A short account of palace societies in the Aegean
With the discovery of the sites of Mycenae and Knossos at the turn of the century by such famous archaeologists as Schliemann and Evans, the great world of Greek mythology was found in the archaeological record. The burial mask of Agamemnon himself had been found, as had the ancient Palace of Minos and furthermore to these, the Palace of Nestor himself at Pylos! Unfortunately wishful thinking and a lack of the technology and methodologies to utilise the evidence resulted in a clouded first interpretation of what would become known as the Aegean Bronze Age, or even the Palace Societies of the Aegean.
However, these societies were not just restricted to the major palatial towns first discovered by Schliemann and Evans; evidence suggests the existence of smaller communities, villas, -a term which Rehak and Younger (1998, 104) describe as implying a life of leisure or that of a rural gentry; the term undermines their possible administrative and agricultural roles- that would help to supply the cities, which offers new interpretations into Palatial socio-economic structure (Dickinson, O. 1994, 45- 94).
Firstly the geography and chronology of these Palace Societies needs to be defined; the former being easier to do than the latter. The Aegean is host to varied landscapes, with coastlines, islands, mountains, caves, and plains, each having their own influences on societies, being fertile or barren, or being able to provide necessary raw materials: a site’s geography could be a limiting factor as well as a positive factor. The main areas of interest for Aegean Palatial Societies are Crete and mainland Greece; both of which exhibit the above environments and landscapes. It is also from these areas that we determine, at least our relative, chronology, which is based to some extent on pottery sequences. Crete follows a system that starts in the Early Minoan I phase (EM I) and finishes in the Late Minoan IIIC (LM IIIC) and Sub Minoan which is relative to the other systems for the Cyclades and the Mainland, so that Late Minoan IA/B and Late Helladic I/IIA all refer to the same period of time, from around 1600-1450 B.C.
There is still much debate as to the absolute chronology of the period, and very rarely are actual dates given when referencing sites and artefacts; one reason for this is that the terminology is stylistic as well as chronological (Cadogan, G. 1976: 17), another being the difficulty presented in doing so; little organic material survives from which a C-14 dating could be gotten. However, in recent years archaeological scientific studies have increased, with potters’ kilns being dated through thermoremnant magnetism, which in turn helps to improve the accuracy of thermoluminescence dates and of assessing the contemporaneity of separate archaeological assemblages (Rehak, P. & Younger, J.G. 1998: p.97). The period from which we can say the Palace Societies were active begins in the MM IB period (c.1900- 1800 BC) with, unsurprisingly, the building of the first Minoan palaces. The period ends with some uncertainty, with destructions taking place in LM IB and LM IIIA1/2, giving the fall of the Minoan culture in general a date of c.1450 BC, and of Knossos specifically, at this time probably under Mycenaean control (Cadogan, G. 1976: p.37), a date of around 1375 BC; but it is still important to explore the development of this culture from its Neolithic and Prepalatial origins to its decline into a Postpalatial age and the influence that it had in the development of the mainland Mycenaean culture which came to dominate it and continue after its destruction.
The Mycenaean culture however, named after the greatest city of the age, lasted in prosperity from c.1600- 1200 BC; this period can be divided into four sections, a formative (Pre Palatial) period from LH I – IIA (c.1575-1450 BC) a Palace Period from LH IIB through to IIIB2 (c.1450- 1200BC) and a Post Palatial/ sub-Mycenaean period which runs from LH IIIC onwards (c. 1200- 1050/ 1000 BC) (Hornblower, S. & Spawforth, A. (eds.) 1998: p.480). The wealth of this culture can be evidenced by the goods of Grave Circle A at Mycenae. These burials, far from being the single event that Schliemann proposed (Letter from Heinrich Schliemann, dated “Mycenae, 6th December, 1876” in; Deuel, L. 1978: p.250) were in use from c.1600- 1450 BC: graves III, IV and V provide perhaps the most famous of all Aegean Bronze Age artefacts, including the funeral mask of ‘Agamemnon’. While it might be argued that the grave goods of an obvious elite offer little evidence as to the society as a whole, giving a ‘top heavy view’ of things, Warren (1975: p.120) argues that they actual help us understand some of the basic characteristics of Mycenaean culture: that the shaft graves are a development of earlier cist graves and that the richness of Circle A’s contents is greater than that of B (the earlier circle) suggests a continuity and an evolution in prosperity: there are clear ‘classes’ of people in the society, those who were buried and those who would’ve crafted their employer’s grave goods. The goods themselves suggest wide ranging trade, with influences and materials being present from Crete, the Near East and other areas of material importance where items such as ivory and tin could be got.
