Aegeus Society For Aegean Prehistory


6 December 2017

Giorgos Rethemiotakis & Peter M. Warren, 2014. Knossos: A Middle Minoan III Building in Bougada Metochi [BSA Studies 23], London: British School at Athens.

Hardback, xii+96 p., 21,5 X 30,5 cm, ISBN: 978-0-904887-69-3.

Reviewed by Dott. Luca Girella, Università Telematica Internazionale Uninettuno, Facoltà di Beni Culturali, Roma, Italy (l.girella [at]

This valuable and richly illustrated volume is the report of the excavations conducted by Giorgos Rethemiotakis and Eva Grammatikaki in 1993 and 1995 at the Vlachakis Plot situated in the modern village of Knossos–Bougadha Metochi in the western part of the Bronze Age site of Knossos, a hundred metres or so south of the Little Palace (preliminary report in Warren 2013). Focusing principally on the MM III occupation phases, the book aims to answer three main problems (p. 1): the distinction between MM IIB and MM IIIA, the possibility of recognising an internal division within MM III, and, finally, the definition of the final phase of the period (usually defined by one of three labels: MM IIIB, MM IIIB-LM IA Transition – e.g., by the authors of this volume – or Early LM IA by others). In the following review the label MM IIIB will be used (Girella 2007; 2010a; Macdonald and Knappett 2013), corresponding to Warren MM IIIB-LM IA Transitional phase (Warren 1991).

The volume is organized in five chapters (the first of which is an introduction), followed by an appendix (with the ceramic concordances), a comprehensive bibliography, an index, and a rich selection of black-and-white photographs of the ceramic material (mainly illustrating the non catalogued ceramic sherds).

Chapter 2 provides essential guidance to the stratigraphy. The site was excavated in five trenches (fig. 2.3), but the publication focuses only on Trench A with Baulk II (pp. 3–8) and Trench D with Baulk V (pp. 8–10); however, levels of Baulk VI are also presented (pp. 10–12). The chapter gives information for each context as regards the levels and the related material. The partially preserved Minoan building consists of two spaces, a north room and southern area with two rectangular passages; its construction is placed in an early phase of MM IIIA with successive occupation during MM IIIB, LM IA, and LM IB.

Chapter 3 deals with pottery. Vases are organized typologically by shape starting with the open shapes (mostly of small size) and continuing with the medium-large ones. Each of the 270 catalogued entries provides complete excavation data, as well as fabric and description, and publication reference. Typology is adopted with a very ‘basic arrangement’ (p. 13), and differences appear in comparison to the typology used for the MM III ceramic phases at Knossos palace, especially for the handleless cups (see the typology of Knappett et al. 2013, fig. 1.6): handleless cup type 1A corresponds to Rethemiotakis-Warren “conical cup – large, shallow, flaring”, type 2B to “conical cup – standard”, type 3A to “conical bowl – tall form”, and type 3B to “bell bowl”. It is not clear why cat. no. 56 in Fig. 3.1 is a hemispherical bowl and not a cup, when the usual procedure—with the exception of the crude, broad, handleless cups—is that a a vessel with a rim diameter double its height is called a bowl, as the authors correctly do with the “bowl – everted rim” also, and more commonly known in the literature as ‘ledged-rim bowl’ (cat. no. 74). Similarly, handleless bell bowls, such as cat. nos. 1 and 93 in Fig. 3.1 and throughout are cups.

Comparanda are very few and restricted to northern Crete and Warren’s publications. Almost 90% of the catalogued vessels have been nicely drawn and half of the material is presented in the final plates. The sherd material for each level is summarised after that catalogued and mainly illustrated in the plates. The following chronological attributions are here summarised and discussed further down.

Trench A and Baulk II (Vessels catalogue 1–229): Trench A has 7 levels, whose relative chronology is indicated as follows: Levels 2–3 LM IA (but mixed with MM IIIB); Levels 3α–ε MM IIIB; Level 4 MM IIIA Late; Levels 5–6 MM IIIA Early; Level 7 MM IIIA Early.

