BMCR 2022.07.05

Inter-cultural communications and iconography in the western Mediterranean during the Late Bronze Age and the Early Iron Age

, Inter-cultural communications and iconography in the western Mediterranean during the Late Bronze Age and the Early Iron Age. Freiburger archäologische Studien, Band 9. Rahden: Verlag Marie Leidorf, 2018. Pp. 397. ISBN 9783896467973. €54,80.

In this substantial book, Araque provides a fresh approach to the socio-political organisation of four areas from the Western Mediterranean during the Late Bronze and Early Iron Ages—Sardinia, the Iberian Peninsula, Corsica and Sicily—through a close analysis of their iconographic art (anthropomorphic, zoomorphic, and some artefacts). The focus on the west is especially useful, an area often overlooked when compared to the more studied Aegean and Near East.

The book’s division into numerous sections and sub-sections reflects its origin as a doctoral thesis; it also incorporates and revises previously published work (Gonzalez 2014, 2020). In Chapter l,  “Approaches towards image media, inter-cultural communications and anarchic societies” Araque introduces his methodology and main aims:: to gain new information on ‘communication structures’ through examining images from an anarchic theory perspective; to investigate prehistoric religion; to better understand  the nature of inter-cultural communication in the Late Bronze and Early Iron ages; to  investigate the effect of inter-cultural communication  on past societies; and to understand the socio-political structures of past societies. The author characterises the  socio-political organisation of, in particular, Nuragic Sardinia, Iberia and Corsica as anarchic societies’. To do this Araque introduces five criteria, originally proposed by Angelbeck and Grier (2012) to identify anarchic societies: 1) individual and local authority 2) network organisation and mutual aid, 3) Communal decision making, 4) justified authority and 5) decentralization and the refusal of centralised authority. These criteria are reviewed at the end of each of the main chapters to assess how appropriate they are for each case study.

Chapter ll (“The Mediterranean Situation, c. 1300-525 BC”) offers a brief overview of the Late Bronze and Early Iron Age Mediterranean framed as increasing connectivity between east and west after the fall of the Near Eastern empires and complex societies. The focus is on the iconographic representations as evidence of connections and networks across the Mediterranean. Key to this connectivity are the ‘Sea Peoples’ in the Bronze Age and later the ‘Phoenicians’ in the Iron Age. The periodization closes with the Mediterraneizzante (8th -6th centuries BC), this can be seen as the equivalent of the ‘Orientalizing’ period or era of Phoenician colonization in other studies of this period. It is defined as a sort of globalising koine, led firstly by Bronze Age sea-peoples, then Phoenicians, which  gradually eliminated out local differences ,thereby creating a more ‘unified’ culture across the Mediterranean.

The bulk of the book comprises chapters III-VI, dedicated, respectively, to Sardinia”, Southwestern Iberia, Corsica”, and Sicily. The repeated subdivisions within each chapter— ‘The Archaeological Record’, ‘Iconography’, and ‘Society’ allow ready cross-referencing and comparison. The first sub-section critically introduces the area from an archaeological perspective; the second (and largest of the three) examines the iconography of that area, while the third offers an analysis of the evidence for inter-cultural contacts, reflecting the current state of research. Chapters III and IV on Sardinia and the Iberian Peninsula dwarf those on Corsica and Sicily, which reflects the differences in the amount of available data. Chapter III on Sardinia outlines Nuragic society before describing and discussing the iconography. Nuragic bronze figurines, mainly humans, with fewer animals, boats and a few other artefacts, have been extensively described and analysed by other scholars. Araque offers a new categorization of the figurines, based on style and artistry. He suggests that they were done at different workshops in a period between the 12th and 9th centuries BC. Sardinia, in this period, is portrayed as an island open to contacts and immigration, prior to the arrival of Phoenicians in the 9th/8th centuries BC. He proposes that Nuragic society was anarchic citing the lack of evidence for ‘elites’ in the archaeological record.

The data on Southwestern Iberia is more wide-ranging, but it mainly focuses on the warrior and diademada stele ‘the only image media that survived from the Southwestern Iberian FBA’ (p. 187). Unfortunately, none of them have been found in their original position and decontextualised objects lose much of their potential usefulness. As with the organisation of the Sardinian chapter much of this one is spent categorising material, here, the stele, mainly on a regional basis, with the earliest dated to the 13th/12th centuries BC. Basing his analysis on the many horned anthropomorphic depictions and the fact that many are found near water, the author links these stelae to a warrior-traveller. A second section comprises a discussion on the Iron Age (mainly anthropomorphic) bronze figurines associated with the Mediterraneizzante period and the arrival of the Phoenicians. The chapter concludes by suggesting that the BA Iberian culture was ‘anarchic’ due to their strong opposition towards centralization and high degree of mobility (p. 271).

