Paper read at the VII EAA meeting, 2001

Modern Political Structures and Problems in the State of the Research on Social Interaction during the Mediterranean Bronze Age



This paper builds upon an investigation of problematic interpretations of the 'presence' of eastern materials in the Western Mediterranean Bronze Age. I will focus on problems created by ideas about social interaction based on modern perceptions of a 'nation' and consider some of the challenges facing attempts to avoid these difficulties. An excellent example is the impact of modern conceptions of 'nations' on interpretations of evidence for interaction between people who lived in distant eastern and western regions. Interpretations motivated by modern assumptions have created a variety of problematic pictures of the ancient world, including a caricature of the 'Eastern' and 'Western Mediterranean' as two distinct internally unified socio-political entities, with sharply demarcated territorial boundaries and ethnically distinct populations. One of this picture's consequences has been that discussion of interaction has been limited to poorly explicated notions of 'competition' (trade and/or warfare?). In sharp contrast to this picture, recent research suggests that during the Bronze Age the western Mediterranean was populated by communities which varied considerably in terms of scale and cultural background. There seems to also have been much diversity respecting local and long distance interaction. This included ongoing long-distance interaction between a number of local western communities and people living in eastern parts of the Mediterranean. All this poses interesting questions, questions which the aforementioned caricatures obscure. For instance, "Might some western communities have been sociohistorically very closely related to eastern groups?" "Did these communities maintain these ties through diverse forms of long-distance interaction?" "What were the bases of these ties and forms of interaction?" "How did these ties contribute to the diversity of western as well as eastern social groups?" Researchers who are interested in these kinds of questions face difficult challenges. I will argue in this paper a fresh perspective on the problem, with attention to examples from the archaeology of Bronze Age Italy.


The discoveries of Aegean materials in the West Mediterranean today comprise about one hundred sites in southern and insular Italy (figure 1). The materials found are in most part of ceramic nature and therefore, for simplicity, pottery is the only evidence I consider in this paper.

Figure 1: Distribution map of archaeological sites with "Mycenaean" ceramics (filled squares for imported pottery and outline squares for local production) and copper oxhide ingots (triangles).

