BMCR 2009.05.21

Knossos Pottery Handbook: Neolithic and Bronze Age (Minoan). BSA Studies 14

, Knossos Pottery Handbook: Neolithic and Bronze Age (Minoan). BSA Studies 14. London: The British School at Athens, 2007. xv, 276; figs. 148; tables 34; pl. 1; CD. ISBN 978-0-904887-55-6. $170.00; £60.00.

Disclaimer: The reviewer has worked with several of the authors, most notably J.A. MacGillivray but also E. Hatzaki and P. Tomkins, at Palaikastro, another Minoan excavation on Crete sponsored by the British School at Athens.

The Knossos Pottery Handbook: Neolithic and Bronze Age (Minoan) can be seen as the prequel to the Knossos Pottery Handbook: Greek and Roman, which appeared in 2001.1 As its title implies, the book covers a vast time span from approximately 6500 to 1100 B.C. By any measure it is a significant achievement and the editor and authors are to be commended for collectively bringing together in one volume the most up-to-date presentation of the pottery produced at Knossos, the largest and single most important archaeological site on Crete in the prehistoric period. Some years ago an eminent British archaeologist gave a lecture in New York on the Indo-European question and during the discussion afterwards was asked how Crete fit into his theoretical models. He replied quite seriously that the problem with prehistoric Crete was that there was too much information available. At first blush, the reader of this book may have a similar impression. Taken as a whole, the quantities and variety of pottery that were produced at Knossos in the Neolithic and Bronze Age are staggering. However, the wealth of archaeological information that often renders the application of even sophisticated theoretical models inadequate is precisely what enables the kind of detailed ceramic analysis so carefully presented in this book. One must also keep in mind that this book is a reference work and is not meant to be read from cover to cover. It is aimed at the pottery specialist and field archaeologist. This reviewer would not recommend it for general or even undergraduate level reading. Its greatest strength lies in its rigorous application of stratigraphic sequencing to every period and its pottery, providing a clear and traceable thread of history through this important site, which has been the subject of study and excavation for more than a century. In this way, the reader can see how secure or in some cases how tenuously each ceramic phase is tied to that which precedes it and that which follows.

The book consists of an introduction by the editor, Nicoletta Momigliano, and six chapters written by specialists that are arranged chronologically. Momigliano stresses that this book is not a corpus of all prehistoric pottery that has been found at Knossos but instead focuses on local ceramic production. Momigliano provides a brief overview of the history of excavation and ceramic sequencing at the site beginning in 1878 under the direction of Minos Kalokairinos and Sir Arthur Evans’s historic and monumental research between 1900 and 1931, which culminated in his multi-volume work, The Palace of Minos at Knossos. Momigliano highlights the contributions of Evans’s colleague, Duncan MacKenzie, who was the first to phase Neolithic and Minoan pottery each into three main stages, using the labels Lower, Middle and Upper Neolithic and Early, Middle and Late Minoan consistently, a scheme that Evans whole-heartedly endorsed.2 Together Evans and MacKenzie further subdivided the Minoan phases into three sub-phases (Early Minoan I, II, III, etc.) for a total of nine phases for the Bronze Age. This tripartite Minoan classification system has remained in use for the Knossian ceramic sequence to the present day and Momigliano assesses some of its continuing problems at the site and especially when applied in the broader context of other sites on the island and in the Aegean. After Evans, Arne Furumark made important refinements to the later Knossian Bronze Age sequence in his monumental study of Mycenaean pottery and Mycenaean chronology first published in 1941. Numerous additional campaigns of excavations at Knossos in the second half of the twentieth century have sought to clarify the Knossian ceramic sequence. Most notable among these are Sinclair Hood’s excavations along the Royal Road and in the palace in 1957-1961, which yielded a wealth of important new stratified material, and the excavations of the Minoan Unexplored Mansion by Popham and Sackett in the 1960’s and 1970’s.