While the grave circles at Mycenae give q view of early Mycenaean culture; the tholoi tombs there are of a later date, (see Wace, A. J. B. 1926: The Date of the Treasury of Atreus. JHS 46, p. 110-120 for the original problems of dating such a tomb, such as determining whether LM III sherds found in the dromos were in their original context or were intrusive) and if it weren’t for their being plundered might offer more information as to later Mycenaean culture. There are few unplundered Tholoi; one is at Arkhanes in Crete, which in general (especially considering the density of Knossos) has relatively few discovered tombs, and one at Dendra (which was of a 15th C. date), but this offers up its own wealth of evidence as to Mycenaean warfare in particular (Warren, P. 1975: p.125) and its importance in society; it being a reasonable assumption that grave goods would consist of the buried person’s most precious items. With regards to warfare, this piece can’t be assumed to be typical; it is the only known find of its kind in this period, but supports the idea put forward by Dickinson (1994: p. 203- 204) that there was an emphasis on heavy armour during this period despite the more typical style of armour being leather (a material that is mostly absent from the archaeological record due to its organic nature). Items of war seem are oft found in graves, (or rather, that is where most war related artefacts are found) and determining whether these societies were peaceful or warring is hotly debated; does the late addition of spaces for perfume and chariot production within the Palace at Pylos reflect a defensive measure (Schon, R. 2011)? Often the interpretation of the archaeological evidence is difficult. As with Minoan culture, architectural evidence can be a great help in piecing together the structure of early Mycenaean societies, nevertheless in the early periods it is often hard to interpret, with later buildings obscuring the earlier remains. Furthermore it is often as equally hard to determine what an individual room’s role was, (Dickinson, O. 1994: p.144) notwithstanding the later date of LM buildings there is still a distinct lack of fixed kilns, kitchen areas, with respects to the more common baths, drains and toilets (Rehak, P. & Younger, J.G. 1998: p. 107): these are also found on the mainland, at Tiryns and Pylos, where the bath was set in plaster (Warren, P. 1975: p. 122); the reason why it has survived. As such only hard evidence, not speculation, can help determine with certainty a room’s role, such as the so called House of The Oil Merchant at Mycenae, where a repository of sealed stirrup jars filled with traces of oil were found, seemingly ready to be traded (Wace, A. J. B. 1951 & 1953).: this was clearly a storeroom. Despite these difficulties, architecture (as well as pottery) is one of the main sources of evidence for BA Aegean societies. The House of the Oil Merchant (originally called the House of the Stirrup Jars) is a perfect example of both.
