BMCR 2023.02.15

Zoia: animal-human interactions in the Aegean Middle and Late Bronze Age

, , Zoia: animal-human interactions in the Aegean middle and late Bronze Age. Aegaeum, 45. Leuven: Peeters, 2021. Pp. 394. ISBN 9789042946361

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


This volume was originally to be based on the proceedings of the 18th International Aegean Conference, but due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the conference was cancelled and the editors collected contributions from intended participants. Using varied approaches, the authors address the many ways that humans and animals interacted in the Aegean during the Middle and Late Bronze Age. The resulting volume is an exciting and diverse collection of papers that rely on different datasets and theoretical approaches. The editors begin Zoia with a written version of a keynote address by Diamantis Panagiotopoulos and divide the remaining 27 articles into five sections; I summarize most contributions below (authors and titles are listed at the end of the review).

A great strength of Zoia is the ability of the authors to synthesize different types of evidence. With so many research interests and data sets represented, the contributions differ in their scope, length, and integration of theoretical perspectives. This is often an advantage, demonstrating the benefit of using different ways of understanding a multifaceted issue like human-animal relationships. However, the contrast between approaches is especially apparent among the short, synthetic contributions that are less explicit about a research question or a theoretical perspective (e.g., “The Contribution of Archaeological Science to the Study of Animals in Aegean Prehistory” and “Gournia’s Recent Contributions to Animal Studies”). Additionally, the sections sometimes feel arbitrary, as many articles would have been equally appropriate under multiple headings. Regardless, Zoia is a valuable collection showcasing nuanced conclusions about the role of animals in the past. This volume is evidence that the “animal turn” is achieving great influence on the study of the ancient Aegean.

Panagiotopoulos’ keynote address seeks to incorporate theoretical perspectives from the field of Human-Animal Studies into studies of Aegean prehistory. The author highlights three specific “notions” from Human-Animal Studies: symbolism, situationality, and animal agency. Panagiotopoulos’ view of symbolism aims to understand the relationship between human cognition and animals. The idea of situationality highlights the diversity of human-animal encounters, as these encounters are not purely spatial. Using these “notions,” Panagiotopoulos analyzes imagery on Aegean seals, raising questions about depictions of control and hierarchy. The keynote address is a bold appeal to think about animals as social agents in Aegean prehistory. Many of the contributions in Zoia rise to this challenge, offering unique and compelling approaches to understanding the role of animals in Bronze Age society.

The papers of the first section, “Identification of the Animal Environment,” are primarily concerned with the evidence for past populations of animals. Marie-Louise Nosch and collaborators examine sheep and wool production as a major nexus within Bronze Age economies. Their contribution combines studies of glyptic, Linear B, and ethnography, demonstrating that that no singular approach can capture the complexity of the relationships between humans and sheep. Valasia Isaakidou and Paul Halstead explore the relationship between humans and Cretan agrimi (wild goats) in an impressive synthesis of textual and ethnographic data. The authors compare contemporary accounts of the exploitation of feral goats on Crete and Kythera with the textual and iconographic records. The authors conclude that individuals in the past could have practiced live capture and strategic release of agrimi to supply Knossos with meat and horns.

Karen Polinger Foster’s contribution explores the semantic understanding of birds in Aegean art and thought. The author examines the discontinuity between Aegean depictions of swallows and features of actual birds. Foster highlights depictions that incorrectly show the bird with an extended tail feather, suggesting that the tail feathers create a visual association between the bird and the crocus. Foster also explores lexical lists from Mesopotamia and bird signs within Egyptian hieroglyphics, but the usefulness of these corpora seems limited in the Aegean context. Katerina Papayianni’s contribution is particularly successful in its exploration of the relationship between microfauna and humans at Malia. The author introduces the idea of “synanthropy,” the phenomenon of ongoing relationships between humans and wild mammals which has benefit for one or both species. Papayianni links the spread of microfauna to the commercial routes of Minoan traders, showing the role of humans in the creation and modification of ecological niches. The idea of synanthropy also helps to center animals within the narratives of cultural change in the Aegean; Papayianni’s contribution is an impressive use of an often-overlooked category of faunal data.

The second section, “Human Uses of Domesticated and Wild Animals, Material Economy, Diet and Society,” represents a broad category. Dimitra Mylona demonstrates that marine resource consumption was a heterogenous set of practices that resulted in different products. Exploring faunal evidence from Akrotiri, Mylona argues that specialized marine practices were a prerequisite for creating complex blends of preserved fish. The author also examines dye production, providing archaeological evidence from across the Mediterranean that shows evidence for the use of byproducts of the dye production process. Mylona’s contribution represents an exciting use of some of the smallest units of archaeological data to better understand organization of specialized economies on a regional scale.  

