BMCR 2007.07.36

Archaeology and European Modernity: Producing and Consuming the ‘Minoans.’ Creta Antica (Rivista annuale di studi archeologici, storici ed epigrafici, Centro di Archaeologica Cretese, Università di Catania), 7

, , Archaeology and European Modernity: Producing and Consuming the 'Minoans.' Creta Antica (Rivista annuale di studi archeologici, storici ed epigrafici, Centro di Archaeologica Cretese, Università di Catania), 7. Padua: Bottega d'Erasmo, 2006. 277; figs. 62. €104.00.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

This fascinating book is the outcome of what its editors modestly describe as “a small exploratory workshop” entitled Crete: The First “European Civilisation”? Interpretation, Uses, and Appropriation of the “Minoan” Past, held in Venice in November 2005. In fact, it is a very substantial and original volume containing 16 wide-ranging essays on many aspects of the disciplinary and social production of Crete’s Bronze Age past and on the ways in which it has been used and appropriated beyond the world of scholarly archaeology. Modernity provides the essential context for these inquiries, since the characterization, from the outset, of Minoan Crete as “European” had its origins in 19th- and early 20th-century nationalist, colonialist, and imperialist discourses; thus the Minoan past that came to be written under such influences was a typical product of European modernity, in the sense that Minoan archaeology has been used to create an array of modern identities (whether Mediterranean, European, Greek, or Cretan) and supplies a past “from which modern Europeans should wish to imagine their descent”.1 In pursuit of these themes, the work of archaeologists, historians, art historians, anthropologists, and literary scholars has been brought together creatively. Among the rich mix of topics discussed in the pages of this book are the historical and intellectual environments in which the rediscovery of Minoan Crete took place; the uses of the Minoan past in the construction of local identities; the role it came to play in Freudian psychoanalysis; Minoans in modern Greek and English-language literary works; their reception in modern European artistic movements; and their presentation via tourism, heritage management, and 21st-century schoolroom pedagogy. In short, this multi-disciplinary and reflexive approach to Minoan archaeology is not only an eye-opener for specialist Aegean prehistorians, but should also speak to the growing interest in archaeology’s disciplinary heritage and its constitution as a Western modernist project.2

One stimulus for the workshop, and this volume resulting from it, was the centenary in 2000 of the beginning of Minoan archaeology — or, as the co-editors would put it, “the rediscovery (or ‘invention’) of ‘Minoan’ Crete” (26).3 As they quite rightly remark, such anniversaries are generally treated as congratulatory occasions to celebrate the achievements of individuals or institutions, rather than as opportunities for critical reassessment or change. This book, deliberately, aims to move well beyond purely historiographic accounts by focusing in detail on the social context of the disciplinary production of a Minoan past and on its subsequent reception, as a “systematic challenge” to the various “modernist colonial discourses” (28) that have so thoroughly permeated Minoan archaeology. In this regard, it constitutes an expansion and extension of the critique of Minoan archaeology mounted in an earlier volume ( Labyrinth Revisited) also edited by Hamilakis, and it sits alongside two other very recent books that offer self-evaluations of Aegean prehistory as a whole.4

The volume has a sensible and coherent organizational structure. After a clear and thoughtful scene-setting first chapter by the co-editors, the remaining chapters are grouped into two sections — the producing and the consuming of the “Minoans,” as indicated in the book’s subtitle. “The Present in the Past” (Chs. 2-8) focuses on 19th- and 20th-century ideas, circumstances, and events shaping the contemporary production or historiography of the Minoans; “The Past in the Present” (Ch. 9-16) provides a series of studies of the reception, uses, and appropriations of the Minoans in a very varied set of different fields, as noted above. There is also a temporal logic to the chapter sequence, inasmuch as it begins with the immediate late 19th-century historical setting in which Minoan archaeology was born, and ends with the impact of teaching the Minoans to contemporary schoolchildren in Crete.

