BMCR 2004.12.34

Reports on the Vrokastro Area, Eastern Crete. Volume 2: The Settlement History of the Vrokastro Area and Related Studies. University Museum Monograph 119

, , , Reports on the Vrokastro area, eastern Crete. University Museum monograph ; 113, 119, 123. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, 2003-2005. 3 volumes : illustrations, maps ; 29 cm.. ISBN 193170726X. $95.00.

There is a great “division and divide” in Aegean archaeology which seems to separate Crete from mainland Greece. It is nowhere more apparent than in the field of archaeological survey. Without a doubt, Crete has had a rich but idiosyncratic history of landscape archaeology, in which an unusual variety of methodologies, theoretical interests, chronological emphases, and historical questions have generated equally diverse research designs. The hybridity of field methods and diversity of approaches (and research problems) employed by Cretan archaeologists has perhaps confounded counterparts on the mainland, who have been the leading voices in the methodological mainstream of intensive archaeological survey and the principal authors of the Aegean survey’s “new wave” of the 1980’s.1 It seems that Cretan work, which still involves topographical survey, single-site and urban surveys of various kinds, environmental sampling, and old-fashioned site prospecting, has had little to offer in this largely method-oriented discussion. Although the mainlanders are likely to be frustrated by and perhaps even skeptical of these divergent strands of fieldwork — they rarely if ever turn up on the radar screen of the mainland’s methodological discourse — the results of Cretan survey are readily and anxiously integrated by researchers on the island into compelling regional histories and problem-oriented syntheses.2 This has, however, unfortunately helped to solidify separate conversations about ancient Aegean cultural landscapes. In this world of parallel discourses, Barbara Hayden’s most recent installment of the results of the survey of the Vrokastro area of eastern Crete bridges this divide with the first large-scale, multi-disciplinary, and multi-period intensive archaeological survey on the island to reach the final publication stage. Furthermore, Hayden’s book, the second volume of a three volume series presenting the results of the Vrokastro Regional Survey Project (VRSP), is based on fieldwork designed and initiated in the mid-1980’s, and therefore might stand as the exemplar of the “new wave,” Cretan style. Ironically, the methods used at Vrokastro diverge from those of the mainland school.

Following the pioneering work of the 1970’s in the Ayiofarango, Lasithi, and Chania Akrotiri, there emerged a trend on Crete to standardize methods, focusing particularly on site definition and the evaluation of material patterns of land use by means of intensive off-site collection and detailed measurement of sherd densities across the landscape. This involved the implementation of the intensive “field” system — the division of the landscape into a mosaic of units (“fields”) defined by measured 1.0 ha. units or irregular topographical features, and then the placement of transects within those demarcated areas — adapted from the methods used by Cherry and Davis in Keos and Nemea. Surveys in the western Mesara, Ziros, and Gournia carefully adapted their field procedures to this technique,3 while elsewhere (in typical Cretan style) methods were being tailored to specific environments, spatial scales, fieldwork conditions and staff limitations, and above all, research questions. The survey at Vrokastro was one of the latter. Guided by Jennifer Moody’s (co-director of the VRSP) broader interest in human-landscape interaction in various environmental zones 4, and the effects of climatic and environmental change across the island, the VRSP emphasized exploratory, probabilistic and environmental sampling.

While “light” on survey methodology (a brief and painless four pages relegated to an appendix on CD-Rom) but “heavy” on results, this volume takes the reader head first through the various physical and cultural dimensions that make up the Vrokastro landscape. The introductory chapter (partially co-authored by Jennifer Moody and Oliver Rackham) not only outlines the scope of the volume, the history of research in the region, and the broader goals of the project, but it also immerses, if not submerges, the reader in the recent physical and cultural landscape, defining in detail the various environmental zones that form the project’s largest-scale sampling units, and providing a whirlwind diachronic tour of the survey zone, relating settlement patterns and land use to bedrock geology, hydrology, and natural formation processes. This is a very dense and detailed 34 pages that requires considerable effort to understand. To visualize the material patterns and environmental background the reader will need to reread sections and concentrate attention on the maps and charts in the back of the book. On the whole this is not — nor meant to be — easy reading, and it sets the tone for what is found throughout this work. Hayden and contributing authors unabashedly and transparently confront the readers throughout with the data, drawing them directly into the layers, intricacies, and diachronic changes in this landscape; they never shy away from the real problems and complexities presented by the material patterns and offer more questions than simplified answers. One has the sense that the text was not written from the analysis of crunched numbers, maps, graphs, and charts (which are indeed plentiful and clearly drawn), but from a real intimacy with this region and an understanding of the material culture and natural as well as the cultural landscapes of eastern Crete.

