Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.06.18

Joseph W. Shaw, Maria C. Shaw, Kommos IV: The Greek Sanctuary. Part 1: Text; Part 2: Plates.   Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 2000.  Pp. xvi, 813; pls. 430, foldouts 6, tables 63.  ISBN 0-691-05080-5.  $195.00.  

Contributors: P.J. Anderson; M. Bikai; P.J. Callaghan; E. Csapo; M.K. Dabney; D. Geagan; D.K. Harlan; J.W. Hayes; A.W. Johnston; R.E. Jones; D.S. Reese; J.E. Rehder; M.J. Rose; D. Ruscillo; K.A. Schwab; M.C. Shaw; J.W. Shaw; C.T. Shay; J.M. Shay; N.J. Skon-Jedele; A.S. Walker

Reviewed by Donald C. Haggis, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (
Word count: 2081 words

This volume of the University of Toronto's excavation at Kommos in south-central Crete, the fourth in the series, presents the architecture, stratigraphy, and finds from the Greek sanctuary. Excavated from 1977 to 1986, the Greek Sanctuary is a complex of temples, altars and associated buildings and installations of Early Iron Age, Archaic, Classical, Hellenistic and Roman date. It is situated at the foot of the site's central hillside, down-slope of the Minoan town and partially overlying Minoan palatial buildings T and N and the Mycenaean building P. While comparable in scope, detail, and production quality to previous Kommos volumes--which document environment and settlement patterns, the architecture and stratigraphy of the Minoan town, and the Minoan pottery deposits--Kommos IV is something different. It shifts the focus away from the Bronze Age, concentrating on the description and interpretation of post-Minoan remains. Not since the excavation of the open-air sanctuary of Hermes and Aphrodite at Kato Syme, has there been a systematic exploration of an Early Iron Age and Archaic Cretan cult site.1 Furthermore, there are few final publications of excavations in Crete or the Aegean for that matter that have matched the detail, thoroughness, and quality of these Kommos reports.

If the importance of Kato Syme Biannou is the evidence for continuity of cult from the Bronze Age to the Roman period, the significance of the Kommos sanctuary may ultimately lie in its evidence for discontinuities and changes in the form of the sanctuary and perhaps the structure of the cult through time. A sequence of temples spanning the Protogeometric through Archaic periods occupied the west end of the open sanctuary that was abandoned during the early sixth century, rebuilt a half-century later, abandoned again for the course of the fifth and early fourth centuries, only to be rebuilt in late Classical and Hellenistic times, surviving with only a brief hiatus into the Roman Imperial period. These periodic abandonments were accompanied by changes in architectural features, cult equipment, and contexts of ritual, suggesting not only interesting cultural and sociopolitical changes, but also elucidating the patterns of cult activity in post-Minoan Crete.

Post-Bronze Age Crete, aptly called "post-Minoan" by a growing numbers of archaeologists and historians, is still considered a neglected field. Whether the result of a conspiracy of ancient historiography or the vagaries of modern excavation, the Geometric, Archaic, Classical, and Hellenistic periods have been overshadowed by their Minoan predecessors and are only now taking a central place in the archaeological discourse--a century after the first large scale excavations on the island at Knossos. Recent conferences and collections of papers,2 comprehensive surveys of the material culture,3 and problem-oriented works on cult,4 ceramic systems,5 and diachronic settlement patterns,6 permit us to begin shaping a picture of this complex landscape. Furthermore recent surveys at Praisos, Gournia, and Vrokastro, and excavation at sites such as Itanos, Eleftherna, and Azoria are providing significant new data. It is in the context of this rapidly growing area of Cretan archaeology that this most recent volume in the Kommos series is an especially welcome and important contribution.

Kommos IV, monumental in size, is necessarily split into two separate parts (and fascicles), one of text and the other of plates. The plates (705 photographs and 214 line illustrations) include the extraordinary site and building plans and phase and section drawings of Giuliana Bianco, which are beautifully reproduced by PUP. The text part is organized in eight chapters. The first chapter, authored by the director, Joseph Shaw, is rather narrowly titled "The Architecture of the Temples and Other Buildings" but is actually an introduction to the volume, a synopsis of the history and process of excavation, discussion of stratigraphy, and a concise and detailed description of the sequences of building and changes in the form of the sanctuary through time. While one surely needs to have open the plates volume (Part 2) to follow Shaw's excellent verbal description, early on in the chapter he graciously offers the reader Table 1.1 (2), which is a very useful chronological chart for the buildings and main features in the sanctuary. This chapter also includes appendices on conservation (J.W. Shaw) and ironworking in the sanctuary (J.E. Rehder). Ironworking is an important aspect of Late Geometric and Orientalizing sanctuaries, which Shaw rightly emphasizes in the context of his discussion of seventh-century Building V and the adjacent smelting furnace (29). Although he is reticent to elaborate on the ritual or social significance of ironworking in the sanctuary, the Kommos evidence should now provide a very interesting Cretan parallel to the practice at a number of mainland sites including most recently Mazarakis-Ainian's excavations at Oropos.

