Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2010.08.48

Joseph W. Shaw, Minoan Architecture: Materials and Techniques. Studi di archeologia cretese.   Padova:  Bottega d'Erasmo, 2009.  Pp. 337.  ISBN 9788861250727.  

Reviewed by Quentin Letesson, Université Catholique de Louvain (

The volume under review is an updated and revised version of Joseph Shaw’s seminal work first published thirty-six years ago.1 As the author demonstrates, numerous field projects and scholarly investigations have considerably broadened our knowledge of Aegean society in general and ancient architectural techniques in particular since that time. Although the overall structure of the initial book remains, this revised edition takes into account new investigations such as the quarrying of stone, the construction above ground level and LMIII architecture. It also successfully crosses the technical threshold, venturing into a more anthropological approach to development, change, and diffusion, and focuses on the agents involved in these processes (see below chap.5).

Shaw presents this work, largely concerned with architectonics, as a “logical supplement” to books dealing with Minoan architecture in terms of room and building shape and their particular relationships, function, or significance.2 Broadly speaking, the main concerns of this revised volume are building materials and techniques, especially where so-called polite architecture is concerned.

The book opens with a brief introduction to the state of research in Minoan and Aegean Bronze Age architecture in recent decades. The first and longest chapter deals with stone and is subdivided in five parts. The first lists the main types of stone used in Minoan architecture (limestone, gypsum, sandstone, schist, conglomerate, as well as less common or widely used ones) and specifies their intrinsic qualities, their various provenances, and particular uses. The second part of the first chapter addresses quarrying and the transportation of stone. The location, exploitation and peculiarities of all the limestone, sandstone or gypsum quarries found to date are detailed in relation to Minoan settlements. Several methods for the transportation of stone are also proposed but remain hypothetical due to the lack of any remains or clear iconographic testimonies related to these practices. The third part is concerned with various aspects of the carpenter's and mason’s toolbox. As asserted by the author, there are considerable lacunae in the archaeological record with regard to this topic, especially because of the extensive use of perishable materials. Nevertheless, some of the main tools (e.g. axes, adzes, saws, chisels, and hammers) are described and their use in construction techniques amply exemplified with case-studies and a rich repertoire of illustrations. The fourth part is a long subchapter dedicated to masonry, addressing in turn foundations, rubble walls and especially ashlar walls and their peculiarities. As usual, this part of the book abounds with clearly illustrated examples—often presented chronologically—that strengthen the technical considerations and give a clear image of the richness and accomplished nature of Minoan masonry. The last part of the first chapter, Special Uses of Cut Stone, gives a detailed account of the specificities of column bases and stone drainage channels (see also Appendices B and C for more detailed information about column bases).

Wood and timber comprise the topic of the second chapter. The author first mentions the main types of wood used in Minoan architecture, briefly discussing their variety and provenance. The presence of wood is often inferred indirectly from carbonized remains, negative traces of timbers in rubble structures, and carbon- or dirt-filled cuttings or gaps in ashlar masonry. The use of wood in architectural construction is then discussed within a chronological framework. The author deals in turn with reinforcement of rubble walls, wooden framing of mud brick walls, propping up using vertical timbers, carefully joined and flexible wooden framework partitioning off interior spaces, and finally columns, ceiling beams and planks. The second part of this chapter is dedicated to wooden clamps and dowels. Both are relatively infrequent (by comparison to Classical Greek buildings, for example) and their existence is inferred exclusively from mortise cuttings. Being rather uncommon and almost idiosyncratic to a specific site, wooden clamps and round dowels are only very briefly mentioned. On the other hand, square or oblong mortises occur throughout Crete on many sites, sometimes as early as MMIB. Therefore, the author discusses square dowels in greater length especially in relation to different types of piers, parapets, stone pillar built of cut blocks, and window sills, as well as the upper part of wall construction.

The third chapter first deals with sun-dried mud brick, respectively detailing their composition and technique, the archaeological evidence for them and the sizes of bricks (see also Appendix D). Terracotta objects are the main concern of the second part of the chapter. Pipes, channels, and catch-basins, as well as flooring tiles are described and their peculiarities listed, especially in palatial contexts. Appendix E is worth mentioning here. It includes a detailed catalog of all the terracotta pipes, channels and catch-basins mentioned in the book with their precise location within their building, their chronology, and dimensions.

