BMCR 2021.04.25

Collapse and transformation: the late Bronze Age to early Iron Age in the Aegean

, Collapse and transformation: the late Bronze Age to early Iron Age in the Aegean. Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2020. Pp. xii, 258. ISBN 9781789254259 $80.00.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

Written by a diverse group of scholars who have previously made significant contributions to the topic, Collapse and Transformation provides a detailed overview of what happened in Greece after the end of the Mycenaean kingdoms at the turn of the twelfth century BC. The book is dedicated to one of these scholars, Oliver Dickinson, Reader in Greek Archaeology at Durham until his retirement in 2005, author of The Aegean from Bronze Age to Iron Age: Continuity and Change Between the Twelfth and Eighth Centuries BC (2006) among other studies, and supervisor of the editor’s doctoral dissertation on The Collapse of Palatial Society in LBA Greece and the Postpalatial Period (2010).

The main part of the book is an almost complete and fairly up-to-date survey, by region, of the Late Bronze Age Aegean arranged into twelve chapters (3-14) organized alphabetically by the surnames of their authors. It covers the entire area from eastern Thessaly to Crete and from Achaea to Rhodes but excludes Elis, Arcadia and the Ionian Islands.[1] The rest of the chapters are mostly thematic, summarizing research on pottery, burial practices, religion and economy, and providing views from the eastern Mediterranean that balance the markedly Aegean focus of the collection. While the book effectively meets the need of researchers and advanced students of early Greek archaeology for an overview of current research on the aftermath of the Mycenaean collapse, brief geographical and research-historical summaries on each surveyed area and a general “Note on terms and chronology”, accompanied by a relevant bibliography (p. xiii), can facilitate access to the topic to an even wider circle of readers from other archaeological and historical subfields.

After a brief theoretical introduction into the concepts of resilience, reorganization and regeneration (ch. 1), Middleton applies this theoretical framework to the Mycenaean collapse (ch. 2), which he sees as the result of “hegemonic fragility” generated by the attempt of states, rulers, etc. to dominate over their rivals. The best example of such a model is Boeotia (discussed by Christofilis Maggidis), where a complex configuration of power with three palatial centers (Thebes, Orchomenos, Glas) experienced a dense series of disruptions extending over more than a century and a half before the final destruction of Thebes around 1200 BC. At the other end of the interpretative spectrum, Robert Drews explores the collapse of Bronze Age statehood across the Aegean and east Mediterranean as the result of a cataclysmic wave of raids and sacks, recounting—with the skill of a filmmaker—the “sudden and physical terror” experienced by the populations involved. But why did the Mediterranean states not recover from this particular disaster, as they had done after other disasters in the past? This common objection is voiced in the book by Eric Cline, who summarizes research on the Mediterranean crisis as a “systems collapse”, based on his own 1177 B.C: The Year that Civilization Collapsed (2014). The book also includes a chapter by Oliver Dickinson (ch. 16), in which he summarizes research challenging the historical reliability of the Trojan War, the Dorian Invasion and the Ionian Migration among other Greek legends.

In the regional survey, the old idea of a total Dark Age after the fall of the Mycenaean palaces is refuted even in Messenia, where Julie Hruby finds that the estimated numbers of indigenous conquered populations (helots) in the Archaic period were too high to assume anything but demographic continuity. In examining postpalatial Laconia, Chrysanthi Gallou emphasizes the survival of ports, the prosperity of the sanctuary at Amyklai and the evidence of metallurgical activity. Achaea and the Euboean Gulf, discussed by Emiliano Arena and Margaretha Kramer-Hajos respectively, even seem to have increased their social complexity and economic prosperity after the collapse.

