Rethinking Mycenaean Economy

Stable isotope analysis in zooarchaeology is an exciting–and growing–research area, with the potential to inform and expand on  a multitude of questions about humanity in the past, present, and future.

Part of the mission of the working group and the purpose of our blog is to share ongoing research in this area with a wider audience. To that end, we’re launching a series of posts on current projects combining zooarchaeology and stable isotope analysis in innovative ways around the world and in all time periods. If you would like to contribute a post on your research, you can email suzanne_birch [at] Comments and questions on posts are welcomed and encouraged!

Our first post is by Gypsy Price, who is currently a PhD candidate in the Anthropology Department at the University of Florida. Her research uses stable isotope analysis to reveal differences in faunal economies in early complex societies, specifically Late Bronze Age (LBA) Mycenae, Greece. Thanks Gypsy!

Faunal Economy at Petsas House

View of Mycenae, with a plan of the citadel and location of Petsas House indicated by the red circle.

View of Mycenae, with a plan of the citadel and location of Petsas House indicated by the red circle.

Five years ago I got involved with the Petsas House Project, a domestic/industrial structure located downslope from the citadel of Mycenae dating to the Late Helladic III A2 (circa 1300 BC). Around the same time I had become increasingly captivated by Galaty and Parkinson’s “Rethinking Mycenaean Palaces” series which critically examined the extent, degree, and manner of economic authority engendered by Mycenaean palaces. Bottom line, the majority of our knowledge about Mycenaean economy is based on Linear B tablets, which are geographically, temporally, and topically restricted: they have only been recovered from a handful of palatial sites, and record only transactions of interest to palatial administration occurring in the months prior to their deposition. As a result, economic models have been constructed from the top down, resulting in a myopic sense of the movement of resources within the larger society and an artificial inflation of the influence of the palace.

Through isotopic survey, we can discern feeding groups that may be indicative of disparities in provisioning or foddering strategies, and patterns of importation of animals. It was here where I realized that the extremely well-preserved and extensive faunal assemblage at Petsas House could offer a unique, micro-scalar perspective on management and distribution of faunal resources in an extra-palatial industrial/domestic context with a palatial settlement. Furthermore, there was an available contemporaneous faunal assemblage which had been previously excavated from the Cult Center, an ideological complex located within the walls of the hilltop citadel.

Gypsy Price with Petsas House materials

Gypsy Price with Petsas House materials.

Thus, with the invaluable support of Dr. Kim Shelton (UC Berkeley) and my committee chair, Dr. John Krigbaum (University of Florida), my PhD research was born. My sample set includes four main species known to have been purposefully managed during the LBA: goat, sheep, cow, and pig/wild boar. I am using carbon (δ13C), nitrogen (δ15N), and oxygen (δ18O) ratios from bone collagen and bone apatite fractions to identify discrete inter- and intra-taxonomic feeding groups. Strontium (87Sr/86Sr) and oxygen (δ18O) isotope ratios from bone and serially sampled teeth are being used to identify season movement patterns and to look for evidence of extra-local individuals which may be indicative of importation. I am currently in the process of interpreting the structured variation in these data to elucidate some of the nuances of LBA Mycenaean faunal economy, allowing us to develop a “ground-truthed” model of management and distribution between disparate sectors of a single LBA Mycenaean palatial settlement for the first time.