BMCR 2021.01.03

Fouilles exécutées à Malia. Les abords Nord-Est du palais I

, , , Fouilles exécutées à Malia. Les abords Nord-Est du palais I: les recherches et l'histoire du secteur. Études crétoises, 35. Athènes: École Française d'Athènes, 2014. Pp. 202; 124 p. of plates, 19 plans. ISBN 9782869582590 €92.00 (pb).

[This review was written in 2015. The editors apologize to the reviewer and authors for having lost it after it was submitted.]

This 35th volume of the Études Crétoises focuses on the areas that are immediately contiguous to the northeast corner of the Malia palace, the so-called ‘abords Nord-Est’ (hereafter ANE). The book primarily offers a synthesis on the form, history and functions of excavated areas and provides a stratigraphic account of the different architectural phases in the ANE sector, together with a succinct presentation of the material assemblages associated with each phase, building, or room. Conceived as a detailed contextualizing overview, the volume can be considered an introduction to the forthcoming publications of the archaeological material (ceramic, lithic, paleo-environmental remains, etc.). It follows and expands on the six preliminary reports published in the Bulletin de Correspondance Hellénique between 1982 and 1993 (p.19, n.20) and on a series of more recent publications by both P. Darcque and A. Van de Moortel.

The book opens with a presentation of the earlier small-scale tests conducted by F. Chapouthier (1926-1934) and O. Pelon (1979) in the area (p.15-19). The second part of the first chapter is dedicated to an account of the excavation methods of the large-scale project (850m²) that took place in the ANE during six seasons (1981-1985 and 1992) and a brief description of the research campaigns that followed and were spread between 1985 and 2010 (p.19-22). The chapter finally briefly mentions resistivity surveys that were combined to the first three years of excavation. They mostly produced negative results that were used to delineate areas of low priority which consequently remained unexcavated (p.22-26).

Chapter 2, which constitutes the bulk of the volume, consists of the detailed presentation of the remains uncovered in the ANE. They are presented by levels (‘niveaux’) corresponding to building elements, architectural installations or well-defined and less extensive features (e.g. occupation surface, floor packing, floor deposit, etc.) which occupy the same stratigraphic position (p.27). The levels are described chronologically, from earlier to later. Their presentation is subdivided in four parts: 1) a meticulous description of their physical properties with a particular focus on elements pertaining to stratigraphic and architectural phasing but also taphonomic observations; 2) a complete catalog of finds summarizing the material assemblages of the stratigraphic units comprising the level; 3) a discussion on the date of the level mobilizing elements from the description and the results of ceramic analyses; and 4) a cautious and usually well-argued interpretation.

Generally speaking, the description of each level, although it might appear tedious to some, is clear and systematic, and provides useful information that is mobilized in the dating and interpretation sections. Very honest statements on the difficulties encountered during the excavation of particular levels (e.g. p.41, 99, 146 and 161) also allow for a critical evaluation of certain parts of the text. Although catalogs of finds—many of which, in bold, are illustrated in the plates at the end of the volume (see below)—are fairly standard in archaeological publications, their association with the description of each level remains extremely helpful for specialists and gives a quick overview of the material assemblages that will be presented in future publications. In addition to the physical properties and ceramic material of each level, discussions on dating and interpretation are usually based on the contextualization of architectural features and material assemblages at different scales: the micro-scale of the ANE (especially in terms of the relations between the various structures forming its different phases), the meso-scale of the settlement of Malia (essentially with parallels drawn between the ANE and other sectors of the town at different periods of its history), and the macro-scale of the whole island with few but instructive comparisons with sites from all over Crete.

Overall, the interpretation of the different levels is judicious with a clear indication of hypothetical statements and reconstructions (e.g. p.48, 119, etc.), provides relevant remarks in the discussion of the most complicated levels, and clearly constitutes a worthy and solid basis for further analyses which are beyond the scope of such an introductory volume. Unfortunately, some serious problems in the ceramic analyses and substantial interpretation issues undermine the validity of some arguments. Before addressing the latter, a brief overview of the principal levels might be useful.

