ARCH 0420: Archaeologies of the Greek Past

Entries from February 2014


February 19, 2014 · 10 Comments

A day in the Agora: a farmer

I get up early and start my day by coming in to Athens from Attica.  Luckily I live and farm close to the city.  There are others that have a sizable journey to Athens when it is their turn to be on the council.

I set up my olive oil at a stall in the middle of the Agora in my usual spot in a circle with other olive oil sellers.  We start to sell our products.  At one point, a customer contests the amount of oil in my jars, so we go to the metronomoi in the South Stoa.  The benches set up in that stoa are dedicated to commerce regulations. The metronomoi fetch their weights from the Mint next door and ascertain that my jars are the weight I say.

Bronze weights from early Classical



Eventually it is time for the Boule to assemble.  I am one of the 50 representatives from my tribe this year to serve in the Boule. The stalls are packed up and the red rope is dragged through the marketplace to ensure everyone who needs to be participating in civic pursuits is where they should be. It is good that the market is so close to the Bouleuterion because it allows me to make a living while participating in the democracy.

As I enter the Bouleuterion, I feel a sense of pride and importance from being one of the 500 Athenian citizens chosen to represent the people. We have much to do today, including planning for the upcoming ekklesia (assembly of all the citizens) which is happening tomorrow in the Pnyx. The Pynx is located on a hill in central Athens and is able to hold thousands of citizens who all had the right to speak. Since I am a farmer, my responsibility for the ekklesia is the grain supply. Throughout the planning and the discussion for the ekklesia, I can’t help but feel a sense of corporate identity that transcends my life as a farmer

Headed home with tired eyes and worn out eardrums, I get some supper and rest for the announcement some of of our Boule members will be making to inform the general public of our ideas and conversations.


The next day, as we assemble as a group to approach the people, I quickly gather my ideas to make sure I can remember all the necessary points if I am asked to explain anything in my area of expertise. I look out over the thousands of citizens here at the Pnyx, who are ready to consider and vote on the topics we will be discussing today. While I am one of the 500 Athenian citizens chosen by lot to represent tribes this year, the citizen body gathered today for the ekklesia helps to choose what actions will be carried out regarding both executive and legislative decisions. The out of town citizens emerge from the stoas, and everyone waits to hear the proposals discussed previously in the Bouleuterion.

Remains of the Pnyx


After the ekklesia is completed and the citizens begin to disperse, I remain to speak with some of my fellow members of the Boule. We watch as the 50 members of the Prytaneis (executive committee) of the Boule heads back to the round building of the Tholos in order to dine together. While they are all fed at public expense, some of the Prytaneis must sleep in the Tholos each night in case there is an emergency.Athens and its democracy, thus, is always running, no matter what time of day or night it is. I consider for a moment whether the Prytaneis feels pride as I do in being a member of the Boule, but I am happy to retire once again to my own home.

3D Representation of Classical period Tholos



Categories: Weekly posts

The Mycenaean Collapse

February 11, 2014 · 5 Comments

Our in-class workshop on Friday, February 7th 2014 focused on the explanations of the Mycenaean collapse. After reading literature pertaining to theories of Mycenaean collapse, each group made concept maps to visualize the relationships among the factors that they deemed the most important.


Historically, when we say “Mycenaen collapse,” we refer to the destruction of several of the more populated palaces in the region  cerca 1200 BCE. The aftermath of this included severely reduced literacy (and the loss of Linear B, the written language of Mycenaean administration), interrupted trade routes, a much smaller population, and an end (or severe weakening of) the palatial system. “Mycenaean society” itself did not perish at this time, however. A much less populated Mycenae continued to subsist, if not thrive, until the (likely accidental) Granary fire of around 1100 BCE.


(click on the map to see a larger image)

My group’s concept map divided the factors we saw troubling for the Mycenaean civilization into three main categories: internal/societal struggles, external conflict, and the ancient Greek environment. In the “internal” category, we included an idea that kept recurring in the readings. This was the argument that the Mycenaean society had become overly complex and the political system was thus too large, inefficient and bureaucracy-heavy. Conant’s “Citadel to City-State, the Transformation of Greece” in particular stressed the argument that the palatial system had started as merely a means for farmers to store their surpluses. As the populations, territories, and bureaucracy of the government expanded, the palatial system did not adapt sufficiently. The already stressed administration was unable to deal with issues it may have otherwise been able to solve (or at least endure). This argument appealed to our group as a holistic approach to the collapse. Our general idea was that this burdensome bureaucracy was the root of the problem; the other struggles that arose (whatever they might have been) were each exacerbated or caused by the failing administrative system.


Another point that we found critical to the collapse was the idea of ecocide. This theory states that as civilizations grow and become more complex they cause environmental degradation, which in turn can bring an entire civilization to its end. The expansion and large populations of the Mycenaean states would have meant increasing demands from the agricultural industry (which was the base of the palatial system’s power, as they had no currency). The resulting erosion of top soil, salinization of groundwater, and soil fatigue could have easily caused famine and social unrest.


