BMCR 2010.02.22

Fragments of Archaic Crete. Archaeological Studies on Time and Space. Boreas. Uppsala Studies in Ancient Mediterranean and Near Eastern Civilizations 31

, Fragments of Archaic Crete. Archaeological Studies on Time and Space. Boreas. Uppsala Studies in Ancient Mediterranean and Near Eastern Civilizations 31. Uppsala: Acta Universitatis Upsaliensis, 2008. 255. ISBN 9789155473730 (pb).

If it is true that archaeological research on Crete still largely focuses on the various phases of the Bronze Age, it is also undoubtedly the case that in the last few decades there has been an increased number of studies and investigations into more recent periods. Fortunately, it is now a long time since Demargne wrote that archaeological research had dedicated “peu d’argent et peu de temps” to Crete in the period after the Bronze Age.1 Lena Sjögren had already made a contribution to this renewed interest in post-Minoan archaeology on Crete in 2003 with a book which brought together the documentation on the settlements, cemeteries and sanctuaries with traces of occupation in the period between 800 and 500 B.C.;2 that work serves, as it were, as the precursor to the study that has now been published. The reader will understand from the title that Fragments of Archaic Crete is not a handbook or a systematic treatise on Archaic Crete, but rather a work that seeks to explore the issues surrounding archaeological research on the subject on the basis of the existing documentation. Essentially it is an interpretation of the data collated in the 2003 volume, to which this work makes frequent reference.

In the Prologue (pp. 11-31) Sjögren illustrates the genesis and structure of the book; she also explains her decision not to take into account the literary and epigraphic sources in dealing with Archaic Crete. She privileges the direct relationship that can be provided by an archaeological analysis. Although the written sources available are often fragmentary or have been transmitted by more recent authors than the chronological period analysed, the decision not to use them at all is definitely open to criticism, as the author herself recognises (p. 14). In the opening pages Sjögren paints a brief overall picture of the documentation relevant to the Cretan settlements noted in the period in question, emphasising the existing interpretative difficulties (for example, is Smari a sanctuary or a settlement?). The rest of the book is made up of two parts separated by an Intermission (pp. 119-132) and followed by a brief conclusion (pp. 219-223). In the first part, on the history of research (Chapters 1-4, pp. 33-117), the author analyses the state of archaeological investigations on Crete. She gives a history of studies and the main lines of research thus far developed. Sjögren points out the lesser degree of attention generally paid to Archaic as opposed to Minoan Crete and sheds light on the positivistic and processual approach of archaeological studies thus far conducted. The interest in Archaic Crete, which had its origin in historical and antiquarian research (that is, mainly epigraphic research), has often concentrated on forms of continuity with the previous period (in the historical and artistic fields, but also with regard to ethnic and cultural aspects and the occupation of settlements) and on the analysis of external influences, especially from the Near East. Sjögren rightly points out how the assumed centrality of Knossos in the archaeology of Crete ultimately became a handicap for research, leading to a “one-dimensional view on Archaic Crete”. What emerges is the lesser degree of focus on the understanding of Archaic Crete and the cultural phenomena which affected it: for example, if and how the arrival of externally produced objects led to cultural modifications on the island.

In the Intermission, after mentioning the post-processual approach to classical archaeology, the author briefly presents the three fields of investigation which she then goes on to elaborate in the second part (Chapters 5-7, pp. 133-215): the use of private, community and public space in Archaic Crete; the creation of memory; the manifestation of local identities in two areas of the island (the Mesara plain and the Mirabello Bay).

In her discussion of towns, sanctuaries and cemeteries (pp. 135-157), Sjögren deals with space in the domestic, religious and funerary spheres. She convincingly makes the point that it is possible to examine space not from a strictly functional point of view, but as a place of social interaction: the dichotomy would thus be between private and community use of space, in her three spheres of analysis.

The chapter on memory (pp. 158-194) is probably the one which fits into a series of studies (from S. Alcock to M. Prent) which has recently also analysed the situation in post-Minoan Crete in the context of a growing interest in archaeological studies into memory (helped by a good knowledge of M. Halbwachs’s works on the Cadres sociaux de la memoire). Sjögren rightly observes how the religious use of structures in the Bronze Age may indicate not so much a continuity of religious practice as the deliberate desire to create memory. She is right to observe the absence of uniform practice on the island and to note analogies between the palatial sites of Knossos and Phaistos (and perhaps also Chania), where some religious structures were built on the ruins of Minoan palaces. However, it is perhaps not as easy to agree with the idea that also the temple of Athena erected on the hill of the acropolis at Gortyn corresponds to the same act of commemoration and thus of worship of the past. Sjögren underlines how few Bronze Age tombs were places of religious activity in later periods; this situation, unlike that found on the Greek mainland, is explained by arguing that the religious use of the tombs reflects individual devotion on Crete, while the frequentation of the palatial sites (seen as “mediators of memories”) bears witness to collective memory. In the course of her discussion, the author points out the dynamism implicit in the formation of memory ( archaeology of perception): building on previous remains indicates the desire to forget.

