Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.03.19 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.03.19

Lisa C. Nevett (ed.), Theoretical Approaches to the Archaeology of Ancient Greece: Manipulating Material Culture.   Ann Arbor:  University of Michigan Press, 2017.  Pp. xi, 325.  ISBN 9780472130238.  $85.00.  

Reviewed by Anna Collar, Aarhus University (

[Authors and titles are listed below.]

Some readers might express annoyance with the main title, as the implication of ‘Theoretical Approaches to the Archaeology of Ancient Greece’ is that Classical archaeology can be done without theory. However, this avoidance of acknowledging the theoretical assumptions that underpin the way we approach ‘Greek archaeology’ is a continuing issue, and this book is an excellent collection of approaches that we can take to examine material evidence independently of texts in order to explore questions about the ancient societies that produced it.

This volume arises from a conference on the same topic at Michigan in 2012, comprising fifteen chapters and Nevett’s introduction, which sketches some of the areas where theoretical self-awareness has grown within Greek archaeology over the past forty years: the iconography of Attic ceramics, relationships between the built environment and social ideals, the emergence of elements of later Greek society in the Iron Age, and ‘colonization’. Nevertheless, she sees Greek archaeology as lagging behind adjacent fields—Aegean prehistory and Roman archaeology—in the widespread adoption of explicitly theoretical approaches, and her rationale for the conference and volume represents a ‘conscious attempt to raise the profile of theoretical frameworks as an aid to investigating the material remains of the Greek world of the first millennium BCE’ (p. 7). The papers explore a number of theoretical framing devices, broadly classified either as concerned with spatialisation of material or focusing on material culture and identity.

Part 1 sets out the disciplinary context, beginning with Stone’s quantitative survey of ‘theoretical’ Greek archaeology papers across seven journals in various languages. He analyses 3,500 published papers to document ‘theoretical’ stances: namely, those demonstrating reflexive awareness of the approach, engaging with the past on an abstract level, founded in general principles supported by evidence, or exposing new ideas or challenging existing frameworks (p. 20-21). He finds, perhaps unsurprisingly, that in the five solely Greek archaeological journals, more prehistory is explicitly theoretical, and that the British and American Schools in Athens publish the most theory, trends reflective of the foreign schools’ wider academic environments. Comparatively, the discrepancy between European (American Journal of Archaeology), global (World Archaeology) and Greek contexts is huge, with far more theory published in the American Journal of Archaeology and World Archaeology. Interestingly, within the American Journal of Archaeology, 48% of the theoretical articles treated Greek topics; in World Archaeology, of 36 Greek archaeology papers, 27 were theoretical (75%). When Greek archaeologists publish their theory, they engage with global audiences. Next, Ault appraises Hoepfner and Schwandner’s Haus und Stadt im klassischen Griechenland, focused on how Bauforschung has made an impact on Greek archaeology over the last 30 years. Haus und Stadt received criticism for the erasure of variability, difference and the human in the production of urban plans of Greek towns and cities, but Ault shows how it nevertheless inspired ‘one of the most vigorous areas in contemporary archaeological approaches to ancient Greece’ (p. 49), that of connections between urban environments and social practice. Small’s ‘Classical Archaeology Comes of Age’ argues that the discipline is now able to supply theoretical models to other ancient cultures, demonstrating this by comparing interactions of independent Greek poleis with those of the Classic Maya. Using network terminology, he argues that Greek poleis ‘evolved as communities of similar institutional contexts within a preexisting network of interaction’ (p. 54)1. This network included economic, political and religious connections, but networks are not pushed beyond this. His focus is on economic development as a marker of the ‘evolution’ of polities, demonstrating similarities between Greek and Mayan contexts, using the richer Greek material data to fill in gaps in Mayan examples.

The five papers in Part 2, ‘Artifacts’, maintain a strong focus on context. Whitley opens with an incisive discussion of the adoption of the alphabet in the Archaic Greek-speaking Mediterranean, countering the assumption that literacy and orality became progressively separated. He argues for engagement with the agencies involved in the ‘material entanglements of writing things down’. Drawing on Gell’s theories of object agency, he argues that writing was entangled with other aspects of material culture that were embedded in daily habits and practice, and that in particular places (Euboean communities abroad and Athens), this ‘fostered conditions that favored widespread literacy’ (p. 73). He sees oggetti parlanti, such as Nestor’s Cup from Pithekoussai, as demonstrating that agency: the written speech upon them makes visible the social relationships captured and embodied in that object. Whitley argues that labelling people and objects, witnessed on the 6th century BCE François Vase, for example, does not simply clarify protagonists of a story, but animates them. On Crete, by contrast, writing was used primarily for legal purposes, disentangled from private symposia, and we consequently witness little ‘informal’ literacy here.

