Aegeus Society For Aegean Prehistory


16 May 2012

Giorgos Vavouranakis (ed.), 2011. The Seascape in Aegean Prehistory, Monographs of the Danish Institute at Athens, vol. 14, Athens: The Danish Institute at Athens.

Hardback, 288 p., 44 b/w figures, 3 tables, maps, 28x21.5 cm, ISBN: 978-87-7934-571-3

Reviewed by John Bennet, Professor of Aegean Archaeology, University of Sheffield
(d.j.bennet [at]


Landscape archaeology became prominent within the field of Archaeology in the later 20th century, driven by the rise of systematic surface survey and by a desire to understand humans’ experience of the world (e.g. David & Thomas 2008).  The Aegean world is no exception to this trend, although archaeological survey (and its methodologies) has tended to predominate over more culturally-focused approaches and there is still a good study to be written of cultural landscapes in the Aegean (though see, for example, Ashmore & Knapp 1999; Doukellis & Mendoni 2004).  It is surprising, however, given that the Aegean region is defined by the centrality of a body of water within which are sprinkled numerous smaller and larger islands, that studies of ‘seascapes’ (cf. Cooney 2003) are even rarer.  There are some obvious differences between sea and land, not least the fact that one cannot survey the sea in the same way as the land, but studies of the sea have tended to treat it as an undifferentiated medium of communication, especially economic, and therefore focus either on ‘first seafaring’ (e.g., Broodbank 2006) or particularly on the 2nd millennium BC when the Aegean was increasingly implicated with first the eastern, then the central Mediterranean.  Representative of these latter issues was one of the early Aegaeum conference volumes THALASSA, where communication and maritime technology figured prominently (Laffineur & Basch 1991).  Broodbank was therefore a pioneer in seeking to evoke the realities of life in and on the Aegean Sea in the 3rd millennium BC in An Island Archaeology of the Early Cyclades.  He drew on parallel experiences in ethnographically observed marine-based societies, situating that knowledge within a detailed treatment of the archaeology of the Cyclades mediated by network approaches and the study of island ecosystems (Broodbank 2000). This book — unusually a collection of contributions invited by its editor, rather than the proceedings of a conference — goes some way to setting out a diverse range of approaches to the sea in Aegean prehistory.

The book comprises an Introduction, ten substantive chapters and an Epilogue, by eleven scholars at various stages from early-career to senior.  The volume covers later prehistory, from the earliest Neolithic to the end of the Bronze Age, and focuses geographically on the Aegean and Cyprus.  (It is perhaps no accident that six of the eleven contributors are also represented in an earlier sea-focused publication, with broader geographical and chronological scope: Antoniadou & Pace 2007)  The main chapters are framed by an Introduction (Giorgos Vavouranakis), summarising trends in landscape and seascape archaeology with special reference to the Aegean, and an Epilogue, ‘Histories from the Sea’ (Kostas Kotsakis), that offers an insightful and positive response to the collection proposing liminality, movement and embodiment as key concepts in developing a more satisfying appreciation of human engagement with the sea.

The first two contributions both deal with Neolithic seascapes.  In ‘The Paradox of Early Voyaging in the Mediterranean and the Slowness of the Neolithic Transition between Cyprus and Italy’ Albert Ammerman, ponders the ‘paradox’ that it took so long (more than 2000 years) for Neolithic lifestyles to make the jump between Cyprus and Italy.  The rate of progression (an average of 0.75 km per year) is puzzling because land-based spread of Neolithic agriculture averages 0.6-1.3 km per year, according to the latest version of the Ammerman–Cavalli-Sforza formula.  Whether we should expect such a formula to ‘work’ over the sea, where there can be no intermediate staging-posts, other than islands, is debatable, and it is perhaps relevant that the earliest insular Neolithic in the Aegean and eastern Mediterranean involved relatively short water-crossings to large islands (Crete; Cyprus) from neighbouring mainlands where agro-pastoral regimes already existed.  Ammerman’s conclusion — prefacing a short final section explicitly addressing ‘seascapes’ as a concept — is that hunter-forager groups with strong ties to the sea simply did not need agriculture.  A nice reminder, if true, that we need to un-think our modernist, teleological view: why would people not want to adopt agriculture, if it was on offer?  Tatiana Theodoropoulou next explores relations with the sea among Neolithic communities in Northern Greece in ‘Fishing (in) Aegean Seascapes: Early Aegean Fishermen and their World’.  Through analysis of zooarchaeological remains on various sites, both coastal (now) and inland, she demonstrates significant diminution in the proportion of marine resources with distance from the coast.  Not too surprising perhaps, but what is more interesting is the variation in the degree of engagement with marine resources, mostly molluscs, among the inland sites, suggesting that people in these early farming communities actively developed different relationships with the sea.

