Studies in Bronze Age Aegean Archaeology

A book celebrating the career of John G. Younger

On the occasion of his retirement, Brent Davis and Robert Laffineur have put together a Festschrift to honour the life and career of Aegean archaeologist John G. Younger. Josho discusses the book and highlights some of his favourite chapters.

Josho Brouwers

If you are a student of Bronze Age Aegean archaeology, you almost certainly have run into the work of the American Classicist and archaeologist John G. Younger. He has excavated widely and the list of his publications is daunting; I have “only” read about two dozen of his articles and papers, I guess, and I have a copy of his Iconography of Late Minoan and Mycenaean Sealstones and Finger Rings (1988) in my book case. He also manages AegeaNet, an academic mailing list for those interested in the pre-Classical Aegean.

To mark his retirement, a Festschrift was published in 2020 entitled Neо̄toros: Studies in Bronze Age Aegean Art and Archaeology in Honor of Professor John G. Younger on the Occasion of His Retirement (Aegeum 44, published by Peeters). Considering how wide-ranging Younger’s career has been (and continues to be), the editors, Brent Davis and Robert Laffineur, had a daunting task ahead of themselves.

The book’s preface, written by Brent Davis, explains briefly the background of the book. Then follows an essay written by Younger himself entitled “My first 74 years”. As the title suggests, the essay is a succinct autobiography. I like this, as it emphasizes how one’s career is closely tied to one’s personal experiences, likes and dislikes. Young touches on his youth, his education, his marriage and divorce, his realization that he was gay, his activism, his embrace of modern technology (including the establishment of AegeaNet all the way back in 1993), his interest in theatre, and, of course, his research and publications. I wouldn’t mind reading a book-length autobiography, if Younger were interested in writing one.

The book’s 24 chapters – surely, that number is not a coincidence? – are grouped together into six different themes: scripts and languages (part A), writing and administration (B), gender (C), art, seals and iconography (D), archaeology (E), and finally reception (F). I cannot discuss all of these chapters separately, so I will give a brief overview and highlight some of the chapters that I personally found very interesting. The long and short of it is that this book offers a good, diverse cross section of current research into the Bronze Age Aegean; the list of authors is also a veritable who’s who of the field.

Scripts and languages

The chapters grouped under “Scripts and languages” (A) touch on a variety of topics. Thomas Palaima’s chapter focuses on one particular tablet (Pylos Tablet Aa 61) and is quite technical. Yves Duhoux’s brief chapter seeks to answer the question if there was one “Minoan” language or more: it is more a summary than anything else, but a useful one at that. And the conclusion “that a multiplicity of languages in Crete during the Minoan period is more likely” (p. 19) is perhaps unsurprising, as is the assertion that we can only be sure if more of the Minoan scripts are deciphered or new discoveries are added to the corpus. Brent Davis and Miguel Velério examine “names and designations of people in Linear A”, with a focus on a “contextual study” of two tablets in particular (HT 85 and 117).

Finally, Alexander Uchitel draws a comparison between Mycenaean ka-ma-e-u and the Sumerian engar. The discussion is again quite technical, focusing on the interpretation of ka-ma (land of some kind) and ka-ma-e-u (a landholder of some kind). Uchitel proposes a reconstruction that recalls the land tenure system of ancient Sumeria. The chapter is noteworthy in that it provides further support for an earlier thesis proposed by Uchitel (in an article published in 1984; see p. 35 n. 9), namely that the o-ka tablets from Pylos do not deserve the military interpretation that is commonly given to them.

There are two chapters grouped under the heading “Writing and administration” (B) could just as easily have been grouped under the former; I am not quite sure why they were placed apart. Ilse Schoep deals with the development of writing in Crete between Early Minoan III and Middle Minoan IIB (dated ca. 2200-1750/1700 BC). This chapter offers a succinct overview over the course of ten pages or so of the development of writing in Bronze Age Crete. Maurizio del Freo focuses more specifically on a tablet and noduli from Agia Triada to examine wool working there, with the suggestion that tablet HT 24 may record “deliveries of woollen yarn to the Villa” (p.63).


