BMCR 2021.03.23

Fouilles exécutées à Malia le Bâtiment Dessenne et les abords Sud-Ouest du palais dans l’établissement pré- et protopalatial de Malia

, , Fouilles exécutées à Malia le Bâtiment Dessenne et les abords Sud-Ouest du palais dans l'établissement pré- et protopalatial de Malia. Études crétoises, 37. Athènes: École française d'Athènes, 2019. Pp. 440. ISBN 9782869583016 €65,00.

This volume is the latest in a long line of ‘Etudes Crétoises’ publications from the French School at Athens devoted to research on ancient Crete. The majority present primary data from the Minoan palatial site of Malia, and most of these recently have concerned themselves not with the palace itself but its surrounding town buildings and complexes. There have, for example, been six volumes covering various aspects of the Quartier Mu complex, located c. 200 m to the west of the palace. Another recent publication (see BMCR 2021.01.03) presented the results of excavations in the area immediately to the northeast of the palace (‘Les Abords Nord-Est’). In the present volume the focus is the ‘Bâtiment Dessenne’, just to the palace’s southwest; indeed, its very position so close to the palace immediately raises questions as to its function and character. This question of the relationship between the palace and its town is a crucial one at the other major palaces too (such as Knossos, Phaistos), because it concerns the nature of political authority; but Malia has the fullest evidence for illuminating this issue, especially for the formative period of Middle Minoan II.

Bâtiment Dessenne, like Quartier Mu, was occupied solely during Middle Minoan II. The other way in which the two can be compared is in their excavation history: both were initially excavated in the 1960s. However, in many other respects they differ. For one, Bâtiment Dessenne does not share Quartier Mu’s extraordinary level of preservation. Moreover, its original excavator, André Dessenne, only conducted one season of excavation, in 1960; his untimely death then resulted in the findings remaining largely unpublished except through preliminary reports. That has not stopped scholars from incorporating it in synthetic work on palace and town, with Henri van Effenterre using its evidence for storage to argue for a communal function. Indeed, the structure was long referred to as the ‘Magasins Dessenne’, highlighting the storage magazines full of pithoi.

The present publication, directed by Maud Devolder (though with various specialist contributors), does a great service in revisiting the complex and offering the definitive publication some sixty years after its initial discovery. The volume begins with an overview of the site and its excavation. Devolder offers an excellent analysis of the state of our knowledge of Pre- and Protopalatial Malia, before providing an account of the 1960 excavation, as far as is possible from the limited documentation available. She also reviews van Effenterre’s subsequent incorporation of Dessenne’s findings in his 1980 synthesis, and a further study by Treuil from 1999. In the next section of the book, Devolder presents her detailed room-by-room architectural study of the building. Despite the mediocre preservation, she is able to propose a new architectural sequence that completely changes how we understand the building. She sees a core set of rooms (2-6, and 17-29) built largely with sandstone; the distinctive arrangement of room 2, with a row of column bases suggesting a balcony supported by wooden columns, speaks to the investment in architectural innovation seen across the site in this period. It is worth reminding ourselves that only the NE part of the building is preserved, so we do not know how extensive or elaborate the missing part of the building may have been. While in this core structure only rooms 5 and 6 seem dedicated to storage, some additions were soon made to boost storage capacity. Initially rooms 1, 7, and 8 were added to the N, followed in a further phase by rooms 10 to 16 to the NE. These additions stand apart for their use of a different technique that employs limestone blocks rather than sandstone. What becomes apparent in this convincing reconstruction is that this was a domestic structure to which storage rooms were added over the course of Middle Minoan II. Clearly, the term ‘Bâtiment’ rather than ‘Magasins’ is more apt.

The book’s next section, by Cantoro, Agapiou, Déderix and Sarris, presents the 3D digitisation project supplementing Devolder’s architectural study. This is an important contribution for the cultural heritage resource it provides – all the more so since the building has been backfilled and is no longer visible. The various techniques employed here are increasingly becoming standard and the manner of their integration here is clearly explicated.

