BMCR 2009.05.62

Art and Identity in Dark Age Greece, 1100–700 B.C.E

, Art and Identity in Dark Age Greece, 1100--700 B.C.E. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008. xviii, 388. ISBN 9780521513210. $90.00.

In this bold, innovative, and highly original study, Susan Langdon does away with many old, rather tired, and often labored ways of looking at Greek “Geometric” art and in so doing breathes new life into the iconography of the period between 1100 and 700 B.C. For too long the study of Geometric art has been dominated by the shadow of Homer, a tyranny of the text so pervasive that behind each image there had to be some hint, however remote, of epic narrative.1 Hence, a shipwreck, no matter how anonymous, had to be that of Odysseus and his companions; a chariot race could only be the funerary games for Patroklos or some other hero, and a strange pair of “twins” on a trick vase in the Athenian Agora were ingeniously interpreted, in 1936, a year after its discovery, by Roland Hampe as the young Nestor battling the so-called Aktorione-Molione twins described in Iliad XI.707ff.2 This is not to say that Langdon eschews Homer; she simply reads Homer in a different, and I would argue, more enlightened manner.

Beginning in the 19th century, interpretations of scenes on Greek Geometric pottery, bronzes, ivories, and other small finds flourished, each one trying to surpass an earlier interpretation, each limited only by the imagination of its author. A classic case in point is the celebrated dinos in the British Museum (1899.2-19.1) depicting a ship, with some 40 rowers at the ready to carry across the sea the over-life-size man who grasps the arm of a similarly large woman stepping onto the boat. The ways in which the iconography of this vase has been interpreted by earlier scholars is a tale deftly told by Langdon. Although originally considered by A.S. Murray in 1899—who read the two sides of the vase together—as funerary activities culminating in a ship race,3 the couple was later variously identified as Ariadne and Theseus, as Helen and Paris (or Menelaos), as Jason and Medea, or even as Hektor and Andromache (p. 19). As Langdon elaborates, more recent interpretations approach the scene in “real life” terms, namely, as an abduction marriage or simply “a blameless sea-captain taking leave of his wife”, though she dutifully lists a whole slew of doubters.4 Langdon goes on to relate Klaus Fittschen’s exhaustive discussion of the vase, and the passage deserves to be quoted in full as it typifies Langdon’s wonderful manner of dealing, kindly yet firmly, with less-than-satisfying scholarship: “….Fittschen’s 1969 discussion of the krater remains unsurpassed for thoroughness. He surveyed the range of mythical possibilities, testing an exhaustive iconographic analysis against literary sources. His process of elimination yielded only negative results. Because of conflicting iconographic clues, he concluded, the ship scene cannot be matched with any legend and must represent a contemporary eighth-century departure of a man, with or without the woman, the meaning of which is ultimately unknowable. It is hard to find a flaw in this logic, or to be satisfied with the results. They offer little to enlarge our understanding of Geometric art” (p. 21).

The beauty of Langdon’s achievement lies in the fact that she looks beyond the traditional focus on an Early Iron Age society dominated by warrior males (a society so beautifully fashioned by Homer) as well as elites and non-elites (Ian Morris’s kaloi and kakoi), and the focus on processes of change that emphasize class-based aspects. Instead, Langdon brings in women and children, a simple yet radical departure from earlier scholarship. By means of a combination of iconographic analysis, well informed with gender theory, mortuary analysis, and object biography, Langdon brings to the fore the manner in which figural representation was used to mediate critical stages—what Van Gennep’s termed rites de passage 5—in the life of both men and women. By approaching Greek Geometric art as inventive and expressive, Langdon succeeds in bringing us nearer to the experience of its original audience (cf. p. 8).

Following a succinct Introduction (pp. 1-18), which lays out the organization of the study, and “The Collaborative Enterprise of Geometric Art”, “Geometric Art and the Early Greek Community”, and “Listening to Homer”, the first of five chapters is entitled “Art Made to Order” (pp. 19-55). The chapter begins with the abduction dinos in the British Museum already referred to, and turning to the theoretical underpinnings and reasons for connecting Geometric pictures with social rituals, Langdon neatly sets out the premises and methods of her approach. Here context, and contextualizing imagery, loom large, constrained, of course, by contemporary poetic evidence that provides a glimpse, however fleeting, of a cultural “mentality”. What also looms large is the idea that “significant objects” involved collaboration between patron and artist within the framework of a social occasion. What Langdon uncovers is a growing expression of collective identities, the very identities that bound communities and institutionalized roles and inequalities. As she concludes the chapter, “Geometric art is busy with agenda, mediating relationships, behavioral codes, a normative view of men and women, families and communities. Elite self-definition leads the way but does not oppose wider group interests. It will define Greek culture for generations to come” (p. 55).