Philip Carabott (Ch. 2) gets the discussion off to a strong start with his detailed account and assessment of the hybrid regime established on Crete by the Great Powers, following the departure of the last Ottoman troops and civilian authorities in November 1898. It was this historical juncture — a semi-independent Cretan state under overt European tutelage, with a weak economy and an obsession with the politics of union with Greece — that made Crete a playground for British, Italian, French, and American archaeologists in the first years of the new century (including, of course, Sir Arthur Evans at Knossos). Carabott also argues, however, that personal factors were important, specifically the rapport established with Evans by the Cretan archaeologists Iosef Chatzidakes and Stephanos Xanthoudides. This assisted the convergence of nationalist (i.e., Cretan) and colonialist/imperialist archaeologies as a means of incorporating the island into European modernity. The following chapter by James Whitley, intriguingly entitled “The Minoans — a Welsh Invention?”, offers a somewhat tortuous argument: that the term “Minoan” (which Evans did not in fact invent) is a product of turn-of-the-century romanticism, in which the “Minoans” were invented as the “lost race,” of which Homer’s Eteocretans in eastern Crete were the lingering remnants. The template behind such a model, glimpsed in various passing remarks in the writings of Evans and R.C. Bosanquet, was evidently that of the Welsh, representing the hold-outs of an original population and language that preceded the Anglo-Saxon and Norman invasions. There may be some truth to this alleged mapping of British medieval history onto the prehistory of Crete, especially considering the strong emphasis on excavation in eastern Crete by the earliest British archaeologists working on the island (Evans, Hogarth, Myres, Dawkins, and Bosanquet). Whitley’s larger claim — that the term “Minoan” is not neutral but highly loaded, with damaging intellectual consequences — is undeniable, but his call to abandon it altogether is hopelessly utopian; well over a century of usage cannot be undone simply by wishing it were so.

Chapter 4, by Christine Morris, poses a question so simple, but so fundamental, that one is bound to wonder why it has not been explored before. Considering the erotic elements in artistic representations of females on Minoan gold rings, frescoes, and faience figurines (large bared breasts, snakes, etc.), and given the evidence from contemporary Near Eastern and Egyptian cultures that goddesses have sexual power and can fulfill many functions, why was it that Evans and others so readily choose to see female divinity exclusively in terms of a monotheistic “Mother Goddess” whose powers centered on fertility and maternity? In her most interesting discussion, Morris demonstrates that this decidedly narrow ideology of motherhood was strongly informed by late 19th- and early 20th-century social and intellectual ideas, including social evolutionary theory, Freudian psychology, the construction of the female body in medicine, and a conceptualization of motherhood as crucial to the well-being of the imperial nation. There was also in play here a conscious turn away from the sensuous world of the Orient and its polytheism, in favor of notions of a single, maternal “Great Goddess” that better fitted European sensibilities and the appropriation of Minoans as European rather than Eastern. This paper is followed by a disappointing one by Philip Duke: his rather unoriginal thesis is that tourism is a social ritual embedded in metaphor, so that the version of the past confronting the public at Knossos is an official archaeological history that allows no alternative readings and that conveys powerful messages about the present. It might have been better for Morris’s chapter to be followed directly by Kenneth Lapatin’s (Ch. 6), since it is on a related theme. In it, he extends his recent work on Snake Goddess forgeries5 to explore the fashioning of “Minoan” terracottas, bronzes, gemstones, and engraved rings in the first years of the 20th century to satisfy an avid market of collectors and museum curators. Such spurious works of course skew our knowledge of the past; but they also tellingly reveal how that past is continuously reshaped to satisfy the desires of the present, buttressing prevalent conceptions of Minoan artistic genius, feminine power, and links to later Greek myth. Fakes are a good litmus test of the tastes of their time.

Chapter 7 makes for painful reading. It is by Andrew Sherratt, who died — unexpectedly, and far too young — only three months after the Venice workshop; his contribution, edited with the help of his wife Susan Sherratt, is presumably among the last papers we shall see from this brilliant European prehistorian. It is a sad irony, then, that the topic of this chapter is the work of the most brilliant European prehistorian of an earlier generation, V. Gordon Childe, whose interests and expertise were at least as broad as Sherratt’s. As with so many of the other earlier constructions of the Minoans discussed in the pages of this book, Childe’s view of them hovered, ambiguously, between their “oriental” background and their appropriation as “the first European civilization.” It is tantalizing to speculate what his view of the matter might be, were he alive in 2007 and with access to the now infinitely richer database on both sides of this divide, now anchored by a high-precision, radiocarbon-based absolute chronology. Appended to Sherratt’s chapter are some intriguing notes on the views of the Minoans held by Arnold Toynbee and Oswald Spengler (who saw them as precursors of Christianity, and pioneers of sea-borne enterprise, respectively).

