BMCR 2005.04.49

The Mycenaean Feast = Hesperia 73:2 (2004)

, The Mycenaean feast. Hesperia.. Princeton: American School of Classical Studies at Athens, 2004. xiii, 217 pages : illustrations, map ; 28 cm. ISBN 0876619510. $25.00.

Feasting has long been recognized as important social behavior, whether in terms of the creation of obligation and status differences, the mobilization of labor, or the formation and negotiation of group and individual identities. The Mycenaean Feast (TMF) is one of two very recent collections of scholarly papers dealing specifically with food and drink in prehistoric Greece.1 While James Wright explicitly cautions the reader that TMF is not intended to be comprehensive, in its pages faunal, ceramic, and mortuary data, ceramic styles, Linear B records, architecture and iconography are all discussed in the context of feasting and, more broadly, social change, making it an indispensable resource for anyone interested in food and society in the Aegean Late Bronze Age.

TMF appears concurrently between orange covers as an ASCSA book, and between olive covers as an issue of Hesperia (73.2, with pagination continuing from the previous issue of Hesperia, and a slightly different format). The book comprises a short preface by Tracy Cullen and eight chapters by leading specialists in Aegean and Cypriot prehistory, Linear B, faunal analysis, and Early Iron Age Greece. It will be useful to summarize these contributions individually before commenting on them collectively.

In the first, introductory, chapter, Wright argues that combining a range of methods — from faunal analysis and careful study of depositional histories, to the study of paleobotanical and zoological remains, to close reading of textual records — allows the reconstruction in some detail of Mycenaean feasting practice and elucidation of its role in Mycenaean society. The following chapters of TMF are summarized succinctly, and certain patterns in the evidence, as well as critical questions, are identified: e.g., how to differentiate feasting from domestic or quotidian consumption, how to discriminate among different kinds of feasts, and how best to understand the role of these kinds of feasts in Mycenaean society.

Wright’s Chapter 2 proceeds to a review of several categories of evidence which, the author argues, relate to feasting behavior: pottery and bronze vessels, often from elite graves; Linear B evidence, both in the form of ideograms of vessels and records of logistical arrangements related to feasting; depictions of feasting in Minoan, Mycenaean, and Cycladic wall paintings, and representations on pottery of vessels. Wright further argues that distinctly Mycenaean feasting practice evolved on the mainland in the Middle Bronze Age and provided important venues for formation of social identities, competition among emerging elites, alliance-building, and the mobilization of labor and surplus, while contributing to “the adoption of a common Mycenaean style and iconography” (49). There may have existed distinctly elite conventions for feasting — for example, the consumption of wild game cooked in tripod cauldrons. According to Wright, Mycenaean feasting was influenced by Minoan and Cycladic predecessors and itself influenced late second- and first-millennium societies on Crete, Cyprus, Rhodes, and in the Levant. Wright synthesizes and summarizes a large data set in this chapter: it is by itself a very credible summary of what is known about Mycenaean feasting.

Chapter 3, by Sharon R. Stocker and Jack L. Davis, examines feasting activity at the Palace of Nestor at Pylos through the contents of room 7 of the Archives Complex. Blegen’s excavations recovered a large quantity of burned bone, primarily bovine mandibles and leg joints but including bones from at least one red deer, material which had been deposited in the annex to the archives room prior to the destruction of the palace. This faunal material has recently been analyzed by Paul Halstead and Valasia Isaakidou.2 The room also contained some 200 tablets, fragments of 22 miniature kylikes, and a sword and spearhead. Stocker and Davis argue that the bones represent the residue of a single large feast, perhaps associated with the appointment of a new da-mo-ko-ro (cf. Ta 711). Based on inventories of feasting equipment, including 22 seats and 11 tables (PY Ta series), and on frescoes which have been interpreted as showing high-ranking Myceaneans feasting in pairs, they suggest that each of the 22 kylikes deposited in room 7 stands for a single elite diner and that the number 22 might have had special significance at a Mycenaean feast. However, since these 22 elite Mycenaeans can hardly have eaten 10 cattle without some help, Stocker and Davis infer a hierarchical feast attended both by important elites who dined apart, seated in pairs, and by less distinguished guests. Stocker and Davis suggest the sword and spear were antiques used in sacrificial ceremonies and that the bones were brought to room 7 to confirm to the palace bureaucracy that a sacrificial feast had, in fact, taken place.

The fourth chapter, by Mary K. Dabney, Paul Halstead, and Patrick Thomas, is also a reexamination of a deposit from old excavations, in this case the MH-LH settlement at Tsoungiza in Nemea, which was excavated as part of the Nemea Valley Archaeological Project (1984-87).3 The deposit dates to LH IIIA2 and contained large quantities of faunal remains, among which head and foot bones of bovines were prominent, but which also included red deer, pig, sheep/goat, dog, and ass. The authors also propose criteria for distinguishing pottery used in feasts from the refuse of everyday activities; while these criteria were formulated with the Aegean in mind, if re-cast in general terms they might be susceptible to evaluation or adoption by archaeologists working in other periods and regions.

