Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Further reflections on a Methodological Problem: The argument that Cyclopean walls were built to display status or power

'He's large.'
Olive Oyl sings about her upcoming wedding to the villain, Bluto.
Lyrics by Harry Nilsson.
"Popeye", 1980

In a previous post I made much of the fact that many Mycenologists have claimed that a major motivation for the building of Cyclopean fortresses was ‘projection of status’ and ‘exhibition of power and/or wealth’. I presented citations from a number of scholars who, in my view, have committed this methodological error.

Mycenaean art installation or did it have utilitarian purpose?
East walls of the citadel of Tiryns. Observer facing SW. Perhaps mid-14C BC.

In addition to the citations in that post I have since discovered that Nancy Loader makes this idea the organizing principle in chapter two of her Ph.D. dissertation. She has this to say:

“Although the size and structural arrangement presupposes that Cyclopean masonry was used for its strength, its appearance also suggests that it provided a means by which to convey wealth and prosperity of the territory within which it was based. This does not imply that defence was not a consideration of the Mycenaeans, but that danger was by no means imminent." (emphasis mine)”[1]

In this post I want to take a closer look at the logical problems which this type of claim raises.

To start, the claim that the Cyclopean fortress walls were intended to display power, wealth, status, what-have-you, is an emotional projection into the past. That this is the case is admitted by Schofield who says that since she’s impressed then everybody must have been. [2]

This resort to psychologizing about the motives of the Mycenaean leaders[3] raises many problems, not the least of which is the problem of consistency. We see this from our own citations which I have put into tabular form:

hardness, inapproachability, power
impressiveness, status
power, status
enhance prestige, display wealth, display power
convey wealth, convey prosperity

Our scholars, as seen by this table, do not themselves agree on what message the Mycenaean leaders are trying to convey. For our modern savants the walls appear to be a Rorschach test. Do the walls convey ‘wealth’, ‘power’, ‘prosperity’, ‘hardness’, or ‘inapproachability’? The differences are not resolved. Nor can they be. Each observer brings his or her own unique life experiences to bear. Each of our scholars commits the fallacy of the Universal Man; which ‘assumes that people are intellectually and psychologically the same in all times, places, and circumstances.’[4]

I have to remark that such statements betray an impoverished ethnographic awareness on the part of our scholars. More experience with traditional and/or tribal cultures would have shown that there is a rich range of emotional states and attitudes that can be retrojected onto these walls. Why should our mental palette be limited to displays of power, prestige, or wealth? If we’re going to intuit mentalities why not go all the way?

1. It’s entirely possible that the creation of these walls was looked on as a great communal project in which all participated; an expression of ‘nationality’ (if I may be allowed such an anachronistic word here), ‘communitarianism’, or solidarity.

2. Perhaps the walls were intended as a display of up-to-date technical know-how.   On this showing the walls would be an example of the scientific prowess on the part of the Mycenaean leadership; a display of Mycenae’s modernity.

3. The Mycenaean lords may have performed violent and bloody deeds on their subjects and the walls were intended to conceal such practices. In such circumstances the walls would inspire, and were intended to inspire, fear and trembling.

4. Perhaps there was a myth, now lost, of the ideal dwelling place of the Gods - a kind of Mycenaean Valhalla which the walls were intended to replicate and invoke in the mind of the viewer.  Or, what the heck, maybe they were intended as a representation of the seat of the Gods on Olympus.  In other words the walls would be a display of religious content.[5]

5. The walls may have originated as a giant unemployment project; a kind of Mycenaean Keynesianism in times of stress. Onlookers of the time might have viewed the walls with gratitude and as a symbol of the beneficence of wise and generous rulers.[6]

6. In order to get the walls built (for whatever reason) the Mycenaean rulers may have had to quash the powers of various lords who refused to provide corvée labor and rations for the work at hand. As a result the walls may communicate feelings of joy (or the reverse) at the crushing of the nobility and represent the final emergence and consolidation of a Mycenaean paramountcy or kingship.[7]

There’s no end to the mental states that we can project onto these walls but, as the question is fundamentally undecidable, I forbear.