“Gender” (C) consists of three chapters. Dimitra Kokkinidou’s chapter deals with the idea of a primeval Goddess in the prehistoric Aegean. The chapter offers an overview of the origins and development of the “Goddess Theory” (pp. 69-70), with special reference, of course, to the work of Marija Gimbutas. Kokkinidou pointedly notes that (pp. 77-78):

Most theories by ‘great’ male archaeologists have nowadays been abandoned; nevertheless, they are treated much more leniently in the literature, and their male proponents continue to figure more prominently in the history of the disciple, as compared to their female counterparts. For Gimbutas, as for Jacquetta Hawkes and Margaret Murray (who, too, left a legacy of powerful, female-orientated archaeologists), the recognition of prominence is still to be desired.

Susan Heuck Allen’s chapter deal with Harriet Boyd (1871-1945), the American archaeologist who discovered the Minoan town of Gournia and directed the first excavations there. This chapter works as a good biography of Boyd and what she accomplished in a time when female archaeologists were relatively rare. It also serves as a reminder, as with Kokkinidou’s chapter, that not enough attention is devoted to the contributions of female researchers in the field of – in this case – Aegean archaeology.

Loeta Tyree, Louise A. Hitchcock, and Christopher Barnett’s chapter is entitled “E-qe-ta: conceptions of warrior beauty and constructions of masculinity on Postpalatial Crete”. The article is framed as a continuation of the work started by Paul Treherne in an article published in 1995 in the Journal of European Archaeology, which itself informed my own work in the field of pre-Classical Aegean warfare. This chapter discusses some of the elements involved in marking the “warrior’s beauty”, and includes a call that “attention needs to be given as much to constructions of masculinity as to the study of women and gender fluidity” (p. 108), with which I agree. It provides a good jumping-off point for further research.

Lyvia Morgan’s chapter deals with the significance of skin colour in Aegean art, a topic touched upon before on this very website. Morgan focuses on the Aegean as well as Egypt; our notions regarding the significance of skin colour in Aegean art is based directly on what we think we know about ancient Egypt. She concludes that while darker colours are often used to indicate men and lighter colours women, the reality of the situation is often more complex, with e.g. children and male deities sometimes depicted with light (white) skin colours. The Knossos “Taureador Frescoes” in particular “challenge our ideas of the inviolability of the gender colour convention” (p. 127).

Art, seals, and iconography

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the largest number of chapters are found under the heading “Art, seals, and iconography” (D). Judith Weingarten, Martina Polig, and Sorin Hermon’s chapter draw parallels between the Palaikastro Master’s Ring and the Combat Agate of the Pylos “Griffin Warrior”. Helen Hughes-Brock’s chapter is on Minoan sealstones, with special reference to “a unique polyonymous sealstone”. Olga Krzyszkowska writes about a cut style seal from the Megaron at Midea (the Argolid).

Lucy Goodinson’s chapter deals specifically with the interpretation of “the ubiquitous and varied circular or radiant symbols that appear on Minoan seals and rings” (p. 169), which are often interpreted as stars, wheels, suns, or just whirls. She believes that these motifs have been too loosely interpreted in the past, and argues in favour of the establishment of guidelines. It’s an interesting discussion, but I am not entirely convinced that strict guidelines will be useful in this case; her comments about the possible significance of the sun are intriguing, however.

Marianna Nikolaidou discusses the use of (miniature) figure-of-eight shields as objects of personal adornment. The figure-of-eight shield is well-known from both wall-painting and jewellery; the shape was commonly used as decoration. It has even been suggested that the figure-of-eight shield was never used in practice, which surely is a bridge too far. This chapter offers a good overview of the use of the figure-of-eight shield in personal adornment; a worthwhile contribution.

