of other sites in the region and the oxhide ingot finds from Kymi (on the Aegean coast, not the Euboean Gulf, as the author seems to imply [15]).3 The omission of inner Euboea misses an opportunity to examine how interior and coastal zones interact outside the purview of the mainland palaces.

There are several extended arguments about Mycenaean society based on evidence from the Peloponnese, then applied to central Greece. In the discussion of Early Mycenaean burials the author argues through an overview of Aegean swords that “emerging elites in the Euboean Gulf region followed the same strategies as the Shaft Grave princes” (39), which seems a stretch. Even if cognizant of contemporary practices at Mycenae, elites in central Greece could be considered aspirational at best. Nowhere in central Greece does the funerary record preserve the level of wealth and social inequality represented in the Shaft Graves. The pan-Mycenaean description of warrior culture in Chapter 2 obscures the considerable regional variation and even site-specific practices indicated by the (really quite different) evidence Kramer-Hajos cites for the Euboean Gulf (at Thorikos, Chalkis, Mitrou, Lefkandi, and Dramesi).

For the palatial period, too, there seems to be an assumption that all palaces operate on very similar terms, a perspective that must at least be justified, if not roundly rejected.4 On a related note, the premise of “palace and province” seems flawed, in that it asserts a dichotomous relationship for which little clear evidence exists. Moreover, terms like “province” and “periphery” are never clearly defined. Considering the notions of centrality and direct power relationships these terms imply, some discussion or explanation of their use is warranted. My suspicion is that Mycenaean palaces were rather limited in their territorial control and that these terms are misleading in characterizing any part of the Mycenaean world. I would suggest instead that many parts of the Euboean Gulf region are better considered non-palatial—i.e., outside the control of any palatial authority—as opposed to provincial.

Concerning exotica, discussions of Mycenaean economy and trade focus exclusively on elite needs to find and exploit weak ties through the consumption of small prestige objects (e.g., 141-147; 174-178). I have no doubt that such practices were important in the establishment and maintenance of elite authority; however, to put so much stake in one category of items seems reductive, both in ignoring wider sets of political practices and in overlooking the complexity of long-distance trade. One need only consider the diversity of raw materials and exotica on the Uluburun wreck (27) to see that an elite interest in exotica was certainly not the sole mover in long-distance trade in the eastern Mediterranean Bronze Age.

While there is much stake put in elite agency associated with exotica, there is little exploration of what work these things do, other than signify status. What (if any) connotations did they transmit from their place of origin, whether general or specific? Much is made of the quantification of LH IIIC imports in the Euboean Gulf versus other regions, despite the very small sample size. Is it really a significant regional pattern that two of ten sites with evidence for extra-Aegean contact are located on the Euboean Gulf (176)? Sarah Murray has produced a comprehensive analysis of Late Bronze Age imports across the Aegean world, which readers should consult alongside this volume.5

In sum, this is an interesting book that is relevant for scholars interested in the Late Bronze Age Aegean. It is somewhat dissatisfying, however, in that its arguments present little new data and do not substantively advance conversations concerning either of its theoretical approaches. Nonetheless, it provides a useful summary and discussion of evidence for elite culture, long-distance interaction, and social change in Mycenaean central Greece.


1.   In framing interaction, this work draws especially on I. Malkin, A Small Greek World: Networks in the Ancient Mediterranean (Oxford, 2011) and T.F. Tartaron, Maritime Networks in the Mycenaean World (Cambridge, 2013). More model-driven approaches include C. Broodbank, An Island Archaeology of the Early Cyclades (Cambridge, 2000) and C. Knappett, An Archaeology of Interaction: Network Perspectives on Material Culture and Society (Oxford, 2011). See also E. Blake, Social Networks and Regional Identity in Bronze Age Italy (Cambridge, 2014), C. Knappett (ed.), Network Analysis in Archaeology: New Approaches to Regional Interaction (Oxford, 2013), and T. Brughmans (2013) in Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 20.4: 623-662.
2.   As the author acknowledges (7), I make a very similar argument in my PhD dissertation concerning social change in the region during palatial and postpalatial times: A.R. Knodell, Small-World Networks and Mediterranean Dynamics in the Euboean Gulf: An Archaeology of Complexity in Late Bronze Age and Early Iron Age Greece (PhD Dissertation, Brown University, 2013).
3.   See Sackett et al. in the Annual of the British School at Athens 61 (1966).
4.   See, e.g., M. Galaty and W.A. Parkinson, Rethinking Mycenaean Palaces II (Cotsen Institute, 2007).
5.   S.C. Murray. The Collapse of the Mycenaean Economy: Imports, Trade, and Institutions 1300-700 BCE (Cambridge, forthcoming 2017).

Read comments on this review or add a comment on the BMCR blog

Read Latest
About BMCR
Review for BMCR
Support BMCR

BMCR, Bryn Mawr College, 101 N. Merion Ave., Bryn Mawr, PA 19010