Monday, October 12, 2015


Florence Gaignerot-Driessen, Jan Driessen, Cretan Cities: Formation and Transformation. Aegis, 7. Louvain-La-Neuve: Presses universitaires de Louvain, 2015. Pp. 182. ISBN 9782875583284. €40.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Vyron Antoniadis, Academy of Athens (

Version at BMCR home site


Archaeologists have become very interested with the formation of the polis and the ways in which Aristotle describes its genesis.1 The eighth and seventh centuries BC in Crete, an essentially prehistoric period, have been studied in the light of future developments that would eventually lead, in certain cases, to the creation of the Archaic and Classical polis. Paraphrasing the classic introduction of Star Trek, one could say that the polis has become the final frontier of Cretan prehistory. In the same trend, the publication edited by Florence Gaignerot-Driessen and Jan Driessen is a collection of seminars that were given at the Université Catholique de Louvain from 2010 to 2012. In these papers archaeologists discuss eight sites or cities of central and eastern Crete.

Florence Gaignerot-Driessen in the introduction offers a summary of the papers with a thought-provoking discussion and critique of certain aspects of each contribution. One of the very interesting observations of the author concerns the similarity she notices in the function of the building known as 'Temple B' at Prinias and the two Late Geometric-Late Archaic buildings at Phaistos. She emphasises the need for an archaeological approach to the Cretan cities independent of Aristotle (although his views are featured in the papers in this volume as prominently as the sites themselves).

Eva Tegou contributes a rigorous synthesis and historiography of the archaeological investigations in the city of Axos and its vicinity. Most of the finds and structures date to the period between 1200 and 500 BC. The author pays particular attention to a structure identified as a temple on the east slope of the acropolis, where, apart from evidence of cult activities, there were offerings such as weapons with dedicatory inscriptions that can be associated with political developments manifesting from the end of the Geometric period to the mid sixth century BC. Presumably, after this period new political activities appear on the north slope of the acropolis, where a building and an apparently open space might have been part of the agora of the Archaic city. The author briefly mentions the existence of two Early Iron Age cemeteries in the vicinity of Axos. She states that on the basis of the data currently available one cannot answer the question of whether different cemeteries might reflect the different Dorian tribes living in the settlement. I would argue in any case that this 'historical' question cannot be answered by the archaeology of Early Iron Age Crete.

Daniela Lefevre-Novaro focuses on the birth of the Early Iron Age polis of Phaistos. The Bronze Age site was never really abandoned but remained sparsely populated after Late Minoan IIIC. The author suggests that those who populated the areas near the former palace were Dorian migrants. She also thinks that the old population and the supposedly new one co-existed during the following centuries, when new building activity is noted. In the eighth and seventh centuries BC the city expanded and a sanctuary was built. For an early agora, the people of Phaistos probably used the Bronze Age courtyard of the theatral area. The temple of Megale Mater and buildings reserved for communal meals, as the excavations have revealed, were constructed at the end of the seventh century. In one of the rooms of these buildings, clay tokens and food remains were discovered indicating communal activity and feasting. Lefevre-Novaro also discusses the relationship of the nearby sites of Agia Triada and Kommos to Phaistos in the Early Iron Age.

Antonella Pautasso provides a synthesis of archaeological evidence regarding the city and necropolis of Prinias (1200-mid-sixth century BC). The importance of the necropolis lies not only in the numerous burials, but also in a sudden change in the burial rites and funerary architecture at the end of the ninth century BC. Cremation becomes the sole burial rite and the old tholos tombs are rarely used. In the same period the reconstruction of the centre of the settlement on the plateau (Patela) of Prinias also begins. A real change though is observed later in the second half of the seventh century BC, when buildings reveal evidence of cult practices and communal gathering and feasting. These structures integrate and use older religious architectural features, such as a trilithon similar to Temple B in Kommos, and Late Minoan cultic artefacts, such as snake tubes. For Pautasso, religious space played a fundamental role in the organization of the local Archaic society.

Saro Wallace uses Karphi as a case study in the analysis of Cretan society after 1200 BC. She sees the first two centuries, from 1200 to 1000 BC, as crucial for the development of the polis in Crete in the early Archaic period. She analyses the site and its vicinity by separating it into four topographical areas. From a theoretical point of view, this is a very important contribution because she uses a combined model that involves both processual approaches and human agency: she proposes that the people of Karphi were able to explore, if not manipulate, the past in order to overcome the post 1200 BC crisis. They did this by using "elements of visible history". One example of discovery or manipulation is the collection of artefacts from the Neolithic and Minoan periods in the Early Iron Age settlement. Wallace maintains that the same use of the past by the people of the nearby site of Papoura seems to have also occurred at Karphi itself after its abandonment around 1000 BC.