The fifth chapter is contributed by Thomas G. Palaima, who reviews Linear B evidence for feasting, building on previous work by e.g., Killen.4 Arguing that observed similarities in palace administrations justify the assumption that palaces exercised a similar degree of control over feasting, he attempts to trace the “process of preparing for and conducting a commensal ceremony” (116) using Linear B documents primarily from Thebes and Pylos. Drawing on the evidence of place names, Palaima infers that animals were brought from as far as 50 km away for feasts at Thebes; the palaces may have sponsored feasting at secondary centers such as Tsoungiza (cf. Chapter 4). Important officials, including the wanaks (Palaima’s spelling) and lawagetas, participated, as did two groups identified as the da-mo and the wo-ro-ki-jo-ne-jo ka-ma. Equipment for feasting was inventoried (e.g. in the PY Ta series). One of the most interesting aspects of Palaima’s paper is the involvement of the collectors in preparations for feasts, particularly those “international” collectors whose names appear in tablets from more than one palatial center. The discussion is followed by a useful appendix of 30 relevant Linear B texts.

In Chapter 6, Elisabetta Borgna examines evidence for Minoan feasting with particular attention to Phaistos, not only as a counterpoint to mainland practice but as indicative of the way Minoan society changed over the course of the Late Bronze Age. Borgna is most concerned with social structures; her basic argument is that in Minoan Crete feasts could be either elite and exclusive or more communal affairs in which social identity rather than power relations were primarily at stake, and that this presents a stark contrast to hierarchical Myceanean feasting. Feasting on Crete apparently became more competitive over time, perhaps due to influences from the mainland. Borgna supports this argument using architecture, grave goods and stylistic analysis of drinking sets.

Chapter 7, by Louise Steel, shifts the scene to Cyprus, where, as on Crete, Mycenaean feasting practices and material culture were combined with an indigenous feasting tradition. Steel briefly characterizes evidence for feasting in the Chalcolithic and Early and Middle Bronze Age, before moving on to the Late Bronze Age. In this period, as on the Greek mainland and Crete, there is strong evidence from ceramic assemblages in tombs for ‘diacritical’ feasting reinforcing hierarchical divisions in increasingly complex societies. However, there are some indications that, though Cypriots imported Mycenaean pottery and seem to have been especially fond of the pictorial style, they did not adopt Mycenaean feasting practice wholesale, and Steel sees some parallels between Cypriot drinking customs and those in Ugarit (Ras Shamra). Two deposits at Kalavasos-Ayios Dhimitrios and Kouklia-Evreti suggest possible elite feasting (based on the high proportion of deer bones mixed with those of cattle) with ritual overtones (based on the propinquity of these deposits to sanctuary sites).

In the final chapter, Susan Sherratt describes and discusses feasting in the Homeric epic poems: its association with sacrifice, the participants, what is eaten and drunk. Sherratt feels that “in terms of the definitions formulated by modern anthropologists, Homeric feasting is likely to appear ambiguous and to resist clear classification” (191), she is, however, able to distinguish two kinds of Homeric feast: the meal provided by a host, and the “communal feast to which each contributes his share” (184). There are also, she suggests, feasts which violate the social order — such as the behavior of the suitors and of Odysseus’ men when they devour the cattle of Hyperion. Sherratt also investigates the relationship between artifacts described by Homer and the material record. One of her more interesting arguments is that cooking meat on spits represented “a new and deliberate form of elite differentiation” after the destruction of the palaces, in contrast to the Mycenaean tradition of boiling in tripod cauldrons (194).

Especially given the recent interest in feasting in the Bronze Age Aegean, TMF will be valuable to Aegean prehistorians for the light it sheds on Mycenaean, Minoan, and Late Cypriot material culture and social practices surrounding consumption, while students of early Greece and Homer will be struck by the changes in feasting behavior between the Late Bronze Age and Early Iron Age. These Aegean case studies, especially those pertaining to relations between feasting practice and social complexity, may also be of interest to anthropological archaeologists generally.

