BMCR 2005.11.24

Reports on the Vrokastro Area, Eastern Crete: Volume 3: The Vrokastro Regional Survey Project: Sites and Pottery. University Museum Monographs 123

, , , 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 $75.00.

Directors of archaeological field projects face peculiar problems when it comes to the publication of their work. Whereas the fundamental techniques of excavation (and their recording) have not changed in their essentials for over fifty years, field survey has undergone multiple methodological revolutions in a much shorter span of time. Survey, especially in the Aegean, has not only become more intensive and more systematic, it has also tried to take its diachronic brief more seriously (survey has, arguably, been partly responsible for the recent revival of interest in Ottoman ceramics), and it has tried to incorporate geology, geomorphology, ceramic petrology and other environmental approaches into survey’s research design.

What then should a director do, in the case of a survey that was conceived in the 1970s and largely implemented in the 1980s? Should she try to present the results of her survey as corresponding, as closely as possible, to that Platonic Ideal Survey that many academics (and potential critics) carry around in their heads? Or should she say, in effect, ‘well, this is a 1980s survey — it is better to present the results as best we can than not to present them at all’, and so resign herself to the various slings and arrows that ideal directors of ideal projects are likely to fling at her? The book under review represents a compromise between these two extremes.

This volume (volume 3 in the Vrokastro series) does not really represent an argument as such, nor strictly speaking does it present results. Rather it presents the evidence, on-site location and finds, on which those results and interpretation depend. The survey was a comparatively small one, covering an area of about 25km 2. The survey began as a re-appraisal of the Early Iron Age site of Vrokastro, and expanded to become a micro-regional survey of this area of Eastern Crete, that lies between Ayios Nikolaos and the Ierapetra peninsula. The results of the re-appraisal of Vrokastro itself have appeared as volume 1, and the results (and historical interpretation) of the survey itself have appeared as volume 2.

After a brief acknowledgements and preface, the volume is divided into three main chapters focusing on three major chronological divisions. In chapter 1, Barbara Hayden provides a brief account of the prehistoric (Final Neolithic and Bronze Age) to Early Iron Age (or early Greek) pottery; in chapter 2, George Harrison and Barbara Hayden describe the Roman pottery, Roman being taken to mean a period lasting from the 1st to the early 8th century AD; and finally M. Hahn provides a brief account of the medieval and modern pottery. Each chapter is supported by references, notes, and tables. The tables are of two kinds. There are short tables, with brief descriptions, of every (numbered) sherd and (numbered) site in the book itself; and these are in turn supported by more extensive descriptions in two long pdf files (on sherds and sites respectively) in the accompanying CD-Rom (which can be read fairly easily by the two computers I tried it on).

Reading the book in an office, room or library, remote from the actual material evidence is not the best way to review this book. It would be best reviewed ‘in the field’, by those actively engaged in trying to use the material to examine similarities and differences with the material they themselves are studying. Ideally, I should have reviewed it while on a Praisos study season — I would then be in a better position to state, for example, whether any of the fabrics or objects described or illustrated match any of those found on our survey, or on other surveys in East Crete. And this is the audience for whom this book will be really useful — other survey directors in the Aegean generally and Crete in particular. And, if the authors or directors will forgive the impertinence, I do have a few comments and some criticisms.

First, all objects are considered ‘sherds’. Even the Archaic votive terracottas illustrated in figures 81, 91 and 95 are counted as sherds rather than small finds. It is not clear to me, without going through the catalogue exhaustively, how lithics, bronze or iron objects might be classified. Second, there is a marked inconsistency in the general description of pottery as one moves forward in time. In chapter 1, the main focus is on the fabrics, that is on the clay matrix and the inclusions (this perhaps betrays the geological training of Barbara Hayden’s co-worker, Jennifer Moody). Later chapters are more directly focused on the decoration and surface treatment, with fabric hardly considered at all. Third, the late Archaic, Classical and Hellenistic pottery seems to have fallen into a black hole between the Early Iron Age and the Roman periods. Some of it is listed in the CD-Rom files, but almost none of it makes it to the general description in chapter 1. This is not because there were no late Archaic, Classical and Hellenistic finds — a number of the terracotta figurines recovered indicate otherwise. And it is true that, until recently, Cretan pottery of this period was not well understood, particularly in Eastern Crete. But this is no longer the case. A number of young American and Greek scholars who have worked at the same INSTAP study centre at Pacheia Ammos, where much of the study of this material has taken place, have transformed our view of late Archaic to Hellenistic Cretan ceramics. Brice Erickson has studied stratified Archaic to Classical deposits from Afrati, and Natalia Vogeikoff has undertaken a thorough study of the Hellenistic material from Mochlos. Could these scholars not have been consulted? I am not quite sure whether this omission is due to the typescript having been completed some time ago — before one could take advantage of the relative new work by Erickson and Vogeikoff — or due to a genuine absence of evidence for material of this date from the survey area. My experience in another area of East Crete leads me to suspect that material of these periods exists and may have been overlooked.

One final comment: initially, I had expected that the files in the CD-Rom would take the form of a database. The authors have obviously decided against this, perhaps on the ground that there is no agreed format for relational databases that result from field survey. The pdf files are in effect long text files — if one wants to find the full catalogue entry on, say, 2559, one has to scroll down through the pdf file to get it. The information is there, but hard to get at. And an opportunity may have been missed to provide colour illustrations in the CD-Rom. Both files have a colour ‘frontespiece’, but colour illustrations of the fabrics described in chapter 1 would have been particularly useful for comparative purposes (it is harder to know if you have the same fabric from description alone — visual comparison is essential). Again, there may be good reasons for this. One could argue that there is a ‘trade off’ between comprehensive description and accessibility. Colour illustrations take up a lot of disk space, and might have made the task of accessing the material more difficult.

But these are cavils. The volume’s principal strength lies in the recognition that survey reports now have to be documented as fully as possible. We can no longer content ourselves with synthetic ‘dots on the maps’, and ask the academic community to trust that we have arrived at such conclusions in a systematic fashion. The evidence on which such conclusions are based has to be presented as thoroughly as is possible (or rather, as is reasonable). This publication does exactly that. It provides a near comprehensive list of finds, all illustrated to some degree (principally by drawings of a high standard). It has good maps, where the sites are clearly located, and is additionally supported by good photographs. The illustrations themselves allow other survey directors (such as this reviewer) to recognise many comparanda from their own areas. Barbara Hayden is to be congratulated for publishing her data in such a useful fashion in such a handsome volume.