BMCR 2004.03.40

The Protogeometric Aegean: The Archaeology of the Late Eleventh and Tenth Centuries B.C

, The Protogeometric Aegean : the archaeology of the late eleventh and tenth centuries BC. Oxford monographs on classical archaeology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002. xxiv, 245 pages, 72 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations, maps ; 29 cm.. ISBN 0199253447. $175.00.

This book, which follows in the intellectual footsteps of Vincent Desborough’s The Last Mycenaeans and Their Successors: An Archaeological Survey c.1200 – c.1000 B.C. (Oxford 1964), attempts a synthetic overview of the late 11th and 10th centuries B.C. in the Aegean, more or less picking up where Desborough left off. The focus is very much on the period 1050/25-900 B.C. — since, according to the author (p. 1), it is no longer feasible (for reasons that are not totally convincing) to attempt a detailed study of the period between 1200 and 850 B.C. — and on the Aegean. The latter is of particular relevance, since a large portion of western Greece, the Ionian islands, together with Crete, are totally omitted from this study. This is unfortunate, as the ability to synthesize what is now a healthy body of archaeological data is surely the primary aim of any new overview, and sweeping these critical regions under the carpet constitutes one of the shortcomings of this volume. Another shortcoming is a focus that fails to look, however briefly, at what preceded and what succeeded Protogeometric. The period not only hangs in a vacuum unto itself but the reality of a Sub-Protogeometric style continuing in many regions of Greece — a theme so well treated by Desborough, Coldstream, and Snodgrass1 — does not receive proper attention.

A laconic introduction (pp. 1-2) sets the intellectual stage: apart from dismissing western Greece and Crete, and focusing only on the late 11th and 10th centuries B.C., Lemos states her concept of the period as a whole. In the author’s own words: “All in all, the period treated here seems to be one of peaceful development achieved by communities living in permanent settlements and not on the move either as nomads or invaders. These characteristics are reflected to some extent in the Homeric epics, which … were in the most important stage of their formation during this period.” And (p. 1), “isolation can longer be consider [sic] a feature of the period.” (This is not the only grammatical infelicity in the volume.) In addition to this, one main aim of the book, arguably the aim “is that this book should be used both by the field archaeologist, who excavates sites and perhaps publishes them, and by the student of Early Greece” (p. 2). Lemos’s belief that this is a peaceful era of permanent settlements, reflected, she argues, in the Homeric epics (although the Homeric epics, if anything, bespeak an era of incessant warfare) may appeal to certain students of early Greece; I am less convinced that it will appeal to the field archaeologist. Moreover, at $175 not many will be able to afford The Protogeometric Aegean.

Lemos also broaches the problem of nomenclature, claiming that Protogeometric, “named after its characteristic Protogeometric pottery style” (p. 2), is preferable to the alternative Dark Age or Early Iron Age. As for the term Dark Age, several scholars, including myself, have argued, for well over a decade, that the term is inadequate for many regions of Greece,2 but I am not convinced that the term Protogeometric is any better. I have worked in several regions of the Aegean where there is no such thing as a clearly recognizable Protogeometric ceramic term, and for this reason alone the application of an essentially central and southern Greek style of pottery seems to return to antiquated notions of center and periphery, with the primary purveyors of a particular pottery workshop tradition elevated to the ranks of leading states: it is, therefore, no accident, that the plates in this book are dominated by all-too-familiar images of Early Iron Age pottery from Athens and Lefkandi. The term Protogeometric also gives pottery, that essentially indestructible commodity, a skewed importance that simply does not make sense. It would be like categorizing the complexities of modern English or American history by reference to fashionable styles of cars.

The book is divided into six chapters. The first chapter, on Relative and Absolute Chronology (pp. 3-26), presents a solid summary of the available evidence. Protogeometric (PG) ends around 900 B.C., although Lemos, following the chronology of Warren and Hankey,3 notes the possibility that PG might begin a little later than is usually suggested: 1020, rather than 1050 B.C. The radical challenge to the conventional chronology mounted by Peter James and his collaborators, which suggests that the Bronze Age ended some 250 years later than is currently considered, is hardly mentioned, and then only in passing: it is buried away in a footnote on radiocarbon dating (p. 25, note 153).4 More importantly, the challenges posed in Daniella Saltz’s 1978 dissertation — on a general updating of Greek Early Iron Age pottery in the East — are overlooked and continue to go unanswered.5