Chapter 2 (p. 56-125) entitled “Geometric Art Comes of Age: An Archaeology of Maturation”, looks at the evidence for maturation rites that prepared boys for adulthood. This, together with the following chapters, documents the creation of what Langdon calls “ideal” gender types. She argues that the use of imagery in rites of passage offered avenues for competitive behavior, as well as a means of ranking and reinforcing a new ideal of masculinity. Here Langdon casts her net wide; the list of chapter sub-headings gives something of a clue of the wide range of themes covered: Children and Material Culture; Trial by Amazon; Being and Becoming; The Case of Kato Syme; Geometric Centaurs: Good, Bad, and Ugly; Gorgons and Medusa: The Maiden Behind the Mask; Masking Rituals; and A Need for Monsters. The chapter begins with the Tiryns bothros, a ritual context which brought to light the remarkable terracotta shield depicting a male warrior brandishing his sword and grasping the helmet of his opponent, a woman; an Amazon. In this chapter, much of the focus is on context and the alternative meanings that emerge when motifs are encountered in other contexts. Throughout the chapter, Langdon is careful to avoid the pitfalls of the anachronistic application of later texts and rituals to an earlier period.

In Chapter 3 (pp. 126-196), Langdon turns to the construction, through ritual and image, of the “virtuous” maiden as a social type and female chastity as a community value. Entitled “Virgin Territory: The Construction of the Maiden”, the chapter opens with a dour Hesiod, for whom maidens are constituted, first and foremost, by their bodies. It is in this chapter where mortuary analysis plays a pivotal role, particularly the rich corpus of female graves in Athens, especially those of girls and younger women. From the Early Iron Age cemeteries in the Kerameikos and the later Classical Agora, Langdon goes on to look at how the maiden was visually constructed by Geometric artists. Following the work of Ken Dowden, Langdon analyzes the physical attributes that construct the maiden; beauty and fertility are seen against the backdrop of other elements, not least Dowden’s “sympathetic landscape” of nymphs and maidens.6 Throughout the various regional styles of Greek Geometric pottery, the maiden row dance is a major theme, and Langdon analyzes the act of dancing from a regional perspective, beginning with the Argolid, and moving on to Attica and other regions. Langdon returns to mortuary analysis with the interesting iconography on the large cylindrical funerary urn that contained the inhumation of a child: a classic example of enchytrismos. The scene is interpreted against the backdrop of the Theban Daphnephoria, embodying features of maturation ritual: separation, liminality, age-group, and inversion, and from Thebes Langdon moves to dancing at the early Argive Heraion. What is perhaps most startling about Langdon’s analysis is the simple realization that young “women and girls are everywhere more visible in the early Greek archaeological record than are young men” (p. 195).

In chapter 4 (pp. 197-233), “Maiden, Interrupted: The Art of Abduction”, Langdon explores developments in later Geometric iconography that set the maiden into narrative situations involving abduction, and these, she argues, foreshadow the marriage paradigm of the Classical period. There is the abduction from the dance, as well as abduction by centaur. We return, full-circle, to the London abduction dinos, and related scenes that involve a couple and a ship. As Langdon notes (p. 216), the ship motif has long been connected with possible Bronze Age roots as a sacred hieros gamos theme of ultimately Near Eastern derivation. Consequently, related iconography in Minoan glyptic is scrutinized to see whether the abduction—marriage equation has a prehistory. The smoking gun here is the manned getaway ship, which is found in Minoan and Mycenaean, as well as Geometric and Archaic representations, in a variety of media.