It's not difficult to see from where it is that our scholars derive their views. There is warrant for this type of reasoning in anthropology. In a well-known article from 1996 the anthropologist Elizabeth DeMarrais describes the concept of 'materialization'. This is defined[8] as the making visible of symbolic and ideological concepts in the form of material production. This includes, but is not limited to, such things as elaborate costumes and weapons, monuments, writing systems, and even ceremonies. In general, I believe, Dr. DeMarrais and her co-author Timothy Earle mean this word to cover all instances of ideological reification no matter what form they take or in what medium they are expressed. And these other scholars whose views I have just been describing are treating the Mycenaean walls (and, par extenso, other practical projects among the Mycenaeans) as objects of materialization in the sense intended by DeMarrais et al.

Is this legitimate and did DeMarrais and Earle understand walls to be includable in this category?
In their article DeMarrais and her co-authors have this to say:

"Public monuments and landscapes - mounds or pyramids, ceremonial facilities, large buildings and centers of political activity, or defensive structures - associate a group with a place and represent the power and authority of its leaders."[9]  Emphasis is mine.

So it appears that the usage of this term by DeMarrais et al. would include Cyclopean construction of walls (and every other Cyclopean construction) among those objects suitable to be described as materialization of the ideology (and pretensions) of the ruling class.

But this is a self-evident absurdity because the instant that DeMarrais utters the word 'defensive' she removes that object from the realm of ideology and transfers it to the realm of practical necessity. In order for us to believe that a vitally necessary structure is simply an instance of propaganda (DeMarrais presents no examples[10]) we would have to suppose that every possible activity of the ruling class must be subsumed under the activity of ideological broadcasting no matter the practical emergency to which it may be a response. Any activity of the ruling class that results in a physical manifestation of whatever kind must, by this definition, have only the purpose of announcing the importance of the ruling class and the cogency of the ideology that supports it. In the extreme case we should suppose that, faced with a real live enemy, the King who hands out swords to his army is spreading his ideology through the materialization of weapons.  This lends a weird air of abstracted unreality to the discussion. Sometimes a sword is just a sword and a wall is just a wall.

This type of reasoning subtly predisposes us to think that all Cyclopean wall building and, more broadly, all building projects on the part of the Mycenaeans were about the display of ideology, power, or wealth.

And that is flatly untrue.[11]

For example, it would be very difficult to accept that the 22+ km wall which the Orchomenians built around the northern edge of the Copais Basin for the purpose of draining the lake (the wall was 30 m wide in places [12]) was done as an expression of wealth and prestige. This project, the largest in the Mycenaean world, was (and we are as sure as we can be given the nature of the data) part of a massive land reclamation scheme; virtually certain to have been initiated by the rulers of Orchomenos and exploited for their benefit alone. If I may be allowed a tautology it was the wealth of the Orchomenians which was their projection of wealth.[13]

In the thirteenth century BC a large port was built near Pylos.[14] I think it would be silly to suggest that this port was built in order to project the wealth, power, or status of Pylos. It was made to harbor trading vessels, tout court. The same observation may be made about the diversionary dam outside of Tiryns or the land reclamation project near Nemea. These great projects were strictly utilitarian and, while I’m sure that a case could be made that Bronze Age builders worked with care and consistency, the idea that these constructions arose from motives of aesthetics, vanity or display is exceedingly unlikely and not demonstrated.

This methodological error is compounded - as I noticed last time - by a reliance on the false dichotomy of 'defense' vs. 'display' and prevents us from searching around for alternative explanations. As I suggested in my previous post, there are alternative utilitarian explanations for the cyclopean fortifications which do not rely on the backwards projection of emotional states.

Update on 11/25/17

Richard Hope Simpson refused to have anything to do with the idea that Mycenaean walls and towers were built for aesthetic purposes.  Above all he emphasizes the defensive role that they played and he also pushes back against Bintliff's idea that absence of warfare meant that the walls must have been built for display.  'Defensive measures, in the form of walls or other barriers, do not necessarily imply the absence of peace, nor do they presuppose any warlike disposition.  Indeed such static defences often signify the exact opposite (e.g. the French pre-World War II Maginot Line).' [15]

Simpson also points out that the power of these societies depended on agricultural produce and that walls were a way to secure both that and the population that produced it.[16]


[1] Loader (1995) 30. Dr. Loader traces this idea to Iakovidis (1983).

