BMCR 2007.07.56

The Mycenaeans

, The Mycenaeans. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2007. 208 pages : illustrations (some color), maps ; 24 cm. ISBN 9780892368679 $29.95 (pb).

Table of Contents

Louise Schofield’s (henceforth S) The Mycenaeans, handsomely produced by the J. Paul Getty Museum in the U.S. and the British Museum in the U.K., is the newest addition to the introductory literature on the later Bronze Age in Greece. In eleven chapters, it presents the Mycenaeans of epic tradition and archaeological discovery, the emergence and characteristics of their civilization, the end of their palace-centered system, and the Homer-Trojan War controversy; a timeline, notes, suggestions for further reading, and an index round out the book. Its introduction explicitly states that it is “not aimed at the specialist reader, but rather at the interested layman” (9), and “aims to steer a course through these material remains and through the many controversies in an attempt to answer the question: Who were the Mycenaeans?”

Many readers would already say that the Mycenaeans are the people immortalized in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey and brought famously to life by the excavations of Heinrich Schliemann. What, then, does this new survey of material remains and scholarly controversies say that they do not already know but might want to find out? S asks the following questions: how and when did the Mycenaeans appear in Greece? what was their civilization like? what happened to them at the end of the Bronze Age? and what relation does the archaeological record have to the Homeric poems? The results of fieldwork at Mycenae and other sites are related at length, with extensive descriptions of major finds and a large number of illustrations (121), many new and full-color. Drawing on recent scholarship, S highlights selected developments, among them the efforts by John Prag and his colleagues to reconstruct the facial features of certain individuals buried in Grave Circles A and B, Joachim Latacz’s synthesis of the philological and archaeological evidence relating to Homer and the Trojan War, and Cynthia Shelmerdine’s 1997 AJA“Review of Aegean Prehistory” survey of the late Bronze Age in central and southern Greece, especially for the complementary results of regional survey and analysis of Linear B records from Pylos (100-101). As advertised, S presents a selection of controversial points, for instance the problematic disjunction between Egyptian synchronisms and scientific data for dating the Thera eruption (20), the suggestion that similar amber necklaces from Mycenae’s Grave Circle B and Upton Lovell in Wiltshire “might indicate an isolated example of direct trade” (65), the “as yet unsubstantiated” identification of the Mycenaean settlement at Pellana in Laconia as the palace of Menelaus (97-98), competing theories of why palace society disintegrated at the end of the Bronze Age (170-182), and the relationship of the Homeric poems to the archaeological record at “Mycenaean” sites and to Hittite history (186-197). And the legendary Schliemann himself is not forgotten: several pages are devoted to his activities within the introductory account of interest in the Trojan War epic cycle and the rediscovery of Mycenaean civilization in the 19th century and the descriptions of the excavations of Grave Circle A at Mycenae and the objects found there.

Does its newness make this book superior, though? Sadly, the answer is no. Its array of facts and images, sometimes dazzling, does not necessarily enable it, as the back cover has it, to “piece together the lives of a forgotten people.” By the end, we know that the Mycenaeans were responsible for a great many artifacts (especially pottery) that archaeologists have found over most of the Mediterranean and the Near East, that their rulers had impressively decorated palaces and lavishly-endowed burials, that various reasons may have caused their civilization’s demise, and that some Mycenaeans may have been responsible for destroying Troy c. 1180 B.C. What is missing? First of all, the Mycenaeans were never “a forgotten people,” so that it is especially vital to convey a sense of the fact that people have thought, sung, and disputed about them for millennia regardless of the presence or absence of archaeological validation, and that they continue to do so vigorously even today. Furthermore, because of S’s essentially conservative approach to the subject and the erratic organization and presentation of textual and visual material, the nature of Mycenaean society as a whole, in terms of economic, political, religious, and geographical organization, is never made clear. Likewise, little is said about newer tools and techniques for reconstructing that society based on artifacts (material culture), texts (Linear β and complementary data from neighboring civilizations (Egypt, Anatolia, etc.). The following paragraphs develop these points.

