Online Review: Book

Knossos: The South House

Eleni Hatzaki


By P.A. Mountjoy. With contributions by B. Burke, K.S. Christakis, J.M. Driessen, R.D.G. Evely, C. Knappett, and O.H. Krzyszkowska (BSA Suppl. 34). Pp. xiii + 224, pls. 10, figs. 78, tables 2. The British School at Athens, London 2003. £65. ISBN 0-904887-42-1.

Although The Palace of Minos (1921–1935), Evans’ synthetic publication of 30 years of fieldwork at Knossos, remains a fascinating read into one man’s vision of the material culture of prehistoric Knossos and Crete, it was never intended to be, and therefore never fulfilled the purpose of, a detailed final excavation report. In the 1960s, the publication of the conflicting views of Palmer and Boardman (On the Knossos Tablets [Oxford 1963]) on the destruction date of the final palace and the reorganization and initial study of the British School’s Stratigraphical Museum at Knossos collections directed by Popham (The Last Days of the Palace at Knossos: Complete Vases of the Late Minoan IIIB Period [Lund 1964]; The Destruction of the Palace at Knossos: Pottery of the Late Minoan IIIA Period [Göteborg 1970]) opened the avenue for the reexamination, publication, and reevaluation of Evans’ excavations. The former was based primarily on the study of material in the Evans Archive at the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford, whereas the latter put emphasis on the ceramic and other artifactual data sets selected and kept for future study by Mackenzie, Evans’ site director and pottery specialist. Ever since, on-site study combined with long hours over the strewing tables, as well as archival research, have led to numerous publications and ongoing projects, most of which have appeared as publications of the British School at Athens. The volume reviewed falls under this category. Mountjoy aims to present “as fully as possible the material from the South House at Knossos” (xiii), a building excavated in 1908. Her book fulfills this purpose, although for stratigraphical reasons discussed below, the reader should be aware that the bulk of the material presented has nothing to do with the occupation phases of the South House.

The introduction (1–25) is in effect an excavation report. It includes occasional excerpts from Mackenzie’s excavation notebooks and descriptions of the contents of each Stratigraphical Museum box housing material from different parts of the South House and its immediate vicinity. The patterns of cross-joins among the kept pottery, as copiously recorded by Mountjoy (7–9), leave little doubt that the bulk of the pottery from Late Minoan (LM) IA onward was deposited as a succession of dumps. Indeed, the summary of previous scholarship on the stratigraphy and history of destruction illustrates how erroneous assumptions can be when based on a partial assessment of the material. This is a valuable lesson for all researchers wishing to embark on the study of any topic related to Evans’ excavations at Knossos, particularly when the material has not been subjected to a thorough restudy. Apart from this section, the reader should keep in mind that discussion of the different types of artifacts is on the whole restricted to the particular chapters with little attempt at synthesizing all the evidence.

Chapter 1, by Driessen (27–35), gives an architectural overview, although it is unfortunate (and certainly not the author’s fault) that this section was not combined with a detailed account of the architecture, for which the interested reader will have to await a separate publication by a different author, Fotou (27 n. 1). In chapter 2, Mountjoy (37–9) discusses the fresco fragments, which provide insights into the Neopalatial theme of Nilotic scenes, well known from other Knossian (e.g., the Caravanserai and the House of Frescoes) and other Aegean contexts (e.g., the West House at Akrotiri).

The bulk of the book is taken over by chapter 3 to such an extent that the reader may wonder if presenting and discussing the ceramics were the primary reasons for publication. Indeed, Mountjoy more or less admits this, quoting Popham’s remark that “its full publication would be arduous though worthwhile” ([Göteborg 1970] 59). But was this a worthy cause? The Early and Middle Bronze Age material is little (Knappett [41–50]), whereas the Late Bronze Age pottery, thoroughly discussed by Mountjoy (51–152), is substantial. The study of Late Bronze Age contexts from Evans’ excavations is, however, severely hampered by the recovery and storage procedures of the time, when pottery from topsoil to paved floors was kept more or less as a single level (see also E.M. Hatzaki, Knossos: The Little Palace [London 2005]). For the South House, this implies that almost all the pottery discussed has lost its original stratigraphical context. There is one notable exception: the LM IA pottery assigned to the occupation phases of the building prior to its abandonment (57–64).

The assignment of ceramic dates is then generally based on purely stylistic criteria rather than any stratigraphical evidence retained in the sequence in which the boxes with pottery were organized and kept. To date the pottery, Mountjoy draws comparanda from settlement and cemetery data alike, which depending on context have been dated by stratigraphical and/or stylistic criteria. A glance at published Late Bronze Age material from recent excavations on Crete will reveal that fine decorated pottery forms only a small percentage of the total amount of pottery retrieved. In the case of the South House, the sheer volume of decorated material selected by Mackenzie, as drawn and discussed by Mountjoy, can be only a dim reflection of what the original quantity excavated would have been. Ceramic specialists interested in Late Bronze Age Knossian pottery from stratified contexts will have to look elsewhere. Despite appearances, however, Knossos is indeed a good source for stratified ceramic contexts (N. Momigliano, ed., Knossos Pottery Handbook: Neolithic and Bronze Age [London forthcoming]).

