Wednesday, March 27, 2013


Maria C. Shaw, Joseph W. Shaw (ed.), House X at Kommos, A Minoan Mansion Near the Sea. Part 1, Architecture, Stratigraphy, and Selected Finds. Prehistory Monographs, 35. Philadelphia: INSTAP Academic Press, 2012. Pp. xxvi, 150; 61 p. of tables, 41 p. of figs., 33 p. of plates. ISBN 9781931534642. $80.00. Contributors: Maria C. Shaw, Joseph W. Shaw, Deborah Ruscillo, Anne P. Chapin and John G. Younger.

Reviewed by Vassilis Petrakis, National Hellenic Research Foundation (

Version at BMCR home site


The title under review is the first of a two-volume publication of a Late Minoan (hereafter LM) building excavated at Kommos in south-central Crete. This volume includes final reports on the stratigraphy, architecture, frescoes, small finds of various materials, and faunal remains; pottery and its implications for chronology and trade will be treated independently by Jeremy Rutter in the forthcoming Part 2. It naturally supersedes the information provided about House X so far.1 Prospective readers should note that the authors of this volume had access to Rutter's preliminary analysis of ceramic assemblages, and that his proposed dates form a backbone for the discussions of the building's history and the chronology of specific contexts reported in the publication under review. Of course, as it is occasionally cautioned (e.g., p. 116, endnote 1), Rutter himself may modify some of these preliminary notes in his final publication of the pottery.

Chapter 1 by Maria Shaw (accompanied by Table 1.1, Figures 1.1-1.38 and Plates 1.1-1.16) gives a succinct description of the architecture of the building, following a valuable "space-by-space" survey. This organization, however, is only possible because the basic division of spaces (numbered X1-X16, grouped in three "sectors"–Western, Central and Eastern) remains basically valid throughout the building's long history (LM IA to LM IIIB). One can applaud that "spaces" has been preferred to "rooms". References to specific ceramic assemblages associated with each "space" substantiate the reconstruction of the building's history and stratigraphy and ultimately are based on Rutter's preliminary notes on the chronology of these pottery groups.

Chapter 2 by Maria Shaw and Anne Chapin (accompanied by Table 2.1, Figures 2.1-2.4, Plate 2.1 and Color Plates 1B, 2-4) publishes the painted plasters from the building—buon fresco with a secco supplements — where floral landscapes are dominant. All painted plasters were probably produced within LM I, in ground floor spaces, immediately after the construction of the building in early LM IA (fragments from later contexts being secondary). The authors identify the stylistic affinities of the main compositions (the Lily Fresco, the Spiral Fresco and the more obscure Stems Fresco) with contemporary frescoes from Knossos (House of the Frescoes), Amnisos (Villa) or Ayia Triada (Villa: Room 14) and discuss the possibility that the paintings form a Knossian trend, seemingly spread at external (Knossian) initiative. A most important contribution of this new Kommos material is the evidence of so-called "preliminary sketch-lines", the first to be relatively securely identified outside Knossos.2 As the relationship between what remained of these "sketch-lines" and compositions actually executed could not be securely established, Shaw prefers to see them as "trials or a warm-up exercise" (p. 69). This is a defensible position, although nothing positively suggests that these were produced by "an apprentice being trained" (p. 69). Whatever their "virtuosity and fluency" (p. 69) would suggest, if these were intended as guidelines, it is most likely that they were executed by an experienced hand, and apprentices would follow with less skill-demanding tasks. In any case, the presentation of this material is masterful, even if one would like to see more drawings and suggested possible reconstructions of the "sketch-lines" (these are shown only in Figure 2.2 and Color Plate 3C, fragments Fr3 and Fr8 respectively).

Chapter 3 by Joseph Shaw, Maria Shaw and John Younger (accompanied by Table 3.1, Figures 3.1-3.5 and Plates 3.1- 3.11) deals with various categories of small finds. Stone, metal and terracotta artefacts are all treated in this diverse chapter. The catalogue of metal artefacts includes, as its title suggests, "selected" objects (p. 75), although the selection process is not explicitly stated. The seal and the earring stone mold are obvious highlights in this chapter, as is the remarkable Egyptian glass jar from an LM IIIA1 context (p. 90, plate 3.9). The observation that "House X […] has a greater variety of loomweight types" than anywhere else at Kommos (p. 78) is also of considerable interest. The discussion of terracotta figures (pp. 88-90) interestingly reveals that none were found in space X7, considered a "Shrine" in this publication (cf. pp. 13-14, 128).

Chapter 4 by Deborah Ruscillo (accompanied by Tables 4.1-4.79, Figures 4.1-4.5 and Plates 4.1A-D) is devoted to an exhaustive presentation of the faunal remains. The arrangement is very effective, and the survey of Glycymeris shells is highly welcome, given the intricacies of the material from House X. The occurrence of large numbers of these shells in House X (probably to be used as floor-construction material, especially in LM IIIA1-2) is extensively discussed. Readers also may want to consult Ruscillo's previous discussion of Glycymeris from Kommos.3 The chapter concludes with a catalogue of artefacts made of worked bone and shell. A Glycymeris valve with a possible painted Linear sign on it (no. Sh19, p. 116, Plate 4.1.D) is quite interesting, and possibly merits further autopsy. Unless an accidental effect (a possibility suggested by Ruscillo), this 'doodle' can be compared—pending further investigation—to sign AB 122 on HT 58.3, a Linear A tablet from Hagia Triada.

