BMCR 2008.01.62

The Aegean from Bronze Age to Iron Age

, The Aegean from Bronze Age to Iron Age : continuity and change between the twelfth and eighth centuries BC. London and New York: Routledge, 2006. xvi, 298 pages : illustrations, maps ; 24 cm. ISBN 9780415135894 $34.95.

Table of Contents

This book is a discussion of the Greek Dark Age, a period running from Late Helladic IIIC through Late Geometric. It is, however, just as much a discussion of what is still a limited archaeological record, a record that remains so in spite of great interest, efforts, and minds at work. Dickinson presents an overview of what we know and what we theorize from that knowledge but it is striking how limited the data continue to be and how reliant we are upon theory to extrapolate more than site-specific conclusions. An accurate portrayal of the current state of affairs combined with the stated purpose of providing “a short introductory survey” is an ambitious goal, but within the parameters Dickinson circumscribes, one that he meets.

Once issues of procedure, terminology and chronology are delimited in the Introduction and Chapter 1, Dickinson moves to a discussion of the collapse of Bronze Age civilization, Chapter 2. But, before he does so, he first provides a primer on pre-collapse Bronze Age civilization. Although the brevity is understandable, it is somewhat ironic for this is the best documented period of those discussed. Dickinson quickly settles on Mycenaean palace society, revealing a mainland focus which will remain throughout the book. The remaining half of the chapter is a good survey of the various theories and explanations for the destruction of the citadels and the collapse of palace society, none of which are entirely satisfactory. Dickinson favors an amalgam of theories, i.e., major and prolonged warfare among Mycenaean states perhaps precipitated by economic stresses induced by either international events (unrest in the Near East) or internal, Helladic disturbances that may be caused by natural disasters. If the internal warfare scenario is true, it would put Athens in the role of last man standing, an interpretation that does not quite fit with Thucydides’ description of Bronze Age Athens as a place with little to offer but a homogeneous polity. In an attempt to counter this, Dickinson cites the lack of archaeological evidence — there is no evidence of destruction by fire on the Acropolis — and the fact that Athens alone would have been incapable of maintaining the international commerce needed to sustain the palace economies. Another avenue to pursue may be that the abandonment of the palace at Salamis and the survival of the citadel on the Acropolis, although not coordinated, may be complementary events. That is, the migration of the inhabitants and wealth of the palace of the hero Ajax at Salamis may well have reinforced the notion of how little the area had to offer.

Chapter 3 describes the Post-Palatial period, which lasted for 2-3 generations and started roughly 1150/1140 BCE. Important points are made here as to resettlement of sites, interactions between areas, and the large scale destruction and abandonment of sites at the end of the period, but as a survey little supporting evidence is offered. Citations are abundant but I will confess it was not many pages into the chapter before I was reminded how much I dislike embedded footnotes. It’s one thing to find a bibliographic citation of name, year and page number and quite another notes four lines long interrupting the main body of the text. This is of course no fault of Dickinson’s but a bothersome trend among journals and publishers.

The remainder of the book, Chapters 4-9, is the discussion of what most think of as the Greek Dark Age. The discussion of settlement patterns seems too simplified. Yes, links to the sea are maintained but defensive measures are widespread, although apparently some less obvious than others. Cretans in particular seem to have sought terrain favorable for defense. It is unmistakable at Karphi and a quick look at the topographical map of Kavousi on p. 92 reveals the settlements are on a ridge line and not in the plain below.

The chapter on crafts is largely a discussion of typologies of artifacts. This is not a liability. Familiarity with such artifacts in the context of structures and tombs is crucial and although the pace is fast in the ca. fifty pages devoted to them it is a good overview of the various ceramics and metals of the period.

In Chapter 6, “Burial Customs,” the general state of our understanding of such phenomena as the appearance of cremations and the increase of individual burials is well summarized. I found the chapter a disappointment, however, largely because of a lack of specific comparative data, even when available. Some of the problem can be attributed to the fact that we are still struggling over theoretical debates, most notably how to regard grave goods —Dickinson admits to a post-processualist inclination. But, leaving theoretical debates and an underrepresented Post-Palatial period aside, this discussion would benefit from a statistical overview. Aggregate, time, and site specific data, similar to the data provided in Table 4.1 of faunal remains from Crete, would be helpful. Time-specific data of ratios of cremations to inhumations, of graves with and without grave goods, male graves with grave goods and female graves with grave goods, etc. would add substance to the accurate but general statements.

It is now generally agreed that trade, exchange, and foreign contact during the Post-Palatial and Early Iron Age periods were continuous and wide-spread. Here Dickinson makes good use of the material introduced in his chapter on crafts.1 Trade in metals, in particular, seems to have continued, with the silver at Laurion of particular importance, although fine goods were also traded. Small finds from Cyprus, Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Syria were found in the cemeteries at nearby Perati. In the Early Iron Age, Lefkandi appears to have been a hub. Figure 7.1, a distribution map of special pottery types, confirms Cypriot influence not only in Crete but also in the Argolid, Athens, Lefkandi, and Skiros.

The subject of Chapter 8, Religion, is both important and problematic. For most of the period under discussion, architecture is not a key identifier. Low tables and benches are evocative of ritual but not conclusive. Nor is there any sort of structural koine of religious space. The most certain identifiers of cult activity in the archaeological record are ash deposits with burnt bone, figurines, drinking vessels, and dining ware, especially if all are found within the same context. These may or may not be found within an architectural context or within a settlement. Not every ritual site necessarily has any or all of these items. To further complicate site discovery, wine and olive oil are documented offerings. Laying aside the problem of identifying rural sanctuaries archaeologically, how likely are we to recognize offerings of wine and oil if we believe we have found such a sanctuary? If we accept the descriptions of Homer and Hesiod and the known ritual sites as components of a prevailing practice throughout the Aegean, we should then assume that we have assembled very little of the picture. Given such a situation, however, Dickinson summarizes well what we do know.

Overall I found that Dickinson accomplished what he set out to do, i.e., provide a short introductory summary of what is now an era better known than before but yet one that remains fairly elusive. As an introductory summary Dickinson’s book will surely not please all for he has most certainly omitted relevant sites and studies, perhaps most notably C. Morgan Early Greek States Beyond the Polis and N. Stampolides and A. Giannikouri, To Aigaio sten proime epoche tou Siderou. Dickinson has, however, written a worthy text for use in the classroom. It is a good segue from a course in Aegean Bronze Age Archaeology to one in Greek Archaeology and it is the text I will now use for that purpose.


1. I note one correction: on p. 207 the amphora type referred to is depicted in Figure 5.7 not 5.6 as printed in the text.