Thursday, July 29, 2010


Version at BMCR home site
Philip P. Betancourt, Costis Davaras (ed.), Pseira X: The Excavation of Block AF. Philadelphia: INSTAP Academic Press, 2009. Pp. xxii, 240; 66 p. of plates. ISBN 9781931534567. $80.00.
Reviewed by Derek T. Irwin

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

The book under review is edited by Philip P. Betancourt and Costis Davaras, and is the tenth volume in the series of excavation reports on the Minoan harbour town of Pseira, located on the eponymous barren island in the Gulf of Mirabella off the northeastern coast of Crete. The town and cemetery of Pseira were first excavated by Richard B. Seager in 1906 and 1907 but the results of his work were never fully published. Betancourt and Davaras began surveying and excavating the site from 1984 onwards. This book reports on the excavation and study of Block AF and its artifacts between 1990 and 1997. Block AF is the most southern section of the town, east of the harbour and contains buildings extending from MM II to LM III, the fullest sequence of building phase from any one area of Pseira.

The book is organized into three parts: Part I (Chapters 1-3) provides a history of the excavation of Block AF (pp. 3-26); Part II (Chapters 4-17) describes the architecture and material culture of Block AF (pp. 29-152); Part III (Chapters 18-19) presents the interpretations and conclusions of the excavations of the site (pp. 155-170). The book also contains two large appendixes (A and B): Appendix A provides fifty pages of tables of pottery statistics (pp. 173-222); Appendix B contains tables of fabric percentages (pp. 223-227). This is followed by a list of references (pp. 229-240) and an index (pp. 237-240). The book then concludes with a series of hand sketches of artifacts, and photographs of the site and artifacts in situ.

The volume begins with a very brief preface by Betancourt in which he explains the decision to excavate that section of the town and the importance of the work conducted in Block AF.

Part I begins with an introduction by Betancourt presenting the site and its several successive phases of construction, Middle Minoan I to Late Minoan III (pp. 3-4). In the following chapters (Chapters 2-3), the authors examine the successive architectural phases 1 to 5 in detail. The aim of the excavation of Block AF is also stated at the beginning of Chapter 2, to achieve a complete understanding of the block and to analyze the artifacts and archaeological materials excavated.

Block AF was divided into sections, Block AF South and Block AF North, as well as different areas numbered AF 1 through AF 11. The excavation of area AF South was carried out over two seasons (1990 and 1991). Several rooms were exposed and the excavators used the physical evidence of the walls and their superposition and bonding to determine the sequence in which they were constructed. For example, Theran pumice found in the foundation deposit of Room AF 3A/B as along with the pottery allowed the authors to date the building to LM IA. A number of important finds were made that shed light on Minoan architecture including a pillar crypt in Room AF 3A/B. In the same room pebbles were found set in clay. The authors suggest that the building's flat roof had been given a layer of pebbles, as was the case in houses in Akrotiri on Thera. Block AF North was also excavated in 1990 and 1991, and again a number of interesting finds were made. A LM IB household shrine was discovered on the upstairs floor of the House of the Rhyta, a building most likely used for cult practices. Detailed illustrations of plans and sections of Block AF are provided where appropriate. An illustration of a stratigraphical section of one of the rooms showing layers dating from LM IB to the modern day surface is also provided (p. 19).