Chapter 2, The Pottery (pp. 27-100), tries to present an update of Desborough’s Protogeometric Pottery published in 1952, but it falls well short of that classic volume. Not only does this chapter form a good chunk of the book, it dominates the plates. Out of some 70 pages of plates, all but three are primarily pottery (though a few of the pottery plates are interspersed with the occasional item of jewelry or the odd implement). The chapter is arranged according to shape, beginning with small open vessels, under each of which the material is presented diachronically and according to region. Hence, under the monochrome-painted cup, one will find the sub-heading Early Protogeometric and a list of sites beginning with Athens and ending with Naxos, with appropriate bibliographic references. Under this scheme, it is not possible to study, for example, Athenian or Euboian or Thessalian PG pottery as a regional or local style; readers, including excavators digging a PG site in Athens or Euboia or Thessaly, wishing to do so would have to consult one or other of Desborough’s or Snodgrass’s books. There is also something of a discrepancy here between the text and the plates; although Lemos’s pottery analysis proceeds by shape, the plates are arranged in a very different order, beginning as they do with early PG Athens and Lefkandi, and progressing to Middle Protogeometric Athens and Lefkandi, but toward the end (beginning with plate 63.1) individual vessels are presented according to shape. Any excavator wishing to use this monograph as a manual of sorts will quickly become frustrated by the presentation of the plates in relation to the text. Although it was good to see the latter part of the chapter (pp. 84-97) devoted to handmade wares, the relative dearth of illustrations of such pottery is unfortunate.6 More importantly, the chapter is not free of errors, and these seriously undermine the value of the book. One particularly egregious mistake is that the Red Slip Ware is listed on p. 94 under the heading of Other Handmade Wares, whereas the related Black Slip Ware is presented as wheelmade (pp. 83-84). In Desborough’s account of the pottery in Lefkandi I, the Black and Red Slip Wares are presented together, as they share a common fabric,7 and certainly both are assumed to be wheelmade. Indeed, the Red Slip Ware kantharos illustrated in Lefkandi I, pl. 264a-b looks wheelmade, as do both of the Red Slip vessels presented in Lemos’s plate 99.1-2, and it is worth adding that both the Red and Black Slip Ware pottery from Torone (not mentioned by Lemos even though some has been published in preliminary reports) are wheelmade. Moreover, there are no notes on fabric in the chapter, and technical innovations that have been discussed in the literature since the 1990s, including the pivoted multiple brush used to draw the distinctive concentric circles and semicircles that are such a feature of Protogeometric pottery, are omitted altogether.8 Consequently, the whole question of the production of Protogeometric pottery is largely overlooked.

Chapter 3, Metal and Other Finds, deals with various classes of material, and it is only in the introduction to this chapter that the issue of the first appearance of iron and the technological ramifications that this innovation involved are cursorily treated (pp. 101-103). The chapter goes on to discuss personal ornaments (pins, fibulae, bracelets, rings), weapons (swords, daggers, spearheads, axes, arrowheads, knives, a solitary helmet, so-called shield bosses), followed by gold jewelry (i.e. more personal ornaments). The discussion of the weapons and armor largely follows Snodgrass’s 1964 book,9 though the latter has the great advantage of dealing with material from ca. 1200 to 600 B.C.; the sections on gold jewelry largely follow Higgins;10 while many treatments of other classes of material are summaries largely derived from seminal studies such as Jacobsthal’s Greek Pins, or Kilian-Dirlmeier’s Nadeln, to mention only a few.11 Here, as elsewhere, there is little that is new or original. The small number of illustrations of such material, the majority of which hark back to well-published and better-illustrated examples from Athens and Lefkandi, detract from the volume as a whole, and many readers would do better to refer in most cases to the original publications.

In a similar vein, the short Chapter 4 on Settlements and Structures (pp. 135-150) presents a summary that is largely based on the material more fully treated by Fagerström and Mazarakis-Ainian,12 omitting, however, much of interpretative value that is treated elsewhere.

The longer Chapter 5 (pp. 151-190), which deals with burial practices, begins in a most unusual way. In a series of footnotes on page 151, Lemos lists in passing some of the more influential literature dealing with theoretical and methodological approaches to the archaeology of death, but it soon becomes evident that the author not only disagrees with many of the more innovative perspectives that have been applied to funerary evidence but deals with them summarily, as if hardly worth taking seriously. In dealing with what is now a large battery of approaches to Early Iron Age burial data, Lemos, in a most jejeune manner, concludes (p. 151): “Only limited conclusions can be reached when there is a lack of settlement data for comparison, and thus no accord can be perceived between the living and the dead.” The very approaches that have made Aegean archaeology of the past two decades so exciting are neglected, and the chapter quickly settles down into a traditional, and rather pedestrian, bibliographical overview of burial practices, much of which is derivative from earlier overviews.

