Aegeus Society For Aegean Prehistory


24 March 2015

Carl Knappett & Tim Cunningham (with contributions by Max Bichler, Doniert Evely & Polly Westlake), 2012. Palaikastro Block M. The Proto- and Neopalatial Town [BSA Supplementary Volume No. 47], London: The British School at Athens.

Hardback, xv + 338 p., 180 figures, 2 tables, 37 plates [1 col.], 2 folded plans in back cover, 30.5x21.5 cm, ISBN: 978-0-904887-65-5

Reviewed by Leonidas Vokotopoulos, PhD (leonvok [at]

This book presents the results of the excavation at Block M, Palaikastro – an area that has significantly contributed to the understanding of this important East-Cretan town during the Protopalatial and the early Neopalatial period. Block M was investigated in the 1990s and in 2003, when it was referred to as Area 6; this book reintroduces the designation used by the first excavators of the site in the 1900s.

Block M extends along the main street of Palaikastro. In spite of its central location it became an open area in LM IB, a period distinguished by a particularly dense habitation of the site, the only structures in its interior being two wells. This has allowed an excellent preservation of the building remains from earlier occupation periods, and the unhindered excavation of them. In the early Neopalatial, its main period of use, Block M was occupied by three discrete units. Of these, the Southwest and the Northwest Building represent medium to large-sized dwellings, whereas the Southeast Building served a specialized, (semi-)public function. In contrast to Block M, the other excavated insulae only contained domestic units (p. 5). Thus, Block M differs from the norm regarding both the history and the character of its occupation. Its particular importance for the study of topics such as urban development and sociopolitical organization lies, precisely, in these singular features.

A first overall discussion of the evidence was provided in an extensive report (MacGillivray et al. 1998). This was followed by other publications (Driessen 1999; MacGillivray et al. 1999; Knappett & Cunningham 2003; Bruins et al. 2008). Besides, the wells were presented in a separate monograph (MacGillivray et al. 2007). This volume follows the tone set by the earlier publications, with some alterations in terms of dating and interpretation. The volume is organised into ten chapters. A short introduction (Chapter 1) leads to the analysis of the stratigraphy and architecture (Chapter 2). There follows the discussion of pottery (Chapters 3-7), small finds (Chapter 8), and plaster (Chapter 9). The final synthesis (Chapter 10) is followed by an Appendix on the analyses of soil samples that contained tephra from the Minoan eruption at Thera. Faunal and botanical remains will be presented in a subsequent volume.

The excavation is discussed building by building, following the late Protopalatial to early Neopalatial arrangement of the block (Chapter 2). For each room an architectural description is provided, followed by stratigraphical information and a discussion of the relative date of each context. The analysis is concise and well-grounded. Still, the description of each context is not followed by a catalogue of finds, neither are sherd counts or weight of sherds provided. Similarly, the number and shapes of the vessels that were in use are not defined systematically. The lack of the above hinders understanding of each room’s function. Moreover, whereas both the Southeast and the Northwest Building had an upper storey, there is no attempt to determine which objects had fallen from above.

The text is accompanied by plans and a large number of sections. The latter are detailed, and are particularly helpful for understanding the complex stratigraphic sequence. It should be noted that in many cases the drawings are not presented in a standard scale. There are also some errors in context numbering (e.g. p. 80 fig. 2.59: no. 3 is context 64.5, not 64.3). Furthermore, there are two cases of intersecting stratigraphies that do not fully correspond to each other (p. 20 fig. 2.10 & p. 21 fig. 2.11, p. 65 fig. 2.43).

Architectural analysis is organised by ‘building phases’ – in fact, by occupation periods, which may comprise more than one episode of construction. Five phases are defined: EM III-MM IIA, MM IIB-MM IIIB, LM IA, LM IB, and LM III. Building techniques, structural elements and spatial organization are discussed. Parallels cited come mostly from Palaikastro itself. Plans are provided, depicting the walls ascribed to each ‘phase’. A single plan for the episodes of construction, together with successive phase plans representing the form of the block, would have facilitated understanding.

According to J. Driessen (1999, 232), the room with the polythyron, the stoa and the central court of the Southeast Building formed a Minoan Hall. This is rejected by the authors of the current volume on the basis of Driessen’s own definition of this architectural unit. Instead, they suggest that these spaces may represent a forerunner of the canonical Minoan Hall, and that they would have served similar functions (pp. 14-15).

