Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.07.08 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.07.08

Philip P. Betancourt, The Dams and Water Management Systems of Minoan Pseira.   Philadelphia:  INSTAP Academic Press, 2012.  Pp. xvii, 91.  ISBN 9781931534666.  $20.00 (pb).  


Reviewed by Eric Poehler, University of Massachusetts Amherst (epoehler@classics.umass.edu)

The Dams and Water Management Systems of Minoan Pseira by Philip P. Betancourt is the most recent in a series of reports on the archaeological investigations of this small islet off the north coast of Crete. The author is a veteran of many campaigns in the Aegean, including co-directing the excavations on Pseira. Building off this breadth of experience in the archaeology of the island, including intensive excavations and extensive field surveys, Betancourt and his collaborators have turned to study the water management systems that supported the agriculture on this small, rugged island.

Minoan Pseira, as Betancourt explains, offers an important opportunity to study Bronze Age practices of water collection in rural environments. Although agriculture on the sloped lands of the Mediterranean has been studied, the associated irrigation strategies have largely been neglected. On Pseira, such strategies were developed in response to two convergent pressures: population growth within the prosperous port town and environmental change to a drier, less seasonably stable climate. The book is an attempt to situate two major dam structures on the island within this context and to understand them as an attempt to improve marginal land in the face of a deteriorating climate.

The book is organized into brief front matters, four chapters, and an appendix, followed by references and index. At 91 pages, this slim volume presents only the most basic information in the introduction, establishing in broad outlines Minoan ceramic chronologies, the port of Pseira, and the close integration with and dependence on the economic sphere of Crete. The second chapter effectively makes the case from paleoclimatological data for a deteriorating environment for agriculture, in connection with the related archaeological evidence for agriculture, for animal husbandry and food processing on the island.

Chapter three focuses on two dam systems – M9 on Dune Creek and M29 on Middle Creek. with full descriptions of the flat paved crest of the dam, which may have served also to bridge the ravine and the bedrock that was cleaned to prevent slippage at the point of contact for the dam. These impressive structures are further situated within the larger stream systems, including a series of smaller ‘check-dams’ that slow the stream’s rate of flow and create a series of small pools at intervals both above and below the main dams. Connection to the vast agricultural terracing of the island is made through the description of two carefully excavated terraces. The stratigraphy within terrace G2 allows Betancourt to date the original construction to the Middle Minoan period and its expansion to Late Minoan IA. Most interestingly, these excavations showed several different soil types and associated assemblages that suggest both the construction (e.g., using soils possibly dredged from dams) and use (e.g., manuring strategies) of the terraces. Betancourt’s discussion in this section and its expansion in chapter four creates a fascinating opportunity for the reader to imagine a managed landscape, replete with hundreds of terrace structures, at least two great reservoirs (each over 100,000 gallons), and a series of smaller pools.

The appendix by Floyd McCoy brings together geologic, geographic, and archaeological evidence into a technical, though pleasantly readable, discussion of stream flow speed, absorption rates of bedrock types, and watershed areas. These factors combine to estimate the volume and speed of the water in the streams during both normal and severe rainfall. More importantly, McCoy shows these factors converging at the dams in order to model the pressures the structures would have been required to endure. Such structural modeling does more than prove in theory what can be seen in practice (i.e., that the dams worked), it reveals the knowledge and planning that the Minoan Pseirans put into these structures.

The archaeological narrative just described, however, is won by the reader only through sustained effort. The book suffers from deficiencies that form a central critique: in my estimation, the current narrative would have been better as an article. In many sections the argumentation is terse, relying on citation to earlier work, while other parts of the book are unnecessarily repetitive. Further explanation in some places might have calmed skeptical minds and greater concision in others could have brought interdependent ideas into greater proximity within the text. The archaeological discussion of the dams illustrates this problem. Each dam is introduced with nearly identical discussion and half a page is given over to basic dimensions. There are also missed opportunities for greater clarity and cohesion where information is lacking or found elsewhere in the book. McCoy’s appendix contains both basic information about the island’s geology, hydrology, and the function and construction of dams that would have better integrated throughout the book. This appendix strangely also has its own references list, which immediately precedes the complete bibliography and duplicates a number of citations.

Likewise, the brevity of some sections include statements that, without further explanation, appear to overreach. For example, the conclusions about local wood sources and animals raised on the island come from limited evidence limited: there are fewer than 400 excavated charcoal remnants and fewer than 200 faunal remains and all of these are from urban areas, making importation from the mainland an equally likely source for the materials. Similarly, the observation that an increase in cooking pots found in the terraces between Middle Minoan and Late Minoan I, indicating that hot food was cooked in the field during the later period, does not follow. Surely the population growth, increase in terracing, and manuring practices cited earlier in the book could also account for the greater number of pots.

On the other hand, some of these gaps in the discussion raise interesting questions. For example: How much local and imported labor would have been required to build the dams and terraces? Also, how much food could the new system produce? Betancourt states that 90 hectares of the island was terraced and available for cultivation. This interesting fact, however, is not connected to the size of the island or the population of the port town. Would the 57.3% (1.57 km² total area) of arable land be sufficient to support the town of 60 large houses? Returning to the dams, it is interesting to compare the total volume of the reservoirs to the area and locations of the terraces. How much water could each terrace have received? What kinds of crops could have been supported? Since there are no irrigation canals, how much water would have to be carried, in what, how far, and by whom? In the context of an increasingly drier climate and the reservoirs’ wide surface areas, how much of an issue would evaporation have been? Finally, how did the expansion of the terraces happen? In the late Minoan period, were existing terraces expanded (e.g., Terrace G2) primarily or were new terraces built (e.g., Terrace Q21)? If the latter, where did this expansion occur: laterally out from the streams, vertically higher into the water shed, terracing entirely new stream, or a combination of these? Addressing any of these questions with an analytical discussion would have profitably replaced the several repeated sections of description.

In sum, with The Dams and Water Management Systems of Minoan Pseira, Betancourt has done well to explore how Minoans mitigated systemic environmental collapse with systematic management of the landscape. Although at points a more cohesive argument is desired, the description of the dams and terraces excavated will provide comparative evidence for further exploration on Pseira, Minoan Crete, and beyond.

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