Smyrnaios advocates for chaîne opératoire as a methodology for studying Attic Geometric ceramics, material usually analysed iconographically, suggesting that ‘an archaeologist can unwind the operational sequence backward, explore the technology of vessels, and tie it in to the broader social attitudes that circulated in society during the potter’s time’ (p. 104). He takes a quantitative approach to the dimensions and proportions of skyphoi and oinochoai, but admits his sample is too small for particularly clear results at this stage. Nevertheless, combining analysis of iconography and production processes into an integrated approach will offer new ways of thinking about ceramics in Classical Greek contexts.

Lynch’s essay challenges the prevailing postmodernist focus on interpreting images from antiquity as offering different meanings to different viewers, exploring the difficult, but important, aspect of intention. Starting from the premise that art historical theory is rooted in contemporary art, where ‘artistic expression and viewer reception are two separate processes’ (p. 127), Lynch reconsiders the artistic and cultural parameters in Attic vase painting, to make explicit our scholarly position regarding assumed viewers, and to combine artistic intention and viewer reception into one critical tool, enabling us to find insights in the divergences between intended and interpreted meanings.

Exploring similar issues of the relationship between ancient artistic convention and modern interpretation, Martin’s paper probes discussions about ethnicity in Greek art. Succinctly problematizing the term, she argues that ‘ethnicity’ can be deployed heuristically to ‘consider not just who is represented in, but who is represented by an artwork’ (p. 145). Martin notes inconsistency in representation of ‘ethnic' indicators in Greek art: skin color, for example, is never used to distinguish between perceived racial groups, which challenges the modern linkage of the body to identity at a deep level. She shows how perceptions of ‘ethnicity’ in terms of artistic production (this was ‘made by Greeks’) have colored interpretation and reveal inherent biases, before exploring the ambiguities of the so-called Alexander Sarcophagus; she argues for its interpretation within a local, Sidonian context, reading ‘ethnicities’ on the object as a theoretical tool for thinking about the communication of identity.

The final paper of part 2, Çakmak’s ‘Material(ity) Girl’, presents another case study from the Hellenistic Levant, using images of naked women on bullae from Tel Kedesh to interrogate Western perspectives in generating artefactual meaning. Automatically identified as ‘Aphrodite’, Çakmak employs materiality to examine the bullae as an archive of individual choices (each impression appears singly) and to question the categorical fixity that is generally applied to them. She shows that here, the material trappings of Greek religious life that would enable an unproblematic identification as ‘Aphrodite’ are largely missing, although there are indications of the presence of a small group of Greek administrators. Çakmak argues that because knowledge is embedded in specific time and space, objects can possess multiplicities of different meanings. The images on the bullae could be interpreted as either Aphrodite or Astarte depending on the viewer, but in addition, there is little evidence to suggest that the people at Kedesh had points of reference to aid in these interpretations. Ultimately, Çakmak argues that these small, portable signet rings may have been chosen precisely because they showed a new and unknown symbol from abroad, and so reflect an individual’s ability access to foreign goods rather than a specific deity at all.

Parts 3 and 4, ’Civic and Religious’ and ‘Funerary Landscapes’, comprise discussions of the impact the ‘spatial turn’ has had on Greek archaeology, opening with Paga’s discussion of the Old Bouleterion in the Athenian Agora as a physical lens through which to explore the birth of democracy. Picking up Ault’s earlier themes, the built environment is interpreted as an active agent in the production of social practices: the use of the Doric architectural style imbued civic duties enacted inside the Old Bouleterion with a sacral quality, and the innovative square design without internal columns enabled all bouleutai to see and be seen, emphasising accountability and participation in the new democratic institution. Scott uses ‘networks’ as a loose metaphor to explore spatial properties of the spread of the cult of Pan in Attica. In Athens, Pan was worshipped in a ‘rustic’ cave at the base of the Acropolis, near caves dedicated to autochthonous or Greek ancestral heroes, leading Scott to infer by spatial association that the Athenians perceived Pan as ‘wild’. Examination of the materiality of the cave setting, one repeated across Attica, might move us beyond this structuralist interpretation and offer a starting point for considering relationships between different regional locations sacred to Pan. Thinking with ‘networks’ allows us to consider how relationships matter: connections can be drawn from our material and used as a proxy for past phenomena, but we must not conflate an analytical stance with an ancient reality. There was no ‘network of Pan worship in Athens’ (p. 225): visitors to different shrines may have perceived similarities with other shrines, but we must not impose the ‘omniscient modern viewer’ (to borrow from Lynch) onto our evidence. What a formal network approach might elucidate here is degrees of similarity between cult places, perhaps revealing levels of connectedness across the region and potential processes of emulation and spread of ritual practices. The final paper also takes a spatial approach to Athenian religious practice, processions and their architectural/monumental frames. Agelidis argues that choregic victory monuments along the Street of the Tripods contributed to the sanctification of that route for the Dionysia procession, which when not in active ritual use marked it as a place of memory. Furthermore, processional gathering points, such as the Dipylon Gate, were spaces where the ‘heterogeneous mass of people’ were ‘transformed’ into ‘the cultic community’ (p. 241). Again we find a structuralist, binary interpretation of space and the social processes that took place through it, and echoes of Turner and Turner’s religious ‘communitas’.2