Chapter 2, on the inscriptions on pottery and stones (E. Csapo, D. Geagan, A.W. Johnston), is a fascinating foray into the sociopolitical context of commercial, proprietary, and dedicatory inscriptions and graffiti (and the origins of the alphabet!), mainly associated with Temple B of the Late Geometric-Archaic periods. (There is one tenth- or early ninth-century Phoenician or Cypriot character, inscribed after firing on a Levantine storage jar). Kommos, as an obvious venue of early Cretan and Phoenician commercial and ritual contact should be an important crossroads site for examining the process of alphabet adoption and adaptation. There is perhaps too little evidence in the Kommos assemblage to speculate broadly on the nature of early Cretan literacy. 7 The Classical to Roman inscriptions show a proportionate decrease in the commercial category, suggesting to Csapo and Geagan changes in the character of the sanctuary and in the extent of extra-island contacts following the hiatus separating the Archaic and Classical phases.

This change between the Geometric-Archaic periods of Temples A and B and the Classical-Hellenistic phases of Temple C is brought again to the forefront in Maria Shaw's discussion of the votive figurines (chapter 3). This careful and sensitive treatment of sculpture emphasizes an important if subtle change in ritual behavior: in the early temples (A and B), rituals (and votive placement) were largely, but not completely internalized, brought into the buildings, while the principal ritual foci were the internal hearth altars and perhaps benches. Personal dedications dominate these assemblages: horses, chariots and symbols of the elite identity of a warrior class; there is an emphasis on death and rejuvenation, and perhaps personal protection (173-174). With the construction of Temple C in the fourth century, the placement of figurines (now no longer including horses) moves outside the temple and onto the open-air altars where the emphasis is clearly on a public cult, if not egalitarian sacrificial ritual (175). The abandonment of Temple B, ca. 600 and the construction of Altar H in second half of the sixth century become contextual and chronological focal points of this shift in ritual practice, perhaps changing the character of the sanctuary overall. Shaw picks up this important point again (711) in his concluding Chapter 8 on "Ritual and Development in the Greek Sanctuary."

Chapter 4, "The Iron Age Pottery form Kommos," presents the Greek, Phoenician, and Roman pottery deposits (P.J. Callaghan, A.W. Johnston, P.M. Bikai, J.W. Hayes, and R.E. Jones). There are several important contributions made by this pottery study, not least of which is the presentation of an Early Iron Age-Archaic stratigraphic sequence, which provides a significant complement to the Iron Age deposits from Knossos and the continuous stratigraphy from the Kastro at Kavousi.8 The Phoenician pottery is, of course, one of the extraordinary finds from this sanctuary. Initially identified by Peter Callaghan and studied and published here by Patricia Bikai, the Phoenician transport amphorae and other imports represent the best and earliest evidence to date of unequivocal contacts between the Phoenicians and Crete (late tenth/early ninth century). The contexts at Kommos however--Building Z, various dumps associated with the temples, and Temples A and B--suggest not merely down-the-line trade, but the actual presence of Phoenician traders if not occupants. The construction of a Phoenician/Punic tripillar-type shrine within Temple A, phase 2 (and in use through the construction of Temple B, phase 1)--coinciding with a peak in the volume of Phoenician imports--is strong evidence for a point of cultural contact (21). This nexus of ritual, social, and economic activity in the context of the Phoenician tripillar shrine in a Greek sanctuary on the south coast of Crete invites revisiting of the question of the functions and origins of Cretan hearth and bench temples. Indeed this is a question already vividly addressed by Jane Carter in her analysis of Temples A and B at Prinias, and more generally by Sarah Morris.9 While Shaw's original article on the Kommos Tripillar Shrine10 rekindled the interest in Crete as a transshipment point in the eastern Mediterranean, and important vehicle for Phoenician trade,11 Kommos IV will surely continue to encourage this important trend in scholarship.

Also of interest in the pottery chapter is Callaghan and Johnston's publication of the latest material from Temple B (ca. 600) and the pottery from Building F (latter half of the sixth century). The floor deposit from F is evidently the earliest known material "postdating the mysterious gap in Cretan cultural history during the sixth century B.C." (250) While recent excavations of Archaic levels at Azoria in east Crete12 will decisively close this early sixth-century gap, the Kommos sequence emphasizes a significant discontinuity associated with the restructuring of the sanctuary and ritual activities (693).

Chapter 5, on "Miscellaneous Finds," deals with glass (J.W. Hayes); coins (A.S. Walker); jewelry (M.K. Dabney); scarabs (N.J. Skon-Jedele and M.K. Dabney); loom weights and spindle whorls (M.K. Dabney); sanctuary furnishings, such as basins, altars, bases, and tabletops (J. Shaw); metal tools and weapons (J. Shaw and D.K. Harlan); nails and stone implements (J. Shaw); bronze, lead, and faience (K.A. Schwab); astragaloi, ostrich eggshell, and fossils (D.S. Reese); and a human scull (P.J. Anderson). There are throughout this chapter fascinating links between the finds from the Kommos sanctuary and contemporary assemblages around the Aegean and Mediterranean. One striking example is Katherine Schwab's discussion of lead plummets or line weights (391) which she links to similar offerings at Emporio, and Archaic-period dedications to Pan, the nymphs, and Hermes.

