Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.10.35 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.10.35

Quentin Letesson, Carl Knappett (ed.), Minoan Architecture and Urbanism: New Perspectives on an Ancient Built Environment.   Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2017.  Pp. xxii, 394.  ISBN 9780198793625.  $130.00.  

Reviewed by Alexandra Salichou, Directorate of Prehistoric and Classical Antiquities, Hellenic Ministry of Culture (

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

This admirable publication is the product of the workshop From Static Data to Dynamic Processes: New Perspectives on Minoan Architecture and Urbanism that took place at the University of Toronto in January 2015.1 The meticulously designed and arranged chapters of this volume provide comprehensive overviews and offer fresh perspectives that form, above all, a solid basis for directing future studies in the architecture and urban settlement of Bronze Age Crete. Issues of methodology and analytical practice (especially the coding of data), as well as the gains of interdisciplinary approaches, also represent prime concerns throughout the book.

The introductory chapter, written by the editors, is a critical historiographic survey that reflects deeply on the past achievements, the present state of our knowledge and the intended goals of this volume for the study of the Minoan built environment. The distinction between the different scales (micro-, meso- and macro-) that constitute the “triple and yet integrated conception of built environment” (p. 7) is justifiably deemed fundamental, as it allows the integration of architectural and spatial studies in spatially meaningful contextual categories. Quite appropriately, the entire organization and grouping of chapters in three parts is based on this emphasis on the scale of the individual building, the settlement site and the region respectively, without, it should be noted, failing to mention the necessity of integrating these scaled approaches in order to address complex issues such as the rise of urban settlement.

Such meaningful arrangement of the volume betrays meticulous planning and outstanding editorship, also apparent in the substantial number of cross-references among individual chapters. Each part begins with a detailed overview by the editors (pp. 23-30, 107-113, 259-265) that includes, beyond comprehensive summaries of each section’s individual chapters, comments on the nature of the evidence and specific methodological issues pertinent to each scale.

Tim Cunningham takes an original and interesting approach into the problem of the priority of form over function in Neopalatial architecture. He focuses on probable functional “anomalies” (perhaps a term preferable to “failures” or “mistakes”), elements that were applied detached from their functional necessity, in order to convey the prestige of the buildings’ occupants.

Maud Devolder offers an overview of the study of energy expenditure in Minoan building construction, drawing heavily on her doctoral dissertation. 2 While admitting the considerable limitations of such analyses, there are valuable insights to be gained from her discussion on the preference of certain materials, the estimation of a relatively low impact of building projects on local communities, as well as the non-correspondence between the labor-time estimates and the typological groupings of certain buildings.

Jan Driessen discusses the social dimension of Houses3 and, through a discussion of duplicate architectural forms and the distribution of finds, offers a stimulating suggestion for a gender-based division of space in certain Neopalatial and Late Minoan III buildings. He therefore stresses the fundamental role of the corporate groups that used such buildings as locales for interaction, without excluding the co-existence of different forms of social organization.

Todd Whitelaw compares the different processes of urbanization on prehistoric Crete and on the Greek Mainland, before he attempts broader comparisons with sporadic examples drawn from the 3rd-2nd millennia BCE in the Ancient Near East and the Eastern Mediterranean, emphasizing broad structural similarities, as well as differences. His overtly extensive and copiously illustrated survey (whose preliminary character he himself stresses, p. 162, 165) is naturally not exhaustive, but nonetheless lays the foundations for more thorough and context-sensitive analyses that would lead, as is his stated aim, to an understanding, as opposed to mere description, of Minoan urbanism and the ideological structures that underpinned it.

Clairy Palyvou offers an interesting analysis of the design of Minoan palaces approached from a meso-scale perspective: the structure of various spaces, their relationship and the circulatory patterns are studied in conjunction to the study of settlement sites. In assuming an analytical approach, she arrives at conclusions that concern the phenomenology of these building complexes, such as their use and perception by contemporary users.

Matthew Buell and John McEnroe present the results of the recent Gournia Excavation Project focusing on the diachronic overview of the settlement’s layout. Although indispensable, certain aspects of their discussion would benefit from more extensive presentation and documentation, such as the inference of a Protopalatial palace from the distribution of the facades built in white crystalline rubble masonry (pp. 210-213), as well as aspects of the development of the Protopalatial-Neopalatial street system. Although more extensive photographic documentation would have been desirable, one might also wish for a specific explanation of the differences between the authors’ new Gournia plan (p. 205, fig. 9.1) and Vasso Fotou’s additions to Boyd-Hawes’ plan.4

Joseph Shaw suggests that the Middle Minoan long, narrow slab-pavement at Kommos was a slipway, based on its inclination and special features. This fascinating proposal, aided by excellent illustrations and photorealistic reconstructions, opens a stimulating discussion that will not be confined to the interpretation of the specific Kommos structure, but will affect the study of communal projects of a similar scale in similar urbanized contexts.

