Saturday, November 5, 2011


Christopher Mee, Greek Archaeology: a Thematic Approach. Chichester; Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011. Pp. 330. ISBN 9781405167338. $44.95 (pb).

Reviewed by Giorgos Vavouranakis, Hellenic Open University (

Version at BMCR home site

It is both a pleasure and honour to review this book, because Christopher Mee was the external examiner of my Ph.D. thesis nine years ago. I have continued to appreciate his knowledge of many aspects of Greek archaeology and so consider him an obvious person to undertake the monumental task of writing a textbook that covers the wide time span from the Paleolithic to the era of Alexander the Great. Producing any textbook is of course a daunting task, since the author has to achieve a delicate balance between simplicity and research competence and between the descriptive detail of past material remains and the socio-historical phenomena that underpin them.

A textbook about the archaeology of Greece has an additional difficulty. As Mee himself admits, the prehistoric and historical periods of this country are usually considered to be distinct archaeological sub-disciplines, since the former is heavily informed by social sciences and the latter is inextricably interwoven with the Classicist tradition. Mee has chosen a thematic approach as a way to balance the above difficulties. This approach moves away from temporal succession and, thus, promises a holistic approach to Greek archaeology. It is also sensitive to the human condition because it highlights aspects of past social life instead of subsuming them within a narrative about the evolution of cultural stages. Nevertheless, it runs the risk of becoming either ahistorical or repetitive in its attempt to ensure that the reader retains a meticulous understanding of the many diverse wider cultural and social phenomena. These thoughts and questions have influenced the synopsis of the book and the comments that follow.

The introductory chapter sets the main spatial, chronological and methodological frames of the book. A chapter on settlements follows, in which the author's extensive survey experience is clear. The chapter treats Neolithic tells, the settlement expansion of the Early Bronze Age, the urban centres of Crete, the Mycenaean citadels, the rise and fall of the ancient polis from the Early Iron Age settlements to the Classical city-states and the new role of towns in the Hellenistic period. The third chapter examines the architecture of power. It keeps an efficient balance between wider socio-historical phenomena, such as the rise of hierarchy and the palatial proto-states in prehistory, the ancient polis with its civic centre and the Hellenistic palaces and kingdoms. Nevertheless, Mycenaean Pylos is described in too straightforward a manner, as a centre controlling the hinterland single-handedly and flawlessly. The excavations at neighbouring Iklaina suggest a more complex picture. It should also be born in mind that the Argolid features three acropoleis set closely to each other, namely Mycenae, Tiryns and Midea. Given Mee's Mycenaean expertise, a more nuanced and elaborate argument on Mycenaean power and authority would have been expected here.

Chapter four discusses exactly what the title says, namely "residential space". The treatment of the topic hinges more on architectural features than the artefacts that define the use of domestic space. Nonetheless, the chapter is efficiently structured around key-examples, such as Neolithic Sesklo, Minoan Malia, Late Bronze Akrotiri, Nichoria, Geometric Zagora, Classical Athens and Hellenistic Priene, Delos and Pella. It is a very good example of balanced textbook writing. The agro-pastoral economy chapter is equally balanced and provides information on subsistence and economy as well as the hardships of farming life. The technology chapter is divided between pottery and metals. The division is debatable, but this is probably an inevitable problem when treating such a wide topic. The author here is very selective, since a series of other, unmentioned crafts existed in prehistory and the historical period, e.g., weaving, fresco drawing, and jewelry making. As much as the archaeological importance of pottery and metals is undoubted, the overall picture remains unbalanced. This sense is further accentuated by the greater stress placed on the form and decoration of Prehistoric than Classical craft objects.

