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Use of Aegean Bronze Age Symbols by the local Elites of prehistoric Europe


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In this paper, I discuss the phenomenon of the similarity of Bronze Age symbolic system; particularly the likelihood that the central European Age elites shared the same cosmological systém with their Aegean, and even Eastern Mediterranean, counterparts, and the plausibility of their connection within power models and power structures.
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Inspiracje i funkcje sztuki pradziejowej i wczesnośredniowiecznej
Biskupin–Wrocław 2018
Věra Klontza-Jaklová
Department of Archaeology and Museology
Faculty of Arts, Masaryk University, Brno
Use of Aegean Bronze Age symbols
by the local elites of prehistoric Europe
Archaeologists probably disagree about symbols more than anything
else they dig up. Many believe that, however important symbols are,
we are wasting our time trying to recover mental phenomena ar-
chaeologically. Others believe that symbols are irrelevant to the
larger systems that have structured human life over the centuries.
J.E. Robb (1998, p. 329)
In this paper I discuss the phenomenon of the similarity of Bronze Age sym-
bolic systems; particularly the likelihood that the central European Bronze Age
elites shared the same cosmological system with their Aegean, and even Eastern
Mediterranean, counterparts, and the plausibility of their connection within
power models and power structures. It has been assumed, or argued, that the
prehistoric elites in question used the same or similar languages (at least within
certain macro regions which can be defined geographically) (i.e. Kristiansen,
Larsson 2005; Bouzek 1985; 2009; 2013).
In previous work, following in the footsteps of Jan Bouzek (1985) and Vá-
clav Furmánek (1997) and inspired by Kristian Kristiansen and Thomas Lars-
son (Kristiansen, Larsson 2005), I compared the sets of symbols present in Ae-
gean and Central European material culture (Klontza-Jaklová 2012). These
symbols are almost identical and consist mainly of wheels, bovid horns, blos-
soms of long lived plants (such as ivy), or bulbous plants (such as lilies, sea daf-
fodils, etc.), migrant water birds, S-shaped, spectacle or lunette-shaped spirals,
etc. They are usually connected with artifacts, often described as art, related to
the elite strata of the society. Their meanings seem to be explicable, at least in
broad context.
I analyzed such symbols topographically, chronologically and socially. It
seems that their appearance across a broad region was not random but that
they both exemplified and amplified the connections of the European Bronze
Age elites within one ideology, or at least a general framework, largely built on
their material connections related to long-distance trade in raw materials. It
was not a simple linear, continual process, moving just in one direction, but
a complex interactive system.
Motifs of central European pendants in Aegean material culture
In my previous article (Klontza-Jaklová 2012), I presented the parallels be-
tween some Bronze Age symbols of the Aegean and Central Europe, mainly in
the Carpathian lowlands. These were artifacts, mostly pendants, in the shapes
of lily blossom, hearts, moons or lunettes, including more elaborate composi-
tions, which, in bronze, required complex construction (e.g. pendants of Kis-
terenye type). In this paper I try to cover the entire set of Bronze Age symbols
and their combinations present in the Aegean and central Europe. These are the
running, Archimedes’, S-shaped and combination spirals, wheels, stars, floral
motifs, horns/bucrania/bovines, axes and, more marginally, birds and boats.
They are typical throughout all of central Europe during the entire Bronze Age
(Fig. 1) but can be traced from the Aegean to Scandinavia (Bouzek 1985; Hard-
ing 1984; Kristiansen, Larson 2005; Goldhahn 2013). These motifs were pres-
ent mainly on pendants but also appeared on pins, axes, swords, clay figurines
and ceramic vessels, which were deposited in hoards and as grave goods but
have been found in settlement contexts as well.
Václav Furmánek (1980) was the first of the central European authors deal-
ing with Slovakian pendants who pointed out their symbolic value and super-
regional context1. The global character of the period was contemporaneously
argued by Anthony Harding (1984) and, from a different viewpoint, by Jan
Bouzek (1985). Many other authors interpreting central European metalwork
hoards (i.e. Moucha 2005; Salaš 2005; Jiráň 2008) noted that the bronze pen-
dants represent a material depiction of the cosmological spheres of their hold-
ers. Furmánek (1997) pointed to their parallels in the Aegean world and Kris-
tiansen and Larsson (2005) use them as one of the arguments supporting their
theory of one ‘globalized’ Bronze Age system connecting a large region of the
entire Old World. In my research I tried to compare the media of those motifs
in both regions in order to define their correspondence in time and space, if
any. I also sought to investigate who their owners and users were. I have
1 The first who pointed out that connection was Gordon V. Childe (1929) but at that period nobody was
prepared to develop and broaden it.
