Friday, April 3, 2015

The Mycenaeans: The Rise and Fall of Their Culture Through the Amber Trade

The Mycenaean material culture rose and fell during this period of 600 years from 1,650-1,050 BCE. Indirectly the wave structure of artifact finds are simultaneously evidence of power in the period. Power which was constantly being divided, stretched across the political landscape of the multiplicity of LBA Greek identity-cultures. One interesting item in particular sheds light on this immense social shift: it is the import and use of Baltic amber. As only the rich could afford these items, their spread and intensity show the centralization of wealth. Their find spots draw the barrier around Greece's local palace culture, and in turn chart its demise.

Amber began its journey in the Baltics, historically there was enough to be found on beaches. It was traded far south into Italy and Greece through an exchange network, changing hands through a process called by Colin Renfrew, a prestige chain. In this scenario, an elite of one village would present their amber as a gift to a neighbor, and as this happened slowly pieces of amber unintentionally made their way to the Mediterranean. As the item traveled further and further from its origin, it gained more value as it became rarer and exotic. Being given to assure alliances or ease conflict zones, these pieces tended towards concentrations of power. As the item drew into the periphery of Aegean culture, it was given or spotted by a traveling merchant from a town, and with those hands travels into the large cities. Its extreme rarity and price had, by this distance, drawn it higher and higher to the upper aristocrats. Once it reached the center of power, it was converted into useful items such as seals, jewelry, or other trinkets, and distributing its demand among each city's nobility.

The demand was high, even in the early periods. Between 1,600-1,400 BCE, prior to the rise of Mycenaean palace culture, amber was imported in staggering quantities. Sometimes within a single tholos (which would have had multiple burials) up to 1,200-1,500 amber pieces have been found. The main centers of import during this period were in the Argolid and Pylos, areas which held power from the beginning through the demise of its history. Outside of the Peloponnese, only Thebes was a somewhat large importer. As the region's nobility slowly increased in wealth by 1,400 BCE kings began to build palaces, only spurring on an increase in wealth. As amber spread throughout one city's upper aristocrats, its demand spread the city's nobility, and the increase in wealth in the period allowed more and more nobles to import amber. As more people and cities send merchants to find amber, its importation site distribution shifted towards favoring a wider swath of the Mycenaean world (instead of just the Peloponnese). By 1,400 BCE many new sites had become importers most notably Mycenaean cities in central Greece. Mycenaean nobles also imported amber in the Aegean islands, and on their conquered island of Crete. Mycenaeans even imported amber through their colonies in Cyprus, Syria, and Sicily. The initial hub of power had expanded to include the rest of Greece and an island periphery. Nobles around 1,600 BCE had set a fashion of conspicuous consumption which had spiraled out of control by 1,400 BCE.

A map of the distribution of amber in LH I-II (1,600-1,400 BCE), by Anthony Harding, Helen Hughes-Brock and Curt W. Beck

In the earliest phase of palace culture, between 1,400-1,350 BCE, two events occur. 1) the spread of amber importation sites continues, as more peripheral centers gain access to higher status trade relations; and 2) the frequency of find-sites decreases simultaneously, as some nobles lost within the Mycenaean core had lost their wealth. The loss of wider-spread amber ownership may not point to a general decrease in wealth, only a concentration of power within the city proper. As palace building spread throughout Greece, the process allowed larger cities to more easily dominate their neighbors' trade networks. By 1,300 BCE the trend continued, as local nobility in far flung areas like Aetolia and Epirus were importing amber. Similarly, find-sites continue to shrink as more power is centralized. In 1,300 BCE at Pylos there aren't even any found (by 1974).

By 1,300 BCE, nobility at the periphery of Mycenaean culture (like Epirus) were in cultural conflict. These amber importing Epirote nobles of the era were associated with northern spearhead and tomb styles. While they continued to use imported Mycenaean bronzes and some pottery, their identity culture was likely far from anything Mycenaean. The periphery was under stress, as foreign invaders usurped control from local Mycenaeans. While the material dominance of the Mycenaean periphery is expected at the borders, the cultural dominance (unique styles of burial) of foreigners spells doom for the integrity of Mycenaean heritage.

Mycenaean culture was facing threats, but it would not be defeated so easily, around this time (1,300 BCE) vessel production increased in Greece, with many of the items intentionally created to be exported. These export styles included nicely painted decorations with stylistically Mycenaean mythic, warrior, and animal scenes. The nobility of the period were still considerably wealthy, enough so that potters in their towns developed specific styles solely for foreign profiteering. As the wealth of Mycenaeans continued to increase, surrounding cultures began to push back, threatening the tightly woven yet delicately balanced Aegean social structure. In only 200 years both the Mycenaean and Minoan cultures would eventually be pushed into oblivion.

A map of the distribution of amber in LH IIIA (1,400-1,300 BCE), by Anthony Harding, Helen Hughes-Brock and Curt W. Beck

At the end of Mycenaean palace culture and the beginning of the BAC (around 1,200 BCE), there is a slight revival of amber importation. Yet still, the number of find-sites continues to decrease, as power is further and further whittled away from the Mycenaean aristocracy. There is such as decrease by this era that it is considered to be indicative of a general decrease in wealth. Mycenaean society and culture continued to operate throughout this period, as seen by the continued production of pottery and other artistry, but the swath of society who had been aristocratic patrons were as a group losing control of power. The nature of the BAC and is convoluted, as the collapse did not effect all areas equally and the import of amber never completely stopped – there were always traders and there were always buyers, but their identities had shifted post-collapse. Amber is found on nobility throughout this era, in an unbroken continuum into the iron age, the importance of amber was not shaken by the destruction of palaces and citadels.

As raids by foreigners and pirates likely increased after 1,200 BCE, long distance trade became less and less feasible. Seafaring merchants were integral to supplying the coastal elite with high status objects, especially from foreign countries, and as more and more of them lost their livelihood through piracy their profit margins decreased. The long-distance trade networks between countries in the eastern Mediterranean were significantly curtailed between 1,200-900 BCE, and simultaneously amber importation in Greece drops off as well. This period included massive migrations, and eventually (almost) every Mycenaean citadel would be destroyed and abandoned. Eventually every aspect of Mycenaean culture would be discontinued.

A map of the distribution of amber in LH IIIB-C (1,300-1,100 BCE), by Anthony Harding, Helen Hughes-Brock and Curt W. Beck

While the wealthy no longer lived inside the walls palace citadels, certain places continued to import amber during this calamitous era. The city of Elis, the island of Salamis, and Mycenaean concessions/colonies in southern Italy all continued to import amber through the Submycenaean period (1,100-1,000 BCE). During these hundred years many other aspects of society were changing, the Mycenaean peripheral nobility in southern Italy began to use iron weapons, and adopted other cultural aspects from Italy (replacing their Greek traditions). These places which had once been only only the sidelines of the Mycenaean world were now the centers of a local native elite, filling the power vacuum and their pockets. These nobles were wealthy enough to be their own centers of amber trade, and their culture from this period onward transforms smoothly into the local iron age traditions of the archaic period (in the 8th century BCE). Mycenaean kings lost everything: their political hegemony, their rich palaces and scribes, their famous pottery styles, and their bronze panoplies. By 1,000 BCE it is more fitting to call this culture Archaic instead of Submycenaean, and with the change in terminology comes the final death knell of the Mycenaean culture.


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