As for Baulk II, four main levels are presented: Level 4 MM IIIA Late; Levels 5–7 MM IIIA Early. Special attention is devoted to the bowl (cat. no. 226 from level 7) with a bull’s head in relief appliqué on the interior. The vessel, although from a domestic context, offers the opportunity to discuss and nicely summarise the Minoan bull sacrifice (pp. 42–45).

Trench D and Baulk V (Vessels catalogue 230–270): the ceramic material from Trench D shows a notably longer chronological sequence throughout 8 levels: Levels 3 and 3α LM IB; Levels 3β–δ LM IA; Level 3ε, 4-5 MM IIIB; Levels 6-8 MM IIIA Early. Material from upper levels (2, 3, 3α) of Baulk V is quite mixed, whereas Level 3β LM IB, Level 4 LM IA, and Level 5α MM IIIB. No catalogued vessels are included from Baulk VI, but the sherd material suggests an MM IIIB and LM I occupation. The validity of these chronological attributions is discussed below together with chapter 5.

Chapter 4 examines material other than pottery. This includes plaster fragments (that show the existence of polychrome walls decorated with a wide range of colour), clay, shell, bone, metal and stone material. The latter includes among several objects four bowls (fig. 4.1) and a ‘weight’ of 232.5 gr from an MM IIIA Early context. The authors conclude that the Vlachakis weight is ½ mina on the Minoan system and very close to a West Syrian ½ mina of 239 gr (pp. 63–64).

Chapter 5 is the most crucial and controversial part of the book, since it examines the stratigraphical sequence of the plot and the ceramic material together. The chapter has three main parts, the first of which is devoted to the Vlachakis material, followed by the comparisons to material from the Knossos Palace and, finally, to other main MM III contexts of northern and southern Crete. Since many problems emerge when evaluating the MM III material, I will discuss this section at the same time reformulating some chronological assessments provided by the authors in the previous chapters. The authors correctly stressed two important issues when evaluating the chronological meaning of the ceramic deposits, i.e. their nature and the degree of linkage between levels (p. 67). Indeed, it turns out that the MM III levels belong almost entirely to secondary deposits, apparently generated from the upper floors and then deposited after the destruction: the vertical links between levels within each area of the excavation are the main evidence for this (Tables 5.1–2). The following discussion of chronology and phase definition (pp. 69–78) includes a different interpretation that we think is necessary. The main problems are connected to the group Trench A/Baulk II sequence (i.e. the West and East passage of the southern room). The pottery from Baulk II Level 5–7 is assigned to MM IIIA Early; however, we believe the context homogeneously belongs to MM IIB. Although there are ceramic features that will carry on into MM IIIA Early, these can be placed in MM IIB. The relationship with the following upper Level 4, dated by the authors to MM IIIA Late, has similar problems. We agree that this level is different from the previous ones and the authors collect convincing evidence for this (p. 71), but its chronological assignment is again not without doubts: the catalogued material shows MM IIIA Early features (pp. 31–33) (although the non-catalogued pottery, largely represented by plain handleless cups, might suggest a MM IIIA Late phase).

Trench A sequence offers similar arguments: Levels 7 and 6 are said to belong to a single destruction deposit; the ceramic material, as presented (fig. 3.7), shows earlier (MM IIB) features in 7 and also in 6. These levels are followed by Level 5 that is again dated to MM IIIA Early, but its features are more at home with a later phase (it is interesting to observe that the authors admit the possibility that Level 5 is “a stage later that the Levels 6-7 deposit”, p. 73); and the following Level 4 is also chronologically later, as the authors suggest.

As regards Baulk II/Level 5–7, strong evidence of an MM IIB date are the conical cups with a broad band painted on the rim in-and-out (nos. 145–146), the tall carinated cups (nos. 149, 152, 179), some bell cups (no. 155), the carinated cups with a broad band painted on the rim in-and-out (nos. 181–182, 183, 185), the hemispherical cups (nos. 188–189), the straight-sided cups (nos. 157, 160, 213, 218), the saucers (nos. 197, 223–224), and the large bowls with everted rim and ring base (no. 166 – this one has a good parallel at Phaistos, in Room 25 MM IIB destruction deposit, see Levi and Carinci 1988, pl. 13d).

