Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2001.01.11

Louise A. Hitchcock, Minoan Architecture. A Contextual Analysis.   Jonsered:  Paul Aströms Förlag, 2000.  Pp. 233.  ISBN 91-7081-192-X.  $39.70.  

Reviewed by Helène Whittaker, University of Tromso (
Word count: 2984 words

Minoan Architecture. A Contextual Approach is concerned with establishing the social meaning and function of certain architectural features commonly found in Minoan monumental architecture, that is, in the palaces and palatial villas, in the Neopalatial period. In the introduction Hitchcock provides a discussion of her methods and aims as well as of the theoretical concepts underlying her study. The purpose of the first chapter is to analyse the discursive practices in Aegean archaeology and to show how these affect the interpretation of material culture. The main part of the book comprises a discussion of various architectural features. Courts and entranceways are discussed in Chapter Two, storage areas and workshop spaces in Chapter Three, and halls in Chapter Four. In a final chapter Hitchcock summarises her methods and conclusions.

Hitchcock describes her approach as post-processual or contextual, by which she means that she wishes to emphasise the context of the various architectural features in relation to the larger architectural structure within which they occur and not in isolation or through comparisons with similar features found elsewhere. She does not, however, reject previously established and generally accepted architectural categories; on the contrary, her study is based on the assumption that terms such as Lustral Basin or West Court are meaningful in that they correspond to recognisable architectural features or room types. Rather, the aim of her study is to demonstrate that Minoan room types do not necessarily have a single fixed function and that a room's function also depends on its particular architectural context. Moreover, in order to understand the meaning and function of an architectural feature the artefacts found with it must also be taken into consideration. This must imply that contextual evidence for the use of a certain room type at one site is of limited value in determining its use at another site. A further premise of the work is that various aspects of Minoan civilisation should be examined in the context of the Near East. This point is only briefly touched upon in the Introduction but is more explicitly stated in Chapter Two.

A major concern of Hitchcock's study is to demonstrate how various assumptions, which she believes have not always been adequately examined, continue to inform our understanding of Minoan civilisation. In line with post-processual thinking, which recognises that the individual scholar must also be situated within his or her proper context in order for his or her work to be fully evaluated, Hitchcock affirms that the interpretation of Aegean material culture is contingent on the identity and social milieu of the archaeologist. She then examines the history of the interpretive methods used in Aegean archaeology through a review of the publication history of the palatial sites Knossos, Phaistos, Mallia, Kato Zakro, and Gournia, which form the basis of her study, concentrating on the merits and limitations of the publications with regard to the type of study she has undertaken. In particular she emphasises the interpretive problems at Knossos posed by the manner of publication as well as by the reconstructions undertaken by Evans in order to preserve and consolidate the remains. Part of her aim in the first chapter is to demonstrate the pervasive influence of Evans and how his interpretations at Knossos have influenced the understanding of the evidence at other sites, thereby hindering independent interpretation of the archaeological remains. She argues that the influence of Evans continues to inform subsequent discussions through analogies and comparisons with Knossos as the norm. That Evans' influence is not limited to Minoan archaeology is illustrated by a discussion of its effect on Blegen's interpretations at Pylos. Hitchcock also emphasises the constraining effect of the terminology formulated by Evans, which continues to define Minoan civilisation. The chapter ends with a critical review of recent approaches to the interpretation of Minoan architecture.

West Courts, Central Courts, and various external and internal courts are discussed separately and in turn in Chapter Two. Although Hitchcock does not follow precisely the same pattern in each chapter, her discussion of palatial courts provides a fair example of her method. She commences with a brief overview of the occurrence of west courts, the presence of koulouras and causeways, as well as changes between the Old and New Palaces. Hitchcock then shifts her emphasis to the architectural features which she has chosen as contextual evidence for the function and meaning of West Courts: the so-called Theatral Areas, public cult places within the palaces, and main entrances into the palaces.

Having examined the architectural and contextual variations of the West Courts, Hitchcock attempts to provide some explanation. As she states most clearly in her concluding chapter, a basic assumption of her study is that architectural variation is not incidental but can be linked to the different social practices, symbolic meanings and economic functions associated with Minoan palaces and villas. She therefore hypothesises that architectural variations may reflect the performance of different rituals which were connected to the worship of different tutelary deities at each site. The existence of local tutelary deities in Minoan religion is inferred primarily from analogy with the Near East. Hitchcock also argues that religion was closely associated with the differing economic functions of the palaces as regional centres. She then attempts to identify the main deity at each of the palatial centres. She argues that at Knossos the iconographical prominence of the bull points to the worship of a male god, who can be seen as the Minoan equivalent of Zeus but who also has connections to Near Eastern weather gods. At Kato Zakro, various installations suggest the symbolic significance of water and may indicate the importance of a water deity.

