BMCR 2007.04.33

L’habitat mycénien. Formes et fonctions de l’espace bäti en Grèce continentale à la fin du IIe millénaire avant J.-C. BEFAR, 319

, L'habitat mycénien : Formes et fonctions de l'espace bâti en Grèce continentale à la fin du IIe millénaire avant J.-C. BEFAR. Bibliothèque des écoles françaises d'Athènes et de Rome ; fascicule 319. Paris: Ecole française d'Athènes, 2005. 450 pages, 86 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations, plans ; 29 cm.. ISBN 2869581890. €90.00 (pb).

This book is a welcome publication on a topic of Late Bronze Age Aegean archaeology for which a synthesis in print is long overdue. The origin of the study lies in the author’s old “thèse de III e Cycle” (Paris, 1981) on the subject of Mycenaean domestic architecture, but the scope of the present work has been enlarged to include the social context of habitation. The cornerstone of the argument is that in order to understand Mycenaean society and its hierachical character, in addition to the structures themselves, account should be taken of the animate (humans, animals) and inanimate (objects) associated with the built space, hence the function of the structures. The book is a large one, even by the standards of archaeological syntheses, and its organization does not break away from the mould of a thesis: The three parts (“Construction”, “The Rooms”, “The Buildings”) are subdivided into chapters, which in turn are organized under two or three levels of subheading.

In the introduction D. states the limitations of the project, which are due to the shortcomings of archaeology (survival of the evidence and absence of contemporary written sources, Linear B apart), but also to the shortage of available evidence due to biases in excavation and publication. In contrast to palatial buildings and elite sites, the evidence from lower-level structures and sites, when published at all, often lacks sufficient useful detail. As a result, the full corpus on which D.’s study is based consists of just 183 structures in the whole of mainland Greece. They are distributed among 97 sites, 17% of which are in the Argolid, which further provides 50% of the buildings that could be studied. Moreover, the earlier periods are grossly underrepresented; 85% of the buildings that could be studied date from LH IIIB and LH IIIC. The First Part (“The Construction”) is largely based on previous studies by Wright, Kilian and the author himself. It is a synthesis of what is known of the building materials, techniques and morphology, including site preparation and foundations, basements, superstructure, number of storeys, wall coverings, doors and windows, roofs and roof supports, floor and floor coverings. Despite the frequent gaps in the evidence, the author is able to divide the 183 buildings into simple and complex using the criteria of size, site preparation, number of rooms, thickness of walls, existence or not of second storey, monolithic threshold, wall covering and columns, all presented in table form. Not surprisingly the few sites under the heading of complex, with the exception of Gla, are the known palatial sites: Mycenae, Tiryns, Pylos and Thebes.

The Second Part (“The Rooms”), starts with a short chapter on “Architectural characteristics”. It deals with the level and type of ‘structuration’ of the buildings, (large main room, absence of large room, regular size of rooms), followed by discussion of room size, and shape and proportions. The main characteristic of Mycenaean architecture is that structures are not built in a ‘modular’ way (identical units repeating themselves), and that even the different types of ‘structuration’ as defined by the author can coexist in the same site (Pylos palace, for example).

Chapters II and III, which examine the built-in furnishings and portable finds respectively, are significant sections for the argument in this book, since by pointing to activities taking place within the rooms, they help define the social and hierarchical differentiation of buildings.

The review of the built-in furnishings (ovens/kilns, hearths, water installations, platforms and benches, shelves, compartments and containers) highlights the difficulties of interpretation deriving from the lack of standardization of architectural features, and limited contextual evidence. Questions, therefore, such as whether a built bench in a room served as a sleeping couch rather than a shelf for resting objects, are often inconclusive, and suggestions made that hearths were anything other than a source of heating are speculative. Many uncertainties also plague the interpretation of portable artefacts. Assigning finds to a floor deposit (destruction layer) is often not possible or is unclear from the publications. The rigorous selection of 4,300 objects suitable for the study (even if very unevenly distributed: 20% from Mycenae, and more than 50% from Pylos) is an example of D.’s sound methodological principles, which he demonstrates throughout the book.

Considerable space (81 pages) is then devoted by the author to the discussion of the different categories of artefact types found in the rooms, which is practically the full Mycenaean repertoire of materials and types (tools, arms, objects of personal attire, furniture, utensils, pottery, figurines and statues, tablets, nodules and stoppers, and seals). Among these D. gives more significance to two: pottery and written clay documents.

