BMCR 2005.09.60

Cretan Sanctuaries and Cults. Continuity and Change from Late Minoan IIIC to the Archaic Period. Religions in the Graeco-Roman World, 154

, Cretan sanctuaries and cults : continuity and change from Late Minoan IIIC to the Archaic period. Religions in the Graeco-Roman world, v. 154. Leiden: Brill, 2005. 1 online resource (xviii, 737 pages, 53 unnumbered pages of plates) : illustrations, maps.. ISBN 9004142363 €169.00.

The study of the last phase of the Bronze Age and the beginning of Iron Age in Crete has been one of the most rapidly expanding areas of Aegean archaeology recently. Publication of material from old excavations, such as the finds from the open-air sanctuary at Agia Triada or the rock-shelter shrine at Patsos, and the appearance of articles or monographs on specific classes of votives, like the bronze or terracotta figurines, have expanded our knowledge of the period significantly. Yet, a number of major issues for the archaeology of Dark Age and Early Iron Age Crete still await answers or further elucidation . One issue of profound importance for Crete and for the Aegean region in general is the issue of continuity of Bronze Age culture and religion.

The author of Cretan Sanctuaries and Cults attempts to cover this gap by discussing the Cretan sacred places and their cults from the 12th down to the end of the 7th century BCE. This is a very long period to be dealt with easily and comprehensively and full of risks when treating religious aspects of that poorly known and changing period. Yet, the author of this book has plunged into the subject with enthusiasm and has managed to come out with a valuable systematic catalogue of the cult places known to have been active at that time. At the same time, an attempt has been made “to reconstruct the principal functions of the types of sanctuaries identified in cultic and social terms” (p. 11).

The book, based on a doctoral thesis submitted at the University of Amsterdam in 2003, succeeds in bringing together and evaluating the archaeological evidence from no fewer than ninety Cretan cult places. Some of the sanctuaries discussed are identified simply by a shrine deposit ; as a result, location and form of the sanctuary remain undiscussed. Hence emphasis has been placed on establishing the broader functions and patterns of development rather than on detailed treatment of each documented sanctuary site.

The book consists of five chapters of unequal length and scope. The framework of this research is set out in a long and wide-ranging introductory chapter, while the second chapter treats concisely the history of Minoan archaeology. The core of the book consists of the third and fourth chapters dealing with the sanctuaries and cult practices of the period, while the results of this analysis are comprehensively presented in the final chapter.

The first chapter starts with the background to the inquiry and the author’s aims, proceeds with a discussion of the methods and models adopted and adapted for the identification of sanctuaries and ends up with a brief discussion of the terminology, chronology and abbreviations used. In setting out the main targets of this research the author tries to make absolutely clear that priority had been placed in delineating historical developments that affected and marked changes in cult practice.

The second chapter takes up the formation and evolution of Minoan archaeology. The author’s apparent intention is to provide a background for understanding the subject by examining the history of scholarschip and the origins of different interpretations of study. The chapter was written in the hope that it might provide “more insight into the foundations of an often undifferentiated and static idea of continuity as a major characteristic of Cretan culture and religion after the Bronze Age” (p.37).

The underlying concept throughout this book is that continuity of tradition mixes with innovations resulting from historical developments. The argument is pursued systematically throughout the third and fourth chapters, each one of which deals with a chronological period representing, according to the author, a distinct phase in the evolution of sanctuaries and cults in Crete. The author identifies thirty-two sanctuaries of the first phase, corresponding to the LMIIIC/SM periods, which are presented in Catalogue A in the third chapter. The evidence is extremely vague for some of them (A1, A8, A20, A28), while location and form are unknown for a few others (A2, A3, A5, A15, A32). Yet, there is a detailed discussion of all of them against their historical background according to recent archaeological research.

The LMIIIC and SM periods represent a time of great changes in Crete, with signs of destruction and movements of people, abandonment of previously flourishing harbour towns and creation of new and sometimes large settlements inland. New cult forms appear at some sites, and it seems that sanctuaries play a distinct role in several regions. The author assumes also a migration from mainland Greece to Crete in this period because of the presence of Mycenaean traits in LMIIIC pottery, new elements in architecture and burial customs and also the later use of the Doric dialect.