[2] Schofield (2007) 78-9. Referring to the walls she says “They certainly are, even today, awe-inspiring.”

[3] If fact this particular argument does not psychologize about the Mycenaean leaders themselves. It psychologizes about these leaders’ speculation about the desired psychological impact on their subjects and unnamed others – a double remove.

[3a] Maran [2006] 79; Hitchcock [2010] 206, 208; Schofield [2007] 78-9; Dickinson [2006] 36,42; Loader [1995] 30. Middleton [2008] 152 follows Dickinson into the same trap in his Ph.D. dissertation.  Wright [2006] 59.

[4] Fischer (1970) 203 ff. ‘People, in various places and times, have not merely thought different things. They have thought them differently. It is probable that their most fundamental cerebral processes have changed through time. Their deepest emotional drives and desires may themselves have been transformed. Significant elements of continuity cannot be understood without a sense of the discontinuities, too.’ We would be closer to my own thought if we added to Fischer’s description the words: ‘These differences must be presumed to exist because people were and are enculturated differently.’ And how differently is difficult for us to grasp without extensive exposure to ethnography. If my, admittedly non-specialist, reading in modern research on neural networks and their training is applicable at all to physical changes in the learning brain then Fischer's statement '.. their most fundamental cerebral processes have changed through time ..' will be the literal truth.

[5] It is appropriate here to quote Geertz on the nature of the Balinese state and the doctrine of 'the exemplary center':

'This is the theory that the court-and-capital is at once a microcosm of the supernatural order - "an image of ... the universe on a smaller scale" - and the material embodiment of political order.  It is not just the nucleus, the engine, or the pivot of the state, it is the state.  The equation of the seat of rule with the dominion of rule, which the negara concept expresses, is more than an accidental metaphor; it is a statement of a controlling political idea - namely, that by the mere act of providing a model, a paragon, a faultless image of civilized existence, the court shapes the world around it into at least a rough approximation of its own excellence.  The ritual life of the court, and in fact the life of the court generally, is thus paradigmatic, not merely reflective, of social order.  What it is reflective of, the priests declare, is supernatural order, 'the timeless Indian world of the gods" upon which men should, in strict proportion of their status, seek to pattern their lives.'  Geertz [1980] 13.

Thomas Palaima provides a discussion of what can be known about Mycenaean religion based on Linear B sources in Trzaskoma et al [2004], 'The Gods in Linear B Tablets', pp. 443-454.

[6] Potentially a major factor in traditional societies.  James C. Scott emphasizes the role that Keynesian economics can play in his examination of the peasant societies of south-east Asia. 'It is entirely possible that the Hindu and Buddhist doctrines of the responsibility of the king for the welfare of his subjects made for monarchs who went easy in times of dearth and devoted much public  revenue to irrigation works and public relief.' Scott [1976] 93, n. 6.  Scott sees all such schemes as part of the peasant's 'moral economy'.   The first and primary function of the moral economy is to keep the peasant and his family alive and it may be understood as a set of remissions and redistribution schemes that function to prevent disaster in times of want.

[7] This was the sequence of events in Hunza in the early 16th and 17th centuries. The Mirs had to destroy competing clans in order have access to the men and rations that would enable the creation of the great irrigation projects there. See Sidky (1996) 50-51.

[8] DeMarrais et al. [1996]. And for an additional discussion of 'materialization' in the Hawaiian context see Kirch [2012] 291-2, 298. Kirch names, as examples of materialization, the temple platforms, full-time priesthoods, awe-inspiring ceremonies and displays, as well as such things as elaborate feather-work as well as whale tooth pendants for the Hawaiian elite.

[9] Ibid. 18.