Josephine Verduci discusses Minoan “warrior graves”, i.e. burials with arms. There is some overlap here with the earlier chapter by Tyree, Hitchcock, and Barnett, as she “aims to explore fundamental issues regarding how itmes of adornment might indicate personal identity, social status and environment, and the interconnections between Crete and other areas of the Mediterranean” (p. 193). By placing “warrior graves” in quotation marks, Verduci draws attention to the fact that just because someone – not even necessarily a male – was buried with a weapon doesn’t necessarilty mean that they identified as warriors in life – a point that is only discussed in full later on (p. 199).

This chapter offers a useful overview, but I do find it curious that there is no mention here, as far as I can see, of B.F. Steinmann’s Die Waffengräber der ägäischen Bronzezeit: Waffenbeigaben, soziale Selbstdarstellung und Adelsethos in der minoisch-mykenische Kultur (2012). She could have easily referred to this book, if nowhere else, in her footnote 4, instead of noting “that there is not enough space here to permit a full treatment of the differences between warrior burials of Crete and the mainland” (p. 194). Those differences are detailed in Steinmann’s work.

Anne P. Chapin and Marie Nicole Pareja’s chapter is on the depiction of exotic animals in Minoan and Cycladic art, in particular peacocks, serpents, and monkeys. Joan Aruz looks at human-animal composite figures in Aegean art, of which the minotaur – a human figure with the head of the bull – is but one example. Finally, Maia Pomadère and Katerina Papayiannis try to determine if the cat was an exotic animal in the Minoan world. Her conclusion is that, yes, cats were initially rare on Crete, “and reserved for special and elite contexts” (p. 247).


Four more chapters are grouped under the general heading “Archaeology” (E). Metaxia Tsipopoulou writes about burial containers from a cemetery near Siteia (Crete). Christina Marangou’s chapter deals with Myrini Kastro on the island of Lemnos, suggesting, among other things, that carved structures reveal “a female bias”, which fits other Cretan evidence regarding the prominence of women in Minoan society. Giorgos Vavouranakis deals with the consumption of liquids and “the mechanics of ritual” in Crete (Prepalatial and Old Palatial), emphasizing continuity from one period to the next.

Vasilis Petrakis’s chapter has the interesting title “The adventures of the Mycenaean megaron”. The term is applied to the central rooms in the palaces of Mycenae, Tiryns, and Pylos. Petrakis discusses the meaning and history of the term megaron, its use in architectural typologies, and its use as the quintessential element of the Mycenaean palace. It is the longest chapter in this collected volume, but also an interesting read throughout.

Finally, the last part, “Reception” (F), consists of only a single chapter, which seems a little disappointing to me. Nevertheless, Christine Morris’s “The usable past: Minoans reimagined” is interesting, detailing what role the “Minoans” (i.e. the Bronze Age culture on Crete) played in forming European identity, how “Cretomania” continues to leave its mark in everyday life, and how often the engagement is superficial (e.g. Coca-Cola bottles with artwork inspired by Minoan frescoes).

Final thoughts

While I have not discussed this book in any great detail, I hope the foregoing has given a good idea of the breadth of material touched upon by the various authors. It is a fitting monument to John G. Younger’s career and anyone interested in the Bronze Age Aegean should check it out. The quality of the chapters is generally great.

I don’t have much to say as far as criticism is concerned. I am not quite sure on what grounds chapters are grouped under either A (“Scripts and languages”) or B (“Writing and administration”), since both topics seem so closely related to me, and especially Ilse Schoep’s chapter on the development of writing in Crete could just as easily been placed under A. It is also a pity that the final part on reception consists of only a single chapter. Typos are rare; the most glaring one that I encountered is the typo in the table of contents for Susan Heuck Allen’s chapter (“Eraly” instead of “Early”).

The only real problem, as is so often the case, is the cost of the book. At €110, this is an expensive book to buy (as usual, I got a review copy). But I think if most of the chapters draw your interest, it’s worth a purchase; otherwise, you can try to borrow the book from your nearest (academic) library.