The erection of the Southeast Building is dated to MM IIB (pp. 5 & 317), with the exception of its west part (Rooms 4-8), which is tentatively placed in early MM IIIA (pp. 15 & 318 n. 6). Evidence for this latter is not entirely straightforward, though, given that the wall separating Rooms 7 and 8 clearly belongs to the original construction (p. 20). The colonnaded court and reception room with polythyron are also dated in MM IIIA. This implies that the appearance of elite architectural features was contemporary with the rise of Knossos to prominence and, as such, it may well have been an expression of the expansionism of this center. As the authors acknowledge, however, early versions of Minoan Halls are already present in MM II at Malia (p. 318), whilst polythyra seem to appear by MM IB at Syme (Zarifis 2007, 84, 142-143, 146-147 & 272). Consequently, a MM IIB date for these features of the Southeast Building should not be excluded.

The abandonment of the Southeast Building is tentatively ascribed to the MM IIIB seismic destruction (pp. 87 & 319). However, the arrangement of new floors and reuse of old ones, together with the LM IA destruction deposit of Room 15, would rather suggest a reconstruction and use of the building during the earlier part of this period – as was indeed proposed in the excavation report (MacGillivray et al. 1998, 241-242 & 260).

The dating of the Southwest Building in LM IA (p. 89) seems problematic: Pottery from within this unit could only be ascribed a generic MM III-LM IA date (p. 210), whereas two building phases are detected at its north part. Thus, an earlier dating should not be excluded, on analogy with the two adjoining buildings.

Two oblong LM III walls are tentatively interpreted as defining a roadway (p. 92). However, the presumed road would have been much wider than the main street, whereas its north end was barred by the enclosure of the block. It would be more reasonable to assume that the walls were meant to divide the area into discrete units or terraces.

Block M yielded considerable amounts of waterborne tephra. The flooding event(s) that formed these deposits have been attributed to climate perturbation following the Theran eruption (MacGillivray et al. 1998, 241-242), or to a tsunami that caused the destruction of the settlement (Bruins et al. 2008, 203, 206 & 209). The authors of this book opt for the former hypothesis (pp. 89-90). Further support to this is provided by the evidence for erosion at the East-Cretan sites of Papadiokampos and Choiromandres, which seems to have occurred in the wake of the eruption due to catastrophic rainfall (Brogan & Sofianou 2009, 119; Vokotopoulos et al. 2014, 260-261).

The silt accumulations of the Southeast Building are only commented in passing. These deposits were created by flooding events, which have been attributed to climatic changes – specifically, to the impact of the Little Ice Age of the 2nd millennium BC (MacGillivray et al. 2007, 223-224). This volume makes it clear that these phenomena occurred throughout MM III (pp. 18-20 & 25-26), thereby affirming that they represent wider trends rather than specific, localized events.

Chapter 3 provides an overview on pottery types, fabrics, wares and styles, charting the patterns of continuity and change in the ceramic production of Palaikastro from MM IA to LM IA. This is a particularly helpful synopsis. It should only be noted that the pinched-rim bowl, which is regarded as a type fossil of MM IIIA, also occurs in MM IIIB (e.g. pp. 167 nos. 444-445 & 186 no. 666). Besides, the appearance of ledge-rim bowls should be placed in MM IIB rather than in MM IIIA, as is indicated by their presence at the Hieroglyphic Archive of Petras (Tsipopoulou & Hallager 2010, 146 & passim).

Presentation of the ceramic finds is by occupation period (Chapters 4-6: Pre- and Protopalatial, MM III, LM IA). Each chapter begins with a discussion on the deposits of the same periods that have been detected elsewhere at Palaikastro. This useful overview provides a concise picture on the extent of the site per period. It also allows a reassessment of the dating of specific assemblages according to current standards. Unexpectedly, the important MM II assemblage from the middle levels of Square H3 is not included in the discussion (see Knappett & Collar 2007, 178). The presentation of the ceramics groups the finds according to context, rather than by wares and shapes. This method of discussion allows an overall view of the pottery from each period, while retaining contextual information. Nevertheless, given the importance of these assemblages for ceramic phasing, it would have been necessary to provide a synthesis on the distinctive traits of each period. Similarly, the addition of statistical tables and quantitative analyses per period would have enabled a fuller documentation of pottery characteristics.

A major contribution of this study lies in the definition – for the first time in far-eastern Crete – of two phases within MM II. The earlier, defined as MM IIA, seems to this reviewer to be distinguished by a fair degree of continuity with MM IB in terms of shapes and decoration, the principal exception being the absence of the Alternating Floral Style (contra p. 114). The deposits of the second phase contained MM IIB type fossils. As is elsewhere the case, in comparison to MM IIA there is less variety in decorative styles and more simple motifs. In this respect, MM IIB introduced trends that became dominant in the succeeding MM III period.