Fig. 1. Chronological and typological chart of the Bronze Age pendants. Illustration by author
concluded that it is not coincidence that all the symbols mentioned were de-
picted on media connected with the elite, both in the Aegean (gold and faience
jewelry and fashion, luxury weapons, frescoes, ceramic idols, palatial pottery,
seals, monumental architecture, astronomical devices) and in central Europe
(jewelry, parts of garments, luxury weapons).
Here I am going to widen the discussion to the symbols which I did not
analyze in detail in my previous work (Klontza-Jaklová 2012). However, it
should be underlined that I can only present here the most typical illustrative
examples, not a complete list, of the artifacts bearing, or shaped as, such sym-
bols. There are so many, over such a broad region, that the conference format
cannot provide space for all of them.
In the first part of the article the symbols (or motifs, because the word sym-
bol already directs the possible interpretation), which we can recognize in ar-
chaeological material across the continent during at least one phase of the
Bronze Age, are presented. In the second part I discuss and try to explain their
patterns of appearance and meaning(s).
The spiral motif is not an exclusively Bronze Age symbol. It is connected to
all agricultural societies, at least from the Early Neolithic to classical antiquity.
Meanings usually attributed range from apotropaic symbols (snakes, laby-
rinths) to symbols of motion, time or rotation. This motif is common across
time, cultures and space but is particularly so in both central Europe and the
Aegean, during the entire Bronze
Age (with only a few pauses in its use
in particular periods and regions).
In central Europe two simple Ar-
chimedes’ spirals are connected into
the shape of the letter “S” or “spec-
tacles”. This pair of copper or golden
spirals appears very early, as a pen-
dant in the period of Reinecke phases
BA3/BB1 (Early/Middle Bronze Age),
and remains popular (see Fig. 1) dur-
ing almost all the Early Bronze Age
(Furmánek 1980), but largely disap-
pears during the Middle Bronze Age,
only to return during the Late Bronze
Age, often as part of elaborate fibu-
lae, bracelets, arm rings or pendants,
where the spiral can be larger than
everyday use allows.
Fig. 2. Stamp impression on ceramic vessel,
Ayia Irini, Kea. After O. Krzyszkowska
(2005, p. 53, Fig. 87a)
Spirals in the Aegean Bronze Age
can be traced back to the Neolithic
period and are popular in the Early
Bronze Age as well. One early ex-
ample is the opposed spirals (spec-
tacle-shaped) found at Ayia Irini on
Kea as an impression (made by
a seal) on a ceramic storage vessel.
There are two such symbols placed,
opposite each other, within a circle.
They are dated to EH II (Fig. 2).
Seals are generally understood as
one of the early signs of the birth of
private ownership and hierarchical
societies. But metallic spirals are
still common after the Aegean Early
Bronze Age. One of the artifacts in-
dicating that this symbol has spe-
cial meaning is an elaborate golden
pin from Troy (Fig. 3) and a gold-
en bracelet from Trojan Treasure F
(Fig. 4).
Running spirals or S-shaped spi-
rals were also found as impressions
on ceramic vessels and hearths at
Lerna, Tiryns and Zygouries and
again dated to the EH II period
(Krzyszkowska 2005, p. 54, Figs.
88a, b and 89).
They were re-utilised in all pala-
tial periods. They are mainly con-
nected, running spirals, forming
a shape consisting of three (the so-
called triskelion) or four of them
(Prepalatial period EM III-MMI: con-
ical seal from Ayia Triada, Krzysz-
kowska 2005, p. 65, Fig. 107; cylin-
drical seal from Marathokephalo,
Krzyszkowska 2005, p. 65, Fig. 106;
Protopalatial period MMII: Knos-
sos, Hieroglyphic deposit on flat
based nodules: Krzyszkowska 2005,
p. 115, Fig. 196) (Fig. 5). All types
Fig. 3. Golden pin from Troy. After C.
Broodbank (2015, p. 337, Fig. 7.51)
Fig. 4. Golden bracelet from Troy,
Treasure F. After V. Tolstikov, M. Treister
(1996, p. 114-115, Fig. 123)
of spirals are often employed on LHI–III prestigious artifacts as jewelry (Fig. 6)
or metal, even golden, vessels (Fig. 7).
In central Europe spectacle-shaped pendants are typical for the BA1 period,
but can be met up to the HA-B period. For the periods of BC-BD the S-shaped
ring is typical (e.g. Jiráň 2008, Fig. 71/1–5, p. 220, Fig. 134).
In both regions, in the Early Bronze Age, the motif of the spiral is dominant.
It survives from the preceding period and continues at least up to the Early Iron Age.
Fig. 7. Golden handled
conical cup with running
triskelions from Peristeria,
tholos grave III, LH I.