The next pair of papers concentrates on the Early Bronze Age in the Cyclades and on Crete.  Despina Catapoti, ‘Further Thoughts on the International Spirit: Maritime Politics and Consuming Bodies in the Early Cyclades’, makes a strong plea for placing human bodies at the centre of our study, a point also picked up in Kotsakis’ Epilogue.  Questioning the humanity of the phrase ‘International Spirit’, she praises Broodbank’s efforts towards a humanisation of study of the EBA Cyclades, but herself favours a more fully people-centred view, drawing on examples of bodily practices attested on Cycladic sites of the period.  One can only agree, of course, but with the caveat that development of such an approach requires a refinement of data collection strategies and a rethinking of methodologies.  In ‘Funerary Customs and Maritime Activity in Early Bronze Age Crete’ Giorgos Vavouranakis reviews mortuary practices in EM Crete through the lens of their shifting orientation towards the sea.  In general, in the earlier phases (EM I-II) he finds greater engagement — both in terms of funerary practices and materials deposited with the dead — in northern than in southern Crete, while, by EM III, mortuary practices have swung round to focus on land rather than sea. An issue raised, also touched on by others in the volume, is the possible association of the sea with death.

Differential engagement with marine activities is picked up in the four papers that follow covering the Palatial Middle to Late Bronze Age and extending into the Final Palatial and Post-Palatial Late Bronze Age.  All four contributors draw in different ways on representation as a way to investigate how people in the Aegean thought about the sea in different ways and at different times, but make the point that representations offer a highly constructed ‘window’ on the past.  A theme that runs through all four is that the palatial elite (or at least those commissioning images in multiple media) sometimes distanced themselves conceptually from the sea, somewhat ironically since the MBA-LBA was the period of greatest seaborne interaction both within and beyond the Aegean, recognised in later tradition as the period of the ‘Minoan thalassocracy’.  Ina Berg’s contribution, ‘Towards a Conceptualisation of the Sea: Artefacts, Iconography and Meaning‘, concentrates on marine imagery on high-quality fine-ware ceramics of the Late Bronze Age (the highly distinctive ‘Marine Style’) and triangulates between marine animals represented there and data on Aegean ships, fishing and diet.  She points out that the species of sea animals chosen for representation are very limited and do not seem to reflect intimate knowledge of the sea, while other evidence suggests greater familiarity, even if the current isotopic evidence for diet suggests only a minor component from marine sources.  Greater reflection on the potential chain of links between actual marine animals and eventual ceramic decoration, including possible interference between representational media, would have added greater depth to this study.

Matthew Haysom’s chapter, with its amusing title ‘Fish and Ships: Neopalatial Seascapes in Context’, covers similar ground, but is more comprehensive, drawing on a systematic review of representations in wall-paintings, on seals and sealings and in ceramics, faience, ivory and bronze.  He concludes that marine scenes are under-represented in wall-paintings on Crete, in contrast to the other islands, while there is a decline in marine representations from Proto- to Neo-Palatial in seal imagery.  Like Berg, he finds marine motifs common on ceramics, but also in faience, less so, but still present, in ivory and bronze.  Relief decoration on stone vessels offers yet another perspective, in which men and women are always separated and marine scenes are rare in comparison to rocky landscapes.  Overall, Haysom presents a thoughtful and complex picture that would repay a more developed study.

