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Minoan Kato Zakro: A Pastoral Economy

July 2011 (115.3)

Book Review

Minoan Kato Zakro: A Pastoral Economy

By Judith Reid (BAR-IS 1713). Pp. ii + 185, b&w figs. 122, color maps 2. Archaeopress, Oxford 2007. £40. ISBN 978-1-4073-0157-0 (paper).

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This study, based on a Ph.D. thesis presented at the University of Wellington, New Zealand, in 2005, offers a fresh look into the landscape of Zakros in east Crete by linking the town and palace of Kato Zakro to the hinterland and the wider environmental setting of the region. In the light of neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory and of strategies of adaptation to the environment, Reid examines Kato Zakro in close relation to the natural environment of the region, which is favorable for pastoralism. She advocates the autonomy of Kato Zakro within the Minoan cultural koine and suggests that the town was engaged in large-scale pastoralism to produce wool as an exchange commodity. By exploiting the harbor and sea routes, it exported a surplus of wool textiles, on which it based its prosperity. In her analysis, she takes into account several aspects of the material culture and examines the evidence from the town and palace (ch. 1 [“Kato Zakro and Its Region”]); the physical remains of buildings, walls, and roads in the countryside (ch. 2 [“A Pastoral Landscape”]); religion (ch. 3 [“Peak Sanctuaries”]); and sealings (ch. 4 [“Documents and Sealings”]). In chapter 5 (“Evidence, Interpretation and the Need for Theory”) and chapter 6 (“Evolutionary Theory and Human Behaviour”), she stresses the need for theory and summarizes recent developments in evolutionary theory. In the final chapter, Reid revisits the evidence from east Crete from an evolutionary viewpoint and presents a regional story embracing the built rural landscape, commerce, politics, religion, and sealings.

The first chapter deconstructs the most common interpretation, that Kato Zakro’s economic importance as an importer of luxury raw materials lay in its relationship with Knossos, which had political control over Late Minoan (LM) IB Kato Zakro. Other studies, especially those considering the Neopalatial sealing system and seal imagery (e.g., I. Schoep, “The Socio-Economic Context of Seal Use and Administration at Knossos,” in G. Cadogan, E. Hatzaki, and A. Vasilakis, eds., Knossos: Palace, City, State. BSA Studies 12 [London 2004] 283–93), have supported the idea of the independent status of local administrations, which developed similar homogeneities in architecture and styles in a process of emulation, and not of integration, within a political structure centered on Knossos. In this context, Reid offers a plausible explanation for the local economic self-sufficiency of the Zakros region and the development of the harbor town. She suggests that the natural environment of Zakros was suitable for pastoralism and allowed the production of surplus wool capable of supporting an export industry of woollen textiles.

Although actual evidence is lacking from the palace and town to support the production of large quantities of woollen textiles, apart from the usual evidence of weaving in the form of loomweights in the houses and the palace, the most convincing record that supports the engagement in pastoralism and makes the hypothesis of wool production plausible is the reinterpretation of the rural landscape. A major contribution of the book is the reassessment of the archaeological evidence for the Zakros hinterland recorded by the “Minoan Roads” Research Project (Y. Tzedakis et al., “Les routes minoennes: Rapport préliminaire. Défense de la circulation ou circulation de la défense?” BCH 113 [1989] 43–75) and especially of the valley between Choiromandres and Epano Zakro, with its concentration of roads and buildings. These features were identified by the Minoan Roads team as guard stations and watchtowers, and the road system was suggested to have primarily facilitated fast military communication. Reid critically reviews the interpretation that sees these features of the built landscape principally as having a territorial defense function arranged by an emerging central authority, presumably Knossos. She convincingly deconstructs the military function by examining the suitability of the line of roads and buildings against invasions from the sea and from inland and suggests that the east Crete Minoan roads link upland and lowland areas suitable for summer and winter pasture, and town and countryside for the purposes of processing and exchange. She suggests that the finds indicate a rural function for the larger guard houses, the enclosures attached to the buildings can be seen as enclosures for sheep, and the walls following contour lines suggest terracing. In her words, “Sitting in the ‘back yard’ at Choiromandres, one has the strong impression of a prosperous farm, connected to the rest of the region by roads, near a stream and natural shelter for animals, with well laid out enclosures designed not only to protect but also to retain moisture, and a well-built house positioned to be safe and self-sufficient” (78). The evidence from the peak sanctuaries in east Crete, discussed in chapter 3, and their association with pastoralism, also supports the existence of a more husbandry-focused society and an interest in the upland pastures during the Protopalatial period.

This interpretation of the hinterland in terms of the development of a pastoral economy manages to offer a plausible explanation for the prosperity of the town, the building of the road system, and the expansion in the hinterland in Middle Minoan II, a period before the palace was built. Less clear are the circumstances that lead to the late construction of the palace in the LM IA/B period. Although the rural landscape and the use of the road system show a continuity, the erection of the palace—which, to a certain degree, disrupted the layout of the town and adopted homologous styles and architecture to other centers, as well as the development of a network that connected Kato Zakro to other elites in different parts of Crete—mark a change of scale in comparison with the Protopalatial period and indicate a more complex picture. Reid contests the prevalent picture of an exploitative elite as an element in state formation and sees the building of the palace by a local elite as based on a common interest for the community. She refers to pastoralists, entrepreneurs, and leaders whose role was more managerial, acting for the best of the town (138). Yet the character of this political leadership and the way it functioned are not clearly demonstrated. Her interpretation is based mainly on views of the adaptiveness of altruistic behavior, which is reviewed in chapter 6 along with other themes in the evolutionary explanation of human behavior, but which also derives from the pastoral interpretation of the Zakros political system, as well as indications from the archaeological record (e.g., evidence for communal meals in the palace).

Overall, although Reid demonstrates successfully the pastoral element in the economy of Kato Zakro, she overemphasizes it by characterizing Zakros principally as a pastoral economy and linking it with “a managerial elite within a city state democracy” (159). If pastoralism, rather than trade, was the principal element in the economy of the region, one would have expected it to have sustained life at Kato Zakro after the LM IB destructions. A combination of factors (creating a mixed economy depended on seafaring and trade as well as exploitation of local agricultural and pastoral resources, and linking Zakros to a wide network of communication to other local elites within and outside Crete) seems more plausible. Reid’s discussion in chapter 4 of the sealed documents from House A and their interpretation as commercial correspondence rightly underlines the importance of communication. Despite these comments, this book opens up new vistas in the interpretation of Kato Zakro by linking the palace and town to its hinterland and offering a plausible explanation of the built landscape and road system of the region. It reveals with convincing arguments the role of pastoralism in the economy of the Zakros region and advocates the autonomy of its political system, in contrast to interpretations by the excavators that favor a direct Knossian involvement at Kato Zakro. The documentation is excellent, with many helpful drawings and photographs by the author.

Kostas Sbonias
Department of History
Ionian University
491 00 Corfu

Book Review of Minoan Kato Zakro: A Pastoral Economy, by Judith Reid

Reviewed by Kostas Sbonias

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 115, No. 3 (July 2011)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1153.Sbonias