[10] DeMarrais mentions those constructions that could come under the label of 'materialization', namely, pyramids, great grave sites, etc. Nowhere can I find that she lists actual defensive structures or walls. Nor does Earle himself. In Earle [2002] 356 we read "Public monuments and landscapes are mounds or pyramids, ceremonial facilities, large buildings and centers of political activity, or defensive structures that associate a group with a place and represent the power and the authority of its leaders." Emphasis is mine. But when he comes to list such objects (356-7), once again, true defensive or offensive structures are omitted.

[11]  For a good example of this cross-contamination of ideas, Tartaron et al., in a valuable paper about the recently discovered LH habitation and port at Kalamianos in eastern Corinthia, when discussing the placement of large stones at the corners of walls (quoins) or in doors  (jambs), say this

"The stones used in wall construction at Kalamianos vary greatly in size, but even in relatively small structures many of the stones are remarkably large.  Blocks 1 m or more in length are not at all uncommon, and this gives many walls a “cyclopean” appearance (Fig. 18). While the ready availability of large stones at the site might account for their liberal use, care was apparently taken to set them in conspicuous positions, whether they are worked (at corners or near doorways) or unworked (especially on the eastern facades of buildings). This careful placement of large blocks, along with the use of the lighter-colored, banded limestone blocks in similar positions, recalls the use of conglomerate blocks in the palaces at Mycenae and Tiryns, where James Wright has argued for their deliberate employment as a display of palatial power."   Tartaron et al. [2011] 584.  Emphasis is mine.

The reference to James Wright is Wright [2006] 59.  I have discussed Dr. Wright's position here.

[12] Diagrams and measurements in Kalcyk and Heinrich (1989) fig. 4-2, p. 59; fig. 4-5, p. 67.

[13] Orchomenos’ wealth was proverbial. Iliad, IX.381 [LCL 170: 422-423] "… all the wealth that goes to Orchomenus"; Iliad, V, 706-9 [LCL 170: 258-259] "Oresbius with flashing apron, who dwelt in Hyle on the border of the Cephisian lake, greatly concerned for his wealth; and near him dwelt other Boeotians having a land exceeding rich."; Pausanias,Boeotia, XXXVI.4 [LCL 297: 335 ] "The revenues that Minyas received were so great that he surpassed his predecessors in wealth."; Boeotia, XXXVIII.7-8 [LCL 297:345] "It is not likely either that the Orchomenians would not have discovered the chasm, and, breaking down the work put up by Heracles, have given back to the Cephisus its ancient passage, since right down to the Trojan war they were a wealthy people. There is evidence in my favour in the passage of Homer (Iliad ix.381.) where Achilles replies to the envoys from Agamemnon:— 'Not even the wealth that comes to Orchomenus', a line that clearly shows that even then the revenues coming to Orchomenus were large."

[14] Zangger et al. [1997] 619 ff.; Zangger [2008] 69-74.

[15] Simpson and Hagel [2006], p. 143.

[16] Ibid., 23 and fn. 1.


Cline [2010]: Cline, Eric H., The Oxford Handbook of the Bronze Age Aegean. Oxford University Press. 2010.

Davis et al. [2008]: Davis, Jack L., Sandy Pylos; An Archaeological History from Nestor to Navarino.  The American School of Classical Studies at Athens.  Princeton.  Second Edition.  2008.

DeMarrais, et al. [1996]: DeMarrais, Elizabeth, Luis Jaime Castillo, Timothy Earle. "Ideology, Materialization, and Power Strategies", Current Anthropology. Vol. 37, No. 1 (Feb., 1996), pp. 15-31. Online here.

Dickinson [2006]: Dickinson, Oliver. The Aegean from Bronze Age to Iron Age. Routledge, 2006.

Earle [2002]: Earle, Timothy. 'Ideology, Materialization, and Power Strategies', Chapter 14 in Earle, Timothy S., Bronze Age Economics: The Beginnings of Political Economies, Westview Press, 2002.
Chapter 14 was originally printed as DeMarrais, et al. [1996].

Fischer [1970]: Fischer, David Hackett, Historian's Fallacies: Towards a Logic of Historical Thought. Harper Perennial. 1970.

Geertz [1980]: Geertz, Clifford.  Negara; The Theatre State in Nineteenth-Century Bali.  Princeton University Press.  1980.  978-0691007786.

