BMCR 2007.07.48

Kommos: A Minoan Harbor Town and Greek Sanctuary in Southern Crete

, Kommos : a Minoan harbor town and Greek sanctuary in southern Crete. Princeton: American School of Classical Studies at Athens, 2006. 171 pages : illustrations (some color), maps ; 24 cm. ISBN 0876616597 $24.95 (pb).

For those who have not visited the Minoan settlement and Phoenician and Greek sanctuary beside the long sandy beach at Kommos in south Crete, and equally for those who know Kommos well, this book by Joseph Shaw (S) is a delight. It combines being a guide with a lucid short review of the diachronic historical importance of Kommos and an account of thirty years of excavation, study and publication. S writes in a friendly, graceful and easy-to-read style, aiming to get away from the “so-called Scientific Approach” of the many other publications about Kommos — and generally succeeds. (At the beginning of Part 1 the reader has to face a hefty dose of Minoan-speak, but that eases up fast as the book moves on.) Printed on glossy paper, it also offers excellent photographs, plans, drawings of finds and reconstructions, plus sketches of life in the nearby village of Pitsidia which has been the base of operations. Kommos will appeal to all lovers of Crete, and makes an excellent gift.

Kommos is one of many sites in Crete that Arthur Evans found and, recognising its (potential) importance for trade with Egypt, gave it a good “splash” in the second volume of The Palace of Minos;1 but he did not excavate there. Instead, we now know, he encouraged the very young John Pendlebury to consider excavating it in 1928 (when Pendlebury was still deep in Aegyptiaca,2 and would have seen Kommos as extremely relevant), and then rather reneged on his support a year later.3 Thus the coast was clear, so to speak, for S to visit in 1965 and eventually start excavations in 1976. His first intention was a joint excavation with Stylianos Alexiou, then Ephor in Herakleion, but Spyridon Marinatos, Director of Antiquities of Greece, decided that a site of such scale should best be excavated by a foreign school on its own.

Part 1 (pp. 15-59) is an historical guide through the site, and admirably clear — as one would expect from an archaeologist who began as primarily an architect – in explaining the complicated building sequences, including the Minoan shipsheds, partly built over the great Building T, which is of palatial scale and has a central court with stoas at its north and south ends, and the series of later temples, including the Phoenician-style Tripillar Shrine inside the Geometric Temple B. This part concludes with an excursus on Kommos and the sea: as Evans foresaw, Kommos has all the signs of having been a major trading station, having links not just with Egypt but also Cyprus, the Levant, Sardinia, the Aegean and, closer to hand, the island of Gavdos.

Part 2 (pp. 61-81) tells of living and working in the Pitsidia community, and the role of Kommos in the western Mesara in antiquity, and especially its relations with Phaistos and Ayia Triada — ” a great Minoan triangle”. By now it seems generally agreed that Kommos was the chief prehistoric port, to be superseded in Classical and later times by Matala, Lebena and Kaloi Limenes. Part 3 (pp. 83-111) is a gentle, at times perhaps verging on anodyne, account of the travails, problems and excitements of the digging. S covers everything from the fraught experiences of fund raising and acquiring the land to why it is better to use a front-loader (or “JCB”, in UK English) to clear sand rather than a bulldozer. His holistic approach to creating history through excavation, using — and encouraging his able team to use — every scrap of evidence, is impressive and, if standard now, was not so universal in the early 1970s, when he was planning the project.

Part 4 (pp. 113-143) reviews various of the major contributions of the Kommos excavations to second and first millenia Crete: the startling evidence for trade; the great stoas of Building T; the shipsheds, known well enough in Classical times, but quite unexpected in Minoan Crete; the Cretan tradition in designing temples. An Appendix (pp. 144-149) describes the business of publishing the reports — and the demands of writing those preliminary reports that appear so straightforward — as the digital revolution unfolds. Kommos ends with a valuable Bibliography (pp. 152-161) of the books and articles on Kommos.

If the ASCSA deserves many congratulations for bringing the book out (and supporting a Canadian excavation), S and his wife and asssistant director, Maria Shaw to whom it is dedicated, deserve far, far more for their exemplary excavation that has enriched our knowledge and understanding of ancient (and modern) Crete, and led to such spin-offs as the western Mesara survey,4 in a way that they could never have foreseen when work began on July 1 1976. Thanks to them, Kommos has become a κτῆμα ἐς αἰεί.


1. A. J. Evans, The Palace of Minos at Knossos 2. London: Macmillan, 1928, esp. 88-91.

2. J. D. S. Pendlebury, Aegyptiaca: A Catalogue of Egyptian Objects in the Aegean Area. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1930 — which, however, does not mention Kommos or “Komò”, as Evans called it. But the review by G. A. Wainwright ( Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 17, 1931, 260-261) does emphasise Kommos, implicitly following Evans; later, Pendlebury ( The Archaeology of Crete: An Introduction. London: Methuen, 1939, 78) refers to “the great site of Komo”.

3. I. Grundon, The Rash Adventurer: A Life of John Pendlebury. London: Libri, 2007, 66, 106.

4. L. V. Watrous, D. Hadzi-Vallianou and H. Blitzer, The Plain of Phaistos: Cycles of Complexity in the Mesara Region of Crete, Monumenta Archaeologica 23. Los Angeles: Cotsen Institute of Archaeology, University of California, Los Angeles, 2004.