BMCR 2024.04.12

Synchronizing the destructions of the Mycenaean palaces

, , Synchronizing the destructions of the Mycenaean palaces. Mykenische Studien, 36; Denkschriften der philosophisch-historischen Klasse, 546. Vienna: Verlag der österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 2022. Pp. 324. ISBN 9783700188773.

Open access

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


The destruction of the Mycenaean palaces remains a key turning point in the history of mainland Greece. Most scholars have abandoned the idea of a mass migration of Dorians or co-ordinated onslaught of Sea Peoples. Yet the fact of the palatial destructions looms large, and more recent scholarship has resorted to a multi-causal confluence of disasters, or perfect storm, to explain them.[1] While this is a sensible approach to the wide-scale phenomenon of palatial collapse across the central and eastern Mediterranean region around 1200 BCE, it is somewhat less satisfying at the site-specific level of analysis. As the editors of the present volume emphasize, “a palace site was destroyed for a reason, and our research into the fine chronology of such major historical events is intended to aid the search for the reasons behind those events” (p. 21). The major aim of the present study therefore is to provide site-specific data in the hopes of gaining a better understanding of what some of those causes might be.

To do so, the editors outline several key topics in need of further exploration (p. 16): 1) the character and extent of the destructions; 2) the existence of major destructions prior to 1200 BCE; 3) the synchronization of palatial building phases and destructions across regions; 4) the development of pottery styles at each palace during the 14th and 13th centuries BCE; and 5) the historical implications resulting from this sequence of events.

The volume opens with two contributions concerning the Argolid. The first, by Kim Shelton, addresses the now well-documented destruction of the Petsas House in LH IIIA2. The chapter provides some interesting insights into the post-destruction site formation processes, in particular the apparent intentional collection and burning of refuse from the ruined building (p. 42–43), which Shelton links to a catastrophic site-wide earthquake destruction in LH IIIA2 (p. 43–44). The paper on Tiryns, by Soňa Wirghová, provides a detailed overview of a stratified sequence of ceramic deposits recovered from the northern tip of the Lower Citadel that document the development of local ceramic styles and consumption patterns from LH IIIB to C Early. The detailed presentation of the material by phase and abundant illustrations will make this essential reading for future studies of the LH IIIB to LH IIIC transition. One minor drawback to the study is the limited quantity of LH IIIB Early to Developed material, something most acutely illustrated by the statistical analysis of bowl types (p. 77–78). Of particular interest is the appearance of several groups of imported wares, including transport, storage, and cookware vessels from Aegina, the Levant, Crete, Kythera, and Kos (p. 56–73). The Koan vases consist exclusively of large monochrome-decorated amphoras and hydrias that may have so far escaped detection at other sites (p. 68, fig. 10.1–3, figs. 12.1–2, 13.1). As of yet unpublished petrographic data is used to support the provenance suggested for each imported ware.

Eleni Andrikou reports on a destruction deposit from the palatial center of Thebes, the lone contribution from central Greece. Through meticulous comparison with other LH IIIB deposits from Thebes, Andrikou highlights the consistency across those assemblages that have received more detailed publication (p. 111–114). These observations underscore the early presence of monochrome deep bowls across all deposits, leaving no doubt that they were in regular use at the end of the palatial period in central Greece.[2] An issue raised (p. 112), but not developed further in this contribution, is the date of Building III at 1 Oedipus St (aka “the Liangas Plot”) where a series of inscribed sealings were excavated. While the excavator, Christos Piteros, dates the destruction of Building III to an earlier destruction in LH IIIB1, the pottery published in preliminary reports is similar to other LH IIIB2 deposits and it is likely that this too dates from the final palatial destruction of Thebes.[3]