After Das mykenische Hellas...,
(1988, p. 108–110, No. 41)
Fig. 5. Examples of Aegean Bronze Age seals with spirals: a – lead or silver EH-II stamp from
Aplomata, Naxos. After O. Krzyszkowska (2005, p.41, Fig. 61a); b – EH-II seal from the House
of the Tiles, Lerna. After O. Krzyszkowska (2005, p. 43, Fig. 68); c – seal from ‘Hieroglyphic
deposit’ in Knossos, MMIII-LM IA. After O. Krzyszkowska (2005, p. 115 and 196)
Fig. 6. Golden necklace from Lakkithra, Keffallinia, LH-IIIC. After Das mykenische Hellas...,
(1988, p. 138, No. 87)
a b c
Lily (or other plants with bell shaped blossoms)
This motif is, probably much
more than any other, connected to
the Minoan koine. Its earliest ap-
pearance can be dated to the Pre-
palatial period, when the early
state-like polities started to crystal-
ize (Branigan 1970; Knappett 1999;
Laffineure, Niemeier 1995). The lily
blossom motif is part of the set of
decorative patterns used on dark-
on-light painted pottery and later
on becomes one of the main motifs
used for the decoration of polychro-
me Protopalatial and dark-on-light
Neopalatial pottery. It is a common
motif depicted on seals, as one of
the signs of the Hieroglyphic Cretan
Script of the Prepalatial period. Lil-
ies were engraved into Protopalatial
seal stones (Fig. 8; Krzyszkowska
2005, p. 88, Fig. 111, 142a-c and 189).
On later Neopalatial seal stones,
sealing rings or impressions they
usually surround female figures, in-
terpreted as special individuals of elite class, or they are held in their hands
(Fig. 9). The papyrus or lily blossoms became motifs of prominent jewelry, such
as pendants, cloth attachments or beads, always made from precious materials,
like gold or faience, both on Minoan Crete, and on the Mycenaean mainland.
It was a privileged motif of Aegean wall paintings; many examples can be found
on the Akrotiri (Thera) frescoes, in Knossos, Amnissos and other sites. They are
also combined with other plants like crocuses, papyrus or ivy branches. More
examples are presented in Klontza-Jaklová (2012).
Similarly shaped, mainly lotus or papyrus, blossoms were often depicted in
Egyptian iconography and are also connected with the elite female world
(Klontza-Jaklová 2012).
Flowers played a very important role in palatial society. Gardens full of dif-
ferent exotic plants, sometimes with animals, are one of the important motifs
of Minoan and Mycenaean frescoes. We still do not have any direct archaeo-
logical evidence of their existence but the painted ones can be considered as
“copies” of the real ones. Many authors have suggested where the gardens may
have been located; in the Minoan halls, court yards, beyond the residential
Fig. 8. MMII-III seal from Mallia Quartier Mu,
Crete. After O. Krzyszkowska
(2005, p. 111, Figs. 189 and 190)
Fig. 9. Gold sealing ring from Aidonia.
Minoan style or provenance. After I. Pini
(1993, p. 115, No 113)
quarters, on the roofs, etc. Some terraces beyond the palaces could also have
been employed for gardens or hunting parks in small woods (summary of opin-
ions: Day 2006). We know about their existence from Near-Eastern literary
sources. It should not be forgotten that the gardens of Queen Semiramis be-
come one of the Seven Wonders of the World, albeit about one millennium
later. Royal gardens in Egypt or the Hittite Empire were elaborate systems con-
nected with power and “other” dimensions (Day 2010).
Lilies and other similar plants have been connected with the process of re-
birth and the eternal circle of birth – death – re-birth. These plants grow up
from bulbs, hidden in the sand of the Mediterranean beaches, with the first rain
drops in September and disappear again after the rainy winter period. They are
happy even with very poor sandy soils. They are, without doubt, extremely
beautiful. Such attributes readily lend themselves to use as symbolism for and
(auto) identification of an elite class (Klontza-Jaklová 2012).
In central Europe the blossom
motif is not so dominant or not so
easily identified. However, lily sha-
ped pendants could be candidates
(Fig. 10). It can be argued that these
motifs could symbolize horns but in
that case they would be placed with
the horn extending upwards. With
the hole in the central part and the
blossom bell hanging down the lily-
shaped pendants remain plausible
blossom shaped motifs. They are
dated to BA2–3 phases (Furmánek
1980) and are contemporary with
their Aegean parallels from Crete
and the Helladic mainland. They do not necessarily represent the lily species of
Mediterranean landscapes. There are also other eligible candidates in central
Europe, e.g. lily of the valley, with its bell-shaped blossoms.
