Book Review

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ERIC H. CLINE (ed.). The Oxford handbook of the Bronze Age Aegean. xxxvi+930 pages, 98 numbered illustrations, 11 tables. 2010. Oxford: Oxford University Press; 978-0-19-536550-4 hardback £85.

Review by John Bennet
Department of Archaeology, University of Sheffield, UK

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The handbook genre has proliferated in academic publishing. This series' stated goal is that each volume offers 'an authoritative and state-of-the-art survey of current thinking and research in a particular subject area', a major responsibility for an editor who has a chance to present a vision of his field both to an internal and an external audience. This volume's sixty-six chapters covering 930 pages give plenty of scope to fulfil the back cover's promise of 'the most comprehensive, authoritative, and up-to-date single-volume survey of the field'. Even with a subvention (p. v), however, it is expensive, presumably putting it within reach of students in libraries only. As to vision, I suggest that presentation and organisation here perpetuate a view of the field that, new data and some new theory aside, would not have looked out of place thirty years ago.

The volume's admirably concise chapters (averaging just over twelve pages each, including bibliography) are arranged into four parts and navigation is assisted by a 23-page index. Part I, 'Background and Definitions' (pp. 3–28) comprises a brief 'History of Research' and a fuller 'Chronology and Terminology'. Emphasising the field's 130-year history, Schliemann and Troy figure large in the former, as if the field had not really progressed much in its questions since. The latter, despite its title, focuses solely on the construction of Aegean chronology, relative and absolute, prefacing something of an obsession with chronology throughout the volume. An outsider to the field might be struck by the absence of some larger themes — theoretical and methodological — in this pair of chapters.

The eleven chapters in Part II, 'Chronology and Geography' (pp. 31–184) embody succinct regional overviews arranged by period and further reinforce the traditional picture. The nine core chapters follow the tripartite structure created by Evans at the beginning of the twentieth century, dealing with the Early, then Middle and finally Late Bronze Age in mainland Greece, Crete and the Cyclades in succession. The first chapter summarises the preceding Neolithic and, by virtue of its broad scope, is able to raise a range of social issues and how archaeology might answer them, something rarely achieved in the more narrowly focused chapters that follow. These vary between thematic and strictly chronological treatment, those on the Early Bronze Age Cyclades and Middle Bronze Age mainland perhaps offering the greatest sense of what life might have been like. It is striking in both cases how much new information is available as a result of recent major conferences on the Cyclades (Horizon) and the Middle Bronze Age mainland (Mesohelladika). The pair of chapters on Early and Middle Bronze Age Crete present a revisionist view — still much debated — of life before and at the time of the first palaces. Chronology is prominent, particularly in the chapters on the Middle and Late Bronze Age Cyclades and the final chapter on the end of the Bronze Age. Geography is less well served: the first map in the entire volume, and the only one in this part, appears on p. 157, while only eight more maps appear throughout the book (three in one chapter, on Boeotia). Altogether the book is under-illustrated, with only 98 numbered figures and eleven tables, reflecting a general issue with the handbook genre.

Part III, 'Thematic Topics' (pp. 189–490) has twenty-three chapters, grouped under five headings with a familiar ring. Chapters on Minoan, then Mycenaean architecture, on figurines and frescoes make up 'Art and Architecture'. 'Society and Culture' covers state and society, Minoan then Mycenaean religion, burial, trade, weapons and warfare. 'Seals and Writing/Administrative Systems' follows: Minoan then Mycenaean seals and sealings, the Cretan Hieroglyphic and Linear A, Linear B, and finally Cypro-Minoan scripts. 'Material Crafts' starts with an overview of materials and industries, preceding chapters on ceramics in the Minoan and Mycenaean worlds, on textiles and jewellery. Part III ends with 'Events': the eruption of Thera/Santorini (more chronology), the Trojan War, and the collapse at the end of the Bronze Age. Most authors summarise their 'briefs' well, but there is a missed opportunity to work across traditional categories. Apart from 'State and Society' — a chapter more suitable for the opening section? — and the overview of materials and production, the chapters are narrowly self-contained. Editorial intervention might have highlighted links between them and other parts of the book. The chapter on trade is a not atypical: an excellent summary in itself, one might have expected explicit cross-references both to the regional coverage of the central and eastern Mediterranean, plus Egypt, and to the shipwreck sites of Gelidonya and Uluburun, not to mention the apparent 'tension' between the limited references in Linear B and the wealth of archaeological evidence. Finally, although there are references in some chapters, it surprised me that there was no single chapter dealing with bioarchaeology, the environment, or materials science, disciplines that have recently made major contributions.

The longest section of the book, Part IV 'Specific Sites and Regions' (pp. 495–905), contains thirty data-rich chapters, mostly written by archaeologists directly involved with these sites or regions, arranged under four geographical headings: Crete, mainland Greece, the Cyclades, Dodecanese and Saronic Islands, and the wider Mediterranean. Crete is treated by sites only: Ayia Triada, Kato Zakros, Khania, Knossos, Kommos, Malia, Palaikastro and Phaistos. On the mainland, the core regions — the Argolid, Boeotia, the central and southern Peloponnese — are covered, as well as the northern Aegean, an area that has taught us much recently about life on the edge of the Mycenaean world. Individual sites include: Lerna, Mycenae, Pylos, Thebes, Thorikos and Tiryns. Only four chapters cover the islands: Aigina Kolonna, Akrotiri, the Dodecanese group as a whole, and Rhodes separately. The wider Mediterranean includes two Late Bronze Age shipwreck sites — Cape Gelidonya and Uluburun — and Troy, plus Cyprus, Egypt, the Levant and contrasting treatments of western Anatolia and the western (more accurately central) Mediterranean, the former showing sensitivity to issues of identity among Aegeans and 'Others', the latter regarding similar interactions as largely unproblematic. In general this part offers up-to-date overviews — somewhat variable in style — of a range of sites, many in their regional context. Inevitably other sites or regions could have been included, and the bias is towards large, excavated sites, but with some attention to survey data in the regional overviews.

This substantial volume provides a wealth of information, embodying perspectives from a mix of fifty-five junior and senior contributors based in fourteen countries. The target audience is 'professionals who teach undergraduate and graduate courses on the Bronze Age Aegean, as well as advanced undergraduate and graduate students [...] and a select portion of the interested general public', as well as those in the 'related disciplines' of Classics, ancient history, and the ancient Near East (p. xxxiii). It will feel familiar to these audiences, but it is perhaps significant that archaeologists of other times and places are not included. They might think that the field's 130-year history lies rather heavily on this volume. A different focus and organisation might have better drawn out the exciting synergies that have emerged from a broad range of theoretical approaches, techniques and methodologies applied to a rich archaeological and textual data set, an Aegean archaeology of the twenty-first century.