The authors point out that the richness of the white-spotted ware is a critical key chronological factor to date the deposits to MM IIIA Early (pp. 70–71). Two considerations are, however, necessary: firstly, the comparison between Levels 4 and 5–7 from Trench A and Baulk II respectively (as presented in Table 5.4 at p. 70) is not conclusive, since the thickness of both Levels 4 is almost three times smaller than the others and the amount of ceramic material much lower. Secondly, the white-spotted decoration on table ware is not a definitive marker of MM IIIA. It should in fact be noted that under the umbrella of ‘white-spotted ware’ the authors collect two main types of decoration, namely a white-spotted ‘style’ consisting of spots of white paint carefully applied on the surface and a white-flecked ‘style’ where the paint has been flicked on the dark surface. This last decoration system is already attested in MM IIA Knossos ceramic deposits (Macdonald and Knappett 2007, 34, figs. 3.21–22, pls. 26–27) and therefore, its occurrence during MM IIB (see pls. 21b, 22a–e) is not a problem but the obvious continuation. Whereas dense and uneven white flecks are common in MM IIA and IIB Knossos, at Phaistos, although they started in MM IIB, are rather more widespread in MM IIIA and IIIB. On the contrary, at Knossos white flecks are less common in MM IIIA (see pl. 15b), being substituted by carefully and almost individually executed white spots. Several examples of this real white-spotted decoration appear in the Vlachakis plot in MM IIIA (early and late) and MM IIIB levels (see pls. 8, 11, 12c, 14c, 17d).

The chronological sequence of the northern room (Trench D and Baulk V) needs a different interpretation as well: according to the authors, an MM IIIA Early occupation phase (Levels 6–8) is followed by another in MM IIIB (Levels 3 ε, 4–5) and two more stratified occupational phases in LM IA and LM IB (pp. 76–78). We think that the first occupation of this part of the building might be dated to MM IIIA Late phase, since the pottery of Levels 6–8 shows clear characteristics of this ceramic phase already documented at Knossos. The different depositional history of the northern room then becomes of interest, since it does not show anything earlier than MM IIIA Late and possibly remaining before as an open and empty space.

Several chronological consequences derive from this re-assessment.

(1) The assignment of the deepest deposits to MM IIB instead of MM IIIA Early phase implies that the first use of the building might be dated to MM IIB.

(2) Level 7–6 of Trench A and Baulk II and Level 5 of Baulk II are MM IIB with some MM IIIA Early features, likely derived from the period when the deposits were created (after a destruction in MM IIIA Early?).

(3) There is a following occupational phase (MM IIIA Late) represented by Levels 4–5 in Trench A.

(4) Level 4 in Trench A (i.e. the West passage) and that one in Baulk II (i.e. the East passage) might belong to the same chronological phase (MM IIIA Late), but the attribution of Level 4 to MM IIIA Late in the East passage is not secure, and we suggest it should be dated to MM IIIA Early.

(5) It is not clear whether this late stage of MM IIIA ends with destruction.

(6) The MM IIIB levels (Warren’s MM IIIB-LM IA transitional phase) (Trench A and Baulk II Levels 3 and 3α–ε; Baulk V Level 5α; Trench D Levels 3ε, 4 and 5) are again of secondary nature and do not provide any definitive evidence for a large primary destruction in MM IIIB (contra p. 87).

