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Architecture of Minoan Crete

Architecture of Minoan Crete
Constructing Identity in the Aegean Bronze Age

The first comprehensive study of the entire range of Minoan architecture from 7000 BC to 1100 BC, extensively illustrated and written for both scholars and general readers.

Series: Classics and the Ancient World Endowment

May 2010
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220 pages | 8.5 x 11 | 204 b&w images, 8 color in one 8-page section, 1 map, 4 tables. |

Ever since Sir Arthur Evans first excavated at the site of the Palace at Knossos in the early twentieth century, scholars and visitors have been drawn to the architecture of Bronze Age Crete. Much of the attraction comes from the geographical and historical uniqueness of the island. Equidistant from Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, Minoan Crete is on the shifting conceptual border between East and West, and chronologically suspended between history and prehistory. In this culturally dynamic context, architecture provided more than physical shelter; it embodied meaning. Architecture was a medium through which Minoans constructed their notions of social, ethnic, and historical identity: the buildings tell us about how the Minoans saw themselves, and how they wanted to be seen by others.

Architecture of Minoan Crete is the first comprehensive study of the entire range of Minoan architecture—including houses, palaces, tombs, and cities—from 7000 BC to 1100 BC. John C. McEnroe synthesizes the vast literature on Minoan Crete, with particular emphasis on the important discoveries of the past twenty years, to provide an up-to-date account of Minoan architecture. His accessible writing style, skillful architectural drawings of houses and palaces, site maps, and color photographs make this book inviting for general readers and visitors to Crete, as well as scholars.

  • Preface
  • Acknowledgments
  • Chapter 1. The Land, the People, Identity
  • Chapter 2. Architecture and Social Identity in Neolithic Crete (ca. 7000-3000 BC)
  • Chapter 3. Local, Regional, and Ethnic Identities in Early Prepalatial Architecture (ca. 3000-2200 BC)
  • Chapter 4. Architectural Experiments and Hierarchical Identity in Late Prepalatial Architecture (ca. 2200-1900 BC)
  • Chapter 5. The First Palaces and the Construction of Power (ca. 1900-1750 BC)
  • Chapter 6. The Protopalatial City and Urban Identity (ca. 1900-1750 BC)
  • Chapter 7. The Second Palace at Knossos and the Reconstruction of Minoan Identity (ca. 1750-1490 BC)
  • Chapter 8. Comparing the Neopalatial Palaces (ca. 1750-1490 BC)
  • Chapter 9. Houses and Towns in the Neopalatial Period (ca. 1750-1490 BC)
  • Chapter 10. Buildings, Frescoes, and the Language of Power in the Final Palatial Period (ca. 1490-1360 BC)
  • Chapter 11. After the Palaces (ca. 1360-1200 BC)
  • Chapter 12. Survival and Memory in LM IIIC (ca. 1200-1100 BC)
  • Conclusion. Architecture and Identity
  • Appendix. Useful Websites
  • Notes
  • Glossary
  • Works Cited
  • Index

John C. McEnroe is the John and Anne Fischer Professor of Fine Arts at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York, and a member of the American School of Classical Studies in Athens. He has worked in Crete for many years as a field archaeologist and excavation architect. His recent publications include Critical Perspectives in Art History (co-edited with Deborah Pokinski) and Pseira V: The Architecture of Pseira.


The Land


Seventy million years ago, a slow-motion collision between the African and the European tectonic plates pushed a buckled ridge of land above the surface of the sea. Complex geological processes, including a nearly complete submergence, continued to shape the land for the next sixty-five million years. Three to four million years ago, in the middle Pliocene, the ridge reemerged as the largest island in the Aegean Sea (fig. 1.1). Like a miniature continent, Crete has the entire range of Mediterranean topography condensed into a land mass ca. 250 km long and less than 60 km wide: snow-capped mountains, long beaches, inhospitable dry lands, fertile plains, bustling cities and large expanses of nearly inaccessible wilderness. Crete shares much with the surrounding continents of Europe, Asia, and Africa, but it also has much that is unique: of the approximately 1,650 species of plants known on the island, for example, about 160 are endemic.


A mountainous spine runs the length of the island. On the north the mountains give way to foothills, coastal plains, and large bays that provide deep harbors for modern ships. Historically most of the population has been concentrated along this coast. The large cities of Khania, Rethymnon, Herakleion, Haghios Nikolaos, and Siteia are here, along with most of the modern tourist developments. On the south the mountains descend so precipitously that habitation is limited to scattered coastal villages accessible mainly by boat. The single large town on the south coast is Hierapetra, located at the narrowest part of the island facing Africa.