It is uncertain if pottery was one of the goods exchanged, because of its extremely limited quantity: Aegean vessels genuinely imported or produced locally represent on average 5% of the entire pottery assemblage found in the sites, with the first being a risible quantity. However, it is worth considering pottery separately from the other materials because while it was very likely not a key item for exchanges, as quantity suggests, it can be considered an extraordinary fingerprint of the people involved in the exchanges. Genuine imports are very few even among non-ceramic materials, consequently the interpretation of the exchanges as international trades, intended as interactions between nations and to a lesser extent individuals, sounds weak and unconvincing as a general explanation of the evidence. Evidently, modern ideas and perceptions of the reality underpin the interpretation of the ancient evidence, and these are almost all related to the concept of nation. From the New Archaeology onwards the highly theoretical problem of the division of the present from the past, especially in the case of prehistory, has been discussed at great length, and I do not want to focus on this topic. Instead, I want to reveal some dangers of using modern conceptions perceived by archaeologists in their time and location as absolute. "Nation" seems to be considered by archaeologists as the highest and most complex achievement of humankind in the field of social interaction, something that probably was discovered in the Bronze Age, which then carried on unchanged in its substance for the next millennia. In my opinion, this is the source of many problems; it is wrong to think of nations, as we know them now, while referring to ancient times, because they are normality in the present. I still believe that sometimes it is methodologically correct to explain the past with modern terms and conceptions if these appear similar, because we need to understand, and similarity helps. However, first the evidence has to be analysed, and after this, if what we understand is similar to something in the present, we can eventually assume it is the same for simplicity while generalising and explaining. For example, an ox-hide copper ingot can be considered as a modern copper ingot, despite its shape; a drinking vessel can be intended as a glass, despite differences in the material; and a complex social structure can be regarded as a nation, if the modern concepts appear to be the closest matches for meaning and function of the past concepts. However, can we assume that any heavy copper object is an ingot, any small and open vessel is a glass and any complex social structure is a nation? This could be true according to the experience in the present, but not necessarily in the past. In the case of the studies of the interactions between East and West in the Bronze Age Mediterranean, this happened: all the complex social structures were regarded as nation or nation-like polities, just on the basis of the experience accumulated in the present. In consequence of this, especially in the case of Mycenaeans seen as a single nation, the number and variety of problems is impressive. There are interpretations of one nation and primitive cultures: these led to ideas of Mycenaean colonies in the West, like the Greek ones, a not yet discarded hypothesis despite material evidence does not comprise any layer of clear destruction nor a marked change among the layers of any settlement with traces of Aegean presence or influence. The same basic idea imagines warfare between the civilised and primitives, to obtain the control of something, such as space or natural resources. The search for metals was supposed to be the reason behind the first contacts in this theoretical context. Perhaps it is true that metals were at the origin of the contacts, but not necessarily Mycenaeans behaving as a modern nation, either forcing/building an exchange to supply their needs (trade) or using violence (warfare). Moreover, East and West, perceived in the present and in the historical past as distinguished but comparable homogenous entities, have been assumed as existent even during Bronze Age. Therefore, the relations between these had to be trade during peacetime and warfare during less peaceful times. Trades involving Aegean materials have been assumed to be long-distance and international in their nature, not necessarily connected with the local, regional trades. After the petrologic analyses discovered that many pots in Italy were locally produced, scholars have proposed the presence of potters in the West, mainly because the West had been assumed underdeveloped compared to the Mycenaean civilisation rather than any other reason. Summarising, the understanding of the exchanges has been attempted by speculating on assumptions of the ancient situation, leaving little space for study of the material evidence. The first studies over one century ago were biased by dichotomies such as East/West or developed/undeveloped. Sometimes these two coincided, but sometimes the western areas in contact were regarded as advanced, and then the ideas of trades or warfare taking place could survive. These studies were only mildly questioned until recently because the resulting interpretations appeared plausible, and the material evidence was not well known. Only in the last fifteen years, petrologic analyses have convincingly demonstrated a minimal presence of imports among materials previously thought as genuine Mycenaean products, posing in consequence of this, material evidence outside the contemporary interpretations. The required changes in the interpretations initially were delayed, supposing errors in the analyses, and then surprisingly not adapted to fit in the new situation, but the evidence reinterpreted to fit in the explanations. Were Mycenaean pots produced in Italy? Good, then it means that Mycenaeans moved to Italy. The opposite explanation is that local potters could have learned the skills from the Aegeans, never took off as possible option, despite it being as valid as the previous one. Of course, Mycenaean potters in the West are possible, as well as trade and warfare, but these interpretations must have origin from the materials, not from assumptions, especially when these assumptions are made from modern conceptions. It is astonishing to realise that such a way of researching could persist so long, and still continues, without any serious objection; on the other hand, it is less shocking to realise that our knowledge and ideas about the exchanges is substantially not different from the time of the pioneering scholars. Hence, little improvements have been done on the side of general interpretations, and these affect especially the quantity of materials. The explanations however cannot be dismissed out of hand