The Mycenaeans versus Dorians debate

July 4th, 2017

The following information comes from the authors PhD thesis on Attic Geometric and Orientalising pottery. This is an isolated article that discusses a peculiar debate in Greek archaeology targeting ethnic identities.

The ‘Mycenaeans versus Dorians’ debate
The ‘Mycenaeans versus Dorians’ debate requires a brief discussion as it shows how ceramic studies have been used to distinguish ethnic identities in Early Greece. As explained earlier, the debate whether Greek Early Iron Age styles related to indigenous or externally diffused inspirations began together with the first stylistic studies of the 19th century. From the early scholars, Helbig & Conze (1875) saw Indo-German and Phoenician influences; Furtwängler & Loeschcke (1876) saw Dorian invaders; and, Schweitzer (1917; 1918) saw connections with the Mycenaean past.

Kübler (1954) pioneered in an analysis of human remains which showed that the people buried at Kerameikos were no different than the previous inhabitants of Athens; therefore, no Dorian invasion could be proven based on skeletal evidence. However, Desborough (1964, 106-11) argued that by contrast to the homogeneity of pottery styles during Late Helladic IIIB, the emergence of diverse regional styles during Late Helladic IIIC (e.g. Submycenaean pottery) could be attributed to a new cultural group. Such peoples arrived in mainland Greece during the 11th century BC and were most likely the Dorians or invading Herakleidai of the Greek heroic past (Desborough 1964, 106-11). By contrast to Desborough (1964), Schweitzer (1969) and Bouzek (1969) argued on the connection between Early Iron Age styles and Mycenaean ceramic traditions.

Snodgrass (1971; 2000, 48) explained that the Geometric style was not a new product that sprang after the decline of the Protogeometric, but it was its logical culmination (Snodgrass 1971; 2000, 48). By contrast to Desborough’s (1964) theory of Dorian invasion, he (1971; 2000, 311-13) argued that there is no distinct differentiation between Mycenaean and Submycenaean cultures. Additionally, it is problematic to regard Submycenaean ceramic decoration different to Mycenaean, as both styles demonstrate continuity with Bronze Age traditions in the use of the potter’s wheel. Such technological traditions continued in Protogeometric and Geometric times (Snodgrass 2000, 28-40). Still, a year later, Desborough (1972, 339) insisted in the clear break between Mycenaean and Submycenaean traditions during the first fifty years of the Dark Age and the arrival of new peoples in mainland Greece.

With regard to the invading Dorians, Hector Catling (1981) noted the popularity of a ‘Barbarian ware’ in the Peloponnese after the destruction of the Mycenaean palaces at the beginning of the 12th century BC. This ware dated almost a century earlier than the Submycenaean style in Attica, yet Catling (1981) saw it as the product of new peoples. In later years, Hall (1997, 128-9) suggested that ethnic identity may not always be visible in the archaeological record. Morris (1999, 198-207) argued against Catling (1981) that instead of understanding changes in material culture as a result of migration of peoples with a different concept of identity, it is important to see such changes as a series of decisions connected to adaptation in new conditions. Indeed, Small (1990) had previously suggested that changes in pottery styles at the beginning of the Iron Age could have been due to the collapse of the centralised pottery production system of the Mycenaean palaces, also affected by changes in the broader economy.

Even though the debate on the invading Dorians is now over, recent iconographic approaches on Early Iron Age finewares continue on stressing the connections between Geometric and Mycenaean art (Crouwel 2006; Dakoronia 2006; Güntner 2006; Hiller 2006; Iacovou 2006; Wedde 2006; Bouzek 2011).