His treatment of the pottery (pp. 200-242) warrants further comment. D. questions the usefulness of Furumark’s widely used classification of Mycenaean pottery for the purpose of establishing vessel function, and instead of his 103 shapes and 336 types, adopts a simpler division into 10 forms with shared characteristics, and further subdivisions of each form based on dimentions. The subdivisions result from D.’s own computer analyis. Histograms are generated from the digitised data, and the (more or less clear) clusters that form define the subgroups (labeled A, B, C, D etc). The fact that this method works better for closed shapes, and much less so for open shapes is attributed by the author to the fact that the closed shapes, being vessels for transport aimed at exchange, are more likely to have shown concern for modular considerations.

For general scholaly use, the proposed scheme is hardly an alternative to F’s typology, since it does not address questions of chronology or form development. But one wonders to what extent it is even useful for the purpose of detemining vessel function. D.’s conclusions are mostly based on common sense and accepted views, rather than any original interpretations emerging from the new classification. No consideration is given to pottery associations, for example between kylix and krater (albeit deriving from tomb deposits), and he dismisses somewhat too quickly the benefits of residue analysis, because it represents the last use, rather than the intended function of the vessels (p. 241).1

D. clearly places the greatest significance to the inscribed or stamped documents (tablets, nodules, stoppers) (pp. 252-276). He provides a useful and exhaustive survey of the evidence. His conclusion that the different classes of documents may represent different levels of administrative control is an interesting one, and would clearly have a direct impact on the hierarchical use of domestic space, albeit limited to the sites that have produced these documents, almost exclusively the palatial sites.

Chaper IV (“Activities and Functions”) and the “Conclusions” of the Second Part bring together the inferences that can be drawn. Once more D. emphasises the theoretical and practical difficulties, which prevent conclusive and unambiguous interpretation. Rather than looking at the built space intended for different specialized activities and built space intended for multiple activities, he focuses on identifying specific activities in given rooms. Among them high in the list of certainties is the storage of produce, represented by magazines with jars set in platforms or benches (notably in Pylos and Mycenae), less clearly in cases where the vessels could be for storage or transport. In a small number of instances a happy association exists between archaeological and epigraphic evidence (again at Mycenae and Pylos), but the author also ponders on the absence of storage space for cereal at Pylos (p. 282), where, conversely, tens of thousands of litres are documented in the Linear B texts. Other activities examined are: manufacture (often difficult to associate with specific destructions layers, but certain at Pylos regarding perfumed oil), hygiene (stricly limited to Pylos, room 43), administration (undeniable at Pylos, where, apart for the “archive rooms” the author suggests the possibility of the existence of an “office” in the North-East building), and ritual and symbolic activities, for which the evidence, according to the author, is the least reliable (see below).

In the third part of the book the author draws from the first and second parts to construct a typology of Mycenaean buildings. In contrast to the earlier study by I. Shear,2 who grouped all houses together maintaining the unity of Mycenaean domestic architecture, D. proposes a “global” approach based on objective criteria: size, number of rooms, evidence for a second floor, existence of main room and degree of structuration around it, orientation, technical elaboration (most significantly, wall paintings and monolithic thresholds), the existence of a “principal unit” (which defines a “palace”), and specialized function of the rooms. From the above considerations D. is able to distinguish three “families” of buildings: palaces, houses and a third class called “intermediary buildings”. The latter is a new category proposed by the author, and includes half a dozen buildings from the major sites, which, despite the fact that they do not constitute a homogenous group (not all are at a site with a palace, or are associated with tablets etc), demonstrate a degree of sophistication (monumentality, technical elaboration and specialized activities), which distinguishes them from the ordinary houses. As for the highest status category, the palace itself, D. examines origins, evolution, as well as characteristic features, and function. There is little that is new in his conclusion; only the three palatial complexes, Mycenae, Tiryns and Pylos belong to this group, while Thebes is given the benefit of the doubt because it is only partly excavated.

