BMCR 1998.10.05

Thera in the Bronze Age


PYF’s book presents a history of Thera from its earliest beginnings to the volcanic explosion which put an end to Bronze Age settlement there. Its approach to the subject is a mixture of archaeology and historical theorising, of which the former is by and large more successful than the latter. The two opening chapters deal with the geology and early history of the island and the remaining four with Thera in the Late Bronze Age. There are 116 pages of text, 39 pages of notes and a full and useful bibliography of 27 pages.

PYF begins by examining the geological formation of the island. She dispatches the once-popular view that Thera prior to the Bronze Age eruption was a round island dominated by a central volcano and instead outlines a variety of possible reconstructions of the island’s topography all of which feature an already existing volcanic caldera. The development of the island in the earliest phases of settlement is linked firmly to trade rather than agriculture and Thera is seen as “an important node in the emerging Aegean trade network”. Such a “trade network” is, of course, a modern hypothetical construct and it is to be regretted that what is intended by such a phrase is not spelt out in more detail. Perhaps “exchange” would be a more neutral term to use in this context. It is also dangerous to use Thucydides I.8 as evidence for the early history of the Cyclades. Thucydides knew even less about this period than we do, and his account is simply speculation produced from the circumstances and mythology of his own day. PYF is right however to insist that though contact with Crete increased as time went by, the Therans, and indeed the Cycladic islanders in general, retained their own sense of cultural identity and that the island was not a “colony” of Crete. Good archaeological arguments are put forward to buttress this position.

This view of Thera as influenced, but not overwhelmed, by Crete continues in the third chapter. PYF, while producing good archaeological arguments for her position, unfortunately once again also tries to press various Classical authors into the discussion. Although noting that our Classical sources do not produce a consistent picture of the distant past, PYF does not discard them but instead argues that they “seem to reflect a very old tradition”. Such arguments are weak and, given the volume of archaeological material available, unecessary. A repetition of this flawed methodology occurs at the end of the chapter where Thera’s later reputation for distinctive dress is pressed into service as supporting evidence for the existence of a significant bronze age textile “industry”.

There is a useful discussion of the various sorts of “colonies” which existed in the ancient world and a model baptised the “community colony” is chosen as the best interpretation of the relationship between Crete and Thera. This postulates a sizable immigrant community living alongside the native population. PYF looks at the art produced on Thera and is inclined to reject the view that it was purely Minoan-inspired and suggests instead that it is better viewed as a synthesis of the earlier Theran and the Cretan traditions. Oddly, the alternative posed to the “community” model is that of a discrete colony of Cretans. There is little discussion of the possibility of the native population substantially, though not entirely, acculturating to a Minoan norm, though a long footnote examines this alternative to some degree. The community model allows PYF to suggest that Minoan colonists initially played an economic role on Thera and later married into the local population producing a mixed aristocracy for the island. Again, trade is postulated as the main stimulus for Thera’s growth with the island being seen as a trans-shipment point for metals.