Anne P. Chapin and Marie Nicole Pareja present an “ecosocial model of animal-human interactions” that views iconography as a composition of pictorial elements placed together in a syntax of an Aegean visual language (p. 125). The authors focus on six “ecosocial zones” where animal-human relationships may have been enacted. While Chapin and Pareja present clear definitions of their model and the ecosocial zones, their contribution would have benefitted from a longer case study using specific iconography. Emily S. K. Anderson analyzes boar’s tusk helmets, oxhide shields, and ikria as composite entities that function as “dynamic incorporations of human and non-human elements” (p. 149). Anderson contends the composite nature of these objects was fundamental to how they were understood, such that representations of these objects were inextricable from the materials with which they were rendered. Anderson convincingly argues that the decorations on a rhyton from Knossos both interrogate and generate visual and formal correspondences among oxhide shields, bulbs of a squill plant, boar’s tusk helmets, and boars themselves. While the title of the article highlights several types of objects, there is little focus on ikria (the author explains that the focus is the boar’s tusk helmet). Regardless, Anderson’s contribution is a thrilling integration of Aegean understandings of materiality with art-historical analysis.

Every contribution in the third section, “Hybrid and Fantastic Creatures,” relies on glyptic evidence to some extent, leading to extensive coverage of certain topics (e.g., the Minoan genius). Janice L. Crowley examines glyptic depictions of what she calls the “fabulous five,” hybrid creatures and non-indigenous animals that likely originated from the Near East or Egypt and which had a long period of depiction in the Aegean. There are features which link these animals, although Crowley’s interpretation makes it clear that each had a specific trajectory and understanding in the Minoan world. Crowley’s interpretations of these hybrid creatures are valuable, but their differences underscore the etic nature of the “fabulous five” classification. Nanno Marinatos explores the role of Minoan genii figures, building on previous arguments that connect the genius to solar cult. Emphasizing the ideological connection between the Minoan and Near Eastern palms, the author compares Minoan imagery involving the palm to Syro-Levantine glyptic; Marinatos concludes that the genius functioned as an administrator of solar cult and an ordering force on heaven and earth.

Fritz Blakolmer explores the question of whether hybrid creatures had defined meaning and if they signaled a belief in a spiritual world. The author argues that most hybrids exhibited meanings which were not clearly defined and that depictions of mythological scenes were rare. Blakolmer concludes that these hybrids were selected because they were attractive and referenced the Near East. Olga Krzyszkowska examines hybrids in Bronze Age material culture as creatures with varied origins that were used in distinct ways. To avoid presenting these hybrids as static forms, Krzyszkowska is careful to forefront chronological changes. Additionally, the author acknowledges that glyptic makes up most of the evidence for hybrids but explores other media as well. Within Krzyszkowska’s analysis, glyptic images are not divorced from their materials nor the seals they decorate. The author’s nuanced exploration of hybrid imagery leads to the conclusion that these creatures were likely understood and perceived in different ways, each carrying dynamic identities and varied symbolic associations.

In the fourth section, “Animals in Beliefs and Religion,” the authors examine how Bronze Age individuals conceptualized of animals in religious contexts. Laetitia Phialon and Vassilis L. Aravantinos explore depictions of winged creatures from Tanagra, specifically terracotta zoomorphic figures decorating the corners of larnakes and depictions of birds on larnakes. The authors use these examples as a means of exploring the possible meanings of birds, especially in conjunction with other religious symbols (e.g., the horns of consecration and solar imagery). By exploring bird imagery within the specific context of the funerary sphere, the authors link winged animals to ideas about regeneration and transition to the underworld. Helène Whittaker posits that depictions of animals in ritual contexts were a means of conceptualizing and “relating to the supernatural” (p. 301). This short contribution offers a clear and compelling hypothesis that provides a promising avenue for future iconographic analysis. Katerina Kopaka explores modern Greek traditions of using fossilized shark teeth within forms of traditional medicine in relation to archaeological shark teeth found at Katalymata (island of Gavdos). The author draws on local testimony and medieval accounts to suggest that the archaeological examples could have been used for similar purposes. Kopaka’s contribution is both convincing and captivating, but the author could have provided a greater caveat about the difficulties of ethnographic analogy and looked to other cross-cultural uses of shark teeth.

The final section, “Animals in Texts,” is primarily concerned with the Linear B corpus, but the contributions showcase diverse research goals and approaches. Jörg Weilhartner analyzes Linear B texts to explore the “emotional bond” between humans and animals in the Bronze Age. Weilhartner presents several lines of evidence related to names, showing that individuals in the past thought of animals in ways that did not reduce them to their labor. The author presents evidence of animals sharing names with humans, suggesting that naming could “incorporate the animal into the human sphere” (p. 341). Weilhartner’s contribution represents a fascinating use of a bureaucratic textual corpus to answer questions about the emotional bonds between humans and animals.