In eastern Thessaly, surveyed by Vassiliki Adrymi-Sismani, and in the Argive plain, surveyed by Tobias Mühlenbruch, a temporary revival of some sort of leadership after the collapse was short-lived, whereas in the “Lower Town” of Tiryns, a new wave of urbanization was not completed.[2] In view of these developments and the largely political nature of the palatial collapse, Mühlenbruch’s notion of a “radical culture change” is open to debate. Despite the changes, Peta Bulmer and Susan Lupack point toward fundamental continuity in burial practices, social organization and religious behavior. This conclusion is in accord with the picture of the Mycenaean economy drawn by Sarah Murray, who observes that the exchange of goods in palatial times was not exclusively palatial, whereas agropastoral production was effectively controlled by private households. Thus, a general decrease in economic activity and its complexity caused by a demographic decline under changing climatological conditions could be, in Murray’s view, a plausible scenario for the twelfth century transformation. Here, we come to a puzzle often encountered in the archaeological study of destruction: the distinction of cause and effect. Relevant to this puzzle is Saro Wallace’s view that the general strengthening of lower-level economic units might have been an overarching cause (rather than a consequence) of the crisis in the eastern Mediterranean.

Uneven developments within the same region can also be observed. East Lokris and Phokis are considered to have been integrated into the palatial system (e.g., Kalapodi and west Phokis were connected with Orchomenos), but Antonia Livieratou does justice to the complexity of the issue, arguing for an entirely independent polity of Krisa in the Gulf of Itea. In Attica, discussed by Robin Osborne, the countryside was largely abandoned after c. 1200, but in Athens itself, habitation continued through to the historical period. In Corinthia (excluding its southern part from the Phlious basin to the recently discovered major port of Kalamianos in the Saronic Gulf), Eleni Balomenou argues for the transformative rather than cataclysmic nature of local developments despite proximity to the heartland of the palatial system.[3] The regionalism and political fragmentation that followed the collapse in Crete (almost a century earlier) is surveyed by Charlotte Langohr, and that on the Aegean islands (covering the Cyclades, the Dodecanese, the northeastern Aegean islands and Skyros) is surveyed by Mercourios Georgiadis.

Pottery studies are obviously essential for bringing order to the archaeological record, which can sometimes be “chaotic”, particularly in the postpalatial period, as Robin Osborne admits. Relevant chapters by Penelope Mountjoy and Jeremy Rutter are focused on the contact zone extending from Lemnos, Samothrace and Troy to the southern Levant, and on the rest of the Aegean, the Greek mainland and further west, respectively.

Providing a summary of current research alone is a significant contribution, given the vast amount of data and related interpretations available today, more than half a century after the first systematic treatment of the topic by Vincent Desborough in The Last Mycenaeans and Their Successors (1964). The book under review provides more than that; it inspires us to rethink the Mycenaean palatial power as a continuum across time and space from denser concentrations to more diffuse and subtler forms. In this respect, Bulmer and Lupack are right in doubting that palatial control ever became as widespread and tight as we tend to think, or that it ever succeeded in wiping out cultural and sociopolitical traditions established before the palaces. Furthermore, the book invites us to abandon the notion of an isolated postpalatial Aegean. On the contrary, maritime contacts seem to have provided the basis for resilience in several coastal areas and islands as well as for the transformation of the practices of the palatial elite into the aristocratic practices that would eventually create the social basis for the rise of the Greek polis.[4] The island of Cyprus, jointly examined in this book by A. Bernard Knapp and Nathan Meyer as an example of resilience during the twelfth century (or, rather, of a belated collapse after c. 1100), seems to have remained a source of prestige goods for the Aegean during the crisis and for some time afterwards. Another creative aspect of the postpalatial transformation of Greece is, finally, the emergence of a particular culture of memory and related rituals. The issue is touched upon in passing by a number of authors in this collection—Maggidis, for instance, sees the Mycenaean kings and warriors as being “fossilized in the realm of a heroic past”—as well as by the present reviewer elsewhere.[5]

The book is well produced, with good black and white photographs, maps and line drawings. Some maps would benefit from more geophysical information necessary to follow discussions of topography and related political geography. Typos are not exactly rare, especially when Greek is involved,[6] but are not particularly significant either. Overall, reading this book from beginning to end is an intellectually rewarding experience for anyone looking for sociopolitical, economic and cultural history in material remains.

