Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2017.06.28 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.06.28

Robert B. Koehl (ed.), Studies in Aegean Art and Culture: A New York Aegean Bronze Age Colloquium in Memory of Ellen N. Davis.   Philadelphia, PA:  INSTAP Academic Press, 2016.  Pp. xvii, 158.  ISBN 9781931534864.  $36.00.  

Reviewed by Jessica Doyle, University College Dublin (

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

This volume presents the papers delivered at a special meeting of the New York Aegean Bronze Age Colloquium on September 2014, held in memory of Ellen N. Davis who passed away in July of the preceding year. Davis herself was a founding member of the Colloquium, and so the Colloquium and this resulting collection of papers are fitting tributes.

Davis’ scholarship will be familiar to readers with an interest in the Aegean Bronze Age. She produced seminal works on a range of topics pertaining to the period (a bibliography of her work is usefully provided on pages xv–xvi), and each of the ten papers in this volume builds on, responds to, or otherwise acknowledges Davis’ insight and enthusiasm. This is more explicit and focused in some instances (for example, the papers by Weingarten, Wiener, Kopcke, Koehl and Palaima), while in others Davis’ broader influence is celebrated (for example, in the contributions by Shank and Jones). The contents are not divided into sections, but are somewhat thematically grouped.

The first four papers deal with Aegean metallurgy. Davis’ own doctoral dissertation examined the Vapheio Cups and gold and silver ware, and was followed by a number of papers pertaining to the use and provenance of metals in the Bronze Age Aegean. 1 The volume opens with Weingarten’s reconsideration of the Gournia silver lobed kantharos (conventionally dated to Middle Minoan IB), a unique vessel that Davis examined early in her career. 2 Frustratingly for Davis, the proposed Anatolian prototypes for this unusual type post-dated the Gournia kantharos. Weingarten here makes a convincing case, based on recent discoveries and up-to-date classifications, for a later date for the Gournia cup, thus supporting the role of the Anatolian vessels as inspiration behind the silver kantharos and its ceramic imitations, and offers some suggestions as to the possible purposes of these vessels in their Minoan context. Wiener’s offering revisits Davis’ early work on Helladic cups in precious metals, most notably those from the Vapheio tholos. Davis proposed that one of the gold Vapheio cups was the work of a Minoan craftsman, the other produced in a Mycenaean workshop. 3 Wiener takes his cue from this insight to examine the significance of the remarkably rich Vapheio tholos, and the importance of Lakonia in the Mycenaean period, particularly regarding relations between Crete and the Mainland, in light of new evidence from the palatial site of Hagios Vasileios. He suggests these pairs of cups were tools in the cultivation of host-guest relations in the tradition of xenia. The third paper, a contribution by Kopcke, re-appraises Davis’ view that Transylvania was a major source of gold for Mycenaean Greece which had bronze to offer in exchange. Kopcke defends Davis’ view, though is less certain of her argument that Crete could not have been the source for the Shaft Grave gold, urging us to conceive of a wider exchange network incorporating Crete and its Egyptian connections as well as the Carpathian connection. A further paper on northerly connections is offered by Betancourt, Ferrence and Muhly. Citing Davis’ interests in Minoan interconnections with northern regions, the authors offer a study of some metal objects from the cemetery at Petras in eastern Crete that indicate Cretan interconnections with the Cyclades and locations further north. The objects studied are small, personal items, of types known from the Cyclades, the Greek peninsula, the Balkans and Anatolia. The authors link this evidence for northerly connections at Petras to the site of Hagia Photia nearby, a site with demonstrably strong Cycladic connections in Early Minoan (EM) I which was deserted in EM II. Petras, they suggest, may have replaced Hagia Photia in EM II as a gateway to the north.

