Online Review: Book

The Monumental Minoan Buildings at Kommos

Clairy Palyvou


Edited by Joseph W. Shaw and Maria C. Shaw. With contributions by Giuliana Bianco, Deborah Ruscillo, Jeremy B. Rutter, Joseph W. Shaw, Maria C. Shaw, Aleydis Van de Moortel, and others. Pp. xli + 948, color figs. 11, pls. 345, foldouts 5. Princeton University Press, Princeton and Oxford 2006. $195. ISBN 0-691-12123-0 (cloth).

The Monumental Minoan Buildings at Kommos is a monumental piece of work in itself: an impressive book of 1,227 pages written by experts in their fields and edited by the two excavators, the heart and soul of the Kommos dig: Joseph W. Shaw and Maria C. Shaw.

Kommos is a harbor town along the southern coast of Crete, touching the Libyan Sea that opens to Africa, Cyprus, and the Levant. It has more than 500 years of Bronze Age occupation, was closely related to Ayia Triada and Phaistos, and through trade and maritime activities functioned primarily as a link between Crete and her eastern Mediterranean neighbors. However, unlike other Minoan harbor towns, at Kommos there is actual evidence of these all-important yet elusive activities in the form of distinctive architectural remains and ample ceramic imports. The buildings—monumental in their size, construction, and morphology—occupy the low land of the "Southern Area" and form the core of the site. They have a long history of occupation, dating back to the Middle Minoan IIB, attesting to the diachronic public function of this area with regard to trade, administration, and cult. The publication of the work in this part of the town, therefore, is much anticipated for the light it sheds on maritime trade, a pivotal aspect of Minoan life. This is the culmination of the Kommos publication series, which could only be reached after the goals set by the previous volumes 1–4 had been accomplished. It is the importance and coherence of the Southern Area that dictated the publication of all the relevant material in one, albeit voluminous, book.

The challenge for the editors was twofold: to organize and present this rich material in a user-friendly manner, and to correlate and interpret it. The book is a masterpiece of organizational dexterity. Material is structured in five coherent chapters: "Architecture and Stratigraphy," "Plasters," "Pottery," "Miscellaneous," and a comprehensive closing chapter, "Conclusions," regarding the history and functions of the monumental buildings. A special feature of this book that adds to its organizational merits is the numerous tables (164) dispersed throughout. These function as handy references, starting with a table that helps readers relate the material in this volume with that presented in previous volumes (table 1.2) and ending with a bold effort to summarize and relate all archaeological evidence for Minoan occupation in the western Mesara in a diachronic array (table 5.1).

The core feature of the Southern Area is undoubtedly the architectural remains. These are presented first (ch. 1, by J. Shaw, with contributions by Costaki and Murphy), following the stratigraphy of the site and hence the chronological sequence. The earliest architectural evidence is the formation of an impressive artificial platform right by the seashore (the actual coastline is inferred due to erosion) and a walkway leading west to the sea—an appropriate beginning for it all. Whatever the form of the now eroded western side of the buildings erected on this platform and their relation to the sea and the world beyond is more than apparent.

Due to limited archaeological evidence, the authors are rightfully cautious in interpreting the initial Protopalatial Building AA. The nature of some of its finds suggests ceremonial functions, yet these may not necessarily mirror the original functional purpose of the building. Its placement, size, and form speak of an architectural compound servicing sea contacts, also attested through pottery finds and imports. After a suspected destruction by earthquake in the Neopalatial period, Building T is constructed more or less along the lines of AA and is followed by Building P and N in the Postpalatial period.

A focal point of all the building compounds constructed on this flat land is the vast open area in the form of a court. Of the three occupation phases, the court of the latest (Postpalatial Building P) was clearly open to the sea. Neo-palatial Building T, however, seems to have been of the "central court" type. There is ample evidence for buildings on three sides—east, north, and south (the latter flanked with stoas)—but there is less information regarding the most crucial side, that to the west leading to the seashore. The authors present sound arguments in favor of a central court (25, 59–60), though the line of the wall closing the court to the west is mostly conjectured. Prepalatial Building AA lying underneath is only scantly preserved, but it seems to be analogous to the later building in this respect. The question is an important one, because central courts allude to palaces. The overall picture of the "monumental buildings" (a wise name indeed) at Kommos is surely that of palatial architecture, but there are many organizational differences from "other palatial centers," such as Gournia, Knossos, Malia, Phaistos, and Zakros; this question is addressed in the closing chapter.

Postpalatial Building P is the best preserved. Its architecture, especially the "galleries" that make up the eastern wing and their relation to the coast, speaks convincingly of its function as ship sheds. Nevertheless, this had to be carefully documented by the authors through facts and parallels. Their exhaustive study of harbors and ships in the Aegean Bronze Age is a longstanding one and has produced a number of valuable articles on this issue. In return, the Shaws have received a festschrift eloquently named Krinoi kai Limenes (P. Betancourt, M. Nelson, and H. Williams, eds. [Philadelphia 2007]).

