BMCR 2022.06.39

Das minoische Kreta: Abriss einer bronzezeitlichen Inselkultur

, Das minoische Kreta: Abriss einer bronzezeitlichen Inselkultur. Urban-Taschenbücher, 728. Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 2021. Pp. 312. ISBN 9783170212695 €24,00.


Despite the boom in Minoan archaeology for the last three decades, there are very few synthetic works on Bronze Age Crete, which is usually treated in handbooks on Aegean Prehistory. Therefore, Diamantis Panagiotopoulos’s book is a long-awaited publication. According to its Introduction chapter, the book addresses mostly students and the wider public, although it aims to also appeal to research specialists (p.14-15). More importantly, the author wishes to situate the readers in the dynamic process of knowledge about Minoan Crete, rather than provide them with fixed information. He aims to bring in the distinct atmosphere of the Cretan landscape, because this is what renders the visit to any Minoan archaeological site a unique, breathtaking experience. The book serves the wishes and aims of its author via 14 chapters plus a short and retrospective conclusion.

The first chapter reviews past understandings of prehistoric Crete, from the ancient Greek myths about king Minos, to current research. Panagiotopoulos argues that the contribution of Sir Arthur Evans, the founding figure of Minoan archaeology should not be simply deconstructed. Rather, his evolutionist, orientalist and other Victorian preconceptions should be considered within their socio-historical. The deep long-lasting impact of Evans’s work should also be acknowledged. The chapter then dwells upon the paradigmatic, methodological and interpretative contribution of New Archaeology, especially its interdisciplinary and analytical approaches and its systemic interpretations. There is only an implicit acknowledgement of the—admittedly sporadic—post-processual and post-humanocentric approaches to prehistoric Crete, such as the importance of commensality for the emergence of the Minoan palaces or the contribution of the material affordances of fine pottery in social interaction within the palatial milieu.

Chapter 2 offers basic information on the relative chronology of prehistoric Crete, while boldly accepting 1550 and not 1615 BC as the absolute dating of the volcano of Thera, an issue much debated in research. Chapter 3 is a brief geographical description of Crete with its geophysical and environmental variability, and argues for a dynamic relation between people and their natural environs on the island. The latter did not only affect prehistoric ways of living, but they were also imbued with meaning by the inhabitants of Crete and these meanings are expressed through the strategic emplacement of palaces and sanctuaries in the landscape and through the prominent place of elements of nature in art and in cult practices.

Chapter 4 presents a synthetic outline of Minoan Crete, including the latest interpretations of the archaeological material and the author’s own understanding of socio-cultural evolution on the island. For example, the 3rd millennium BC, with its small communities and their emphasis on funerary ceremonies outside built tombs, is dubbed as “dark.” The emergence of the palaces, court-centred buildings that operated as urban and regional socio-economic, political and ceremonial hubs, were the result of a wider social transformation after 2000 BC. The floruit of Minoan palatial society before the mid-2nd millennium BC is directly linked to the establishment of Knossos as the most powerful centre on the island. By accepting 1550 BC as the date of the volcanic eruption on Thera, Panagiotopoulos is able to propose that Crete endured a century-long socio-economic crisis, before finally falling under the direct or indirect control of the Mycenaean mainland, and perhaps of Mycenae itself. As the Bronze Age drew to a close, the island became a periphery of the Mycenaean-controlled Aegean. The destructions and the habitation shift to upland and defensible locations at the very end of the Bronze Age are interpreted as direct results of external or internal unrest.

The rest of the chapters are thematic. Thus, chapter 5 discusses the layout, function and social importance of the Minoan palaces. For Panagiotopoulos, palaces were not the results of bottom-up collective activity, but seats of power atop the Minoan social hierarchy. He bases this argument on the exceptional amount of resources and coordination required for the building and maintenance of the palaces and on their emphasis on administration, as documented by seals. Their cult and other ceremonial activities are viewed more or less as a pretext and an instrument in the hands of the elites who wished to legitimise their authority.

As much as the author is right to underline the political dimension of the palaces, such a clear-cut interpretation fits mostly the Neopalatial (c. 1750-1550 BC) period. For example, the kouloures (deep, open shafts in the west courts of Knossos and Phaistos during the Old Palace period [c. 2000-1750 BC]) could not have stored agricultural produce in a controlled manner, as the author maintains. They would be more suitable for short-term storage and the immediate consumption and redistribution of products in public gatherings and ceremonies. Palatial authority undoubtedly existed, but the question becomes if it is worth maintaining its central place in Minoan research if its exact identification remains elusive after and despite more than a century of scholarship?

Chapter 6 examines the exploitation of the landscape, especially the upland areas of Crete. It is argued that the countryside was directly controlled by the palaces, hence the emergence of the so-called country villas in the Neopalatial period. Again, this argument stems from the belief in palatial control on Crete, which does not easily accommodate cases such as the fragmented Neopalatial landscape of east Crete, Old Palace social fluidity, or the selective palatial control of the regional economy during the Final Palatial period. Chapter 7 is about the individual and considers several related themes. Two of them are the clear male and female gender distinctions and the lack of eroticism in Minoan art. Other themes are the average height (1.67m for men and 1.56m for women) and life expectancy (40-55 years) of the Minoans, on the basis of osteological evidence. Panagiotopoulos calls for an experiential research approach in order to properly understand how human action within the Minoan architectural environment and finally stresses the comparative significance of collective over individual social identity in prehistoric Crete.