In the final chapter of this first section of the book, the Swedish archaeologist Lena Sjögren brings us into the present with an examination of how the Minoans have recently been factored into pan-European narratives of the Bronze Age, in ways that appear heavily influenced by the contemporary political agenda of the European Union (although the identification of similarities between Scandinavian imagery and Minoan-Mycenaean motifs actually has a much longer history). Sjögren rightly criticizes the arbitrariness of the claimed iconographic similarities and the severe chronological obstacles to be overcome. Her chapter, however, has to some extent been overtaken by subsequent developments: the publication in 2005 of a major monograph by the chief exponents of this approach, and an unusually sharp exchange in reaction to it, in the pages of the 2007 Norwegian Archaeological Review.6

The second half of the volume opens with a strong chapter by one of its co-editors, Yannis Hamilakis. To quote its abstract, “The ‘Minoan’ past was constructed at the beginning of the 20th century by colonial and national processes as the first ‘European civilisation.’ The remnants of the Cretan Bronze Age were recast, reordered, recreated, and forged to produce a world of objects, sites and images that would satisfy the Eurocentric colonial imagination and its territorial aspirations as well as the national project of the Cretan intellectuals.” Hamilakis opens with a vivid account of the astonishing episode in 1979 when local Cretans (successfully) blockaded the Heraklion Museum to prevent the loan of some of the most famous Minoan artifacts in the Museum, destined for international exhibitions in Paris and New York. This serves as the point de départ for a subtle discussion of the myriad ways in which the Minoan past serves as a reference point and an endless source for the construction of performative identities, both public and local — in advertising, the media, and in many facets of daily life in Crete.

Esther Solomon (Ch. 10) covers some of this same ground in her meditation on the modern construction of Knossos as a monumental landscape, not just a “reconstituted” site. Like Duke (Ch. 5), she treats the site as a powerful metaphor, one that plays out in the reactions, readings, negotiations, and contestations not only of the hundreds of thousands of tourists who visit the site annually and experience a form of “structural nostalgia” for an Edenic Minoan Crete, but also of nearby inhabitants. Her ethnographic inquiries among the latter, perhaps unsurprisingly, result in a picture of unsympathetic archaeologists and a hegemonic state management structure riding roughshod over local concerns. It would have been useful to have been provided with some comparative context here. How different is the situation at other major Minoan sites (which in fact are mentioned very rarely in this volume)? Is it solely because of Evans’s interventions that Knossos has become the Cretan monument par excellence, materializing “modern Cretan social identity in a condensed visual form”? Do other archaeological sites (whether in Greece or beyond) that also lie on the fringe of an expanding urban area, endure such intense tourist traffic, and have taken on the mantle of “symbolic capital”7, engender comparable problems and ambiguities?

The next pair of papers turns to literary appropriations of the Minoan past. Roderick Beaton (Ch. 11) examines the work of some major Greek 20th-century authors (Kazantzakis, Ritsos, Elytis, Diktaios, Kalokyris, Galanaki), all but Ritsos Cretan-born. His reading reveals that it was only after mid-century that the Minoans start to become naturalized and less formidably “other” in the Greek literary imagination; these writers progressively co-opted them as the indigenous forerunners of Classical Hellenic civilization, not the very antithesis of Hellenism (as in Evans’s view). The culmination of this process, of course, found vivid visual expression in the opening pageant of the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens. Beaton’s analysis is significant, in that these literary uses of the Minoan past have assisted in the construction of a national Greek identity, not a specifically Cretan one. David Roessel’s lively contribution, in Chapter 12, discusses a wide range of 20th-century writing in English and the construction of the Minoans represented therein. An idealistic view of Minoan society as peaceful, nature-loving, and playful (“happy little extroverts,” in Osbert Lancaster’s wonderful phrase) emerged as an imaginary retreat from the circumstances before and during World War II, one that suppressed any suggestion of a darker side; and the Mycenaeans, inevitably, came to be oppositionally conceived as the Minoans’ alter ego, bloodthirsty barbarians who brought this golden age to an end. That this literary response seems so familiar to the archaeologist is merely an index of the degree to which myth-making about the Minoans has been naturalized.