Pottery, like architecture, offers a vast amount of evidence about the Aegean Palatial Societies, it provides a sequence through which a relative chronology can be established, and tackles questions such as the professionalism of industry, which might be traced through the change from practical pottery to aesthetic pottery, (which in turn helps us to understand the changing nature of these societies, as well as its infrastructure). Stirrup jars, used to store perfumed oils, as well as drinking vessels were amongst Mycenae’s most regular pottery exports, and the study of the inscriptions on the pots can shed light onto specific regional markets, such as western Crete’s concentration on Tiryns, Thebes, Eleusis, central Crete and Mycenae (Haskell, H.W. 2004: p.154)
Understanding the infrastructure of these societies should not be left to speculation but rather the archaeological evidence: a knowledge of social structure, religion, industry, agriculture, bureaucracy and how they all interlink can be provided by the archaeological record. Complimenting this material evidence is the written evidence; Linear A and B (and a hieroglyphic script which precedes the two). In a rather circular way Linear B suggests that for the Cretan (and later the mainland, most at famously Pylos) authorities there was a need to document tradable and taxable goods, numbers had become too great not to write down; at the same time the documents prove the large numbers of goods and taxes: the Linear B texts at Crete and Pylos document large orchards and vineyards, issuing figs, olives, olive oil and wine, and the texts at Knossos show how sheep were cultivated for wool on a massive scale; around 100,000 sheep in central Crete (Dickinson, O. 1994: p. 46-48): this evidence could be complimented with scientific fact if Hansen’s suggestions for determining evidence of a surplus (spatially intensive sampling to estimate the minimum number of storage jars needed for crops) were carried out where possible (Hansen, J.M. 1988: p.50).
Since such vast numbers of tradable goods were exported, near and far, their importance to Mycenaean and Minoan was vast, to such an extent that Dickinson (1994) argues that the main reason for the Minoan and Mycenaean decline was that the troubles occurring in the Near East, which occurred at near enough the same time, disrupted vital links of trade that brought the Aegean economy and society into great deterioration. However, how the trade was organized, what its chain of command was (both secular and religious) is less obvious; what is clear is that the wanax (effectively a monarch) headed the society, and that there were various administrators and ‘collectors’ below him, some of whom were part of a landholding elite: nevertheless, others could hold land, such as craftsmen or farmers, and even priests; but despite these different classes of people it is less than easy to determine a form of social structure: the original idea that these societies were feudal is far too simplistic, as shown by Schon (2011) who shows the way in which, at least at Plyos, certain industries were run in a ‘semi- centralized’ manner.
The Aegean Palatial Societies were a culture highly dependent on a system of organised trade that was to some extent centralized within the Palace centres of its towns (such as at Plyos, Mycenae and Knossos). This system of economy enabled a culture to flourish and develop its own distinct cultural as well as linguistic traits, whereby practical pottery could develop into aesthetic pottery and household production could develop into workshop industry (Dickinson, 1994, p. 107- 113) and the language could document it.
Cadogan, G. 1976: Palaces of Minoan Crete. Methuen: London
Cunliffe, B. (ed.) 1994: The Oxford Illustrated History of Prehistoric Europe. Oxford: Oxford University Press
Deuel, L. 1978: Memoirs of Heinrich Schliemann, a documentary portrait drawn from his autobiographical writings, letters, and excavation reports. Hutchinson: London
Dickinson, O. 1994: The Aegean Bronze Age. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Hansen, J.M. 1988: Agriculture in the Prehistoric Aegean: Data versus Speculation. AJA 92, p. 39- 52
Haskell, H.W. 2004: Wanax to Wanax: Regional Trade Patterns in Mycenaean Crete. Hesperia Supplements 33, p. 151- 160
Hornblower, S. & Spawforth, A. (ed.s) 1998: The Oxford Companion to Classical Civilization. Oxford: Oxford University Press
Rehak, P. & Younger, J.G. 1998: Review of Aegean Prehistory VII: Neopalatial, Final Palatial and Postpalatial Crete. AJA 102, p. 91- 173
Schon, R. 2011: Redistribution in Aegean Palatial Societies. By appointment to His Majesty the Wanax: Value Added Goods and Redistribution in Mycenaean Palatial Economies. AJA 115, p.219- 227
Wace, A. J. B. 1926: The Date of the Treasury of Atreus. The Journal of Hellenic Studies 46, p. 110-120
Wace, A. J. B. 1951: Mycenae 1950. The Journal of Hellenic Studies, 71, p. 254-257
Wace, A. J. B. 1953: Mycenae 1952. The Journal of Hellenic Studies, 73 p.131-132
Warren, P. 1975: The Aegean Civilizations. Elsevier Phaidon; Oxford