Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2007.02.50

Joseph W. Shaw, Maria C. Shaw, Kommos V: The Monumental Buildings at Kommos.   Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 2006.  Pp. 948; pls. 356, one color period plan, two color restored views, three fold-out site plans.  ISBN 0-691-12123-0.  $195.00.  

Reviewed by Paul D. Scotton, California State University Long Beach (
Word count: 2267 words

This book is the fifth volume in the Kommos series and presents the southern area of the excavations which includes the monumental buildings found at the site. In addition to chapters written by the principle excavators at Kommos, Joseph and Maria Shaw (JS and MS henceforth), nine other authors contribute, with particularly extensive contributions on pottery by Jeremy Rutter (R) and Aleydis Van de Moortel (VdM). This is a massive work of over 1200 pages but the shear bulk of this volume is easily surpassed by its importance. In each of the several disciplines presented, the discussion moves beyond that of an excellent excavation and site report, which they all are, to placing the material and site into the broader context of the Mesara, Minoan Crete, and the Bronze Age eastern Mediterranean.

Chapter 1, "The Architecture and Stratigraphy of the Civic Buildings," written by JS with contributions by L. Costaki and C. Murphy, is divided into five sections. The first three present the structures from chronological periods found in the area: MM IIB, MMIII-LMI, and LMIIIA2-B. Section 4 discusses architectural blocks, mason's marks, and column bases. Section 5 discusses the form and construction of the north and south stoas.

Chapter 2, "Plasters from the Monumental Minoan Buildings: Evidence for Painted Decoration, Architectural Appearance, and Archaeological Event," written by MS with contributions by Alain Dandrau and Stéphan Dubernet, is in four sections and two appendices. The four sections consider the archaeological contexts and the descriptions of the deposits; the types, techniques, and uses of plaster; and offer a synthesis and conclusions. The appendices deal with the retrieval, study, conservation, and display of the plasters found and the scientific analysis of fabrics and pigments.

Chapter 3, "Minoan Pottery from the Southern Area," is written by R and VdM. The presentation is in four sections: an introduction, Middle Minoan AI and Protopalatial Pottery, Neopalatial and later Minoan pottery, and ceramic imports at Kommos

Chapter 4, "Catalogue of Miscellaneous Finds from the Southern Area" is written by JS, MS, and Deborah Ruscillo. It includes seven sections: metals and metalworking, loomweights and miscellaneous clay object, items of adornment, stone artifacts, plaster offering tables, figurines and figural appliqués, and faunal remains and murex dye production.

Chapter 5, "Conclusions: The History and Function of the Monumental Buildings at Kommos," written by JS, MS, R, and VdM is divided into an introduction and three other sections: Architectural Forms and Their Uses; The Harbor Town and Its International Connections; and Kommos in the Mesara.

A full review of a work of this length and one presenting the efforts and analyses of scholars from multiple disciplines would make this review unduly long. Instead, I will focus upon what strikes me as the most significant findings among what is truly a wealth of data and assessment.

Structures, Architectural Design, and Construction Methods

Building AA is likely the first building of monumental size in Kommos, dated to MMIIB early. Although largely obscured by later structures, it was rectangular, large (roughly 81 x 52 m), and set on a terrace. On the interior was a pebble court, ca. 29 x 39 m and set ca. 2.5 m west of the longitudinal midpoint of the restored plan. On at least the north and south ends were colonnades, identified as stoas, and running east-west roughly through the middle was a walkway which apparently predated Building AA. Based upon a significant deposit that included cooking pots and plaster tables, VdM suggests that AA had a ritual or ceremonial function. Much more can be said about it's successor, Building T, but it is important to recognize the presence of what seems to be a similar structure beneath T.

Building T replaced AA, post earthquake, in MMIII. Building T was the same basic shape and size as AA but more is known for certain about its interior configuration. The dimensions cited above for AA are in part extrapolated from the better preserved remains of T. The central court was boarded on the north and south by stoas, each ca. 23 m long, 5.2 to 5.3 m deep, and with six columns. To the west of the north stoa was an ascending stairway to an upper floor. There is less evidence for a corresponding stairway at the south stoa but it is a reasonable restoration. To the east of the north stoa, the long rectangular space was divided into several rooms of which at least one was used for storage (abundant fragments of pithoi were found) and another for weaving (many loomweights were found.) To the south of these rooms, east of the courtyard and continuing to the southern exterior wall were a series of at least four parallel walls running east-west. Much of the area is obscured by later building but one plaster floor can be associated with these walls as well as slab paving. Associated with these walls and floors were found small tools and copper strips.

Notable is that for a building of such size, only two entryways are known and a third restored. Granted the west end has been lost to the sea and other parts remain buried beneath other structures but none of the known or restored entrances is consistent with the access afforded the central courts of the Minoan palaces. In the palaces access was controlled and directed but was facilitated through corridors. In Building T, the two certain entrances are doorways: one in the northwest leading into a small room open to an adjacent ascending staircase and an indirect path to the central court; the other, a doorway on the south leads into a room adjacent to the south stoa. The courtyard is ca. 9 percent larger than that at Phaistos and ca. 76 percent of that at Knossos. Thus, by size, it might be reasonable to assume Kommos was the site of another Minoan palace. But, aside from the size of the court there is little else to conjure a Minoan palace. It would seem the central courts of the palaces are parallels only in size and general type. Providing further evidence of perhaps differing functions is that in both stoas fragments of plaster tables, drinking vessels, and cooking pots were found. The excavators find this suggestive of ceremony or ritual. If so, it was in a place of controlled if not limited access.

