Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2016.01.15 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2016.01.15

Joseph W. Shaw, Elite Minoan Architecture: Its Development at Knossos, Phaistos, and Malia. Prehistory monographs, 49.   Philadelphia:  INSTAP Academic Press, 2015.  Pp. xxv, 196.  ISBN 9781931534772.  $65.00.  

Reviewed by Maud Devolder, Excellence cluster TOPOI (

Table of Contents

The purpose of the book is to study the appearance, development and function of the features that characterize Minoan elite architecture, concentrating on the late Proto- and early Neopalatial periods, i.e. the Middle Minoan (MM) II and MM III phases. To do so, the author focuses on the three palatial sites of Knossos, Phaistos and Malia. The study is set in a purely Cretan setting, as the author views Minoan elite style as an indigenous development, despite the influence of an eastern “idea of monumentality” (172-173 n. 162).

Before going into a more detailed analysis of the content of each of the five chapters of the book and its contribution to the general debate, one must admit that the structure of the argument somehow makes the reading and understanding of the discussion at times an arduous task. This is most pronounced in the general organization of the book. General features and complex forms of the elite architectural typology are discussed in Chapters 1 and 4, both associated with Table 1.3 set in Chapter 1, and are explored back and forth in time (Chapters 2, 3, and 5 on Protopalatial or earlier predecessors, MM III Knossos, and the genesis and development of the elite style in MM I-II respectively). One also wishes the author had provided a more detailed chart (than his Table 1.1) of the chronological phases (Early Minoan (EM) I-III, MM I-III and Late Minoan (LM) I-III) within each period (Pre-, Proto- and Neopalatial), since the development of many of the elite architectural forms discussed is intimately connected to a detailed knowledge of their appearance during distinct chronological phases. This said, the book provides an unparalleled attempt to put the Minoan architectural record into perspective by considering the genesis and development of its most elaborate forms. Recent and fruitful site-focused studies have promoted the discussion of the role of palatial and non-palatial elites in architectural innovations, but the author’s new synthesis offers a broader view by gathering together the data from the three main palatial sites. Needless to say, this ground-up approach is based on an incomparable knowledge of Minoan architecture, and as such, the book extends the author’s Minoan Architecture: Materials and Techniques (2009),1 moving beyond the formal characteristics of Minoan architecture to their development within a specific chronological frame and socio-historical context.

Chapter 1 introduces the elite style in architecture by discussing six of its most obvious features, namely raised walkways, west courts and ‘theatral’ areas; central courts; domestic or residential quarters; grouped storage magazines; upper-floor reception rooms; and ascending and parallel stairways. The information specified in the text is summarized in Table 1.3, accompanied with an extensive bibliography (10), with an emphasis on those formal features which not only characterize ‘palaces’ in the functional sense of the term, but other elaborate buildings as well, hence the use of the term ‘elite’ architecture (2-3). Indeed, the author focuses on the three largest palaces while enhancing his discussion with what he considers the most insightful examples outside this functional category. As a whole, Chapter 1 is introductory in purpose, and aims to set the stage for the investigation of more complex forms of elite architectural features in the book. It is supported by beautiful and purposeful illustrations.

Chapter 2 deals with the extent and nature of the Protopalatial remains in the palaces of Knossos, Phaistos and Malia. The author synthesizes the published data on the subject, taking into account the variability of the archaeological record at the different sites. He agrees that the Prepalatial remains were significant elements in the genesis of the palaces, but rightly stresses that up to now no data supports the existence of coherent architectural complexes from such an early stage. As far as the Protopalatial period is concerned, Chapter 2 rapidly explores the architectural remains attributed to the first palaces (e.g. Protopalatial antecedents of the Minoan Hall at Knossos, the Lustral Basin at Phaistos, or the prominence of non-palatial elites in the development of architectural forms at Malia), which are considered in more detail in Chapters 4 and 5.

The purpose of Chapter 3 is to set the stage for discussing the role of the palace of Knossos as a leader in the development of architectural forms. Section 3.1 focuses in a very detailed and well-illustrated manner on the ‘extended pier technique’, i.e. the use of mortised ashlar blocks that supported vertical wooden elements, providing significant seismic advantages, the earliest examples of which appear at Knossos. Section 3.2 deals with evidence of collapsed stone architectural elements, stressing that Knossos produced the strongest evidence for elaborate architectural material collapsed from upper floors, in comparison with other sites. Section 3.3 presents the nature of the archaeological record at Knossos, building upon the destruction processes and consolidation or reconstruction works by Evans and the architectural data collected during the early years of exploration of the palace. Section 3.4 compares the palaces at Knossos and Phaistos on the basis of three building techniques: coursed ashlar construction, the use in the Neopalatial period of an interlinked timber frame that allows for a better distribution of the weight down to the ground level, and the use of the extended pier technique vs. the all-stone pillar. Section 3.5 is a descriptive account of Fyfe’s, Doll’s and de Jong’s contribution to the conservation and our knowledge of the palace at Knossos.

