Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.04.23

Colin Renfrew, Excavations at Phylakopi in Melos 1974-77. British School at Athens Supplementary Volume, 42. Co-edited by Neil Brodie, Christine Morris and Chris Scarre.   London:  British School at Athens, 2007.  Pp. xvi, 521; pls. 61, figs. 202.  ISBN 9780904887549.  £123.00.  

Reviewed by David Gill, Swansea University (
Word count: 1701 words

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

The British School at Athens (BSA) has a long and distinguished link with the island of Melos. Cecil Harcourt-Smith made a preliminary visit to the island in January 1896 and this led to a series of excavations, first in the main urban centre and then at the site of Phylakopi. By the end of the first season Harcourt-Smith could note, "we have already found enough to show that the mound covered the remains of a prehistoric fortress or palace of the utmost importance".1 Three more seasons were conducted by Duncan Mackenzie (1897-99) and the final report was published in 1904.2 A short season of work was carried out by Richard M. Dawkins in 1911.3 The BSA resumed worked at Phylakopi in 1974 and continued there until 1977.4 This volume presents the results of the more recent excavations, excluding the sanctuary.5

The renewed work was able to revise the stratigraphic sequence developed by Mackenzie for Phylakopi (pp. 9-10, Tables 2.1-2). A new distinction was made between two phases of the Late Bronze Age (LH I and LH III). The megaron was re-examined and shown to have had two main phases (pp. 19-50). The fortification walls were also studied (pp. 53-64). These were in two phases: an outer ring (LH IA) that was later strengthened (LH IB), but which had clearly fallen into disrepair, and probably disuse, by LH IIIA. A new inner wall was constructed in LH IIIB. A study was made of the Early Bronze Age levels at the western end of the site (pp. 75-77). An appendix discusses the possibility that tephra particles could have originated from the eruption of the volcanic dome of Thera (Santorini) (pp. 87-89). Some of the evidence is linked to the LB I occupation levels. A second appendix considers the three neo-natal burials that are likely to be EC or MC in date (pp. 49-50, 89-90).6

A large section of the volume relates to the pottery. Sarah J. Vaughan and David Williams study "The pottery fabrics" (pp. 91-128).7 There are fabric descriptions for the Bronze Age pottery which are linked to trenches. Williams presents a petrological examination. Vaughan provides a view on clay sampling on Melos (p. 113, fig. 4.1). A limited amount of evidence suggests the movement of pottery with links to Thera, and the Greek mainland (p. 125). Renfrew and Robert K. Evans present the Early Bronze Age pottery. They reassess Campbell C. Edgar's study of the early fabrics.8 Imported material allows the EC layers at Phylakopi to be related to other sites in the Cyclades. Phase B seems to have contained fewer imported pieces than the previous settlements. However they conclude, "inter-island relations in the southern Cyclades towards the end of the EBA have not yet been adequately clarified" (p. 178). Robin L.N. Barber discusses the Middle Cycladic (MC) pottery (pp. 181-264). He presents the evidence linking Ayia Irini IV and V with "early and late MC at Phylakopi though there are difficulties in deciding at what point in the Phylakopi sequence the beginning of Ayia Irini IV is to be placed" (pp. 233-34). Oliver T.P.K. Dickinson considers the Middle Helladic pottery in an appendix (pp. 238-48), and M.S.F. Hood the Middle Minoan pottery (pp. 248-64). There is a discussion of the distribution of grey Minyan ware in the Cyclades (pp. 242-44). Hood notes that the earliest Cretan pottery imports at Phylakopi belongs to MM IA (p. 250).

The pottery studies include Jack L. Davis and John F. Cherry on the Cycladic pottery from Late Bronze I levels (pp. 265-306). This work refines earlier chronological frameworks and examines the link between the Cyclades and Crete. In particular they conclude that similarities between island pottery and pieces from the mainland may be linked to the demands of the market than the movement of potters. P.A. Mountjoy presents the Mycenaean and Late Minoan I-II pottery (pp. 307-70). She includes a catalogue of material from the National Museum, Athens; the Melos Museum; the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford; the Museum of Classical Archaeology, Cambridge; the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge; and the Martin von Wagner Museum, Würzburg.