Not only does the male capture the maiden, he also captures the oikos. This is the theme of Chapter 5, “The Domestication of the Warrior” (pp. 234-291). The chapter relocates, as it were, the social actors, as Langdon puts it, from the realm of myth into the “reality” of the Early Iron Age oikos (p. 17). She begins by investigating the pictorial construction of adult masculinity and then examines alternative paradigms for marriage, including the ideological construction of marriage as an increasingly androcentric institution. In addition to the representational realm, Langdon focuses on the actual remains of Geometric houses, with especial attention on the most fully investigated Geometric settlement at the site of Zagora on Andros (pp. 263-276). By comparing representations of the oikos in the context of ritual with actual changes in domestic space, Langdon succeeds in providing a chronological dimension to the dichotomies evident in pictorial representation.

There is a brief Epilogue (pp. 292-297). Here the focus is very much on the climax of the Geometric period: the 8th century B.C. and Langdon cogently questions the modern-day view of the 8th century “renaissance”, which may even obscure as much as it enlightens the significant patterns of the period. Rather, Langdon views Geometric material culture through a social lens that yields important insights into art, society, and religion. A central tenet of her study is “that societal change in early Greece was consciously or unconsciously maneuvered through stages of maturation” (p. 293). Rather than limiting the enquiry as it always was to two options: did Geometric pictures depict everyday objects and happenings or were they expressions of a mythic consciousness? Langdon suggests a third alternative: “As a true representational system, the Geometric pictorial style constituted a widely accepted means of depicting reality in terms that complicated social life and created difference” (p. 293).

Envisioning Geometric pictorial representation as a highly social phenomenon is not, as Langdon notes (p. 17), a challenging task. What is more difficult is what Langdon tries to achieve: to return Geometric art to the rituals of life. I suspect that some more traditional Classical art historians may not warm to every aspect of this book, as it unsettles the comfortable manner in which many scholars have looked at image and text as analogues of one another. But this is the challenge of Art and Identity : it shows us that many of the questions previously asked, and indeed the very premises by which Geometric iconography was approached, were off-track, if not flawed.

In short, this is a spectacular book and, to my mind, one of the most intelligent analyses of Greek Geometric art ever written. Its brilliance lies in its simplicity. Reading through it, it is remarkable how many times I found myself thinking: “why hasn’t anyone thought of this before?!” Well conceived and thought through, thoroughly researched, richly illustrated, and elegantly written, Art and Identity is a “must-read” for anyone even remotely interested in early Greece. It will quickly take its place as a seminal study, one that will re-orient the way in which we look at pictures in the corpus of Greek Geometric figural representation.


1. See, most recently, A.M. Snodgrass, Homer and the Artists: Text and Picture in Early Greek Art, Cambridge 1998.

2. R. Hampe, Frühe griechische Sagenbilder in Böotien, Athens 1936, 87-88, fig. 31; for full discussion and references, see J.K. Papadopoulos, “Tricks and Twins: Nestor, Aktorione-Molione, the Agora Oinochoe and the Potter Who Made Them,” in P.P. Betancourt, V. Karageorghis, R. Laffineur and W.-D. Niemeier, eds., Meletemata: Studies in Aegean Archaeology Presented to Malcolm H. Wiener as he enters his 65th Year (Aegaeum 20), Liège 1999, 633-640.

3. A.S. Murray, “A New Vase of the Dipylon Class,” JHS 19, 1899, 198-201.

4. Including G.S. Kirk, “Ships on Geometric Vases,” BSA 44, 1949, 93-153; S. Brunnsåker, “The Pithecusan Shipwreck: A Study of a Late Geometric Picture and Some Basic Aesthetic Concepts of the Geometric Figure-Style,” OpRom 4, 1962, 232, note 3; K. Fittschen, Untersuchungen zum Beginn der Sagendarstellungen beiden Griechen, Berlin 1969; A.M. Snodgrass, An Archaeology of Greece: The Present State and Future Scope of a Discipline Berkeley 1987, 166-169; T. Rombos, The Iconography of Attic Late Geometric II Pottery (SIMA 68), Jonsered 1988; G. Ahlberg-Cornell, Myth and Epos in Early Greek Art: Representation and Interpretation (SIMA 100), Jonsered 1992.

5. A. Van Gennep, Rites de Passage Paris 1909, though this seminal work is not referred to by Langdon.

6. See K. Dowden, The Uses of Greek Mythology, London and New York 1992; see further Dowden, Death and the Maiden: Girls’ Initiation Rites in Greek Mythology, London and New York.