Sunday, November 24, 2013


J. L. Bintliff, The Complete Archaeology of Greece: From Hunter-Gatherers to the 20th Century A.D.. Malden, MA; Oxford; Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012. Pp. xxiv, 518 p., 32 p. of col. plates. ISBN 9781405154192. $84.95 (pb).

Reviewed by ZoĆ«​ Kontes, Kenyon College (

Version at BMCR home site


As his title promises, Bintliff's book provides an exhaustive account of Greek archaeology, and he succeeds admirably at his goal to give his reader for the first time "within one volume, an understanding of the development of human society in Greece from the earliest human traces up till the early twentieth century AD" (p.1). Intimidating in scope and no less in appearance, with nearly 500 pages of text arranged in two columns of small print per page, this work is, remarkably, quite approachable. This is partially due to the fact that it is a very personal work—the author draws much of his material from his own extensive fieldwork experience, lending a compelling intimacy to the text; but it is also eminently readable in its (in most cases) clear explanations and comprehensive use of sources.

That being said, the ideal audience for this text is an informed one. Despite the author's suggestion that the book might serve as context for the material culture encountered by the modern visitor to Greece, whether on a "beach-based holiday, or a cultural tour, or as a student" (p.1), this text is too dense to be casually accessible. Readers with an already substantial knowledge of Greek archaeology will find it very valuable for in-depth studies of particular periods and for relevant, up-to-date bibliography: the chapters (or pairs of chapters) are such that they can stand on their own, including bibliography. Topics less well documented in most general handbooks on Greek archaeology are especially welcome—Neolithic and Medieval Greece, for instance—and may be the volume's greatest contribution. Additionally, Bintliff provides a complete picture of the material culture throughout the history of the region; he does not privilege the 'greatest hits' of Greek archaeology with a focus on architecture and sculpture, but rather demonstrates how archaeology leads to our understanding of culture—including the great wealth of information that can be gleaned from surface survey. Experts may debate the author's conclusions on specific topics, but as a thorough overview covering a broad range of evidence over a vast period of time, this volume is worth consulting.

The text is divided into three parts, arranged chronologically: the first discusses 'Landscape and Aegean Prehistory', the second presents 'The Archaeology of Classical, Hellenistic, and Roman Greece in its Longer-term Context' and the third covers 'The Archaeology of Medieval and post-Medieval Greece in its Historical Context'. Within each part, chronological chapters are organized thematically, and each chapter or set of chapters (excluding the first) ends with a summary section alternately called (with no discernable pattern) 'An Annaliste Perspective' or 'An Annales Perspective'. Bintliff applies the Annales model for evaluating past civilizations through processes evolving over long, medium, and short terms to each era he explores; the insistence that "History was made not just by actions and factors of production such as technology or economy, but also by ideas, by symbolic culture and ways of seeing the world" (p. 5) offers a helpful perspective on the material presented, even if it is sometimes difficult to pinpoint the 'short term', particularly in prehistory. Each chapter concludes with 'A Personal View', which, while useful in rendering the material more approachable, can at times seem indulgent).

Part One begins with a discussion of the geography of Greece, giving a good overview of climate, vegetation, and soils and providing a basis for understanding the environment of the hunter-gatherers of the Palaeolithic and Epipalaeolithic in Chapter 2. Here, as elsewhere in the book, separate 'Text Boxes' provide more specific information on particular examples; in this case both the Franchthi Cave and the Klithi Cave are effectively highlighted. Chapter 3 is an overview of Neolithic agricultural developments, with Bintliff applying different theoretical models to various landscapes and summarizing arguments for how the material fits or modifies a particular model. Noteworthy is an examination of tell societies, with a particular focus on Thessaly.

Chapter 4 is arranged in the traditional division of Early Bronze Age cultures: southern mainland Helladic, Minoan Crete, and Cycladic, with the brief and welcome addition of Northern Greece. Each section is divided further thematically into settlement, economy, and burial, and for the Cyclades, social structure and symbolic culture (i.e. figurines). Chapter 5 details the Middle to Early Late Bronze Age on Crete, with a particularly interesting section on who actually lived in the Minoan palaces. In general the chapter focuses on the palaces and possible relations between them, pottery styles, and religion. Here Santorini receives special attention. Chapter 6, on the Mid-Early LBA in the Cyclades and on the Mainland, concentrates first on Phylakopi and Akrotiri, followed by an analysis through surface survey of the Middle Helladic, and a discussion of grave goods at Mycenae. As in Chapter 4, Bintliff also includes the most recent evidence, though slight, from Northern Greece. Chapter 7, the longest of the chapters in Part One, though not by much, gives an overall description of the mature LBA on the mainland and in the Aegean including the collapse of these societies, followed by sections on settlement, towns and palaces, construction works (including a particularly savory 'Text Box' on often-overlooked Gla), burials, religion, pots and trade, Linear B, and art. Bintliff makes clear the fact that there are different conclusions that can be drawn from this variety of evidence, and sets out how advances in archaeology have affected older theses regarding this period. Prehistory is especially effective at illuminating this lesson for students, though in most general surveys of Greek archaeology this point is not made as well as it is here. Part Two covers the Early Iron Age all the way through the Roman period. After describing Lefkandi, the traditional type site for the Dark Age not being as dark as once imagined, Bintliff devotes the bulk of Chapter 8 to theoretical models for landscape and settlement in this period, based on both excavation and surface survey. This chapter is densely written and at times confusing. Chapter 9 sets the beginning of the Archaic period at 700 BC instead of the conventional 600 and begins with political developments, followed by developments in architecture and society. Here the text is thorough but it is difficult to get a real sense of the period; this is helped by Chapter 10, which discusses Archaic art and architecture, both religious and secular. Classical Greece also gets two chapters (11 and 12), but it does not take pride of place as it often does in survey texts. It may dismay some readers that the discussion lacks much information on, for instance, Classical cults, sanctuaries, and festivals.