Such types of plant can be identified depicted on skirts of clay female figu-
rines from the Carpathian region (Harding 2000, p. 325, Fig. 9.6, No. 1), pro-
viding further evidence that flowering plants are part of the female elite world.
Ivy leaf
A similar approach is indicated for the motif of the ivy leaf, which is much
less common in Crete but very common in Mycenaean iconography. Its impor-
tance as a symbol was pointed out by Sir Arthur Evans, who named this symbol
as Sacred Ivy (Evans 1928, p. 483). In Helladic and Mycenaean contexts, ivy
leaves appear where the Minoans would probably prefer lilies. It is possible to
Fig. 10. Lily-shaped bronze pendant of Early
Bronze Age period from the Ipel’ River region.
After V. Furmánek et al.
(2015, p. 79, Fig. 48.4)
infer that, just as Cretans changed the papyrus and lotus blossoms into lily
blossom because this plant was more familiar to them, the Mycenaeans prob-
ably did the same with Cretan lilies. Ivy is a common plant, not only in the
South Balkans but also in central Europe. It is a plant which can be delegated
as possessing some of the most important elite characteristics. This plant can
survive hundreds of years, even in very extreme conditions, It is always green
and has been used as medicine but also as a poison (Klontza-Jaklová 2012).
This motif can be found on all types of material connected with palatial elite
culture: frescoes, painted pottery, metal vessels and jewelry were frequently
media for its depiction. Among the most important are pendants made from
gold or faience. Pendants of such
type were also depicted on the necks
of sphinxes. Many other motifs ex-
hibit this heart-like shape. This mo-
tif can also be connected to the fe-
male breast, thereby acquiring an
extensive range of symbolic mean-
ings. (Klontza-Jaklová 2012; Kristian-
sen, Larsson 2005, p. 151, Fig. 55)
In central Europe, heart-shaped
pendants (Fig. 11) are also common,
and are contemporary with their
counterparts in the Aegean. In cen-
tral Europe they are dated to the early
phase of Middle Bronze Age (Furmá-
nek 1980, p. 15–16; see also Fig. 1).
“Moon” symbol and
symmetrical spirals
However, the most common mo-
tif, both in central Europe and in the
Aegean, is the so-called Moon sym-
bol (Fig. 12). So far its identification
has proved elusive. It is not similar
to anything known from nature or
to any practical artifact but, it seems,
its meaning was once clearly read-
able to all Europeans. Although this
motif is at its most popular during
the Late Bronze Age in the Aegean,
it had already appeared during the
Aegean Early Bronze Age.
Fig. 11. Heart-shaped bronze pendant of Early
Bronze Age period. After V. Furmánek
(1980, Taf. 15, No. 373)
Fig. 12. Moon-shaped pendant from Slovakia.
After V. Furmánek et al. (2015, p. 240, Fig. 246)
The symbols were present, often in
a combination of three, on rounded
Early Helladic seals (Fig. 13). The earli-
est exemplar identified is the motif on
one of the seals found in the House of
Tiles at Lerna, dated to the EH II peri-
od (Krzyszkowska 2005, p. 16, Fig. 29).
Protopalatial Cretans used it rarely
(Fig. 14). As far as I know it was not
used or adopted in Neopalatial iconog-
raphy but it was the par excellence My-
cenaean symbol. Even in Minoan Crete
it appears more often during the Myce-
naean period (LM IIIA and B).
What makes its identification more
difficult is the fact that, at least in cen-
tral Europe and the Aegean, it does not
appear in interaction with people or as
part of human life except for one ex-
traordinary and very well known depic-
tion, on a stele from Grave Circle B at
Mycenae (Fig. 15), hanging above a char-
iot, driven by a warrior, with sword, and
pulled by a feline, running over water.
Here it seems that the motif represents
a body in the sky and the moon cannot
be excluded. Above this scene is a deco-
rative panel covered in running spirals.
There are also two such motifs engraved
Fig. 13. Pithos sealing from House DM
of EH-II Lerna. After O. Krzyszkowska
(2005, p. 47, Fig. 78)
Fig. 14. Prepalatial and Protopalatial seals with the ‘Moon’ symbol:
a – Prepalatial Hippopotamus ivory seal from Ayia Triada, Crete. After O. Krzyszkowska
(2005, p. 65, No. 105); b – MM II-III seal from Mochlos, Crete. After O. Krzyszkowska
(2005, p. 88, No. 139); c – MM II-III seal with hieroglyphical inscriptions from Lasithi, Crete.
After O. Krzyszkowska 2005, p. 97, No. 161c)
a b c
Fig. 15. Grave Stela 2 from Grave V
of Grave circle A, Mycenae. After G.E.
