BMCR 2010.12.35

Priniàs: la città arcaica sulla Patela. Scavi condotti negli anni 1969-2000 (2 vols.). Studi e Materiali di Archeologia Greca 8/1

, Priniàs: la città arcaica sulla Patela. Scavi condotti negli anni 1969-2000 (2 vols.). Studi e Materiali di Archeologia Greca 8/1. Catania: I.B.A.M., 2008. 311; 205 p. of plates, 9. p. of maps. ISBN 9788889375020.

Prinias occupies an imposing, triangular hill known as the Patela, which is located in the heartland of Central Crete and extends over six hectares. The site has attracted much attention ever since the first excavations by Luigi Pernier in 1906-1908 because of the discovery of two Early Iron Age temples. These temples have dominated discussions of Prinias for over a century, despite the ongoing excavations of Giovanni Rizza since 1969, which have brought to light domestic, industrial, ritual and burial contexts thus forming an assemblage hardly matched elsewhere in the Aegean of the Early Iron Age.1 Unfortunately, these finds have remained largely unknown, given the paucity of primary publications (the sole exception being Rizza, G., D. Palermo, and F. Tomasello. Mandra di Gipari: Una officina protoarcaica di vasai nel territorio di Priniàs, Catania, 1992). The scarcity of preliminary reports in any language other than Italian (as indicated by the site bibliography in p. 19-22 of the work under review) has not helped either in disseminating knowledge about these finds. It would therefore have been advisable to have a summary in English in this publication.

Giovanni Rizza is a distinguished scholar of the archaeology of Early Iron Age Crete, renowned for his studies on finds from Italian excavations. In the volumes reviewed, he publishes the results of excavations he conducted on the settlement of Prinias in 1969-2000. The work sketches the site’s architectural layout of multi-room complexes, divided by streets and arranged in terraces, served by water channels and furnished with wide-ranging equipment. The emerging picture of the town is enriched by reference to fortification wall(s) and sanctuaries. This is one of the few major contributions to the archaeology of early Greek settlements and will prove instrumental to any narrative of the period which no longer prioritizes burial evidence, but opts for a balanced assessment of different kinds of contexts.

The work, comprising Volumes I and II plus an extra Folder, documents the excavation and provides a catalogue of finds, but forms only the first of two parts (p. 13). The second, forthcoming part (Part 2), will include studies on the chronology, classification and interpretation of the finds and the architecture. Although some readers may protest at the decision to publish the two parts separately, it is often the case that large assemblages of finds require publication in sequential parts. This said, some reference regarding the contents of Part 2 would have been desirable in this part, as would have been a guide to the relative chronology of the site.

Volume I consists of discussion of the excavation, while Volume II presents the site and object photographs and the Folder contains the site plans (artifact drawings are left for Part 2). Volume I, which is basically descriptive, is divided into seven chapters, the first of which outlines the history of research at Prinias. Both in this chapter and throughout the volume Rizza makes a commendable effort to integrate the work of Pernier into his own. In the outline of his work, Rizza reports (p. 29) that his original aim was to conduct research ‘… sulle origini dell’arte greca e sul ruolo svolto da Creta nella sua formazione’. This aim perhaps explains why the first few days of excavation on the settlement were followed by five seasons of digging almost exclusively in the newly discovered neighbouring necropolis, which has unfortunately remained unpublished since the end of its exploration in 1978.

Chapters II to V present the results of the excavations on the Patela and Chapter VI catalogues sporadic finds. Discussion broadly follows the progress of fieldwork and treats a number of architectural features and complexes. Readers will find it disquieting that not all complexes discussed have been fully excavated. The individual room (‘vano’) is the basis of discussion, which involves a description of the excavation and its results supplemented by copious plans (Volume I and Folder), sections (Volume I) and excavation photographs (Volume II). Interpretation of contexts is not given and dating is either missing or remains general. The description of each room or other context is followed by a catalogue of finds discovered in it. Catalogue entries are brief and reference to the date of each object is not given, but a handful of off-island imports (Corinthian vases) are identified as such. I suspect that a few other objects, including the marble lamp A10 (p. 125) and the glass bead AO8 (p. 261), are also imported from overseas. Photographs of all objects are included in Volume II and are arranged according to find context. There are, however, two inconsistencies here. First, groups of finds from neighbouring contexts are often presented together in successive plates and this complicates the reconstruction of an assemblage. Second, the photographs of figurines are taken out of their context and organized on typological grounds for no obvious reason.

