Thirty Years at Kommos - Archaeology Magazine Archive

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Thirty Years at Kommos February 15, 2006
by Mark Rose

A new book looks back on decades of work at a site on the south coast of Crete.


Joseph W. Shaw's new volume, Kommos: A Minoan Harbor Town and Greek Sanctuary in Southern Crete, defies simple categorization. It is partly a guide to a sprawling and complex site, with a discussion of its regional context. But it is also an engaging personal account of three decades of excavation to which is added a series of short interpretive summaries of some of the site's main features. Take these elements and package them in a relatively short, heavily illustrated book geared to a nonspecialist audience and you have Kommos: A Minoan Harbor Town and Greek Sanctuary ($24.95 paperback, $45.00 hardcover; American School of Classical Studies at Athens, 2006). Is the book a blueprint for future publications or a chimera? To answer that question, one has to look at the individual parts of the book and then consider the whole.

Kommos, situated on the coast where the Mesara plain of southern Crete meets the Libyan Sea, was inhabited during the Middle Minoan through the Late Minoan periods (around 2000 until 1200 B.C.) and, after a brief abandonment, down to the Roman era when it was deserted once more (A.D. 150). Work, directed by Joseph and Maria Shaw, began in 1976 and uncovered layers of ruins in three large excavation areas (the hilltop, central hillside, and southern areas). The Minoan levels yielded both houses and monumental buildings (possibly including a structure for storing ships during winter when sailing was hazardous). The later levels yielded an early shrine with Phoenician connections and a later, small temple and associate altars and other structures. (My own link with Kommos is through the study of fish remains from both the Minoan and later deposits.)

Given the complex nature of the site, the author and editor of Kommos: A Minoan Harbor Town and Greek Sanctuary were forced to begin the book with what amounts to a guide to the site. Although it is well illustrated and the text is straightforward, this part of the book may be a bit daunting by way of an orientation to Kommos, with details threatening to overwhelm the big picture. The writing opens up at the end of the section when Shaw addresses the relationship of the site to the sea, from resources to trade. This continues in the second part of the book, which looks at Kommos in relation to other sites in the Mesara. It also, unlike the first, guide-like section of the book, becomes very personal, especially in describing how the dig began and the excavators' sympathetic and respectful relations with locals in the town of Pitsidia, where they established their home base.

This personal touch comes to the fore in the third part of Kommos: A Minoan Harbor Town and Greek Sanctuary, which is the history of the excavation and discoveries. It is great reading, as two samples, from the beginning of the dig and from excavation of the temple, show:

Another, not so welcome, surprise came as we began to clear sand--bits of rusted metal and the calcined tops of ancient walls appeared near the edge of the western cliff above the sea, where after World War II Allied soldiers had gathered anti-tank mines laid to prevent amphibious landings and had detonated them.... Most of the mines had been gathered up but we still found pieces of them in the deep sand as we progressed to the south. One day as my foreman and great friend George Beladakis and I sat watching the front loader do its work, an entire mine a foot and a half in diameter appeared from under the tires of the front loader which had perhaps gone over it as it trundled down the hill with its scoop filled with sand.

Then, much to our surprise, we found the tops of three vertical slabs.... As cleaning went on, a workman passed up a curious object--a face! A faience face! More clearing followed, and a six-inch-long faience statuette was brought up from between the two vertical slabs found earlier. We knew once the two faience fragments fitted together that we had discovered an Egyptianizing, if not actual Egyptian, figurine--Sekhmet, the goddess of war, as it turned out. Then one of our best workmen, Iannis Fasoulakis, announced that he had found a "hook." Again we peered into the small sounding and there was indeed a hooked metal object of some kind, wedged between two pillars. It was a bronze horse figurine! Chaos reigned. Workmen came running down the hillside to see; staff circled around.

This exemplary popular history of the excavation is followed by a collection of summaries of major finds at Kommos and how they fit in the larger world. The topics include Minoan palaces, the possible ship sheds, domestic economy, identification of the gods to which the temple was dedicated, a nearby temple of Artemis, the "Phoenician" shrine, and more. In these brief interpretations, Shaw puts Kommos in context but maintains the personal writing style of the preceding section of the book:

We stopped in the shade of the church to have a simple lunch, chiefly cheese and bread and olives, plus some water. I had also brought a can of Trata brand sardines, with a small very hot pepper thrown in--a most delicious tastemaker. After lunch we scouted around the the area.... I saw a few blocks, then what looked like a particularly finely carved one. And on it, to our excitement, there were letters. We turned it over to look at it more carefully and there, before us, was the solution to our puzzle, a prayer to Artemis....

Excavations of major sites like Kommos are usually published in a series of large final reports, often monographs or monograph-length chapters assembled in telephone-book sized volumes. And such volumes have been produced for Kommos, recording the finds and making the evidence from the site available to specialists. Kommos: A Minoan Harbor Town and Greek Sanctuary is an attempt to reach a popular audience. Some scholars are able to put pen to paper with great effect, writing classic works, such as The Bog People by P.V. Glob and In Small Things Forgotten by James Deetz. This book, focused on a single site, doesn't fall into that kind of popular synthesis but it has something of the feel of those works, clear writing combining both authority and enthusiasm for the subject. To this it adds, once the site guide is dispensed with, a personal touch that makes it enjoyable to read. Too few excavators attempt this kind of work and Shaw is to be congratulated for his effort.

Mark Rose is executive and online editor of ARCHAEOLOGY.

* Joseph Shaw and his wife Maria C. Shaw, are the 2006 recipients of the Gold Medal Award for Distinguished Archaeological Achievement, presented by the Archaeological Institute of America.

© 2006 by the Archaeological Institute of America