Review of PSEIRA: A Minoan Site in Eastern Crete



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PSEIRA: A Minoan Site in Eastern Crete

Pseira Island is not the most visited site on Crete, nor is information about the site easily obtainable. That's why I looked forward to the CD, and I wasn't disappointed.

My first question, given my own interest, concerned the audience. Most things in that corner of the world are tripartite; it wasn't hard to establish audience classifications of scholar, student, and general-interest viewer. This is definitely for the latter and, I suspect, too basic for the scholar or student. Text is minimal for most of the photos, and for general-interest viewers, that may be an advantage. For that audience, I'd class this as excellent, marred by here-and- there minor annoyances. I felt the Chinese-dinner syndrome - after an hour, I was hungry for more - and ordered the Betancourt-Davaras book, Pseira 1. (Maybe that's the idea behind the CD!)

The opening is a nifty color photo of Pseira (taken from the south on the Gulf of Mirabello, near Mochlos I'd guess). Accompanying it is a burst of music that sounds like a dance band and after a few bars dies away. One is invited to "click here" to reach the main menu; this provides an even louder musical notation, which is revisited every time one returns to the main menu. And it must be revisited several times. Although the cover copy (corresponding to the book- jacket copy?) claims the CD is multimedia, the two musical events just described are the total sound. The rest is photos and text. Come to think of it, I doubt I'd know what a Minoan orchestra sounds like, so maybe I heard one!

The main menu lists these sections: Religion, Trade and Commerce, Building Tour, Notable Finds, Daily Life, History of Pseira, Who were the Minoans, and the credits (which are well done). With this multiple-choice menu there's no way of knowing where to start. So I'll tell you: the Building Tour.

The Building Tour allows you to orient yourself. The section opens with a photo of a peninsula in the center of the island. This gives way to an aerial photo, parts of which are labeled Area A and Area B; the viewer is invited to click each of these. Each has a plan of the ruins, and the houses are designated with initial A or initial B. (So far so good. Clicking on house AA gives one a photo of the house; this includes a large X in one spot. There's no explanation, and single- or double-clicking does nothing. This X-marks-the-spot spot is one of those minor annoyances mentioned earlier.) Many of the finds are identified in particular houses; that's why I suggested you start here. A close look at the aerial photo shows other foundations outside Areas A and B, but these foundations are ignored in the CD. Clicking on an Area gives a plan of the houses; clicking on each house provides photos and text. Eight structures appear in Area A and five in Area B. This is the longest and one of the most interesting sections.

Pseira archaeological materials span the period from the Neolithic to the Late Bronze Age, with most being Early Minoan to Late Minoan 1B (the period when the existing town achieved its "height of importance" before being violently destroyed).

Who were the Minoans opens with a quick explanation of physical types; wanders over to shots of Knossos; gives examples of glyptic arts, frescoes, pottery, the bull's head rhyton from the Little Palace, and the restored throne room; and concludes with a brief introduction to Gournia, which is said to be the supplier for pottery at Pseira. Unless I'm missing something, I couldn't see the pattern. Trying to describe the Minoan culture in 30 seconds seems impossible, and the author proved it. A shift of pottery provenance (from Knossos to Pseira, especially since the work was done apparently in Gournia) would be confusing to someone unfamiliar with the material. I suspect the author could use a Year in Provenance. All in all, my reaction is this section of the CD was the weakest.

The section entitled Religion at Pseira makes the entrance fee to the CD worthwhile. Divided into "Religion in the Cemetery" and "Religion in the Town," this section invites the viewer to pursue each. The cemetery is located west of the town, which is again why you should start the CD with the Building Tour for orientation. The cemetery's four types of graves (rock shelters; cist graves; small, rock-built tombs; and tombs imitating houses) are shown, along with stone and pottery offerings. The discussions of religion in the town cover jars and bull statuettes. A sudden shift to one of the snake-goddess figurines from Knossos is at first jarring but makes sense in the overall picture of Minoan religion. The town's "civic shrine" (Building AC) had a fresco I was previously unaware of. Two women (in stereotypical Minoan dress) faced one another; apparently most of the fresco was lost. Two rhytons (one an ovoid painted as a dolphin; the other, a famous basket-shaped container) complete this section.