The general impression one receives of her treatment of the West Courts is that it is very disjointed, consisting of more or less self-contained units. Instead of discussing the West Courts separately and stressing the contextual evidence for function and meaning at each palace, she has chosen to concentrate her discussion on certain features which she considers recurrent and therefore significant. These, however, are discussed in isolation and their relationship with each other and with the courts is not always made clear. Her interpretation of the ritual function and meaning of the West Courts is only very tangentially linked to the actual architectural evidence, and there is no attempt to demonstrate what the architectural variations mean in terms of structuring ritual activity. For instance, the Public Cult Spaces which have been identified at Mallia and Phaistos are discussed as contextual evidence. At Phaistos, however, the rooms in question play no role in evaluating the particular ritual function of the West Court, while at Mallia they are not directly connected with the West Court. The import of her discussion of the Theatral Areas at Knossos, Hagia Triada, Phaistos, Gournia, and Mallia is also difficult to comprehend. Hitchcock concludes that these areas may have been multi-functional but that their most interesting purpose was to view ceremonial activity of some kind. The Theatral Area at Knossos, however, faces away from the West Court, while the identification of similar features at Hagia Triada, Phaistos, Gournia, and Mallia is very uncertain. One might also comment here that the identification of possible Theatral Areas at these sites is based more on comparison with Knossos as the norm than on actual details of architecture and context. Although Hitchcock refers to recent studies in order to illustrate the existence of a trading network with different regions devoted to the production and/or exchange of different types of goods, she provides no supporting evidence or argument for the close ties between different ritual practices and the particular economic focus of the individual palaces.

Her discussion of the Central Courts also starts with a general overview, using Horns of Consecration, Tripartite Shrines, basins, and auges as contextual evidence for the function of the Central Courts. Similar objections can be raised here. For instance, the association of basins and auges with the Central Court is very weak. The auges she discusses have been found in the Villa at Makrygialos and in the northern part of the palace at Mallia; it is therefore difficult to see how they function as contextual evidence for the function and meaning of the Central Courts. Although an association between Central Courts and Horns of Consecration and Tripartite Shrines leads Hitchcock to suggest the possibility that the Central Courts may have been the location for the performance of sacred drama, she does not elaborate on this. Instead her discussion of the function of the Central Courts is largely limited to the question of whether Bull Games took place there or not. Her conclusion that the Central Courts functioned primarily in order to facilitate interaction between the various parts of the building is independent of her discussion of the contextual evidence and is the same as her starting point.

On the whole, the contextual evidence she has chosen to concentrate on is not reintegrated into the discussion of the meaning and function of the courts. Therefore, in accordance with her own definition that the function and meaning of a particular architectural feature is partially located in the artefacts and rooms found in association with it, one is justified in questioning whether this chapter can really be regarded as a contextual study of palatial courts.

The main concern in Chapter Three is the relationship of the practical, economic, and functional aspects of storage to social and symbolic meaning. In the first part of the chapter, Hitchcock discusses the various criteria which have been used for the identification of areas used for storage. Furthermore, she discusses problems in distinguishing between areas used for storage and those used for work. Her emphasis is on the accessibility of storage rooms and how different types of storage and work areas functioned in relationship to the rest of the building. Only the Magazine Block in the West Wing at Phaistos is discussed in any detail. Her review of finds indicating that various types of activity took place in these rooms as well as the possibility that they had windows, leads her to suggest that these rooms should be identified as workrooms rather than as storerooms.

In the second part of the chapter, Hitchcock focuses on the between ritual and storage. Drawing inspiration from Ian Hodder's book The Domestication of Europe, as well as from notions of la longue durée she affirms that storage is a gendered activity associated with female nourishment and productivity. Pillar rooms and the double axe, which are often associated with storage areas, are seen by Hitchcock as evidence for the ritual aspects of storage. She argues that the pillars are architectonic representations of stalagmites and stalagtites and that they represent female fertility. She further argues that the ritual symbolism connected with storage functions as a strategy and ideology for social domination, serving to institutionalise the dominance of male elites. In support of this hypothesis, she cites iconographic evidence for the male appropriation of female symbolism, such as the white skin of the Priest King in the Procession Fresco at Knossos and of the Palaikastro kouros as well as the yellow colour of the textiles worn by male figures in the Procession Fresco. I found the reasoning here hard to follow. For instance, the precise nature of the association between pillars and female fertility is obscure. Moreover, here the double-axe is associated with the female while in the previous chapter it was the attribute of a male weather god.