Chapter 6 on the fauna assemblage (D.S. Reese, M.J. Rose, and D. Ruscillo) is a dense 232 pages in length, the longest in the book, providing the background for J. Shaw's discussion of patterns of animal sacrifice in the concluding chapter 8 (682-690). Chapter 7 on the flora is an excellent assessment of the plant remains (C.T. Shay, and J.M. Shay), unfortunately a much too small assemblage.

Joseph Shaw's conclusions in Chapter 8 form an important contribution to Cretan archaeology. The sequence of buildings in the sanctuary is related to changing patterns of cult activity, evidence for animal sacrifice, offerings and dedicatory behavior, while the various architectural features and temple forms are contextualized in a condensed history of Cretan temple architecture, with discussion of temple orientation, the function of internal and external hearths and hearth altars, and the array of known Iron Age temple types. Drawing widely on literary sources and a variety of Cretan buildings, Shaw takes the reader head on into the problems of the political functions of Cretan temples, the social organization of the participating corporate groups at Kommos. While the texts emphasize commensality and the blending of civic and cultic ceremony, Shaw, following Athenaeus (4.143), draws a careful distinction between temples, andreia, or "men's dining halls," and prytaneia (687-688). The strict formal division of secular-civic and cultic aspects of public dining has been critically addressed most recently by Lena Sjögren,13 who is less willing than Shaw to draw such formal distinctions. The problem will certainly become an important aspect of future discussion of early Cretan cult buildings.

Shaw's chapter left this reader wondering about the origins and longevity of Cretan temple types, the ethnic and sociopolitical make-up of the Kommos community, and indeed the processes involved in the various changes in the sanctuary throughout its extraordinary history. Another problem is the crucial transition in Cretan political history--the sixth century B.C., the axiomatic "period of silence." At Kommos, about 550 B.C., a new type of altar appears in the center of the sanctuary, and a new building with drinking and food preparation equipment appears at its far northeastern edge (disappearing into the eastern scarp of sand), important changes that in fact anticipate the future ritual and architectural history of the site. These changes might leave the reader questioning how and why the sanctuary was rebuilt, who rebuilt it, whether it was rural or urban, and indeed how large and of what type the associated settlement might have been.


1.   Although Watrous's recent monograph on the Dictaean Cave is an excellent reexamination and contextualization of material from Psychro and other rural cult sites. See L.V. Watrous, The Cave Sanctuary of Zeus at Psychro: A Study of Extra-Urban Sanctuaries in Minoan and Early Iron Age Crete (Aegaeum 15) (Liège 1996).
2.   G.W. Cavanagh, M Curtis, J.N. Coldstream, and A.W. Johnston, eds., Post-Minoan Crete (BSA Studies 2) (London 1998); A. Chaniotis, ed., The Cretan Economy (Stuttgart 1999).
3.   L. Sjögren, Sites, Settlements and Early Poleis on Crete (800-500 BC) (Stockholm 2001); Ian Morris, "Archaeology and Archaic Greek History," in N. Fisher and H. Van Wees, eds., Archaic Greece: New Approaches and New Evidence (Swansea 1998) 1-92.
4.   M. Prent, "Glories of the Past in the Past: Ritual Activities at Palatial Ruins in Early Iron Age Crete," in R.M. Van Dyke and S.E. Alcock, eds., Archaeologies of Memory (Oxford 2003) 81-103.
5.   B.L. Erickson, "Aphrati and Kato Syme: Pottery, Continuity, and Cult in Late Archaic and Classical Crete," Hesperia 71 (2002) 41-90.
6.   B.J. Hayden, "Rural Settlement of the Orientalizing through Early Classical Period: The Meseleroi Valley, Eastern Crete," Aegean Archaeology 2 (1997) 93-144.
7.   J. Whitley, "Literacy and Lawmaking: The Case of Archaic Crete," in Fisher, N. and H. Van Wees, eds., Archaic Greece: New Approaches and New Evidence (Swansea 1998) 311-332.
8.   W.D.E. Coulson, D.C. Haggis, M.S. Mook, and J. Tobin, "Excavations on the Kastro at Kavousi: An Architectural Overview," Hesperia 66 (1997) 315-390.
9.   J.B. Carter, "Thiasos and Marzeah: Ancestor Cult in the Age of Homer," in S. Langdon, ed.,New Light on a Dark Age. Exploring the Culture of Geometric Greece (Columbia 1997) 72-112; S. Morris, Daidalos and the Origins of Greek Art (Princeton 1992) 155.
10.   J.W. Shaw, "Phoenicians in Southern Crete," AJA 93 (1989) 164-83.
11.   E.g, O. Negbi, "Early Phoenician Presence in the Mediterranean Islands: A Reappraisal," AJA 96 (1992) 599-615.
12.   D.C. Haggis and M.S. Mook, "Azoria Excavations Provide Clues to Organization, History of Early Cretan Polis," Akoue 49 (2003) 3, 14.
13.   Sjögren (supra n. 3) 86-91.

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