BMCR 2007.02.03

Minoan Glyptic: Typology, Deposits and Iconography from the Early Minoan Period to the Late Minoan IB Destruction in Crete. BAR International Series 1442

, Minoan glyptic : typology, deposits and iconography from the Early Minoan period to the Late Minoan IB destruction in Crete. BAR international series ; 1442. Oxford: John and Erica Hedges Ltd, 2005. xx, 271 pages : illustrations (some color) ; 30 cm.. ISBN 1841717258 £46.00.

Minoan Glyptic is the author’s doctoral dissertation submitted to the University of Birmingham in March 2003 (although the bibliography stops in 2000). The book consists of twelve chapters, with an Introduction, Conclusions, and three Appendices. The many drawings are helpful but, as often with BAR publications, photographs are poorly reproduced. While the main geographic thrust of the work is Crete, there are also discussions of mainland glyptic where it impinges on Crete or when, as in λμίληι the two can hardly be distinguished.

Galanakis (hereafter G) aims to provide a more complete picture of “Minoan glyptic of the Prepalatial, Protopalatial and Neopalatial times … in terms of dated and consecutive sealing deposits, technical advances and development of different styles, the emergence of figured and monumental scenes with their analysis and the impact of Minoan religion in the configuration of the character of glyptic in the Bronze Age” (p. 6). One regretfully notes that the slightly odd syntax of this sentence is characteristic of G’s writing which, combined with proofreading errors (e.g. ‘possible’ for ‘impossible’ on p.7), occasionally makes the text difficult to comprehend.

The book can be divided into two parts: Chapters 1-8 review glyptic developments from the Neolithic to LM I B (stopping short of what is now called the Final Palatial Period, i.e. LM II-III); and Chapters 9-12, which explores religious iconography and the glyptic evidence for rituals and ritual action.

The first chapter examines “Typology and Function of Sealing Systems in Minoan Administration,” introducing some major themes treated in the book, notably a focus on how seals are used rather than solely as art objects. This is in line with recent scholarship which see seals as functional as well as artistic artefacts. I would nonetheless quibble with G’s definition of seals as “devices with an intaglio design which is impressed upon nodules of wet clay in order to identify, secure, or authenticate the object to which the clay had been attached.” (p. 7). This assumes that the purpose of seals is always to seal. This need not be the case: e.g. Egyptian scarab-seals were often produced for funerary deposition; cylinder seals in LBA Cyprus were more likely worn as jewellery or elite emblems than used for sealing; whether or not EM seals were primarily intended as sphragistic instruments is very much an open question; and the character of Minoan ‘talismanic’ seals (which G explores on p. 14) is still undecided.

Chapter 2 reviews “The Cultural Background of Seals before the Minoan Period,” that is, Neolithic seals from the mainland, EH II/EC II seals and sealings, and the earliest metal seals in the Aegean (mid-3rd millennium).

Chapters 3 and 4 cover the Prepalatial Period (EM II-MM IA) and Chapters 5 and 6 the Protopalatial Period (MM IB-IIIA). For each period, G first examines “Shapes, Materials and Technical Aspects”, followed by “Designs and Motifs”. G describes changing tools and techniques in some detail and gives full mineralogical descriptions of Cretan and imported stones carved into seals. Unfortunately, compared to the excellent survey of early Cretan glyptic by K. Sbonias, Frhkretische Siegel (BAR IS 620, Oxford 1995), G is less theoretically informed and fails to confront the social implications of Sbonias’ work. Perhaps because of sheer repetition, both authors uncritically accept the prepalatial date of the ‘Arkhanes script’ seals, even though, as G also notes, the pottery contexts of these seals are MM IA-MM II. G places them “before the building of the First Palaces”, which, in turn, makes them evidence for a prepalatial central authority with control of economic surpluses (p. 34); yet the seals could as well be early Protopalatial. G also often follows early authorities to the detriment of more recent information. Thus, he cites Arthur Evans’ MM IA date for the sealings in the Knossos East Pillar Basement (p. 26). Evans dated them to the late-prepalatial period because one seal was carved with hieroglyphics of “Class A”. Since the discovery of the MM IIB Mallia Workshop (which G discusses in detail, pp. 41-42), it has been clear that “Class A” is not earlier than “Class B”, as Evans believed, but defines a technique of crudely incising or gouging signs into soft stone, most commonly steatite 3-sided prisms — a style that continued into MM IIB.

