Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2008.05.32

Colin F. Macdonald, Carl Knappett, Knossos: Protopalatial Deposits in Early Magazine A and the South-West Houses. Supplementary Volume No. 41.   Oxford and Northampton:  The British School at Athens, 2007.  Pp. xiv, 205; figs. 61; tables 14; pls. 49.  ISBN 978-0-904887-53-2.  $136.00.  

Reviewed by Donald C. Haggis, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (
Word count: 2830 words

It is no easy task to understand the early history of the palace of Knossos, arguably the most important and stratigraphically complex site in the Greek Bronze Age Aegean. Past efforts to reconstruct the Protopalatial palace have a synoptic simplicity and compelling clarity that ultimately require the uninitiated reader either to follow the authors' footnotes back to Evan's original excavations and the numerous statigraphic studies since, or simply accept them at face value.1 While this reviewer all too frequently and confidently chooses the second option (especially when preparing for class), it must be said that to really understand this site stratigraphically one almost needs to have excavated in the palace or have spent considerable time studying deposits and examining primary documentation. What has emerged is a benignly inadvertent conspiracy of knowledge that owes as much to the slow and seemingly disconnected pattern of excavation and publication as to the sheer complexity of the stratigraphy and topography, and sometimes insurmountable difficulties resulting from the superimposition of Evans' palace and his highly selective rendering of early deposits.

If the seminal but weirdly solipsistic BSA article of 1993, "Early and Middle Minoan Pottery Groups at Knossos,"2 is incomprehensible to everyone but the authors themselves (and perhaps a few others who have worked on deposits in the Stratigraphical Museum) it represents an important cornerstone of the recent generation of work that is sorting out not only important ceramic sequences at the site, but linking Evans' work with results of more recent excavations toward a real ground-up understanding of the early history and function of the palace. Whether the term "sherd-nerd" was coined at Knossos or not, this trend of the past two decades is extremely important, resulting in a rash of ambitious if not ground-breaking books and articles on ceramic phasing that came out in the 1990s, including MacGillivray's monumental Pottery Groups of the Old Palace Period. The culmination of much of this work has been most recently presented in the Neolithic and Bronze Age volume of the Knossos Pottery Handbook.3 An exemplary installment of this new Knossian research is Macdonald and Knappett's Protopalatial Deposits in Early Magazine A and the South-West Houses, which publishes the results of stratigraphic soundings conducted by Sinclair Hood and Joseph Shaw (in 1973) and co-author Colin Macdonald (in 1987 and 1992-1993) in the southwest area of the site.

The book focuses on five deposits lying just outside the palace proper, four in the context of two substantial Protopalatial houses underlying the Southwest House (Deposit E) and the House Northwest of the Southwest House (Deposits B-D), and one in a Middle Minoan (MM) IB structure that must have been on the south front of the palace proper (Deposit A). Even if these contexts are spatially disconnected, localized and perhaps difficult to reconstruct in systemic terms (especially given the annoying overburden of Neopalatial buildings), they are nevertheless substantial, well preserved and stratified, and comprise important indicators of activities outside the palace and changes in Protopalatial topography from MM IB to MM IIA. These are indeed ceramic and chronological phases that are central to our understanding of the foundation of the palace and its earliest forms and functions. The importance of this book cannot be overstated. It provides substantial, neatly stratified, functionally differentiated, and fully documented MM IB and MM IIA ceramic assemblages (chapters 1-2); a clear explanation of what we know of these phases (and systemic assemblages and contexts) from the last century of work at the site and around the island (chapters 5 and 7); an interpretive commentary that makes the material relevant to our understanding of sociopolitical contexts of consumption (chapter 6); and a remarkably detailed and compelling visualization of the form and function of the earliest phases of the palace in MM IB-IIA (chapter 7). (The latter is something of a tour de force.) In addition, it has a detailed and well-illustrated pottery catalogue (chapter 3), as well as chapters on the small finds (chapter 4), appendices on radiocarbon dates, and a finds concordance. Chapter 4 on small finds has a general catalogue authored by Macdonald, with detailed specialist sections on an inscription -- possible Linear A or Cretan Hieroglyphic label (I. Schoep); noduli and sealings (J. Weingarten); faunal remains (V. Isaakidou); and obsidian and chert chipped stone (T. Carter).