The value of this South House volume lies in its presenting the largest body of LM IB pottery from Knossos yet published. While we await full publication of the contemporary Royal Road North and Stratigraphical Museum excavation site deposits by Hood (AR 5 [1959] 3–26; AR 7 [1961] 4–7; CretChron 15 [1961–1962] 92–8); Warren (AR 27 [1981] 27–92), this is indeed a valuable addition. This picture contrasts sharply with the recent publications of thoroughly studied LM IB contexts from other parts of Crete, such as Kommos (J. Rutter, “Neopalatial and Later Minoan Pottery,” in J.W. Shaw and M.C. Shaw, eds., Kommos, 5. The Monumental Minoan Buildings at Kommos [Princeton 2006] 377–630), Seli and Phaistos in south-central Crete, and Mochlos in east Crete (for references, see J. Rutter, BMCR 2004.04.14 n. 12). Surprisingly, Xanthoudides’ publication of Nirou Chani (Prakt [1919] 63–9; ArchEph [1922] 1–25) remains to date the most comprehensive coverage (in terms of fabrics, wares, and forms) of what north-central Cretan LM IB looks like.

Since the South House material is grouped on purely stylistic grounds, there is little scope for attempting any division of Knossian LM IB into subphases as recently presented for Kommos and Mochlos. Mountjoy, however, resurrects the rather unfortunate “Sub-LM IA” (78), a long-forgotten term originally introduced by Furumark in 1950 for the Late Bronze I Trianda material. For good reason it was never adopted on Crete. This type of term stems from the erroneous belief that ceramic periods can be defined primarily on the basis of “type fossils,” where usually a handful of shapes and decorative motifs are exclusive to one particular period. But not every ceramic phase has type fossils, and if it does, these do not necessarily occur in every context. Here, “Sub-LM IA” refers to the continued presence of LM IA features in pottery that is stylistically more advanced than LM IA but not up to the grand standards of Betancourt’s Special Palatial Tradition (The History of Minoan Pottery [Princeton 1985] 140–48). Ceramic production must be seen as a continuum and assemblages studied as groups with specific contextual parameters where equal weight can be given to variability of fabrics, wares, and forms. In the case of the South House and other comparable assemblages, this is virtually impossible because of both the preselected nature of the material and postexcavation storage practices. This combination can perpetuate a vicious cycle where ceramic specialists cannot escape attributions based on purely stylistic criteria.

But this volume is not only about fine decorated pottery. In chapter 5, Christakis (153–61) exploits to the maximum the limited resources available by giving us a refreshing and innovative approach to the study of a building so well known but with so little left to contextualize its original artifactual data sets. This case study demonstrates the potential of discussing staple storage with a solid methodology while combining different forms of data sets. Christakis shifts attention back to the importance of storage as perhaps the essence of a “palace,” if recently “lost in translation” through an overwhelming current emphasis on feasting and factional competition within and beyond the boundaries of these buildings, especially in the Neopalatial period.

In chapter 6, Mountjoy produces an exhaustive typological discussion of the silver vessels, while chapters 7 (Evely) and 8 (Burke) present the stone, bone, ivory, bronze, and clay finds (including loomweights). The book ends abruptly with Krzyszkowska’s discussion of the seals (ch. 9).

If dating pottery purely on stylistic criteria has its pitfalls, assigning dates to other types of artifacts based on a similar methodology is a daunting enterprise. Unfortunately, the few objects that can be securely assigned to the South House have not been contextualized in separate accounts, leaving the reader with the formidable task of cross-referencing different sections of the book in order to find a secure context for them. Equally missing is an attempt to distinguish those objects that can be associated with the later dumps over the building. This would be of particular interest if, as suggested below, the material came from the palace. For example, there is no full discussion of the three-dimensional ivory group of a griffin attacking a bull (Evely [189, cat. no. 175]). Was this a freestanding sculptural piece, or attached to something else? Discussion of its potential Neopalatial date (Mountjoy [24]) with iconographic comparanda would have been of value. Likewise, the architectural moldings that Evely suggests could have come from the palace or South House equally should probably be associated with the palace, where several comparanda of a much more elaborate type exist. The quality and quantity of the stone vase fragments could also have been in a similar former context—Evely (175) rightly compares the amount of them to the Unexplored Mansion. However, the stratigraphical correlations and findspot of the fairly complete Vapheio cup (Evely [180, no. 135]) most likely link it to the South House. Generally, apart from the silver vessels (collapsed from an upper-floor room into the Pillar Crypt), the loomweights (for which Burke argues the existence of a loom in the house), and a handful of stone objects, there is little potential for contextualizing the material presented—which raises the question of whether such an exhaustive study beyond the purposes of a catalogue is worthwhile. It is a pity that the well-known hoard of bronze tools found in the Pillar Crypt was not studied, apart from two objects now in the Ashmolean Museum (Evely [190]). Burke’s observation (197) that spherical loomweights are largely confined to north-central Crete suggests intriguing regional patterns for textile production and invites further analysis. Krzyszkowska’s discussion is a useful case study in the limitations imposed on the study of seals when secure stratigraphical contexts are missing. The Neopalatial date assigned to an outstanding lentoid of lapis lazuli (Krzyszkowska [206, fig. 9.1.1]) is important for readers beyond those strictly interested in glyptic studies.