Mylonas (1983, Fig. 32)
vertically below the main decoration panel (Fig. 16). On other steles these
motifs, in sets of three, are placed in line or in a circle. One was depicted as
a pendant on a ceramic figurine of a goddess or female priest (Klontza-Jaklová
2012, p. 194, Tab. 3.13), although, as yet, no actual pendant of that particular
shape has been found in the Aegean region.
But it appears as part of Hittite royal iconography (Kristiansen, Larsson
2005, p. 201, Fig. 88, 131–132, 292–293) and was used in Hittite-Luwian
hierogly phical script (Kristiansen, Larsson 2005, p. 168, Fig. 70) where the sign
is read as hi and means magnus, great, big. In combination with a head (Fig. 17a)
or cone (Fig. 17b), it is understood as Magnus Dominus (Great lord/king) (Maran-
gozis 2003; Payne 2004;
In central Europe it is the most com-
mon motif used for bronze pendants
(Fig. 18) (see also Furmánek 1980). They
are also engraved on bronze axes, swords
and other bronze artifacts (Fig. 19). Or
they can be identified painted on clay
figures of the Carpathian Bronze Age
(Harding 2000, Fig. 9.6; Klontza-Jak-
lová 2012, p. 194, Fig. 3.7). Combina-
tion of this motif with prestigious ar-
tifacts suggests that its meaning in
central Europe was the same as in the
Aegean, Anatolia and the Eastern Med-
iterranean in general but also suggests
Fig. 16. Grave Stela 3 from Grave V
of Grave circle A, Mycenae. After G.E.
Mylonas (1983, Fig. 170)
Fig. 17. Luwian hieroglyphic script:
a – Magnus domina; b – Magnus rex.
a b
Fig. 18. Reconstructed necklace from
Hodejov, Slovakia. After V. Furmánek
et48al. (2015, p. 240, Fig. 245)
that it was not exclusively the symbol of a king/lord/chief/big man but that
each holder of it was connected to the super-human, or hyper-human power.
However, some of them are large, richly decorated and elaborate (Fig. 20).
These may represent real attributes of the real power.
The dating range, both in the Aegean and in central Europe, is large (BA-HA1,
EH II-LH IIIA) but does not exceed the Bronze Age.
When discussing the Bronze Age, it is impossible to ignore the symbolism of
the axe, not only in the Aegean (Haysom 2010) but also in central Europe
(Harding 2000, p. 321). This artifact has been connected with symbolism, at least
since the Neolithic, together with spirals (Kristiansen, Larsson 2005). It is clearly
a male power symbol and connected with the solar symbolic circle. In the Aegean
this symbol can be found as a real axe, generally, in Crete, a double axe, made
from bronze, silver or gold, in any size, and is depicted on pottery, seals or
other items, during the entire Minoan period. In Mycenae swords and daggers
Fig. 19. Symbol of ‘Magna domina’
incised on a bronze dagger from Košice-
Barca, Slovakia. After V. Furmánek et al.
(2015, p. 59, Fig. 32.15)
Fig. 20. Moon-shaped pendants: a – with star
from Hodejov, Slovakia; b – with running
spirals from Barca, Slovakia. After V. Furmánek
(1980, Taf. 6, No. 118 and 119)
played a much more important
role, judging by their frequen-
cy of representation in materi-
al culture. In central Europe,
the decorated axes are consid-
ered to be items symbolizing
the identity and power of their
holders. According to Kristian-
sen and Larsson (2005, p. 306–
–307), the axe also played a role
in the Bronze Age cosmologi-
cal solar mythology, wherein
twin brothers of a female cen-
tral deity, each holding an axe,
accompany her on her journey
between day and night, life
and death.
However, in the central Eu-
ropean context the double axe
is also used as an element in
the composition of pendants,
together with “moon” and
wheels, or with symbols of
leaves or shields (Fig. 21).
Horns (of consecration)
Symbolic use of bovid horns is typical for Aegean prehistory. The so-called
‘horns of consecration’, as this motif was named by Sir Arthur Evans, is one of
the most frequently discussed symbols in Minoan archaeology. It seems that
this symbol is connected with the sun’s journey, with the two horns represent-
ing mountains on the horizon, the point of sunset and sunrise. This symbol is
common in Egypt and also in other Near Eastern early states. The sun disc is
often depicted between the horns, as in the symbol for the Egyptian goddess
Hathor. In Crete no identical ‘horns and disc’ symbol exists, there are just plain
horns or another symbol, such as a double axe, palm, poppy, female figure, or
bird is placed between the horns (i.e. Betancourt 1985, Pl. 19D; MacGillivray
2009, p. 121, Fig. 3). These additional symbols can also be placed above a bu-
cranium, as can a rope or sacred knot, or a rosette may be placed on the fore-
head of a bovid. Although the horns symbol is most commonly connected with
the goddess Hathor (Marinatos 2010), it must also be related to the bull leaping
rituals of Minoan Crete. Such symbols are also common in Mycenaean culture
(Banou 2008).