The second and third parts of the chapter discuss the comparison with MM III contexts from Knossos, and other sites (namely, Galatas, Archanes/Anemospilia, Phaistos, and Kommos). It is now that the reader realizes that from the MM IIIA Early and Late chronological sequence suggested in the volume and summarised in Table 5.9 depends on this discussion and informative résumé of MM III contexts. One main point to be stressed—and this is not a criticism of the authors—is that, as usual, contexts show different formation processes (i.e. primary and secondary etc., and to the first group we mention the South Polychrome Deposits Group, KV Trial, Mavro Spelio pit tomb XVII, Acropolis Houses Deposits A–B at Knossos, and Archanes/Anemospilia, Phaistos Casa a Sud della Rampa Rooms LXXXVIII–XCIII, Kommos Central Hillside Room 25). Secondary deposits include the Houses of the Fallen Blocks and Sacrificed Oxen (close to being primary) and the West Polychrome Deposit group which has been selected. These, as well as the deposits from the Acropolis Houses and the Anemospilia destruction are known only from detailed preliminary reports. This is not of course a major obstacle in discussing synchronisms in depth, if it were not for the fact that two good primary MM IIB deposits from Knossos (the Mavro Spelio pit tomb XVII and, especially, KV Trial) are dated to MM IIIA Early (pp. 79–80, 84). This new proposed chronology is the main cause of the attribution of most of the MM IIB Vlachakis plot ceramic levels to an early stage of MM IIIA. Despite the thorough discussion at pages 79–80, there is no reason to argue for an MM IIIA Early date of the Mavro Spelio pit tomb XVII material and the upper level from Trial KV excavation. Likewise, the material from Hogarth’s Later Heap (as it has been preliminary published and then discussed by MacGillivray 1998, 51, pls. 155–156, Group P) can be placed in an early stage of MM IIIA, and in fact links with the levels from the Vlachakis plot that we considered to be MM IIB are not many. Finally, we accept a MM IIB chronology for the much discussed and problematic Loomweight Basement Deposit, following MacGillivray (1998, 39–42, Group K) (contra p. 79 in the volume, where the authors argue for a MM IIIA Early date).

Two considerations are required now: firstly, we believe that the MM IIB chronology of the deepest levels in Vlachakis plot is guaranteed by the comparisons with the destruction level of Trial KV (Popham 1974, fig. 2 (level 5), figs. 6, 8, pls. 28–32). It is however correct to observe that many ceramic features will carry on into the next stage at the beginning of MM IIIA (e.g., few type of handleless cups, especially the short conical and the shallow bowls, the use of white spotting, the tiny running spiral and the spiky foliate bands on several other shapes). On the other hand, although little can be gleaned from the Hogarth’s later heap (MM IIIA), the destruction of the House of the Fallen Block and the House of the Sacrificed Oxen (i.e., the South Polychrome Deposit group, under study by Iro Mathioudaki) could be placed in MM IIIA Early (I. Mathioudaki: Minoan Seminar, 18-03-2016, contra Table 5.9 in this volume and at page 84, but then the authors at p. 86 leave open the possibility for an Early MM IIIA date!).

Outside Knossos, an MM IIB connection could also be observed by comparing the material from the L-Shaped Area at Pera Galenoi on the north coast (Banou and Tzivilika 2006, figs. 10–11, 13) again well linked with Trial KV at Knossos. South-east of Knossos, the preliminary evidence presented from Galatas does not offer stratigraphical supports for a MM IIIA Early and Late division thus far, since the deposits belong to fills after the destruction; however, doubtless is the presence of Early and Late MM IIIA features, but the authors of this volume consider the MM IIIA deposits from Galatas to be placed in the early stage of the period (p. 83, but in Rethemiotakis and Christakis 2013, MM IIIA Late). We must await full publication of the pottery with its stratigraphy. The primary destruction deposits at Anemospilia based on the preliminary presentation of the pottery indicate an early stage of MM IIIA with some elements of MM IIB as rightly pointed out by the Sakellarakises (1997), but, again, only the full publication of the contexts can give us a final answer for such chronology and, personally, we cannot exclude the possibility of some MM IIIA Late pottery being represented. Rethemiotakis and Warren consider the destruction deposit of Anemospilia to be MM IIIA Late, but the main support for this chronology seems to be the appearance of pithoi with applied rope-work decoration (p. 84).