The first chapter describes the excavations and archaeological contexts of the five deposits. Accompanied by detailed stone-by-stone drawings, stratigraphic sections and photographs--including a detailed state plan and long E-W section of the entire southwest corner of the site--this first chapter is eloquently economical and lucidly detailed, archaeological exposition at its best. The characterization of deposits, distinguishing primary destruction (in situ primary collapse and use contexts) from secondary dumps or architectural deposits (such as fill, ceiling collapse, or post-de facto depositional activity) is fundamental to the reconstruction of systemic contexts and perhaps even more important for the definition of the ceramic assemblages, really the crux of the book (chapters 2-3, and 5).

Read along side chapter 6 (contents and functions) and chapter 7 (broader context), the exposition on these deposits in chapter 1 makes an important if implicit argument that our understanding of ceramic assemblages and the construction of pottery typologies are as dependent on context (use, deposition, and abandonment and conditions and method of recovery) as on chronology and cultural geography. While this statement may seem like a truism or at least rhetorically gratuitous, for the Protopalatial period it cannot be overemphasized. Three generations of Minoan archaeology have depended on reductionist views of the palace, derived from selection biases that have inadvertently but meretriciously promoted chronologically unitary models for the establishment of the palace form; notional continuity of function into the Neopalatial period; and geographic as well as sociopolitical extremes of palatial centrality and rural (or somehow non-palatial) periphery. Without a doubt, pottery takes a central place in this discussion, particularly Kamares ware, the notionally "palatial" pottery par excellence. Past materialist studies of selected assemblages have tended to encourage a view that fancy pottery found at Knossos and Phaistos should characterize the essence of elite production and consumption behavior in the first palatial phase, vaguely establishing a palimpsest anticipating the Neopalatial floruit. Macdonald and Knappett engage this problem, sometimes explicitly (169), but mostly through their interpretation of assemblage and context, painlessly moving us forward without having to deconstruct the historical stratigraphy of Knossian archaeology.

All of the deposits published in this book are located in the southwest area of the palace, or more properly just outside the palace. A primary deposit (A) is situated very near the later west entrance to the palace just to the east of the Corridor of the Procession Fresco, immediately south of a substantial wall (Gamma) underlying what Evans called Early Magazine A. The deposit is of some importance as it consists of a substantial amount of MM IB pottery (over 200 catalogued vases), mostly drinking and pouring vessels, evidently stored in a room or closet, possibly on shelves or a bench. The excavated area is regrettably too small for one to determine absolutely its architectural context, but it is likely to have been some kind of building constructed against a south fac,ade wall of the MM IB palace, perhaps (but not certainly) opening onto a small court or corridor at what looks like a crucial juncture mediating access to the West Court and the palace (but see the caveat on 171). The deposit is even more intriguing given that clearly administrative documents (163) -- three noduli, a counter, and 23 miniature vases that Weingarten (135-136) argues should have been tokens, drawing interesting comparisons to Quartier Mu at Malia in MM IIB -- were found, suggesting some kind of official control of activities taking place in this room or nearby. This concentration of drinking and pouring vessels and evidently related administrative tools on the south front of the palace points to the special function of the deposit, an argument which is further enhanced by Knappett's careful evaluation of forming technology (very detailed summary is presented in chapter 2 (40-42)). In Knappett's analysis, details of manufacturing techniques (such as coil building, rotation and wheel forming) provide not only telling indicators of chronology (151-152), helping to distinguish MM IB from IIA (and different modes of production), but here in Deposit A, a qualitative hierarchy of forms suggesting statuses of participants in what can be best described as patron-role feasting (163).4

The clearly special (ritual or ritualized) public activity indicated by the Deposit A assemblage is presented in marked contrast to Deposit B, which is likely to have been habitation material, evidently trapped underneath MM IIA fill (Deposit C) that supported a stair created in the course of the destruction and rebuilding of a substantial house underlying the House Northwest of the Southwest House. Deposit B has many of the same forms and features as Deposit A (152-153), indeed helping to reconstruct the broadest parameters of an MM IB ceramic phase yet published from stratified deposits from the site (with a caveat on page 46), but B is clearly a different context. Notably lacking are not only the sheer numbers of drinking vessels that we see in A, but also the extremes of the hierarchical spectrum of fine decorative wares and crude wares forming Knappett's hierarchical pyramid.

