Relations between the Aegean and Central Mediterranean during the Bronze Age

The discussion of inter-Mediterranean exchanges between the Late Bronze Age and the Early Iron Age is resumed here, seeking to focus upon the period following the great transformations which took place in the Aegean and the Near East around the year 1200 BC, and prior to the first voyages of the Phoenicians and the Euboeans into the central Mediterranean.


Is it possible to speak of continuity within this web of relationships which articulated itself over the course of two very different historical cycles: the Palatial period of the Mycenaean Age, and the subsequent period which led to the formation of different socio-political systems, and to the Greek and Phoenician colonization of the western Mediterranean?

What were the phenomena that characterized the relationship between these two areas of the Mediterranean: exchange and commerce? The transmission of knowledge and technology?

The circulation of individuals for reasons other than the settling of new colonies? Did their procedures remain static, or can we observe changes and developments in different times and places?

Who were the protagonists of such exchanges? Merchants? Specialized artisans? Independent business owners or business owners controlled by the palace? Of which nationality?

These are the principal questions that arise out of many when examining the topic at hand. Thirty years of research on Aegean pottery in the central Mediterranean have shed light upon a number of the aforementioned points, although many others require further investigation.

Chronological framework 

In comparison to past decades, we now have a clearer timeline in which to place the development of relations between the Aegean and the central Mediterranean in the Late Bronze Age. According to the data reviewed by Reinhard Jung and myself with Lucia Alberti, it is possible to propose a synchronism between Middle Bronze (MB) 1 and Late Helladic (LH) I, as well as the MB2 and the LH II, primarily on the basis of the associations of the Aegean pottery found in the Protoappenine strata of Vivara and Rocavecchia, and of Capo Graziano in the Aeolian Islands.

With regards to the MB2, pottery found at Vivara (Punta d’Alaca) and Rocavecchia suggests that the end of this phase occurred around the beginning of LH IIIA. Evidence from the Aeolian Islands and Rocavecchia confirms the synchronism of MB3 and LH IIIA. According to a new interpretation by Isabella Damiani, the stratigraphy of Broglio di Trebisacce, in the Plain of Sybaris, shows a chronological parallel between RB1 and LH IIIB. Damiani’s research also calls into question the theory posited by Jung, which suggests a possible duration of RB1 into the beginning of LH IIIC. Instead, Damiani dates the stratum containing materials of early LH IIIC to the Recent Bronze (RB) 2, where it had been previously considered part of the site’s RB1 level (as per Jung’s research).

On the other hand, some types of handmade burnished ware pots which, in Italy, are dated to RB1, can be found in Tiryns in LH IIIC early contexts. Thus, an at least partial parallelism between the two phases, as proposed by Jung may still be possible, although such a hypothesis will need to be validated with further data. RB2 runs parallel to LH IIIC from its early to its advanced phase, as testified by a great deal of evidence from Broglio di Trebisacce and Torre Mordillo in the Plain of Sybaris, and from Rocavecchia in Apulia. The stratigraphy of Rocavecchia and Santa Maria di Leuca (near Lecce), as well as some evidence from Torre Mordillo, show the synchronism between the advanced middle and the late stages of LH IIIC, and the early stages of Final Bronze (FB) in Italy (FB 1-2). It is also possible that the mature phase of FB (FB2) extended into the Submycenaean period.

It is also important to stress the possible use of the handmade burnished ware in LH and Late Minoan (LM) contexts in order to show the possible shift between the last stages of the LH and LM phases, as has been suggested. For instance, at Chania, handmade burnished ware pottery referring to RB2 Italian types is attested in LM IIIB2 contexts. In the Argolid (Tiryns), the same types of pottery are present in LH IIIC early layers.

Our focus here is on the period between the 12thcentury and 750 BC – after the collapse of the Mycenaean palaces.


Circulation of Aegean pottery in the central Mediterranean

The Protopalatial and Early Palatial period: LH I-II

The beginning of the historical cycle which saw the establishment of stable relations between the Aegean and the central Mediterranean can easily be dated to LH I, or, in more concrete chronological terms, around the middle of the 17th century BC. It is interesting to note that, within this period, we can see not only a sort of gestational phase for the Palatial civilization of continental Greece, but also a new historical cycle characterized both by its exceptional duration, and by the diverse developments seen in the Italian Peninsula until the dawn of the Iron Age.

The economic demands and strategies of the new Mycenaean society could now find interlocutors in the stable communities to be found in vast areas of the Italian Peninsula and its islands – communities which were well-structured and which enjoyed an organic relationship with the territories which yielded the resources systematically exploited by their inhabitants.