The character of the landscape changes dramatically from west to east. The vast White Mountains dominate the western end of the island. On the north coast, the modern city of Khania was also an important Minoan city. East of Khania, the mountains turn into rolling hills before rising again to form Mt. Ida, Crete's tallest peak (2,456 m), located at the center of the island. The lush Amari valley, with the Minoan sites of Monasteraki and Apodoulou, runs along the western slopes of Mt. Ida. The eastern slopes of Mt. Ida descend into the fertile wine-growing land around Archanes. Here the highest promontory, Mt. Iouktas, overlooks the modern city of Herakleion and the Minoan city of Knossos.


Further to the south the Mesara plain, watered by the Ieropotomos River, has about two-thirds of the most arable soil on the island (ca. 40,485 ha) and once provided vast amounts of grain for export by the Roman administrators stationed in the Roman city of Gortyn. The rugged Asterousia Mountains separate the Mesara from the south coast.


The Lasithi Mountains (Mt. Dikte) rise further to the east. Near the center of the range, at an elevation of ca. 850 m, is the Lasithi plateau, a large upland plain dotted with picturesque windmills. The coast to the north, near Malia, consists of long, flat beaches. East of the Lasithi Mountains the island narrows to only 12 km at the Isthmus of Hierapetra. The Thripti Mountains border the isthmus on the east and continue into the lower, barren mountains that extend to the east coast. Siteia is the main modern harbor in this part of the island. In the Bronze Age, there were smaller harbors at Palaikastro and Zakros on the east coast.


Today a new national highway system makes it easy to get from one part of the island to another. In the Bronze Age the pace would have been slower, and walking times are more meaningful than the map. For example, the Minoan Palace at Phaistos is a little more than 40 km from the Minoan Palace at Knossos as the crow flies. The British archaeologist J. Pendlebury, a famously fast walker, writes that the trip takes about twelve hours on foot. Athletic visitors using the E4 Hiking Trail can walk the length of the island in about ten days. Standing among the palms at Vai, on the sandy beach just north of Palaikastro, one can think back to the lush stands of chestnuts in the foothills south of Khania and reflect upon the extraordinary range of the island's topography and flora.


The fragmented and diverse nature of the landscape of Crete has always encouraged the development of distinctive regional cultures. Specific economic strategies, local festivals, and long-standing traditions give each part of Crete a distinct character of which its inhabitants are uniformly proud. Perhaps the best-known example of this regional identity is the area of Sfakia in the White Mountains of southwest Crete. Throughout Greece the men of Sfakia are regarded as fierce, independent, proud, cunning, and resistant to outside pressure. This stereotypical image of the Sfakiot is specifically tied to the rugged, isolated mountain environment, but, in a larger sense, it also embodies the way in which many Cretans picture their relation to the rest of Greece and to the world.


The People


In her book Days in Africa (1914), E. Bosanquet describes arriving in Chania on a boat from Marseilles and finding a fascinatingly complex city "of distinctly African flavour owing to its intercourse with the Cyrenaica." Looking around, she observed "an Arab from Benghazi," "remnants of a black serf population," "full-blooded Ethiopians in sacks," and "Arabs in flowing white from Cyrenaica." She speaks of memories of Saracen invaders and the recently departed Russian, French, and Italian soldiers who had been sent to establish peace in the newly independent island. The architecture included "Venetian galley houses" and "the Turkish Cemetery." In the harbor were "plenty of boats, Austrian, Italian or coasting Greek steamers." The people, in other words, were as diverse as the topography: African, Asian, and European.


Homer also famously reported on the island's diversity:


Crete is an island that lies in the middle
Of the wine-dark sea, a fine, rich land
With ninety cities swarming with people
Who speak many different languages.
There are Achaeans there and native Cretans,
Cydonians, Pelasgians, and three tribes of Dorians.


A. Evans thought that the Minoans were the product of several waves of immigration, first from southern Anatolia, with later additions from Libya and the Nile Valley, along with people of "Mediterranean stock." He associated nearly all the major cultural shifts in Minoan history with the arrival of peoples from outside the island. While Evans based his interpretation on the grounds of similarities in artifacts, burial types, and linguistics, it is now possible to do genetic studies of population movements. A recent study using Y-chromosome haplotypes indicates that the earliest farmers in Crete had arrived from central Anatolia and that there were subsequent waves of immigration from Syria-Palestine and northwest Anatolia.


