Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2004.04.14

P.A. Mountjoy, Knossos: The South House. British School at Athens Supplementary Volume No. 34.   London:  The British School at Athens, 2003.  Pp. xiii, 224; pls. 10, figs. 78, tables 2.  ISBN 0-904887-42-1.  £65.00 (£50.00 to Subscribers and Friends of the British School at Athens).  

Contributors: B. Burke, K. S. Christakis, J. M. Driessen, R. D. G. Evely, C. Knappett, and O. H. Krzyszkowska

Reviewed by Jeremy Rutter, Dartmouth College (
Word count: 1969 words

Initially cleared in 1908 by A. J. Evans and D. Mackenzie, re-examined in 1924 by the original excavators, and further but more briefly re-examined by the British School and the Archaeological Ephorate of Heraklion in 1960, 1989, and 1993, the South House at Knossos, located immediately south of the palace's southwest corner, has never been properly published. The purpose of this volume is to remedy this undesirable state of affairs, at least with regard to the movable finds recovered from in and immediately around one of the better preserved Neopalatial mansions ever to have been excavated on Crete. The architecture, on the other hand, is here presented only in summary form (pp. 27-35, by Driessen, with some additional comments on the building's orientation, access system, phasing, and overall interpretation), since a detailed study of that aspect of the building is being undertaken by another author (V. Fotou; see p, 27, note 1).

Thanks to the relatively late date of the South House's original excavation (1908), no preliminary report on its clearance was published. Thus for a long time the structure was known only through a comparatively brief summary in volume II, part 1 (pp. 373-390) of Evans' monumental Palace of Minos, not published until 1928. Aside from this, a small portion of the pottery recovered during the excavations was published between 1967 and 1978 by Popham.1 The architecture has been briefly summarized at intervals since the early 1960's by authorities such as Graham, Preziosi, and Driessen and Macdonald,2 while some of the building's specific features have been the subjects of more detailed studies by Fotou and Lloyd.3 Some other classes of object found in and around the South House have been studied and included in broader surveys over the years -- the frescoes by Cameron,4 the silver vessels by E. Davis,5 the seals by Platon and Pini,6 a single stone vase by Warren,7 the bronze tools by Evely8 -- but other find categories (e.g. loomweights and spindle whorls, stone tools and most of the stone vases, items carved from bone and ivory) have been overlooked. In the volume under review, all objects with an excavated provenience from in or immediately outside the South House, including pieces presently housed in the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion, the Stratigraphical Museum at Knossos, and the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford, have been identified and re-assessed. Virtually all of the pieces included in this study have been subjected to direct autopsy by the specialists charged with their publication.9

The overwhelming majority of these finds, not surprisingly, consist of pottery, almost without exception highly fragmentary. Unfortunately, this mass of ceramic material suffers from two shortcomings which greatly reduce its archaeological significance. First of all, the original excavators ruthlessly discarded almost all of the sherd material recovered except for the fine decorated pieces. As a consequence, it is only this class of ceramic, whatever its date may be, that survives to be analyzed. Moreover, since even fine sherds were discarded if they were unpainted or decorated only with bands, a search for joins, no matter how intensive, will fail to generate much in the way of fully restorable vessels: whatever vases may once have been fully enough represented to be mendable are represented among the surviving sherds only by their more extravagantly decorated portions. Second, and even more dispiriting, is the fact that the original stratification observed by the excavator (Mackenzie) was largely ignored when the pottery ultimately deemed worth keeping was boxed up for storage pending further study. Since labeling individual sherds with their proveniences was a practice unheard of in the Aegean at the time of the South House's excavation, the contents of just about all of the 25 boxes containing pottery and miscellaneous finds from the South House, as well as those of the 9 additional boxes from the area immediately to the north that prove to have numerous joins with the South House material, consist of mixtures of at least three to four centuries' worth of pottery, chiefly of the phases spanning the periods from Late Minoan (hereafter LM) IA through LM IIIA. In the interests of completeness, short contributions to the volume summarize the comparatively small quantities of Early and Middle Minoan pottery (pp. 41-50, by Knappett) and of pithos fragments (pp. 153-161, by Kostakis) retained by the excavators, but the lion's share of the pottery published here consists of slightly over 800 pieces of fine decorated pottery of the LM era (pp. 51-152, by Mountjoy).

A diligent search through the various boxes of preserved pottery, most of which can be assigned to particular areas within or around the South House (p.4 Fig. ii) even if in only one or two cases to chronologically homogeneous levels within those spaces (11, Boxes 1603-1604), has enabled Mountjoy to document a large number of joins involving vessels datable to the LM IA, LM IB, and LM II phases (Figs. iii-v, respectively). The frequency of these joins from one end of this sizable (19 by 13 meters) building all the way to its opposite side provides strong evidence that the bulk of the fill from which this pottery was recovered must have been dumped over the ruins of the building at some point after its collapse and abandonment. While the highly unsatisfactory state of the surviving evidence does not allow certainty on this point, Mountjoy is very likely to be correct in suggesting that the building's collapse took place in advanced LM IA, possibly as the result of an earthquake that may also have affected a number of other houses in the immediate vicinity (pp. 24-25). The date of this event cannot be far removed from that of the great eruption of the Santorini volcano near the end of the same LM IA phase, and perhaps this hypothetical Cretan earthquake was somehow connected with that massive eruption some seventy miles away.