Attention is then directed toward Messenia. The first chapter, by Salvatore Vitale, Sharon Stocker, and Jack Davis, aims to refine the dating of the two major destruction horizons (A and B) identified by Marion Rawson and Carl Blegen. The former is associated with the destruction of the first palace on the site and the preservation of the earliest linear B documents (all fragmentary) and, the latter, with the final destruction of the palace and the main corpus of linear B documents including the famous archive room. Horizon A, previously dated to LH IIIA, can now be placed in LH IIIA2 Early based on the stemmed open shapes, which capture a time when kylikes were dominant but had not yet fully replaced goblets (p. 126–128, tab. 6–7). It is the discussion of the date of Horizon B, however, that is most significant in light of recent attempts to establish an early date for the final destruction of the Palace of Nestor.[4] The striking absence of decorated pottery in the palace destruction deposits (~2% of all pottery) is plausibly explained due to the primary function of the pottery stores in feasting events (p. 124). Among the painted fraction, however, 72% of the painted vessels from the final floor deposits fit comfortably in the LH IIIC Early ceramic phase (p. 130, tab. 9). This contribution calls attention to the fact that palace assemblages are not typical settlement deposits and therefore require additional critical assessment to securely date. Cynthia Shelmerdine’s contribution on Iklaina meanwhile provides a detailed summary of the key evidence for the major ceramic phases in evidence from the excavations of this important secondary site, typically identified as *a-pu2. Noteworthy, for scholars already familiar with the site, is Shelmerdine’s implied disagreement with Michael Cosmopoulos’ hypothesis of a late incorporation of Iklaina into the Pylian kingdom (p. 159), which has implications for how resilient the Pylian state really was.

Two contributions address the site of Ayios Vasileios, where the discovery of a Mycenaean palace and archive of linear B tablets has transformed our understanding of LBA Laconia. The first contribution by Adamantia Vasilogamvrou, Eleftheria Kardamaki, and Nektarios Karadimas provides a detailed report on research into the stratigraphy and dating of the palace complex. The presence of a stratigraphic section and detailed discussion of the labelled deposits made it easy to follow the associated discussion (p. 162–167, fig. 5). The present chapter places the destruction in LH IIIB Middle based on the pottery assemblages linked to the destruction deposits found in the West and South Stoas. While the authors provide conclusive evidence that the palatial destruction was followed by a reoccupation phase dating to LH IIIC Early (p. 173–177, figs. 10–12), the rather specific dating of the destruction to LH IIIB Middle is less certain (p. 167–172, figs. 6–8). As the authors point out, the majority of the pottery is undecorated and displays a number of early features (p. 167–170). The few painted sherds, however, point to a later date including at least a group B deep bowl pottery fragment reworked into a stopper, suggesting that it had been in use for some time before entering into the archaeological record (p. 171–172, fig. 8.20). This chapter would have benefitted from a cross-reference to the detailed discussion of the evidence from Pylos in the same volume, which provides the best parallel for the destruction deposits under discussion and serves as a cautionary tale for dating them. Vasco Hachtmann and Sofia Voutsaki’s contribution on the cemetery further emphasises the challenges in identifying LH IIIB deposits in the North Cemetery at the same site and they propose regional trends as a likely culprit (p. 205–206).

The next geographic region surveyed is Crete. It is striking that neither of the two palatial centers on the island are addressed directly. In the introduction, it is noted that the excavator of the LM IIIB palace at Chania gave a paper at the workshop but was unable to contribute to the volume (p. 20, n. 59). This is an unfortunate lacuna, as the relative destruction dates of the Cretan palaces, and Knossos in particular, remain contentious. Jeremy Rutter nonetheless provides a detailed account of some of the key issues and provides a well reasoned and almost certainly correct suggestion that LM IIIB2 at Chania should be synchronized with LH IIIC Early 1 and possibly even part of LH IIIC Early 2 on the mainland (p. 214–219).

In the penultimate chapter, Joseph Maran seeks to shift the framework for analysing the palatial destructions away from prime movers (e.g., earthquakes, invasion, climate change) and towards the short-term, site-specific causes (p. 231–234). Maran begins with the short-term events that led to the destructions of the palaces and he points to recent work by Reinhard Jung that makes a convincing case that at least some of the palaces were intentionally looted before they were burnt down (p. 234–236). He then presents a list of middle- to long-term factors that led to collective violence against the palaces: conflicts among elites, large-scale construction projects, and changes in the palatial armed forces. All of these are interpreted to support his ultimate conclusion that class conflict lies at the heart of their destructions (p. 241–242).