Not so in Part 4. Hoffman and Attula use spatial data to answer questions about social identity presented in necropoleis in Archaic Sicily. They offer a thoughtful discussion of the problems with the term ‘acculturation’, preferring ‘nostrification’ to describe cultural appropriation. They argue that burial grounds, as institutionalized spaces for communication, memory, and reproduction of norms, offer an excellent opportunity to examine collective identity. Although the data are scant, they demonstrate differences in burial customs between coastal and interior Sicily in the Iron Age: the former, situating diverse burial forms extramurally along access roads, are ‘drive-thru’ cemeteries; the latter, siting burials up slopes, are ’dead-end’ cemeteries. The diversity of practice in coastal cities demonstrates pluralist societies with space for multiplicity of identity. The mountain sites differ: some, like Monte Casasia, seem to retain traditional burial systems, while others, Morgantina especially, show variations which indicate individualisation of practices. The final paper, Salminen’s exciting discussion of Tomb II at Vergina, presents artifact biographies and identity construction in action. She examines the weaponry discovered in Tomb II and its spatial positioning and visibility, surmising that these symbols of military power would be striking for visitors. Differentiation in date of the weaponry suggest that not all items were for use by the deceased, but indicate a biography ‘extending beyond the occupant’ (p. 285), which could ‘tap into’ prestige of previous owners. Salminen contrasts this discussion with what ‘is hidden’, exploring the apparent disconnect between the young woman interred in the antechamber and the military material repertoire associated with her. Is this a ‘warrior queen’? Or a deliberate ‘muting’ of gender, as ‘typically female’ jewelry was ‘hidden’ within the larnax and on the sarcophagus, indicating that masculine identity was more important?

Foxhall and Archibald provide two brief responses, noting the distinctive capacity of Greek archaeology for integrating diverse sources, and placing the volume more broadly within theoretical developments in Classical archaeology. For me, this collection offered a number of successful contributions that demonstrate the capacity of new theoretical approaches to provide meaningful interpretations and show the power of combining archaeological theory and Greek material culture. Spatial analysis, at a regional, civic, or individual building level, provided much in the way of thought-provoking reappraisals of well-known places or material; and the discussions using entanglement and materiality to reassess their evidence suggest huge capacity with Greek archaeology to add to the growing area of material agency. Other theoretical directions that are also proving fruitful were touched upon or hinted at here: in particular, the use of networks as metaphor and formal modelling technique, and a focus on mobility as a way of reframing our evidence. Theoretical approaches clearly have enormous potential to push Greek archaeology in new and exciting ways.

Authors and titles

Introduction: Lisa C. Nevett
Part 1. Disciplinary Context
1. A Theoretical or Atheoretical Greek Archaeology? The Last Twenty-Five Years, David L. Stone
2. Haus und Stadt im klassischen Griechenland: Its Theoretical Impact Twenty-Five Years On, Bradley A. Ault
3. Classical Archaeology Comes of Age: Supplying Theory to Other World Archaeologies, David Small

Part 2. Artifacts
4. The Material Entanglements of Writing Things Down, James Whitley
5. Chaîne Opératoire: Moving from Theory to Praxis in the Study of Attic Geometric Pottery, Ioannis Smyrnaios
6. Reception, Intention, and Attic Vases, Kathleen M. Lynch
7. Ethnicity and Greek Art History in Theory and Practice, S. Rebecca Martin
8. Material(ity) Girl: Examining Images of Aphrodite on the Bullae from Tel Kedesh, Lisa Ayla Çakmak

Part 3. Civic and Religious Landscapes
9. Coordination Problems, Social Architecture, and Causal Efficacy: The Case of the Old Bouleterion in the Athenian Agora, Jessica Paga
10. Mapping the Religious Landscape: The Case of Pan in Athens, Michael Scott
11. The “Spatial Turn” in Ancient Greek Festival Research: Venues of the Athenian City Dionysia and the Great Panathenaia Pompai, Soi Agelidis

Part 4. Funerary Landscapes
12. Funerary Spatial Concepts and Spatial Practices in Southeastern Sicily during the Eighth to Fifth Centuries BCE, Kerstin P. Hofmann and Regina Attula
13. The Tomb Doth Protest Too Much? Constructed Identity in Tomb II at Vergina, Elina Salminen

Part 5. Responses
14. Theory and Method in Greek Archaeology: Some Opportunities and Challenges, Lin Foxhall
15. Does “Greek Archaeology” Matter?, Zosia Archibald


1.   Small does not engage with Kostas Vlassopoulos’ subversion of established ideas about the polis and the networks and communities extending through and beyond it, which would perhaps have strengthened his arguments. Vlassopoulos, K., Unthinking the Greek Polis. Ancient Greek History Beyond Eurocentrism, (Cambridge University Press 2007); Vlassopoulos, K., ‘Beyond and Below the Polis: Networks, Associations, and the Writing of Greek History’, Mediterranean Historical Review, 22.1, 2007.
2.   Turner, V., and Turner, E. Image and Pilgrimage in Christian Culture, (Columbia University Press, 1978).

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