The division between MM IIIA and MM IIIB is sound, being substantiated on both stratigraphic and stylistic grounds. This is significant, given that at many East-Cretan sites MM III as a whole is barely present. The silt deposits accumulated before the MM IIIB destruction horizon provide the unique opportunity to study the characteristics of the pottery used in the course of this period. In this respect, a more extensive discussion would have been appropriate.

Chapter 7 is a brief account on the LM IB to LM IIIA2 use of the area. The early LM IB deposits that signal the reoccupation of the site after the destruction by the Theran eruption are particularly interesting. The relevant assemblages are important for assessing the chronology and character of this transitional phase. Therefore, a more thorough presentation would have been desirable.

Pottery drawings are of excellent quality, and generally follow the same conventions. Nevertheless, some slipped vases are depicted as if they were plain (such as p. 165 no. 451). A few drawings are wrongly labeled (p. 165: nos. 442 & 445 are 445 & 446). Finally, no drawing is provided for certain rather important vases, such as the ledge-rim bowl from the foundation deposit in Room 12 (p. 37).

Discussion of the small finds and plaster (Chapters 8 & 9) is exhaustive. Interestingly, the Southeast Building differs from the other two structures in the quantity, rather than in the range and quality of the small finds. However, this may have resulted from a selective removal of any luxury items before its final collapse (p. 271). Plaster was abundantly used. The area of the Southeast Building yielded a few fragments with figurative designs, whose importance lies in their early, MM III dating.

Chapter 10 provides a synthesis of the evidence on the history of occupation and use of the area.

Regarding the Protopalatial period, it is significant that MM II does not appear as a single entity, but is divided into two distinct periods: MM IIA represents the culmination of a process of settlement expansion, whereas MM IIB defines a clear break in the history of the site, which acquired an urban character through the definition of the street system and the building blocks (pp. 5-6 & 82-83). Besides, of particular interest is the continuity across MM IIB and MM III (pp. 317-318) – a phenomenon also observed at neighboring Choiromandres. This contrasts to the usual picture of a divide between the Protopalatial and Neopalatial periods; If Block M is indeed representative of the site as a whole, then Palaikastro appears to confirm the view that the destructions at the end of MM IIB were the result of conflict between the rising centers, rather than of a massive earthquake (on this, see Cadogan 2013). In this respect, the subsequent flowering of Palaikastro, which is at odds with the recession or abandonment observed elsewhere, may be attributed to its affiliation with the winning side – that is with Knossos, the dominant center from the beginning of the Neopalatial period onwards (p. 318; see also Knappett & Cunningham 2013, 195).

The authors convincingly argue that the Southeast Building housed ceremonies of a ‘political’ rather than explicitly religious nature, which involved collective drinking and eating (pp. 50 & 86). However, the scale of the ‘feasting’ activities is not entirely clear – although the number of participants could be approached by statistical analyses of the pottery. Unfortunately, the evidence does not allow an understanding of the exact social context of the ceremonies. Thus, it is not clear if they served a distinct part of the population, such as the members of a faction or kinship group, or if they were of an explicitly public nature, being addressed to the elite or to specific age-groups, for instance.

Following J. Driessen (1999, passim), the authors suggest that the Central-Cretan architectural features of the Southeast Building indicate strong Knossian influence, if not that Palaikastro was politically aligned to this center during the earlier part of the Neopalatial period. Furthermore, it is accepted that the subsequent history of Block M denotes changes in the relation between the two settlements (pp. 318-319). Specifically, the squatter occupation in LM IA and subsequent abandonment of the area, together with the appearance of local forms of elite architecture – the Palaikastro Hall – are regarded as implying a detachment from the Knossian sphere of influence. Contrary to Driessen (1999, 233-235), there is no mention of intentional dismantling of the building as a symbolic expression of resistance to Knossian domination. This is right, given that the removal of building material may well have occurred gradually, to serve the needs of the expanding town.

The aforementioned hypothesis is particularly attractive. It should be stressed, though, that the clearest indications for this scenario are provided by the transformation of Zakros into the east port of Knossos, which occurred in LM IB (Platon 2004, 381): The establishment of such a special relation automatically implies the absence of similar ties between Knossos and the other centers of the region – that is, with Palaikastro. In any case, it is clear that the abandonment of an important structure such as the Southeast Building denotes a major social and political upheaval. However, the exact nature of this shift cannot be specified, without answering the question as to the possible existence of a palace at Palaikastro.

