BMCR 2021.10.19

Μνήμη/ Mneme. Past and Memory in the Aegean Bronze Age

, , , , Μνήμη/ Mneme. Past and Memory in the Aegean Bronze Age. Proceedings of the 17th International Aegean Conference, University of Udine, Department of Humanities and Cultural Heritage, Ca' Foscari University of Venice, Department of Humanities, 17-21 April 2018. Aegaeum, 43. Leuven: Peeters, 2019. Pp. 782. ISBN 9789042939035 €165,00.

Table of Contents

This bulky but still elegant volume publishes the papers presented at the 17th International Aegean Conference held in Venice in April 2018. This volume continues the tradition of thematic Aegean conferences that was begun in 1986 in Liège, curated to an exemplary level by Robert Laffineur and published unfailingly under his (co-)editorship in the prestigious Aegaeum series. The subject of this particular conference and its resulting proceedings volume revolve around the topic of memory and the perception of the past in the Aegean Bronze Age.

The ninety-one papers (including twenty-one posters) have been conveniently arranged in twelve thematic sections with an additional section for the posters, and are flanked by the customary editorial preface and the published version of the conference’s keynote lecture, as well as two concluding papers. Although this structure appropriately reflects the program of the conference itself,[1] it would have been a bit more convenient for the reader if the published posters had been placed within their appropriate thematic sections. Papers in this volume deal with Aegean Bronze Age ‘memory’ in two ways: on the one hand, there are presentations and discussions of evidence for how Bronze Age agents and communities perceived and confronted their own idea of the ‘past’ or dealt with ‘past things’, from generating monuments down to the practical issues involved in administrative book-keeping; on the other hand, some papers assume a post-Bronze Age perspective and present us viewpoints of how this era was ‘remembered’ in later times, including in the era of modern scholarship.

Throughout the volume, certain grand themes are continuously revisited through the lens of the construction, re-construction and de-construction of past memories: the formation of collective identity, the manipulation of communal memory aiming at the propagation of continuities and discontinuities, as well as the effect of the practice of memory on the shaping of cultural landscapes for both the living and the dead (the latter occasionally interpreted as ‘heroes’ or true or fictive ‘ancestors’). To quote one of the contributors (Diamantis Panagiotopoulos), the topic at the center of the conference was “not the past itself, but its instrumentalization by social groups in the Bronze Age Aegean” (364), as well as in later contexts, including the 1st millennium BC (e.g. Naya Sgouritsa on the removal of bones from a warrior burial at Marathon, 343-349; Eleni Salavoura on the relevance of the Bronze Age to Arkadian identity, 533-541; John Younger, 603-608, and Karen Foster, 609-618, on the possible Bronze Age ancestry of Lētō and of the representations of Athēna and Hēraklēs as swallow and lion, respectively; Santo Privitera on the reinterpretation of monuments on the Athenian acropolis, 619-625; Paola Contursi on historical tomb cult in Mycenaean burials, 687-691, or Anastasia Leriou on ‘Mycenaean’ elements in Early Iron Age Cypriote funerary architecture, 719-724), and by modern agents (see e.g. Nicoletta Momigliano on our perception of the Aegean Bronze Age cultures, 629-638).

The very multifaceted nature of the central concept of the volume is reflected in the sheer diversity of the individual papers, of which only a glimpse can be offered here in a way analogous to that of Thomas Palaima’s panoptic browse in his humorous and therapeutic concluding account of the fictional discovery of a ‘Linear B’ inscription commemorating the conference itself (777-782; the volume’s true endnote; Palaima’s endnotes have been a firm feature of International Aegean Conferences over the last 25 years). Their quantity precludes detailed reference to but a few of them. Still, their excellent quality compels this reviewer to offer his deepest apologies to those many colleagues whose brilliant work could not be mentioned in this review. Prospective readers are urged to browse through the table of contents (see link above) and explore the sections of this massive volume.