The southern Tyrrhenian route included the Aeolian and Phlegrean Islands, most likely with the objective of intercepting strategic raw materials, such as copper and possibly tin, together with other commodities. In fact, evidence of metalworking during the period in question has been found in these archipelagos.

The lower Adriatic and the Ionian Sea were also included in these first Mycenaean trade routes, albeit in an apparently less intense, yet still widespread, manner. There are clues along the Apulian coasts which would suggest some sort of Mycenaean presence even in such remote periods. The majority of ceramics found to date belong to the Middle Helladic tradition, with a scarce amount of proper Mycenaean ceramics. Ceramics of Mycenaean manufacture are, instead, well-documented in the archipelagos of the lower Tyrrhenian.

With regard to this initial phase of Aegean/central Mediterranean relations, we can be certain that the entirety of the Mycenaean ware, as well as all Middle Helladic matt-painted, Minyan ware and burnished ware found, were imported from the Peloponnese – a sure sign that ships arriving from the East followed decidedly »commercial« routes. Moreover, it is evident that these maritime enterprises must have departed from what was, at the time, the center of the Mycenaean heartland – the Peloponnese – and most likely from the Argolid.

It is not yet possible to say whether or not Mycenaean ceramics were used in this period as a sort of social displaying or status symbol in the communities that imported them, due to the still scant understanding of the social structures that operated within the indigenous communities of southern Italy at the beginning of the Middle Bronze Age.

The Palatial period: LH IIIA

Westward maritime trade began to fully include Sicily and Sardinia, as well as intensifying its routes along the Adriatic and Ionian coasts of southern Italy. It is possible that some ceramics reached central Italy (e. g., Luni sul Mignone).

In this period, the first hints at a possible local manufacture of Mycenaean ceramics began to appear (e. g., Plain of Sybaris and probably Rocavecchia). It is important to underline that, from this point on, a Cypriot component began to manifest itself in the sphere of central Mediterranean maritime trade. The Cypriot presence is evidenced in one instance by the discovery of Cypriot pithoi in the Milazzese phase village of Portella at Salina, and in another instance, by the presence of a sword of the Pertosa type, from the Uluburun shipwreck, which scholars tend to attribute to a Cypriot enterprise. It is interesting to note that at Portella, on the island of Salina, fragments of Cypriot pithoi as well as a sword of the Pertosa type have been found– an association which can also be found in the Uluburun shipwreck. Other types of Cypriot wares most likely reached eastern Sicily in the same period, as evidenced by the base ring and white shaved vessels found in the tombs of Thapsos, which also contain Mycenaean ceramics from the LH IIIA2.

The Palatial period: LH IIIB

Within this period we find the first examples of Mycenaean pottery in the eastern Po Valley, as well as an intensification of the Aegean presence in Sardinia. The Cypriot component continues to be present in this phase in the two great islands of the central Mediterranean. Some discoveries in Cannatello, in the vicinity of Agrigento, confirm the continuity in Sicily of relations with Cyprus. It is also likely that Cypriot materials found in the nuraghe Antigori (pithoi, base ring sherds and, possibly, traces of very early iron working), not far from Cagliari, can be linked to the same time period.

Chemical analyses have proven the wide-scale production of Italo-Mycenaean ceramics beginning in this period. This phenomenon is well-documented in southeastern Italy and in Sardinia, but there are indications that it might also have extended into other areas of the Italian Peninsula in this period, as in the case of Bovolone in Veneto.

An important new consideration is the involvement of northeastern Italy in the Mycenaean trade routes at an early stage of RB, which would be confirmed in the event that the Bovolone piece had been imported, and not, as the chemical analyses would suggest, locally produced.


The Postpalatial period: LHIIIC / Submycenaean

The flow of people and goods from the Aegean into the central Mediterranean did not cease after the end of the socio-political and socio-economic system which centered upon the palaces of Greece. On the contrary, this movement of people and goods seems to have intensified – regions which had previously seemed marginal, for example the central Tyrrhenian area of the Italian Peninsula, from Latium to Campania– became fully involved in Aegean trade routes. Such a flourishing would contradict the belief that the collapse of Palatial civilization is necessarily linked to a period of marked recession. Furthermore, even the most recent discoveries and studies on the LH IIIC in mainland and insular Greece seem to indicate that Mycenaean society had persisted past that critical moment of the end of the 13th century, reorganizing itself along a different political basis.