Deposit D, of MM IIA date, is another primary deposit located in the far northwest corner of presumably the same Protopalatial house as Deposits B and C. Even though most of the material was found above the actual floor surface (15), the evidence of dense ceiling collapse is certainly consistent with patterns of deposition in situations of clay-roof construction. (Typically material toward the center of a room will be most completely sealed by the initial phase of collapse, while peripheral areas -- especially objects stored on shelves or benches -- will sometimes spill or slide toward the room's center, falling into or on top of the initial collapse, depending on the rate and conditions of destruction). With some 250 catalogued vases, Deposit D represents the best stratified MM IIA material from the site. With a wide range of forms, such as lamps, dishes, cookpots, jars and amphorae, in addition to a sizeable complement of drinking and pouring vessels (cups and goblets represent 71% of the assemblage), it looks a lot like the Deposit B, or in the nomenclature of the authors, a "household" assemblage or "intermediate" deposit (165-167; cf. 174). The term "intermediate," not fully explained, is presumably something neither completely "domestic" nor really "palatial" or of special function.

Finally, a dump of material of MM IIA date (E) lying in a room in the northeast corner of a Protopalatial house that partly underlies the Southwest House was hard for the excavator to interpret given its secondary character. The interesting range of finds, however, including an inscribed tablet, nodulus, bronze point (stylus?), worked horn cores and steatite (for seals), points to activities related perhaps to household/industrial activities independent but closely related to the palace--perhaps a system of attached specialists that has been argued for Quartier Mu at Malia in MM IIB (167, 175).5

The clear presentation of these two ceramic phases is the book's primary achievement. Furthermore, the authors' comprehensive survey of findspots and repetitive reflections on known assemblages and groups within the palace (chapters 2, 5 and 7) allow us not only to visualize a more complete range of forms than that published by MacGillivray6 -- indeed we are given a detailed picture of actual assemblages rather than the salient features of analytical groups -- but also to assess the potential meanings and formal and functional differences in contemporary deposits in the palace and across the island. Even if the compelling presentation of these deposits underscores the frustrating problems that exist in trying to evaluate the selective and incomplete assemblages of most of the Knossian palatial deposits, the book brings to the forefront a number of interesting questions related to how variable geographic, chronological, and cultural contexts affect our understanding of ceramic phases.

Deposit D, for example, can be linked to the Royal Pottery Stores (151; 166-167), but it contains fewer fine vessels (e.g., eggshell ware and polychrome) than the latter, and its broader shape range not only fills out the picture of the MM IIA ceramic phase, but provides a functional contrast to the palatial deposit. Deposit D is thus by way of contrast to the Royal Pottery Stores an "intermediate" deposit, reflecting a kind of qualitative difference which distinguishes Deposit B from Deposit A. The latter can, moreover, be linked to a number of deposits in the palace itself -- indeed the authors are most enthusiastic about the presence of noduli in both Deposit A and the deposit under the Olive Press Room (MacGillivray's Group L), which now appears to be at least partially MM IB in date (153). The formal connections notwithstanding, the implicit question throughout this volume is the extent to which deposits are qualitatively or functionally similar and how do these similarities or difference affect how we define a ceramic phase.

Turning to MM IB, while there are admittedly problems with selection biases, preservation and documentation of palatial assemblages, some MM IB deposits look more comparable than others. For example, the Room of the Jars in the Royal Pottery Stores, as published by Momogliano, shows a number of useful links to Deposit A (151), whereas a survey of MacGillivray's Group A (West Magazine I and Vat Room) as well as the more recently documented fill on the south front of the palace show a wider range of shapes and more varied decorative elaboration than that of Deposit A.7 Obvious stratigraphic problems aside, these qualitative and therefore functional differences reflect a diversity of potential venues and contexts of ceramic consumption of pottery within and around the palace. What is interesting about Deposit A, and something that might distinguish it from contemporary palatial material, is the extreme rationing of formal features and the controlled and limited stylistic elaboration. Although these characteristics serve to emphasize the features of Knappett's qualitative hierarchy,8 the contrast is even more pronounced if one compares Deposit A with the contemporary Lakkos at Petras, in eastern Crete, in which stylistic and formal variation and elaboration within standardized ware groups could suggest a more horizontal rather than vertical organization of participants.9 Even if Deposit A is not easily or systemically parallel to the Lakkos (a secondary deposit) or perhaps any of these Knossian palatial deposits, this book introduces an important question which is that different contexts of consumption might present less strictly hierarchical rationing of complex stylistic features (such as polychrome) and more diverse range of shapes, and therefore perhaps more nuanced social symbolic activities -- different kinds of feasting taking place in different areas of the palace.10 It is likely that these different contexts will produce very different looking assemblages, even on the same site, in some ways confounding our attempts to define ceramic phases.