Chapter 8 turns to architecture. It highlights the importance of timber framing as an anti-earthquake measure in Minoan buildings and stresses the non-linear agglutinative principle in architectural design. Moreover, it further stresses the difference in luxury and sophistication between elite and non-elite buildings. Chapter 9 on craft activity and artifacts escalates from an outline of the basic materials and techniques (clay, bronze, valuable metals, simple and semi-precious stone) to the craft and aesthetic capabilities of the Minoan craftsmen who were able to strike a dynamic balance between raw materials, forms, styles of decoration and the function of the artefacts. Panagiotopoulos also reflects upon the experiential dimension of special artifacts. He argues that one may only imagine the magical impact of vessels in the form of bull’s heads when filed with and dripping red wine through the holes in their bottom. In addition, the author underlines the temporal dimension of status objects, as some of them were deposited immediately in tombs and others were handed down over several generations. Although he does not provide a detailed approach on the agency of Minoan material culture, his theoretical reflection provides enough food for thought.

Chapter 10 deals with the communicative dimension of Minoan iconography. Frescoes on palace and villa walls addressed the connoisseur elite spectator. Although images on seals, as other types of Minoan art, seem to promote a political power sanctioned by religion, they differ from their Near Eastern counterparts. They are aesthetically dynamic and they do not promote deity or ruler images but, instead, participation in collective and yet hierarchically structured ceremonies. The power of images extends to the adoption of hieroglyphic and Linear A scripts by the palaces. Chapter 11 is on everyday life, which—as the author notes—does not feature often in Minoan iconography. The chapter also draws a contrast between agropastoral and urban life styles. The author wonders about the social unit in Minoan Crete and tends to accept the household or House, namely a small group not necessarily constituted on the basis of kinship. He is careful to point out that such a hypothesis rests on ethnographic and must be treated with caution.

Chapter 12 turns to religion and cult. Panagiotopoulos states that not much is known about a possible Minoan pantheon of deities. By contrast, there is ample evidence about cult gatherings on mountain peaks or in palace courts, wherein ritual processions, food and drink consumption and even orgiastic dancing may have taken place. It is argued that such focus on collective performance on the one hand ensured social reproduction on Crete and, on the other hand, it distinguished Minoan religion from its Near Eastern counterparts. Chapter 13 is devoted to funerary customs. The author suggests that the Minoan two-stage funeral may be distinguished throughout the island and in all periods of the Bronze Age, despite the great variety of tomb forms (tholos or round stone-vaults, rectangular built house-like edifices, Cycladic-style underground cists and chambers, artificial caves, pits and shafts), the use of clay coffins from the end of the Early Bronze Age onwards, and the infiltration of Mycenaean habits during the Late Bronze Age.

Chapter 14 is devoted to the external relations of Minoan Crete. Panagiotopoulos mentions the Early Bronze Age Cycladic influence on Minoan material culture, and the reverse spread of Minoan influence to the Aegean up to the coast of Asia Minor in the early 2nd millennium BC. He proposes that the Minoan cultural impact upon early Mycenaean elites was so intense that no actual rupture with past Minoan traditions may have been felt when Crete became part of the Mycenaean sphere during the Late Bronze Age. He devotes a significant part of the chapter to the relations between Crete and Egypt, and suggests that Egyptian cultural imports were adopted and locally adapted. This argument threatens to open one of many Pandora’s boxes of Minoan archaeology and implicitly allow views that attribute the socio-historical evolution of Crete to Egyptian influence. Admittedly, the author does not go down this path of interpretation.

The short conclusion of the book argues that the Minoan cultural and social phenomenon has to be understood as multi-variable and complex. Panagiotopoulos is against any unilinear or organic evolutionary approach that sees stages of emergence, floruit and decay. Instead, he employs the notion of tempo, namely rhythm and speed in music, as a metaphor for the Minoan trajectory from the adagio and andante of the Early Bronze Age small-scale communities, to the allegro of the first urban societies of the Old Palaces; to the vivacissimo of the intensely complex Neopalatial society and to the largo or low-key interaction with the rest of the Mycenaean world during the final stages of the Bronze Age. The author stresses again the importance of the dynamic relationship between people and the Cretan landscape.

He also dismisses theoretical models based on ethnographic parallels from places far away from Crete, such as the Pacific, Latin America or Africa, without getting into the details of such research attempts. He urges both readers and researchers on the one hand to appreciate the few remnants of traditional ways of life on Crete and, on the other hand, to stay close to the archaeological data. This is an unexpected comment, easily misunderstood as a traditional call back to empiricism and the unproblematised employment of an assumingly timeless ethnographic present. Given that the book itself praises the contribution of New Archaeology to Minoan archaeology in Chapter 1, such comments sound self-contradictory. More importantly, Minoan research has been -or should be-past this paradigmatic stage.

In conclusion, Die Minoische Kreta provides a valuable and long-awaited fresh approach to Minoan Crete that does not restrict itself to the presentation of its main features, but, most importantly, attempts a paradigmatically nuanced anatomy of its Bronze Age society. The material culture itself does not dominate the book, but interpretations are carefully grounded in the archaeological record. Furthermore, they are expressed in a theoretically conscious self-reflective manner. The author’s target is achieved, since the book may be appreciated by both students and the public. The latter may also appreciate the format of the book, namely the lack of footnotes or endnotes and the bibliography lists at the end of each chapter instead of detailed referencing in the text. Illustrations are not too many and all in black and white, but the largely synthetic character of the text itself does not require more. These features should not put off specialised researchers, whom the book certainly offers enough food for thought. Let us hope that an English translation will follow soon, in order for it to address a much wider reading audience.