Turning to the other finds, Lyvia Morgan studies the painted plaster carrying on the earlier work of the late Mark Cameron (pp. 371-99). There is a renewed analysis of fragments from the Pillar Crypt area where the Flying Fish friezes had been found. One of the new fragments is part of the face of a monkey, "now a dullish-grey" (p. 376; col. pl. frontispiece; pl. 47, d); other pieces were decorated with lilies. The Phylakopi monkey appears, on stratigraphic grounds, to be later than the Akrotiri examples. Morgan reassesses some of the fragments (including the "Flying Fish" and frieze with women) found from the earlier excavations.9 They are now dated to "the equivalent of LM IB" (p. 381). The flat edges of the plaster fragments suggest they abutted architectural features (p. 383). Morgan attempts a reconstruction of the woman with blue cloth (p. 385, fig. 9. 7), suggesting that she may be a priestess or goddess (p. 386). Richard E. Jones presents an analysis of the painted plaster noting that they consist of lime (p. 399).

John F. Cherry and Jack L. Davis gather together other types of finds. Terracotta objects (pp. 401-412) include spindle whorls and buttons. They reject suggestions that they were used as weights for dresses, and reassert their presence at Phylakopi as being linked to spinning (p. 403). Pots with mat impressions appear and it is suggested that the pots rested on a mat as they were being made (p. 405). Among the more unusual pieces were ship models from MC and LC III contexts (pp. 406-07). Metal objects included bronze pins and nails (p. 415). There is evidence for cupellation at the site in the form of litharge (p. 416); lead isotope analysis suggests Laurion as the most likely source for most pieces, including the piece of litharge (Appendix by Z.A. Stos-Gale; pp. 460-64). A small amount of ivory (is it elephant or hippopotamus?) was found in MBA and LH contexts (p. 417). There are two marble figures from EBA levels (pp. 420-23). Other evidence for metal working includes a schist mould for casting double-axes (pp. 424-25). A single clay tablet with Linear A script was recorded, probably associated with the LB I mansion (p. 435; Appendix K, pp. 456-59). It is unclear if it was made locally or was imported, but its presence hints at the possibility of a developed form of administration on the island. There is also a commentary on pottery with inscribed signs (pp. 435-37) with a detailed appendix by Allyson Shepard Bailey (pp. 444-55). Some 270 potters' marks are now known from the site.

Mick Winder discusses the animal bones that were originally identified by Clive S. Gamble10 (pp. 465-84). This section presents data for an abundance of bones from different species (ovicaprid, cattle, pig). Winder challenges Gamble's suggestion that the presence of cattle bones indicated a move towards "the demand for animal traction" (p. 478). He presents a case for "differential preservation" of bones, making the observation "those units in which deposition is gradual produce proportionately fewer cow bones than those which are sealed quickly" (p. 480).

Colin Renfrew draws the studies together in a final conclusion (pp. 485-92). He notes the key benefits of island surveys with detailed excavation, and cites the parallel of Kea with work at Ayia Irini. Renfrew explores three key themes: "Stratigraphic and contextual issues", "Beyond Phylakopi: regional variation in the Cyclades", and "Long-term perspectives on organisation and identity". For stratigraphy he acknowledges the "debt" to Duncan Mackenzie's original studies. Renfrew cites research in other parts of the Cyclades that will allow more meaningful petrographical studies of pottery to be made. He is also mindful that "Minoan" influence is too broad a term and that work should be made to identify specific centres.11 He reflects on issues relating to organisation through the "uninscribed pendants" at Phylakopi or the Linear A tablet fragment (p. 491). Renfrew also points to possible future studies of material from the excavations including LBA undecoiated pottery (pp. 489-90).

This volume provides the data from this significant excavation and will be a major resource especially for those working on ceramics from the Bronze Age Aegean. Renfrew is looking ahead towards studies concentrating on "island identities" that are based on definitive publications such as this.