Those papers attempting to define a theoretical framework for assessing the social role of memory deserve special mention. James Wright’s maximalistic introduction to the concept and aspects of social memory (3-14), including the fundamental differences in scale and function between communicative and collective memory, is commendable, as is Panagiotopoulos’ support of a thoroughly contextual approach to problems arising thereof (363-369).[2] Additional insightful discussions are included in many papers, but I single out the typology of memory types outlined by Nikos Papadimitriou (243-252) and the detailed distinction between many categories of ‘curated’ aide-mémoires by Brent Davis, Emilia Banou, Louise Hitchcock and Anne Chapin (435-441), as well as the essay by Claire Camberlein on the identification of antiques (677-680).[3]

Death, destruction and separation in space and time can stimulate or numb memory, depending on the agency of the entities (individual or collective) who remember or forget. However generic, this is perhaps the most contiguous thread throughout most of the papers presented. Aegean prehistorians approach through this lens the diachronic history of sites or regions (e.g. Simona Todaro and Filippo Carinci on the Mesara, 17-33; Ken and Diana Wardle, Heleni Palaiologou, Robert Laffineur, and Rodney Fitzsimons on Mycenae, 153-164, 173-185, 253-268; Vassilis Aravantinos on Thebes, 187-197; Joanne Murphy on Pylos, 209-217; Luca Girella, Peter Pavúk and Magda Pieniążek on the Aegean-Anatolian interface, 523-531; Evangelia Stefani and Nikos Merousis on central Macedonia, 551-558; Mercourios Georgiadis on the Dodecanese, 559-567; Salvatore Vitale and Calla McNamee on Kos, 569-575; Ioannis Voskos on the continuous use and abuse of Mycenaean sites in Cephalonia and Ithaca during the Late Bronze, the Iron Age and the modern era, 759-762), as well as patterns of specific behaviors and attitudes (e.g. Florence Gaignerot-Driessen on the reformative character of Late Minoan (hereafter LM) IIIC cult topography and assemblages, 65-70; Ilaria Caloi on structured deposits in Neopalatial sites, 115-120; Nikos Papadimitriou on innovative sensory experiences stimulating visual semantic memory during Early Mycenaean mortuary rituals, 243-252; Georgia Baldacci on an intentional Neopalatial deposit amidst Protopalatial ruins at Phaistos, 667-670).

Funerary contexts receive the most attention and mortuary evidence forms the core of some of the aforementioned papers on specific sites or regions. Specific topics include the continuous, punctuated or changing use of tombs (e.g. Bryan Burns and Brendan Burke on the Eleon ‘Blue Stone Structure’, 269-275, Aleydis van de Moortel, Salvatore Vitale, Bartłomiej Lis and Giuliana Bianco on Mitrou tomb 73 respectively, 277-291), an understandable emphasis on Mycenaean secondary burials (e.g. Angus Smith and Sevasti Triantaphyllou on Ayia Sotira, 301-304; Kontantina Aktypi, Olivia Jones and Michalis Gazis on cemeteries in western Achaea, 319-328, Niki Papakonstantinou, Triantaphyllou and Maria Stathi on Spata Kolikrepi, 737-742), and the iconography and use of clay larnakes (papers by Constance von Rüden, 395-404; Jacob Heywood and Brent Davis, 703-707; and Angélique Labrude, 713-718; cf. also Lefteris Platon’s suggestion that the LM III ‘transfer’ of motifs of Neopalatial ancestry on larnakes suggests commemoration of pertinent practices, 389-394).

The occurrence of earlier items in later contexts is also extensively covered (e.g. Andreas Vlachopoulos on Early Cycladic artifacts in Late Cycladic I Akrotiri, 443-453; Alice Crowe on Minoan artefacts in the Knossos Early Iron Age cemeteries, 481-486; Mary Dabney on heirlooms in funerary contexts, 507-510; Sarah Murray on exotica and ‘heirlooms’ in Perati, 731-735; Olga Krzyszkowska on antique seals in Minoan and later Crete, 487-496;Jörg Weilhartner on the use of earlier seals on Mycenaean sealings, 497-505; Artemis Karnava on the continuous administrative use of a signet-ring throughout LM I, 579-589; and Maria Emanuela Alberti on Early Helladic balance weights in Late Helladic contexts, 659-662). Of course, it is the study of such objects that pushes the boundaries of the concept of ‘memory’ to its limits: were they carriers of true ‘memories’? How was their ancestry perceived? On the other hand, continuity in craft production is a very apt example of carefully curated procedural memory (e.g. papers by Natalie Abell and Evi Gorogianni on diachronic changes in Ayia Irini periods IV-VIII, 655-658; Agata Ulanowska and Małgorzata Siennicka on the transmission of textile production knowledge, 753-757).