This LM IA dating for the South House's destruction, rather than the later LM IB date championed by Popham, may be assigned to the contexts from which the group of four silver vases in the building's "pillar crypt" (pp. 163-166) and the hoard of eight bronze tools from the neighboring "inner basement" (p. 190) were recovered. Thanks to Mackenzie's stratigraphic notes and the discovery of numerous fragments of a distinctively decorated Marine Style jar (p. 80 no. 176, pl. 6a) found in the yard between the South House's north façade and the palace (pp. 15-17, Fig. vi), Mountjoy is also able to reconstruct enough of a datable stratigraphy to allow a Neopalatial date to be assigned to two of the more important individual finds from this area, a gold-encased lentoid seal of lapis lazuli (p. 204 no. 1 = CMS II.3 no. 24, published with commentary by Krzyszkowska) and the exquisitely carved ivory head of a griffin mauling its prey (pp. 188-189 no. 175, published by Evely). A small amount of LM IA pottery from below the raised floor of the building's "lustral basin" may likewise be considered sufficiently "stratified" to merit consideration as a closed group (pp. 57-61, from Box 1603). The closed character of this find group is significant not only for the pottery from this context but also for the date it furnishes for two of the three most impressive fresco fragments recovered from the South House (pp. 37-39). The case for viewing the scanty contents of Box 1604 as a similarly closed LM IA group, however, is nowhere near as strong, nor is the significance of such a dating (pp. 11, 62).

Over half of this handsomely produced but not inexpensive volume is dedicated to the publication of decorated but almost entirely unstratified pottery. Was this a wise investment of time and resources? On the opening page, Mountjoy quotes Popham's 1970 observation concerning the importance of the sherd material from the South House: "Its full publication would be arduous though worthwhile in another context for it contains much material to fill out our knowledge of LM IB and LM II pottery at Knossos." Despite Popham's own publication in 1984 of the Minoan Unexplored Mansion at Knossos, with its unparalleled wealth of LM II ceramics, he remained of the opinion that the South House material merited detailed treatment, according to Mountjoy. She has certainly done this material proud, publishing drawings and skeletal catalogue entries for over 800 pieces, slightly over half of them being of LM IB - II date. Readers familiar with her Mycenaean Decorated Pottery: A Guide to Identification (1986) and Regional Mycenaean Decorated Pottery (1999) will find broadly similar her coverage of Late Minoan as opposed to Late Helladic (hereafter LH) pottery. As usual, her command of comparanda, in this case from other parts of Crete but above all from Knossos itself, is impressive. In view of how little LM IB pottery has yet been published from Knossos,10 Mountjoy's survey of this period in particular by way of the abundant decorated material recovered in an around the South House is a substantial contribution, just as is her updating of Popham's magisterial 1984 survey of LM II pottery.11

At the same time, one might have wished for more in the way of objective descriptions of color, fabric, and surface finish, as well as some comments on techniques of manufacture. Mountjoy's approach to the description of Aegean prehistoric pottery all too rarely extends beyond assessments of shape and painted decoration. In the case of her presentation of the South House finds, one may note with appreciation her singling out of a significant number of LH IIA imports from the Greek mainland (pp. 105-107 nos. 407-414) as well as a pair of Aeginetan matt-painted imports (p. 127 nos. 596-597). Her identifications of the pieces in question, in view of her copious experience in the field, are not to be doubted, but for neither group does she provide enough in the way of a description to allow other researchers to understand how she has arrived at these specific attributions. The matt paint and patterns of nos. 596-597, for example, may be enough to reveal that these sherds are not Minoan, but in what specific ways these pieces resemble pottery found on the South Slope of the Athenian Acropolis in LH IIB-IIIA1 contexts and why either the Knossian South House or Acropolis South Slope pieces should be considered Aeginetan are questions that she fails altogether to address. Appeals for more meaningful descriptions are perhaps even more important in connection with pieces identified as mainland LH IIA rather than Cretan LM IB products, since the fine decorated pottery of the two regions looks so much the same during this period. Mountjoy claims that nos. 407-414 have fabrics suggestive of a Mycenaean origin but neglects to describe these fabrics in any detail.

Within just the past few years, substantial deposits of LM IB pottery from other parts of Crete have been published, notably from Kommos, Selì, and Phaistos in the western Mesara and from Mochlos in northeastern Crete.12 In every case, it is abundantly clear how small a percentage of the total ceramic assemblage consists of fine decorated material. The most recent of these publications, devoted to a series of settlement contexts at Mochlos, has drawn attention to how little we know of sub-stages within the LM IB phase and how long this stage may conceivably have lasted.13 To make progress on this front will require the full publication of stratified groups of pottery deposited during this turbulent era in Minoan prehistory. Much though our understanding of the typological range of Knossian LM IB-II decorated fine wares may be enhanced by Mountjoy's presentation of so much material from the South House assignable on stylistic grounds to these phases, this publication has very little to offer in terms of refining the existing ceramic chronology or otherwise enhancing our historical understanding of the 15th century B.C. on Crete.