In the opening pages, the section on Schliemann in the first chapter repeats a variety of facts, not all of them immediately apposite. For instance, we are told that he was born “in 1822 in Neubukow” and “grew up in Mecklenburg, the son of a poor pastor” (15), and that “Stamatakis of the Greek Archaeological Service” was present during the excavations at Mycenae (16).1 Unfortunately, S. misses the opportunity to put Schliemann’s endeavors in perspective by pointing out that excavation techniques and prehistoric chronology generally were in their infancy when he uncovered Troy and Mycenae, as well as the controversies that arose during his life and afterwards concerning the identification and interpretation of sites and the finds from them. Much later in the text, a brief section entitled “Lost palaces of legend” (97-98) mentions that travelers and archaeologists looked for Homeric palaces in Laconia and on Ithaka and Salamis, but passes over the fact that Schliemann’s collaborator Dörpfeld was utterly convinced that the island of Leukas (Lefkada) was in fact Homeric Ithaka, or that a U.K.-based management consultant has sought to persuade the archaeological community for several years that Homer’s Ithaka is to be identified with the northwestern part of the island of Kefallonia.2

New findings coexist uneasily with old approaches, and traditional views predominate, leaving little room to bring basic controversies out into the open. Shelmerdine’s 1997 AJA article is cited repeatedly, but other relevant papers in the same compilation, as well as the contributions to various Aegaeum conference volumes and Morris and Powell’s A New Companion to Homer seem hardly to have been taken into consideration, particularly as regards the wider context of the Bronze Age Aegean and Anatolia.3 The Mycenaeans are the main event here, but their pursuits and their products are rarely contextualized in relation to their Anatolian and Near Eastern contemporaries (Egyptians appear somewhat more).

At the same time, the interpretations and chronology set forth propound old-school orthodoxy. The fundamental problem of relative versus absolute chronology for the Bronze Age, an ongoing source of controversy, receives an inadequate explanation. Taking the Bronze Age as a given, S begins with reference to Evans’ Early-Middle-Late Minoan periods, throws in their Helladic and Cycladic variants, and then alludes to pottery chronology and Egyptian/Near Eastern synchronisms without ever making clear how they interact and clash (19-20).4 As well, the seriousness of science-based challenges to the traditional 1540 B.C. Thera eruption date, and their far-reaching implications, are minimized (20; cf. 66-67, 126). Difficulties in combining material and textual evidence are evident in the transition to Ch. 2, when S moves from the statement, “Mycenaean pottery evolved from native Greek traditions of the Middle Bronze Age” (20, suggesting continuity of material culture), to the chapter-closing straw-man question, “The Mycenaeans inhabited the same land as the later Greeks, but was there a closer connection? Were they themselves already Greek, or did Greek speakers enter the region after the end of the Bronze Age?” (21). The answer is a brief account of the discovery and decipherment of Linear B, which proved that the Mycenaeans indeed used a form of proto-Greek, that soon turns into a summary of events in the Early and Middle Bronze Age events.

Chapters 3-4 (32-67), on Grave Circles A and B at Mycenae and the Shaft Grave period, are characteristically heavy on detail and light on synthesis. For some reason, the detailed description of the Shaft Grave finds from Grave Circles A and B at Mycenae (32-47) is accompanied by no plan (plans of Mycenae appear on 81-82 with the discussion of palaces) and is dealt with separately from the Shaft Grave culture the finds represent, and the discussion features instead plans of cist and chamber tomb types (52). The book’s non-specialist readers would surely appreciate explanations for technical terms such as “carinated,” “repoussé,” “kylix,” and “rhyton,” not to mention “horns of consecration” (see below, in reference to the illustrations).5 Chapter 5 (68-75), on the destructions of Thera and Knossos in connection with the rise of Mycenaean hegemony, is the shortest in the book. Reference is made to the pumice layer at Tel el Dab’a in Egypt’s Nile Delta, which is adduced as proof of the c.1540 B.C. date for the Thera eruption against the scientists’ tree-ring and ice-core dating of the event “some hundred years earlier” (69), as well as to the 1450 and 1375 BC destructions at Knossos (71-75). Older (1950s-60s) points of controversy receive the most discussion.

