BMCR 2002.05.16

Knossos: Pottery Groups of the Old Palace Period. BSA Studies 5

, Knossos : pottery groups of the Old Palace period. British School at Athens studies ; 5. Athens and London: British School at Athens, 1998. 195 pages, 156 pages of plates : illustrations ; 31 cm.. ISBN 0904887324 £49.00/$79.50.

This book is an exercise in the “archaeology of archaeology”: a reconsideration and re-publication of material from the site of Knossos, excavated between 1901 and 1930 by Arthur Evans and his associates. It should be said at the outset that this is a book by an expert, aimed at other experts, and as such will be of limited interest to the general reader. It is, however, an important work of reference that will be of fundamental importance in discussing the pottery groups of the Old Palace Period (= Middle Minoan IB-IIIA) at Knossos and their associated architectural contexts. The author’s patient examination and reconstitution of dispersed groups in the Knossos Stratigraphical Museum is a tribute to his scholarly acumen.

The book is divided into three chapters, followed by the pottery catalog, various concordances, and the plates. The first chapter addresses the archaeological and stratigraphic contexts of the sixteen find groups treated by M. The difficulty here is that by recent standards, there was a lack of vertical stratigraphic control in the early Knossos excavations. Since the standard periodization of Middle Minoan pottery is based precisely on these groups, there is a danger of circular reasoning in any reassessment of them. In order to have an external control, M. turns primarily and reasonably to Phaistos, where better-controlled stratigraphic sequences are available. He prefers the stratigraphic interpretation of the Old Palace phases at Phaistos made by Enrica Fiandra to those originally made by the excavator, Doro Levi; it is strange that although M. mentions the publication containing Levi’s updated ideas about the sequence (D. Levi and P. Carinci, Festòs e la civiltà Minoica IIB, 1988), he does not seem to take much notice of the actual revisions, which seem to meet many of his objections to the earlier scheme.

The second chapter discusses the range of pottery fabrics found, classifies the decoration, and provides a typology of the most common shapes, ending with a short treatment of chronological changes. M. unfortunately follows a long tradition in Minoan pottery studies of multiplying “wares” and “styles” promiscuously, as well as creating a number of new terms for shapes. Although his treatment has the virtue of explaining with reasonable clarity what he means by each of his terms, was it really necessary, for example, to replace such well-known and established terms as “conical cup” with “crude cup”? M. seems to dismiss out of hand the sort of formal shape typologies created by Arne Furumark for Mycenaean pottery ( The Mycenaean Pottery: Analysis and Classification, 1941) arguing that it is “… more important to consider the function of a vase, rather than its overall form. Whether it was meant to pour liquids is given more relevance than whether it has a conical-ovoid shape” (p. 65).

It seems to me that M. misses the dual nature of Furumark’s typology, which takes into account not only the actual shape of the vessel, but also its likely or presumed function. Furumark first divided Mycenaean pottery into “forms” based on likely function; forms were then subdivided into “shapes” based on variations in the actual profiles of the vessels. M.’s blanket skepticism concerning the use of variations in shape to establish chronological sequences is extreme and flies in the face of numerous successful and chronologically-sensitive shape typologies from the Bronze Age and later times. In any event, our ability to determine vessel function is hardly perfect: one recalls the “oinochoai” recovered from destruction levels in the Phrygian site of Gordion that were discovered full of grain!

More could have been done with the classification of motifs. M. gives short shrift to G. Walberg’s previous typology of palatial Middle Minoan pottery shapes and motifs in her book Kamares (1976). Most would likely agree that Walberg followed the paradigm of Furumark’s study of Mycenaean pottery too closely: the decoration of Minoan pottery is more variable and hence less susceptible to such schemes than the later Mycenaean products. It seems to me, based on the illustrations, that a loose typology of the individual motifs and typical combinations is possible: M.’s “styles” are often simply no more than motifs (e.g., the “Sunrise Style”) or cover such a range of decoration (e.g., the “Woven Style”) that they are not particularly useful.

In the third chapter, M. briefly discusses how the Knossos deposits reflect major episodes in the construction, modification, and destruction of the Old Palace at Knossos and the connection between the Knossos deposits and those from other sites in the Old Palace Period. As M. moves into a consideration of the absolute chronology of the Old Palace period, he provides a straightforward review of particularly important Minoan-made or Minoan-influenced artifacts discovered in Egypt or the Levant. M.’s actual conclusions about the links between Egypt and Minoan Crete, however, go far beyond what the evidence will bear. According to M. (p. 106):

Cretan relations with Egypt in the Middle Bronze Age may be viewed as a society very much under the influence of the dominant power of its time. For this reason, I have decided to link the Minoan periods to specific Egyptian reigns where possible, both because I believe that significant changes in the rule of the most powerful state in the region must have had some effect on neighboring states, but also because the shifting sands of Egyptian time seem to play less havoc with the Cretan periods, if they are linked to royal accessions. Thus, it can be suggested that the foundations of the palaces at Knossos and Phaistos be linked to the accession of Senusret I in 1953, 20 years into the XIIth Dynasty, allowing for the rule of Amenemhat I to overlap with the latest stages of the MM IA period.

