Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2004.01.15

M. Cultraro, L'Anello di Minosse. Archeologia della Regalità nell'Egeo Minoico, Biblioteca di Archeologia, 31.   Milano:  Longanesi & C., 2001.  Pp. 441.  ISBN 88-304-1650-9.  EUR 39.25 (pb).  

Reviewed by Paul Rehak, University of Kansas (
Word count: 1933 words

This is a book about political power and its visual expression in the Aegean Bronze Age, particularly in Neopalatial Crete (ca. 1700/1650-1480 B.C.). Cultraro's intriguing title derives from Bacchylides' dithyramb XVII, which tells how, in a contest between Minos and Theseus, each sought a token of divine authority from his father, respectively Zeus and Poseidon. Fans of Mary Renault will recall her reworking of this story in The King Must Die (New York, 1958). There is, however, a second "ring of Minos," an enigmatic gold signet, reputedly found by a local Cretan in 1930 near the so-called Temple Tomb at Knossos, and published by Arthur Evans. This ring was reproduced in at least two slightly dissimilar gold copies by Émile Gilliéron père, before Evans gave the original to a priest, who reburied it. In 2000 (coincidentally the year of C's publication), the original gold ring resurfaced unexpectedly in the possession of the priest's family, and it has been presented to the Heraklion Museum, where it is now on display. Its authenticity has been the subject of ongoing debate for decades, with two respected scholars, Ingo Pini and Peter Warren, accepting it as real, while some others have continued to express reservations. Both rings of Minos, therefore, have become encumbered with layers of myth and reality. C's assessment of the power structures of Bronze Age Crete is likely to engender similar debate among scholars.

The problem of identifying the ruler or rulers of the great palaces like Knossos began almost a century ago when Evans argued the existence of "Minos" as a "priest-king," while at the same time noting the prominent depiction of women in Minoan art. The decipherment of Linear B in 1952 made it clear that Mycenaean society was dominated by the wanax (king) as the head of a hierarchical political system, but the decipherment did not elucidate the nature of the preceding Minoan rulers, nor does Linear A, the Minoan script. C. attempts to resolve the crux, first by applying theories of social complexity and state emergence to the earlier stages of Aegean culture, and second by using Near Eastern royal iconography and regalia to identify depictions of the Cretan rulers. Both methodologies are based on the underlying assumption that contacts between the Aegean and Near East were strong and nearly continuous. While few will argue with this basic assumption, there is a wide range of opinion on the nature and degree of these contacts. This volume appears in the Biblioteca di Archeologia series by Longanesi & Co, under the editorial direction of Mario Torelli. A wide range of subjects has already been covered, and these run the gamut from synthesis on ancient cultural and territorial groups (e.g., I Sardi; I Sannitti) to modern field methods (Archeologia della salvessa) and hot popular topics (M. Gimbutas, Il linguaggio della Dea). While aiming at a broad population of readers, and not just scholars, C's contribution to Bronze Age studies is nevertheless thoroughly researched, carefully presented, and up to date (references through 1999). As a member of the Italian School of Archaeology, C. has excavated at Poliochni on Lemnos, and published on the remains there of Early Bronze Age date.

After a short introduction, Ch. 1 outlines the processes of state formation (as stated by processual archaeologists like Timothy Earle). C. usefully gives examples of some of the ancient correlates of power, such as the skeptron of Agamemnon in the Iliad, and recapitulates Evan's construction of the legendary Minos as "priest-king" who derived his power directly from Zeus every nine years.

The subsequent chapters are arranged chronologically and geographically by culture in order to trace the development of social complexity. Ch. II, The Early and Middle Bronze Age in the Cyclades focuses on the early use of metals as a determining factor in the structure of early power relationships within communities. Ch. III: The Early Bronze Age on Crete, covers a somewhat broader period of time, starting with the Neolithic settlement of the island, but takes us down to the formation of the first palaces and states in the Middle Bronze Age (MM IA/B-II in pottery terms). Here, C. stresses the probable influence of Near Eastern state systems, which is also apparent from the development of systems of seal use and writing. On many points, C. is clearly correct in connecting these influences in architecture and seal use: the appearance of buildings with paneled facades and the appearance of direct object sealings at Palaikastro (reported at the AIA/APA Conference in 2004 by H. Sackett), Myrtos, and Tigani.

Ch. IV: The Archaeology of Minoan Sites, is mainly concerned with palaces and their relation to the surrounding communities from the Protopalatial through the Neopalatial periods, ending with the widespread destructions across Crete at the end of the LM I B pottery phase -- destructions which are also attested at "minoanized sites" in the Cyclades, Rhodes, and Miletos on the coast of Anatolia. The apparent cultural and political hegemony of Knossos through much of this period has been debated, most recently by J. Driessen and C. Macdonald in The Troubled Island (Liège/Austin, 1997). At issue is whether the LM I A pottery phase represents the peak of the Neopalatial period, with decline and insecurity in LM I B following the eruption of the Thera volcano (1550/30), or whether Knossian power continues unabated until the LM I B destructions (ca. 1480). These differing interpretations are important, since on them hinges the longstanding question about the date of the first arrival of Greek-speaking Mycenaeans on the island.