Authors and titles

1. Introducing collapse, Guy D. Middleton
2. Mycenaean collapse(s) c. 1200 BC, Guy D. Middleton
3. The destruction of Mycenaean centres in eastern Thessaly, Vassiliki Adrymi-Sismani
4. Mycenaean Achaea before and after the collapse, Emiliano Arena
5. Chaos is a ladder: first Corinthians climbing – the end of the Mycenaean Age at Corinthia, Eleni Balomenou
6. LH IIIC and Submycenaean Laconia, Chrysanthi Gallou
7. Collapse at the end of the Late Bronze Age in the Aegean, Mercourios Georgiadis
8. Messenia, Julie A. Hruby
9. The Euboean Gulf, Margaretha Kramer-Hajos
10. Growth and turmoil in the thirteenth century in Crete, Charlotte Langohr
11. East Lokris-Phokis, Antonia Livieratou
12. Glas and Boeotia, Christofilis Maggidis
13. The Argolid, Tobias Mühlenbruch
14. Collapse and transformation in Athens and Attica, Robin Osborne
15. Continuities and changes in Mycenaean burial practices after the collapse of the palace system, Peta Bulmer
16. The irrelevance of Greek ‘tradition’, Oliver Dickinson
17. Continuity and change in religious practice from the Late Bronze Age to the Iron Age, Susan Lupack
18. LH IIIC pottery and destruction in the East Aegean–West Anatolian Interface, Cilicia, Cyprus and coastal Levant, Penelope A. Mountjoy
19. The changing economy, Sarah C. Murray
20. Late palatial versus early postpalatial Mycenaean pottery (c. 1250–1150 BC): ceramic change during an episode of cultural collapse and regeneration, Jeremy B. Rutter
21. Beyond the Aegean: consideration of the LBA collapse in the eastern Mediterranean, Eric H. Cline
22. Catastrophe revisited, Robert Drews
23. Cyprus: Bronze Age demise, Iron Age regeneration, A. Bernard Knapp and Nathan Meyer
24. Economies in crisis: subsistence and landscape technology in the Aegean and east Mediterranean after c. 1200 BC, Saro Wallace


[1] For these regions see, instead, the chapters “Central West Mainland” by A. Gadolou and K. Paschalidis, and “The Central Ionian Islands” by C. Morgan, in: I.S. Lemos, A. Kotsonas (eds.), A Companion to the Archaeology of Early Greece and the Mediterranean, Hoboken, NJ, 2020. For Arcadia, see E. Salavoura, Μυκηναϊκή Αρκαδία: Αρχαιολογική και τοπογραφική θεώρηση, Athens 2015.

[2] I.S. Lemos, A. Livieratou, M. Thomatos, in: S. Owen, L. Preston (eds.), Inside the City in the Greek World: Studies of Urbanism from the Bronze Age to the Hellenistic Period, Oxford and Oakville 2009, 62-84; J. Maran, in: J. Driessen (ed.), ra-pi-ne-u: Studies on the Mycenaean World offered to Robert Laffineur for his 70th Birthday, Louvain-la-Neuve 2016, esp. 217-218.

[3] An important addition to the cited literature is K.P. Theodoridis, Μυκηναϊκή Κορινθία, PhD thesis, University of Ioannina 2014. Ioulia  Tzonou now argues for a Mycenaean date of the lowest part of the Acrocorinth fortification walls, suggesting a Mycenaean administrative center overlooking the city to the north and its very active port at Korakou, see Annual Meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America, January 2020, Abstracts, 56-57.

[4] For the transformation of elite practices, see, in particular, J. Maran, in: J. Maran, P.W. Stockhammer (eds.), Materiality and Social Practice: Transformative Capacities of Intercultural Encounters, Oxford and Oakville 2012, 121-136.

[5] For a twelfth century BC process of dematerialization that gave the imposing materiality of the Mycenaean world a second, virtual life in the oral tradition of epic song, see M. Mikrakis, “The monumentalization of Mycenaean architecture after 1200 BC”, in: International Conference on Monumentality, organized by the Hellenic Open University, Acropolis Museum, Athens, 4-6 April 2019 (forthcoming).

[6] E.g., p. 16: for “Ayilos Vasileios/Lakonia” read “Ayios Vasileios/Lakonia”; p. 33: for “Praktiká tῆs ἐn Athínais Ἀrkhaioloyikῆς Ἑtairías”, nine times, read “Praktika tes en Athenais Archaiologikes Etaireias”; p. 130: for Greek “agona” read “agones” or “agons”).