Hayden is of course no stranger to the region. The survey was an outgrowth of her study of the architecture and finds from Edith Hall’s 1910-1912 excavation of the Middle Minoan and Early Iron Age settlement and cemeteries at Vrokastro. While this topographical study and reexamination of finds was begun in 1981 (and the architecture and figurines published over a decade ago), the pottery from Hall’s initial work and the topography of the tombs are the subjects of the first volume in her Vrokastro series.5 The forthcoming Volume 3 will present the survey’s site gazetteer and pottery catalogue, while an untold number of future volumes have been planned, publishing the small finds, geological studies, petrographic analyses of the pottery, an ethnographic study of pastoralism, and the results of a coastal mapping project begun in 1999.

Volume 2, therefore, must be read without the hard, microregional data at hand — the detailed site and area drawings, site descriptions, and pottery catalogue and illustrations which are (at the time of this review) forthcoming in the third volume. This does not, however detract from the immediate usefulness of the present work, although it disadvantages the reader interested in scrutinizing a specific site, type of site, chronological problem, or regional pattern. Volume 2 is the grand synthesis, pulling together the various strands of analysis and components of nearly two decades of fieldwork and study into a detailed but coherent presentation of results. While there are other contributors throughout — Moody and Rackham on methods and environment; Dierckx on stone tools; Stallsmith on Venetian, Ottoman, and recent settlement; and Harrison and Stallsmith on relevant historical and epigraphical evidence — the crux of the book is Hayden’s history of settlement in the region from the Final Neolithic to the 20th century.

Each chapter is a self-contained unit, devoted to a separate period, and each is elaborated with sections on environmental context (geology and zonal divisions), site distribution, site sizes and ranking, chronology and growth, demographics, land use and economics. This orderly, analytical, and repetitious sectioning of chapters makes casual reading a bit exhausting (if not tedious), but the structure is necessary, indeed fundamental to the ultimate effectiveness of the book as a reference for historians, archaeologists, ethnographers, and environmental scientists working throughout the island and the Aegean. One can navigate the book easily, moving quickly among chapters, sections, and site distribution maps, comparing periods, environmental zones, and broad regions.

Perhaps the most important part of each of these chapters is the section entitled, “Evidence for Contemporary Settlement Systems,” which, in well-labeled subsections, summarizes the results of pertinent fieldwork and synthetic studies elsewhere on Crete, the mainland and the Cyclades, fully integrating recently published data into discussions of broad regional trends. These careful summaries of contemporary patterns directly engage a variety of sources of regional data, not exclusively from intensive archaeological survey, addressing the questions and problems of the comparability of results but also utilizing the widest and fullest body of information available to explain cultural configurations and culture change at various spatial scales in the Aegean. This is something of an achievement in itself as few published surveys on the mainland, Cyclades or even Crete have attempted to venture far beyond the boundaries of their study universe (or immediate area) to explore the broader implications of their results. Hayden’s work demonstrates the immanent usefulness of survey in addressing old questions and informing new avenues of fieldwork.

For readers distracted (or overcome) by the copious detail of each subsection, the period-history chapters conclude with summaries that effectively review the main points and outline the historical development for the chronological phases discussed in the chapter, while reflecting on the transitions between periods. The conclusion (Chapter 15) offers a clear, comprehensible, and artfully concise summary of a vast amount of survey data. Without distracting citations and references to site and zonal numbers and local toponyms, the main part of the this chapter brings together into a single narrative the various settlement histories discussed throughout the work.

In addition to the 11 chapters devoted to different periods, there are forays into travelers’ accounts and historical sources (Chapter 10) and an in-depth discussion of the architecture in the survey zone from prehistoric to recent times (Chapter 14), including an interesting description of recent field houses (co-authored by Stallsmith and Hayden). Appendices on CD-Rom have chapters on field methods, recent agricultural and demographic statistics (Stallsmith), a discussion of the agricultural year in the region (Stallsmith), the texts from the Phaneromeni Monastery (Stallsmith), and an overview of the Holocene geomorphological developments in the Istron area (the coastal zone of Vrokastro) by George Postema. A complete catalogue and discussion of the stone tools recovered from the sites in the survey (Dierckx) is also presented in digital form as a CD-Rom appendix. While this section might better have been placed as a chapter in the subsequent Volume 3 — and indeed easier to use in printed form — Hayden is to be credited for getting the data out as soon as they have been made available by the contributing authors. Finally the CR-Rom includes a pdf version of the Vrokastro webpage, otherwise accessible online through the Worldwide Research link on the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology website.

