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The Middle Minoan Three-Sided Soft Stone Prism: A Study of Style and Iconography

The Middle Minoan Three-Sided Soft Stone Prism: A Study of Style and Iconography

By Maria Anastasiadou. 2 vols. (CMS Beiheft 9). Pp. xxii + 802, figs. 134, pls. 131, table 1. Philipp von Zabern, Mainz 2011. €210. ISBN 978-3-8053-4346-6 (cloth).

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This important work is the first systematic treatment of a most significant body of seals. The catalogue comprises 625 examples of the three-sided prism, a form that evolved in Middle Minoan (MM) IA and persisted to MM III/Late Minoan IA early, with its main floruit being MM II. It is defined as “an axially symmetrical seal with triangular cross section, three engraved faces, and a stringhole channel which runs in line with the axis” (370). Numerous sealings attest that these prisms were used sphragistically. The work, evolving from the author’s doctoral dissertation at Philipps-Universität Marburg, was completed with the benefit of some years working at the CMS Forschungsstelle in Marburg, and it comprises a two-volume, extensive coverage of the typology of these seals and their iconography.

Volume 1 (1–485)—part 1 of the work—includes the usual preliminaries, followed by the main text in five sections. The introduction sets out the scope of the work and reviews research on the prisms to date. The next section, “The MM Three-Sided Soft Stone Prism,” provides detailed information on the seal type. The origin of this seal form is investigated, and on balance it is seen as an indigenous Cretan creation. The various soft materials used are described, noting that steatite accounts for 95.4% of the examples. The tools and processes of manufacture are next investigated, and three methods of engraving are established: freehand, vertical pressure, and mechanical spindle. An overview of the seal distribution, dating, and find places follows, together with a discussion of the Seal Cutter’s Workshop at Malia. The text is complemented by many illustrations and maps within figures 1–17. In the next section, “Style Groups,” four main groups are identified according to iconography, material, technique, and characteristics of the shape: Malia/Eastern Crete Steatite Prisms, Prisms with Early Minoan (EM) III/MM I Influences, Mesara Chlorite Prisms, and Central Crete Ornamental Prisms. A few prisms that fall outside these groups are also discussed, but most of the coverage is appropriately given to the Malia/Eastern Crete Steatite Prisms, which constitute some 92% of the existing material. Where appropriate, the prisms are related to other seal types that share some of their characteristics. Again, clarity in the text is aided by the many illustrations and maps within figures 18–91. The “Iconography” section is the longest, with more than 200 pages devoted to the motifs, called devices, on the seals. In all, 269 motifs are listed along with their various composites and compounds, and this gives a subject matter breakdown of 51% mainly representational, 13.1% vegetal/floral, 26.6% ornamental, and 9.3% unidentifiable. Noting that “the meaning and symbolism of the existing representational images is totally unknown” (302), the author uses basic descriptive terms when naming the motifs. Thus, Motif 10 is an Agrimi, Motif 16 is a Dog/lion, since the precise identification is not clear, and Motif 20 is “Snake” b, with the quotation marks indicating a descriptive attempt at an unknown entity. Following the definition of the motifs, an overarching discussion of the iconography treats the topics of human and animal poses, composites and compounds, and the combination of iconographic units through the strategies of parataxis, rotation, antithesis, flanking, angle/curve filling, and enclosure. The section on the nature of the images and their descriptive, “pictographic,” or ornamental character includes comments on the possible relationship of the images with the hieroglyphic script and how new iconographic devices are created. A section on the iconography of the prisms from the Malia workshop completes this section. Throughout the iconography discussions, the reader is assisted with copious illustrations in the text (figs. 92–134) and with the drawings provided for the examples of each motif in the plates of part 2. The final section, “Conclusions,” summarizes the main features of the prism seal type and sets out the findings on the prism groups and the iconography. Additional pages provide seven appendices (which cover particular details on context, find places, seals excluded from the study, and certain aspects of the iconographic devices), bibliography, list of illustrations, concordances, and index.

Volume 2 (487–802)—part 2 of the work—contains the catalogue of the 625 prisms and 131 plate pages of the author’s line drawings, which illustrate the 269 motifs identified in the seal designs together with their composite and compound forms. It is a great advance to have the prisms assembled in a comprehensive catalogue.

There is much to commend in this work. The discussions on material and manner of manufacture (31–48) and on the various style groups (63–159) are extremely helpful in elucidating seal production at this most formative time. The section on the Seal Cutter’s Workshop at Malia (59–62) and other references to the workshop in the book (71–8, 365–69) explain its important place in seal creation. The systematic analysis of the iconographic motifs is one of the great strengths of the book. The material is enigmatic, with no gloss of contemporary readable records, and the author has been scrupulous in keeping her terms as objective as possible. Her deep, close work with the material is perhaps on clearest display in the author’s own line drawings of motif examples, which accompany the definition of each motif (672–802). These drawings, the copious illustrations that accompany the text throughout, and appendix 6, with its bold presentation of the iconographic devices, are a boon to the reader.

My main criticism of the work is that the author tends to see too many divisions and rather more motifs than actually might be there when the crude execution of many of the designs does not allow sufficient defining detail. It is quite acceptable to name a distinct motif even if there is only one example, but this example must be clear and unambiguous in identity, as with Motif 5 (Frontal “Gorgo woman”) and Motif 9 (“Deer”). However, as with Motif 22 (Tortoise), Motif 28 (“Turtle”), Motif 37 (“Murex shell”), Motif 45 (“Unidentifiable insect”), and Motif 46 (Crawling animal), the examples are so sketchy/fragmentary that they do not meet this prerequisite. The concept of the paradigm or classic form and permissible variants would suggest that some designated separate motifs really belong within other more frequently occurring motifs; for example, Motif 21 (Lizard) and Motif 42 (Beetle), which have only three examples each, may not be separate devices but variants of the “ape” of Motif 6 or the spider of Motif 39. Examples of doubtful identification are best placed in the “unidentifiable” groupings of Motifs 268 or 269; for example, the torsos of Motifs 57–9 and the two flanking shapes in Motif 8, which are not sufficiently like the “apes” in Motifs 6 and 7 to be given the same name. Other criticisms are more minor. Seal 28 should have been removed from the catalogue when it was identified as a seal belonging to the Late Helladic III Mainland Popular Group, sufficient discussion being provided in appendix 3. The difference in seal face measurements of 6 cm (17) needs correction, and there is confusion as to what exactly is meant in the naming of the maps in figures 17b, 55b, 70b, and 91b as “find places of prisms with secure and uncertain provenance.” Imperfections like these aside, the magnitude of the study commands attention.

This work will be a reference tool for archaeologists working in Minoan Crete and essential reading for researchers of Aegean glyptic and Aegean iconography. It will also be of interest to scholars in other Bronze Age fields, since it provides an insight into important developments within Protopalatial Crete. At the outset, the author says her study takes “a first step towards understanding the MM prism and aspires to offer seal research a firm basis for the investigation of the question of its function in MM society” (1). Anastasiadou has taken more steps than just the first, and we are indebted to her for working through this sometimes intractable material and producing such a fine foundation for future studies.

Janice L. Crowley
P.O. Box 347
Palm Cove QLD 4879

Book Review of The Middle Minoan Three-Sided Soft Stone Prism: A Study of Style and Iconography, by Maria Anastasiadou

Reviewed by Janice L. Crowley

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 117, No. 1 (January 2013)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1171.Crowley

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