So are there any conclusions to be drawn? This book lacks a concluding chapter where the South House could be discussed in a broader Knossian and Cretan context, even if the blurb on the back cover suggests otherwise (presumably in reference to the introductory chapter): “P.A. Mountjoy now provides a detailed account of the excavation and an analysis of the building’s history.” So how then does this volume contribute to the history of Late Bronze Age Knossos? Its contribution is actually substantial. Even though it was already known that the South House was part of the ambitious Knossian building program appropriately termed by Evans “the New Era” following the earthquake of Middle Minoan (MM) IIIB—which Mountjoy prefers to call “MM IIIB/LM IA transition” (following Warren, BSA 86 [1991] 319–40), a term that is rapidly becoming obsolete—her study leaves no doubt that its construction took place in the early part of the Neopalatial period and its destruction/abandonment in LM IA. The latter is potentially related to an earthquake horizon that is ceramically contemporary with the eruption of Thera.

What happened to the site afterward is truly fascinating. If the area of the South House became the regular dump for large quantities of pottery and other debris, where did this material come from? The difference in level between the basement rooms of the palace’s South Wing and the South House is enormous (causing vertigo even today), especially since the house was built into terracing on what must have been in prehistory a steep slope—the result of centuries of Neolithic occupation accumulating on the Kephala hill. Under these circumstances, it would be perverse to assume that such material traveled from the town up the hill to be deposited above the South House over time. This leaves the palace as the only candidate for the provenance of the material. Indeed, MacGillivray (Knossos: Pottery Groups of the Old Palace Period [London 1998]) has recently argued for a comparable scenario beyond the southeast corner of the palace, when the House of Sacrificed Oxen and the House of the Fallen Blocks were buried under redeposited Protopalatial debris and pottery that presumably came from higher up the hill (i.e., the palace) following the destruction/abandonment of the houses. The absence of LM IB deposits from the palace in any substantial numbers has been one of the main arguments for Macdonald’s “ruined palace” theory (Aegaeum 23 [2003] 53) during this crucial period on Crete. Such a thesis relates to the long-lasting belief that the palace as revealed by Evans is predominantly a Neopalatial construction. While this might be the case for certain parts of the East and North Wings, such as the Domestic Quarter, the North Entrance Passage, the northeast magazines, and the southeast North West Angle of the South East Insula, it is certainly not the case for the West and South Wings. There is good stratigraphical and architectural evidence to suggest that these sectors of the palace were rebuilt, perhaps on more than one occasion, during the Final Palatial period (LM II–IIIA2) (E. Hatzaki, “From Final Palatial to Postpalatial Knossos: A View from the Late Minoan II to Late Minoan IIIB Town,” in G. Cadogan, E. Hatzaki, and A. Vasilakis, eds., Knossos: Palace, City, State [London 2004] 121–22). In light of the absence of any substantial deposits of Final Palatial tablewares from this region, should we be looking at the South Front and South House dumps for the missing pots? This is a highly attractive hypothesis, but because of the fragmentary nature of the material, we cannot push the evidence any further to see if site clearance or structured deposition is the more likely stratigraphical scenario, even though one does not exclude the other in separate depositional episodes. Although the material in question does not provide any evidence for the architectural layout of the palace in LM IB, it proves indirectly that activities involving the use of tablewares in substantial numbers took place on the top of the Kephala hill toward the end of the Neopalatial period.

In conclusion, this handsomely produced volume is now the reference work for the South House, a book that will be of value to researchers interested in Late Bronze Age Knossos and Crete, and a barometer of the potential of but also limitations posed by material excavated nearly 100 years ago. Here is a legacy that, thanks to the origins and development of the discipline, Aegean prehistorians will never escape and cannot ignore.

Eleni Hatzaki
British School at Athens
Souedias 52
Athens 106 76

Book Review of Knossos: The South House, by P.A. Mountjoy

Reviewed by Eleni Hatzaki

American Journal of Archaeology Volume 111, Number 2 (April 2007)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1112.Hatzaki

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