BMCR 2020.11.08

The Masons’ Marks of Minoan Knossos

, , The Masons' Marks of Minoan Knossos. BSA supplementary volume 49. Athens: British School at Athens, 2020. Vol 1: Pp. 650; Vol. 2: xii, 83 figures, 220 plates. ISBN 9780904887716 £130.00.

The generic term ‘masons’ marks’ is used to designate the signs chiefly carved on cut stone blocks incorporated in Middle and early Late Bronze Age walls in elite architecture in Crete and the broader Aegean (ca. 1900-1430 BC). These marks, the purpose of which remains debated, were first identified at Knossos in 1881 by Minos Kalokairinos and attracted Arthur Evans, driven to Crete by his interest in early writing systems, to the site. This two-volume book is the work of Sinclair Hood with the assistance of Lisa Maria Bendall, who substantially edited the manuscript. It provides a detailed and comprehensive account of the ca. 1,600 marks at Knossos, by far the largest corpus of signs carved on masonry blocks at a single site in the Bronze Age Aegean, and supplies a contextual analysis of these marks.

The manuscript was largely completed in the early nineties. References to recent and forthcoming works related to the subject are mentioned in the bibliography, and the survey of masons’ marks in Crete and the Aegean (chapter 5) is the most exhaustive ever produced, but it is worth pointing out to the reader that discussions presented in publications after the early 2000s are not fully integrated in the analysis of the marks. This, however, only has a minor impact on the book’s content.

Volume 1, Text, is composed of two parts following an editorial introduction which addresses data collection processes, the making of the manuscript, and editorial choices. Part 1 is devoted to an analysis of Minoan masons’ marks, with a general introduction to the discovery and historical importance of the marks (chapter 1); a description of the 25 types (plus one miscellaneous category) and subtypes of Knossos masons’ marks (chapter 2); the features of the different classes (A-E) of marks, as defined by their size and the boldness of their cutting, each supposedly pertaining to a different chronological period (chapter 3); a discussion of various facts related to the masons’ marks in Bronze Age Crete, including their distribution, grouping, repetition, alteration, stage of carving during the building process, and relationship to Minoan scripts (chapter 4); a survey of masons’ marks elsewhere in Crete and the Aegean (chapter 5); an overview of comparable signs in societies from the Bronze Age to the Middle Ages in Europe and the Mediterranean (chapter 6); and a discussion of the purposes of Cretan masons’ marks (chapter 7).

Most of Volume 1 is taken up by Part 2, which offers a detailed catalogue of the marks identified at Knossos. The catalogue entries are organized by area (A-L and S), from the palace and its immediate surroundings (A), to miscellaneous marks from all around the site (L, including quarries) as far as Skalani to the south (S). This catalogue relies on an extensive survey of the marks over the years 1978-1982. It also stems from the study of Evans’ and his collaborators’ archives, which made it possible to include now lost or possibly lost marks (the risk of duplicates is acknowledged and efficiently dealt with by the author and editor). Within each area, often organized in sections representing an edifice, an architectural unit in a broader ensemble, or a geographical sub-area, the entries are given in running numbers preceded with the letter of the area, a locational organization which is especially user-friendly. The catalogue of each area or section within it generally starts with a short overview of its architectural phasing and dating, possible reuse of blocks, conservation works, and weathering or disappearance of the marks.

For each of the 1,678 catalogue entries, the following information is given: size, type (1-26) and class (A-E) of the mark; location of the carved block in situ or not; features of the cutting (boldly or lightly cut), including in some cases the tools used for doing so; face of the block upon which the mark is cut, including whether or not it is dressed; material (generally local limestone but in some instances gypsum) and dimensions of the block; and position of the mark on the block’s face. These data are in many cases complemented by additional information made available by bibliographical references and the archives. Where relevant, parallels with masons’ marks at Knossos or elsewhere in Crete are provided at the end of the entry. The catalogue is followed by a concordance of signs, where the entries’ numbers are organized by type and sub-type, and where information pertaining to ligatures, the repetition of the same or the cutting of different signs on the same block, the class, and any possible duplicates can easily be grasped. Bibliography and two indices (one of masons’ marks sign types, the other a general index) follow.

Volume 2, Illustrations, consists of maps, tables—one of which schematically presents the marks’ types and subtypes—and, for the most part, drawings of a large selection of the masons’ marks, plans and elevations of Knossian walls bearing marks, and high-quality black and white photographs of a selection of the marks on varying blocks, walls and surfaces. The illustrations are complemented by five pocket plans (I-V) of the palace and areas D, E, H and L, each bearing indication of the masons’ marks’ numbers and drawings.

The catalogue deals extensively with the evidence available: any marks that have been identified, be it through the 1979-1982 survey of the site or earlier exploration, are considered with exquisite attention to detail. The reviewer knows of no other example where such detailed information on masons’ marks and their support has been recorded, let alone published, on such a scale. The catalogue in Part 2 thus produces a complete and final publication of a long-discussed corpus of evidence which is slowly disappearing due to the weathering of the blocks, with a level of information and exhaustivity that makes it possible for the reader to assess the various aspects discussed by the author in the analysis of the Knossos marks in Part 1. Amongst such aspects, one may want here to underline the attention dedicated in the book to the relationship between masons’ marks and contemporary scripts, and to address the author’s view regarding the chronology and purposes of the marks.