At the Apulian sites of Scoglio del Tonno, Rocavecchia, and Torre Santa Sabina, and also at Afragola close to Naples, there are a number of imported ceramics which can be attributed to the span of time that comprises the Postpalatial period. In this period, the Cypriot component which was very visible in earlier phases seemed to diminish, especially in Sicily and in the Aeolian Islands.

It is interesting to underline how, in the Postpalatial period, Adriatic trade routes were put into place, which included Cyprus. In the earlier phases of the LH IIIA and B, Cyprus seemed predominantly involved in exchanges with the large islands of Sardinia and Sicily via a southern route, which had probably been established in even earlier times. This southerly route seems to have diminished drastically in importance between the end of the LH IIIB and the beginning of the IIIC, as evidenced by the small number of findings of Aegean ceramics in eastern and southern Sicily datable to this period. The increased importance of Adriatic trade after the collapse of Palatial society can also be seen by the typology of handmade burnished ware and grey burnished ware ceramics found on mainland Greece and in Crete.

Between the LM IIIB2 and the LH IIIC, in Chania, Tiryns, and Dimini – the Cretan and Mycenaean centers where the largest number of ceramics connected in a different manner to peninsular Italy have been found – various types of vessels which can be systematically linked to the styles spread throughout the Adriatic and Ionian coasts of the Italian Peninsula are present. Local production of these ceramics could indicate that they were manufactured and used by groups of resident foreigners, most likely hailing from Italy, who had most certainly not come with the goal of conquering new territories.

There is also evidence in this period of a wide-scale local Mycenaean-type ceramic production throughout most of the Italian Peninsula as well as in Sardinia. Locally produced typologies of this pottery include both table ware and also vessels used for storage/transport purposes. In the final part of this period, a certain reduction of the Aegean presence in Italy occurred, leaving the lower Adriatic as the only zone of concentrated contact. Therefore for all of the (in terms of Aegean chronology the early through advanced stages of the LH IIIC), the entire Italian Peninsula (principally the Adriatic and Ionian zones), and to a certain extent Sardinia, was involved in the production of Aegean-inspired ceramics. The implications of this phenomenon as it relates to the changing of local structures of ceramic production are quite important. This important socio-economic process would continue to develop over the course of later periods up until the Early Iron Age through the production and circulation throughout southeastern Italy of large jars for the storage of foodstuffs (dolii) and of Protogeometric and Geometric pottery.

One consideration which must, however, be reckoned with is the widespread diffusion of the local production of Aegean-type pottery, which occurred using technologies and raw materials unknown to local traditions, throughout the length of the peninsula, and with a particular concentration on the eastern coasts.

In this regard, I would like to call your attention to an excellent study conducted by Lindy Crewe on the introduction of the potter’s wheel to Cyprus at the beginning of the Late Bronze Age: »Both wheel-throwing and wheel-shaping technology require a lengthy apprenticeship in order to gain proficiency. The need for an apprenticeship highlights the fact that a change from handmade to wheelmade pottery, particularly in the contexts of technology transfer, requires extensive interaction between potters«.

Crewe’s observation is important because it implies some form of stable relation between artisans. On the Italian Peninsula we can imagine the collaboration of local artisans with those who had arrived from the Aegean, assuming that these groups also used the practice of apprenticeship at some point. Furthermore, »the transmission of the fast wheel technology cannot be explained by occurrences of imported vessels but must have occurred through the interaction of potters«, and »the introduction of wheelmade pottery requires a considerable investment on behalf of the potter and implies a ready market for their goods«.

Crewe’s observations on Cyprus and other regions are of great interest to those of us who study similar phenomena in the central Mediterranean. We can conclude from Crewe’s study that the social and economic implications of such a transfer of technology, which are perfectly valid regardless of whether such new types of vessels occurred solely within elite circles or whether they were common within the communities studied, cannot be reconciled with a minimalist view of the phenomenon. The interpretation of essentially parallel processes certainly cannot result as maximalist in Cyprus and minimalist in Italy, even if we consider the different socio-political and socio-economic frameworks in the two areas.