because the use of modern perceptions can also be correct if the material evidence suggests this. At this point, a closer look at the situation as it appears analysing the Aegean materials in the West is required. In the Bronze Age Italian peninsula and adjacent islands there was nothing similar to a unique, well recognisable civilisation like the Mycenaeans in the East. There were many different cultures, very probably in competition with each other, even if apparently pooled together by the exchanges with the East. A network of exchanges among these local cultures was certainly in place and explains the odd distribution of genuine imports, localised in a few places within an area of Aegean-type or Aegean-influenced materials. Whatever the nature of the exchanges was, these were essentially local with the eastern materials inserted at a certain point and moment in this pre-existent network; long-distance exchanges certainly existed but were not simple exchanges of materials between far places, at least for pottery. The large quantity of imitations in pottery proves this beyond any doubt: culture, including techniques and skills, were at the centre of the exchanges. Anyway, imitations are just a part of the evidence; most materials show a range and degree of eastern influence that is sometimes overwhelming compared to the local elements. Pantalica, in southeastern Sicily, is an example. In the West there were many different cultures as in the East there were different groups, which could be identified by generic terms such as Mycenaeans or Aegeans. Each of these groups and cultures involved in the exchanges interacted in different periods and with different partners in different ways. The presence of Aegean materials in fact seems a unifying element, because it is common and apparently shared by all the societies involved in the same way, with just the division East/West: one exporting, the other importing, or one attacking and the other defending. Things are instead much more complicated; each western area had contacts in some specific moments with some eastern populations, sometimes directly and sometimes in a mediated way and the goods exchanged could have changed from area to another. What is more important, however, is the type of interaction that very probably changed according to the practical situation. The material evidence, and particularly pottery, supports this view, with marked changes in the vessels present in different areas. The drinking vessels in Vivara perhaps had a different meaning from the large storage vessels in Broglio di Trebisacce; the presence of most of the Aegean pottery in the necropolis in Thapsos probably evidences a difference with the Aegean pottery rich settlement of Scoglio del Tonno. Even the role of islands or major centres can be compared, but anyway the differences must be taken in account. Maintaining the interpretation of a two-sided world, necessarily the explanations are limited, although sometimes they can be an option, but scholars are missing the possibility of a full understanding by being constricted to few explanations and generalisations too wide in chronological and spatial terms. Trade, warfare, the search for metals and immigrant potters are all possible, and, in my opinion, sometimes correct, because at certain times eastern people behaved in an organised way, they could be seen as a nation. Sometimes even the local cultures can be seen as a nation, but the point is that these explanations do not always fit the evidence and alternative explanations should always be fully explored. The current approach is unsatisfactory in this. With the understanding of complex, variable interactions, which cannot be explained all together by one or few explanations, inevitably questions about the nature and type of the interactions have to be re-proposed, and sometimes posed for the first time ever. I do not have ready answers that can solve the difficulties, and, indeed, a major complexity is a further challenging problem, which scholars have to face; they cannot avoid it any longer. Until now scholars have analysed materials, often on a sherd-by-sherd basis, focused on chronological issues and targeted the problem of provenance, sure in the knowledge that Mycenaeans went in the West for goods or markets. From now onwards the challenge is the understanding of the contacts, of the ties that connected so many different societies and the effects and reactions of these in both regional and Mediterranean scales. In conclusion, I do not consider the assumption affirming the presence of nation-like structures in the Bronze Age as wholly negative, but scholars must be aware of the related problems. Among these, there are two major ones: a restrictive view of the possible social interaction, and a misunderstanding of the general situation of the interactions, fragmented taking in account the material evidence, or unitary accepting the assumption of the presence of a strong polity, similar to a modern nation, in one or more sides. I want to stress once again the importance of starting the studies from the materials, without preconceptions, and subsequently build and use the most opportune theoretical models, as the only correct methodology. In doing this in our case, new possibilities and perspectives appear able to interpret and explain the social interactions that took place. Trade and warfare are a possibility, but they do not explain the enormous amount of material influence in the different areas, which, for example, a merging of cultures could, or the variety of contacts, which suggest an adaptation of the eastern people not understandable if Mycenaeans are seen as a single nation with precise targets. From here, the questions about the contacts, exchanges and interactions can be the starting point for a better knowledge in the near future.

Some recorded comments from the audience:

Carrier, B. - Material culture often presents differences, which must not be interpreted as ethnical differences without further elements. It complements with my point of not to identify large ethnos on the basis of similarities in the material culture. Material culture never equals "as is" to ethnicity.
Hofmeister, U. - Modern attempt to identify origin of united Europe in the Bronze Age is not different at all from other attempts using modern concepts to explain the past.
Zvelebil, M. - Studies on DNA results prove that there is no direct relation between genes and ethnicity. Similarity with my point of adaptation (influences) of local cultures to external stimulus, with ethnicity changing continuously, according to various aspects. In addition, more ethnicities can live on the same area (ethnical integration, to help with exchanges, etc.) Both DNA and material culture, when alone, are not enough to distinguish ethnicities.