Chapter 6 concentrates on the seals represented in the main Protopalatial deposits from Mallia, Phaistos, and Knossos (Petras is cross-referenced to a non-existent Section 5.6, but a short summary can be found on p. 47). There are a few problems with the organisation of the material included in this chapter. For example, the Mallia discussion starts with the seals found in the Workshop, moves to the sealings from Quartier Mu (without, however, considering their administrative import), then turns to possible ritual gestures on seals depicting human figures, lists main motifs of the Workshop seals, and concludes with remarks on Hieroglyphic three- and four-sided prisms. The section on the Phaistos sealings was difficult to follow [it is a pity that neither Birmingham nor BAR provide editorial help when English is not the author’s first language]. Although G accepts the date of MM IIB for the Vano 25 sealings (p. 43), he would wedge some time between this destruction event and that of MM IIB Mallia to allow for the development at Phaistos of more advanced seal motifs and techniques. This perhaps underestimates the different glyptic requirements in the (Hieroglyphic) North and the (Linear A) South. By stopping his reading in 2000, G was unable to profit from P. Militello’s three new studies of sealing and administration at Protopalatial Phaistos.1 Militello demonstrates that the Vano 25 sealings date to the latest phase of the First Palace and were in situ (thus not, as earlier believed, a discarded archive: p. 43). Turning to the Knossos Hieroglyphic Deposit (pp. 47-48), G reminds us of the problems that bedevil both the dating and exact contents of this “Deposit” (p. 46-47). He divides the sealings into those with advanced and less advanced seal styles, which (following I. Pini) “probably belong to different chronological phases ranging from MM II to the end of the MM III and they do not represent a homogeneous group…” (p. 48). He does not evaluate Pini’s further argument based on the different sealing-types.2

Chapter 7 covers materials and techniques in the Neopalatial Period (MM IIIB) including a thorough discussion of the development of metal signet rings in the Aegean. Chapter 8 turns to the most representative Neopalatial sealing deposits (East Temple Repository, Zakros, Sklavokampos) and their iconography, adding a note on some interaction between Near Eastern and Minoan seal-motifs in this period. I would have liked to see some discussion of the sealings and very characteristic sealed roundels of Khania as well. Chapter 9 focuses on the iconography of the sealings in the Ayia Triada deposit. G rightly stresses both the technical excellence of the best of these seals and their importance for the study of Minoan religious iconography. Again, he notes two different styles of seals, those “naturalistic … competent narrative scenes with humans and in some studies of animals;” and those of a sketchy, schematic style, “hastily manufactured by less competent engravers” or “in imitation of older styles which did not survive long in the deposit.” (p. 67) Perhaps this two-tiered evaluation was not shared by the top seal-users at Ayia Triada, a majority of whom wielded seals of the “sketchy” group.3 The next three chapters are devoted to religious iconography. Chapter 10 establishes a methodology for reading ritual images, defining ritual as “a formulaic, stylised action which involves the repetition of acts which faithfully follow the traditional forms” (p. 70); as such, ritual may be discerned in such things as a specific dress code, attitude, gestures and positioning of the body. G focuses on repetition, those seals and rings that “seem to follow a predetermined pattern where meaningful forms and objects are invariably repeated and often represented in the same combinations” (p. 73). He isolates thirteen religious symbols (such as Altars, Columns, Baetyls, etc.): three or more of these symbols on a seal may be taken to represent complex cult activities and ritual behaviours (pp. 74-75): e.g. CMS I 17 = sacred tree + impaled triangle + robe + figure-of-eight shield. G identifies in these combinations a central or “signifying” element which can then be related to the supporting elements: together, this may provide a logical interpretation of the scene (the “signified elements”): e.g., a tree may indicate a cult structure, a bird an epiphany (p. 74). Of course, as he is aware, the represented action is an artistic construct and need not reflect the real, experienced world (p. 76).