It is important to note that the present volume is not merely a synthesis of what has already been published on Knossian pottery, as one might presuppose from its slightly misleading title of handbook, but is a new approach. The authors have formed a sequence of representative pottery groups founded on stratigraphic and stylistic observations that were initially determined without labels such as Early Minoan IIB or Middle Minoan IA. Each chapter adheres to a basic presentation that begins with a brief introduction to the period and the history of the scholarship. The main archaeological deposits for each pottery group are listed and their contexts discussed. The characteristics of the ceramic group are articulated through a description of the most common fabrics, wares and their decoration, and forms and their shapes; this constitutes the largest part of the text in each chapter. The body chapters conclude with sections on the relative chronology of the pottery group/ceramic phase and any synchronizations that it has with ceramic deposits at other Cretan sites as well as sites further afield in the Aegean and more generally the Eastern Mediterranean region. The synchronizations are also listed in useful tables that accompany each chapter.

There is not space in this review even to mention all of the different kinds of pottery from Knossos discussed within the book. Rather what follows are some measured comments on the different chapters. The first chapter, by Peter Tompkins, covers the entire ceramic producing Neolithic period (ca. 6500-3100 B.C.). The period is defined as nine strata which are divided into 9 pottery groups (Strata IX-VIII, VII-VIB, VIA-V, IV, IIIB, IIIA, IIB, IIA, and IC). Knossos occupies a central place in our understanding of the Cretan Neolithic as its earliest settlement precedes ceramic production, the Aceramic Neolithic, and the site shows continuous occupation to the very end of the Neolithic and into the Bronze Age. This chapter presents an excellent survey of this early period at Knossos and provides a sense of the rich Knossian ceramic sequence. In general the line drawings throughout the book are of a high quality. For a handbook, though, one expects to see as many complete shapes represented as possible. There are just nine whole shapes illustrated for the entire Neolithic and all appear as line drawings. It would have been nice to have had some photographs of whole vases as well. In Betancourt’s book on the history of Minoan pottery, for example, there are three complete or nearly complete pots from Middle Neolithic Knossos.3 None of these is represented in Tompkins’s drawings and one wonders how many other shapes, which are carefully described in the text, could have been illustrated. This chapter is the only one to include a microscopic analysis and presentation of the different fabrics used to make the pottery. Tompkins shows how the Knossos pottery sequence helps to secure later Neolithic Cretan chronology and identifies a range of imported pottery in the Knossos sequence, beginning with the very earliest pottery producing levels, that allows the Knossos sequence to be securely anchored to other Greek and Anatolian pottery sequences. Tompkins’s chapter ends with a discussion of the issue of “Sub-Neolithic” pottery of the Early Minoan I period and concludes that there is no longer any reason to think that the Early Minoan I period begins any later than Early Cycladic I in the Cyclades, Early Helladic I in Greece, or Early Bronze I in the East Aegean. One gets the sense that, given the very fragmentary nature of the material, our understanding of this important early period will continue to evolve with on-going adjustments and re-analysis of the pottery and this chapter should be taken as the latest, not the last word, on this subject.

Chapter two, entitled Early Prepalatial (EM I-EM II) by David E. Wilson, is divided into four pottery groups: The EM I Well Group, the West Court House Group, the North-East Magazines Group and the South Front Group. Sir Arthur Evans’s excavations did not produce much stratified evidence for the Early Minoan period despite extensive tests that were undertaken between 1900 and 1908. It was only in later tests undertaken in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s by Sinclair Hood and Gerald Cadogan that well-stratified Early Minoan layers were identified. Subsequent soundings by J.D. Evans and then Peter Warren have enabled a refinement of the Early Minoan II period into EM IIA and EM IIB. Part of the problem for understanding this early period is the fact that much of the site is so heavily rebuilt in later periods that these early layers are less accessible or heavily disturbed. The most important deposit for understanding Early Minoan I ceramics at Knossos is a deep fill in a well located in the north-east wing of the later palace, which is one of twelve deposits excavated at the site that Wilson defines as diagnostic for this period. Wilson does not see a clear ceramic subdivision within the Early Minoan I period as has been previously argued. There is strong continuity in pottery fabrics and wares from Early Minoan I to Early Minoan IIA, represented by the West Court House Group (Early Minoan IIA early) and the Northeast Magazine Group (Early Minoan IIA late), when differences in forms and surface decoration allow for period subdivisions. The Wiped and/or Washed Ware is one characteristic ware of EM I that does not continue into EM IIA. Burnished wares, the Dark-on-Light Ware, which becomes so characteristic of Minoan pottery in later periods, and Red/Black Slipped Ware, including Light-on-Dark, comprise much of the fine pottery in addition to cooking and pithos wares. Perhaps not surprisingly, the fundamental cooking vessels — tripod cooking pots and baking dishes — begin in Prepalatial times and have a long history in Minoan ceramics. Wilson notes that there are no off-island ceramic imports at Knossos in the Early Minoan I period but Cycladic pottery does begin to appear in EM IIA contexts when imported pottery from East Crete and the Mesara also appears at Knossos. The EM IIB pottery phase, defined as the South Front House Group, by contrast, does not have many links across the island except for imported Vasiliki Ware, which, however, is not common outside of eastern Crete.

