Christina and Stephanie describe the results of their reassessment of our view of Mycenaean vessels

‘Peaceful’ Minoans, ‘Warlike’ Mycenaeans and their Precious Metal Vessels: A Reassessment of a Tired Cliché


Dr Stephanie Aulsebrook (Assistant Professor, Institute of Archaeology, University of Warsaw)

Dr Christina Clarke (Lecturer in Early Modern Art, Design and Material Culture, Centre for Art History and Art Theory, Australian National University)

Background of the Project

The discovery of the ‘Mycenaeans’, the Late Bronze Age culture of the Greek mainland, was one of the most astonishing events in the history of archaeology. Although some traces of them had been transmitted down the ages through the Homeric epics and chance finds that had made their way onto the antiquities market, no-one was quite prepared for the amazing treasure trove of objects unearthed at Mycenae in 1876 by the maverick businessman and excavator of Troy, Henrich Schliemann. Although most scholars accepted the finds as wondrous, there was already an undercurrent in some quarters that they were simply unworthy of comparison with the attainments of Classical Greece.

Figure 1. Henrich Schliemann (left) (Universitätsbibliothek Heidelberg via Wikimedia Commons) and Sir Arthur Evans (right) (Wellcome Collection), discoverers of the Mycenaean and Minoan cultures respectively.

The occasional finds of similar artefacts on Crete were initially attributed to the same ‘Mycenaean’ culture. This changed dramatically due to the efforts of Sir Arthur Evans, the excavator of Knossos. He was able to demonstrate the existence of an independent, earlier civilisation on Crete, which he named the Minoans (after King Minos of Ancient Greek legend). His magnum opus, a six volume work entitled The Palace of Minos, provided him with an opportunity to expound his idealistic vision of Minoan culture: peaceful, artistic, innovative and in tune with nature. The Mycenaeans, however, were recast as warlike, crude and utterly derivative in almost every aspect of their lives and culture.

Figure 2. Map showing the geographical relationship between the Minoan (c. 1900 – 1450 BC) and Mycenaean (c. 1700 – 1000 BC) cultures. (Google Maps Terrametrics © 2020; additional content S. Aulsebrook).

From that point onwards, various scholars of Mycenaean material culture, such as Carl Blegen and Alan Wace, strove to re-establish a degree of independence for the Greek mainland by, for example, demonstrating the existence of a separate ceramic typology, rather than accept the view that the Mycenaeans were simply degenerate Minoans abroad. However, this general picture of peaceful artistic Minoans and violent crude Mycenaeans still permeated throughout the scholarship of the Aegean Bronze Age. Even as late as the 1960s, prominent scholars such as Emily Vermeule felt compelled to make the point that an object should not be considered ‘Minoan’ simply because it was beautiful. This rivalry and clumsy stereotyping continued to frame archaeological debates nonetheless and indeed it is still present well into the 21st century.

Enter Ellen Davis into this contentious arena. She produced a monograph, entitled ‘The Vapheio Cups and Aegean Gold and Silver Ware’ in 1977, which was both a catalogue of material and the dissemination of her recognition, through her doctoral research, of separate Minoan and Mycenaean crafting traditions for precious metal vessels based upon a defined list of traits. Davis was one of the first scholars to attempt to find objective evidence that could be used to distinguish crafting traditions in the Aegean. She moved beyond her contemporaries by broadening the study of precious metal vessels beyond just the most impressive examples. Furthermore, her firsthand observations were excellent and detailed, making her catalogue of gold and silver vessels an invaluable resource for all future scholars.

Despite this, her attribution system sadly suffers from several fatal flaws that ultimately undermine its validity. This is perhaps to be expected, given the pioneering nature of her research. What has caused us concern though is that, throughout our own doctoral work, we found that Davis’s ideas were still being uncritically applied by modern scholars, who cite her attributions as proven fact. This means that her assumptions are still being embedded in current interpretations more than forty years after the publication of her monograph. We feel, therefore, that it has now become necessary to demonstrate why Davis’s attribution system is not reliable and hopefully discourage its continued use.

How did Ellen Davis build her attribution system?

The first difficulty Davis faced was a common one for scholars of prehistoric metalwork: preservation bias. In the case of the Aegean precious metal corpus this problem was extreme; of the 149 vessels in her catalogue, only fourteen came from Crete and 56 came from just two graves at Mycenae. What made this situation worse was that, of those fourteen Cretan vessels, one is almost certainly Anatolian in origin, five were found in contexts that post-date the significant influx of Mycenaean material culture and practices c. 1450 BC and two are from uncertain contexts. Moreover nine are severely damaged.