The levels considered in this review as assignable to MM IIIA Early (i.e., Trench A Level 6 and Baulk II Level 4) show characteristics that are not present in the deepest levels of the plot, such as the everted-rim bowls with tortoise-shell ripple decoration inside (no. 103), —although not on a lustrous surface, more typical of MM IIIB ceramic production at Knossos—so that one can say that this production had started already in the early part of MM IIIA. Links at Knossos are with lower levels of the South-West Houses (Macdonald 2013, fig. 2.2, S. V 4.2), probably with the MM IIIA Early levels of the Olive Press Room and the Magazine of the Medallion Pithoi (Knappett, Mathioudaki, and Macdonald 2013), and partly with Deposit A of the Acropolis Houses (Catling, Catling, and Smyth 1979, figs. 16–17), although in this last case a study of the unpublished material needs to be carried out in order to settle the chronology properly.

The correlations discussed between the Vlachakis deposits and other MM IIIA of Crete largely justify their division into two groups, exemplified in Table 5.9 (p. 83), namely A= MM IIIA Early and B= MM IIIA Late. However, it is surprising to observe the use of different labels to indicate several stages of MM III, namely ‘Later MM III’ (p. 82), ‘Mature MM IIIA’ (p. 82) and ‘MM III middle’ (p. 84). It is not entirely understandable why it is necessary to name differently ceramic periods and stages when the use of the MM IIIA Early and Late distinction seemed to have been settled. Likewise on pages 81–84 the final stage of the Casa a Sud della Rampa at Phaistos is now addressed as ‘MM IIIA mature/later’ (p. 82), now as ‘MM IIIA Late (or Middle)’ (p. 84), when we hope it has been clearly demonstrated that it belongs to an MM IIIA Late phase (Girella 2007; 2010a, 52–53, 72–81, 314–316, pls. VI–XV). Apart from this, the attempt to contextualize the Vlachakis material in a wider framework is definitely appreciated.

The second consideration relates to the South, since the Phaistos palace offers still the best evidence of a large MM IIB destruction, extended also to other settlement contexts, such as Hagia Triada, Kommos, Monastiraki, and Apodoulou. The MM II phase has received major attention on the part of the Italian archaeological team in recent years, with regard to the ceramic subdivision into two sub-phases (Baldacci 2017; Caloi 2013) and the architectural transformations the palace underwent (now Carinci 2011). From a ceramic point of view, MM IIB is, for the time being, a homogeneous and indivisible phase. The MM IIB ‘early phase’ identified at Kommos (Van de Moortel 2006, 269–273) shows in fact elements that can be entirely referred to the MM IIA ceramic phase at Phaistos. With these clarifications in mind and aware of the ceramic regionalisms between the two areas, we point out that the deepest levels of Vlachakis Plot at Knossos show many ceramic features attested at Phaistos during MM IIB: we point out, for instance, the material from the floor deposit of Rooms IL and XXVIII (Carinci 2011, figs. 50, 55, 66, 68, 71), from the under-stair area between Rooms LIII and LIV (Levi 1976, figs. 117–118), and from the cupboard of Room LIX (Levi 1976, 127, fig. 172), to remain in the south-west part of the palace. The main parallels regard the conical plain handleless cups, the shallow everted-rim bowls with trickle decoration, the bell plain handled and handleless cups, the straight-sided cups with concave and sharp bases, the juglets with horizontal rim, together with the use of white spots, tiny running spirals on straight-sided cups and bridge-spouted jars, and the so-called ‘wavy line style’ on hemispherical cups. By contrast, rare or absent are the straight-sided ‘ridged’ cups, the straight-sided cups with a medial rib, as well as the tall carinated cup (but see Levi 1976, pl. 134 n, r from Room IL and Corridor L, and pl. 180a from Room XXVIII), and the distinctive decoration of white spotting on the upper part of vases (mainly straight-sided cups and bridge-spouted jars).