The book concludes with a remarkable reconstruction of the MM IB-IIA phases of the palace. Wall Gamma bordering Deposit A uses gypsum and mason's marks which the authors connect persuasively to the original west fac,ade and entrance in West Magazine II, favoring an MM IIA date for the rebuilding that blocked the old MM IB entrance and created the plinth and orthostatic construction that is visible today. While MacGillivray's 1994 article on the early palace discusses a MM IB "second event" destruction,11 Macdonald and Knappett effectively connect the dots of burning and rebuilding at the end of MM IB, calling attention to this transition as important in understanding not only the character of the early palace but the dynamic quality of Protopalatial sociopolitical institutions. Rather than a static "proto-palace" vaguely reflected in the Kamares ware of the Royal Pottery Stores, significant changes in both ceramic and architectural elaboration could well indicate changing organizational structure.

It has to be admitted that final excavation reports (especially those that emphasize ceramic typologies and stratigraphic sequences) are usually not meant to be read like monographs, but to be used selectively and principally as research tools for specialists. Indeed this is one reason that North American publishers, especially university presses, have long disdained, if not completely abandoned, publishing archeological excavations, opting largely for low-cost high-sale synthetic treatises and (if truth be told) monograph-length articles. The BSA should be credited for its long-standing commitment to publish complex and ambitious technical reports. That said, as an excavation report, Macdonald and Knappett's book is different. While the title anticipates narrowly technical elaboration on ceramic phases in an area of the site and in periods not well known to most readers, this book can be read from start to finish. Its style, organization, and approach make it readable and accessible to non-specialists, while the compelling conclusions on function and context (chapters 6 and 7) not only present the most comprehensive and vivid picture of the early palace to date, but they entice the reader to explore and to question the meaning of the data themselves.


1.   E.g., K. Branigan, "The Economic Role of the First Palaces," in R. Hägg and N. Marinatos, eds., The Function of the Minoan Palaces, SkrAth 4, 35 (Stockholm 1987) 245-8; G. Cadogan, "Some Middle Minoan Problems," in E.B. French and K.A. Wardle, eds., Problems in Greek Prehistory (Bristol 1988) 95-99; J.A. MacGillivray, "The Early History of the Palace at Knossos (MM I-II)," in D. Evely, H. Hughes-Brock, and N. Momigliano, eds., Knossos: A Labyrinth of History (London 1994) 45-56.
2.   G. Cadogan, P. Day, C. Macdonald, J.A. MacGillivray, N. Momigliano, T. Whitelaw, and D. Wilson, "Early Minoan and Middle Minoan Pottery Groups at Knossos," BSA 88 (1993) 21-8.
3.   N. Momigliano, "MM IA Pottery from Evans' Excavations at Knossos: A Reassessment," BSA 86 (1991) 149-269; "Knossos 1902, 1905. The Prepalatial and Protopalatial Deposits from the room of the Jars in the Royal Pottery Stores," BSA 95 (2000) 65-105; N. Momigliano and S. Hood, "Excavations of 1987 on the South Front of the Palace at Knossos." BSA 89 (1994) 101-50; N. Momigliano and D. Wilson, "Knossos 1993: Excavations outside the South Front of the Palace." BSA 91 (1996) 1-57; J.A MacGillivray, Knossos: Pottery Groups of the Old Palace Period, British School at Athens Studies 5 (London 1998).
4.   See C. Knappett, "Tradition and Innovation in Pottery Forming Technology: Wheel-Throwing at Middle Minoan Knossos" BSA 94 (1999) 101-29; also Thinking through Material Culture: An Interdisciplinary Perspective (Philadelphia 2005).
5.   I. Schoep, "Social and Political Organization on Crete in the Proto-Palatial Period: The Case of Middle Minoan II Malia," JMA 15 (2002) 101-32.
6.   In J.A MacGillivray 1998 (supra n. 3).
7.   Momigliano 2000; Momigliano and Wilson 1996; and MacGillivray 1998 (supra n. 3).
8.   See also Knappett 2005 (supra n. 4).
9.   D.C. Haggis, "Stylistic Diversity and Diacritical Feasting at Protopalatial Petras: A Preliminary Analysis of the Lakkos Deposit," AJA 111 (2007) 715-75.
10.   See discussion of the distribution of Protopalatial wares at Phaistos in E. Borgna, "Aegean Feasting: A Minoan Perspective," in J.C. Wright, ed., The Mycenaean Feast, Hesperia 72 (2004) 247-80.
11.   MacGillivray 1994 (supra n. 1).

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