To circumvent this issue, Davis turned to a well-known pair of gold cups, decorated with bull-hunting imagery, excavated by Christos Tsountas in 1889 from a large constructed beehive ‘tholos’ tomb at Vapheio, in Laconia on the Greek mainland.

Figure 3. The two gold cups from the Vapheio tomb that formed the basis of Davis’s attribution system. Left: ‘violent cup’ Athens National Museum (ANM) 1758; Right: ‘quiet’ cup ANM 1759. Photographs S. Aulsebrook.

The tomb had been looted prior to excavation, but an intact burial, complete with grave goods, was discovered in an undisturbed pit in the floor. The gold cups were discovered in this pit, one placed near the left hand of the deceased and one near their right hand. The tomb contained many other interesting objects, such as a pair of silver cups, jewellery, weapons and seals. The Minoan derivation of several of these objects had already been securely identified. The origins of the two gold cups had been hotly contested but, despite the fact that they had clearly been decorated by two different hands, the general consensus was that they were both Minoan imports.

Working from photographs and illustrations of the vessels, Davis conducted an analysis of the decorative imagery on the two gold cups. One of the cups depicted the capture of a bull through subterfuge, using a decoy cow, and Davis argued that this was the type of scene that did indeed suit the quiet peaceful nature of Minoan culture. In contrast the second cup showed the bull being captured through violence with nets, and included the graphic depiction of one of the hunters being gored. This, she argued, was much more consistent with the Mycenaean taste for the violent and barbaric. Stylistic evidence relating to the composition and workmanship of the decoration was also marshalled to support this interpretation, making much of the generally accepted difference between the naturalistic tendencies of Minoan art and the more formal style that characterised Mycenaean art.

Her next step was to identify differences in the manufacturing processes between the two cups, thus establishing the distinction between Minoan and Mycenaean crafting traditions. In this case there was only one prominent discrepancy between them, which was the length of the lower terminal of their handles. That on the ‘violent’ cup was longer than that on the ‘quiet’ cup. Ergo, Davis reasoned, this was a meaningful disparity linked to their creation by craftspeople versed in two different crafting traditions. This, on its own, is not much to go on and Davis therefore looked to the other pair of precious metal cups from the same tomb for further confirmation. These silver cups are much less ornate, each with just three bands of triple grooves marked on their body, and thus their decoration could not help. However, they did display the same difference in the length of the lower terminal of their handles.

Using this as a foundation, Davis moved onto examining vessels from other contexts, identifying more points of variation within the Aegean precious metal corpus and categorising them as characteristic of the Minoan or the Mycenaean crafting tradition depending upon their association with features that she had already determined as such. By the end of her analysis, Davis had pinpointed four defining traits for Mycenaean vessels:

1) handles made from sheet metal with edges reinforced by wires,

2) handle rivets finished on the inside with flat or low heads,

3) handles attached with two rivets through the upper terminal,

4) bases finished with a raised central boss and concentric ring.

Figure 4. Example of a wired handle; the damage to the edge of the gold sheet has exposed the decayed copper alloy wire inserted into the edge of the handle. Photograph S. Aulsebrook.

In contrast, Minoan-made vessels were associated with the use of cast copper reinforcement elements, the wider incorporation of solid cast components, the attachment of handles with three rivets through their upper terminal, large rounded (mushroom-shaped) or otherwise moulded internal handle rivet heads and thickened rims.

How did Ellen Davis apply her attribution system?

Of the 149 vessels in her catalogue, Davis stated that she had positively identified 110 vessels as either Minoan or Mycenaean, as shown in the following bar graph.

Figure 5. The number of vessels that Davis classified into each of her categories.

This would seem to suggest that her approach was exceedingly successful, with a positive identification made in almost 75% of cases. That a small number could not be securely classified is not a fatal argument against her system, as it would be expected that two cultures in such close contact with one another would produce some examples of hybridity.