Vassilis Petrakis contributes a detailed etymological study of the root *sphag-, arguing that the root entered the Mycenaean language from Minoan language as part of a larger set of borrowed cultural practices. Petrakis’ textual research is accompanied by studies of iconography and material culture that place an emphasis on blood and blood letting. The author hypothesizes, somewhat speculatively, that the incorporation of *sphag- coincided with depictions of diagonal sword thrusts and uses of rhyta for bloodletting rituals. Thomas G. Palaima’s contribution is an exploration of the ideology of Mycenaean elites in relation to the animal world. Palaima’s intent is to expose the tension inherent in any human society considering its place in the larger natural world. The implicit argument of this paper is that terminology surrounding animals in Linear B, as well as the related words in ancient Greek, can reveal societal attitudes toward animals. Palaima’s etymological and literary analysis is in service of large philosophical questions; it is an impressive contribution that looks toward other disciplines, encapsulating the multifaceted nature of this volume.

Zoia is generally well edited and free of mistakes, although it has some minor consistency issues. Four articles are presented with abstracts, while the others are not. Additionally, the quality of the figures varies, and certain examples could have been easily improved (e.g., Pl. IX, a, LXXVII, a). Nevertheless, Zoia often achieves Panagiotopoulos’ goal of using theoretically informed approaches to ask “better questions” about animals in the ancient world (p. 21). It is a valuable resource for those wishing to understand roles of animals in Aegean societies specifically, and it also provides excellent examples of research questions and methodologies that could be applicable to other regions and time periods.


Authors and titles

Keynote Address: Diamantis Panagiotopoulos, When Species Meet in the Aegean Bronze Age. Human-Animal Encounters in Seal Imagery and Beyond

A. Identification of the Animal Environment

Malcolm H. Wiener, The Contribution of Archaeological Science to the Study of Animals in Aegean Prehistory

Marie-Louise Nosch, Agata Ulanowska, Katarzyna Żebrowska, Kinga Bigoraj and Anna Gręzak, Sheep – ‘A Factory without Waste.’ Comparative, Interdisciplinary and Diachronic Views on Sheep in the Aegean Bronze Age

Valasia Isaakidou and Paul Halstead, The ‘Wild’ Goats of Ancient Crete: Ethnographic Perspectives on Iconographic, Textual and Zooarchaeological Sources

Nancy R. Thomas, Panthera leo in Ancient Egypt and Greece: Where Are the Bones?

Karen Polinger Foster, Flights of Fancy: Birds in Aegean Island Art and Thought

Katerina Papayianni, Of Mice and Men in Minoan Crete: The Microfauna from Malia Area Pi in its Chrono-Spatial Context


B. Human Uses of Domesticated and Wild Animals, Material Economy, Diet and Society

Dimitra Mylona, Processed Fish, Marine Dyes and the Fishing Domaine of the Bronze Age Aegean

Anne P. Chapin and Marie Nicole Pareja, Betwixt and beyond the Boundaries: An Ecosocial Model of Animal-Human Relations in Minoan and Cycladic Animal Art

Michele Mitrovich, Bulls vs. Rams: Iconographic Reevaluation of the Inlaid Silver Cups from Enkomi, Cyprus and Midea, Dendra

Emily S. K. Anderson, Intuitive Things: Boar’s Tusk Helmets, Oxhide Shields, Ikria and the Uniqueness of Aegean Composites

Alessandro Sanavia, Animals in Context: An Iconographical Perspective on MM II Phaistos

Alizée Legendart, Minoan Taxonomy: Art Orders Fauna


C. Hybrid and Fantastic Creatures

Maria Anastasiadou, Conjoined Animals on Aegean Seals

Janice L. Crowley, The Fabulous Five: Monkey, Lion, Griffin, Dragon, Genius

Nanno Marinatos, The Minoan Genii, the Palm Tree and Solar Cult (with Some Egyptian and Near Eastern Perspectives)

Fritz Blakolmer, Messages from Another World? A Comparative Analysis of the Hybrid Creatures in Aegean Bronze Age Iconography

Olga Krzyszkowska, Hybrids in the Aegean Bronze Age: Diverse Origins, Divergent Trajectories


D. Animals in Beliefs and Religion

Andreas G. Vlachopoulos, Divine Acolytes: The Animals and Their Symbolism in the Xeste 3 Wall-Paintings

Laetitia Phialon and Vassilis L. Aravantinos, Terracotta Birds and Hybrid Winged Creatures from Tanagra: Rethinking Relations between Funerary Practices, Beliefs and Religious Symbols in the Late Bronze Age Aegean

Helène Whittaker, Animals Are Good to Think with. Some Thoughts on the Religious Meanings Associated with Animals in the Neopalatial Period

Andrew Shapland, Sacrificial Relics or Trophies? Animal Heads in Bronze Age Crete

Katerina Kopaka, Shark Teeth from Bronze Age Gavdos. Healing Heirlooms and the Liokourna (Sun or Snake Horns) Medical Folk Tradition


E. Animals in Texts

Yves Duhoux, The Mycenaean Bestiary: Linear B Data

Jörg Weilhartner, Interactions between Humans and Animals in the Aegean Late Bronze Age: The Textual Evidence

Vassilis Petrakis, Slaughter, Blood and Sacrifice: Mycenaean *sphag- in Context

John G. Younger, Gournia’s Recent Contributions to Animal Studies

Thomas G. Palaima, Caring for and Nourishing Animals and Humans in Linear B and Homer: Ideological Considerations