Eleftheria Paliou and Andrew Bevan present an overview of computational approaches and their applicability to the inherently fragmentary archaeological data. They focus on south-central Crete in order to demonstrate that the application of analytical models may illuminate factors that affected the location of settlements, their development and interaction, all of which effectively shaped settlement hierarchies in this region.

Louise Hitchcock and Aren Maeir offer a comparative assessment of the architecture and urbanism in Late Minoan IIIC Crete, Cyprus and Israel. Their consideration of Aegeanizing and ‘Aegeanizing’ elements in Cypriot and Philistine architecture is refreshing, and shows a highly welcome appreciation for the subtlety of the processes involved, moving decisively beyond questions of colonization and diffusion.

Rodney Fitzsimons and Evi Gorogianni argue convincingly for the identification of a Minoan-style banquet-hall in the NE Bastion of Ayia Irini and discuss the context of the architectural ‘Minoanization’ of the site. The active agency of the local Kean community in such processes of adaptation is justifiably emphasized in order to dispel the notion of passive imitation of exotic features.

In the final chapter of the book, the editors are joined by Michael Smith. Together they build upon Amos Rapoport’s model of the multiple levels of meaning in the built environment in order to set a proper agenda that would aim towards an understanding of the processes behind the formation of the urban landscape, a goal that would take us well beyond categorizations and typological constructs.5 By bringing together a variety of approaches to fundamental questions on the formation process, the use and function of Minoan architectural and urban forms, they propose to offer a critical perspective to the study of Minoan urbanism and its architectural expressions.

This volume is more than a sum of its parts. Besides scholarly contributions of great scholarly quality, the editors offer the reader a conceptual framework that, although resting on an ever-convenient and much-beloved tripartite scheme, allows the proper contextualization of present and future questions on Bronze Age Cretan (or, indeed, all ancient) architecture. It would be fair to say that the organization of the volume and the quality of its energetic editorship set a very high standard.

Such an appreciation leaves room for few complains. Although the five penetrating introductory and concluding chapters authored by the editors offer considerable compensation, it is still a pity that no record of the “unusually fruitful and candid” (Hitchcock’s and Maeir’s comment on p. 320) discussion following each paper made it into the volume. This, however, cannot possibly obscure the fact that the book deserves a prominent place in every serious archaeological library and an admission to the ‘must-read’ lists of pertinent graduate seminars.

Authors and Titles

1. Introduction: Minoan built environment: past studies, recent perspectives, and future challenges (Q. Letesson and C. Knappett)
Part I
2. Architecture: building dynamics at the micro-scale (Q. Letesson and C. Knappett)
3. Best laid plans: an archaeology of architectural anomalies in Bronze Age Crete (T. Cunningham)
4. Architectural energetics and Late Bronze Age Cretan architecture: measuring the scale of Minoan building projects (M. Devolder)
5. Understanding Minoan in-house relationships on Late Bronze Age Crete (J. Driessen)
Part II
6. Urbanism: built space and communities at the meso-scale (Q. Letesson and C. Knappett)
7. The development and character of urban communities in prehistoric Crete in their regional context: a preliminary study (T. Whitelaw)
8. Minoan group design: the 'view from the bridge' (C. Palyvou)
9. Community building/ building community at Gournia (D.M. Buell and J. McEnroe)
10. The Middle Minoan slipway for ships at the Kommos harbour, and harbour development in prehistoric Crete (J.W. Shaw)
Part III
11. Processes and patterns at the macro-scale: Crete and beyond (Q. Letesson and C. Knappett)
12. Computational approaches to Minoan settlement interaction and growth (E. Paliou and A. Bevan)
13. Lost in translation: settlement organization in Postpalatial Crete: a view from the east (L.A. Hitchcock and A.M. Maeir)
14. Dining on the fringe? A possible Minoan-style banquet hall at Ayia Irini, Kea and the Minoanisation of the Aegean islands (R.D. Fitzsimons and E. Gorogianni)
15. A comparative perspective on Minoan urbanism (Q. Letesson, C. Knappett and M.E. Smith)


1.   From Static Data to Dynamic Processes Programme and Objectives.
2.   M. Devolder, Construire en Crète minoenne: Une approche energétique de l'architecture néopalatiale, Aegaeum 35, Leuven-Liège 2013.
3.   See also J. Driessen, ‘Spirit of Place: Minoan Houses as major actors’ in D. Pullen (ed.) Political Economies of the Aegean Bronze Age, Oxford-Oakville 2010, pp. 35-65.
4.   V. Fotou,New Light on Gournia. Unknown Documents of the Excavation at Gournia and Other Sites on the Isthmus of Ierapetra by Harriet Ann Boyd, Aegaeum 9, Liège-Austin 1993, folded plan B.
5.   A. Rapoport The Meaning of the Built Environment: A Nonverbal Communication Approach, 2nd edition, Tucson 1990.

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