Iakovidis [1983]: Iakovidis, S., Late Helladic Citadels on Mainland Greece. Leiden: E.J. Brill. 1983.

Kalcyk and Heinrich [1989]: Kalcyk, Hansjorg and Bert Heinrich. "The Munich Kopais-Project" in Boeotia Antiqua I: Papers on Recent Work in Boiotian Archaeology and History. John M. Fossey F.S.A., ed. McGill University Monographs in Classical Archaeology and History. McGill University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada. 1989. 55-71.

Kirch [2012]: Kirch, Patrick V. A Shark Going Inland is my Chief; The Island Civilization of Ancient Hawaii, University of California Press. Berkeley, CA., 2012.

Loader [1995]: Loader, Nancy Claire. The definition of cyclopean: An investigation into the origins of the LH III fortications on mainland Greece. Ph.D. Dissertation. Online here.

Maran [2006]: Maran, Joseph. "Mycenaean Citadels as Performative Space". In Constructing Power: Architecture, Ideology, and Social Practice, edd. Joseph C. Maran, Carsten Juwig, Hermann Schwengel, and Ulrich Thaler.  Hamburg: LIT. 2006, pp. 75-91.

Middleton, Guy Daniel (2008) The collapse of palatial society in LBA Greece and the postpalatial period, Durham theses, Durham University. Online here.

Schofield [2007]: Schofield, Louise. The Mycenaeans. Getty Publications, Los Angeles, California. USA. 2007.

Scott[1976]: Scott, James C.  The Moral Economy of the Peasant; Rebellion and Subsistence in Southeast Asia. Yale University Press, 1976.  ISBN: 978-0-300-02190-5

Sidky [1996]: Sidky, H., Irrigation and State Formation in Hunza: The Anthropology of a Hydraulic Kingdom. University Press of America, Lanham, Maryland, USA. 1996.

Simpson and Hagel [2006]: Simpson, R. Hope and D.K. Hagel, Mycenaean Fortifications, Highways, Dams and Canals.  Sävedalen 2006, Paul Åströms Förlag.  SIMA CXXXIII.   ISBN: 978-917081-212-5.

Tartaron et al. [2011]: Tartaron, Thomas F., Daniel J. Pullen, Richard K. Dunn,  Lita Tzortzopoulou-Gregory, Amy Dill, Joseph I. Boyce, "The Saronic Harbors Archaeological Research Project (SHARP); Investigations at Mycenaean Kalamianos, 2007-2009.  Hesperia 80 (2011), 559-634.

Trzaskoma et al. [2004]: Trzaskoma, Stephen M. and R. Scott Smith, Stephen Brunet.    Anthology of Classical Myth; Primary Sources in Translation.  Hackett Publishing Company, Inc. Indianapolis/Cambridge. ISBN: 0-87220-721-8.

Wright [2006]: Wright, James C., "The Social Production of Space and the Architectural Reproduction of Society in the Bronze Age Aegean during the 2nd Millenium B.C.E.", in Constructing Power: Architecture, Ideology, and Social Practice, edd. Joseph C. Maran, Carsten Juwig, Hermann Schwengel, and Ulrich Thaler, Hamburg: LIT. 2006, pp. 49–73.  Online here.

Zangger et al. [1997]: Zangger, E., Timpson, M.E., Yazvenko, S.B., Kuhnke, F., Knauss, J., “The Pylos regional Archaeological Project, Part II. Landscape Evolution and Site Preservation,” Hesperia 66. 1997. 549–641. Available online here.

Zangger [2008]: Zangger E., 'The Port of Nestor' in Davis et al. [2008] pp. 69-74.

1 comment:

  1. I very much agree with your worry about the idea of "displaying wealth"being promoted beyond reasonable application. To my mind wealth is something that might be traded for influence. Fine cloths and gold jewellery are displays of wealth. Imposing stone built walls are a statement of resistance and stability - at best a statement of power. If they are of any real use at all then they are entirely functional constructions. Painting them a particular colour or pattern might be a statement of excess wealth - or a population with nothing to do!