The next four papers shift the focus to the visual arts, reflecting Davis’ own career, which saw her interests expand, notably into the area of Bronze Age wall-painting and iconography. Christos Doumas offers an exploration of the human experience in Cycladic prehistory as told through the manifestations of the human figure and its many changes across modes and media. Observing the fluctuations in representation between figurine, vase, and fresco, and the favour shown alternately to female and male representation from the Neolithic to the Late Bronze Age, Doumas examines the relationship between social change and how the human condition is expressed in Cycladic art. Vlachopoulos’ paper invokes Davis’ interest in the wall-paintings of Thera, examining the use of colour-contrast and, in particular, purple pigment to enhance the optical effects of a set of non-figurative frescoes from Xeste 3 at Akrotiri. The frescoes, depicting lozenges with rosettes and spirals, are demonstrated by Vlachopoulos to have been rendered in polychromatic combinations that were deliberately selected for illusionistic and aesthetic effect. His paper also includes a discussion of the possible interpretative significance of the rosette in Aegean iconography, and points the way towards further research on the possible relationship between the use of prestigious pigments and the important Goddess and Adorants frescoes in the same complex. Shank’s paper retains the focus on Aegean wall-painting, examining the various conventions employed by Minoan artists to represent water in miniature-style frescoes. Basing her observations on familiar examples from Hagia Eirene and Akrotiri, and some less well-known ones from Epano Zakros and Tel Kabri, Shank distils her findings into the identification of six conventions employed in the representation of water by Aegean artists working in the miniature style. Her closing paragraph hints at a further study into this important subject that will investigate the same topic but in the realm of larger-scale wall painting. The eighth paper, by Jones, re-envisages some familiar figures from the Temple Repositories at Knossos, deconstructing Evans’ extensive “reconstitutions” of the female faience statuettes that he designated as “Snake Goddesses.” Jones brings to bear her expertise on Minoan female dress to offer new reconstructions of the statuettes HM63 and HM65. 4 Most interestingly, she uses previously misplaced and overlooked fragments to reconstruct a third statuette of a female associated with snakes (HM64).

The final two papers in the collection address social and ideological themes that were of interest to Davis, namely rites of passage and rulership. Her seminal paper of 1986 on the Theran frescoes examined the relationship between hairstyles and age in Minoan society. 5 Davis concluded that there were correlations between various hairstyles, age-grades and initiatory rites, particularly relating to nuptial rites for girls. This paper coincided with the publication in the same year of Koehl’s equally seminal piece on the “Chieftain Cup,” in which he interpreted the imagery on the vessel as representing male initiatory rites with the participants distinguished by their various hairstyles. 6 In his paper here, Koehl reiterates, with further evidence, his views on the correlation between the male’s progression from childhood to maturity and the distinctive hairstyles associated with each phase. Here he presents some glyptic images, all of which appear to depict homoerotic activity amongst males of varying age-grades. Inevitably, these findings are linked to Ephorus’ much later account of Cretan initatory rites that involved a homoerotic component. This account has received much attention in the light of the Iron Age material from Kato Syme Viannou, and Koehl offers these Bronze Age images from Pylos and Zakros in further support for the Bronze Age origins of these practices. 7 The final paper in the collection revisits Davis’ perceptive observation that Minoan art offers no indisputable ruler iconography. 8 Palaima points out that the same lacuna exists in Mycenaean iconography, and looks to the etymology behind certain words associated with power and leadership in Mycenaean Greek—namely, wanaks, megaron, skeptron, and thronos—to elucidate the ideology of Mycenaean rulership. 9 Drawing parallels with Hittite etymologies and kingship ideology, Palaima concludes that these cultures applied non-Indo-European, pre-Greek terms to ideals of power and rulership in the interest of legitimising supremacy through association with ancestral figures.

The standard of scholarship is excellent, as is to be expected from the contributors, all leading Aegeanists and Mycenologists. The slim volume is well presented, with paper of good quality that does justice to the 66 illustrations, of which several are in colour. It is something of a shame that there are no subject and place-name indexes, though this does not significantly detract from the overall quality. The absence of a List of Contributors is also somewhat surprising. The editorial standards are irreproachable. This book should be of interest to any student of the Aegean Bronze Age, and deserves a place on the shelves of all libraries with an interest in the prehistoric Aegean.