This important and richly illustrated publication provides invaluable evidence on the history of occupation at Palaikastro, a key site for the study of Bronze Age Crete. It is needless to say, that it will constitute a point of reference for research on ceramic typology and phasing. Yet its main contribution lies in the study of the complex, ever-changing relations between the main centers of Minoan Crete – phenomena that research is just starting to delineate.


Brogan, T.M. & Sofianou, C. 2009. ‘Papadiokambos: new evidence for the impact of the Theran eruption’, in D.A. Warburton (ed.), Time’s Up! Dating the Minoan eruption of Santorini, Monographs of the Danish Institute at Athens Vol. 10, Århus, 117-124.

Bruins, H.J., MacGillivray, J.A. Synolakis, C.E., Benjamini, C., Keller, J., Kisch, H.J., Klügel, A. & Van Der Plicht, J. 2008. ‘Geoarchaeological tsunami deposits at Palaikastro (Crete) and the Late Minoan IA eruption of Santorini’, JAS 35, 191-212. [online]

Cadogan, G. 2013. ‘Where has Middle Minoan III gone? A lack at Myrtos-Pyrgos – and elsewhere? What does it mean?’, in C. Macdonald & C. Knappett (eds.), Intermezzo. Intermediacy and Regeneration in Middle Minoan III Palatial Crete, BSA Studies 21, London, 179-181.

Driessen, J. 1999. ‘The Dismantling of a Minoan Hall at Palaikastro (Knossians go Home?)’, in P.P. Betancourt, V. Karageorghis, R. Laffineur & W.-D. Niemeier (eds.), Meletemata. Studies in Aegean Archaeology presented to Malcolm H. Wiener, Aegaeum 20, Liège and Austin, 227-236. [online]

Knappett, C. & Collar, A. 2007. ‘Unpublished Middle Minoan and Late Minoan I Material from the 1962-3 Excavations at Palaikastro, East Crete (PK VIII)’, BSA 102, 153-217.

Knappett, C. & Cunningham, T.F. 2003. ‘Three Neopalatial Deposits from Palaikastro, East Crete’, BSA 98, 107-187.

Knappett, C. & Cunningham, T. 2013. ‘Defining Middle Minoan IIIA and IIIB at Palaikastro’, in C. Macdonald & C. Knappett (eds.), Intermezzo. Intermediacy and Regeneration in Middle Minoan III Palatial Crete, BSA Studies 21, London, 183-195. [online]

MacGillivray, J.A., Sackett, L.H. & Driessen, J.M. 1998. ‘Excavations at Palaikastro, 1994 and 1996’, BSA 93, 221-268.

MacGillivray, J.A., Sackett, H. & Driessen, J. 1999. ‘‘Aspro Pato’. A Lasting Liquid Toast from the Master-Builders of Palaikastro to their Patron’, in P.P. Betancourt, V. Karageorghis, R. Laffineur & W.-D. Niemeier (eds.), Meletemata. Studies in Aegean Archaeology presented to Malcolm H. Wiener, Aegaeum 20, Liège and Austin, 465-467.

MacGillivray, J.A., Sackett, L.H. & Driessen, J.M. 2007. Palaikastro. Two Late Minoan Wells, BSA Suppl. No. 43, London.

Platon, L. 2004. ‘Το Υστερομινωικό Ι ανάκτορο της Ζάκρου: μία “Κνωσός” έξω από την Κνωσό;’, in G. Cadogan, E. Hatzaki & A. Vasilakis (eds), Knossos: Palace, City, State. Proceedings of the Conference in Herakleion organised by the British School at Athens and the 23rd Ephoreia of Prehistoric and Classical Antiquities of Herakleion, in November 2000, for the Centenary of Sir Arthur Evans’s Excavations at Knossos, BSA Studies 12, London, 387-390.

Tsipopoulou, M. & Hallager, Ε. 2010. The Hieroglyphic Archive at Petras, Siteia, Monographs of the Danish Institute at Athens Vol. 9, Århus.

Vokotopoulos, L., Plath, G. & McCoy, F.W. 2014. ‘The Yield of the Land: Soil Conservation and the Exploitation of Arable Land at Choiromandres, Zakros in the New Palace Period’, in G. Touchais, R. Laffineur & F. Rougemont (eds.), Physis. L’environnement naturel et la relation home-milieu dans le monde égéen protohistorique. Actes de la 14e Rencontre égéenne internationale, Paris, Institut National d’Histoire de l’Art (INHA), 11-14 décembre 2012, Aegaeum 37, Liège, 251-262.

Zarifis, N.G. 2007. Η αρχιτεκτονική του ιερού του Ερμή και της Αφροδίτης στην Κάτω Σύμη Βιάννου, Ph.D. dissertation, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. [online]


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