The largest part of the book, Chapters 6-9 (76-169), is taken up with an account of palaces and kingdoms, daily life, and religion. Descriptions again predominate. Sometimes they veer awkwardly into illogicality, as with the megaron at Mycenae — “the vestibule — again brightly coloured, its stucco floor painted with squares of red, yellow and blue zigzags” (80, no picture) — and “warriors fighting or riding to battle on the fresco paintings are often lightly clad, for instance in kilts and bare-chested, or in white linen tunics reaching down to mid-thigh and with short sleeves” (121, cf. 119, which does have an illustration). Exemplifying this book’s traditional approach to the subject is that women in Mycenaean society are considered primarily in the light of high-status artistic evidence (128-133), while females mentioned in the Linear B tablets are consigned to paragraphs on economic activity and slavery (126, 137, 140, 143). Likewise indicative of the primacy of high-value, prestige-conferring material evidence is that the chapter on trade and foreign relations (102-115) immediately leads into a discussion of the elite and their concerns (116-137); agriculture, livestock-raising, and manufacturing by “ordinary men and women” are quickly disposed of (137-143). Distinct from daily life is the religion of the Mycenaeans. S’S account (144-169) is composed of descriptions of finds from “cult centers” at Mycenae, Tiryns and settlements on Melos, Methana, and Kea, fresco representations of putative deities and worshippers, and Linear B tablets naming divinities as recipients of certain offerings. The possibility of human sacrifice is speculatively hypothesized from references in Greek literature of the Classical period and the apparent human sacrifice at Archanes-Anemospilia in Crete, which S. dates to c. 1700 B.C., leading to observations about funerary ritual and the afterlife (the plans of tomb types on 52 would have made sense here).

Chapters 10-11 (170-197) set out the “decline and fall” of the Mycenaeans and the “Dark Age” myth of the Trojan War in relation to archaeology. The last feverish phase of building at Mycenae, Tiryns, and Athens is described, including the extension of the eastern wall at Mycenae for the sally port and secret “subterranean water cistern” (171-173; a plan would be useful here), followed by an excerpt from the Linear B tablets from Pylos that makes the defense situation more vivid but leaves several geographical references unexplained. S’s review of the possible causes of the Mycenaeans’ downfall covers the requisite points. It removes the “Dorian invasions” from contention and puts them back in their mythological place (175-178), dissociates the Sea Peoples from “so-called refugee sites” (178), and considers internal strife, natural disasters, and systems collapse to conclude, “Life for the Mycenaeans must have been very insecure and unstable in the closing years of the thirteenth century” (182). Thereafter S records movements, retrenchments, and decline into the “Dark Age” (185; the only mention of the Iron Age occurred on 174, again crediting Shelmerdine). The term “Dark Age” reappears in the last chapter as the place from which the myths and legends of the Trojan War emerge, eventually to be reified by “Schliemann’s faith in the historical accuracy of the poems” (186). S’s review of correlations between the Iliad and Odyssey and the archaeological record includes a discussion of Homeric burial and post-Bronze Age cremations that mentions only the 10th-century “hero” of Lefkandi (190); Eleutherna, a somewhat later site excavated by teams from the University of Crete, offers further parallels.6 Manfred Korfmann’s fieldwork at Troy, which has strengthened the case for identifying the site as a significant regional power of the Late Bronze Age (192-195), is given due coverage, but without conveying any sense of the controversy its conclusions generated among historians, particularly in Korfmann’s native Germany. The evidence for the Hittite-Mycenaean connection is quite tersely disposed of, reduced to a few inscriptions and seals (195-197).7 S’s conclusion (197) alludes to the fall of Ugarit, the Sea Peoples, and the Hittites, who called Troy Wilusa. She wonders if the Sea Peoples might be “displaced Mycenaeans” responsible for sacking Troy “around 1180 BC” and ends by affirming that while ” a Trojan War is history” is now established historical fact, ” the Trojan War … remains an open question.” What has become of the Mycenaeans? This book was supposed to be about them, not the historicity of the Trojan War.