Next follows the study of the material from the original 1960 excavation. Of greatest interest are the pithoi that had been found on the plastered platforms within rooms 7 and 8. Thirteen pithoi were found in room 7 and fifteen in room 8. These had been left in situ by Dessenne, and so could be recovered by Devolder, though their condition had deteriorated during the intervening years. Paradoxically, material that Dessenne did collect and which ended up in the Malia storerooms is mostly lacking specific contexts. These pithoi, though in many cases fragmentary, are beautifully illustrated; and the discussion of their chronological and functional implications by Caloi is to the point. They do seem entirely compatible with a date in Middle Minoan IIB, as they are very much the same as those found in Quartier Mu; and in number, while perhaps showing a more concentrated focus on storage than Quartier Mu, they appear to be consistent with a large domestic residence rather than any kind of communal facility. Caloi’s study of the pottery extends to those finds without precise context; they are not very numerous, with 14 vases or fragments dating to the Prepalatial (mostly EM IIB), 25 to the Protopalatial, and 16 to the Neopalatial. They largely reprise known types, though it is worth pointing out that the Neopalatial finds suggest some degree of continued occupation; those uncovered in situ in Room 26, however, suggest a limited re-occupation only in LM IB. Further studies complete this section, with Anastasiadou offering a typically rigorous study of the two seals found and two storage vessels with seal impressions, and Claeys and Montagné covering the stone vases and stone tools respectively. There is also a useful petrographic study of the pithoi by Nodarou, showing the use of two distinct fabric recipes that can both be linked to nearby sources in the vicinity of Chersonissos. These two recipes could mean different workshops, though the fact that the fabrics cross-cut pithos types suggests that if such workshops existed they did not restrict themselves to specific types.

The following chapter presents the soundings that Devolder conducted in 2014. The soundings within the building—sondages 1a, 1b, 2, 4a and 4b— all have a levelling fill for construction of the building. The associated pottery is very limited, but Caloi sees enough features to date it to MM IB-IIA. These soundings also reveal lower Prepalatial levels too, and there is an interesting pocket of EM III in sounding 4b, a period not often recovered. Sondage 5 a bit different as it is outside the building to the NE and next to the West Court. It reprises Treuil’s 1968 sounding that uncovered a paving – which turns out to be a paved street. A series of fills in connection with these remains provide important dating evidence for the paved street’s construction, use and indeed abandonment. Table 12 (p.263) summarises very handily the stratigraphy and findings of these sondages. Various finds are presented exhaustively (i.e. lithics, archaeomalacological remains, faunal, and botanical), with results falling largely in line with previous findings at the site.

There are two synthetic chapters, the first by Caloi on the pottery and the second by Devolder on the architecture and contexts. Most of the pottery comes from soundings and so its interest is largely chronological; hence Caloi’s findings necessarily feed into Devolder’s more overarching account. In summary, the earliest traces of occupation are from EM IIA late and are domestic in character; with similar levels identified in other locales such as beneath the palace’s central court and in the northeast borders of the palace, it seems that there was already significant occupation at this time. This phase is followed in EM IIB by the construction of a paved street—signalling the first moments of an urban circulation system—and indeed more extensive occupation in this SW area, as indicated by domestic levels found under rooms 2, 15, and 20. Interestingly, this EM IIB occupation seems to continue in the Dessenne area into EM III early, while elsewhere at Malia there is a destruction marking the end of EM IIB. Further major changes in the SW area seem to occur in EM III early, with the levelling of the West Court. The levelling fill covers the paved street and puts an end to the Prepalatial occupation here. Indeed, no occupation has been found between EM III late and MM IIA (a pattern seen also to the Northeast of the palace). Devolder thus identifies EM III as a key period in the development of the Malia townscape, marking a prelude to the construction of the palace in MM I. She also makes the interesting observation that these changes could explain why relatively little material of EM III to MM I date has been found at Malia: because the central zone was essentially levelled, with domestic occupation moving further out. Then, we have the Bâtiment Dessenne itself: while its destruction is quite readily assigned to the end of the Protopalatial period (MM IIB), owing to the numerous typological similarities in the pithoi with those of Quartier Mu, the date of its construction is a little less clear. Caloi understandably tries to squeeze as much as possible from the pottery in the levelling fills; and though the meagre remains do not necessarily support a positive identification of MM IIA, such a date does not in fact seem unlikely. Accepting this date does then allow for the important conclusion that the history of the Bâtiment Dessenne is quite like that of Quartier Mu: built and indeed destroyed (though Mu was a burnt destruction, while Dessenne is not) in a relatively short period of about a century, though even within this span there were modifications, with the addition of significant extra storage capacity. And even though Devolder states that the south façade of the palace may not have been so far south in the Protopalatial, placing Bâtiment Dessenne some 35 m distant, it nevertheless seems that its and the palace’s fortunes must have been quite closely tied together: if the West Court at its southern edge is only paved in the course of MM IIB, perhaps signalling some kind of palatial consolidation, is it then a coincidence that Bâtiment Dessenne barely lasts much longer?

In conclusion, this handsomely produced volume shows how, by combining careful study of existing remains with some judicious soundings, significant information can be squeezed from legacy data, even 60 years on. Devolder has given us a richly documented account that significantly adds to our understanding of Malia’s urban fabric as it emerged during the Prepalatial and Protopalatial periods.