In ‘A View from the Sea’, John Younger offers a more narrowly focused exploration of the viewpoint implied by the famous West House miniature fresco at Akrotiri, Thera.  Reading this famous set of images against parallels from traditional wayfaring and Medieval/Early Modern map-making, he suggests that the fresco encapsulates a view from off-shore, possibly a narrative, but a view by someone experienced in sea travel, perhaps the owner of the house and therefore the commissioner of the representation.

The last chapter in this group, ‘Politics of the Sea in the Late Bronze Age II-III Aegean: Iconographic Preferences and Textual Perspectives’ by Vassilis Petrakis, also charts changes in representation, both iconographic and textual, this time across the Palatial to Post-Palatial rupture.  In his overview of the Linear B textual data, he is reviewing and updating a chapter by Thomas Palaima in the THALASSA volume (Laffineur & Basch 1991).  Like Berg and Haysom, Petrakis finds that marine representations are restricted, suggesting this may be because of the fragile control exercised by palatial authorities over long-distance sea-borne exchange; the sea may then have been a problematic category for the palatial elite.  With the collapse of palatial institutions, there is a resurgence of ship representation, mostly warships, on media (ceramics) that ‘replaced’ palatial wall-paintings.

The last two pieces in the volume both relate to Cyprus and its relations with the Aegean.  Sophia Antoniadou reviews the occurrence of imported Aegean objects in non-mortuary contexts in ‘Import-ant Aegeans in Cyprus: A Study on Aegean Imports in Late Bronze Age Non-Mortuary Contexts in Cyprus’.  She suggests that the relatively wide distribution of such objects across a range of contexts, not confined to tombs, implies they were not considered ‘exotic’, but had become ‘domesticated’ in Cypriot social life.  Anastasia Leriou complements this view in her chapter ‘Overseas Migrations at the End of the Late Bronze Age in the Aegean and the Eastern Mediterranean: Some Reflections’, which explores the much discussed colonisation of Cyprus by Greek(-speaker)s at the end of the Bronze Age.  Rather than attempting to evaluate the reality or extent of Aegean immigration to Cyprus, she assumes that people from the Aegean did move there.  For Leriou, however, they were neither foreign, nor refugees, but familiar visitors, if in greater numbers around and after 1200 BC than previously.  In relation to this point, her comparison with the difficulties scholars have had in determining the ‘ethnicity’ of the Uluburun wreck is a good one.

Inevitably a dozen contributions spanning several millennia with different intellectual approaches, even though focused on a relatively small geographical area, can only dip a toe in the water of a potentially huge topic.  There is still a great deal to be done and Kotsakis’ Epilogue perhaps offers the clearest framework for the potential priorities for future research if we are to understand Aegean seascapes as inhabited spaces, rather than as constantly shifting surfaces that simply separate or connect land-based humans.  Finally, it is worth noting that the volume owes its appearance in the Danish Institute’s monograph series to the generosity of Erik Hallager.  He and its editor and contributors deserve our gratitude for a first, tentative step into what one hopes will be deep and productive scholarly waters in future.


Antoniadou, S. & A. Pace (eds) 2007. Mediterranean Crossroads, Oxford.

Ashmore, W. & A.B. Knapp (eds) 1999. Archaeologies of Landscape: Contemporary Perspectives, Oxford.

Broodbank, C. 2000. An Island Archaeology of the Early Cyclades, Cambridge.

Broodbank, C. 2006. ‘The Origins and Early Development of Mediterranean Maritime Activity’, JM​A 19.1: 199–230.

Cooney, G. (ed.) 2003. Seascapes, World Archaeology 35.3.

David, B. & J. Thomas (eds) 2008. Handbook of Landscape Archaeology, Walnut Creekm, CA.

Doukellis, P.N. & L.G. Mendoni (eds) 2004. Perception and Evaluation of Cultural Landscapes: Proceedings of an International Symposium, Zakynthos, December 1997, Meletimata 38, Athens.

Laffineur, R. & L. Basch (eds) 1991. Thalassa. L’Egée préhistorique et la mer. Actes de la troisième rencontre égéenne internationale de l’Université de Liège, Station de recherches sous-marines et océanographiques (StaReSo), Calvi, Corse, 23-25 avril 1990, Aegaeum 7, Liège.


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