The chapter titled "trade and colonisation" inevitably emphasises the early periods of the Greek past. Indeed, we learn a lot about the circulation of obsidian in the Neolithic, the Minoan maritime expansion and the myth of King Minos's thalassocracy, the possible Mycenaean movement of people in Crete and the establishment of the Late Bronze Age trade network and the Greek colonization movements. By contrast, the treatment of trade and other types of contact in the Hellenistic period is limited. The chapter on warfare includes the presentation of weapons, fortification types and tactics of war both on land and sea in different periods. However, the claims that Early Minoan Crete was peaceful are mistaken, given the excavations of defensible sites at Kataleimmata and Aphrodite's Kephali close to Ierapetra. It would have also been interesting to learn more about the weapons used in the time of Philip and Alexander the Great. Although the employment of the long spear (sarissa) is mentioned, the changes in the armour of the cavalry were equally important, given its central role in Alexander's Asian campaign.

The book ends with two chapters on ritual, namely burial customs and religion. The first illustrates another area of the author's expertise and manages to keep a balance between rites of passage and their social dimension. The reader will find sufficient information about the importance of funerary ritual for social cohesion in Minoan Crete or the changing attention to the dead body in Mycenaean Greece and the role of ritual for the establishment of the central authority. Sections on historical periods refer to the role of funerary investment and display in Archaic and Classical Athens in relation to the interplay between the wealthy few and the rest of the people. The presentation of these topics inevitably devotes a significant amount of space to description of tomb types and funerary depositions. As a result, notwithstanding publishing restrictions, this chapter needed more illustrations, as the non-initiated student may easily feel lost in the detail.

The chapter on religion manages to evade the minefield of interpretatively ambiguous prehistoric practices in an effective manner. The relevant sections are structured around the treatment of figurines, while cult areas, such as the Minoan peak sanctuaries and Mycenaean bench santuaries receive a fair treatment. On the other hand, the section on the historical period revolves significantly around ancient temples. As much as this is expected, the link between altars as main cult areas and temples as repositories for the deity figure or statue is not explicitly stated. The importance of temples and sanctuaries for the formation of distinct social and sometimes ethnic identities is understated. Finally, the author is keen on offering the exact architectural measurements of temples but does not explain that they are important because they indicate the proportions of the temples and the high skill of ancient Greek architects. An under-informed student may either be puzzled or simply by-pass this important feature of ancient Greece.

The book is missing a concluding chapter, despite the fact that all chapters have concluding sections. Such a chapter would have been an opportunity for a retrospective reflection upon Greek archaeology and its constitution as a discrete field of disciplinary interest. Still, when finishing reading through the book one cannot help but look back at its pages and chapters and think about the overall image of Greek archaeology that the book promotes, either implicitly or explicitly. This image hinges upon the specific topics that have been chosen and the logic underlying these choices. For example, why isn't there a chapter on social and ethnic identity given Jonathan Hall's monograph on the constructive role of material culture and oral tradition in shaping ethnicity in ancient Greece?1 The treatment of such questions is restricted to the chapter on trade and colonisation, which, in addition, betrays culture-historical paradigmatic preferences. The human body as a social construct is another topic that has recently become popular in archaeological research and has allowed important insights into the constitution and function of past societies. A chapter on such a theme would have provided the springboard for discussing the construction of gender, habits of dress and ornamentation or the issue of slavery. References to this topic are again found split between agricultural economy and subsistence or the treatment of the dead and subsistence.

Admittedly there is no definitive list of topics. A choice has to be made each and every time we write. Mee's choice seems to have been rather reserved. Although its logic flirts with all cutting edge research in Greece, the end result betrays a traditional culture-historical background. Despite such conservatism, the book manages to keep an essential balance between the detail of the archaeological material and the grand picture of socio-historical phenomena. It shifts between different spatial and temporal scales smoothly and it is certainly recommendable to any student wishing to introduce her/himself to Greek archaeology. However, the student will require significant effort and extra bibliographical backup so as to maintain a critical approach to the traditional paradigm advocated by the book regardless of individual theoretical preferences. Researchers may also find this book useful as they maintain their critical spirit easier than students, although they should bear in mind that the traditional framework adopted by Mee is unable to provide a radically innovative view upon the Greek past. Still, the bridging of Prehistoric and Classical archaeology and the balanced treatment of the various themes allow some room for fruitful reflection.


1.   Hall,J.M. 1997. Ethnic identity in Greek antiquity, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.