Fig. 21. Example of ‘rich-pendant-style’ from
Rimavská Sobota, Slovakia. After V. Furmánek
(1980, Taf. 27, No. 787)
It has been suggested that the horns of consecration, which are often found
on peak sanctuaries or are depicted on models of their altars, may represent
a device used for solar astronomical observations (MacGillivray 2009).
In this context I would like to mention two artifacts from contemporary Slo-
vakia. The first is a clay bovid with a rosette on its head. It was found in Bratisla-
va-Devín and was classified as an artifact of Nord-Pannonian culture (Fig. 22).
Fig. 22. Clay figurine from Bratislava-Devín, Slovakia. After V. Furmánek et al.
(2015, p. 126, Fig. 103.3)
Fig. 23. Bronze pendant
of Včelince type, Včelince,
Slovakia. After V. Furmánek
(1980, Taf. 5, No. 100)
Fig. 24. Ceramic vessel of Hallstatt Platěnice-culture
from Němčice na Hané, Czech Republic.
After V. Podborský (1992, p. 353, Fig. 233)
Fig. 25. Symbol of mountain. Illustration by author after: a – Egypt, E. Banou (2008, p. 29, Fig. 2);
b – Crete, A. Kanta (1980, Pl. 63); c – central European Hallstatt cultures,
N. Venclová (2008, p. 52, Fig. 15)
The other artifact from Slovakia is a combined pendant composed of a wheel
and horns, with a small arc between the horns. Although it is an individual and
outstanding find, it bears all the characteristics of analogical finds in the Ae-
gean, including their combination (Fig. 23).
The symbol of mountains with the sun circle between two peaks survives in
Hallstatt central Europe (Fig. 24). Symbols of mountains and sun disc survive
on Aegean islands and in Cyprus almost to the end of Geometric period (Fig. 25).
A very similar sign was again used in Luwian hieroglyphs in the 14th–13th
centuries B. C., with transcription ia3 and meaning: the west, the western side
( luwglyph/Signlist_2012.pdf).
I suggest that bovid horns combined with the sun symbol (direct or second-
ary) are symbols of passing between the real world and underworld and are
connected with a female phenomenon as the birth-giver, in keeping with the
written evidence of the attributes of Hathor, and that this symbol, together
with the wheel, was universally used and understood within the Bronze Age
world (similarly Anthony 2007).
Wheel and boat
The Bronze Age is a period of long distance, even intercontinental, contact
and interaction, both primary and transferred. Andrew Sherratt (1997) described
the changes in/of the Late Neolithic and Chalcolithic/Eneolithic as the ‘second-
ary product revolution’ where innovations, like use of the plough, the wheel,
dairy and wool production, played a role. Everything else, changes in settlement
pattern, economy, ritual, craft, etc., was just a consequence of the first. Wheel
symbolism, and the wheel vocabulary, are as old as this strategic set of innova-
tions (Anthony 2007, p. 66) and also date to the period between 3500–3000B.C.
In terms of the central European Bronze Age, the motif of the wheel continues
from the Bell Beaker cultures through the Early Bronze Age and up to the Hall-
statt period. In parallel with the wheel motif, depiction of boats, in pictures and
models, again starts from the Neolithic, mainly in coastal regions.
The wheel motif is used, mainly as a pendant, during all of the central Euro-
pean Bronze Age (see also Fig. 1), as is the boat motif in the Aegean region. To
possess wheels or a boat was important for making connections and ensuring
ease of travel but it was also the physical medium of transport. This applied not
only to people but also to the gods: to transport the sun, for instance, or to
travel to the underworld.
The lightweight fast war/race chariot then symbolized the Bronze Age male
elite in Egypt, Mycenae, the Near East, the Hittite kingdom, and even China.
All were part of one global koine with its roots in Indo-European movements of
the 4th millennium B.C.
The wheel, which, even today, is a very important symbol, was not a Near
Eastern invention but has an Indo-European origin. It was rapidly adopted
by the entire civilization of the 4th millennium B.C. To have “wheels” means
to be able to move far and fast, with some degree of comfort. Here, of course,
we mean radial wheels as the miniatures show. Solid, heavy, timber wheels
symbolize the slow life but these light wheels, made by master wheelwrights,
able to bend the wood with great accuracy, must surely belong to the elite. As
the gods can move a world which is cyclic, elite men can run on “quick wheels”
(Anthony 2007, p. 65–73).
