Late Bronze Age Eastern Mediterranean Civilizations: Internationalism, Prestige and Societies

Caroline Sauvage, Visiting Assistant Professor, ISAW

By focusing on the exchange of the so-called prestige goods, and the use of internationally shared symbols during the Late Bronze Age eastern Mediterranean, this paper will address the social organization of the period and the underpinning mechanisms of ideological and political control. The major powers of the time (Egypt, Hatti, Mitanni, and Babylon) had intense relationships marked by a frequent exchange of official letters not only between the major players, but also between them and their vassals. The level of exchange is especially visible in the archaeological records, through the frequency and wide distribution of specific artefacts such as pottery, and also through prestige objects such as ivory, gold and faience. Beside the large Empires, participating states included Cyprus, the Aegean, and the city-states of the Levantine coast. During this age of international exchange of goods, ideas, and men, concrete strategies for foreign or exotic good acquisition were essential and contributed to the status of the initiated state.

Prestige goods, beside being part of the diplomatic language, comprised one of the chief motivations for international exchanges, and were a unifying element as attested by the development of the so-called international style within the eastern Mediterranean. Therefore, this wide area has been sometimes studied as a single entity, without considering the specificities of its different constitutive regions. If such a view is necessary for our understanding of trade and exchange mechanisms within an international frame, it should only be considered as the first step of the analysis. Indeed, such an approach has a tendency to draw a homogenizing picture of the area, somehow assuming that international contacts entailed some kind of social uniformity, at least for the elites consuming the same types of prestigious goods. Therefore when only conducting a “generic” approach, our modern perception of the societies and our interpretation of artefacts may easily be biased and homogenized, because for instance it is a common knowledge that the same type of objects could individually carry different level of meaning, according to its social and geographical distribution.

Beyond the “prestige” association that can be attributed to internationally exchanged precious goods, a more subtle refinement can be obtain for each region, depending on the object’s contexts of use and consumption. Attempts to differentiate how a specific object was viewed, appreciated and used are especially possible for certain widely distributed artefacts, and require the consideration of all the available data, from texts to archaeological objects, and the questioning of whether distribution patterns and regional characteristics appear by reviewing evidence of the context, uses of the object or associated symbol, and the social status of their owners. Through the use of specific examples such as light two-wheeled chariots and seafaring ships, this paper will demonstrate that such an approach, when applied to objects and / or symbols of internationally shared interests, reveals intrinsic social mechanisms of elite groups, and has the potential to shed new light on our interpretation of the society and of the organization of trade and long distance exchange.

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