Neopalatial Building T is in many ways similar to Postpalatial P in its architectural design (esp. in the general form of the galleries). Could it have functioned as a ship shed as well? The authors discuss at length the pros and cons of this idea and prudently conclude: "it is probably best to leave this question unanswered until further excavation" (850–53).

The Kommos monumental buildings are impressive not only for their size and form but also for their structure. Some of the best examples of ashlar technique in Minoan architecture are to be found in the northern facade of Neopalatial Building T (20–2), and the timber reinforcement of the long walls of the galleries of Postpalatial Building P (73–5) are equally impressive. Structural information is abundant in the book, as one would expect from the scholar who initiated the study of Minoan building materials and techniques (a fundamental work soon to be published in updated form).

Plasters are presented separately (ch. 2, by M.C. Shaw). As the subtitle of the chapter suggests, the discussion includes "Evidence for Painted Decoration, Architectural Appearance, and Archaeological Event." The material consists of fragments of plasters from walls, floors, and ceilings deriving primarily from Building T. Most of the depictions are simulations of architectural elements of high quality, such as veined stones. Shaw, thanks to her lifetime studies of Aegean wall painting, is naturally the most qualified scholar to deal with this material. A contribution by Dandrau and Dubernet, "Scientific Analysis of Fabrics and Pigment," completes this chapter.

The presentation and discussion of the pottery (ch. 3, by Rutter and Van de Moortel) are detailed and cover more than 450 pages (261–715). The material is presented in the form of "context groups," each corresponding to "a significant locus of excavation" (261) followed by a meticulous recording and cataloguing of all the relevant data. The editors state clearly in the preface (xii) that the establishment of a "basis for relative ceramic chronology" was the starting point for all Kommos publications. This fundamental work was presented in volume 2 (Betancourt [1990]) and volume 3 (Watrous [1992]). The new material presented in this volume is a further refinement of the Mesara pottery typology and imported ceramic material from other Cretan sites and abroad.

Chapter 4, "Catalogue of Miscellaneous Finds from the Southern Area," is written by the Shaws and Ruscillo. It includes the following sections: metals and metalworking, loom weights and miscellaneous clay objects, items of adornment, seals, artifacts of stone, plaster offering tables, figurines and figural appliqués, faunal remains, and murex dye production. This rich material, quite important in itself, is used as a tool for interpreting space usage.

The closing chapter of the book (ch. 5, by the Shaws, Rutter, and Van de Moortel) presents a valuable synthesis in the form of "Conclusions: The History and Functions of the Monumental Minoan Buildings at Kommos." The authors recapitulate the main conclusions as well as the ambiguities of interpretation presented in previous chapters, with emphasis on the "architectural forms and their uses." Interpretation proceeds from the local to the regional and ultimately to the broader Mediterranean.

Kommos presents Minoan archaeology with a "gift" in that it provides information regarding something different than what we already know. This difference, however, needs to be explained on strictly scholarly grounds. The authors are aware of this and are careful in the use of terms such as "civic," "palatial," and "palace" (118, 849, and throughout). Comparisons of Neopalatial Building T to "other palatial centers" such as Knossos, Phaistos, Malia, Zakros, and Gournia wisely conclude that "the building may have functioned somewhat differently than the others, and that its relative size and unusual plan may be attributable to commercial and political aspirations and its position at the gateway by sea to south-central Crete" (849).

Kommos is thus to be seen in close relation to its neighbors, Ayia Triada and Phaistos, as a representative of the economic resources of "the controllers of the western Mesara" (849). For the Postpalatial period, however, it is evident that nothing comparable to the monumentality of the Kommos buildings is to be found at Knossos or elsewhere (with the exception of Ayia Triada, for the time being). A sociopolitical hypothesis is thus put forth that this was a period of "dispersed authority" and "increased autonomy" (875).

On a final note, coming from a reviewer who is an architect by profession, I must congratulate the editors and the publisher for the illustrations and generous line drawings. Bianco has provided a number of exemplary drawings. The authors could not have found a better match to their own clarity and precision of literal expression. Information is presented in all three dimensions (including sections and elevations, not just plans) and in varying scales of detail. There may be some ambiguities in the reconstruction drawings, but they are there for further discussion. It is sometimes argued that architectural drawings should be published at scales easy to recognize and measure. To my understanding this is unnecessary—and often unattainable—for one may easily scan the drawing from the book and deal with it at any scale (incidentally, the foldouts could have been slightly adjusted so as to be presented all at 1:50 scale). Consistency, however, is more important, and this has been carefully applied throughout the book, not only to the drawings but also to the scholarly approach in general.

Clairy Palyvou
Department of History of Architecture
Aristotle University of Thessaloniki
541 24 Thessaloniki


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