Chapter V ‘Corsica’ reveals how little is still known of the island. Having introduced the BA and IA on the island the author focuses on the nearly 100 statue-menhirs and stele, some of which were anthropomorphised or show daggers and swords. Their dating has proved difficult although similarities with the Sardinian bronze statuettes have led scholars to place them in the Recent Bronze Age/Final Bronze Age transition. Overall Corsica remains a tabula rasa where both more fanciful and serious attempts to understand the BA/IA society still remain suppositions. The chapter’s conclusion that, ‘not much can be said about Corsican society in the FBA’ (p. 294) admits the difficulty of extrapolating information from such a limited and ambiguous data set.

More is offered in Chapter VI ‘Sicily’ which has been extensively studied from the BA and later Greek/Phoenician periods; the Iron Age is less well known. Araque introduces the Bronze Age culture mainly through the better-known rock tombs of Pantalica and the site of Thapsos. Iconographic data is, however, much less abundant and more mixed, comprising anthropomorphic representations as well as decorated bronzes, all of which derive mostly from the later 7th-6th centuries BC and thus generally place the evidence beyond direct comparison with the  artefacts considered elsewhere in the book. This chapter concludes with the assertion that the island was plagued by internal and foreign conflicts and that the communities were managed by warlords whose belligerence prevented the local communities developing into larger and more complex groups.

Chapter VII, “inter-Cultural Communications, Iconographic and Social Change” provides a synthesis of the changes that took place between 1400-525 BC: its emphasis is on how images reflected the strategies adopted by each region as culture contact increased. The overview of the previous chapters is unfortunately marred by some rather questionable assertions. For example, Araque claims that the Sardinians had a navy in the 14th /13th centuries BC which cooperated with Cypriot and Levantine traders (p. 334), which is based problematically on the miniature bronze boats found in Sardinia and the Italian mainland (and often dated much later). One section looks briefly at the only three region-wide iconographic representations, the earlier horned warrior and later Goddesses and Phallic warriors . Here, the horned warrior motif is seen as an archetypal image connecting not only the whole Mediterranean (both east and west) but also the different regional zones in the Bronze Age; the goddesses and phallic warriors on the other hand are images from the Iron Age.

The book closes with conclusions and perspectives for future research.

The book provides a wealth of detail and data not otherwise easily accessible. Araque has made impressive inroads in the classification of Sardinian bronze figurines and Iberian iconographic stelae. The discussion and classification of the Sardinian bronze figurines are welcome attempts to shed light on and to organise this complex and varied group of objects. The inclusion of Corsica, too, is also very equally welcome. Although it has little in the way of archaeological evidence compared to the other areas, its absence from other recent works in English—one thinks of the recent Oxford Handbook of the Bronze Age—means that it has often only been treated by a few scholars writing in French and Italian.

A couple of critical points should be addressed. Firstly, there is little discussion of the ceramic data in the book. While this might have been prevented for reasons of space and focus, it means that a lot of useful evidence (for dating, socio-political organisation and culture contact) is missing. Bronze Age Sardinian pottery has been extensively studied, and so arguably should have been included in a book that attempts to describe the socio-political organisation of a society. Secondly, looking specifically at Sardinia, the chronology of the bronze figurines is notoriously difficult to establish because so few have been found in any datable contexts. Araque attempts a novel approach of dating them by the objects they carry. The weaknesses here are that, on the one hand, it is very difficult to identify in any detail the typology of a particular pot from a statuette and on the other, the item he does choose (a reversed elbow handled storage jar (fig III.30.27)) was in use throughout the Bronze and Iron Ages, down to the 7thcentury BC. Using this item to push the whole chronology of the group back to the 12th century is fraught with methodological difficulties.

Finally, the contention that three of the four societies were ‘anarchic’ seems less secure on the evidence available. Lack of the typical ‘princely’ burials such as those found on the Italian mainland might suggest that we are looking for the wrong type of evidence. But do we need to look for evidence of ‘anarchism’? Perhaps, with little evidence available, calling societies egalitarian or kinship-based is enough (Fisher 2014: 399; Tronchetti 2014: 275).


Angelbeck, B. and C. Grier 2012. “Anarchism and the archaeology of anarchic societies: resistance to centralization in the Coast Salish region of the Pacific Northwest Coast.” Current Anthropology 53: 547–87.

Fisher, K. D. 2014. “Rethinking the late Cypriot built environment: households and communities as places of social transformation”. In The Cambridge Prehistory of the Bronze and Iron Age Mediterranean, edited by Knapp, A.B. and van Dommelen P, 399-416. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Fokkens, Harry, and Anthony Harding, eds. 2013. The Oxford handbook of the European Bronze Age. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gonzalez, Ralph Araque. 2014. “Social organization in Nuragic Sardinia: cultural progress without ‘elites’?”Cambridge Archaeological Journal 24: 141–161.

—. 2020. “Anarchy in the Bronze Age? Social organization and complexity in Sardinia.” In Alternative Iron Ages: social theory from archaeological analysis, edited by Brais X. Currás and Inés Sastre, 74–94. Abingdon: Routledge.

Tronchetti, C. 2014. “Cultural Interactions in Iron Age Sardinia”. In The Cambridge Prehistory of the Bronze and Iron Age Mediterranean, edited by Knapp, A.B. and van Dommelen P, 266-284. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.