The classification of sanctuaries offered in the third chapter is based on a modified version of Edlund’s categorisation of Sicilian sanctuaries.1 The term urban is limited to sanctuaries found within the city, but the term extra-mural, used by Edlund for the sanctuaries found immediately outside the city, is here replaced by the term suburban, which has been more widely used in Aegean archaeology. All other terms previously applied to sanctuaries lying outside the city are here subsumed under the term extra-urban. Accordingly, of the thirty-two sanctuaries attributed to the first phase, corresponding to the IIIC/SM periods, twenty-two are recognised as urban or suburban and ten as extra-urban. The latter are basically open-air sanctuaries, frequently situated in caves or rock-shelters.

The most characteristic urban cult place of this phase is recognized to be the freestanding bench sanctuary, in which a stone-built bench served to carry large, wheel-made terracotta female figures WITH uplifted arms, explained as images of the deity. Other cultic equipment and votives found in these sanctuaries include snake tubes, horns of consecration, plaques and vases, mostly kalathoi. Bench sanctuaries, which are explained as community cult places of Minoan ancestry, are considered to lack predecessors on the mainland because they appear in Crete already in LMIIIA2-LMIIIB. This study, however, demonstrates that they are suspiciously absent from central Crete, while they are rather common in the newly founded hilltop communities of Eastern Crete. They are usually situated in a central location and frequently associated with a large open space. Thus they are identified as communal sanctuaries in which rituals were performed exclusively on behalf of the community.

The open-air cult places, whether peak sanctuaries, simple enclosures or caves and rock-shelters usually have a long history of cultic use, going back to the Palatial period. A notable exception is the sanctuary at the Piazzale dei Sacelli at Agia Triada (A26), which is explained as a new sanctuary. Previous studies attributed it to the LMIIIB period and explained it as a public sanctuary for a post-palatial settlement. But here D Agata’ s dating in the IIIC, i.e. after the abandonment of the settlement, is adopted.2

In the following discussion of the principal types of cult equipment and votives in use during the LMIIIC/SM periods, large terracotta female figures with upraised arms, figurines of bulls or fantastic animals, snake tubes, horns of consecration, plaques and kalathoi are distinguished as the most representative. But, as the author rightly notes, while the wheel-made female figures with upraised arms occur mainly in bench sanctuaries while the wheel-made terracotta bulls and other fantastic figures turn up mainly in open-air and cave sanctuaries. This is an important observation that signifies a diversity of cult practices already in this period.

The sanctuaries and cults of the Early Iron Age, which the author thinks expand from the Protogeometric to the end of the Orientalising period, are discussed in the fourth chapter. Following an overview of the main changes in social, political and cultural level that had taken place during that period, a detailed list of sixty-nine sanctuaries is presented in Catalogue B. Fewer than twenty of them are identified as extra-urban because they can not be promptly connected with a particular settlement, while the other forty-nine sanctuaries current in this period are categorized as urban or suburban because they are directly associated to a specific community and settlement. The term suburban is here used in a broader sense than for the previous phase as it includes every sanctuary directly related to a settlement, even if it lies at a rather long distance from it. Suburban sanctuaries, which were rarely attested previously, now become frequent, and they occur in a variety of forms, while extra-urban sanctuaries are rare but still they are mostly open-air shrines or cave sanctuaries. An interesting category of suburban sanctuaries, attested by merely eight examples, comprises those established on the ruins of Minoan palaces or other monumental Bronze Age buildings.

A major development in this phase is correctly recognised to be the rise of a new sanctuary form, “the hearth temple”, which consists of one or three rooms in linear arrangement and contains a hearth in the main room. Following the decline of the by then popular bench sanctuary, the hearth temple gradually becomes the most common form of urban sanctuary in Crete. Although far from usual, a bench may go together with the hearth some times, as e.g. at Dreros (B32), but the focus on a female terracotta figure, formerly a dominant element of bench sanctuaries, seems to have gone. This conclusion is based on the absence of large, wheel-made terracotta figures in hearth temples, in which votives are always modest, consisting mainly of pottery or small animal and human figurines. Cult assemblages in these sanctuaries frequently include large numbers of objects more common in daily life, like jewellery or armour and weapons. The cult assemblages with large, terracotta figurines of bovids and fantastic animals appear only in reduced numbers. There is an impressive rise of bronze objects in most sanctuaries, which is explained as the result of an intensification of long-distance exchange networks and change in cult behaviour. The author claims that urban and suburban sanctuaries served mainly the emerging socio-political elites by sustaining rituals for the integration of new social groups within the community, while rural cult places operated outside such urban, social frames.