The wheel and boat belong to a Bronze Age symbolism which was not con-
nected to one particular socio-economic or religious context but reflected prior
connections and relationships between Old-World populations.
While the wheel is dominant inland, the boat takes over in the regions
where most transport was seaborne.
This symbol is, paradoxically, generally ignored by scholars dealing with
symbols of the Aegean even though astronomical observation was vital for
calendrical and navigational purposes. The star appears early in the Aegean, on
Cycladic ’frying pans’ (Fig. 26), and is present on artifacts connected with the
Western Eneolithic (mainly Bell beaker cultures). Later, in LM III larnakes, stars
are a frequent motif (Fig. 27). There is also a mould, for the production of
bronze discs in the shape of a star, which was found in Palaikastro in Crete and
was interpreted as part of a navigational and calendrical device (Tsikritsis et
al. 2013). A similar interpretation could also be applied to the frying pans of
the Cycladic culture (Tsikritsis et al. 2015). Such motifs also appear along the
Fig. 26. Cycladic ceramic ‘frying pan’
of EBA-II. After M. Tsikritsis et al.
(2015, p. 142, Fig. 7)
Fig. 27. Ceramic larnax of LM-IIA period.
After N. Marinatos (2010, p. 141)
west European Atlantic coasts. They are part of Hittite iconography. The stars
and their constellations received gods’ and heroes’ names. Observation of the
stars in the sky was indeed the main tool for calendar making and for naviga-
tion; to read sky and stars meant to understand time and space. The star motif
is not very common in central Europe but it does appear, mainly on axes of the
Middle Bronze Age. If we accept that the axe was a symbol of solar deities,
a similar approach can be taken to decorative patterns using the form of a star,
although axes can also be decorated with spirals and whorls.
Motifs of birds have frequently been
discussed in earlier bibliography (e.g. Bo-
uzek 2007). These are probably the motifs
which typify the Late Bronze Age and Hall-
statt period. They are usually connected
with the tradition of Apollo Boreas (Bouzek
2007; Klontza-Jaklová 2011) but they were
not unknown to the palatial elites. Their
depiction is common in palatial culture
from the Neopalatial period (MMII-LMIA)
on the Cycladic islands, most commonly
on Thera (Fig. 28), and during LM IIIA/B,
on larnakes from Crete or the mainland,
and also on palatial frescoes (Klontza-Jak-
lová 2012). They survive deep into the Iron
Age, both in the Aegean and in central Eu-
rope, mainly in Urnfield culture regions
(Harding 2000, p. 322). Their connection
with celestial deities seems to be obvious.
They are also depicted on Aegean Late
Bronze Age and Iron Age pottery (Fig. 29).
In general the bird is the symbol of connec-
tion between sky and earth. It is a symbol
connecting the Bronze Age with the Iron
Age, despite the significant disruption and
discontinuity between the two.
Combinations of motifs
As has been stated above, the motifs
presented were used as single symbols but
also, and maybe more often, at least in the
Fig. 28. LM-IA Cycladic painted jug
with bird from Melos, Greece.
Illustration by author, after National
Archaeological Museum at Athens
exemplar, cat. No. 5762
Fig. 29. Early Geometric pithos from
Knossos, Crete, Greece.
After J.N. Coldstream et al.
(2001, p. 26, Fig. 1.2c)
Aegean, in combination with other symbols, e.g. different plants, bovid and
sun symbols, etc. Such combinations are also common in central Europe. The
large pendants are usually composed of many different motifs (see also Fig. 21).
It is possible to infer that this type of pendant could be connected to time
schedules or calendars. It can be not only a jewel, a status symbol, but also
a device. The only beings deemed capable of controlling time were gods, mean-
ing that those who could count time and predict calendrical events could lay
a claim to be part of the divine world. The elite would thus undoubtedly be the
holders of any items which could be used for or associated with such activities
(Kruta 2015, p. 29–31).
Discussion and conclusions
It would be flying in the face of probability today to present the use of these
motifs during the Bronze Age as random. They were used over a very wide area
and surely bear cosmological connotations. Some of the similarities in their use
have already been pointed out, from G. Childe (1929) to Kristiansen and Lars-
son (2005) and others. Their choice and their combinations are also part of one
logical, meaningful system which was understandable to all European popula-
tions, to the Near Eastern peoples, the Egyptians and those even farther afield.