The papers, bound together by Wright’s Introduction, form a coherent whole; a bias towards Pylian and Messenian data, acknowledged by the editor, is tempered by the Theban evidence in Palaima’s paper, the papers on Crete and Cyprus, and Sherratt’s overview of Homeric and Iron Age evidence. Many of the contributors have some familiarity with anthropological literature on the subject of feasting, and more than one has been strongly influenced by Dietler and Hayden’s recent book.5 One aspect of feasting which is evident in nearly every paper is its potential nature as both a “uniter” and a “divider”: on the one hand, feasting may serve to create communal identity; on the other it can create, maintain, and articulate social inequality. Other recurring themes include the salutary effects of combining different categories of evidence — ceramics, faunal data, funerary assemblages, and texts (where available) — and the importance of careful excavation, good recovery, proper curation of organic remains, and attention to site-formation processes and taphonomy. Many new questions are suggested by the papers collected in this volume. One immediately wonders about the pre-Mycenaean evidence for feasting (or lack thereof) and variation in the development of social complexity in areas of Greece outside Messenia, Boeotia, and the Argolid.6 Similarly, how and to what extent are palace-sponsored exchange and feasting related? Glimpses of change in feasting practice at the end of the Bronze Age in the chapters by Borgna, Steel, and Sherratt suggest that an examination of feasting practice on the mainland in LH IIIC, after the destruction of the palaces, might be edifying. Another pattern that would merit further investigation is the ritual disposal of the remains of feasting. And, as Wright points out (9), issues of power relations and gender should bring more scholars to the feast.7

Contributors and Chapter Titles

James C. Wright- Chapter 1. The Mycenaean Feast: An Introduction (pp. 1-12)

James C. Wright- Chapter 2. A Survey of Evidence for Feasting in Mycenaean Society (pp. 13-58).

Sharon Stocker and Jack Davis- Chapter 3. Animal Sacrifice, Archives, and Feasting at the Palace of Nestor (pp. 59-76).

Mary K. Dabney, Paul Halstead, and Patrick Thomas- Chapter 4. Mycenaean Feasting on Tsoungiza at Ancient Nemea (pp. 77-96).

Thomas G. Palaima- Chapter 5. Sacrificial Feasting in the Linear B Documents (pp. 97-126).

Elisabetta Borgna- Chapter 6. Aegean Feasting. A Minoan Perspective (pp. 127-160).

Louise Steel- Chapter 7. A Goodly Feast … A Cup of Mellow Wine: Feasting in Bronze Age Cyprus (pp. 161-180).

Susan Sherratt- Chapter 8. Feasting in Homeric Epic (pp. 181-217).


1. The other is P. Halstead and J.C. Barrett, eds., Food, Cuisine and Society in Prehistoric Greece [Sheffield Studies in Aegean Archaeology 5], Sheffield 2004. Aegeanists will also be familiar with Y. Tzedakis and H. Martlew, eds., Minoans and Mycenaeans: Flavours of Their Time, Athens 1999, the catalog of an exhibit of the same name at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens.

2. V. Isaakidou, P. Halstead, J. Davis, and S. Stocker, “Burnt animal sacrifice at the Mycenaean ‘Palace of Nestor’, Pylos. Antiquity 76 (2002) 86-92; P. Halstead, “Texts and Bones: Contrasting Linear B and Archaeozoological Evidence for Animal Exploitation in Mycenaean Southern Greece,” pp. 257-61 in E. Kotjabopoulou, Y. Hamilakis, P. Halstead, C. Gamble, and P. Elefanti, eds., Zooarchaeology in Greece: Recent Advances ( BSA Studies 9 [2003]); P. Halstead and V. Isaakidou, “Faunal Evidence for Feasting: Burnt Offerings from the Palace of Nestor at Pylos,” pp. 136-154 in P. Halstead and J.C. Barrett, eds., Food, Cuisine and Society in Prehistoric Greece [Sheffield Studies in Aegean Archaeology 5], Sheffield 2004.

3. See J.C. Wright, “An Early Mycenaean Hamlet on Tsoungiza at Ancient Nemea,” in P. Darcque and R. Treuil, eds. L’habitat égéen préhistorique ( BCH Supplement XIX [1994]) 347-357.

4. J.T. Killen, “Thebes Sealings, Knossos Tablets, and Mycenaean State Banquets,” BICS 39 (1994) 67-84; J.T. Killen, “The Pylos Ta Tablets Revisited,” in F. Rougemont and J.-P. Olivier, eds., Recherches récentes en épigraphie créto-mycénienne, BCH 122 (1998) 403-443; A. Sacconi, “Les répas sacrés dans les texts mycéniens,” in R. Laffineur and R. Hägg, eds., Potnia [Aegaeum 22] Liège 1998. 467-470.

5. M. Dietler and B. Hayden, eds., Feasts: Archaeological and Ethnographic Perspectives on Food, Politics, and Power. Washington, D.C. 2001.

6. M. Pappa, P. Halstead, K. Kotsakis, and D. Urem-Kotsou, “Evidence for Large-Scale Feasting at Late Neolithic Makriyalos, N. Greece, pp. 16-44 in Halstead and Barrett eds., Food, Cuisine and Society in Prehistoric Greece [Sheffield Studies in Aegean Archaeology 5], Sheffield 2004.

7. Cf. J.M. Gero, “Feasts and Females: Gender Ideology and Political Meals in the Andes,” Norwegian Archaeological Review 25 (1991) 1-16.