Chapter 11 returns to the representation of the human figure. Glyptic artists “omit most of the details of the human anatomy in favour of the representation of the overall ritual activity”, (p. 77) a convention which, as G stresses, is not only due to the limited space of the seal but is also a choice: the generic appearance of the figures is obviously less important than their gestures and the architectural or decorative elements in the field. After this, G goes on to identify and categorize the Goddess (or Goddesses) and the God (pp. 81-86), a fruitless undertaking, in my opinion. Only a fresh approach (or a mass of new material) is likely to lead to progress in such a well-trod field. The study of gender is possibly one approach. Another might be to consider the seal-owners’ motivation: perhaps these objects can tell us as much about their desire to represent themselves in the context of Minoan religion as about the culture’s religious ideas.

Chapter 12 presents four case studies of religious imagery: (I) epiphany of the divinity; (II) Sacred enclosures/temenoi [isn’t the plural temene?]; (III) Baetyls/omphaloi; and (IV) Sacred trees. G describes epiphany as “the most securely identified Minoan ritual” (p. 87). Obviously, if scholars start from the assumption that Minoan religion is ecstatic in nature, they will view the gestures and implied movements accordingly. The discussion of sacred enclosures tackles the interesting problem that the types of constructions depicted on seals are non-existent in the Cretan archaeological record. The depicted rituals, then, may indeed be set in an imagined, mythological world. Does this imply that we should not read religious glyptic images as pictures of reality, but rather as representations of artistic concepts? The third study views baetyls as “media for summoning the divinity who was about to resurrect and bring back fertility to nature”, (p. 92) linking them to aniconic forms of Kybele, Kubela and Kubana in the Levant and Anatolia (p. 93); why leave out Aphrodite of Paphos? G lists images of baetyls associated with males or females (p. 91), but omits three interesting seals showing Minoan Genii instead (cf. BCH 117 (1993) 13-14). The final study divides images of sacred trees into six iconographical groups: in or on a shrine, in the open, with male or female epiphanies, etc. While trees could serve as markers of sanctuaries, “[f]rom their simple association with the fertility and prosperity of nature, the trees eventually became the focus of ritual activities located in the domain of ‘gods’ and ‘goddesses'” (pp. 93-94).

This is an interesting book with many useful analyses and insights but it is not easy to read. The author is unlucky in that it appears after Sbonias, cited above, with its tighter focus on the Minoan pre- and protopalatials periods, and O. Krzyszkowska’s comprehensive Aegean Seals: An Introduction (London 2005). Minoan Glyptic has neither the theoretical and contextual grip of the first nor the range of the second. While it does deserve a place on university library bookshelves, that should be in addition to those two essential books.


1. Add to the bibliography: P. Militello, “L’archivio di cretule” del vano 25 e un nuovo sigillo da Festòs”, in M. Perna (ed.), Administrative Documents in the Aegean and their Near Eastern Counterparts, Torino, 2000, 221-243; idem., “Il Periodo Medio Minoico II: l’attività amministrativa”, in I cento anni dello scavo di Festòs, Rome, 2001,169-201; idem, “Amministrazione e contabilità a Festòs”, Creta Antica 3 (2002), 51-91,

2. I. Pini, “The Hieroglyphic Deposit and the Temple Repositories Deposit at Knossos,” in T. Palaima (ed.), Aegean Seals, Sealings and Administration, Aegaeum 5, pp. 33-60. J.-C. Poursat pointed out in his response to this paper that the same Hieroglyphic prism stamped two different sealing-types (which, in Pini’s schema, would have to be of different dates).

3. J. Weingarten, “Seal-use at Late Minoan IB Ayia Triada, A Minoan Elite in Action,” Kadmos 27, 1988, 89-114.