The notion that political changes are necessarily reflected in observable ways in artifact types such as pottery is far from obvious even within a given society, let alone a neighboring one, and especially one separated by hundreds of miles of open water. It is certainly true that the recent discoveries of Minoan-type frescoes at Tell el-Dab’a may indicate a closer relationship between the two cultures than previously suspected, but where do we see obvious signs of Egyptian influence like those found in Palestine or the Levant in Middle Minoan Crete? In general, such a close chronological linkage between the two countries requires considerably more compelling evidence.

The catalog is spare, providing only the most basic information concerning each vase. The illustrations on the whole are good: virtually every piece has a photograph and 25% have profile/line drawings; one only wishes for more drawings. M. could have helped the reader interpret the drawings by providing a key to the hatching/stippling that represents different kinds of polychrome decoration, although one can usually determine this by consulting the catalog entry. It is not clear why a few vessels (e.g., Nos. 995 and 997) have only the decoration shown and not a profile.

Despite some of its limitations, this is certainly an important book that those working with Minoan ceramics and research libraries will want to have. It will be of less interest to the general reader. Aegean specialists, however, owe M. a debt of gratitude for taking on and bringing to completion this difficult study.


A substantial number of errors are present in the text, although many result from the apparent transposition of Plates 23 and 24. Some confusions and inconsistencies are noted as well. Since the book is laid out with each page in two columns, I give column as well as page number, except in the Catalog.

p. 19, left column: for “(PLATE 130)” read “(PLATES 1-30)”

p. 22, fig. 1.4: are the walls in the plan to be numbered?

p. 26, left column: for “three of the vases shown, 50, 74, and 145” read “three of the vases shown, 50, 75, and 145”

p. 33, right column: catalog numbers 327 and 328 are called Straight-sided Cup, Type 10 in the text, but are listed in the catalog as Type 9

p. 33, right column: catalog number 311 is said to belong to both the “Spiral Band” and “Heavy Spiral” styles

p. 33, right column: it is likely that for Spiral Band (306, 309-331, 333, 372, 379-84, 390, 400)” one should read Spiral Band (306, 309-311, 333, 372, 379-84, 390, 400)”

p. 36, right column: for “… and two unpublished photographs in the Evans Archive, reproduced here in PLATES 70 and 71.” read “… and two unpublished photographs in the Evans Archive, reproduced here in PLATES 100 and 101.”

p. 37, left column: for “The inventoried pottery, 671-753 illustrated in Plates 121-27,” read “The inventoried pottery, 671-753 illustrated in Plates 111-117,”

p. 37, left column: for Crude Cups of Type 2 (671-707)” read Crude Cups of Type 2 (701-707)”

p. 38, left column: for Rounded Cup of Type 1 (756)” read Rounded Cup of Type 1 (754)”

p. 41, right column: “and the examples decorated in the White-spotted Style (818, 873)” Catalog number 873 does not seem to be white-spotted; could number 874 be meant?

p. 43 left column: “Rounded Cups of Type 1a (902)” The catalog classes catalog number 902 as a Rounded Cup of Type 1b.

p. 56, left column: “Short-rimmed Angular Cups of Type 2 (926-927)” These are called Shallow Angular Bowls of Type 2 in the catalog.

p. 59, left column: for “Straight-sided Cups of Type 2 (789-90), 5 (112-13), and 6 (636),” read “Straight-sided Cups of Type 2 (789-90), 5 (112), and 6 (113, 636),”

p. 59, right column: for “Straight-sided Cups of Types 2 (31-47, 56-67, …” read “Straight-sided Cups of Types 2 (37-41, 56-67, …”

p. 65, left column: “This style is found on a Tumbler of Type 4 (989), Straight-sided Cups of Types 7 (990), 8 (300-5), 12 (404-7, 423-6, 1044)” Only catalog numbers 300-302 are described as Straight-sided Cups of Type 8 in the catalog; catalog numbers 303-305 are called Straight-sided cups of Type 7; catalog numbers 423-426 are described as Straight-sided Cups of Type 11 in the catalog.

p. 71, left column: Catalog numbers 327-38 are classed as Straight-sided Cups of Type 10 in the text, but are called Type 9 in the catalog.

p. 77, left column: for “The three examples in the catalogue (676, 762 and 806)” read “The three examples in the catalogue (683, 762 and 806)”

p. 122, Catalog number 7: add “PLATE 31”

p. 130, Catalog number 159: this is not numbered in Plate 48, but is presumably the middle cup in the stack of three.

p. 146, Catalog number 495: for “PLATE 686” read “PLATE 86.”

p. 148, Catalog number 560: in Plate 93, this is labeled as number 561.

p. 148, Catalog number 563: this is unlabeled in Plate 93, but is presumably the piece above number 757.

p. 158, Catalog number 760: this is unlabeled in Plate 118; but is presumably the piece above Number 757

p. 162, Catalog number 845: for “PLATE 129” read “PLATE 126”

In the following catalog numbers Plates 23 and 24 have been reversed: 653-59, 661-62, 667-68,701, 714, 716, 725, 732, 735, 746.