Lime and Clay Plasters, the fourth chapter, first deals with the composition and early use of such material, especially during the Early Minoan period. It then focuses on later uses of lime plaster during the First and Second Palace periods, and in particular its preparation and the technique for its application. The following sizeable part of this chapter is concerned with floors. The author briefly mentions local earth frequently used in specific regions to lay floors and the plaster whose chief function was to cover them. He then discusses the materials of three specific flooring techniques: the so-called tarazza, “a hard durable mixture of lime and small round beach pebbles of uniform size”, elaborate slab pavements, and the unusual plaster “strip designs” made of flat bands of plaster carefully laid out in patterns. The next two short subchapters concern ceilings, upper floors, roofs and parapets. Remains of such elements are scarce, therefore the author contents himself with some remarks on vegetal materials used in roofing and some instructive parallels with the architecture of Akrotiri on Thera. This chapter ends with two pages dedicated to calcestruzzo, an unusual kind of very hard mixed material especially found on the site of Phaistos, particularly in relation with the palace. Some potential parallels elsewhere on the island are also briefly mentioned. Appendix F presents the chemical constituents for a sample of plasters from various Cretan sites dating from Early Minoan times to the Hellenistic Period.

The fifth chapter is an extremely valuable addition to the initial edition. Its first part takes a diachronic perspective on building practices. From the Neolithic through the Minoan periods, the author outlines the major developments in architectural techniques and contextualizes them in their socio-economic and technical background. This chapter allows him to integrate all the data presented in the previous chapters in a coherent and convincing explanatory framework. Within this framework, special attention is given to the origins, development and features of the so-called “Neopalatial” style. As in previous chapters, the author develops his argument with a wide range of examples from major sites on Crete. The second part of the chapter is relatively short and concerns builders. Concentrating on their organization and sphere of action, the author professes to limit himself to “reasoned speculation” due to the lack of contemporary records. He nonetheless offers a stimulating discussion about types of artisans (attached, independent) and their level of expertise and potential itinerant character. Therefore, Shaw opens challenging issues about the mobility of technologies through time and space, both locally in relation to the proliferation of the “Neopalatial” style (already discussed by Jan Driessen3) and overseas, in the third part of this chapter: Diffusion: Minoan Architectural Style Abroad. Here, the author searches for architectural evidence of Minoanization (esthetic or structural) within three broad categories defined by their increasing geographical and chronological distance from the “Cretan Palatial Style”. He successively deals with the contemporary Aegean island group (especially the sites of Akrotiri, Phylakopi, Ayia Irini and Trianda), the Mainland evidence shortly after LMI (the site of Kythera) and most extensively with the Mainland evidence from LHIIIB, focusing on various Mycenaean buildings and settlements. While Shaw admits that Minoan architectural style permeated Bronze Age Aegean built forms in various ways, he constantly and rightfully juxtaposes its influence with the existence of local traditions which often form the structural core of non-Minoan buildings.

Six appendixes follow. Apart from the first and very short one, Metal used in buildings, they have already been mentioned in this review. The book then ends with a list of abbreviations, a bibliography, a guide to site plans, the usual list of illustrations and their credits, the figures in themselves and a very useful index.

As opposed to the first edition, figures are relegated to the end of the volume. Most of them come directly from the original version of the book along with the noticeable addition of new drawings and pictures. Some might dislike having to go back and forth between the text and the end of the book to consult them, but for the sake of comparison between related figures (tool marks, for instance), it is nevertheless convenient that they are all grouped together. Most of the plans and drawings are of very good quality. The same is largely true for the photographs, however a few are a bit too small, slightly blurry because of their age, or even missing a scale of any sort. Notwithstanding these considerations, one should keep in mind that the quality of the pictures never compromises the reader’s ability to understand the work. On the contrary, they nicely complement the text and their profusion is noteworthy.