1.   "Late Minoan Pottery, A Summary," Annual of the British School at Athens 62(1967) pl. 81a, c, e; The Destruction of the Palace at Knossos: Pottery of the Late Minoan IIIA Period. Studies in Mediterranean Archaeology 12 (Göteborg 1970) 57-60, fig. 8:9, 13, pls. 4a, 9c, 35-36, 47d-e; "Notes from Knossos, Part II," Annual of the British School at Athens 73(1978) 179-183, fig. 1a, pl. 22a.
2.   J. W. Graham, The Palaces of Crete (Princeton 1962) 55-56; D. Preziosi, Minoan Architectural Design: Formation and Signification (Berlin 1983) 56-58, 242, 356-359; J. Driessen and C. F. Macdonald, The Troubled Island: Minoan Crete before and after the Santorini Eruption. Aegaeum 17 (Liège/Austin 1997) 149-150, fig. 7.21.
3.   V. Fotou, "L'implantation des bâtiments en Crète à l'époque néopalatiale: aménagement du terrain et mode d'occupation du sol," in P. Darcque and R. Treuil (eds.), L'habitat égéen préhistorique. Bulletin de Correspondance Hellénique Supplément 19 (Paris 1990) 45-73, esp. 49 note 14, 72; J. F. Lloyd, "The Minoan Hall System and the Problem of an Entrance to the South House at Knossos," Opuscula Atheniensia 22-23(1998) 117-140; eadem, "The Three-dimensional Form of the Light Area of the Minoan Hall System and the Southeast corner of the South House at Knossos," Opuscula Atheniensia 24(1999) 51-77.
4.   M. A. S. Cameron, A General Study of Minoan Frescoes with Particular Reference to the Unpublished Wall Paintings from Knossos (unpublished Ph.D. thesis, University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne 1975) pls. 70B, 88B, 111A, 160A.
5.   E. N. Davis, The Vapheio Cups and Aegean Gold and Silver Ware (New York/London 1977) 105-107.
6.   N. Platon and I. Pini, Corpus der minoischen und mykenischen Siegel II.2. Die Siegel der Altpalastzeit (Berlin 1977) 42 no. 33; iidem, Corpus der minoischen und mykenischen Siegel II.3. Die Siegel der Neupalastzeit (Berlin 1984) 25-28 nos. 22-25; iidem, Corpus der minoischen und mykenischen Siegel II.4A. Die Siegel der Nachpalastzeit, B. Undatierbare spätminoische Siegel (Berlin 1985) 148-149 nos. 116-117.
7.   P. M. Warren, Minoan Stone Vases (Cambridge 1969) 40 HM 2098, D147, P236.
8.   R. D. G. Evely, Minoan Crafts: Tools and Techniques: An Introduction. I Studies in Mediterranean Archaeology 102, i (Göteborg 1993) 31 nos. 39-41, 42 nos. 6-7, 101 no. 11.
9.   A few previously published items such as the frescoes and silver vessels treated by Mountjoy (pp. 37-39 and 163-166, respectively) do not seem to have benefited from renewed autopsy for the purposes of this publication. The bronze tools thought to be in Oxford's Ashmolean Museum but not located in recent years will similarly not have been re-examined at first hand by Evely (p. 190).
10.   The two principal sources of LM IB ceramic sequences as well as individual deposits from Knossos, Hood's Royal Road North excavations and Warren's Stratigraphical Museum Extension excavations, have yet to be published except in the form of brief preliminary reports (P. M. Warren and V. Hankey, Aegean Bronze Age Chronology [Bristol 1989] 78-81).
11.   M. R. Popham et al., The Minoan Unexplored Mansion at Knossos. British School at Athens Supplementary Volume 17 (Londoon 1984) 159-181.
12.   A. M. P. A. Van de Moortel, The Transition from the Protopalatial to the Neopalatial Society in South-central Crete: A Ceramic Perspective (Ph.D. dissertation, Bryn Mawr College 1997; University Microfilms International #9806356) 21-274; V. La Rosa and N. Cucuzza, L'insediamento de Selì di Kamilari nel territorio di Festòs. Studi di Archeologia Cretese I (Padua 2001); O. Palio, "La casa Tardo Minoico di Chalara a Festòs," Studi di Archeologia Cretese II (Padua 2001) 243-422; O. Palio, "Tardo Minoico I : La casa di Haghia Fotinì," in I Cento Anni dello Scavo di Festòs. Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei: Atti dei Convegni Lincei 173 (Rome 2001) 243-272; K. A. Barnard and T. M. Brogan, Mochlos IB. Period III. Neopalatial Settlement on the Coast: The Artisans' Quarter and the Farmhouse at Chalinomouri: The Neopalatial Pottery (Philadelphia 2003).
13.   Barnard and Brogan (supra n.12) 104-109.

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