Set si(gh)t(e)s on a mess

Labyrinth Revisited
September 12, 2003

This volume claims a radical stance that begins with the title, which not only promises "rethinking" but puts inverted commas around "Minoan" - implying that the contributors have made a fresh start, distancing themselves from and looking anew at all that has gone before, up to and including the name given by Arthur Evans to the Bronze Age culture of Crete.

A fairly combative tone is adopted by the editor in his introduction. He explains that he has commissioned contributions from scholars with a modern theoretical perspective in an attempt to "bring 'Minoan' archaeology into the mainstream of archaeological thinking and practice". We may wonder if this isn't something of an Aunt Sally, but the aim is laudable. I do fear, though, that general readers and specialists may be alienated by the introduction's prose style, which is overladen with jargon.

But this is a volume that has much to offer. Of course, it cannot all be radically "new". It is no criticism to say that the studies included reflect contemporary preoccupations and pick up on pre-existing strands of thought. For example, the first three papers, by Donald Preziosi, Louise Hitchcock and Paul Koudounaris and John C. McEnroe, deal with the life and times of Evans, discussing museology, Evans' reconstructions at Knossos and the political background to his excavations. It is not new - indeed it is becoming a cliche - to say Evans was a product of his time and to exhort the world towards greater awareness of the prejudices that informed his views. Nonetheless, each paper contributes interesting insights into this theme.

The remaining papers deal with the archaeology of Crete, rather than the archaeology of the discipline. These demonstrate that theoretical approaches work best where they can be applied to a reasonably large sample of data.

The landscape studies of Knossos and the Kavousi area of east Crete come into this category. Peter M. Day and David E. Wilson convincingly argue for the importance of Knossos to the Minoans as a place already very old, a repository of memory in a sacred landscape and a centre of power. D. C.

Haggis offers an interpretation of the prepalatial settled landscape of the Kavousi area as "integrated" (a term carefully defined) and stable, contrasting with its later configuration under palatial influence that, interestingly, is characterised as at once more complex and less stable.

Pottery studies have benefited not only from constantly accruing new finds but also from the additional data derived from clay analysis, and John Bennet points out in the "review" article at the end of this volume that this has perhaps privileged pottery above other kinds of evidence. It could be argued, though, that the achievements of a group of scholars, some but not all of whom are represented in this volume (Wilson, Day, Carl Knappett, Aleydis van de Moortel), in the understanding of production, movement and use of pottery in Minoan Crete, have formed one of the major success stories of recent years, adding significantly to our understanding of the Minoan past. They have generally tried to move beyond pottery as the basis for chronology or art history into pottery as an indicator of political and social history: difficult to pull off but very much in keeping with the spirit of this volume, where their contributions make stimulating reading.

Can a modern theoretical approach help with the quest to find people and personal experiences in prehistory? Mariana Nikolaidou's contribution conscientiously makes the attempt, though the limitations of the evidence become apparent. While Benjamin Alberti casts doubt on our ability to recognise gender in the iconography of human figures on the Minoan frescoes and sealstones - which arguably makes the individual seem more remote.

Bennet makes the point that some topics are surprisingly absent here: he mentions writing, and I would add Crete's wider connections within the eastern Mediterranean. Evans and the contemporary reception of his finds in Crete are both rightly characterised as thoroughly Eurocentric. Yet in the pages of The Palace of Minos Evans can be seen trying to capture elements of Egypt, too, in his Minoan net.

Specialists will need no encouragement to read this volume, while the more general reader will find much to hold the attention. Yannis Hamilakis is to be congratulated on bringing the publication together. It is engaging to find that, for all his use of abstruse vocabulary, he finds himself invoking the "messiness" of Minoan Crete. One knows what he means: the more discoveries are made, the more diverse the evidence becomes and the less able to be constrained within the straitjackets of simplistic interpretations. This book takes its place in encouraging and demonstrating approaches that are theoretically well based and thus ultimately more fruitful.

But, as an endnote, a plea to the theoreticians - please do not write sentences such as "The si(gh)t(e) of Knossos exerts a phenomenological presence" (Hitchcock and Koudounaris). Choose either site or sight or both - si(gh)t(e) is an abomination, and the danger is that the reader will just come away with "sigh".

J. Lesley Fitton is an assistant keeper, department of Greek and Roman antiquities, British Museum.

Labyrinth Revisited: Rethinking 'Minoan' Archaeology

Editor - Yannis Hamilakis
ISBN - 1 84217 061 9
Publisher - Oxbow Books
Price - £28.00
Pages - 237

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