Freud’s obsession with archaeology is well known and has received plentiful treatment. Psychoanalysis, in fact, had commonalities with modernist archaeology, in that the Freudian technique of analysis had a distinctly stratigraphic aspect to it — the process of reconstituting the self by summoning fragments of the past or, as he put it, “mental antiquities.” Cathy Gere (Ch. 13), in a chapter that is shorter and more specific than most in this collection, discusses encounters that took place in Freud’s consulting room in 1933, leading him to develop his earlier suggestions that psychoanalytical discoveries were akin to the discovery of the Minoan-Mycenaean civilization into a full-blown and extreme theory of inherited memory. In this (expounded in Moses and Monotheism, 1939), the Minoans played a key role, as representing the feminine, pre-Oedipal stage in human consciousness, a heritage transmitted up through the generations to the present day.

The next two chapters come as a surprise, in that — in very different ways — they actually argue for a downplaying of the extent of the modernist consumption of a constructed Minoan past. Fritz Blakolmer (Ch. 14) addresses the relationship between the art of Bronze Age Crete and the European fin de siècle Modern Style. In a closely argued and well illustrated discussion, he demonstrates that “not all that appears similar in Aegean art and Modern Style is really directly related” (228) and that, setting aside fakes and overly imaginative restorations, authentic Minoan art may well be closer to the Modern Style than modern scholarship seems willing to admit. On the other hand, the fact is that Minoan art did attract enormous attention in the early 20th century, assuredly because its unclassical and non-European appearance harmonized well with artistic interests in primitivism and exoticism at that time. Vincenzo La Rosa and Pietro Militello’s Chapter 15, which searches for the presence of the Minoan past in modern Italian culture (historical writing, literature, painting, TV shows), also sounds a cautionary note. Simplifying their rich and textured discussion enormously, the chief conclusion is essentially that the Minoans have not played such a prominent role in Italy as in other contexts, arguably because of the abundance of existing ancient cultural myths and heritage discourses, from Etruscans to the Roman Empire. “In Italy we already had enough myths: there was no room for the Minoan one” (255).

The final chapter of the book, by Anna Simandiraki, is where the rubber hits the road: how exactly is this complex, confusing, and conflicted Minoan past now being presented to 8-year-old primary schoolchildren in Cretan classrooms? For the archaeologist, this is, frankly, a depressing read. Minoan Crete is a standard element of the history curriculum for all Greek children, but for Cretan pupils the Minoan past is all around them, whether the actual material traces of that past, or its modern constructions, representations, and appropriations. Naturally enough, these children have no interest in scholarly debates about, say, the veracity of reconstructions of the “Prince of the Lilies” fresco at Knossos, let alone the diversity of the claims of various European modernities upon the Minoan past. But the performative aspects of a number of embodied rituals in which they have been encouraged to participate as part of the educational process — such as the reconstruction and launch of a replica Minoan ship (for which, of course, no material evidence exists) — simply reinforce the dominant national discourse, in which “the identity of ‘Minoans’ as Cretans and, more importantly, as Greeks is non-negotiable” (268). The openness of a discourse about the past, for which this book as a whole serves as a strong advocate, here seems closed down altogether: education seeks standard “facts,” and what were once interestingly debatable elements have become “fossils” in the public domain.

After such a long and rich panorama of the production and consumption of the Minoan past, it might seem that the topic has been exhausted. But, in fact, the co-editors present a fascinating agenda for future studies (32-33), which this volume may well have the effect of stimulating, by showing how exciting, intellectually rewarding, and socially and politically important this topic can be. As the final sentence of the co-editors’ introduction puts it, this book “has demonstrated the inherently political and social nature of disciplinary inquiry, as well as the mutual constitution of scholarly, artistic, and popular constructions and re-creations of the material past” (33).