The esteem in which Ellen Davis is held as a scholar, a colleague, and a friend, is evident throughout this book. Several papers open with personal memories of Davis, though it is perhaps Palaima who most vividly evokes the essence of her scholarly approach when he recalls that “she discussed topics in the Aegean Bronze Age as if they were part of the meaning our lives have in hoc tempere, right here and right now, over a bagel with a schmear, over dim sum, over the coffee-stained pages of yesterday’s New York Times (p. 133).” As a glimpse into the rich diversity of scholarship in the Aegean Bronze Age, shining new light on many topics and revisiting ongoing discussions, this book succeeds very well. As a fittingly warm and affectionate tribute to a loved and well-respected scholar, it triumphs.

Authors and Titles

List of Figures in the Text
Preface and Acknowledgements
Bibliography of Ellen N. Davis
List of Abbreviations
1. Judith Weingarten…The Silver Kantharos from Gournia Revisited
2. Malcolm H. Wiener…Helladic Pairs of Cups
3. Günter Kopcke…For Ellen Davis: Transylvanian Gold?
4. Philip P. Betancourt, Susan C. Ferrence, and James D. Muhly…Cycladic and More Northerly Connections in the Metal Objects from Petras Cemetery
5. Christos Doumas…The Human Condition as Reflected in Early Aegean Art
6. Andreas G. Vlachopoulos…Purple Rosettes/ Πορφυροί ρόδακες: New Data on Polychromy and Perception in the Thera Wall Paintings
7. Elizabeth B. Shank…Depictions of Water in Aegean Miniature-Style Wall Paintings
8. Bernice R. Jones…The Three Minoan “Snake Goddesses”
9. Robert B. Koehl…Beyond the “Chieftain Cup”: More Images Relating to Minoan Male “Rites of Passage”
10. Thomas G. Palaima…The Ideology of the Ruler in Mycenaean Prehistory: Twenty Years after the Missing Ruler


1.   Davis, E.N. 1977. The Vapheio Cups and Aegean Gold and Silver Ware (Outstanding Dissertations in the Fine Arts) New York.
2.   Davis, E.N. 1979. “The Silver Kantharos from Gournia,” Temple University Aegean Symposium 4, pp. 34–45.
3.   Davis, E.N. 1974. “The Vapheio Cups: One Minoan and One Mycenaean,” The Art Bulletin 56, pp. 472–487.
4.   Jones, B. 2015. Ariadne’s Threads. The Construction and Significance of Clothes in the Aegean Bronze Age, Leuven.
5.   Davis, E.N. 1986. “Youth and Age in the Thera Frescoes,” American Journal of Archaeology 90, pp. 399– 406.
6.   Koehl, R.B. 1986. “The Chieftain Cup and a Minoan Rite of Passage,” Journal of Hellenic Studies 106, pp. 99–110.
7.   Ephorus FGrH 70 F 149, as quoted in Strabo (X.483–4); on Kato Syme Viannou, see A. Lebessi and P. Muhly, 1987, “The Sanctuary of Hermes and Aphrodite at Syme, Crete,” National Geographic Research 3.1, pp. 102–113.
8.   Davis, E.N. 1995. “Art and Politics in the Aegean: The Missing Ruler,” in The Role of the Ruler in the Prehistoric Aegean. Proceedings of a Panel Discussion Presented at the Annual Meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America, New Orleans, Louisiana, 28 December 1992, with Additions (Aegaeum 11), P. Rehak, ed., Liège, pp. 11–20.
9.  This builds on some previous work by Palaima, e.g., T.G. Palaima 2006, “Wanaks and Related Power Terms in Mycenaean and Later Greek,” in Ancient Greece: From the Mycenaean Palaces to the Age of Homer (Edinburgh Leventis Studies 3), S. Deger-Jalkotzky and I.S. Lemos, eds., Edinburgh, pp. 53–71.

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