The earliest levels in the ANE correspond to levelling fills of EM IIA-B material laid out during the protopalatial period (p.30-34, 172-174). Apart from localized remains (small floor deposits, floor packing, etc.) and poorly preserved walls under the esplanade 26, MM II levels are mostly characterized by a series of buildings that are contemporary with Quartier Mu (p.48-78, plans IV and XI). Elements of their layout and material assemblages indicating the coexistence of different artisanal activities clearly recall the contemporary ‘maisons-ateliers’ (p.72-76).[1] Furthermore, they confirm the wide distribution, across the settlement of Malia, of recurring features at the end of the protopalatial period (uniformity of craft production, traces of administrative control over such products, and involvement in large-scale exchange and trade networks; p.176-177).[2] During the Neopalatial period, the northeast entrance system, partly incorporating protopalatial structures, would have known three different phases (p.178-180; plans V-VIII, XII-XIV, and XVIII). The two first phases, both taking place in LM IA, are characterized by the existence of paved walkways encircling a depression and leading to the northeast entrance of the palace faced by a porch with three columns. The area is limited to the south by an ashlar screen-wall (wall 54) and a small rectangular building (building 10). Although this whole architectural scenography might seem surprising for what was originally interpreted as a service entrance to the palace, the authors provide the convincing reconstruction of an external staircase leading to the first floor and propose to see in activities taking place in the upper story the main reason for such a complex access system (p.87-89, fig.8). It is also argued that, in the second LM IA phase, at the same time as the creation of esplanade 26 and the abandonment of the short-lived and poorly preserved building 6 (p.89-106), building 10 was remodeled while passage 13 was built, accentuating the channeling of circulations in the area (p.106-116). After a partial destruction (level 11, p.116-122), different operations were conducted in the entrance system during LM IB and resulted in a more circuitous approach from the northeast (p.122-139, plans VIII and XVIII). In this last functional stage of the ANE, the original access to the palace was clearly constrained and the external staircase leading to its upper story blocked. The ANE were finally destroyed in LM IB (see levels 13 and 14, p.139-158), a period after which no substantial occupation of the area has been documented.

The third chapter focuses on the ten 14C samples collected in the ANE and processed between 2008 and 2009 (p.165-170). The latter are first put in perspective with the elements of absolute chronology available so far for the site of Malia and then discussed in relation with the debate between the high and low chronology of the Theran eruption. Although none of these dates constitute a breakthrough in this enduring controversy, one of them constitutes the only secure absolute date (2566-2347 BCE) associated with EM IIA material at Malia (p.173) while three others provide good chronological markers for the MM IIB structures of the ANE (p.169-170). Six tables supplement the chapter, summarizing the most important results of the analyses.

It is in the conclusion that some of the most debatable arguments made in the book are summarized. In this respect, the most important problem lies with ceramic analyses and, more specifically, with the phasing of the LM IA period. Originally developed by A. Van de Moortel for Kommos (p.85, n.235), this chronology proposes three ceramic sub-phases: Early LM IA (‘MR IA Ancien’), Late LM IA (‘MR IA Avancé’), and Final LM IA (‘MR IA Final’) (p.114, 118, and 180). Although a detailed evaluation of this chronology is beyond the scope of this review, some of its arguable implications can be underlined. For example, most of the diagnostic features that are listed as characterizing Early LM IA in the ANE (p.84-85) are now predominantly attributed, across Crete, to MM IIIB, a period which has now been thoroughly reconsidered.[3] This has profound interpretive consequences most notably in the fact that the whole MM III phase is tentatively interpreted as a period of abandonment in the ANE, a hiatus of roughly 100 years between MM IIB and Early LM IA (p.47, 78, and 178). Considering that the palace was rebuilt in MM III and that some—if not all—paved walkways later integrated in the ANE might already have existed since the protopalatial period (p.85-86, 176), this hypothesis seems particularly unconvincing. Furthermore, the rather complex LM IA architectural phasing proposed for the northeast entrance system relies heavily on the ceramic analyses. As a matter of fact, the existence of two distinct architectural stages rests almost exclusively on the date attributed to esplanade 26 (p.85) which allegedly belongs to Late LM IA (‘MR IA Avancé’), a new sub-phase christened in the volume and purely based on a questionable typo-stylistic argumentation (p.113-114). Therefore, one could truly wonder if levels 8 and 10 should not simply be merged into a single construction episode, especially if one considers that, for example, there is no real indication of two LM IA phases in building 10 (such as an intermediate floor level; p.83 and 85) and no material that dates the construction of passage 13 (p.115). Furthermore, although particular architectural observations can certainly testify to some remodeling during LM IA, one can question the validity of assessing their respective dates by comparing ceramic assemblages of totally different sizes and natures (p.84-85, 113-114, and 118-120).