The last chapter (pp. 195-215) offers an analysis of two of the areas on Crete in which archaeological research paints a sufficiently broad picture, thanks to more than a hundred years of more or less continuous investigations: the area of the Mirabello Bay (with the sites of Gournia, Vrokastro and the various settlements around Kavousi) and the Mesara plain, where, close to the sites of the “great Minoan triangle” (Phaistos, Aghia Triada and Kommos), lies Gortyn – a particularly important centre in the Archaic period. The two areas are chosen because they represent a cross-section of two different situations: in the Mesara the presence of ancient poleis, and rural organization in the area of Mirabello Bay. The two areas also present different geographical situations: the largest plain on the island (Mesara) versus a much more varied region, with hilly and mountainous areas, beside a small level area. In this chapter Sjögren uses an approach which is “more socially oriented” than ecological; in the Mesara the vast plain created a regional identity, while in the Mirabello Bay the geographical divisions led to the creation of “local manifestations of identity”. One result of this difference is the varying number of rural places of worship (mostly attested in the area of Mirabello), to which particular attention is rightly paid.

In her concluding notes (pp. 219-223) the author underlines the need to identify new perspectives of study with respect to the “master-narratives of Archaic Crete” (the investigations into the continuity of the Bronze Age and into eastern cultural influence).

As the title indicates, perhaps the book’s most important contribution consists in Sjögren’s reflections on the concept of space and time, which archaeological studies (and perhaps not only in relation to Crete) generally treat in an excessively modernistic way: time generally equals the working out of chronological grids, based essentially on the study of pottery. Likewise, landscape studies generally aim for a modern and objective evaluation of the territory. Ancient peoples necessarily had a different perception of space and time and thus the evaluation of the archaeological documentation on Archaic Crete starting from a non-modern point of view could also be different. It is, moreover, certainly correct to invert the theme of continuity, underlining the importance of creating a connection with the past “as a way of confirming local identities” (p. 222).3 What is more debateable, however, is, as we said, the decision to make no use of the epigraphic and literary sources available.

From an editorial point of view, the conclusions at the end of the individual chapters make it easier for the reader to follow the development of the author’s argument. While limited, the number of illustrations is sufficient for the presentation of the theses the book puts forward. However, it would perhaps have been better (despite the observations made on p. 127) also to give a map of the whole of Crete pointing out the contour-lines, so as to give an idea of the way the island’s imposing mountains divide it up into regions (the only map of Crete, map 1 on p. 24, simply shows the location of the places mentioned in the text). The absence of indications of altitude along the contour-lines on the detailed maps of the Mesara plain (map 3, p. 199) and the Mirabello region (map 4, p. 208) could cause some confusion in readers less familiar with these places.

Undoubtedly of merit is the impressive bibliography, even though at times, obviously for the sake of simplification, the author cites her own 2003 work, which contains more detailed references to the archaeological documentation on specific sites. Unfortunately there is a rather irritating failure to distinguish between V and W in the bibliography, with the result that, for instance, Vernant follows Werlen and Viviers comes after Willetts!

In conclusion, the book constitutes a point of reference, which justly invites the reader to reflect on Archaic Crete in a renewed critical spirit. One can be certain that, together with the data that has emerged from the most recent publications and ongoing research projects on important Cretan sites,4 it will bring new energy to studies on Archaic Crete.


1. P. Demargne, “Recherches sur le site de l’Anavlochos”, BCH 55, 1931, p. 407.

2. L. Sjögren, Cretan Locations. Discerning site variations in Iron Age and Archaic Crete (800-500 B.C.), BAR-IS 1185, 2003; among the most significant scientific initiatives of the last few years is the Conference on Crete in Geometric and Archaic Periods (Athens, January 2006), forthcoming.

3. Cf. J. Boardman, The Archaeology of Nostalgia. How the Greeks re-created their mythical past, London 2002.

4. Cf., for example, recent works by G. Rizza, Priniàs 1. La città arcaica sulla Patela. Scavi condotti negli anni 1969-2000, Catania 2008 and A. Kotsonas, The Archaeology of Tomb A1K1 of Orthi Petra in Eleutherna. The Early Iron Age Pottery, Heraklion 2008; not only are there ongoing important explorations at Prinias and Eleutherna, Azoria and Itanos, but work has also resumed at Dreros (summer 2009). Important data on the period are also awaited from new investigations that have been carried out in the last few years at Gortyn and Phaistos by the Italian Archaeological School at Athens.