Chapter three on the Late Prepalatial period, or Early Minoan III-Middle Minoan IA, is written by Momigliano. Momigliano describes the EM III period at Knossos as a time of retrenchment and isolation, continuing certain trends of the preceding EM IIB period and she sees the Middle Minoan IA period as a time of recovery, growth, and increasing contacts leading up to Protopalatial developments. Early Minoan III and Middle Minoan IA are often linked together in archaeological literature. The Early Minoan III ceramic phase has been controversial because it is not represented at many sites, which were destroyed and abandoned in EM IIB and not re-inhabited until MM IA or later. However, Knossos is a site that was continuously occupied and Momigliano is able to subdivide the period into EM III Early, the SFH Foundation Trench Group, and EM III Late, the Upper East Well Group, although as yet without detailed ceramic definitions of these sub-phases. The EM III pottery phase is represented by 10 deposits with a predominance of Light-on-Dark Ware. Knossian EM III pottery continues to be handmade with a few exceptions suggesting the first attempts at the use of the potter’s wheel. Barbotine Ware and Polychrome ware make their first appearance but occur very rarely and NM suggests the latter may be imported to Knossos at this time. The Middle Minoan IA ceramic phase is called the House C/RRS Fill Group and only seven deposits are assigned to this group. There is much continuity in terms of fabrics, wares and forms from the EM III period and pottery generally continues to be handmade. Major innovations of this ceramic phase are the adoption of polychrome decoration and the appearance of new vessel forms such as straight-sided and carinated cups. As in the other chapters throughout the book less attention is given to the coarse wares and cooking wares. This is largely due to their secondary or non-treatment in earlier publications, and not because they do not exist and cannot add to our understanding of diagnostic pottery assemblages. Knossian imitations of Cycladic pottery appear in MM IA at Knossos and recent excavations at Akrotiri on Thera have yielded a few MM IA imports from Knossos. A Knossian imported vase at Lapithos is suggestive of the first clear Knossian contacts with Cyprus in the Middle Minoan IA period.

The fourth chapter on Protopalatial (MM IB-MM IIIA) pottery is by J.A. MacGillivray. This chapter is largely derived from MacGillivray’s book on this subject, and follows the typology terminology that he establishes there.4 The author only discusses fine ware, deviating from the schema established in the earlier, and later, chapters. JAM contends that in this period Knossos received exchanges, offerings and tributes from a wide variety of sources but notes it is at present difficult to distinguish between local products and imports. However, the most important pottery of this period, Kamares Ware, named early on after the cave on Mount Ida where large deposits were found, is one of the most recognizable ceramics in the world and MacGillivray argues that it was largely produced in the Knossos-Archanes region. Its high-quality, lustrous, black ground surface probably imitates the black luster of oxidized silver and the sharp, crisp forms of many of the shapes certainly look to metal prototypes. In addition, intricate red, orange, yellow, violet and white designs were applied on the dark ground to produce a vivid polychrome effect. This pottery required considerable technical knowledge and skill to produce. It was not for every day use but likely featured in feasting rituals and other celebrations. MacGillivray suggests that Knossos was a center for communal gatherings in this period, not a seat of worldly authority as it would become later. Middle Minoan IB is termed the Early Chamber Beneath the West Court Group and is represented by 15 deposits from many different locations of the palace and town. For the first time there is significant use of the potter’s wheel and many more kinds of pottery were produced than before, among them: Barbotine Ware, Shallow Grooved Ware, Early Printed Ware, and greater varieties of Light-on-Dark Ware, as well as the Polychrome or Kamares Ware. The Middle Minoan IIA ceramic phase is termed the Royal Pottery Stores Group and is represented by 11 archaeological deposits. A hallmark of this phase is ‘Egg-shell’ Ware, with its exceptionally thin walls of less than a millimeter, which must be the product of a specialized workshop, and is the finest pottery of its time. Another ceramic innovation at Knossos in MM IIA is the creation of Stamped and Impressed Ware and, more generally, the widespread adoption of the potter’s wheel. Knossian pottery of this period travels to the Near East and has been found on Cyprus and in the Levant. MacGillivray also sees strong parallels in the silver ware found at Tôd in Egypt with MM IB and MM IIA Knossian ceramics.5 The Middle Minoan IIB ceramic phase is termed the Trial KV Group and is the most difficult to define stratigraphically at Knossos with only four archaeological contexts listed. Most characteristic of this phase is Precision Stamped Ware and polychrome styles on cups and bridge-spouted jars. A good number of contemporary pottery deposits in destruction layers at other sites on the island have been identified and some Knossian pottery exports have been found in the Levant and Egypt, notably at Tell el-Daba’a, where Minoan style frescos also occur, and Abydos. MacGillivray identifies the MM IIIA ceramic phase at Knossos as the West and South Polychrome Deposits Group represented by only six archaeological contexts. MacGillivray now believes that the palace at Knossos was brought down at the end of this period by a seismic event sometime after the destruction of the palace at Phaistos.