Ch. 5: Images of Power, turns to the specific architectural and artifactual representations of power and includes discussion of some of the cultural practices promoted by the Knossos palace during the Neopalatial era, most notably bull-sports and bull-leaping. Bulls, for example, feature prominently as painted decoration -- some in plaster relief -- at the major entrances and exits of the palace, on sealstones, and on clay sealings attached to documents and disseminated to a number of sites, not only on Crete but now also Akrotiri on Thera. Other palatial themes include men and women carrying objects in processions (including the double-ax), and speeding chariots (which were rendered in more schematic form on some of the shaft-grave stelai at Mycenae on the mainland). However, whether these dominant images translate into political or religious authority or economic hegemony emanating from Knossos as reflections of the supposed "thalassocracy of Minos" remains uncertain.

Ch. VI, Celestial Kingship and Political Power, proposes that Minoan kingship was theocratic, along the lines of contemporary systems in the Near East. A concluding chapter, VII: The Wedding of Minos and Paria (a mythical nymph), returns to the issue of Minoan influence on the Cyclades during the Late Bronze Age.

Many of the surviving "power images," however, present problems of interpretation: the date of the famous gypsum throne in the Knossos palace is not known, and, ever since it was excavated by Evans, scholars have debated whether a female or a male ruler sat there (Evans himself eventually opted for a woman). Women are shown enthroned in Aegean art; men almost never. The "Master Impression" from Khania shows an over-life-sized man atop a city landscape (Khania itself?), holding a scepter in his extended right hand. But at Knossos a woman in the same pose appears on top of a mountain flanked by lions with a male votary to one side. If the "Master" is a ruler, then who is the woman?

Similarly, men, women and even blue monkeys wield swords in Aegean art, and thus I am uncomfortable identifying the sword by itself as part of the defining regalia of the ruler. The same is true of the ornamental stone maces or scepters held by some robed men on seals. These are clearly symbols of status and authority, but there are too many of them for each to be a royal ensign of an individual ruler (2 more have been found recently at Ayia Triada, published by V. La Rosa in ASAtene 70-71 [n.s. 54-55] 1992-93 [1998] 124-74, esp. 140, 154). Moreover, they are too small to have been used as sacrificial implements for stunning animal victims. Some reference to G. Clark, Symbols of Excellence (Cambridge 1986) would have been useful in this section.

The fenestrated or "billed" ax with a curved blade, another implement of Near Eastern origin, is likewise problematic. On one Minoan sealstone a robed figure carries such an ax, and an actual example was discovered in the Vapheio tholos on the Greek Mainland. This is another emblem of status, but not necessarily an indicator of royalty (see recently G. Philip, "Warrior Burials in the Ancient Near-Eastern Bronze Age: The Evidence from Mesopotamia, Western Iran and Syria-Palestine, 140-54 in S. Campbell and A. Green eds., The Archaeology of Death in the Ancient Near East (Oxbow Monograph 51, Oxford 1995).

The diagonally banded robe worn by some men clearly derives from Syrian costume, but it is not the same garment as the scalloped cloak with a fringed border worn by other men. Yet other costumes or pieces of cloth carried by processional figures of women and men may represent different articles entirely (e.g., the ceremonial "apron" of women). In other words: Crete presents no uniform iconography that will allow us to identify the ruler with confidence. I think we have to accept that the problem of identifying the ruler in Aegean iconography has not yet been solved. Crete, moreover, was never as extensively urbanized as many Near Eastern centers, and thus may not have needed to develop the kind of ruler images that we see there.

While I find myself in agreement with the author on many points of evidence and interpretation, this would have been a far different book if it had been shorn of mythological underpinnings and based exclusively on the surviving archaeological evidence, which nonetheless continues to present numerous problems for researchers. We still have no indisputable representations of a Minoan ruler along the lines of the iconography that makes an Egyptian pharaoh so easily recognizable, and, although we can recognize the Mycenaean wanax in Linear B tablets, Protopalatial and Neopalatial Cretan Hieroglyphic and Linear A remain undeciphered. In addition to our inability to identify "the ruler" is the parallel problem of interpreting Minoan iconography and its purposes; even architecturally we can identify "Minoan Halls" and "lustral basins" in buildings but not their social functions.

A source of frustration for this reader was the small scale and poor quality of many of the 52 in-text illustrations and 77 plates, all of the latter in black & white. Maps and plans are often reproduced from other publications at such a small scale that captions are unclear. (To be fair, it should be noted that this is an editorial problem, not one of the author's making.) But line drawings of seals and sealings are also published without references to the volumes and numbering system of the CMS (Corpus der Minoischen und Mykenischen Siegel), which since 1964 has aimed at the standardized publication of all Aegean seals and sealings, along with Beihefte appearing at regular intervals that address specific problems and issues surrounding Aegean glyptic.

Nevertheless, this synthesis will clearly fill a major gap, especially for Italian readers, and it would be useful to have this book in an English translation. For now, English-speaking students and will probably be better served by the series of seven "Reviews of Aegean Prehistory" commissioned in the 1990s by the American Journal of Archaeology, now collected, updated, and republished as Aegean Prehistory. A Review, ed. by Tracey Cullen (American Journal of Archaeology Suppl. 1, 2001).

Read Latest
Index for 2004
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review

HTML generated at 13:29:02, Friday, 03 April 2009