The book ends with Chapter 6, Conclusions (pp. 191-225), which begins with the sub-heading “The End of the Mycenaean Palace System and the Dorian Invasion,” and largely presents an overview of some of the older arguments for and against the Dorian invasion. Here, rather than rehashing an old debate, Lemos would have done well to read, and digest, Annie Schnapp-Gourbeillon’s work on the subject.13 The remainder of the chapter deals with a summary of settlement patterns and material culture, a regional overview — Attica, the Argolid and Corinthia, Euboea, Skyros, Boeotia, Phokis, East Lokris and Phthiotis, Thessaly, Pieria and Chalkidike, the Cyclades, the Dodecanese, Asia Minor and the [other] Aegean islands — as well as a section on the Euboian Koine, some rehashing of Homer and the period in “Social and Political Structures in the Protogeometric Aegean”, cult practices and sanctuaries, and a concluding coda of sorts on the Protogeometric Aegean. Not surprisingly, Euboia, the region Lemos knows best, emerges as the place of pace, the trend-setter that extended its cultural hegemony over — as Lemos maintains — Boiotia, much of the north and central Aegean, parts of Thessaly, many of the Cycladic islands, and even some of the eastern Aegean (see map, p. 213). When we scratch under the surface, however, the evidence is largely based on pottery, and here, as elsewhere, Lemos continues to fall into the trap of pottery = people.14 For Lemos a dominant style of pottery, such as Euboian or Attic, is tantamount to cultural, if not political and social hegemony. In Lemos’s vision, Lefkandi and Athens become the colossi of Aegean culture in the Early Iron Age, but they are colossi with feet of clay. This kind of approach makes for bad archaeology and bad history. And although Lemos delves into Homer to reconstruct the political, social and economic structures of Greece from the end of the palatial period to the rise of the city-states (pp. 217-221), the question remains: why do Athens and Lefkandi — or Attica and Euboia for that matter — feature so very little in the Trojan or epic cycle? One reason may be that these were not the leading states of early Greece.15

There are several appendices: Appendix I: Near Eastern Imports in the Aegean (pp. 226-227); Appendix II: Protogeometric Pottery Found in the Eastern Mediterranean (pp. 228-229); and Appendix III: Index of Sites (pp. 230-241), which goes over much that has been covered in the text proper. There follows an Index (pp. 242-245) and the Plates. I have already commented on the latter, but it is surprising to find that the pieces Lemos illustrates are primarily those Athenian and Lefkandian pots that are so well illustrated already in their original publications. In looking at some of the plates I felt as if I was looking at the plates of one or other of the volumes of Lefkandi or the Athenian Kerameikos. Here, as in the text, there is little that is new.

The basic problem of The Protogeometric Aegean is that it is written by a scholar more interested in compiling a full bibliography on the subject than in interpretation or in new avenues of archaeological, historical or anthropological inquiry. Herein lies the primary value of this volume: it is a useful bibliographical repository and a good starting point for anyone wishing to consult the primary traditional literature on those parts of the Early Iron Age Aegean that its author felt most comfortable with and which happened to produce PG pottery. But herein also lie its shortcomings. By basing the very chronology of the period on a style of pottery that is found only in parts of Greece, Lemos not only overlooks the critical problems of periodization that continue to plague the field,16 she insists on dealing with the period as if it is divorced from what went before and after. Whether we refer to it as the Protogeometric period, the Dark Age or the Heroic Age, the Early Iron Age Aegean — or any part of it — remains a modern construct that divides Aegean prehistory from classical archaeology. It contributes to the deliberate distance maintained between the second millennium B.C. and the culture of classical Greece and denies the possibility that the pattern seen in the Early Iron Age had already begun to take shape well before 1200 or 1000 B.C., a pattern that may well have contributed to the processes underlying the disappearance of Bronze Age centers.17

Reading The Protogeometric Aegean, I reflected and marveled all the more on the contribution and impact of Snodgrass’s classic synthesis The Dark Age of Greece published over three decades ago and recently reissued. Although written long ago, it painted a cogent as well as methodologically rigorous vision of Greece in a formative period that remains to this day stimulating. Those wishing to understand the Early Iron Age Aegean would do well to hang on to their copy of Snodgrass.


1. V.R.d’A. Deborough, Protogeometric Pottery, Oxford 1952; id. The Greek Dark Ages, London 1972; J.N. Coldstream, Greek Geometric Pottery, London 1968; id., Geometric Greece London 1977; A.M. Snodgrass, The Dark Age of Greece: An Archaeological Survey of the Eleventh to the Eighth Centuries B.C., Edinburgh 1971.