The decision to leave any reference to the interpretation and dating of contexts and their finds for Part 2 is an unfortunate one: even a basic study of each context will necessarily involve the tedious task of consulting not only the present two large volumes and accompanying Folder, but also the volume(s) of the forthcoming Part. There are also limitations of a different nature. Several levels and contexts seem to have yielded ceramics of mixed date (this ties in with the difficulty of identifying stratigraphic phases which is discussed below). It is hard to tell whether some of the chronological outliers are residual or intrusive, because the publication of the material seems highly selective. Rizza mentions that he publishes only the finds he considers to be significant for understanding the excavation (p. 14), but this criterion is vague. In the extreme case of the trenches that revealed the fortification walls west of the Patela, the criterion has resulted in the publication of no finds at all (p. 76-80). Selectivity also has an effect on the interpretation of function. How should one, for example, interpret the paucity of cooking pots (which are only represented by a dozen pieces)? For several reasons one would have expected more clarification about the selection criteria and about the possibility of treating the unpublished material through statistical analysis in the forthcoming Part 2.2

From the wealth of information supplied in Chapters II to V, I single out some of wider significance: the recently discovered temple C (p. 225-232) and the surrounding architecture, which recalls the fresh evidence for the architectural context of temple B (p. 203-204) and reopens the debate about the role of these structures; two previously unknown Archaic inscriptions (p. 77 and 92, NF.6), a public one on stone and a pre-firing graffito on a pithos preserving an intriguing name; the few Minoan antiques (p. 216, BK.8; p. 230, TeC8; p. 246, AT12); and the spread of arrowheads which is not matched in other Cretan settlements and can be associated with the relatively high percentage of wild animal bones recovered at Prinias.3 Lastly, the local pottery style conforms to that of South Central Crete and hints at the site’s close links with this sub-region.

Chapter VII, which discusses the site’s chronology and the question of its name in antiquity, is most significant for the general reader. Rizza convincingly documents that the settlement was founded during LM IIIC (12th century), at which time the necropolis was also established. Questions about the identity of the settlers and the cause of their relocation are, I assume, left for Part 2. Leaving its establishment aside, the chronology of the settlement remains ill-defined (p. 299-301). No significant phase other than the main one could be distinguished and even the date of this phase remains uncertain; it is only clear that in the central area, this phase predates the construction of temple A (650-620 BC). Modifications of structures of this main phase and remains of earlier walls have been identified in many areas but no dates are currently given for any of them, and hence any understanding of developments at site level seems difficult.

A handful of Corinthian sherds dating to around 600 BC provide a terminus post quem for the end of the settlement, which is represented in the field by an extensive layer of stones from the collapsed walls. Architectural modifications suggest that this end came in the mid-6th century. In support of this suggestion, which is reasonable, Rizza notes briefly that the necropolis was also abandoned in the mid-6th century, but a one-to-one relationship between settlement and principal cemetery cannot always be assumed. The precise dating of the end of the settlement is further complicated by the fact that Cretan pottery of the 6th century remains notoriously hard to date. A case in point is the material from the upper deposit of Prinias vano AS (p. 240-241), which is later than 600 BC on stratigraphic and stylistic grounds but resists any close dating. Contexts like this, however, will eventually contribute to the refinement of the pottery sequence(s) of Archaic Crete.

Activity returns at Prinias in the late Classical period with the erection of a fort and other defensive structures occupied by a garrison. It is on the basis of this development and the site’s strategic location on a route linking the island’s north and south coasts that Rizza attributes the earlier, 6th century abandonment to the conflicting interests of Prinias’s two powerful ‘neighbours’, Knossos and Gortyn. There are many uncertainties here, including whether the site was peacefully evacuated or destroyed by force (p. 302). I would also doubt whether the might of Knossos reached Prinias in the 6th century, and there is an influential argument, which Rizza appears to overlook, positing that Knossos suffered a serious recession during this time.4 This omission is symptomatic of the overall discussion of the settlement history of Prinias in isolation from its sub-regional and wider Cretan context, but there are expectations that this will be rectified in the forthcoming Part 2. A comparative glance at the settlement shifts seen in the micro-region of Kavousi/Azoria in East Crete in the course of the Early Iron Age would be of much interest.

The last section of Chapter VII, which comments on the possible name of Prinias in antiquity, could fit better in Chapter I. Rizza’s excavations have not made any contribution in this direction, hence the discussion revolves around the names Rhizenia and Apollonia proposed more than a century ago. Rizza convincingly argues against these identifications because, unlike Prinias, the two cities named prospered in the Hellenistic period. Following the site’s abandonment, its ancient name would have gradually faded from memory.

Volume I ends with two appendices providing the concordance of excavation and publication numbers, which is, however, also given in the catalogue. Readers, especially those wishing to consult the publication only briefly, would have found more useful an appendix guiding them from the object photographs in Volume II to the catalogue entries in Volume I.

Overall, the volumes reviewed represent the first part of an important publication, but we must await Part 2 to make a full assessment of the contribution of this work to the archaeology of Early Iron Age Crete. This thriving field was actually the subject of a conference held in 2006 to celebrate the first centenary of excavations at Prinias. The forthcoming publication of that conference, but more importantly the volumes reviewed here and the much anticipated Part 2 promise an impressive new century of research at the site.


1. For a balanced assessment of the different contexts see S. Wallace. 2010. Ancient Crete: From successful collapse to democracy’s alternatives, twelfth to fifth centuries BC. Cambridge.

2. On such issues see B. Horejs, R. Jung and P. Pavúk (eds). 2010. Analysing Pottery: Processing – Classification – Publication. Bratislava.

3. Wilkens, B. 1996. Faunal remains from Italian excavations on Crete. D. S. Reese (ed.), Pleistocene and Holocene fauna of Crete and its first settlers. Madison: 241-261.

4. J. N. Coldstream and G. L. Huxley. 1999. Knossos: The Archaic Gap. Annual of the British School at Athens 94: 289-307. I do not espouse this view.