What similarities can we observe? All the symbols mentioned:
• areclearlyconnectedwithelitematerialculture;
• areconnectedwithcyclesintime;movementintime,lifeanddeath,re-
birth, eternity;
• arerelatedtothecharacteristicsoftimeandspaceandtheirunderstanding;
• arenotaddressedtoelitesonly,thesearenotsymbolsoftaboobutsym-
bols of exceptionality, they must, therefore, be visible and comprehensi-
ble to the less-privileged part of the society as well;
• are analogous but not identical in all Bronze Age regions; each region
made its own choice of the sets and combinations of symbols and their
particular use.
Let us now turn to a question, which probably should have been asked in
the beginning but can be answered here: are these motifs real symbols of some-
thing? It is difficult to answer this question without subjective bias. They are
symbols because the contexts and manner in which they are used appear simi-
lar, deliberately chosen and widespread. This means that they could have been
widely comprehended, especially in a period of transcontinental and overseas
(we mean the Mediterranean Sea and East Atlantic here) contact. We can also
say that the Bronze Age was a period when symbolic language was developed
more than ever before. Symbols are a part of language. We should apply the
same principals we use to study spoken and written languages, to the language
of symbols. It is possible that it was only during the Bronze Age that they be-
came elevated into the form of an international language. It became possible to
place strangers across the known world within their social categories; even if
the visitor did not know their spoken languages, the hosts knew how to honor
him. Signs in the landscape, monuments, graves, signs and engravings on the
rocks made traversing the land possible for anybody.
What do the Bronze Age symbols say? Because they are connected with the
elite within society, they can be interpreted as part of the legitimization process
whereby elite individuals, clans, families and dynasties assert their right to, and
are accepted as competent and predetermined to, control time and space. They
say what will happen at each time of the year, they know how to and where to
go, they can move quickly and they receive their knowledge from the gods.
They can thus move between different dimensions of the world and if they so
desire, can even stop life. One who understands, uses and accepts those sym-
bols is “our” man and should be approached as such.
It should be underlined that, on the whole, this symbolic set disintegrated
with the Bronze Age collapse. Some of the symbols in some regions survived,
mainly in central Europe, where they appear again in Iron Age and, mainly
later on, in Celtic iconography. It is much more complicated in the Aegean,
both in Crete and on the Greek mainland. The Bronze Age collapse in the Ae-
gean brought about an almost total disruption of the elite level of the society
but those who were at the base level of society survived, continued their lives
and used only those items from the previous symbolic system which were eas-
ily adapted and could prove appropriate to their own day to day existence. In
the regions where continuity was more the norm, continuity in symbols is also
more detectable (e.g. Egypt, the Near East, Aegean islands, Lusatian Urnfield
cultures). Some residues of Bronze Age symbols can be traced among the Celts
or German tribes.
In conclusion I would say that we are very often afraid to engage with the
ideas espoused by past societies and become overly concerned with the material.
However, as mentioned above, symbols were and remain a part of language.
We, like they, understand them and can use them. They are part of our abstract
way of thinking. Our ability to understand them develops alongside spoken and
written communication. Even if we do not understand language, we will under-
stand symbols, worldwide. We understand who is “one of us” when they can
read our symbols. Even in Chinese museums you will understand if you can
photograph or not; everybody knows the meaning of an arrow, a red cross, etc.;
you can find a toilet anywhere in ’our’ world. Do not forget that, during the
Bronze Age, many of the peoples of Europe could still easily understand each
other. It was mainly the Carpathian Europeans who could understand Mycenae-
ans or Hittites, but most could not understand Minoans or Egyptians, who were
speaking Hamito-Semitic languages. Although the languages were different, it
seems that they could, nonetheless, begin to make contact by first reading sym-
bols. Maybe the abstract way of thinking is common to all humans, or its dif-
ferentiation is slower than that of spoken languages.
The Bronze Age world was not only material; regions connected by raw ma-
terials and trade in them. The world was full of ideas and senses. We should
look for them, although their imprint in material culture is very misty, other-
wise the picture of past societies reconstructed by us will be never complete (in
the sense of covering all spheres of human existence). Let us accept that the
symbolism that crosses boundaries may be a key to understanding how objects are
understood and used (Robb 1998, p. 341).
We must also remember that we still live within a world system (Kristian-
sen, Larsson 2005), in a global network (Knappett 2013, p. 5) which it is pos-
sible (and necessary) to study on different levels but where everything is some-
how connected with everything in an infinite number and variety of interactions;
that the world, even during the Bronze Age, when the majority of the world
population was confined within villages, where the material world was very
small in comparison to ours, was pervious to information, influences, inspira-
tion etc. We should keep in the mind that:
The chariot driving Shang Lings of China and the Mycenaean princ-
es of Greece, contemporaries at opposite ends of the ancient world
about 1500 BCE, shared a common technological debt to the LBA
herders of the Eurasian steppes.
D.W. Anthony (2007, p. 437)
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