Chapter 5 by Maria Shaw (accompanied by Tables 5.1-5.4, Figures 5.1-5.4 and Color Plate 1A) is an overall synthesis of the data. One will want to read this alongside the excellent synthetic chapter of the previous Kommos publication, as well as a recent article by James Wright on the development of the Kommos town.4 The setting, architecture, circulation pattern and diachronic remodeling of the building are separately discussed, and a further section attempts to reconstruct the main activities in each space and through time. One might want to see one of the crucial features of House X, its remarkable longevity throughout LM IA-IIIB, discussed more extensively as a manifestation of a Cretan Bronze Age phenomenon attested elsewhere (e.g. Building 1 at Palaikastro or, in a vastly more complex scale, the palace complex at Knossos itself), in contrast to those cases where occupation was pointedly discontinued (e.g., the construction of the 'Megaron' ABCD and the Stoa FG atop the 'Royal Villa' ruins at Ayia Triada).

Table 5.1, although formally accompanying Chapter 5, sums up information analytically presented in Chapter 1 by indicating which LM ceramic phases pottery contexts from each space belong to. Since its summary presentation will undoubtedly attract prospective readers, it might be appropriate to point out a few inconsistencies between the two. LM IIIA2 material from spaces X2, X6, X7 and X15 (represented by pottery groups X2:8, X6:6, X7:4, X7:5 and X15:2 phase 2) is reported in Chapter I, but is not indicated in Table 5.1. LM IIIB use is marked for space X10 on Table 5.1, but this is not deduced from the presentation on Chapter 1 (pottery groups X10:1 is LM II; X10:2 and X10:3 are LM IIIA2, and there is also Iron Age activity). It should be noted that Table 5.1 has only a column for "LM IIIA2 Early" (the reviewer's italics) and not plain "LM IIIA2". For the proper ceramic definition of these designations we await Rutter's forthcoming final report on the pottery from the building.5

Overall, the production of the volume is outstanding, on par with the earlier Kommos volumes (by Princeton University Press). The Lily Fresco from space X1, an obvious choice for the color frontispiece, has been wonderfully reproduced, as are all the plates and illustrations. Points of criticism are few: one might prefer tables to be integrated within each chapter, but this would go against the current standard INSTAP Academic Press format. Also, the illustrations of the seals (Figure 3.4 and Plate 3.11) could have included drawings, following the more familiar and highly effective standards set by the Corpus der minoischen und mykenischen Siegel.

Although a proper assessment of Building X will only be possible with the publication of Rutter's ceramic analysis, the Shaws and their collaborators have already given us a very complete and authoritative picture of an important building from a key site in south Central Crete. The familiar standards of previous Kommos publications shine throughout this book.


1.   J. W. Shaw and M. C. Shaw (eds.) Kommos V. The Monumental Minoan Buildings at Kommos, Princeton University Press 2006; J. W. Shaw and M. C. Shaw "Excavations at Kommos (Crete) during 1986-1992" Hesperia 62:2, pp. 129-90, at pp. 131-61.
2.   Cf. M. A. S. Cameron "The painted signs on fresco fragments from the 'House of the Frescoes'", Kadmos 7 (1968), pp. 45-64.
3.   D. Ruscillo "Faunal remains and Murex dye production" in Shaw and Shaw eds. (supra n. 1), pp. 776-840, at pp. 803-5.
4.   J. W. Shaw, M. C. Shaw, J. B. Rutter and A. Van de Moortel "The history and functions of the monumental Minoan buildings at Kommos" in Shaw and Shaw eds. (supra n.1), pp. 845-78 (especially the helpful Table 5.1, pp. 865-71); J. C. Wright "Modeling domesticity" in Ph. P. Betancourt, M. C. Nelson and H. Williams (eds.) Krinoi kai Limenes: Studies in Honor of Joseph and Maria Shaw, Prehistory Monographs22, Philadelphia: INSTAP Academic Press 2007, pp. 263-70.
5.   Interestingly, Eleni Hatzaki's recent survey of Knossian LM III has concluded that there is no sufficient evidence to justify a division between "Early" and "Late" LM IIIA2 at Knossos (cf. E. Hatzaki "Final Palatial (LM II–IIIA2) and Postpalatial (LM IIIB–LM IIIC Early): The MUM South Sector, Long Corridor cists, MUM pits (8, 9, 10-11), Makritichos 'kitchen', MUM North Platform pits and SEX Southern Half groups" in N. Momigliano (ed.) Knossos Pottery Handbook: Neolithic and Bronze Age (Minoan). BSA Studies 14. London: The British School at Athens 2007, pp. 197-251, at p. 225).

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