BMCR 1998.10.07

Imports and Immigrants. Near Eastern Contacts with Iron Age Crete


With the recent publication of the North Cemetery of Knossos, Cretan studies have a fresh source of material for study of the Iron Age, a period during which increasing interaction with the Near East had an especially profound effect on the development of Greek culture. It is timely, therefore, to have a volume which considers the nature of this interaction by recounting the physical evidence for contacts between Crete and the Near East and examines the various interpretations regarding whether Near Eastern types of objects were imports or products of foreign residents in Crete. Hoffman presents a detailed study of these items and, in a review of scholarship, offers a painstaking examination of the inherent assumptions in arguments regarding the evidence of this foreign interaction, through importation and immigration, before she draws her own specific and generalized conclusions.

The introductory chapter illustrates the difficulties in answering the broader questions her study poses: how can one distinguish between items of trade and objects representative of foreign residents; can stylistic characteristics be used to identify the ethnicity of a craftsman? Recent developments in the study of the interaction between Greece and the Near East are highlighted, and issues of terminology which have arisen are taken into account (particularly the general misuse of the term “Phoenician” by Aegean scholarship).

Chapter one consists of two catalogues. The first (which should be headed Catalogue A) lists imported objects. It is arranged by material firstly, and within each material by type of object. Numbered examples of each type are listed chronologically, and both stylistic and contextual dates are given for each object wherever possible. Proposed cultural sources are also indicated. Finally, the relevant primary publications are provided. The second catalogue (B) includes those items which have been published previously as imports but which for reasons explained in Chapter 2 Hoffman feels are Cretan manufactured. For ease of distinction, the items in this list are identified by letter.

The first catalogue is marked by lengthy, rich footnotes, some aspects of which might perhaps have been better placed in the introductory paragraphs of the catalogue. One example is the discussion of the corpus of bronze relief bowls (32 and note 21). Some of these vessels are imports, yet others are considered to be Cretan products. In the main catalogue, Hoffman only lists four imported bowls. Yet in the footnote she explains the significance of the entire corpus to the debate about the transmission of artistic influence between cultures. As this is a central theme of the book, the importance of this class could be better emphasized in the main text. Furthermore, in the footnote she describes the remaining corpus of two inconclusive bowl fragments and seven Cretan imitations, including the controversial bowl from Arkades Tomb M. Given her conclusion that this bowl is a locally-produced object, while other scholars feel it is an import, surely this deserves to be featured in the second catalogue.

The detail in the footnotes in the first catalogue has perhaps obscured some other items which would be better placed in Catalogue B. For instance, the bronze tripod bar fragment and bovine foot, which Hoffman notes have been erroneously suggested as Near Eastern imports, are mentioned in the first catalogue in note 13 on p. 25 and not in Catalogue B. In addition, two juglets from Tekke Tholos Tomb 2 that were published by Coldstream in 1979 as possible Cypriot imports have been reexamined by Hoffman, who believes them to be Cretan imitations. Again, these are discussed only in the first catalogue in note 64 on p. 69, and not in the second catalogue where one might expect to find them. These are perhaps the only faults in otherwise clear and thorough catalogues and do not diminish the quantity or quality of the research.

The heart of the book begins with chapter 2, the commentary on the imports. Hoffman meticulously examines the different interpretations and arguments regarding objects assessed as imports or local products. She ventures into a more generalized discussion of the difficulties of linking regional styles with particular cultures or ethnic groups in the Near East and touches upon the subject of the identification of comparanda, which she notes are often not understood well enough in their own context to be of convincing comparative value. Through these discussions she explains her own arguments for those items she has reinterpreted as Cretan products (Catalogue B).

The following chapter moves on to assess the arguments for immigrant presence in Crete during the early part of the first millennium BC. She divides the chapter into topics, such as ivory craftsmen, North Syrian metalworkers during the 8th and 7th centuries, nonspecialist immigrants at Arkades, the Phoenician tripillar shrine at Kommos, and an immigrant-run unguent factory near Knossos. She clearly describes the nature of the evidence for immigrants in these contexts before assessing the strengths and weaknesses of the various interpretations in an “assumptions and comment” section. The impact of Hoffman’s thorough and methodical approach that strips many of the interpretations of their assumptions to return to the basic evidence at hand is perhaps best illustrated in Chapter 4, which is dedicated to the jewelry from the Tekke Tomb and the arguments regarding immigrant presence which surround the material. She leaves nothing assumed and examines every nuance of others’ viewpoints, presenting a clear and logical progression through the mire of interpretations. She begins by examining the arguments for whether the finds belonged to a private wealthy individual or a specialized craftsman, specifically a jeweler. This leads to a comparison with other jewelers’ deposits in the Mediterranean. The discussion evolves into speculation about whether the Tekke Tomb served merely as a tomb for a jeweler or also as a consecrated shrine. Concluding that neither the so-called foundation deposit nor the mixture of objects establishes with certainty the nationality or occupation of the tomb owners, she turns to an examination of the jewelry itself. Over the course of the chapter, Hoffman neatly shifts our focus from the question of whether the occupant of the Tekke Tomb was a foreign jeweler to the more fundamental issues of what aspects of archaeology can be used to demonstrate the presence of foreign residents, in this instance whether the jewelry itself can be used to demonstrate the presence of a Near Eastern jeweler in Crete.

The volume is refreshing. Hoffman’s meticulous attention to the evidence that allegedly supports various interpretations is complemented by the clarity of her jargon-free style. Her methodical and detailed approach outlines the problems of the evidence clearly and her own interpretations thus appear logical and fair. It is precisely this ability to comprehend easily the varying viewpoints surrounding much of the material under discussion that left me wanting more. Hoffman’s interest is in the distinction between imported and immigrant-manufactured objects, and this she expertly achieves as best the evidence will allow, but this represents only part of the picture. She does not discuss the possible mechanisms of exchange of foreign goods to Crete and throughout the island as a balance against the discussion of immigrant production. There is no consideration of the distribution of the various objects or what this might suggest about trading and immigrant settlement patterns. Although the material under discussion has been well documented, a map of Crete summarizing the types and quantities of imports by provenance would have been useful.

In the final chapter, approaches to future research are indicated. Although Hoffman does not pursue a theoretical path to the study of Iron Age Crete, her groundwork has set the stage for others to do so, particularly with regard to immigrant presence and cultural adaptation. Her call for further examination of Near Eastern regional styles will facilitate study of imports not just in Crete but in other regions of the Mediterranean. In fact, many of the pitfalls in the study of international relations in Crete are present elsewhere in the study of ethnicity using craft products. Her suggestion that an analysis of the granulation, filigree, and joining methods used in the production of the metalwork might serve as a route towards determining whether objects were made by local Cretan craftsmen or foreign craftsmen resident in Crete is an excellent one, although, as she points out, no amount of analysis will ever provide conclusive evidence, only strong probability. Nevertheless, this volume demonstrates how a methodical, back-to-basics approach to well discussed material can be a stimulating step towards that strong probability.