Myceneans and Europe; Trade networks and cross-cultural communication

In this post we present extended parts of the very interesting and informative paper titled “The Mycenaeans and Europe: Long-distance networks and cross-cultural communication“, by Paulina Suchowska-Ducke.

In the 2nd millennium BC cultural, social and political entities of a new kind and scale came into existence and transformed Europe into a distinct cultural zone, where intense and dynamic interactions between local, regional and ‘global’ processes of change intersected with increased social connectivity and mobility. The presence of artefacts made of non-local raw materials in archaeological contexts indicates that mechanisms for the import of essential goods and other forms of cross-cultural exchange have existed throughout prehistory. Therefore the archaeological evidence provides an excellent proxy for studying questions related to socio-political organisation, cultural boundaries, communication networks and mobility of people, goods, technologies, and ideas. This contribution discusses relations between the Mycenaeans and the societies of temperate Europe in the mid 2nd millennium BC. Although long-distance interactions may have often been indirect, societies across Europe, from the Mediterranean all the way to Scandinavia, were incorporated into vast communication networks that linked them together.


An introduction to chronological and theoretical frameworks 

Several scholars have previously investigated contacts between the Mycenaean world and temperate Europe. However, new evidence has recently been unearthed. The following discussion will concentrate on direct archaeological evidence.

The chronological framework for the phenomenon under study encompasses the Mycenaean period, i.e. the 17th to 11th centuries BC. Cross-cultural contacts and long-distance communication between Greece and temperate Europe already existed in the early Mycenaean period, as is evidenced by the Baltic amber and the Carpathian and eastern European horse harnesses that appeared in the Shaft Graves of Mycenae.

There are also many examples of Mycenaean rapiers and swords that have been found in the Balkans and in the Carpathian Basin. Most of them date to the Early Mycenaean period. Some Mycenaean influences might also be visible in several swords from northern and Central Europe, generally dating from the 14th to 11th century BC.

Nevertheless, communication between Mycenaean Greece and temperate Europe was particularly intense at the end of the 13th and throughout the 12th century BC, when numerous artefacts of so-called ‘northern origin‘ appeared in the South. Among them were different types of weaponry, dress fasteners, jewellery and ornaments, as well as Handmade Burnished Ware.

At that time, significant political, social and economic transformations occurred on the European continent, generally attributed to large scale migrations and changes in warfare.

The problem that immediately becomes apparent when trying to understand European and Mycenaean relations is the complexity that would result from trying to examine every archaeological source on its own. The main danger here lies in over-interpreting the meaning of individual items and neglecting the bigger picture. To overcome this issue, different scales of analysis need to be chosen and carefully linked with each other.

This study assumes that cross-cultural communication between the Mycenaeans and the societies of temperate Europe occurred within different types of established networks. In some cases, contacts were indirect, as systems of connected ‘networks of networks‘ allowed objects and ideas to travel via middlemen. In other cases, they were direct and occurred within smaller networks that provided particularly efficient links. Once established, these connections inevitably became catalysts of cultural exchange in many forms that eventually led to profound social change throughout the European continent.

In the Bronze Age, networks for the supply of raw materials, and later more refined commodities, created incentives for individuals to move across the mainland, taking on many different roles, such as those of travelling craftsmen and traders, warriors and mercenaries, emissaries and perhaps explorers. It is at this point that we can truly speak of ‘travelling cultures‘ and connected societies.


The Mycenaeans and Europe: the evidence

The evidence for Mycenaean contacts with temperate Europe in the mid 2nd millennium BC is rich and diverse. Of the items that speak of cross-cultural communication, one may find amber, bone and antler horse harnesses, dress fasteners, personal ornaments and jewellery, weaponry and tools, as well as Handmade Burnished Ware made of local clay. Most of the artefacts, and the sites where they were found, are well covered in the available literature.

The published data clearly indicates that long-distance communication between the societies of Central Europe, northern Italy and the Aegean had already taken shape at the beginning of the Mycenaean Culture, dated to 1700 BC. Nonetheless, it was the transition from the 13th to the 12th century BC when these relations became particularly intense. According to Bouzek, at that time one might speak of a koine (common market) in material culture between the Aegean, the Balkans, northern Italy and Central Europe.

One of the most recognisable items of so-called ‘northern origin’, found
in the Aegean, is Baltic amber. In total, nearly 4000 amber fragments have been found in the Aegean.

Another important class of artefacts are horse harnesses made of bone and antler. The specimens found in the Shaft Graves at Mycenae bear morphological similarities to cheek pieces from the Carpathian Basin and Eastern Europe.


In relation to horse harness, it is important to consider the so-called ‘running spiral’ and ‘wave band’ ornaments that were very popular in the Aegean and in Central Europe, mainly in the Carpathian Basin, as well as in Scandinavia.