The final two chapters of the book — on the Neopalatial, Final Palatial and Post Palatial pottery from Knossos — are by Eleni Hatzaki. The Neopalatial period at the site is divided into three distinct destruction horizons: a MM IIIB seismic destruction, a second seismic destruction associated with the Theran eruption in LM IA and a fire destruction at the end of LM IB. Hatzaki argues that the emphasis Popham placed on “type-fossils”, specific vessels and types of decorations produced and consumed within the span of a single ceramic phase, does not work so well for the Neopalatial period (MM IIIB-LM IB) since most Neopalatial vessel types and decorative motifs have longer life spans, straddling more than one ceramic phase. Hatzaki elucidates some other terminology issues: notably that in previous scholarship MM IIIB, MM IIIB transition, and early LM IA have been used to describe the same thing. Hatzaki does not see stratigraphic or stylistic evidence to support subdivisions of the three main phases as has sometimes been suggested before and as is sometimes possible at other sites like Mochlos in the LM IB period. Instead, Hatzaki proposes a new revised sequence based on three main pottery groups. The MM IIIB ceramic phase is identified as the KS 178 Group, named after a deposit excavated by Colin MacDonald in the early 1990’s. It is unfortunate, given the importance of this book, that Hatzaki was unable to study the complete vases from the palace and acropolis houses which are stored in the Herakleion Museum, but Hatzaki states that this only prevented a more detailed discussion of fabrics and formation techniques. One distinctive motif that begins in this phase is the use of ripple decoration as a frieze on lustrous and non-lustrous Dark-on-Light Ware. The LM IA ceramic phase is termed the Gypsades Well (Upper Deposit) Group with 24 diagnostic archaeological contexts listed. This ceramic phase exhibits an increase in use of elaborate decorative motifs, which seem to parallel developments in fresco painting. The reed style and its local variants applied on both fine and coarse wares is a hallmark of this period and one of the main features for distinguishing between MM IIIB and LM IA deposits. The so-called ‘Jackson Pollack’ or spray-painted style also appears to begin in LM IA and is an example of another distinctive style that continues into the next ceramic phase. EH defines the LM IB ceramic phase as the SEX North House Group. One has to go to the index to learn that SEX stands for Stratigraphical Museum Extension Site. Hatzaki reports that, surprisingly, a detailed LM IB ceramic phase remains slightly elusive at Knossos because of the relatively small amount of published pottery. However, at a recent conference on LM IB pottery held at the Danish Institute in Athens, Sinclair Hood presented a wealth of unpublished pottery from destruction deposits along the Royal Road. When this material is published it will rectify the situation considerably with a very wide range of pottery shapes and styles as one expects would have been produced at this major palace center during one of its renaissance periods. At present cross-island synchronizations in the LM IB period are still largely defined by the existence of a small group of open and closed vessels in fine buff clay decorated in Marine and Alternating style of the Special Palatial Tradition, the majority of which were probably produced in Knossian potter’s workshops.