Crete continued to have an ethnically diverse population under both the Venetians and the Ottomans, as S. McKee and M. Green have emphasized. After Crete became an independent country in 1898, ethnic and cultural diversity, although still remarkable to Bosanquet, rapidly declined. Sizeable communities of Jews and Armenians left, and most of the so-called Turks, who were mainly Greek-speaking Moslems, emigrated even before the massive population exchanges between Greece and Asia Minor in 1923. Today diversity is again on the rise as tourists visit from all over the world and growing numbers of people from other European Union countries, especially Great Britain and Germany, buy retirement houses.




A Google search of the words "archaeology" and "identity" results in 4,330,000 hits. In recent years, literature in anthropology, archaeology, and history has become filled with such phrases as "national identity," "ethnic identity," "gender identity," "the other," etc. The term "identity" is so ubiquitous that McKee has only half jokingly called for a moratorium on its use. A major problem is that the term is not used consistently and is too seldom defined. In this book I shall follow the characterization recently provided by M. Diaz-Andreu, S. Lucy, A. Babić and D. Edwards. I am primarily concerned with how individuals identify themselves with broader groups. As Diaz-Andreu and Lucy put it, "Identity, as we understand it, is inextricably linked to the sense of belonging. Through identity we perceive ourselves, and others see us, as belonging to certain groups and not to others. Being part of a group entails active engagement. Identity, therefore, is not a static thing, but a continual process."


Personal or group identity is never singular, and multiple identities often overlap. M. Herzfeld offers a modern example of such fluidity in his study of the pseudonymous village of Glendi on the slopes of Mt. Ida. He describes what he terms the "concentric loyalties" of the Glendiot man: he is fiercely proud of his village, his region, Crete, and Greece. Furthermore, Herzfeld notes, "any outsider—whether foreigner, non-Cretan, East Cretan, non-Rethymniot, lowlander, non-covillager (ksenokhorianos), non-kin, or more or less distant kin—is definitionally inferior." Such concentric and overlapping identities, in other words, are defined in terms of oppositions: belonging and excluding are parts of the same process. We can transpose Herzfeld's notion of concentric loyalties back into the Bronze Age. In a multicultural island so topographically and demographically diverse as Crete, what did it mean to be a Knossian? a Herakleiot? a Minoan? The answers lie in much more than where a person happened to have been born.


In this book, I am interested in the role architecture plays in shaping, maintaining, and presenting identities and, in turn, how social notions of identity shape the buildings. I shall be concerned with different sorts of identity. Several of these, including household identity (generally that of a nuclear family), community identity (village or town), regional identity, ethnic identity, and island-wide Minoan identity, have to do with a sense of place: they are tied to the notions of home and belonging. Other kinds of identity make up additional layers of differentiation and assimilation. For example, Aegean archaeologists have long been concerned with the issue of social status—a person's location within a social hierarchy, both as self-proclaimed and as perceived. In this book we will see that architecture served as an eloquent, nuanced language for claiming a place in the larger social order. History also plays a role. How did the Minoans use buildings (tombs, Palaces, and houses) to declare a particular relation with the past? By echoing ancient forms Minoans could use buildings to assert their legitimacy and continuity; by ostentatiously breaking with local tradition, they could proclaim a broader Minoan, or even international, alliance.


Time, Chronology, and Historical Narratives


Like the various forms of identity, the perception of time (as opposed to the physics of time) is a social construction. For example, when R. Pashley traveled through Crete in 1834, he was surprised to find that the people of the island did not share his European sense of time and history. After speaking with a small group, he observed, "Not one knows the year, or has any idea of an era. They reckon neither by Christ nor Mohammed . . . but date all events one by another. Thus, in Crete, the year of the great earthquake; the time when Khadji Osmán Pashá was governor of Khaniá; the outbreaking of the Greek revolution; the peace of Khusein-bey; the war of Khadji Mikhali; and the final submission to the Egyptians are the principal epochs to which all the events of the last five and twenty years are referred."


That local system of keeping track of events was intricately detailed, but it did without references to numerical chronologies and, more important, without the sense of unilinear direction Pashley expected. The Cretan perception of time in 1834 is an example of what J. McGlade calls "kairological," as opposed to chronological, time. This form of historical narrative describes time experientially and organizes it by reference to human-centered events.