2. For bibliography see J.K. Papadopoulos, “To Kill a Cemetery: The Athenian Kerameikos and the Early Iron Age in the Aegean,” Journal of Mediterranean Archaeology 6:2, 1993, pp. 175-206; id.“Dark Age Greece,” in B.M. Fagan, ed., The Oxford Companion to Archaeology, New York and Oxford 1996, pp. 253-255.

3. P. Warren and V. Hankey, Aegean Bronze Age Chronology, Bristol 1989.

4. P. James, et al., Centuries of Darkness: A Challenge to the Conventional Chronology of the Old World, London 1991.

5. D.L. Saltz, Greek Geometric Pottery in the East: The Chronological Implications, PhD dissertation, Harvard University.

6. Karl Reber’s book on the subject Untersuchungen zur handgemachten Keramik Griechenlands in der submykenischen, protogeometrischen und der geometrischen Zeit (Josered 1991) remains indispensable.

7. See Desborough in Lefkandi I, Oxford 1979-1980, p. 346 where it is stated: “Each ware is distinctive, but they share a common fabric”.

8. See J.K. Papadopoulos, “The Original Kerameikos of Athens and the Siting of the Classical Agora,” Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies 37, 1996, pp.107-128; J.K. Papadopoulos, J. Vedder and Toby Schreiber, “Drawing Circles: Experimental Archaeology and the Pivoted Multiple Brush,” American Journal of Archaeology 102, 1998, pp. 507-529. For more recent bibliography on the subject, see Papadopoulos, Ceramicus Redivivus: The Early Iron Age Potters’ Field in the Area of the Classical Athenian Agora, Princeton 2003.

9. A.M. Snodgrass, Early Greek Armour and Weapons from the End of the Bronze Age to 600 B.C., Edinburgh 1964.

10. R. Higgins, Greek and Roman Jewellery, London 1980; also various headings in Lefkandi I.

11.P. Jacobsthal, Greeks Pins and Their Connexions with Europe and Asia, Oxford 1956; I. Kilian-Dirlmeier, Nadeln der frühelladischen bis zur archaischen Zeit (Prähistorischen Bronzefunde 13.8), Munich 1975.

12. K. Fagerström, Greek Iron Age Architecture: Developments Through Changing Times, Göteborg 1988; A. Mazarakis-Ainian, From Rulers’ Dwellings to Temples: Architecture, Religion and Society in Early Iron Age Greece (1100-700 B.C.), Jonsered 1997.

13. A. Schnapp-Gourbeillon, “Le mythe dorien,” A.I.O.N. Annali di archeologia e storia antica 1, 1979, 1-11; ead., “L’invasion dorienne a-t-elle eu lieu?” in C. Mossé (ed.), La Grèce ancienne, Paris 1986, pp. 43-57; and, most recently, Aux origins de la Grèce: XIIIe-VIIIe siècles avant notre ère, la genèse du politique, Paris 2002. See also W.D.E. Coulson, The Greek Dark Ages: A Review of the Evidence and Suggestions for Future Research, Athens 1990.

14. See, however, J.K. Papadopoulos, “Euboians in Macedonia? A Closer Look,” Oxford Journal of Archaeology 15, 1996, pp. 151-181; id., “Phantom Euboians,” Journal of Mediterranean Archaeology 10, 1997, pp. 191-219; “Archaeology, Myth-History and the Tyranny of the Text: Chalkidike, Torone, and Thucydides,” Oxford Journal of Archaeology 18, 1999, pp. 377-394.

15. Here is it interesting to note that Martin West’s suggestion ( JHS 108, 1988, pp. 151-172, has not only Euboia, but Thessaly playing an important role in the rise of the Greek epic. The importance of Thessaly lies not only in the use of certain Aeolisms in the epic language but in the fact that some of the key figures are Thessalian and derive from a strong Thessalian tradition. More to the point, even if Homer were Euboian (or Athenian as some scholars have maintained), this does not make Euboia (or Athens) politically dominant.

16. For useful discussion see, I. Morris, Burial and Ancient Society: The Rise of the Greek City-State, Cambridge 1987, pp. 14-15; id.“Periodization and the Heroes: Inventing a Dark Age,” in M. Golden and P. Toohey, eds., Inventing Ancient Culture? Historicism, Periodization, and the “New Classics”, London and New York 1997, pp. 96-131.

17. A. Sherratt and S. Sherratt, “The Growth of the Mediterranean Economy in the Early First Millennium B.C.,” World Archaeology 24, 1993, pp. 361-378.