Building P was built during LMIIIA2 over Building T and of material robbed from it but also using construction techniques different from those used elsewhere in Kommos. In particular, vertical and transverse timbers were employed in the walls, a technique used elsewhere in the Late Bronze Age, Pylos and Mycenae for example, and one that has persisted for more than three millennia in various forms in spite of significant bad press for some of those variants by Vitruvius. What is most significant, however, about Building P is that it is not only the best preserved of these buildings but it is in a form that at first appeared to be without parallel in the Minoan world. Building P was ca. 38.5 x 39.5 m with six galleries running east/west five of which are 5.5 m wide or wider (the southernmost is ca. 4.4 m), ca. 38.5 m long, and with multiple layers of dirt floors. Were this a Classical or Hellenistic structure so close to the shoreline, it would be assumed this was a ship shed. As a Minoan building, however, the case has to be argued. It has been to my satisfaction and, since the discovery of Building P parallels have been noted at Gournia and in the Ship Fresco from Thera. If we assume the galleries were ship sheds, then we should also assume that the courtyard was most likely a workyard where such items as tackle and sails could be laid out for repairs and mending before being refitted on board ship. If this is true about the courtyard, it is uncertain how it was used during the sailing season but then the same would also be true of the ship sheds. Whether or not Building P replaced Building T in function as well as in site is unclear, but the fact that T's galleries were narrower and that slab and plaster floors were present would seem to argue against it.

Building N which stood at the northwest corner of P was contemporaneous with P. With its entrance to the south, i.e. from within P, its association with P is more than locational. Just what its function was is not clear. There were work areas within the building as well as what seems to be domestic space with storage vessels and cooking pots. Thus JS and MS posit that it may have been the administrative center for Building P.


Over half of the main text is devoted to discussions of the ceramic evidence. Given the importance of the finds and the excellent presentation of the two authors, R and VdM, this is by no means excessive. This presentation is, however, so extensive I can do little more than acknowledge some of its highlights. So significant is it, that it is worthy of a separate review. That R's portion is first rate should come as no surprise to anyone who has even a passing interest in Minoan ceramics, and with this volume VdM firmly establishes herself as a strong and credible voice in the study of Minoan ceramics.

The evidence presented and interpreted by R and VdM does more than date the strata and structures and document foreign trade. This is significant work and cannot be overlooked. But, what I found even more valuable was that R and VdM have refined and advanced our overall understanding of the ceramics of the Mesara specifically and Minoan pottery in general. That is, we are now in a better position to differentiate and date Minoan ceramic evidence. The observations and deductions will aid other ceramicists in their studies. For example:

"In contrast with MMIA fabrics, MMIB conical cup fabrics were almost always fine."
"In MMIB all small and medium jars had fine fabrics, bridged spouts, and grooved horizontal strap handles."
"...the major innovation of LMIB Early on closed shapes was the extensive use of dark on light Reed FM 16, a pattern that in LMIA had been used only sparingly on locally produced pottery.
"Watrous identifies at least two important features that be used to distinguish LMIIIA2 from LMIIIA1: the advent of the 'vertical wall cup'...and the advent of the fine unpainted goblet. To these two criteria should be added...the advent of the fine unpainted ladle."

Although not presented in handbook fashion, with a little effort, someone could compile a guide on how to read and date Mesarian ceramics from MMIA to LMIIIC.

The other side of the better understanding of characteristics of and motifs employed during some phases has had the opposite effect of clarity. That is, in some instances, what had been held to be defining characteristics of one period have been found to be no longer valid. For example, the differences between LMIIIA2 and LMIIIB have been, to use R's term, "blurred," at least for the time being. Although we may be pressed to differentiate the two, R suggests closer examination of what have been considered minor criteria may bring back clear differentiation. Until more precise criteria can be identified caution is needed.

Other Highlights

Often in publications, a single chart or table offered as supporting evidence, is in itself of great import, for example John Traill's map of Attic phylai. There are many in Kommos V: a table of Minoan stoas with pertinent dimensions, although not in chart form, a typology of flooring plasters, pictorial techniques for murals, approximate synchronization of ceramic phases at Phaistos, Kommos and Knossos, mammalian presence on Crete from the Pleistocene period to the present day, to cite a few. In short, as with the ceramic portion, this volume is a reference work not just for Kommos but Minoan studies in general.

Quibbles (These are only quibbles and do not in any way lessen the excellence of this work.)

Although certainly through no fault of the Shaws or their chief architectural illustrator Giuliana Bianco, the architectural drawings are not reproduced in a scalable form. The shrink to fit a page dictum may please publication editors but for anyone attempting architectural or spatial analyses, this is a frustration. It is not necessary to reproduce drawings at a 1:1 ratio but reductions should be in some meaningful and measurable percentage. The primary concern should not be to print the drawing(s) as large as possible within 1 x 1 x 1 x 1.5 inch margins.

Although the presentation of the ceramic evidence is outstanding and of great significance, it is so extensive it likely should have been a second volume, or Kommos V should have been a volume in two parts. Yes, there is value to have all the evidence for the monumental buildings bound together, but the sheer bulk of the work makes it ponderous to move back and forth from text to plates and drawings. Perhaps, as another alternative, these plates and drawings, nearly 300 pages worth, could have been a second fascicle. That way a reader could keep the relevant visual material before her or him while reading the text.

In sum, this is an extremely important work for many reasons, primary and secondary. Most importantly it documents the first known instance of a Minoan ship shed and moves forward the discussion and understanding of Minoan pottery. In addition, it provides a ready reference for many fields of Minoan and Cretan studies both major and "minor."

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