Lastly, Reinhard Jung presents a clear account of the synchronization of palatial destructions in the northern half of the Levantine coast and Cyprus with the Argive sequence. This work is important as we can correlate Aegean ceramic chronology with the historical chronologies of Egypt and the Levant (p. 257, 262–265, 273, 275). As Jung rightly points out, this endeavour is possible since most of the Aegean exports to this area come from Argolid directly or are established based on local vases that relied on Argive models (p. 256–257). While secure imports in well-defined palatial destruction deposits are rare due to the collapse of Argive exports in LH IIIB Middle, Jung is upfront with the limitations in the data and this leads to an interesting observation: LH IIIB Middle imports from the Argolid at Tell Tweini and Tell Kazel co-exist with locally made pottery seemingly adopting motifs from LH IIIC Early (p. 269–271, 276–285).[5]

Emerging from the product of a focused workshop, the papers are mostly cohesive in their theme; there are significant divergences, however, in the level of analysis and methodologies employed which invites the question of how comparable the underlying data are and whether they get us closer to the avowed goal of synchronization. I was also surprised that “palatial destruction” is never defined. From a historical perspective, one centered on the question of causation that is raised by the editors and discussed in more detail by Maran and Jung, this topic would benefit from further theorization and analysis.[6] Ultimately, the major value of the present volume is the presentation of previously unpublished legacy data and the results of recent and ongoing excavations, which will serve to advance our understanding of the individual sites under discussion while we await their final publication.

I would like to conclude this review by commending both the editors and the publisher for making this entire volume available open access online. While the volume is too technical for a general audience, making these data available and accessible to the entire academic community without the dreaded paywall will ensure it is widely read and cited.


Authors and Titles

Reinhard Jung – Michaela Zavadil, “Preface”

Reinhard Jung – Eleftheria Kardamaki, “Introduction”

Kim Shelton, “On Shaky Ground: Petsas House and Destruction at Mycenae in LH IIIA2”

Soňa Wirghová, “Turning Points in the Ceramic Sequence of the Northern Tip of the Lower Citadel at Tiryns”

Eleni Andrikou, “Kadmeia, Thebes: The Pottery from a Storeroom Destroyed at the End of the Mycenaean Palatial Period”

Salvatore Vitale – Sharon R. Stocker – Jack L. Davis, “The Destructions of the Palace of Nestor at Pylos and its LH IIIA Predecessor as a Methodological Case Study”

Cynthia W. Shelmerdine, “Pottery and Stratigraphy at Iklaina in the 14th–13th Centuries BC”

Adamantia Vasilogamvrou – Eleftheria Kardamaki – Nektarios Karadimas, “The Destruction at the Palace of Ayios Vasileios and Its Synchronisms”

Vasco Hachtmann – Sofia Voutsaki, “The Ayios Vasileios North Cemetery in the Palatial Period”

Jeremy B. Rutter, “LM IIIB Ceramic Regionalism and Chronological Correlations with LH IIIB–C Phases on the Greek Mainland”

Joseph Maran, “The Demise of the Mycenaean Palaces: The Need for an Interpretative Reset”

Reinhard Jung, “Synchronizing Palace Destructions in the Eastern Mediterranean”



[1] For an up-to-date account with further bibliography, see Cline, E. 2021. 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed, 2nd ed., Princeton.

[2] See also, Vitale, S. and A. Van de Moortel. 2020. “The Late Helladic IIIB Phase at Mitrou, East Lokris: Pottery, Chronology, and Political Relations with the Palatial Polities of Thebes and Orchomenos/Glas,” Annuario della Scuola archeologica di Atene e delle missioni italiane in Oriente 98, 9–59.

[3] A finding that was previously suggested by the presence of the individual a-e-ri-qo, who appears on two sealings from Building III (Wu 70 and 76), in a list of Theben basileis-issued ox hides discovered in a destruction context from the so-called New Palace, see Aravantinos, V., L. Godart, and A. Sacconi. 2008. “La tavoletta TH Uq 434,” Pasiphae 1, 23–33.

[4] This debate was recently reignited by Louis Godart and Anna Sacconi in their recent edition of the Linear B documents from the Palace of Nestor: Godart, L. and A. Sacconi. 2019–2020. Les archives du Roi Nestor: Corpus des inscriptions en Linéaire B de Pylos, Vol. I & II, Rome.

[5] It is perhaps worth noting here that the deep bowl from Tell Kazel shown on p. 285, fig. 16.1 has an excellent parallel from the earliest LH IIIC material from Eleon in Boeotia (EBAP P0011).

[6] Fruitful frameworks for such a future analysis might be found in Fachard, S., and E. Harris. 2021. The Destruction of Cities in the Ancient Greek World: Integrating the Archaeological and Literary Evidence, Cambridge.