Around the 17th-16th centuries BC, in the North and in the South, many items, including bone cheek pieces, discs, cylinders, bronze axes, swords, daggers, jewellery and pottery, were decorated with these motifs. Although in these regions the running spiral and wave band ornaments had already been applied since the Neolithic, some researchers claim that ‘there are too many resemblances between the Carpathian Basin and the Aegean to consider them as merely accidental’.

Moreover, as David notes, ‘ornamental and morphological characteristics of some Danubian objects and Mycenaean or Anatolian examples are so closely related that they would not be imaginable without the existence of direct contacts between these regions’.

Dress fasteners (pins and fibulae) are a group of artefacts that testifies to a
different aspect of relations between the Mycenaean Culture and the societies of temperate Europe. Three main pin types have been recorded in the Aegean. The majority of them was found in Attica, Argolid, Elis, on Crete and Euboea. These long pins were very popular in Central Europe, Italy and in the Balkans during the 14th and 13th centuries BC, and also in the Near East and in Anatolia.

Unlike pins, fibulae were not known in the Aegean before the 13th century BC. Of this type of dress fasteners two main forms were found: (A) violin- bow and (B) arc fibulae. Violin-bow fibulae appeared in LH III B, mostly in the Argolid and on Crete, as well as in Achaea, Attica, Beotia, Laconia and Corinthia.


Another significant group of objects to be considered here are weapons of both Mycenaean and European origin. For instance, at least 23 rapiers and 42 swords of Mycenaean type have been found in the Balkans and in the Carpathian Basin, mostly dated to the Early Mycenaean period.

There are also some (disputed) examples which possibly indicate analogies with Mycenaean forms and technologies from Central, Northern and Western Europe. These include the finds from Nürnberg-Hammer (Germany), Ajak (Hungary), Dollerup and Ørskovhede (Denmark), Adliswill (Switzerland), Saône (France), Surbo (Italy), Pelynt (Britain) and Spišský Štvrtok (Slovakia), most of which date from the 14th (Br C2) to 11th (Ha A1) century BC.

A different group of weapons is represented by the Central European cut-and-thrust flange-hilted swords of the Naue II type that appeared in the Aegean at the end of LH III B and throughout LH III C. The earliest specimen come from Mycenae, Langada on Kos and Enkomi on Cyprus. In the beginning, Naue II swords occurred with Mycenaean counterpart swords. However, since Central European swords were more efficient in combat, they quickly replaced the Mycenaean types.

Aegean craftsmen rapidly adopted Central European types of swords and began manufacturing them locally in modified forms. Naue II turned out to be so versatile that in the 12th and 11th centuries BC it become the only type of sword used in temperate Europe, the Aegean and the Near East. In total at least 50 swords of Naue II type have been found in the Aegean and around 29 in the Near East.


During the 13th and 12th centuries BC, several flange-hilted Peschiera type daggers appeared in Mycenaean Greece as well, mostly on Crete. They originated in northern Italy and it seems that they were imitations of Mycenaean models. Peschiera daggers spread all over Europe, from the Carpathians to France and from Italy and the Balkans to Denmark. Their distribution can therefore be interpreted as an indication of a wider bronze working tradition embracing Central Europe, northern Italy and the Aegean. While none of the Aegean Peschiera daggers are datable by context, their European parallels belong to the 13th (Br D) and 12th (early Ha A1) centuries BC.

Alongside swords and daggers, new spearheads of so-called ‘northern origin‘ appeared in the Aegean during the 13th and 12th centuries BC. They were mostly found in the Argolid, Achaea, Attica, Epirus, on Crete, Kephalonia and Ithaca as well as in Beotia, Corinthia, Phocis and Elis.

Another intriguing example of cross-cultural contacts is the Handmade Burnished Ware, which is handmade pottery that is coarse with large grits, and that is of a fabric that can be both micaceous and sandy. The ware’s surface treatment is very uniform and the burnish colour always dark. A characteristic feature is the plastic decoration that includes finger-impressed ornaments, ledges and rims. Handmade Burnished Ware appeared in LH III B and was produced well into the Submycenaean and Protogeometric periods.

Pottery of this type has been recorded on many Mycenaean sites and there is no doubt that it was foreign to Mycenaean ware manufacturing. Originally, the number of sites with Handmade Burnished Ware was probably much higher then the published examples suggest. However, its resemblance in terms of technology and fabric to Greek Neolithic or Middle Bronze Age products caused a general lack of scholarly interest in it. Handmade Burnished Ware found in the Aegean shows parallels to the pottery traditions of Troy, Italy, the Balkans and also Central Europe. Therefore, one possible explanation of its appearance in the Aegean may be sought in the arrival of new groups of people that might have originated in temperate Europe*¹. Integration of these newcomers into Mycenaean society is suggested by the coexistence of Handmade Burnished Ware and Late Helladic pottery as well as handmade vessels imitating Aegean shapes.


