Tuesday, March 26, 2019


Iris von Bredow, Kontaktzone Vorderer Orient und Ägypten: Orte, Situationen und Bedingungen für primäre griechisch-orientalische Kontakte vom 10. bis zum 6. Jahrhundert v. Chr. Geographica Historica, 38. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2017. Pp. 394. ISBN 9783515118606. €44,00.

Reviewed by Alexander Vacek, Bursa Uludağ University (alexander@uludag.edu.tr)

Version at BMCR home site

In her book, von Bredow tries to identify places, situations and preconditions, which led to the broadly acknowledged cultural and economic contacts between Greece and the Near East (including Egypt) from the 10th to the 6th century BC, through two main methodological approaches: first, by applying theoretical concepts of the communication sciences and, secondly, by utilizing socio-cultural and socio-technological theories and explanations. The focus is only on contact zones in the Near East itself, a phenomenon von Bredow calls "primary contacts" as opposed to "secondary contacts", which are placed within the Greek sphere.

The book contains five main parts heralded by a short introduction. A history of research is missing, a shortcoming, since von Bredow ignores substantial recent contributions in her discussion.1 In the first section, von Bredow offers a historical overview of Greece, Egypt (from the Third Intermediate period until 525 BC) and the whole Levant, including the Neo-Assyrian Empire and Babylon but omitting Cyprus, a major deficiency. The historical summary suffers slightly from its problematical treatment of the archaeological sources, most notably the "positivistic" approach to Greek pottery, which is consistently interpreted as personal belongings of Greeks (e.g. p. 105. 133) while their role as a commodity is neglected, at least until the late 7th century BC, which leads to some questionable conclusions.2 Also, the overview of the Near Eastern historical sources is not without gaps. For instance, her suggestion that Assyria, whose influence she judges as marginal, should be ruled out as direct contact zone (p. 53) neglects important sources.3 The outcome concerning the remaining regions is less surprising: they all were important to various degrees although it is hard to follow von Bredow's argument that e.g. Phoenicia was less vital as a direct contact zone because Homer only rarely mentions the Phoenician coast (p. 125).4 Babylon as a possible contact zone is ruled out as well on the basis that direct Ionian Babylonian relations should be excluded despite written (contested) sources suggesting otherwise (p. 58).

The next part discusses the material and written sources as media within the context of their time in order to define their "Sitz im Leben" by utilizing a praxeological instead of a structural approach to material analysis (p. 141). According to von Bredow, the culture-specific "Handlungspraxis" related to objects and texts needs to be understood in order to define their role and significance as a transmitter of cultural knowledge (p. 155). The focus is particularly on the communicative aspects of objects and texts (p. 141). Among the archaeological material, the emphasis is given to pottery, monumental architecture and to depictions of sculpture and reliefs. Although these three categories have received much attention in scholarship already, von Bredow's approach should definitely offer new insights but unfortunately, she only touches on the issue and ignores significant theoretical discussions.5 Less attention has been paid so far to profane architectural and religious landscapes as possible role models for Greece and von Bredow rightly mentions this aspect (p. 145). Noteworthy is also her analysis of written sources and inscriptions, which according to her are not only important due to their content but also deserve consideration as non-verbal communicative media.

Part three is the most stimulating chapter. First, von Bredow offers a short overview of previous approaches to and models of contact types.6 Contact types are then discussed by putting the focus on the agents of communication while distinguishing between verbal and non-verbal contacts. While the former was more significant for the transmission of culture, the latter played an important role during the initial stage of contacts (195). After that, she considers the conditions "surrounding" contacts, including political and cultural dominance and the effects of social differences on contacts, mostly by means of Homer.7 Social practices are given major importance in von Bredow's analysis of the different stages of reception, which are divided into three levels: borrowing, adaption and acculturation. Each of them represents a higher degree of understanding of the local culture by the foreigner. The following chapter looks at the reception of literary genres and their content. While the conclusion that only the Greek aristocracy could be responsible for the circulation of writing and literature including the social practices surrounding their performance might not seem surprising, von Bredow's attempt to trace the precise mechanisms and the cultural context of the transmission (e.g. education in local schools and recitals of songs in the Near Eastern palaces or sanctuaries) deserves notice (p. 210-2). The part ends with a discussion of the reception of belief systems and cult. Here von Bredow distinguishes between basic conceptions, social practices and religious emotions. The results are not always convincing, though this is partly related to the lack of sources.8

In her fourth part, von Bredow examines contact situations, which are divided into long-term/short-term verbal and non-verbal contacts. Within the first category, mercenaries, traders, high officials, craftsmen/technology and slaves, are discussed. Under the second category, she lists pirates, envoys and persons on an educational journey. The division may not seem obvious to everybody. Trading contacts e.g. may in many cases be confined to a short-term non-verbal situations. That said, the examination of the known sources and main potential contact points (e.g. Naukratis) is detailed and offers a refinement of existing explanations without radically changing the picture. In von Bredow's view, envoys and mercenaries belonging to the aristocracy play a major role as agents in the initial stages of cultural transfer (p. 248. 335) while traders become important only after ca. 650 BC (p. 297).9

There are some problems here. Scholars with an interest in the ancient economy may disagree with her assumption that trade at that time was primarily driven by supply and demand. Equally contestable is the statement that the East did not provide a market for many Greek commodities (p. 291-2), a view that not only ignores the role of foreign commodities within elitist strategies to establish or affirm hierarchies but also stands in contrast to the archaeological record. Also, von Bredow is remarkably sceptical regarding the potential of craftsmen to act as cultural transmitters since, according to her argument, socio-technological aspects, in which technology is embedded, constitute an important barrier for the transmission of knowledge (p. 312). Instead, she puts the main emphasis on the aristocratic sponsor as the potential responsible source for technological transfer (p. 319).