On the plus side, included is an exegesis of the Classical countryside, based on surface survey. Although the sheer number of different site surveys presented is somewhat overwhelming (perhaps more worthwhile for specialists than for a reader seeking a broad understanding of the period), the 'cultural biography' section helps bring all this valuable evidence into focus. Chapter 12 is refreshingly thorough in its social analysis of the period—far more so than comparable chapters in standard general handbooks on Greek archaeology. Particularly noteworthy are the study of the role of women in Classical society and the section on houses, which includes a look at political roles as revealed by domestic archaeology. However, the lack of detail sometimes prevents a full understanding of the author's points; for example, a mention of a 'well-known tombstone' (p. 293) is missing any reference to its location, or a reference of any kind, and there is no accompanying image.

Chapter 13 takes the reader from Hellenistic to early Roman society in Greece through an examination of settlement and population, rural and urban life in Hellenistic times, followed by an account of early Roman urban life. A concluding section outlines trade, economics, and craft production in both periods. This combination is sometimes hard to follow, since each thematic section starts over chronologically. Chapter 14 describes the urban architecture of the two periods, with evidence from the palace at Aigai and both Hellenistic and Roman houses on Delos, then Hellenistic art, primarily the Macedonian royal tombs and the wide range of sculptural styles of the period.1 The next pair of chapters, on Middle to Late Roman archaeology, follows the established pattern, first outlining rural and urban life overall and then going into more specific topics such as symbolic material culture. In Chapter 15 Bintliff makes the important point that field survey evidence regarding Middle to Late Roman urban sites actually contradicts what we learn from examining the traditional foci of art and architecture alone; hence we must depend on a combination of archaeological methods for a complete picture of this era. The culture and society of this period is explored in Chapter 16 with an investigation of symbolic culture (predominantly religious architecture), artistic style (particularly with reference to portraits of the elite), and icons.

Part III encompasses the Byzantine, Frankish, Ottoman, and Early Modern periods in Greece. Although the dual organization still causes some confusion, Bintliff presents a wealth of detail on an era of Greek history that is often missing or skimmed over in conventional texts. Chapter 17 moves chronologically through the Early, Middle, and Late Byzantine periods, discussing developments in both towns and countryside. The symbolic culture of these three periods is first examined in Chapter 18, followed by urban construction in general, with a concentration on Mistra. The brevity of this chapter is due not to lack of material evidence, but rather to lack of scholarly attention: Bintliff suggests this material "would be an ideal focus for attracting the interest of young archaeologists looking for new research areas to colonize, away from the overpopulated discipline of Classical Archaeology." (p. 415) Chapter 19 introduces Frankish society through its towns, churches and monasteries, and ceramics, and describes its collapse. This section would have been improved by a brief introduction concerning the history of the Franks and the crusades for non-experts. Chapters 20-21 cover the archaeology of Ottoman and Venetian Greece, from rural villages to urban life, including an examination of ceramics, along with domestic architecture and interior furniture, and religious, military and other public architecture. Finally Chapter 22 presents the material culture of Early Modern Greece: ceramics, housing, changes in urban and rural life, and symbolic material culture such as dress and furnishings.

In general, some charts and maps are more useful than others. On the whole, the black and white photos are very difficult to see. A color photo section is a helpful addition, but marred somewhat by a strange layout—some photos are very small and positioned alone at the top of the page, leaving a great extent of white space below them. Personal photos of the author throughout the text are blurry and unclear, and some of the color photos have typos in the labels or are missing parts of labels, particularly the location of finds pictured. However, for a text this massive, typos in the body of the text are few and far between.

In sum, it is clear that with the extensive range of evidence carefully collected and well-analyzed in this volume, it will, as its author hopes, "contribute to a wider awareness of the rich history of this beautiful country in every century of its remarkable past." (p. 495)


1.   Sculptures of Dying Gauls are not identified as copies.

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