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Palaikastro Building 1

Palaikastro Building 1

Edited by J.A. MacGillivray and L.H. Sackett (BSA Suppl. 48). London: British School at Athens 2019. Pp. xxvi + 480. $215. ISBN 978-0-904887-70-9 (cloth).

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This book is the fourth volume in a series of publications on the excavations conducted at Palaikastro, Crete, during seven excavation seasons carried out between 1983 and 2003. Other volumes in the series have examined the Palaikastro Kouros, Block M, and two Late Minoan wells. In this volume, the authors present their study of Building 1, a once elegant monumental building whose complex history mirrors that of the town as a whole.

Uncovered over the course of three seasons in 1986, 1987, and 1988, Building 1 provided the excavators with a number of difficult challenges. For one thing, the total amount of fill over the building was less than a meter in most places, compacting nearly 300 years of human activities into thin and overlapping occupational strata. The building site also suffered damage after its abandonment in Palaikastro Period XVI (Late Minoan [LM] IIIB) including long-term erosion, stone-robbing, plowing, and the construction of a cobblestone field road. The excavators describe the LM IB building as “once the finest in its day” (xxv), but today Building 1 is one of the most poorly preserved buildings at Palaikastro.

The 30-year gap between the excavation of the building and its publication resulted in an additional set of challenges. Some of these problems stem from simple differences between how we excavated and recorded information 30 years ago and how we might do those things today. For example, plans, elevations, and reconstructions were done without the aid of GIS, photogrammetry, or 3D modeling. Similarly, inconsistencies in the strategies for collecting samples for water flotation probably would not happen today. Time exacted other tolls such as the loss of some soil samples to rodent damage to the storage bags and labels (349–51). In short, this was not an easy area to excavate or to publish, and the excavators and contributors to this volume are to be congratulated for being able to make sense of a difficult situation.

The great strength of the project is that the area was meticulously excavated in specific stratigraphic units that in this project are called “contexts.” The contexts vary in size from the contents of a single vessel, to an entire floor deposit, or a layer of leveling fill. MacGillivray and Sackett carefully define “context" in chapter 1, and an annotated list of contexts appears as appendix 1. These contexts constituted the basic units of the excavation, and they also provide the organizational skeleton for this publication. Each of the 13 chapters of the volume (covering the architecture, stratigraphy and contexts, the small finds, and the organic materials) includes the context numbers, making it easy for the reader to make correlations among the various materials.

Following the introductory chapter by Sackett and MacGillivray, J.M. Driessen provides a clear analysis of the complicated architectural history of the building. Building 1 was constructed in the Palaikastro Period XI (LM IB) over the remains of earlier structures that had either been razed by the tsunami caused by the Thera eruption or leveled in preparation for the new construction. The building was originally a roughly square, freestanding two-story structure measuring about 15 x 15 m. It was similar in plan to Building 4 and Building 5 (where the famous ivory statuette known as the Palaikastro Kouros was found). Building 1 was distinguished by its impressive sandstone ashlar masonry as well as by its prominent position on the northern edge of the town, where it would have been the first building seen by visitors arriving town from the direction of the coast. Based largely on the quality of the building and its location, Driessen suggests that from its very beginning Building 1 might have had, in part if not primarily, a ceremonial rather than a purely domestic function.

Over the course of its lifetime, the building underwent recurring destructions, additions, repairs, and partial abandonments. In Palaikastro Period XII (final LM IB), a new ashlar facade was added to the southwest corner of the building, across the street from the Kouros Shrine (Building 5), and another small annex with an upper-story balcony facing the sea was added to the northeast corner of the building. This addition converted the northeast face of Building 1 into a symmetrical, tripartite facade with two projections framing a recessed central area in which was built a small platform that Driessen proposes was intended for the ceremonial display of an object. Driessen points to a small fragment of a sandstone Horns of Consecration found in the nearby building debris as additional evidence of the ceremonial character of the building (7).

Much of the town at Palaikastro was destroyed by a major fire at the end of Palaikastro Period XII (LM IB). However, Building 1 remained sufficiently preserved that it could be quickly reoccupied in LM II. With alterations, it remained in use through Palaikastro Period XIII (LM IIIA1). The situation changed dramatically in Periods XV and XVI (LM IIIA2–LM IIIB) when the new walls and spaces were built on the remains of the Neopalatial building, marking a major break in the building’s history. The latest rooms were large, but were poorly built and limited to a single story. The enclosed spaces were surrounded by open yards on the north, east, and southwest, and they formed one of several Period XVI (LM IIIB) clusters that were scattered across the ruins of the former town.

Two chapters focusing on the ceramic finds constitute the main body of the book. MacGillivray and Sackett describe the stratigraphic contexts from Periods XI (early LM IB) through XII (late LM IB). The authors carefully characterize each of the archaeological contexts and provide a lavish number of profile drawings of catalogued pottery fragments that will provide important comparanda for ceramics specialists and for excavators of other Minoan sites. In the following chapter, T.F. Cunningham and Sackett continue with the discussion of Periods XIII–XVI (LM II–LM IIIB). The contexts from these periods included a greater number of primary floor deposits that allowed the authors to identify different patterns of use among the rooms. On the basis of evidence that includes the head of a female figurine, inverted vessels, a deposit of shells, a stalactite, and a fragment of an inscribed stirrup jar that may have been used as an amulet, they interpret Rooms 27–33 in the central part of the building as a shrine. The contents of these central rooms contrasted with the industrial rooms located around the fringes of the building. The authors note that cult rooms can be very conservative things, often retaining some continuity of traditions across numerous chronological horizons (435). This may support Driessen’s suggestion (25–27) that the Period XII (LM IB) rooms beneath this level already had some ritual function.

Chapters 5–12 provide specialists’ reports on the stone, terracotta, bone, ivory, faience, and metal objects (D. Evely et al.); the plaster (P. Westlake); the archaeobotanical remains (A. Sarpaki); the foraminifera (J. Russell); fish remains (D. Mylona); shells (D. Reese); the carbon remains (J.N. Bottema-Mac Gillavry); and animal bones (S. Wall-Crowther). On the whole, these chapters are more descriptive than analytical, but in places such as Evely’s discussion of the crucibles used in metalworking (330–33), the contributors provide useful methodological models for how such materials can be studied.

This volume opens with a quote from the artist and poet William Blake: “Tell me the What, I do not want you to tell me the Why and the How; I can figure that out for myself” (xxv). The quote is well chosen for the introduction to a book that is primarily concerned with the presentation of data. The brief eight-page concluding chapter, “Synthesis: Ritual Space in Transition” by Sackett, Cunningham, and MacGillivray, presents an overview of the history of Building 1 and adds to the interpretative narrative by moving more deeply into the realms of Blake’s “Why” and “How.”

The acknowledgments page of this book lists the names of the dozens of people who worked on the excavation and study of Building 1. A central figure in this evolving team was Hugh Sackett, who had first worked at the Palaikastro in 1962 and who passed away on April 12, 2020. It was a special pleasure to find, tucked into a pocket in the back cover of this volume, a large foldout filled with the meticulous archaeological section drawings for which Mr. Sackett was so well known, and which defined the stratigraphic contexts that lie at the heart of this volume.

John C. McEnroe
Hamilton College

Book Review of Palaikastro Building 1, edited by J.A. MacGillivray and L.H. Sackett 
Reviewed by John C. McEnroe
American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 124, No. 4 (October 2020)
Published online at
DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1244.McEnroe

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