Halls are discussed in Chapter Four. Hitchcock's aim is to illustrate how contextual differences such as the relationship of halls to connected rooms, decorative details, and artefactual remains can affect the interpretation of the function of individual Minoan halls. She distinguishes between different types of halls based on formal characteristics: the polythyron, the Palaikastro hall, the benched hall, and the pillared hall. Lustral basins are also discussed in this chapter, although their relevance is not completely clear since she disagrees with the idea that they had any close connection with the polythyron, as has sometimes been maintained. Hitchcock does not provide any definition of what constitutes a hall: she accepts as a general description of their function that they were used as gathering places. She argues, however, that the contextual associations are variable and indicate a variety of uses. For instance, she remarks that at Hagia Triada, Mallia, and Kato Zakro, the proximity of archive rooms suggests a close connection with the adminstrative function of the palace. At Mallia, she compares the polythyron to a modern conference room or recreation room, used by the elite for ritual, ceremonial, and administrative purposes. Hitchcock emphasises accessibility as well as the opportunities for the manipulation of space provided by the system of doorways of the polythyron. For instance, she notes that while in House C at Tylissos and perhaps at Mallia inaccessibility seems to have been deliberately sought, this is not a fixed characteristic, as the polythyron can also function as a monumental entrance, as at Nirou Chani.

I confess to finding this book somewhat hard going. As will be apparent from what I have said above, I found it incoherent and lacking a firm organising principle. There are also many digressions which can easily cause the reader to lose track of the argument. Hitchcock's intended approach -- relating the function and meaning of individual rooms to their particular architectural and artefactual contexts -- is admirable, but it can hardly be considered particularly new, and the results are disappointing. I am not sure that this study significantly increases our understanding of Minoan palatial architecture.

Hitchcock comments that much of what has been written on Minoan civilisation seems based on assumption, speculation and fantasy. Yet her own references to the Minoan palaces as regional centres, public structures, and centres for the celebration and expression of communal values reflect assumptions which are not examined; the same may be said of her interpretations based on the economic and religious aspects of the palaces. Furthermore, although I find the effort to determine the ritual particularities of the individual palace centres laudable, much of her own argument for the religious aspects of palatial architecture can be regarded as fanciful reconstruction. In her discussion of the West Courts, Hitchcock herself admits that her interpretations may seem speculative, and I suspect many will agree and remain unconvinced. Moreover, not all of her ideas and interpretations seem to have been sufficiently well thought out. For instance, she suggests at one point that Phaistos may have had a ceremonial rather than economic or administrative function and, referring to an article by Jeffrey Soles on Knossos as a cosmological centre, is inclined to believe that this might be true of Knossos as well. I am uncertain how this accords with her interpretation of the regional and economic importance of the palatial centres in Chapter Two.

In her discussion of the Priest King Fresco from Knossos, Hitchcock criticises the traditional archaeological approach for using evidence which is fragmentary and ambiguous to legitimise presentist cultural norms that are male, patriarchal, and heterosexual, and arbitrarily centred on the fixed categories of male and female. I am not completely convinced that this has been demonstrated by Hitchcock's review of the suggested restorations of this fresco. I am unfamiliar with the textual evidence from Mesopotamia and Egypt to which she alludes but does not provide a reference, but I find the fact that Hatshepsut had herself portrayed as a male ruler rather doubtful evidence for the sanctioned role of sexual ambiguity and multiple genders in Minoan Crete. Moreover, a male/female dichotomy underlies Hitchcock's interpretation of the ritual aspects of storage, and elsewhere she mentions that the opposition of male and female is expressed by the frescoes at Hagia Triada and Akrotiri. She also has no problems accepting the assumption that the division of labour in the prehistoric past was based on the fixed categories of male and female.

I found the continuous references to the presentist assumptions et sim. of other scholars irritating. Hitchcock's own idea that the elite at Mallia were in need of conference rooms might be seen as presentist and it jars somewhat with her advocacy of emphasising the difference of the past and letting it signify on its own terms. On the other hand, we are also told that the present/past dichotomy is modernist. Hitchcock's comparison of the "labyrinthine" approach to lustral basins with Christian mystical use of labyrinths can surely also be accused of grafting presentist ideas of religiosity onto the Minoan material. On several occasions she describes Minoan palatial architecture as labyrinthine which weakens her criticism of the use of similar terms like "complex", "asymmetrical", and "agglutinative" as simplistic and ahistorical. I also found several passages, such as her discussion on the possible existence of a hall with a cult statue in the East Wing at Knossos, somewhat opaque. This passage also left me in some doubt about what she means by the term aniconic, as did her reference elsewhere to aniconic images.

The book includes thirty-three illustrations. These are listed at the beginning of the book but are not referred to in the text. This is in general not a problem as the illustrations consist mainly of plans which are in alphabetical order by site. Illustration nr.30, entitled "Towards a Contextual Semiotics," however, is enigmatic and some explanation would have been appreciated . There is no plan of Tylissos House C although details of its layout are discussed in the text. Orientation is not always marked on the plans although the cardinal points are referred to in descriptions of buildings. There is no index. As a final comment, I do not see the point of referring to one's own term papers and typewritten conference reports. Papers which are not available to the interested reader because they are unpublished and not intended for publication should not have been included in the bibliography. Surely the relevant material could simply have been recycled.

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