A. Evans constructed the chronological system used in Minoan archaeology. His division of the chronology into three main periods, Early Minoan (EM), Middle Minoan (MM), and Late Minoan (LM), is an example of what I. Hodder describes as the "classical beginning-middle-end narrative." It was not a neutral sequence of dates, but a narrative with a story line that emphasized development, maturity, and decline, the climax coming in Evans's "New Era" at the end of the Middle Minoan period and the beginning of the Late. That story was, in turn, part of a larger Darwinian tale of universal progress.


Today Evans's metanarratives are either critically deconstructed or politely ignored, but the basic framework of his chronological system is alive and well in two competing variations. The more traditional, "lower" chronology as championed by P. Warren and V. Hankey is based primarily on cross-dating, that is, it uses the evidence of datable imports in Minoan contexts in conjunction with Minoan objects found in datable foreign contexts. The second system, known as the "higher" chronology, relies more heavily on dendrochronology and radiocarbon dating. Using these two methods along with cross-dating, S. Manning proposes a modified version of the higher chronology. There are a couple of significant differences between the resulting sets of dates. For example, Warren and Hankey place the beginning of the Early Minoan I period much earlier than Manning, making the Early Bronze Age longer. Recently, however, Warren has agreed that 3100/2900 might be a more appropriate beginning date for Early Minoan. A second difference centers on the date of the Theran eruption. An increasing number of scholars now accept Manning's higher date of ca. 1628 BC, but the debate continues. The two systems are juxtaposed below.


Warren and Hankey 1989, 169


  • EM I3650/3500-3000/2900
  • EM II2900-2300/2150
  • EM III2300/2150-2160/2025
  • MM IA2160/1979-20th c.
  • MM IB19th c.
  • MM II19th c.-1700/1650
  • MM IIIA1700/1650-1640/1630
  • MM IIIB1640/1630-1600
  • LM IA1600/1580-1480
  • Theran Eruption ca. 1550-1530
  • LM IB1480-1425
  • LM II1425-1390
  • LM IIIA11390-1370/60
  • LM IIIA21370/60-1340/30
  • LM IIIB1340/30-1190 +/-
  • LM IIIC1190+-1070 +/-




Manning 1995, 217


  • EM I3100/3000-2700/2650
  • EM IB/EM IIA (2700)-2650
  • EM IIA 2650-2450/2350
  • EM IIB2450/2350-2200/2150
  • EM III2200/2150-2050/2000
  • MM IA2050/2000-1925/1900
  • MM IB1925/1900-1900/1875
  • MM II1900/1875-1750/1720
  • MM IIIA(-B)1750/1720-1700/1680
  • MM IIIB/LM IA1700/1680-1675/1650
  • LM IA1675/1650-1600/1550
  • Theran Eruption ca. 1628
  • LM IB1600/1550-1490/1470
  • LM II1490/1470-1435/1405
  • LM IIIA11435/1405-1390/1370
  • LM IIIA21390/1370-1360/1325
  • LM IIIB1360/1325-1200/1190
  • LMIIIC[no dates given]


Because the main concern of this book has to do with broader architectural phases rather than with matters of specific dates, I use a very simple, broad system that corresponds roughly to Manning's modified high chronology (see table 1.1). Readers should translate the dates in this book into the system they think most appropriate.


Architectural History and Individualist Narratives


In writing an architectural history in the twenty-first century, what sort of historical narrative should one construct within that chronological framework? The grand Evansian model that describes a unilinear evolution from primitive hut to sophisticated palace to a final decadent squatter occupation no longer seems tenable.23 In our nonlinear age, we are skeptical of the sweeping notions of progress and decline, and we are aware that things seem complicated, particular, and sometimes arbitrary.


Recently Minoan scholars have been writing different narratives. Thanks to developments in the study of pottery and chronology, they are able to measure time in terms of a generation or two rather than in broad historical epochs, allowing them to understand the relationships among sites in much greater detail. They have learned that each of the major Minoan Palaces of the later Bronze Age had an individually distinctive history and that the relations between one Palace and another were likely to have been complex and changing. It is no longer sufficient to describe, as A. Evans did, the Neopalatial period as a unitary evolutionary stage, a New Era. That sort of label masks complicated interactions among the builders and their sponsors.


As Diaz-Andreu and Lucy point out, the growing interest in the topic of identity is part of an even larger shift in the field of archaeology. Rather than analyzing the past in terms of broad social processes, as the New Archaeology did in the 1970s, scholars today are examining not the general, but the individual. They are attempting to read competing multilinear, human-centered—one might say kairological—narratives that individual Minoans embodied in their buildings, and I propose to look here at the most interesting of these emerging stories.


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