The Development of cross-cultural communication in the European Bronze Age

Examination of the archaeological data makes it possible to distinguish four principal development phases of cross-cultural communication between the Eastern Mediterranean, the Aegean and temperate Europe in the Bronze Age. The beginning of these contacts actually pre-dates the Mycenaean Culture, as they occurred as far back as the end of the 3rd millennium BC. Therefore, it makes sense to broaden the scale of the analysis to include some earlier aspects of connectivity between the regions. This allows for a better understanding of the background of Mycenaean and European relations. The first distinguishable phase is dated from 2400/2300 BC to 2000 BC and its end marks the complete establishment of tin bronzes in Central Europe. The second phase, dated from 2000 BC to 1700/1600 BC, falls into the classical stage of the Central European Unetice Culture’s development and the pinnacle of the Minoan Culture on Crete. The third phase is critical for the perspectives discussed here, because it encompasses the early and middle stages of the Mycenaean Culture. It spanned the period between 1700/1600 BC and 1300/1200 BC. In Central Europe, societies of the Carpathian Basin underwent a period of revival between 1700/1600 and 1500 BC, and the Tumulus Culture emerged. The fourth and last phase of interest here occurred after 1200 BC. It coincided with the late Mycenaean Culture in Greece and the Urnfield Culture in Central Europe.


The existence of cross-cultural communication between the Mediterranean, the Balkans and temperate Europe in the first phase is evidenced by the common occurrence of artefacts such as wound-wire pins (Schleifennadeln), riveted daggers, rings (Lockenringe), and ring ingots (Ösenhalsringbarren), such as recorded in Moravia and the Levant.

Furthermore, ceramic vessels resembling the iconic Aegean kantharoi have been recorded in the Carpathian Basin; a striking example of a cut-off rim vessel akin to MM I-II ceramic types was found in Hungary in a context dated to 2000 BC.  According to Kadrow, a Mediterranean influence is also visible in pottery (mostly bowls) with diagonally cut rims, recorded for example in southeastern Poland.

According to Gerloff, the period between 2400/2300 BC and 2000 BC represents the opening of Near Eastern societies towards more systematic exchange and communication with Central Europe. Maran sees the roots of these events in the Balkans, demonstrating the existence of trade networks linking Early Helladic societies in Greece, the Adriatic and the Carpathian regions as early as the middle of the 3rd millennium BC.

This is evidenced in pottery forms and some prestige goods, the exchange of which was most likely linked to early metal trade. Moreover, large fortified settlements that appeared in the Balkans and in the Carpathian region show similarities to Anatolian and Aegean architecture, such as a division into acropolis and suburbium and the use of stone walls.


In the second phase, dated to 2000-1700/1600 BC, cross-cultural communication intensified and encompassed the entire area under discussion.

The goods that were exchanged within this long-distance network included tin, copper, gold, amber and other perishable products. During this period, social stratification intensified in the Aegean and in temperate Europe. In both regions, rich burials appeared (e.g. in Mycenae, Pylos and on Aegina as well as in Leubingen, Helmsdorf, Łęki Małe, Tiszafüred and Thun-Renzenbühl), in which large numbers of imports were found. At the same time, metallurgical production intensified in Central and Western Europe as a result of the widespread use of tin bronze. The development of new metallurgical technology led to the rise of powerful centres on the continent, where bronze and precious metals were worked.


Between 1700/1600 BC and 1300/1200 BC, societies in the north and south of Europe entered a third phase in the development of cross-cultural communication; the most intense one yet. During this phase the Mycenaean Culture (LH III A-B) underwent great cultural and economic expansion after taking over long-distance trade routes in the Mediterranean Basin from the collapsing Minoan civilisation. Temperate Europe was characterized by the consolidation of regular cross-cultural communication and exchange. The opening of new Transylvanian copper deposits and access to Czech tin led to a revival of the Carpathian metallurgical centres, which in turn resulted in intense development in that region around 1700/1600 BC -1500 BC. In other parts of Central Europe, the Tumulus Culture emerged and evolved.

There is no doubt that during the third phase an extensive European communications and exchange network existed. At that time, the Balkans, on the periphery of the Aegean world, became a destination for political and economic expansion of the Mycenaeans. Connections were also established with the highly developed Terramare Culture of northern Italy, as well as first contacts between the Carpathian and the Mycenaean societies. In addition, prestige chain exchange between rulers of individual groups allowed for, albeit indirect*², communication with southern Scandinavia, especially Jutland.


*¹(NovoScriptorium: This is very likely to be the case; considering recent genomics researches, it appears that the Mycenean population contained a ~15% ancestry from Northern and Eastern Europe)

*²(NovoScriptorium: This doesn’t seem to be the case. Apparently, there has been direct communication between the Myceneans and Scandinavia. Please read our relative article:


Research-Selection-Comments for NovoScriptorium: Philaretus Homerides



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