Putting Aegean States in Context: Interaction in the Eastern Mediterranean and Southeastern Europe during the Bronze Age

Advanced Seminar

March 11–15, 2007

Using the Bronze Age Aegean as a laboratory, co-chairs William A. Parkinson and Michael L. Galaty challenged this seminar group to shift away from traditional models and questions of state formation and to consider how different kinds of states interact with their contemporaries over time. “Rather than asking ‘How do states come to be?’ we wanted to answer the question ‘How do states that develop differently, along different historical trajectories, affect each other and surrounding societies?’”

The changing nature of social interactions among the pre-state and state societies of the Bronze Age Aegean and their adjacent contemporaries in the eastern Mediterranean and central and southeastern Europe during the third and second millennia BC provided fertile ground for the scholars’ scrutiny, resulting in an “amazingly enlightening seminar.” For several reasons, including geography and the long history of research in the area, the Aegean is “a perfect laboratory” for such work. “The density of archaeologists there is second only to the American Southwest,” dryly observed one of the co-chairs. In addition, evidence of shipwrecks and detailed catalogues of Bronze Age items such as Egyptian scarabs from outside the area provide good information for studying interaction and trade practices.

An overarching goal of the seminar was to examine the relative strengths and weaknesses of world systems theory. When applied to subtle relationships between polities of similar scale and having similar political and economic systems, “our overreliance on world systems frameworks has hindered our ability to develop new models for understanding interregional social interaction,” wrote the co-chairs. “The pre-state and state societies of the Bronze Age Aegean commingled and communicated with a remarkably wide variety of very different cultures, to the extent that world systems theory alone cannot explain the multiple ties that bound them together. Throughout this time of rapid and shifting social evolution, the nature and frequency of interactions between the Aegean societies and their adjacent contemporaries changed often, sometimes dramatically. The outstanding question for our seminar was, Why?”

The nine participants embraced a variety of theoretical perspectives, and their diversity sparked lively discussions that “hit on all cylinders.” Potential new models for understanding social interaction at different geographical and temporal scales included one based on the concept of “negotiated peripherality”—the notion that people on the periphery were active participants, negotiating as independent agents with the core states—and another based on “primary stimulus,” or what initiated these kinds of peer-polity interactions.

The scholars discussed the possibility that the dramatic changes that took place at the beginning and end of the Bronze Age in the Aegean were related to internal sociopolitical dynamics in the Levant and Africa. For example, a deregulation of Egyptian trade practices toward the end of the third millennium BC might have encouraged Levantine seafarers to seek alternative trade routes, which eventually led them to establish trade contacts with incipient elites on the island of Crete. The collapse of Aegean palatial systems toward the end of the first millennium BC was also associated with a trend toward decentralized trading practices in that part of the world. Ultimately, the seminar led to more refined approaches to modeling the way states interact with their neighbors.

Michael L. Galaty, Chair Associate Professor, Department of Anthropology, Millsaps College
William A. Parkinson, Chair Assistant Professor, Department of Anthropology, Florida State University Beyond the Peer: Social Interaction and Political Evolution in the Bronze Age Aegean
John F. Cherry Professor, Joukowsky Institute of Archaeology and the Ancient World, Brown University Sorting out Crete’s Prepalatial Interactions
Eric H. Cline Associate Professor and Chair, Department of Classical and Semitic Languages, The George Washington University Bronze Age Interactions between the Aegean and the Eastern Mediterranean: Some Suggestions and Reconsiderations
P. Nick Kardulias Associate Professor, Department of Sociology & Archaeology and Program in Archaeology, College of Wooster World-Systems Applications for Understand the Bronze Age in the Eastern Mediterranean
Robert Schon Visiting Assistant Professor, Department of Classics, University of Arizona Think Locally, Act Globally: An Inside-Out Look at Mycenaean Participation in the Late Bronze Age World System
Susan Sherratt DTI Research Fellow, Department of Archaeology, University of Sheffield (U.K.) The Aegean and the Wider World: Some Thoughts on a World-Systems Approach
Helena Tomas Lecturer in Aegean Archaeology, Department of Archaeology, University of Zagreb (Croatia) Aegeans and the North
David Wengrow Lecturer, Institute of Archaeology, University College, London (U.K.) The Voyages of Europa: Ritual and Trade in the Eastern Mediterranean, C. 2300–1850 BC

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