Vasiliki Zographaki and Alexandre Farnoux have re-examined the structures investigated at Dreros over the last century with a new excavation. Their paper focuses on the area on the West Acropolis, where the old excavations have revealed a building interpreted as a Delphinion or andreion. The new excavators confirm the hypothesis that the building was actually a sanctuary with three successive phases, which are as yet not totally understood. The pavement and the cella of the sanctuary date to the seventh century BC (second phase), but underneath there was a deposit of cultic artefacts and animal bones dating to the late eighth/early seventh century BC (first phase). In the third phase a terrace wall was built on the north and east side of the temple incorporating older walls. The authors comment on the possibility that a broader communal participation characterized the early phase of the sanctuary, while the rich offerings of the second phase could indicate the existence of a rather less numerous, but powerful elite. Finally, they suggest that most of the structures related to the agora date to the Hellenistic period.

Donald C. Haggis reports on the results of more than ten years of excavation at Azoria and focuses on what he calls "culture-history narratives of urbanization". Haggis is especially interested in the change which occurred towards the end of the seventh century BC in relation to the 'Archaic gap'2 and the birth of the polis in Crete. The author challenges previous models of explanation for what occurred on the island in this period and interprets the changes in the archaeological record as the results of human agency. The settlement patterns in the Mirabello region and the settlement structure at Azoria are discussed in great detail in relation to socio- political changes. The author claims that physical urbanization (i.e. the process of building the city) at Azoria was a political behaviour that led to the formation of the city-state and emphasises that the way in which households interacted with public buildings is crucial for understanding urban development.

James Whitley, in his paper on Praisos, analyses the Aristotelian model of city formation and Runciman's and Blok's concepts of citizen states and citizenship. According to the author, participation in political decisions and cult activities of the polis was essential not only for men but also, at a different level, for women. Feasting played a prominent role in the various festivals of the cities. Whitley moves his investigation outside the urban nucleus by searching for extra-mural evidence relating to activities of citizens. He claims that commensality by men on the peaks around Praisos is a practice that reinforces participation by, and thus the identity of, the citizen. Similar practices occurred in Middle Minoan II at Praisos during Bronze Age state formation. The author is correct in asserting that comparing and contrasting Bronze and Early Iron Age activities in the same site and area is a way to bridge the 'Great Divide' between Aegean prehistory and Classical Greece.

Didier Viviers and Athina Tsingarida discuss a variety of subjects related to the harbour city of Itanos and the nearby settlements of Palaikastro and Roussolakos. This well-illustrated paper offers a comprehensive view of the settlement and necropolis. The international relationships of Itanos, especially with the Phoenicians, are noted. In fact, the authors even suggest that the foundation of Itanos in the early eighth century BC might be related to the need for a safe anchorage for foreign merchants. The north cemetery of the city is analysed in relation to the 'Archaic gap'. While no burials dating to the sixth and fifth centuries BC have been discovered so far, a monumental building was erected in the late seventh/early sixth century BC in the North Cemetery. This building complex remained in use until the early fourth century BC, a few decades before the reappearance of burials on the same site. The purpose of this partly excavated building is not yet clear, but the authors suggest that it was constructed in order to "replace traditional funerary practises that previously involved ritual and social activities around the grave".

With regard to the presentation of the book, there are good (but a few rather small) colour photographs. However, there are some issues related to the quality of the maps and plans in various articles. In certain cases it is impossible to read the legends of a plan (page 45, fig. 2.3) and there are poor resolution maps (page 83, fig. 4.2). Since the volume includes contributions in both French and English, a table of abbreviations would have been desirable, especially for chronological terms.

In conclusion, I fully recommend this book to all researchers interested in Early Iron Age Crete and in city and/or state formation. Advanced university students and scholars will have a unique opportunity to compare a range of sites, finds and interpretations within the same volume.


1.   For example, W.-D. Niemeier, O. Pilz and I. Kaiser (eds.), Kreta in der geometrischen und archaischen Zeit: Akten des Internationalen Kolloquiums am Deutschen Archäologischen Institut, Abteilung Athen, 27.-29. Januar 2006. Athenaia, Bd 2 (2013), p. 31-42.
2.   See also J. N. Coldstream, G. L. Huxley, and V. E. S. Webb, "Knossos the Archaic Gap", The Annual of the British School at Athens 94 (1999), p. 289-307.

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