How illuminating are the book’s illustrations? Over one-third of the 121 figures are from the British Museum’s collections, including several interesting objects from Rhodes and Cyprus. In contrast, only 10 images, all exemplary, are credited to the Greek Ministry of Culture’s Archaeological Receipts Fund (TAP). The result is a selection that is not altogether representative or illustrative of the text. For instance, the famous “horns of consecration” known throughout the eastern Mediterranean and the Near East are first mentioned as a Minoan motif that occurs on golden ornaments found with certain female burials in Mycenae’s Grave Circle A (46), later as appearing on a fresco from Mycenae (77, 154) and in stone at Pylos and Gla (96). These textual references to emblematic examples of the motif are not illustrated, so that the only picture of the horns of consecration shows them on a simple cup (Fig. 95).8 It should also be pointed out, although this is not a guidebook, that some of the photographs of sites are either old or depict secondary elements. For example, the telephoto image of the Lion Gate at Mycenae from the outside (Fig. 40) shows neither the approach ramp nor the gate’s position in the fortifications, while the view from inside the gate (Fig. 43) east of Grave Circle A shows a bygone Mycenae, judging from the clothing of the figures and the absence of concrete. The photo of Lerna meant to illustrate the “strongly fortified site with well-built houses and an imposing structure known as the House of Tiles” (Fig. 11) shows neither the fortifications nor the House of Tiles itself, which was moreover built after the fortifications had fallen into disrepair. As well, the book could use a greater number of well-placed maps,9 plans and diagrams of structures. One of the newly drawn figures, a “hypothetical computerized reconstruction” of the façade of the Treasury of Atreus (Fig. 110), seems to have lost in detail (e.g. the chevrons on the engaged columns and the perforation of the relieving triangle) what it has gained in color over previous reconstruction drawings.10

If “light” scholarship means a lucid, accurate presentation of a complex subject designed to appeal to a wider market, this book has a long way to go. Contractions like “didn’t” (88), “it’s” (136), and “couldn’t” (197) clash colloquially with technical terms, while “and” repeatedly links verbs and clauses in preference to more effective conjunctions. Spelling of proper names is erratic and conflicted.11 The notes and bibliography are full of errors. No translators are given for the Thucydides, Euripides, and Pausanias selections quoted in the first chapter (11-12); the citation references are moreover unreliable.12 Journal and series abbreviations are not expanded (e.g. JHS, BSA, OJA, BAR). Proper names and titles of books are misspelled.13 Given its intended readership, the inclusion of scholarship in languages other than English is not to be expected, nor indeed desirable. Why, then, are German monographs on archaeology and historical memory, architecture, the Ulu Burun shipwreck, and Mycenaean weaponry cited in the Notes (often incorrectly)?14 At the same time, basic items in the “Further reading” are not cited at all (e.g. Preziosi and Hitchcock’s Aegean Art and Architecture) or repeated in full (Shelmerdine; Latacz), taking up space that could be devoted to relevant scholarship in English that “interested laymen” might indeed want to track down.15


1. For the record, Neubukow is a small town in Mecklenburg, the province in northeastern Germany that also contains the parish of Ankershagen, where the elder Schliemann served as well-recompensed clergyman from 1823 until 1831, when he was expelled for drunkenness and adultery. Stamatakis’ first name was Panagiotis. A “W. Dörpfeld” (Wilhelm, the excavator of Olympia and Troy) is also said to have aided the “1884-6” dig at Tiryns (19).