Chapter 4 constitutes the core of the book. A typology of the complex forms related to the elite style (MM I-III) is provided, with an emphasis on their function, appearance and development, illustrated by Table 1.3 in Chapter 1 (11-14 and associated bibliography). The forms discussed are extensive wooden frameworks (which develops the discussion in Section 3.4.2 in Chapter 3 more extensively); wall-ends, doorways, and pier-and-door partitions during phases 1 (EM II-MM II) and 2 (MM III); columnar structures; multiple windows or polyparathyra; lustral basins; wall building techniques; freestanding supports; attached or embedded piers as wall supports; gypsum dadoes, floors, and pavements; and ‘triglyph’ benches. The function, structural role, and aesthetic appeal of the different forms are exposed, and the variability behind the impression of standardization is efficiently supported by the descriptions and illustrations of architectural features. Among some of the most interesting aspects discussed, one could note: the remains of a Protopalatial ancestor to the pier-and-door partition (and hence perhaps the Minoan Hall) in the Residential Quarter of the palace at Knossos (104-105); the role of Knossos in the development of coursed ashlar masonry, as suggested by Protopalatial coursed piers in the West Wing and reused blocks in the southern wall of the Hall of the Double Axes (126); the discussion on the principles and seismic advantages or disadvantages of monolithic, multiple blocks or single low-block pillars, well represented at Knossos although the use of the former seems to have been forbidden within the palace for structural reasons (130-133); and the extensive use of gypsum, at Knossos especially but also in the Messara, perhaps triggered by the fire resistance, cooling and aesthetic capacities of this material. The author explicitly points to the role of Knossos as a leader in innovative architecture: key elite forms mostly appear there or in sites considered to be under its influence. If the interpretation of the bases from the Lair building as the remains of a Protopalatial pier-and-door partition proves to be correct, revealing a Minoan Hall in the eastern residential wing of the MM II palace at Knossos, and considering the current state of literature, it indeed accentuates the primacy of this edifice in the genesis and development of the elite style. This hypothesis is, however, partly constructed by downgrading the quality of elite features at Malia, as the Protopalatial use of ashlar on this site is – wrongly, in our opinion – considered as “overmodest” (153), and by giving the state of preservation more credit for explaining the loss of elite features at Knossos than at other sites (102, 104). One also regrets that, despite a thorough investigation of elite style markers, the author seems to take some liberties with chronological attributions. For example, the Lustral Basin of Building A in Quartier Mu at Malia is referred to as “of MM I date or even earlier” (120), while it is built late in MM IB at the earliest, and most probably early in MM II (163).2 One must admit, however, that the purpose of the author is clearly stated, as he aims to provide for a time lapse for this architectural form to develop until it reaches a more advanced form in MM IIIA Knossos (120).

Chapter 5, the conclusion, takes a larger view of the elite architectural style by considering its function and significance within Minoan society. The residential function of the palaces is explored (Section 5.1), with the presence of Minoan Halls in both (Neopalatial) palaces and domestic residences being the main and perhaps most debatable argument. The ancestry and development of this architectural feature is then discussed (Section 5.2), centering on Quartier Mu at Malia and the role of non-palatial elites in architectural innovations at this specific site. Changes in residential areas between the MM II and MM III phases are also explored, considering their scale, accessibility and degree of privacy. The discussion in Section 5.3 of Pi- shaped structures, which are non-elite, is at odds with the theme of the book, but the arguments regarding their interpretation are very convincing and the subject definitely deserves a specific study. This point in Chapter 5 marks a return to a more formal, rather than functional, approach of elite architecture by considering EM predecessors, notably structures at Trypiti or Haghia Photia, which the author considers “as separate regional phenomena rather than a step up in a process leading toward more inventive solutions” (160). In fact, he is skeptical about an appearance of an elite style before the MM IB phase, and connects it to “the combined effect of population growth, sustained group organization, and the burgeoning economy during MM I-II in Central Crete” (163). As a way of conclusion, he states that the comparison between different sites stresses the primacy of Knossos in the development of significant elite forms (Section 5.4), an argument put forward by other studies dealing with specific building or decorative techniques, but which is here based on a more thorough review of the elite architectural record.

To summarize, Shaw puts architectural developments into perspective within their broader functional and social context, based on a deep and detailed description and understanding of the material and technical features of elite forms. Even if one can express reservations about some of the arguments put forward by the author, this book offers an unparalleled ‘ground up’ approach to the history of Minoan elite architecture.


1.   Shaw, Joseph W. Minoan Architecture: Materials and Techniques. Studi di Archeologia Cretese 7. Padova: Centro di Archeologia Cretese and Bottega d’Erasmo, 2009.
2.   Poursat, Jean-Claude. “The Emergence of Elite Groups at Protopalatial Malia. A Biography of Quartier Mu”. In Schoep, Ilse, Tomkins, Peter, and Jan Driessen (eds), Back to the Beginning. Reassessing Social and Political Complexity on Crete during the Early and Middle Bronze Age. Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2012, p. 177-183.

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