Chapter 1: Introduction, by Colin Renfrew

Chapter 2: The development of the excavation and the stratigraphy of Phylakopi, by Colin Renfrew.
Appendix A: Retrieval experiment at Phylakopi: some questions of sample design on effective collection technique, by John F. Cherry

Chapter 3: The excavated areas, by Colin Renfrew with Chris Scarre, Todd Whitelaw and Neil Brodie.
Appendix B: Investigation of excavation deposits for the provenance of tephra particles, by Dorothy and Charles Vitaliano
Appendix C: Three small human skeletons, by Jonathan H. Musgrave

Chapter 4: The pottery fabrics, by David Williams and Sarah J. Vaughan
Appendix D: The examination of pottery from Phylakopi using the Scanning Electron Microscope, by Y. Maniatis and M.S. Tite

Chapter 5: The Early Bronze Age pottery, by Colin Renfrew and Robert K. Evans

Chapter 6: The Middle Cycladic pottery, by R.L.N. Barber
Appendix E: The Middle Helladic pottery, by O.T.P.K. Dickinson
Appendix F: The Middle Minoan pottery, by M.S.F. Hood

Chapter 7: The Cycladic pottery from the Late Bronze I levels, by Jack L. Davis and John F. Cherry

Chapter 8: The Mycenaean and Late Minoan I-II pottery, by P.A. Mountjoy

Chapter 9: The painted plasters and their relation to the wall painting of the Pillar Crypt, by Lyvia Morgan with contributions by Mark Cameron

Chapter 10: The other finds, by John F. Cherry and Jack L. Davis
Appendix H: The figurines, by Elizabeth French
Appendix I: The potters' marks, by Allyson Shepard Bailey
Appendix J: Two sealstones from Early Cycladic contexts, by John G. Younger
Appendix K: The Linear A tablet, by Colin Renfrew and William C. Brice
Appendix L: Report on analyses of lead, litharge and tin, by Z. Stos-Gale

Chapter 11: A multi-dimensional approach to the animal bone data, by Nick Winder

Chapter 12: Concluding observations, by Colin Renfrew


1.   Cecil Smith, "Excavations in Melos", Annual of the British School at Athens 2 (1895/96), 76.
2.   Atkinson, T. D., R. C. Bosanquet, C. C. Edgar, A. J. Evans, D. G. Hogarth, D. Mackenzie, C. Harcourt-Smith, and F. B. Welch, Excavations at Phylakopi in Melos. Society for the Promotion of Hellenic Studies, Occasional Paper 4. London, 1904.
3.   R.M. Dawkins, R. M. 1910/11a. "The Excavations at Phylakopi in Melos, 1911," Annual of the British School at Athens 17 (1910/11), 1-6.
4.   For the related survey of the island: Colin Renfrew and M. Wagstaff (eds.), An Island Polity: the Archaeology of Exploitation in Melos. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982.
5.   Colin Renfrew, The Archaeology of Cult: the Sanctuary at Phylakopi. British School at Athens Supplementary Vol. 18. London: British School at Athens, 1985.
6.   For similar finds made by earlier excavations: R.M. Dawkins, "The Excavations at Phylakopi in Melos, 1911. Part 3. Intramural tombs of infants," Annual of the British School at Athens 17 (1910/11), 6-9.
7.   For a more recent study of pottery from the earlier excavations at Phylakopi: S. Sherratt, Catalogue of Cycladic Antiquities in the Ashmolean Museum: the Captive Spirit. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.
8.   See also: C.C. Edgar, "Excavations in Melos, 1898. III. The pottery," Annual of the British School at Athens 4 (1897/8), 37-48; id., "Excavations in Melos, 1899. C. The pottery," Annual of the British School at Athens 5 (1898/9), 14-19.
9.   D. Mackenzie, "Excavations in Melos, 1898. II. The successive settlements." Annual of the British School at Athens 4 (1897/8), 26-27, pl. III.
10.   C. Gamble, "Formation processes and the animal bones from the sanctuary", in Colin Renfrew and M. Wagstaff (eds.), An Island Polity: the Archaeology of Exploitation in Melos, 479-88. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982.
11.   The study of Kamares ware from Lahun in Egypt is a reminder of the influence from Phaistos: J.L. Fitton, M. Hughes and S. Quirke, "Northerners at Lahun: neutron activation analysis of Minoan and related pottery in the British Museum", in S. Quirke (ed.), Lahun studies, 112-40. Reigate: SIA Publishing, 1999.

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