The segment Notable Finds is subdivided into five areas: pottery, stone vases, frescoes, the dams, and other finds. Various types of Pseiran pottery are shown and discussed; I enjoyed this area. So too the "stone vases" - lamps, buckets, jars - and the materials from which they're made. The "frescoes" discussion covers the two women found in Building AC, particularly the complex designs woven into their dresses.

"The dams" I found most interesting - a couple of them have been identified. (Another of those annoyances: one of the captions reads "the dam at location M9," and M9 isn't identified anywhere.) The need for these dams and their methods of construction are clarified; again, this is a topic I knew nothing about. The "other finds" subdivision discusses, among other things, a lustral basin with a drain hole. It's the first I know of, and I thought it exciting.

Trade and Commerce tells us that most of Pseira's trade was done by sea and that importing played a big role in the life of the community. This immediately gave me a headache, wondering what was exported. Here was a place that had trouble raising food and trouble with water and had to import most of its industrial and luxury needs; what did it have of value to the outside world? As with the walrus and the carpenter, "but answer came there none." (Another minor annoyance: the basket-shaped rhyton is repeated here, and several other photos are also repetitions. I was forced to wonder if there weren't enough materials or if there were problems with copyright.) Despite my complaints, the CD offers an extensive description of Pseira's imports: manufactured goods, food, raw materials (with maps showing their locations). The section concludes with a drawing of a Pseiran sealstone showing a Minoan ship, a photo of the Pseiran harbor, and a list of more than twenty different rocks and minerals imported to the island.

The section, History of Pseira, contains a real treat, an explanation of Bagge's technique. We've all seen representations of Minoan pottery that look like photos of outline drawings of photos. That's what they are! I'll get back to that shortly. The history is broken into - what else? - a tripartite subdivision: History, 1906- 1907 Excavations, and 1985-1995 Excavations. The last, which opens with a great photo of the town looking back across the gulf, is disappointing. Pictures of the staff excavating abound, but even the general audience has seen enough of these. My disappointment lay in the absence of information - there's only one general statement about pottery, stone tools, bronze objects, and the like. I don't know if this is because the excavation hasn't been published yet. The History segment tells us where Pseira is and offers a generalized map (at last!) of eastern Crete. The segment then uses the same photos found elsewhere in the CD to describe the antiquity of the place. Aside from a nice, short-hand description of Vasilike Ware, little in this seems new, if the viewer has wandered through other sections first. The segment 1906-1907 Excavations is, for me, a jewel. It begins with a photo of Richard Seager, the excavator, who seems to have been all over the eastern end of Crete. A biography of Seager follows, along with a description of excavating in the "old days." A photo of the harbor follows, and others offer some of Seager's finds. Then we come to a description of Bagge's technique. (Halvor Bagge was Seager's excavation artist.) Because color photography wasn't available in 1907, outline drawings were "painted in watercolors." But what drawings! Here's how the technique is described (for brevity, I paraphrase the author): "Objects were photographed; prints were made on paper that would take India ink. Bagge drew over the prints, looking at the object to add any details that did not show up in the photo. After the drawing was finished, the photographic image was bleached away, leaving only the ink on paper." The section ends with a bit more description of the excavation.

Daily Life, as a section, whetted my appetite - and offered less than promised. Much of the material seemed speculative and based only on pottery finds. For instance, calling the Pseirans "merchants" bothered me. Granted, many of the finds were apparently produced at Gournia or Knossos; I can think of a number of ways these finds could have come to Pseira without being commercial transactions. A few clicks further on, there's an illustration of a red-stone lamp (and a cup made from a triton shell) with accompanying text stating lamps burned oil or beeswax. I don't doubt this is true, but I'd appreciate supporting evidence. Several photos of stone tools, especially cooking utensils, follow with a discussion of available Pseiran and Minoan foods. I found particularly interesting the author's statement that the Pseirans must have eaten in small cups or communally; no small plates or dishes have been found on the island. This is close to an argument from absence, but I like it. The section closes with methods of storage and the jars used in those methods.

Summary: I found the highs of this CD to be much higher than the lows. That's why I've called it excellent for its audience. On a personal note, I'm more comfortable with a book. When I'm reading about a site, I like to look at plans, go back to descriptions, turn to photos - I don't need to describe it! One doesn't have as much freedom with a CD, and frequently one must cycle through a series of frames to reach, say, a particular photograph. I know nothing about the production of CDs and realize some of my carping (say, the repetition) may be the result of production problems. That aside, this CD is worth the cost for those who want a general introduction to Pseira.



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