Finally, a key idea is that the Mycenaean collapse was not unique. Several surrounding civilizations exhibited signs of struggle at this time. This led some scholars to suggest that  a series of natural disasters (e.g..”Earthquake Storm”), felt throughout the area, could have contributed to the Mycenaean collapse. Earthquakes are common in this area so this seems likely. One could argue that since they are common, these civilizations ought to have been able to deal with them. However, if one follows the overtaxed political system theory, it seems likely that such a crisis could have been the end of an already struggling system.


All three groups read the same papers on the collapse, yet we had slightly different takes on what actually may have caused it. Group 1 seemed to focus on the “external factors” like wars and raids that would have weakened the Mycenaeans. Our perception of the Mycenaeans from surviving works of art and classical pieces is that they were often often at war, or at least had several types of daggers and ornamentations associated with fighting. Group 2 favored the concept of ecocide of growingly complex societies. One interesting aspect of the discussion is that we all seemed to agree on what could have possibly happened but there was some debate about the relevance of each issue. Different groups had different opinions on what may have been the root of the Mycenaean issue.


I personally had never used a website to make a concept map before this assignment. One aspect that I appreciated is that (with I was able to make my group members (Gabrielle, Guo, Abigail, and Logan) contributors to the map. This way they were able to view it throughout the process and make changes to it. I think this facilitated our collaborated effort, especially since we at no point met in person to work on this is the same room. Our discussion was fully online. I also liked that I was able to draw relationship arrows between points in different categories to show when we thought the ideas were closely related.

Our map: map (1)

Categories: Weekly posts

Early Cycladic Figures

February 3, 2014 · 10 Comments

This week in class we focused on the sculptures found in the Cycladic Islands of the southern Aegean: the collection of art known as Early Cycladic figures. After reading several analyses that hypothesize about the figures’ form, context, and overall meaning, we discussed in our small group sections our observations and our own theories about the works. Why are there a vast number of figures understood to be female, and so few depictions of the male form? Perhaps, as was suggested in my section, women had a significant role in the mourning rituals during the Early Cycladic era, a view supported by the vast majority of the figures found in graveyards. Why, of the five figures depicting red lines on the face, are four significantly larger in size? We discussed in my section that, if the red lines are meant to be a pictorial representation of the historically controversial practice of women scratching their cheeks until they bleed as a symbol of grief, perhaps the larger figures depict more important women. Maybe we are analyzing sculptures of dead queens.

Standing female figure, ca. 2600–2400 B.C.; Early Cycladic II

Standing female figure, ca. 2600–2400 B.C.; Early Cycladic II

Despite the significant guesswork about the figures and the role they would have played in the early Cycladic culture, it is almost impossible to prove any of these theories, considering the lack of writing from the time period. But the very existence of the sculptures does indicate certain possibilities about the Cycladic culture: some kind of social stratification, some kind of necessity or desire to depict the human form, an artistic cohesion across the islands, a society peaceful and economically stable enough to enable the creation of art and sculpture. Even though we may never be completely certain why and for what purpose the figures were made in the Early Cycladic time, their influence on our modern artistic aesthetics is definitive. Nowadays we would classify the figures’ design as minimalist: a stripped down delineation of form, dependent on geometric stability rather than ornamentation. The artistic influence of the figures on modern sculpture is apparent in, for example, the sculpture of Amedeo Modigliani and Constantin Brâncuşi. Modigliani’s “Woman’s Head” of 1912 is an abstracted, elongated form that recalls the facial features visible on the Cycladic figures. Brâncuşi’s “The Kiss” from 1916 evokes the consistent feature of the sculptures in the position of the arms, although it presents two figures in an embrace rather than an individual. The consistent abstract and minimalist portrayal of individuals is, however, what unifies the aesthetic style of these works, be they from thousands of years before our time or a little over one hundred years ago. Or, one could simply say that, since we began to make art, it has been about the expression of the self. Humans have been depicting the human form since they have been able to use the power of art as a form of expression.

Woman’s Head, 1912 Amedeo Modigliani.

Woman’s Head, 1912
Amedeo Modigliani.

The Kiss, 1916 Constantin Brâncuşi.

The Kiss, 1916
Constantin Brâncuşi.

This class was the first time I encountered the Cycladic figures, despite having already learned about the art they’ve influenced. For a reason I can’t quite completely explain, the figures make me sad in some way, perhaps because they meant so much to an entire culture and we don’t know why they decided to make them. Were they depictions of the dead – objects made out of grief and sorrow? Were they representations of life, carried through time until they found their way into graves? Were they objects of ritual – dark and powerful talismans? I don’t know. Although we discovered these artifacts that once belonged to people who must have had some of the same fears and dreams and loves we did, the people of these figures seem so far away. I advocate for the continued investigation into what the figures meant to the cultures that made them, so we can find out what they mean to us.

One peculiar feature appearing on almost all of the Cycladic figures is the pose of the crossed arms. Some argued that this pose was meant to represent the crossed arms of a corpse. Some say it was an ingenious decision by the designers to keep the arms intact. Others looked at the arms and imagined a mother cradling a child. When I look at the figures and their arms, I imagine them holding their secrets inside of themselves, safe and strong.


Categories: Weekly posts