2. R. Bittlestone, Odysseus Unbound: The Search for Homer’s Ithaca (Cambridge, 2005).

3. T. Cullen, ed. Aegean Prehistory: A Review (Boston, 2001). R. Laffineur, POLITEIA (Liège, 1995) and POLEMOS (Liège, 1999) appear in the “Further reading,” as does, TEXNH (1997), after a fashion. THANATOS: Les coutumes funéraires en Egée à l’âge du Bronze. Actes du colloque de Liège, 21-23 avril 1986 (Liège, 1987) and POTNIA: Deities and Religion in the Aegean Bronze Age. Proceedings of the 8th International Aegean Conference / 8e Rencontre égéenne internationale. Göteborg, Göteborg University, 12-15 April 2000 (Liège, 2001) are absent.

4. Cf. K. and D. Wardle, Cities of Legend (Bristol, 1997), 5.

5. “Carinated” (28-29) and repoussé” (45, 46, 59, 133) are not explained. The singular and plural forms of “kylix” are treated separately (33, 55), as also those of “rhyton,” 18 and 100 pages after the word’s first appearance (45-46; 63-64; 144; 158).

6. N.C. Stampolidis, ed., Eleutherna: Polis-Acropolis-Necropolis (Athens, 2004), 120-129.

7. The Hittites are beset by basic orthographical problems, e.g. the Germanic “Hattusa” (114, 195), “Tudhalija” (114, 195; “Tuhalija” 196), and “Ahhijawa” (196). “Hattusha,” “Tudhaliya,” and “Ahhiyawa” would be phonologically preferable.

8. Only the caption for BM Cat. Vases A 846 on 147 is cited in the index.

9. S’s enthusiasm for naming lesser-known sites all around the Mediterranean (e.g. 56-66,72) is not complemented by the volume’s single schematic map, which contains a tiny inset for mainland Greece: Ayios Stephanos, Etruria, Cape Gelidonya, and the much-mentioned Laurion are not shown.

10. Cf. Lord William Taylour, The Mycenaeans (1983); its 151 illustrations include the Treasury of Atreus.

11. E.g. “Achaean” (11, 188) vs. Achaian” (16), “Hekatios” for which read “Hecataeus” (sc. of Miletus) (22 cited, actually on 25), Lapis lacedaimonios (60; read Latin lacedaemonius), “Serraglio” (the Blue Guide calls it “Seraglio” and locates it in Kos Town) is indexed separately from Kos (72 listed; it first appears on 63; cf. 112, 114), “Pont Iria” (109, 170, 207; read “Point”), “Patroklus” (189-190; Patroklos? Patroclus?), “Smyrna” (187) vs. “Izmir” (195).

12. On 199: “Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, I, 9; I, 10″ (better: I. 9. 1; I. 10. 1); “Euripides, Heracles, 944″ (lines 943-946 are quoted); “Pausanias, Guide to Greece, XI, 16, 4; XI, 27, 7″ (the quotations are from II. 16. 5 and II. 25. 8).

13. Misspellings: “Patzet” (199) for “Patzek,” “Dickenson” (199, 201) for “Dickinson,” “Bucholz … Gottingen, 1997” (200) for “Buchholz … Göttingen, 1977″, ” Tevyn” (200) for ” TEXNH,” ” Troia, Traum oder Wirklichkeit” (200) for ” Traum und Wirklichkeit” (201). Publication information and page runs faulty or absent: Dodwell (13, 203); Cline, Shelmerdine, Marinatos, Rehak, Bryce (200). Also, the URL for the University of Cincinnati’s Nestor bibliography is incorrect and should be

14. At 199-200, in the notes for Ch. 1, n. 4; Ch. 6, n. 2; Ch. 7, n. 4; Ch. 8, n.2. Three are in the preceding note. If a single work in German were to be cited in a book of this type, it is the exhibition catalogue Die Hethiter und ihr Reich: das Volk der 1000 Götter (Stuttgart, 2002).

15. Striking omissions: R. Drews, The End of the Bronze Age: Changes in Warfare and the Catastrophe ca. 1200 B.C. (Princeton, 1993). J. Wright, ed. The Mycenaean Feast (Princeton, 2004) = Hesperia 73.2 (2004): 121-337. The last chapter of T. Bryce, The Kingdom of the Hittites. (Oxford, 1998, 2nd ed. 2005) discusses the Anatolian context of the Trojan War at greater length.