In her final part, von Bredow provides a summary of the results obtained in the previous sections and defines again possible contact zones in the East. Of particular importance up to ca. 650 BC were mercenaries, who were employed in North Syria, in the Phoenician city-states, Judea and Israel before the Philistine cities and Egypt became their main hunting grounds. From the end of the 7th century BC, Greek traders in Egypt but also other groups such as Greek envoys or high officials employed by the Egyptian court were the major driving forces of cultural transfer.

Von Bredow's contribution has to be judged by the usefulness of her approach to generate new input for the debate and by the way she treats and interprets the available sources. On these terms, the book has virtues and defects. On the positive side is von Bredow's new methodological approach for investigating the available written and archaeological sources. Particularly stimulating was her section three with its emphasis on the communicative aspects of objects and texts and her section four on the social practices surrounding the objects, inscriptions, literature etc. and the way they restrict or facilitate cultural and technological transfers. Both parts constitute a significant contribution to scholarship and alone make the book worth reading. However, the generally positive assessment of the book is hindered by its less careful consideration of the archaeological evidence and, to some extent, also parts of the secondary literature. Nevertheless, scholars interested in the relationships between Greece and the Near East should not ignore von Bredow's contribution.

Factual errors are rare, mostly resulting from typing errors.10 The reader will also discover that some of the literature cited in the text is missing in the bibliography.11 Simple misprints are few, indicating the generally good editorial work.12


1.   E.g. C. Ulf, "Rethinking Cultural Contacts", Ancient West & East 8 (2009), 81-132.
2.   E.g. her rejection of any Greek trading activities in North Syria until the 8th century BC since "trading relevant pottery forms" are missing (p. 90). Her assessment of the function of North Syrian ports within the East-West trading networks is contradictory: while she considers them to perform only a minor role (p. 102), the Greek pottery recovered there is understood as belonging to Greek seafarers who "frequently" visited these ports (p. 105).
3.   E.g. Sennacherib's Annals that list "Ionian" sailors as part of his Tigris fleet of 694/3 BC. See R. Rollinger, "The Ancient Greeks and the Impact of the Ancient Near East: Textual Evidence and Historical Perspective (ca. 750-650 BC)", in Mythology and Mythologies, edited by R. M. Whiting. Helsinki: The Neo-Assyrian Text Corpus Project (2001), 242. For reference concerning the capture of a possible Greek (mercenary?) during the time of Esarhaddon see R. Rollinger and M. Korenjak, "Addikritusu: Ein namentlich genannter Grieche aus der Zeit Asarhaddons (680- 669 v. Chr.). Überlegungen zu ABL 140*", Altorientalische Forschungen 8 (2001), 325-337.
4.   Interestingly, in this case the Greek pottery recovered at Tyre is not considered as evidence of direct contact.
5.   E.g. we are told that Greek pottery could not have been integrated into the local social practices (p. 144). The significant anthropological research regarding the process of "commodification" or the ability of foreign objects to act as diacritical tools in feasts are not mentioned. See A. Appadurai, The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (1986); M. Dietler, "Theorizing the Feasts: Rituals of Consumption, Commensal Politics, and Power in African Contexts", in Feasts: Archaeological and Ethnographic Perspectives on Food, Politics, and Power, edited by M. Dietler and B. Hayden. Washington, D.C., London: Smithsonian Institution Press (2001) 85.
6.   She refrains from developing her own model but rather prefers to consider the historical and cultural circumstances of the time since the sources are abundant enough, an assessment which, at least for the period of the 10th to the late 8th century BC, one may disagree with.
7.   Although von Bredow's analysis highlights the importance of this topic for the Greeks of the late 8th/7th century BC, the historical value of her main written source, Homer, is controversially debated by scholars. Another contentious point is von Bredow's view that a Greek must have been looked like an uncultivated "barbarian" to the Easterners (p. 199) since it hardly finds support in the written sources.
8.   The discussion of the introduction of cremation in Greece reveals von Bredow's weakness regarding the archaeological literature. See e.g. the omission of LH IIIC middle/late cremation burials at Argos, which suggest a different or earlier way of transmission. O. Dickinson, The Aegean from Bronze Age to Iron Age. London, New York: Routledge (2006) 180.
9.   In the case of northern Syria, where we do not possess any written sources or archaeological indications for Greek mercenaries, such a scenario is doubtful.
10.   E.g. Jerusalem was destroyed in 587/6 BC and not in 687/6 by Babylon (p. 173). The third western campaign by Assurbanipal could hardly have occurred in 622 BC (p. 49). The city referred to on p. 56 is Silifke and on p. 236 no. 58 is Megiddo.
11.   V. Parker, Untersuchungen zum Lelantischen Krieg und verwandten Problemen der frühgriechischen Geschichte. (Historia Einzelschriften 109). Stuttgart: Franz Steiner, 1997, cited e.g. on p. 249 no. 151. Also missing: Bosse 1936 (p. 153 no. 58)= K. Bosse, Die menschliche Figur in der Rundplastik von der XXII bis zur XXX Dynastie. (Ägyptologische Forschungen 1). Glückstadt: J. J. Augustin, 1936. Fugmann 195 (p. 99 no. 614) is unclear but could be the Sukas report in: Annales Archéologiques Arabes Syriennes 8-9 (1958-59) 107-130. Schwemer 2000, 589 (p. 114 no. 728)= D. Schwemer, "Itti-Samas-balatu", in The Prosopography of the Neo-Assyrian Empire, edited by H. Baker. Helsinki: The Neo-Assyrian Text Corpus Project (2000).
12.   Woolley e.g. is consistently misspelt throughout the book.

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