In the short general “Conclusions”, two further issues are addressed. Firstly, did Mycenaean architecture spread outside the Mycenaean heartland? D. maintains that, with the possible exception of Crete, the evidence does not support that it did. His brief treatment of Cyprus merely touches, however, on an old debate, one that is closely linked with Mycenaean migration to Cyprus. Ashlar masonry on the island has now been generally accepted not to have a Mycenaean origin, but archaeologists studying Bronze Age Cyprus are, on the whole, less willing to dismiss the evidence of ceremonial halls with hearths, or that of fortifications (the latter not discussed by D.).3 The other issue addressed in the “Conclusions” is the idea of a Mycenaean koine, which the author believes has to be radically revised on social, geographic and historical grounds. The evidence in fact would suggest a strongly hierarchical relationship between different types of habitation, with palatial type organization confined to limited geographical areas (Argolid, Messenia, Boeotia). The Mycenaean koine is according to the author but the “fog that masks the extreme diversity of the situation” (my translation). Similar conclusions were reached by Mee and Cavanagh in their comprehensive survey of the Bronze Age tombs (to which the author does not refer).4 Their chronological perspective, however, brings up a more complex situations than D. acknowledges.

It should be clear from all of the above that D.’s approach leaves practically no class of archaeological evidence from the Mycenaean period outside the discourse of built space. Is this holistic treatment successful? One major criticism has to be that D. finds himself assessing, or more often reassessing, the role and function of many categories of evidence, with limited room for in-depth analysis of the subject areas. In principle D. applies a “conservative” interpretative methodology across the board, which he consistently justifies in view of what he sums up as “le naufrage documentaire” (p. 395), basically poorly published evidence. Not surprisingly, one area which suffers most from his position is Mycenaean cult. As a premise, D. takes the view that we know nothing about Mycenaean religion, and launches an attack on C. Renfrew5 and a “closed circle” of other archaeologists who use ambiguous or unique features and objects, and anachronistic approaches to identify cult places (p. 293-294). D. disputes the suggested cult function of palatial hearths, throne rooms, wall paintings with “religious” subjects, and to a large extent figurines. One may agree with his view that the identificaion of cult centres in Mycenaean Greece may be premature, but D. is only willing to accept evidence of cult activity in individual rooms, precisely a total of four rooms at Mycenae (three in the “House of the Idols”) and four rooms of the Lower Citadel at Tiryns (Fig. 98). To these, even on his strict criteria, he should have added the not too recently published evidence from the cult room at Aghios Konstantinos (Methana), where 150 animal and human figurines, several rhyta, and evidence of animal sacrifice were excavated.6

I also find that D. overemphasises the role of models from Minoan Crete (which he does to the point of seriously entertaining the old theories of Minoans establishing the mainland palaces!). Although he is absolutely right in insisting on the influences, or even the direct import of the palace, the administrative system and building techniques from Minoan Crete, he tends to play down too much the mainland originalities, and there is certainly little consideration given to the possible adaptation of Minoan elements to different social and geopolitical conditions.

Despite these criticisms, “L’habitat Mycénien” is an important work, with much to praise in it. D.’s distancing from speculation and theorizing, his ruthlessly clinical approach to the evidence, and clearly presented arguments make it a useful book for the scholar and one that can be safely recommended for the reading lists of advanced students of the Greek Bronze Age. The numerous tables and graphs (75 out of the 113 figures in the text) are easy to relate to the text. The 163 plans of buildings at the end of the book are to the same scale, and have significant features similarly coded (although I would have wished for more referencing from tables in the text to the plans). There are three useful indexes. The bibliographies are comprehensive, particularly for publications up to 1999; hardly any later works are included except for the author’s own. Finally the book is impeccably edited with only a couple of minor errors.


1. Although the scientific publication is not out yet, the results were included in the exhibition catalogue: Minoans and Mycenaean. Flavours of their Time, Greek Ministry of Culture,Athens, 1999.

2. I. M. Shear, The Panagia Houses at Mycenae, Philadelphia 1987.

3. See the discussion and bibliography in L. Steel, Cyprus Before History. From the Earliest Settlers to the End of the Bronze Age, London 2004.

4. W. Cavanagh and C. Mee, A Private Place: Death in Prehistoric Greece, Stockholm 1998. See particularly pp. 63-64, 77-78.

5. His criteria about identification of sanctuaries are developed in The Archaeology of Cult: the Sanctuary at Phylakopi, London 1985.

6. E. Konsolaki, “A Mycenaean Sanctuary at Methana”, in R. Hgg (ed.), Peloponnesian Sanctuaries and Cults. Proceedings of the Ninth International Symposium at the Swedish Institute at Athens, 11-13 June 1994. Acta Instituti Atheniesis Regni Sueciae, Series 4, 48, 2002, pp. 25-36.