Yet these results mask the unfortunate reality, which is hinted at by the fourth column in the bar chart. The reason why these ten vessels were singled out as ‘probably’ of Mycenaean manufacture is because Davis recognised that they had characteristics that fitted in with her Minoan category but they were poorly manufactured, something that Davis felt betrayed the involvement of less skilled Mycenaean craftspeople. Despite her use of objective criteria in her system, Davis returned to subjective prejudices when it was convenient. In fact this type of subjectivity appears throughout her analysis. A significant proportion of the vessels in her catalogue actually have a mix of Davis’s ‘Minoan’ and ‘Mycenaean’ traits, and Davis explains each one away as either the product of a Minoan craftsperson working for a Mycenaean patron on the Greek mainland or the imitation of a Minoan vessel by a Mycenaean craftsperson. When in doubt, as in all these cases, Davis made the final decision based on subjective criteria. In doing so, she fatally undermined her own argument; after all, why would the gold ‘violent’ cup discussed above necessarily be made by a Mycenaean craftsperson, which is essential for her entire attribution system, if Minoan craftspeople were present on the Greek mainland producing vessels that met the tastes of their Mycenaean patrons?

What went wrong?

The fundamental issue with Davis’s approach begins with her very first assumption; that there were two crafting traditions in the Aegean: a Minoan one and a Mycenaean one. The fact that she took this a priori starting position is not surprising, given the nature of Bronze Age Aegean archaeological studies at the time. However, the adoption of this framework constrained her analysis in two major ways. First, the lack of evidence from Crete required Davis to construct her own vision of a ‘Minoan’ vessel that was not well founded, as it was based entirely on a comparison of just two pairs of cups, and this ultimately led to multiple instances of circular reasoning. Secondly, all the variability that she observed had to be forced into two opposing categories. Vessels that showed a mix of features had to be explained away, a serious oversimplification of the reality of the situation, and this necessitated the introduction of subjective criteria.

There are several other, relatively more minor, flaws in Davis’s approach that also compromised her attribution system. Many of the differences she identified were readily apparent without a detailed visual inspection. Even if a particular craftsperson was initially unfamiliar with a certain technique, such as the use of three rather than two rivets through the upper handle terminal, it would have been relatively easy for them to imitate such features. Davis in fact used this possibility to explain away some vessels with mixed features (including the ‘violent’ cup), without acknowledging that this undermined her attribution system. Davis was not a gold or silversmith, and this gap in her knowledge had repercussions for her analysis. For example, she treated wall thickness and accuracy of wall formation as two independent variables, using the latter to identify poor ‘Mycenaean’ craftsmanship. However, the thinner the sheet, the harder it is to control its shape through hammering. Therefore her criteria included traits that were essentially predetermined by other factors and could not be fairly linked to a particular crafting tradition. Finally, she also failed to control for chronological change and rarely defined her terms, even those that were measurable, whilst simultaneously relying upon them to underpin fundamental elements of her attribution system.

What next?

One important legacy of Davis’s work is that it clearly demonstrated the significant degree of variability in the Aegean precious metal vessel corpus, which is the only basis upon which an attribution system for crafting traditions can be developed. In future we would like to tackle this research question ourselves. Working with the benefit of hindsight, it ought to be possible to avoid some of the pitfalls she encountered. This will include using a bottom-up approach that allows for the possibility of more than two crafting traditions, takes account of temporal change, sticks with objective evidence and acknowledges the limitations of the data rather than resorting to subjectivity. The incorporation of new discoveries, such as the group of seven silver vessels from the tholos tomb at Kokla, may prove to be the turning point for this complex and difficult challenge.


  • Clarke, Christina F. The Manufacture of Minoan Metal Vessels: Theory and Practice. Studies in Mediterranean Archaeology Pocket Book 178. Uppsala: Åströms förlag, 2013.
  • Davis, Ellen N. The Vapheio Cups and Aegean Gold and Silver Ware. New York; London: Garland Publishing, 1977.
  • Demakopoulou, Katie, and Stephanie Aulsebrook. “The Gold and Silver Vessels and Other Precious Finds from the Tholos Tomb at Kokla in the Argolid.” Annual of the British School at Athens 113 (2018): 119-142.
  • Evans, Arthur J. The Palace of Minos: A Comparative Account of the Successive Stages of the Early Cretan Civilization as Illustrated by the Discoveries at Knossos. London: Macmillan, 1921-1935.
  • Schliemann, Heinrich. Mycenae: A Narrative of Researches and Discoveries at Mycenae and Tiryns. New York: Arno Press, 1880; 1976.
  • Vermeule, Emily. T. Greece in the Bronze Age. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964.
  • Wace, Alan J.B., and Carl Blegen. “The Pre-Mycenaean Pottery of the Mainland.” Annual of the British School at Athens 22 (1916-1918): 175-189.

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