The last chapter is devoted to the Final Palatial and Post Palatial periods. The Final Palatial period (LM II-LM IIIA2) witnesses the rise of Knossian hegemony as the single functioning palace on Crete. The LM II ceramic phase is called the MUM South Sector Group and with 25 archaeological contexts listed is clearly defined with extensive assemblages. Hatzaki notes that the surface of the pottery is usually less well preserved than those of the LM I and LM III periods. In terms of pottery, links with mainland Greece in this period at Knossos are based more on mainland inspired new ceramic shapes, such as the kylix, trough-spouted jug and squat alabastron, than actual imports. LM IIIA1 is defined as the Long Corridor Cists Group with 17 archaeological deposits. Hatzaki points out that the published pottery of this period provides only part of the picture as it is a highly selective representation of a restricted number of fine and mostly decorated vases. Among these though, the one-handled ledge-rimmed decorated cup and the plain kylix have become ‘type fossils’ of this ceramic phase. Floral and abstract motifs in Dark-on-Light Ware assume greater prominence while marine themes become less popular. The LM IIIA2 ceramic phase is termed the MUM Pits 8, 10-11 Group. An assemblage of pottery in tomb θ at the Katsambas cemetery demonstrates the co-existence of LM IIIA1 and LM IIIA2 stylistic features and highlights the need to view assemblages in their entirety instead of focusing on individual vessels. Hatzaki reminds us that Popham’s palace destruction horizon is an event, not a ceramic phase. It occurred at a time when pottery with stylistic features of LM IIIA1 and LM IIIA2 overlapped. Hatzaki does not believe it is possible at present to support the subdivision of LM IIIA2 into Early and Late as Popham had argued but future research may shed light on this issue. The LM IIIA2 ceramic phase at Knossos does not have many synchronisms with other Cretan sites because there is so much regionalism in pottery production coinciding with the vacuum caused by the destruction of the palace at Knossos. The best evidence for contacts between LM IIIA2 Crete and the eastern Mediterranean is at Kommos and only a few exports from Crete to Cyprus, the Levant and Egypt are known.

The Post Palatial period is divided into three pottery groups: the Makritikhos ‘Kitchen’ Group (LM IIIB Early), the MUM North Platform Pits Group (LM IIIB Late), and the SEX Southern Half Group (LM IIIC Early). In the LM IIIB Early ceramic phase, there is generally a decrease in Dark-on-Light Lustrous Ware with a much more limited repertoire of motifs and a much greater predominance of plain wares, which is a trend observed beyond Knossos at this time. Hatzaki’s presentation of the LM IIIC Early ceramic phase is based only on preliminary reports as the deposits of this phase have not yet been fully published. At present there is no evidence for an LM IIIC Late ceramic phase at Knossos. The Sub-Minoan pottery from the site is essentially contemporary with the beginning of the Early Iron Age in the rest of Greece. The CD attached to the back cover of the book contains an additional 187 illustrations, many in color but of varying quality, and forms an extremely useful supplement to the book.


1. J.N. Coldstream, L.J. Eiring, and G. Forster, Knossos Pottery Handbook: Greek and Roman, British School at Athens Studies 7, London, 2001.

2. Momigliano has done considerable research on the MacKenzie — Evans relationship. See N. Momigliano, Duncan Mackenzie. A Cautious Canny Highlander & the Palace of Minos at Knossos, Institute of Classical Studies, School of Advanced Study, University of London, London, 1999.

3. Philip P. Betancourt, The History of Minoan Pottery, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1985, pl. 1a, c, f.

4. J.A. MacGillivray, Knossos: Pottery Groups of the Old Palace Period, British School at Athens Studies 5, London, 1998.

5. On the Tôd treasure, see now J. Aruz, et al., eds., Beyond Babylon: Art, Trade and Diplomacy in the Second Millennium B.C., The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2008, pp. 65-69; see also p. 60, catalogue no. 32 with color illustration, for the Kamares Ware bridge-spouted jar from Byblos mentioned by JAM on p. 140.