Specialized production of Aegean-derived ceramics is also present in the settlements of northeastern Italy, beginning without a doubt from an advanced phase of the Recent Bronze Age. Towards the beginning of the Final Bronze Age (mid-12th-11th centuries BC), these patterns of production can be observed still at several important Apulian sites, mostly concentrated in the lower Adriatic, as well as in the settlement of Frattesina in Veneto. This northern Adriatic center in particular is of great interest for its relations with the eastern Mediterranean. It has been well established that the site reached the apex of its development between the early and mature phases of the Italian FB. In addition to the modest number of imported and locally-produced Mycenaean ceramic fragments (made possible by a transfer of technologies similar to that which occurred in the southern regions of the peninsula), a few other conspicuous signs of relations with the eastern Mediterranean have come to light in this period: elephant ivory and ostrich eggshells, as well as traces of precious metalworking, including gold. The discovery of an ivory comb of the so-called Frattesina type in a tomb at Enkomi datable to the LC IIIB (around the second half of the 12th century to the mid-11th century) seems to suggest Cypriot presence in northeast Italian trade, in a period which also saw the highest level of development of the artisanal center of Frattesina. With the FB 3 (around the 10th century), a restructuring of the settlement occurs, along with a certain contraction and the eventual suspension of its international relations.

Another Adriatic settlement of great importance in this period of the FB is Rocavecchia, in southern Apulia. Unlike Frattesina, Rocavecchia is a coastal site which enjoyed a long lifespan, demonstrating strong elements of contact with the Aegean world from its very beginnings. Already in the course of RB at Rocavecchia we can find evidence of the use of exotic materials, for example hippopotamus and elephant ivory; in the FB the presence of items in gold, some of which were only semi-finished, is also attested. Unlike Frattesina, however, the possible presence of a Cypriot influence in Rocavecchia is not very clear at the current time. On the contrary, the Aegean ceramics uncovered from this phase suggest northwestern Peloponnesian links. The double-headed bronze axe found in Rocavecchia in the site’s FB 1-2 levels shows clear typological links with Crete and continental Greece rather than with Cyprus, different from some very similar artifacts found in Sardinia.


Between the end of the 11th century and the beginning of the 10th century we witness a shifting of the avenues of international sea trade, with a steady decline in interest in Adriatic-bound voyages from the East at the end of the FB, and the beginning of, or the increase in, relations between specific areas of the eastern Mediterranean – particularly Cyprus – and the westernmost reaches of the same sea, with Sardinia initially playing the role of intermediary. This territory and its peoples had already been involved in trade with Cyprus since the era of Mycenaean sea trade, as we have already seen. It is possible that such an alteration in inter-Mediterranean trade routes was not solely caused by the changing demands of eastern traders and artisans, for example the need to amass strategic raw materials, but that it was also influenced by upheavals within and the restructuring of the socio-economic and socio-political structures of local communities.

For example, the eastern Po Valley saw numerous, progressive changes in the organization of its territorial systems and »landscapes of power«. This series of changes began with the collapse of the Terramare system at the end of the 13th century, and lasted until the period of prominence of Veneto sites such as Fondo Paviani and Frattesina which, in turn, went into a rapid decline by the end of the FB. The period between RB and FB is characterized by discontinuity, and changes of the settlement patterns in the areas of the mid- and lower Adriatic as well, as evidenced by the fate of many settlements in the Marches or by the violent destruction of the FB settlement of Rocavecchia. Such upheavals, all originating from within the communities where they took place, and clearly for different reasons and with different results, may have discouraged Aegean and Cypriot traders who were no longer able to find interlocutors able to guarantee them an acceptable management of local resources and foreign trade relations.

On the contrary, the Nuragic population between RB and FB displayed a much greater cohesion and continuity, exerting a solid control over their territory and their resources, especially their metal resources. Even if changes occurred during FB probably leading to a more complex and stratified society – with a major role of rituals and cult activities – it happened in a socio-cultural framework interwoven with the previous one.

Furthermore, as recent studies have proposed, local populations probably possessed an advanced level of naval technology which would have enabled them to embark upon long-distance sea voyages. It therefore seems very likely that, after the end of Mycenaean trade in the West, the island of Sardinia assumed a role of central importance thanks to its position of middleman between the eastern Mediterranean (principally Cyprus) and the western Mediterranean. All of this primarily occurred prior to the arrival on the scene of the Phoenicians, be it in their pre-colonial ventures, in the territorialization of their emporia, or in the foundation of their colonies.

Only at the beginning of the Iron Age, in terms of Italian chronology, they would be included in the existing trading network between Sardinia and the Far West, gradually replacing Nuragic entrepreneurs with methods of drainage of goods and resources that those had never implemented.

(Source: “Centuries of Darkness? Italy and the Aegean after the collapse of the Mycenaean palaces”, by Marco Bettelli)


Research-Selcetion for NovoScriptorium: Philaretus Homerides

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