The longest chapters of the book deal with the Late Bronze Age city-site at Akrotiri and the society which created it. The town is analysed building by building and within the buildings room by room. The discussion is usefully illustrated with many clear line drawings which are of great help to the reader. Such an approach has both its strengths and weaknesses. The strength is that the reader gains a strong impression of the individual components of the town; the weakness is that there is a corresponding lack of an overall sense of how the town articulated, or failed to articulate, itself, or of how representative the excavated area (which is only a small part of the estimated size of the settlement) is likely to have been of the town as a whole. Xeste 3 with its complex wall-paintings is interpreted as a public building connected to initiation rites, particularly those concerning the onset of female puberty. This interpretation is primarily based on the wall-paintings found here. PYF rightly sounds a note of caution against seeing all the Theran frescoes as necessarily religious in purpose, but does, in fact, believe that most, including those found in Xeste 3, do have a religious meaning. A more worrying aspect of the discussion however is an implication that there was a single Evansesque “Great Goddess” who was the focus of the ceremonies here. It is equally, if not more, likely that we are dealing with one member of a larger pantheon of deities, and this possibility at least ought to be raised. Another building of great significance is the so-called West House. Here PYF detects a room dedicated to weaving and goes on to assert that weaving was a specialist trade on Thera, though the arguments put forward for this are thin in parts. The discussion of the “miniature frieze” found in room 5 is a useful introduction to some of the various theories advanced to explain this complex work of art. Here PYF is eager to emphasize the possible different meanings of the so-called “meeting on the hill”, though in the following chapter (p.100) she seems strongly to support a religious interpretation. It is accepted that the “arrival” town of the southern fresco may depict Akrotiri itself, but PYF is then unhappy about locating the “departure town” on the island, given the river painted in the background and the general lush vegetation of the fresco, and concludes that “it seems difficult to place the Departure town either on Thera or anywhere else in the immediate Cycladic region”. We are left in aporia, as it is conceded that the fresco’s boats are paddled it is likely that the two towns were close together. The possible meaning of the frescoes is also discussed at length. PYF wisely notes that stock scenes can be used to narrate historical events, and is reasonably happy with the theory of Televantou which would see the frescoes as telling the story of the defence of an Aegean town and a subsequent revenge raid and home-coming. Again, though, PYF is finally put off this theory by the Nilotic scene of the Eastern Wall. Here perhaps some discussion of Marinatos’ theory that what is depicted is a razzia against a Libyan village would have been useful.

After the physical remains of the town, there is a discussion of Theran society. The Theran aristocracy is seen as urban-based, though with interests in the countryside. Nevertheless PYF believes that the rulers’ wealth came from trade. There is a curious slip on page 93 from the statement that one is “tempted” to see production on an “industrial” scale to the assertion in the following paragraph that “large-scale specialised industries” did indeed exist on the island and the postulation of the growth of a class of craft specialists, separate from the aristocracy, which changed the nature of Theran society. The model of evolution here is not developed, but seems an almost Marxist notion of the emergence of a craft-based bourgeois. While PYF is prepared to concede that the merchants of Thera may have been agents of a higher authority, she is unwilling to see them as having anything other than high status in Theran society. Again other potential models ought to be outlined. PYF sees the owner of the West House as a prime candidate for being a long-distance seafarer, given the frescoes of room 5 discussed above and the presence of various forms of rare plant and insect life found in the West House. The owner, however, may simply have been gathering together produce brought by or bought from others. As for the frescoes, they do not depict trading activities at all, and would provide evidence at best for a pirate-venturer, but even this seems a dangerously positivistic reading of the evidence.

PYF is inclined to follow N. Marinatos’ view of Thera as a theocratic society, though she is prepared to concede that discussion in this field takes place in a “highly speculative atmosphere” and there is little discussion of how such a society would have organised itself. A particularly dangerous argumentum ex silentio concerns the lack of “royal” artefacts or depictions of royalty at Thera. If a Royal house existed, it could easily have had a separate quarter, a quarter as yet not uncovered. As regards the nature of Theran religion itself, PYF outlines a “minimalist” position of one goddess and one god, but is not entirely clear whether this is a position that she herself accepts. Earlier reference to the “Great Goddess” perhaps suggests that she does. PYF, like N. Marinatos, feels that there was a syncretism between Minoan and Theran cult on the island and suggests that Thera may have exported one goddess to Crete. The view that acculturation is a two-way street is to be welcomed. Perhaps this could be expanded, given Thera’s location and PYF’s views of its trading links, to seeing it as a veritable multiple convergence point of religious belief.

PYF’s final chapter deals with the eruption that put an end to Bronze Age Thera. This is dealt with well, though perhaps a little more glossing of technical terms, e.g. “pyroclastic” and “stromatolitic” would have been useful for the general reader. The controversy surrounding the date of the eruption is dealt with in masterly fashion, PYF finally coming out in favour of the earlier seventeenth-century date, after discussing the various dating techniques and their draw-backs.

In general this book gives a good overview of Thera’s history until the catastrophic Bronze age explosion. Some readers however may well think that PYF goes too far in some of her hypothesising and will wish to concentrate on the archaeological and geological data which she presents.