Two very important papers reveal the importance of tradition, focusing on the special ideological gravity of Knossos (Fritz Blakolmer, 425-434) and the subtle ‘traditionalization’ of the Mycenaean palatial megaron (Joseph Maran, 353-361).

The utterly variable way in which the topic of memory can be approached has resulted in a certain broadening of the thematic coverage. In almost all cases, the material presented is very interesting, the presentation superb and the discussion quite stimulating, but the relevance to the concept of memory is quite variable. Maintenance of tradition, innovation, the continuous or discontinuous use of funerary or non-funerary sites, conservatism and change, the manipulation or abandonment of debris, the construction or de-construction of landscapes, the formation and preservation of identities may all be related to the act of remembering or, just as importantly, forgetting (on the latter see most explicitly Thomas Brogan’s paper on the abandonment of sites in LM II-IIIB Mirabello region, 59-63).

The result might appear as a certain conceptual inflation. Yet, this phenotype reflects intrinsic qualities of human memory. “Nearly everything people do is supported by some procedural memory”,[4] but conscious types of memory are just as omnipresent in almost every human activity, in the way we understand ourselves and others, individually or collectively. In such a way, memory cannot be irrelevant to any category of material evidence about the human past, a point well emphasized at the beginning of Jan Driessen’s ‘endnote’ (765-774). That said, there are admittedly cases, where the potential of the material discussed to illuminate this agenda was not fully explored, with the presentation and discussion of the archaeological material taking precedence. For instance, Iphiyenia Tournavitou’s discussion of ritual breakage in Minoan peak sanctuaries (107-113) is extremely rigorous and systematic, but the association of the patterns she identifies with the shaping and maintenance of collective memory is only mentioned in the last paragraph of the paper. Overall, the presentation and discussion of the evidence is excellent, with minor justifiable complaints: for instance, it would have been better if Sofia Antonello had illustrated at least one example of the Minoan ‘double vase’ type that she surveys (663-666) and I wish Sandy MacGillivray’s “heretical” and “post-materialist” (in his own words) essay on the nature of archaeological knowledge (639-643) was anchored to exemplificatory archaeological evidence.

As typically with volumes in the Aegaeum series, the production layout is outstanding, as is the quality of almost all images (the low resolution of plate LXXVIb being an exception). There are no blank pages (and some plates are printed on even-numbered pages on the reverse of caption lists), just as one would expect in a volume of such bulk. Occasionally there are typos (e.g. “TOURNAVTOU” p. 255, n. 13), but these can easily be excused in a work of such scale when produced with such speed.

Laffineur and his collaborators should be congratulated once more for bringing a very successful Aegean conference to its fine typographic conclusion and for offering us a collection of so many valuable and highly stimulating papers. The rich and diverse (but still focused on the Aegean Bronze Age) perspectives of the volume are its greatest merit.


[1] Mneme Aegaeum 17 programme.

[2] Cf. also his paper “In the grip of their past? Tracing Mycenaean memoria”, in S. Sherratt and J. Bennet (eds.) Archaeology and the Homeric Epic, Sheffield Studies in Aegean Archaeology 11, Oxford/ Philadelphia 2017, 74-100.

[3] Although analogical, visual browsing is a faulty process, I failed to see a reference to one highly relevant recent study applying Pierre Nora’s concept of “lieux de mémoire”: M.B. Cosmopoulos, “Lieux de mémoire mycéniens et la naissance des sanctuaires grecs”, Revue Archéologique 62/2 (2016), 251-278.

[4] A.D. Baddeley, M.W. Eysenck and M.C. Anderson, Memory, Third Edition (2020), 147.