Another conclusion drawn on the basis of votives is that in Early Iron Age cult was not consistent everywhere, as before. The large variety of offerings is seen as reflecting a wide range of social groups, while the rich assemblages of precious bronzes are attributed to male aristocratic initiative. In view of that, hearth temples are attributed to a male deity and their function is compared to that of andreia and prytaneia. It is also claimed that the large terracotta bovine figures found in extra-mural sanctuaries were possibly associated with the cult of a male deity (p. 622). Suburban cult places on the other hand are seen as emphasizing female deities.

Thus, although according to the author this study “has no central thesis to defend” (p. 11), the argument develops on its own throughout the book. Continuity of cult practice in post-palatial Crete is seen as gradually overwhelmed by innovations imposed by social, political and economic developments better formulated in urban centres and accordingly reflected in urban sanctuaries and cults. This is a convincing argument, in full accord with current trends in archaeological research which put emphasis on social and economic developments that affected cult and society.3 Evidence in support of this theory is used sensibly for the first phase (i.e. LMIIIC) but the extent and complexity of the subsequent phase (PG to Archaic) makes it difficult to track innovations, or possible setbacks, step by step. The inclusion of the Orientalizing period in this phase destroys clarity of conclusions almost entirely. Sanctuaries and cults of the Protogeometric and Geometric periods can not be treated en bloc with those of the Orientalizing period, when the by then strong social diversity has given way to well organised communities.

In Cretan Sanctuaries and Cults emphasis has been placed on establishing the broader functions and patterns of development rather than on detailed treatment of each documented sanctuary site. Thus, and in the absence of recent comprehensive studies of Early Iron Age Crete, this book offers a good survey of the period and at the same time the first systematic identification of cult places of the Dark Ages and the Early Iron Age in Crete. The identification of sanctuaries is based on the model set by Renfrew in 1985 in his study of the sanctuary at Phylakopi on Melos,4 which focuses on the material remains and iconographic sources. Before that any identification of possible cult places lacking monumental and characteristic remains was almost exclusively dependent on literary sources. The paucity of literary information on Early Crete makes the use of material evidence the only possibility and seems to function in the best possible way.

The results of the analyses undertaken in this book are comprehensively presented in the last, fifth chapter, in which regionalism and cultural diversity are better explained. Modern scholarship tends to emphasize regional variation, and the Early Iron Age counts as a period of decentralization and cultural complexity in the Aegean and more specifically in Crete. This book tries to highlight this issue as much as possible, but the potential variations in the role of the older surviving traditions and the newly introduced ones still remain largely to be assessed. The causes and stages of the gradual conversion from the all-mighty female Bronze Age deity of Nature to the various female Olympian deities, such as for example Athena or Artemis, to whom Cretan sanctuaries were dedicated in the 7th century, are not dealt with in this book. The rise of male deities is given better attention, but the subject is so huge that there are still a lot of issues needing clarification.

The book, which is complemented by a good bibliography up to 2004, a detailed index and some useful tables summarizing classifications of sanctuaries and votives, is nicely produced. But the paucity of pictures, most of them unrefined, free-hand drawings of figurines and other objects, does not do justice to the huge research carried out for this work.

In spite of this lack and any reservations one might have for the restrictions of the analysis of religious evolution taking place during the Early Iron Age, the book will be a useful guide to the study of sanctuaries and cults of the last phase of Bronze and Early Iron Ages in Crete for quite some time.


1. Edlund, I.E.M., The Gods and the Place. Location and Function of Sanctuaries in the Countryside of Etruria and Magna Grecia (700-100 BC), Stockhom 1987.

2. D’Agata, A.-L., Statuine minoiche e post-minoiche dai vechi scavi di Haghia Triada (Creta), Haghia Triada II, Padova 1999.

3. Cf. e.g. Wallace, S., The changing role of herding in the Early Iron Age of Crete. Some implications of settlement sshift for economy, AJA, 107 (2003), 601-628.

4. Renfrew, C. (ed.), The Archaeology of Cult. The Sanctuary at Phylakopi, BSA Suppl., 18, London 1985.