The relationship of Cretan Bronze Age masons’ marks to the Minoan scripts is assigned a specific section within chapter 4 (pp. 52-54), but this subject is also addressed variously throughout the book: Evans’ interest in the marks (pp. xix, 2, 41, 52, 82-83); the chronological setting of the earliest marks in relationship to the Arkhanes script and Cretan Hieroglyphic (pp. 53, 90); analogies and variants of each type/subtype of marks with the Minoan—and sometimes later and more distant—scripts (chapter 2); the pairing or grouping of the marks (p. 46); and the origins of the signs, including parallels in earlier and contemporary eastern Mediterranean scripts (pp. 89-90). The author, following Evans and several other scholars, states that although there is an overlap with Cretan Bronze Age scripts, it is not complete, and some of the signs carved as marks are even absent from the Minoan scripts. Instead, the masons’ marks must constitute a separate writing system, perhaps inspired from practices in contemporary societies.

The chronological value that the author attributes to the marks’ features in the book should have a major impact on Minoan scholarship. To summarize his view, which takes into consideration the reuse of some of the blocks, the marks that are large and deeply cut tend to be earlier than those lightly cut and of smaller dimensions (p. 40). Earlier and later marks also tend to be carved on different blocks’ surfaces: the upper and/or lower faces for the bold, earliest marks, and the well-dressed front face for the fine, later marks. Based on these features the author allocates the Knossos marks to different classes which were used during specific phases of the site’s chronology. He acknowledges, however, the difficulty of ascertaining the chronology of the walls in some areas, stressing that only “a relatively small number of the Knossos masons’ marks are […] reasonably well dated from their context” (p. 41). One must indeed admit that the intricacy of the Knossos palace’s chronological sequence, despite recent and detailed clarifications by several scholars, does little to substantiate the categorization of the marks’ features into chronological classes on the site itself. Also, recent investigations into the chronological sequence of other palaces have shown that seemingly ‘early’ masons’ marks appear on the upper and lower faces of blocks set in their original position in Neopalatial—often even post-1600 BC—walls, thus providing no support for this chronological evaluation of the marks’ cutting features.[1] Different practices at various sites might not constitute a definitive argument against the chronological value of the marks’ features at Knossos, but the reader will perhaps want to apply caution when using Minoan masons’ marks as a dating element.

Another major issue addressed by the book is the purpose of the ‘masons’ marks’. While some scholars consider that the signs carved on the surfaces of the blocks—be they visible or not—had a magical or religious function, others—largely inspired by similar examples in other societies explored in chapter 6—suggest that the marks had a practical or utilitarian role. The author clearly states his support for a religious or magical purpose, although he admits that there is little to substantiate, let alone demonstrate, such a function. According to his view—and after evaluating the data in favor or against practical interpretations of the carved signs as quarry marks, contractors or workmen marks, or positioning marks—, the undisputable character of the marks carved on supports of a religious nature makes it possible to extend this purpose to all cases (pp. 90-91). Readers who favor a practical purpose may not be entirely convinced by this argument, but they will have to admit that the author clearly points out features that are difficult to reconcile with a purely utilitarian function of the marks, namely the identification of only one mark on some sites (e.g. Gournia); the carving of the same sign several times on the same block’s face; the carving of different signs on the same block; and the alteration of some marks by the superimposition of others. Ultimately, the author remains prudent and underlines that should his understanding of the religious purpose be accurate, Cretan Bronze Age masons’ marks would be an exceptional phenomenon in view of contemporary or later societies using similar signs.

The magnitude and quality of the analysis, and of the catalogue and associated graphic documentation stemming from the thorough examination of published and unpublished evidence complementing extensive fieldwork is unparalleled in Aegean and even Bronze Age Eastern Mediterranean studies. Given the excellent quality of the work, and because of the extent of the corpus of Knossos masons’ marks and the versatile interpretations of the marks’ purposes, these volumes constitute a major publication in Aegean and eastern Mediterranean studies in scripts, architecture and religion. The price might be off-putting for many individual researchers, but any good research library with a Bronze Age eastern Mediterranean section will acquire the volumes. Specialists of Medieval European architecture will also want to refer to this corpus.


[1] The cut sandstone walls of the Neopalatial reconstruction of the West Wing in the palace at Malia, which bear many large and deeply cut signs on blocks in their original position, were erected on top of Middle Minoan IIB and Middle Minoan III remains (Pelon, O. 1982. “L’épée à l’acrobate et la chronologie maliote (I)”, BCH 106.1, p. 165-190 ; Olivier Pelon, 1983. “L’épée à l’acrobate et la chronologie maliote (II)”, BCH 107.1, p. 679-703). Also, at Phaistos, blocks apparently not reused and bearing marks are incorporated in the walls that belong to the definitive reconstruction of the Neopalatial Palace in Late Minoan IB (Luigi Pernier, 1935. Il palazzo minoico di Festòs: scavi e studi della Missione archeologica italiana a Creta dal 1900 al 1934. Vol. 1. Gli strati piu antichi e il primo palazzo, Roma, p. 404-405; Luigi Pernier & Luisa Banti, 1951. Il palazzo minoico di Festòs: scavi e studi della Missione archeologica italiana a Creta dal 1900 al 1950. Vol. 2. Il secondo palazzo, plan II; Vincenzo La Rosa, 2002. “Pour une révision préliminaire du second palais de Phaistos”, in Monuments of Minos. Rethinking the Minoan Palaces. Proceedings of the International Workshop “Crete of the hundred Palaces?” held at the Université Catholique de Louvain, Louvain-la-Neuve, 14-15 December 2001, ed. by Jan Driessen, Ilse Schoep & Robert Laffineur [Aegaeum 23], p. 83).