The lack of consideration of the so-called vernacular architecture,4 especially for the palatial periods, is unfortunate but surely has to be imputed to the relative scarcity of such archeological remains rather than to an attempt to ignore it. Nevertheless, recent excavations with high standards of archaeological work have revealed quite interesting non-palatial Minoan buildings such as the farmhouse at Chalinomouri5 or the modest LMIII houses at Mochlos.6 It seems reasonable to admit, with Jeffrey Soles, that buildings that we would tend to labeled as ‘vernacular’ probably formed the major part of the Minoan built environment.7 In my opinion, there is not much to gain from trying to define a boundary of some sort between ‘polite’ and ‘vernacular’ architecture.8 It is understandable that the proliferation of high quality buildings in the Neopalatial period tempts one to insist on the emergence and profusion of this peculiar and impressive architectural style. Nonetheless, I think we should consider the Minoan built environment as a whole, with the ‘polite’ and the ‘vernacular’ as parts of a continuum,9 both entitled to a thorough examination of their architectural features and architectonic properties (as simple and elementary as they might be). As Carl Knappett pointed out, if we take such an approach we will be more attuned to the “considerable interpenetration of the aesthetic and the everyday” and in a better position “to develop a unified interpretive framework that allows for the assessment of the pragmatic and the significative qualities of both ‘artworks’ and ‘artefacts’”.10

To conclude, Minoan Architecture: Materials and Techniques was and, with this updated and revised edition, is bound to remain the most useful and incontrovertible handbook for those interested in techniques and materials in Minoan architecture, whether on the field or in the library. It is not the kind of book one would read from one end to the other and then condemn to a dusty fate on a shelf, retaining only some of its main points. It is a book that will be consulted regularly and continue to be an indispensable reference for detailed, precise, comprehensive and up-to-date information on technical issues related to Minoan architecture.


1.   Shaw, Joseph W., Minoan Architecture: Materials and Techniques, Annurario della scuola archeologica di Atene et delle missioni italiani in Oriente vol. 49, Rome: Instituto Poligrafico dello Stato, 1973. 257p. Here abbreviated MA:MAT.
2.   For example J. Walter Graham’s The Palaces of Crete originally published in 1962 and in a revised edition in 1987 as well as a recent book by J. McEnroe, Architecture of Minoan Crete: Constructing Identity in the Aegean Bronze Age, both being principally referenced by the author.
3.   Driessen, Jan, “The Proliferation of Minoan Palatial Architectural Style”, ActaArchLov 28-29, 1989-1990, 3-23.
4.   McEnroe, John, “The significance of local styles in Minoan vernacular architecture”, in Darcque, P. and R. Treuil (eds), L’habitat égéen préhistorique (BCH suppl. XIX), Athens-Paris 1990, 195-202.
5.   Soles, Jeffrey S., Mochlos IA. Period III. Neopalatial Settlement on the Coast : The Artisans’ Quarter and the Farmhouse at Chalinomouri. The Sites (Prehistory monographs 7), Philadelphia 2003, 103-132.
6.   Soles, Jeffrey S., Mochlos IIA. Period IV. The Mycenean Settlement and Cemetery. The Sites (Prehistory monographs 23), Philadelphia 2008, 5-128.
7.   Soles, Jeffrey S., op. cit. , 2003, 127.
8.   For an extremely valuable approach of the concept of vernacular architecture and its implications in architectural studies, see Preston Blier, Suzanne, “Vernacular Architecture”, in Tilley, C., Keane, W., Küchler, S., Rowlands, M. and P. Spyer (eds), Handbook of Material Culture, London, 2008, 230-253; see also the essential book by Henry Glassie, Vernacular Architecture, Philadelphia and Bloomington, 2000.
9.   On unhelpful typological approaches in Minoan architecture, see Preziosi, Donald and Louise Hitchcock, “Defining Function and Meaning in Minoan Architecture: New Evidence from the Villa at Makryghialos”, AJA 98, 1994, 336; Hamilakis, Yannis, “Factional Competition in Neopalatial Crete”, in Driessen, J., Schoep, I. and R. Laffineur (eds) Monuments of Minos. Rethinking the Minoan Palaces (Aegaeum 23), Liège-Austin, 2002, 189; Letesson, Quentin, Du phénotype au génotype: analyse de la syntaxe spatiale en architecture minoenne (MMIIIB-MRIB) (Aegis 2), Louvain-la-Neuve, 2009, 30-33 and 363-365.
10.   Knappett, Carl, “Artworks and Artefacts: the Pottery from Quartier Mu, Malia”, in Bradfer-Burdet, I., Detournay, B and R. Laffineur (eds), L’artisan crétois (Aegaeum 26), Liège-Austin, 2005, 117.

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