What is important about this book is it brings to the forefront and engages the major issues now confronting archaeologists, prehistorians, and historians working on the island, as well as the material patterns that are now allowing us to begin to reconstruct island-wide patterns and regional variations. The growth of settlement in the Final Neolithic leads to settlement expansion in the Early Bronze Age. While Hayden’s data suggest a period of growth in EM II, rather than culmination or plateau of development, she adeptly grapples with the problems of cultural complexity in the period and culture change in EM III. There is perhaps more continuity in the late Prepalatial phase at Vrokastro (especially at larger sites) than is witnessed in other areas of Crete, but Hayden is sensitive to the expansion of the resource base in this period especially in upland areas. The Protopalatial pattern in the region follows the island-wide (with some exceptions) trend of rapid expansion and dispersal of settlement and a remarkable increase in site numbers, only to be followed by a decrease (especially in small rural sites) and retraction of settlement in LM I. The author pinpoints two central areas of future research in Minoan archaeology that have been defined by survey work on the island, the causes and mechanisms leading to the restructuring of settlement and land use suggested by the drastic changes in material patterns in the EM III-MM I and MM III-LM I transitions. While the LM III pattern shows the expected retraction of settlement, and continued use of Neopalatial sites on a reduced scale, the Vrokastro data also demonstrate the lingering use of the upland regions, perhaps by the very population base that supported the establishment of the Early Iron Age settlement and cemeteries around the Vrokastro summit. One of the most significant contributions of this volume to Cretan archaeology is the handling of historical periods, particularly the development of the Greek cities of Istron and Oleros, with the highly nucleated pattern in the coastal zone of the port at Istron, and by the 7th century the dispersed pattern of the Meseleroi valley, the hinterland of ancient Oleros. Hayden’s survey is the first Cretan project to detail the Archaic development of early Greek city-states on a regional scale.6

This second book in the Vrokastro series is a crucial part of the growing corpus of intensive survey data from Crete. The ambitious scale and detail of this study, however, make it something more; it is the vitally important documentation of a rapidly changing cultural and archaeological landscape. As an archaeological synthesis it reaches across and beyond the survey zone to incorporate data from neighboring and distant areas, successfully integrating this slice of Crete into a broad multiscalar view of the history of settlement in the Aegean.


1. J.F. Cherry, “Regional Survey in the Aegean: ‘The New Wave’ (and After),” in P.N. Kardulias, ed., Beyond the Site: Regional Studies in the Aegean Area (Lanham 1994) 91-112.

2. E.g., E. Borgna, “Regional Settlement Patterns, Exchange Systems and Sources of Power in Crete at the End of the Late Bronze Age: Establishing a Connection,” SMEA 45 (2003) 153-183; T. Cunningham and J. Driessen, “Site by Site: Combining Survey and Excavation Data to Chart Patterns of Socio-political Change in Bronze Age Crete,” in S.E. Alcock and J.F. Cherry, eds., Side-by-Side Survey: Comparative Regional Studies in the Mediterranean World (Oxford 2004) 101-113; J. Driessen, “History and Hierarchy: Preliminary Observations on the Settlement Pattern in Minoan Crete,” in K. Branigan, Urbanism in the Bronze Age Aegean (Sheffield Studies in Archaeology 4) (Sheffield 2001) 51-71.

3. K. Branigan, “Prehistoric and Early Historic Settlement in the Ziros Region, Eastern Crete,” BSA 93 (1998) 23-90; L.V. Watrous and H. Blitzer, “The Gournia Survey Project: A Preliminary Report on the 1992-1994 Field Seasons,” AJA 99 (1995) 313; L.V. Watrous, D. Xatzi-Vallianou, K. Pope, N. Mourtzas, J. Shay, T. Shay, J. Bennet, D. Tsoungarakis, E. Angelomati-Tsoungarakis, C. Vallianou, and H. Blitzer, “A Survey of the Western Mesara Plain in Crete: Preliminary Report of the 1984, 1986, and 1987 Field Seasons,” Hesperia 62 (1993) 191-248.

4. J. Moody, “Western Crete in the Bronze Age: A Survey of the Evidence,” in L.P. Day, M.S. Mook, and J.D. Muhly, eds., Crete Beyond the Palaces: Proceedings of the Crete 2000 Conference (Prehistory Monographs 10) (Philadelphia 2004) 247-264.

5. B.J. Hayden, Reports on the Vrokastro Area, Eastern Crete. Volume 1: Catalogue of Pottery from the Bronze and Early Iron Age Settlement of Vrokastro in the Collections of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and the Archaeological Museum, Herakleion, Crete (University Museum Monograph 113) (Philadelphia 2003).

6. B.J. Hayden, “Rural Settlement of the Orientalizing through Early Classical Period: The Meseleroi Valley, Eastern Crete,” Aegean Archaeology 2 (1997) 93-144.