Elements of continuity in terms of production, shape and decoration between MM IIB and IIIA at Phaistos have been already presented (Girella 2010a, 311–314, fig. 108; 2010b). It is likely that the same process Knossos in the north, although the passage from MM IIB to MM IIIA is not, at the moment, easily understood and represented by different contexts:

  • Although a limited excavation area, the Vlachakis Plot excavation provides the evidence for a sequence from MM IIB down to LM IB, with evidence of an early and late MM IIIA occupation. It is possible that the MM IIB material was deposited in the MM IIIA Early period (p. 71) and Level 4 would represent this action, in consideration of the physical linkages between 4 and 5–7 and the absence of a floor between 4 and 5–7.
  • The case of the House of the Fallen Blocks and the House of the Sacrificed Oxen (the so called South Polychrome Deposit) is a different case, for which the material, although again of secondary nature, is homogenously MM IIIA Early and probably derived from a catastrophe at the end of this stage and not later.
  • The situation with the West Polychrome Deposit (e., the material from the three kouloures in the West Court) is again different since the ceramic material was apparently deposited inside the kouloures in MM IIIA Early but together with MM IIB pottery. It is not without surprise that this deposit is taken much into consideration by the two authors for their comparisons (p. 79).


With these considerations we move to the event history (pp. 86–87). Several consequences emerge from the above re-interpretation. The Vlachakis Plot material indeed provides very good evidence of MM IIB whose contexts at Knossos continue to be rare and not well documented. This material raises still crucial questions about the transition between the Old and the New Palace periods at Knossos, as it was already discussed by MacGillivray (1998). It seems that there is better evidence at the site for MM IIIA Early and, perhaps, Late destructions (whether to attribute both to an earthquake is not a matter to discuss here, but see Macdonald 2017) than one in MM IIB, at the moment represented only by the Loomweight Basement Deposit and the KV Trial. It should also be noted that the authors attempt to extend the synchronisms beyond Crete (pp. 86–87), although, at the moment, the evidence at Kastri on Kythera, Hagia Irini Period V on Keos, and Akrotiri Phase C on Thera is not conclusively synchronized with either an early or late stage of MM IIIA, although clearly at least, MM IIIA. Similarly, although for stylistic reasons the well-known ‘Minoan’ juglet found in a cist tomb of Troy VI Early level is attributable to the beginning of MM IIIA (Girella 2014) (and the link with the juglet no. 115 from an MM IIIA Early level in the Vlachakis Plot is a good one), the synchronization of the entire Troy VI Early period with MM IIIA Early needs further evidence. (Note that the cist tomb does not belong to a young woman (p. 87) but rather to a six year-old child.)

The volume has some minor typographical errors that have no impact on the text’s intelligibility. At page 76 (second column) Fig. 5 and Fig. 4 refer respectively to Fig. 2.5 and Fig. 2.4.  The spelling Anemospilia is used in Table 5.9, but Anemospelia elsewhere; similar is the two spellings of Arkhanes and Archanes. On p. 86 the MM IIIA Early dolphin pedestal stand F 4822 from Phaistos comes from Room LXXXVII instead of LXXXV. Six errors can be found in Appendix A (p. 91). The correct correspondences are: Cat. no. 48=Π 150A; Cat. no. 49=Π 51; Cat. no. 50=Π 49; Cat. no. 51=Π 50; and Cat. no. 52=Π 52a. Furthermore, Π 153A corresponds to Cat. no. 56 instead of 76. Finally, in Plate 6b the bowl/cup fragments refer to A2 (p. 17) instead of Level A3.

Despite these reservations, this book rubs salt into the crucial issue of the transition of the palace of Knossos between MM II and MM IIIA. As already suggested (Macdonald 2005; 2016), it is likely that Knossos may have suffered less than other palatial centres in MM IIB and, perhaps, not in the same way. Significantly, signs of large-scale architectural transformation can be assigned after MM IIIA Early and later, and not immediately after MM IIB. The occupational sequence of Vlachakis plot is a small window into this timespan where the last phase of MM II and three phases of MM III are involved. With its overall presentation of data, the book enormously improves our understanding of this crucial passage of time from Protopalatial to Neopalatial Knossos and we have to thank both authors for their invaluable work.



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