1. Archaeology and European Modernity: Stories from the Borders, Yannis Hamilakis and Nicoletta Momigliano

II. THE PRESENT IN THE PAST: προδυξινγ τηε ‘μινοανσ’

2. A Country in a ‘State of Destitution’ Labouring under an ‘Unfortunate Regime’: Crete at the Turn of the 20th Century (1898-1906), Philip Carabott

3. The Minoans — a Welsh Invention? A View from East Crete, James Whitley

4. From Ideologies of Motherhood to ‘Collecting Mother Goddesses’, Christine Morris

5. Knossos as Memorial, Ritual, and Metaphor, Philip Duke

6. Forging the Minoan Past, Ken Lapatin

7. Crete, Greece, and the Orient in the Thought of Gordon Childe (with an Appendix on Toynbee and Spengler: The Afterlife of the Minoans in European Intellectual History), Andrew Sherratt

8. Minoan Wannabees: The Resurrection of Minoan Influences in Scandinavian Archaeology, Lena Sjögren

III. THE PAST IN THE PRESENT: ξονσυμινγ τηε ‘μινοανσ’

9. The Colonial, the National, and the Local: Legacies of the ‘Minoan’ Past, Yannis Hamilakis

10. Knossos: Social Uses of a Monumental Landscape, Esther Solomon

11. Minoans in Modern Greek Literature, Roderick Beaton

12. Happy Little Extroverts and Bloodthirsty Tyrants: Minoans and Mycenaeans in Literature in English after Evans and Schliemann, David Roessel

13. Cretan Psychoanalysis and Freudian Archaeology: H.D.’s Minoan Analysis with Freud in 1933, Cathy Gere

14. The Arts of Bronze Age Crete and the European Modern Style: Reflecting and Shaping Different Identities, Fritz Blakolmer

15. Minoan Crete in 20th-century Italian Culture, Vicenzo La Rosa and Pietro Militello

16. The ‘Minoan’ Experience of Schoolchildren in Crete, Anna Simandiraki.


1. This felicitous phrase is from D. Preziosi, “Archaeology as Museology: Re-thinking the Minoan Past,” in Y. Hamilakis , ed., Labyrinth Revisited: Rethinking “Minoan” Archaeology, Oxford 2002, 30-39, at p. 32.

2. See J. Thomas, Archaeology and Modernity, London 2004; cf. J. Papadopoulos, “Inventing the Minoans: Archaeology, Modernity and the Quest for European Identity,” Journal of Mediterranean Archaeology 18 (2005) 87-149.

3. Celebrated, for instance, in D. Huxley, ed., Cretan Quests: British Explorers, Excavators and Historians, London 2000; J. D. Muhly, ed., Crete 2000: A Centennial Celebration of American Archaeological Work on Crete (1900-2000), Athens 2000.

4. Y. Hamilakis, ed., Labyrinth Revisited: Rethinking “Minoan” Archaeology, Oxford 2002; J. F. Cherry, D. Margomenou, and L. Talalay, eds., Prehistorians Round the Pond: Reflections on Aegean Prehistory as a Discipline, Ann Arbor 2005; P. Darcque, M. Fotiadis, and O. Polychronopoulou, eds., Mythos: La Préhistoire Égéenne du XIXe au XXIe siècle après J.-C. Table Ronde International, Athènes, 21-23 Novembre 2002 (Bulletin de Correspondance Hellénique Suppl. 46), Paris 2006.

5. K. Lapatin, “Journeys of an Icon: The Provenance of the ‘Boston Goddess’,” Journal of Mediterranean Archaeology 13 (2000) 127-154; Mysteries of the Snake Goddess: Art, Desire, and the Forging of History, Boston 2002.

6. K. Kristiansen and T. B. Larsson, The Rise of Bronze Age Society: Travels, Transmissions and Transformations, Cambridge 2005; G. Nördquist and H. Whittaker, “Comments on Kristian Kristiansen and Thomas B. Larsson (2005): The Rise of Bronze Age Society: Travels, Transmissions and Transformations. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge,” Norwegian Archaeological Review 40 (2007) 75-84.

7. Y. Hamilakis and E. Yalouri, “Antiquities as Symbolic Capital in Modern Greek Society,” Antiquity 70 (1996) 117-129.