Part II deals with the architectural and material culture of the site and takes up the largest part of the volume. This section of the volume begins with an analysis, by McEnroe, of the materials and techniques used in the construction of buildings in Block AF. It is followed by an analysis of the pottery by Floyd and a series of chapters dedicated to other finds ranging from stone weights to food remains. Several of these chapters conclude with a brief discussion on the finds and the interpretations. Betancourt's discussion on clay weights and their use for weaving at Pseira as well as for fishing aboard ships is particularly stimulating. Likewise, Shaw and Betancourt's discussion on plaster from Block AF is very enriching. Reese's chapter (Chapter 15) on faunal remains and Rose's chapter on fish remains (Chapter 16) also provide a wealth of information on daily life at Pseira. Where appropriate, the authors provide invaluable lists or tables of finds. In Part III, Betancourt presents conclusions and interpretations of the work carried out in Block AF at Pseira. The author states that Block AF is one of the best areas to examine the architectural development of the community and begins with an analysis of the different phases of the building in the block. At each stage he uses the physical evidence found on the site to date and determine the possible uses of the buildings. In Chapter 18, he argues, for instance, that the pottery and the Theran pumice found in a votive deposit buried in the floors is proof that buildings were destroyed around the same time of the Thera eruption and rebuilt afterwards. Likewise, his argument that inverted cups and seashells found in the foundation deposits of rooms were not trash but were most likely votives and that they indicate the inhabitants' concern for the violent upheaval that had destroyed the town seems plausible. In Chapter 19, Betancourt analyzes the evidence found on the site to determine the different room functions and activities in the buildings. The author had previously stated (p. 156) that the well-preserved individual contexts of the finds offer information on Minoan agricultural production, domestic economy and household organization as well as on religious activities. Food remains and stone tools common to Minoan houses were found in several buildings and the author rightly argues that clay weights of the type used on warp-weighted looms suggest the possibility of weaving. Likewise, two pieces of clay molds for casting metal suggest that some sort of metalworking was carried out at Pseira. Finally, the presence of pillar crypts containing cult equipment as well as the discovery of a shrine in the House of the Rhyta attest to the practice of religious ceremonies at Pseira.

Perhaps a desire to avoid redundancies might explain such a short introduction to the volume (Chapter 1). However, I feel that some more information on the history of the site would have been welcome here. The aims of the excavation are stated in Chapter 2 (p. 5). Perhaps it might have been more appropriate to present the aims of the excavation in the introduction. Finally, even though MM and LM are listed in the abbreviations, the authors never explain the terms MM I through LM III. It would have been very useful for the non-expert if the author had provided dates for these periods. The volume, however, has many strengths. Pseira is one of the few sites on Crete with evidence of reoccupation immediately after the LM IB destruction. The buildings in Block AF provide much more information on the activities of the Minoans during LM IB than in earlier times and shed light on the social history of the Minoan town of Pseira. The authors systematically provide detailed descriptions of finds, and Betancourt provides expert interpretations of relationships between these finds and the buildings and other spaces. The inclusion of tables and drawings of inventoried finds makes it possible for other scholars to examine the evidence, to compare against finds at other sites and to draw their own conclusions. This work provides us with a wealth of data and is undoubtedly an essential contribution to our knowledge of Minoan culture.

Table of Contents

PART I: History of the Excavation.

P. Betancourt: Introduction, 3

P. Betancourt, M. Nikolaidou, E. Velona: Architectural Phases 1 to 3 (Early Phase), 5

P. Betancourt, E. Armpis, G. Mitrakis, M. Nikolaidou: Architectural Phases 3 (Late Phase) to 5, 17

PART II: Architecture and Material Culture.

J.C. McEnroe: Architecture in Block AF South, 29

J.C. McEnroe: Architecture in Block AF North, 33

C.R. Floyd: Pottery from Block AF, 39

H.M.C. Dierks: Ground and Chipped Stone Tools from Block AF South, 95

H.M.C. Dierks:Ground and Chipped Stone Tools from Block AF North, 99

H.M.C. Dierks, P. Betancourt: Stone Weights from Block AF, 105

P. Betancourt: Miscellaneous Objects from Block AF, 107

M.C. Shaw, P. Betancourt: Plaster from Block AF, 113

G.H. Myer, P. Betancourt: Analysis of the Plaster, 121

G. Jones, I. Smith: Plant Remains from Block AF, 125

P. Betancourt: Lithic Materials from Block AF, 127

D.S. Reese: Faunal Remains from Block AF, 131

M.J. Rose: Fish Remains from Block AF, 143

P. Betancourt: Comments on the Mud Mortar, 151

PART III: Interpretation and Conclusions

P. Betancourt: Architectural History, 155

P. Betancourt: Room Functions and Activities in the Buildings, 163


C.R. Floyd, Pottery Statistics (A), 171

C.R. Floyd: Fabric Percentages (B), 223

1 comment:

  1. A coherent presentation of what pertains to the specific excavation, arousing the interest of experts and non-experts alike in Minoan culture.