Another interpretive issue that does not derive from the phasing problem discussed above can also be briefly highlighted. It concerns the discussion on the nature of the palatial authority during the protopalatial period which clearly falls short (p.177-178). It basically tends to interpret the palatial reality by extrapolating from its ultimate and better documented phase in LM II-IIIA1 (especially thanks to the Knossian Linear B tablets) rather than truly assessing the earlier data sets, an almost unconscious tendency not uncommon in Minoan scholarship that has been rightly criticized for over fifteen years.[4]

On a more positive note, one has to acknowledge that, especially with the most recent volumes of its Études Crétoises, the French School at Athens has set very high standards for the publication of archaeological excavations. The overall layout of the book is indeed flawless. Furthermore, the numerous plates (photographs of trenches and archaeological material as well as drawings) are exemplary and constitute extremely valuable additions to the text. Concerning the plans, elevations and 3D reconstructions, although specific details can always be discussed, they are among the best of what is currently published in Aegean Archaeology.[5] To conclude, although the book perfectly fulfils its main objective and is a good introduction and contextualization for the future publications of the material, some of its chronological underpinnings are shaky at best and deserve a critical appraisal. In this regard, one can only look forward to the detailed publication of the pottery which, hopefully, will provide data to shore up the less convincing parts of this otherwise good monograph.


[1] Darcque, P. (2007). “À propos des édifices protopalatiaux des Abords Nord-Est du palais”, in M. Pomadère and J. Zurbach (Eds), « Journées maliotes, Malia, ville et territoire : organisation des espaces et exploitations des ressources, colloque organisé à l’École française d’Athènes les 2 et 3 novembre 2007 », Bulletin de Correspondance Hellénique 131 : 844-846 ; Darcque, P. and A. Van de Moortel. (2007). “L’entrée Nord-Est du second palais de Malia : histoire, formes et fonctions”, in M. Pomadère and J. Zurbach (Eds), « Journées maliotes, Malia, ville et territoire : organisation des espaces et exploitations des ressources, colloque organisé à l’École française d’Athènes les 2 et 3 novembre 2007 », Bulletin de Correspondance Hellénique 131 : 841-843 ; Van de Moortel, A. and P. Darcque. (2006). “Late Minoan I Architectural Phases and Ceramic Chronology at Malia”, in E. Tampakaki and A. Kaloustakis (Eds), Πεπραγμένα του Διεθνούς Κρητολογικού Συνεδρίου (Ελούντα, 1-6 Οχτωβρίου 2001), vol. A1: 177-188.

[2] Poursat, J.-C. (1996). Artisans minoens: les maisons-ateliers du Quartier Mu. Fouilles exécutées à Malia. Le Quartier Mu III. Études crétoises, 32. Athènes: École Française d’Athènes.

[3] Macdonald, C.F. and C. Knappett. (2013). Intermezzo. Intermediacy and Regeneration in Middle Minoan III Palatial Crete. BSA Studies, 21. London: The British School at Athens.

[4] Schoep, I. 2006. “Looking Beyond the First Palaces: Elites and the Agency of Power in EM III-MM II Crete”, in American Journal of Archaeology 110: 38-39.

[5] One could wonder why, for example, a polythyron has been reconstructed in room 2.2 of building 6 on plan XI when not a single indication of such a feature can be found in the text or on the stone-by-stone plan?