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House of Names

Today, Simon and Schuster released Colm Toibin's latest novel, House of Names, about Clytemnestra and the murder of Agamemnon.  Anybody who knows me knows I've had this on pre-order since I heard about it months ago.  Because I live on the West Coast, I received my copy at midnight Eastern Daylight Time, and managed to finish it around 3 a.m.

Did I enjoy it? I'm not sure.  Toibin writes beautifully, but the story left me wanting.  There's a cool detachment about the prose.  Clytemnestra's sections are among the book's most effective.  Who can't sympathize with a mother whose plan to save her daughter from being sacrificed fails, and then spends three whole days being held underground with no food, water, or room to move--basically, being buried alive?  Who wouldn't want revenge?  She allies herself with Aegisthus, a powerful political prisoner, whose web of connections and malice run deeper than even she knows.

Orestes and Electra each have sections of the book.  Toibin starts to paint a vivid picture of Electra, but doesn't go far enough.  And his Orestes.  I enjoyed Orestes' first section, in which he's quickly forced to go from spoiled nine-year-old prince to prisoner to a five-year-stint in a remote place with his friends Mitros and Leander.  Leander is the not-Pylades of the novel, in that he fulfills the Pylades role of older friend, mentor, and, briefly, lover, but ends up usurping Orestes' male authority.  Perhaps that's what bothered me the most about the novel, aside from the abrupt and unsatisfying end.  Orestes doesn't take the insane route, rather the Hamlet-esque role of male impotence.  His motivation to kill Clytemnestra doesn't come from any innate rage but from some rather effortless and brief cajoling on Electra's part.  I would have liked for once to see a larger-than-life, dominant, enraged Orestes taking revenge and his birthright.  Yet since this is Clytemnestra's story, she gets the strongest emotions.

For a novel entitled House of Names, there are relatively few names in the text.  Toibin names his main characters, but you have to know the story to know that the palace is in a place called Mycenae, or that "the war" is the Trojan War.  We're not told where the old woman's house is, but from the geographical clues I would guess somewhere around the Isthmus of Corinth.  The gods remain distant, nameless, invoked by some but not entirely believed in.  It's a mythic world the characters inhabit, somewhere just outside time and place, and I wish there had been more.
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Dolphins You Can Color

Where is that third and final installment of Minoan Pottery, you ask? I'm working on it, slowly.  It's just that I've been busy.

This weekend I had a chance to do some drawing, so I sketched and inked an image of Minoan dolphins that you could color, if you so desired.  Those rosettes continue to confound me, no matter how much I try.  I'd love to do a Minoan-themed coloring book one day, but first I have to figure out how to do it, and second, my drawing has to get a LOT better.  It would be something to get out there while my endless writer's block continues to thwart me.

dolphins (2)
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Writing A Historical Knossos II: Middle Minoan Pottery

Here comes another installment of Minoan pottery types.  Now, I mentioned earlier that I did a lot of research for Knossos.  Among the generous replies from archaeologists like Dr. Colin Macdonald from the Athens School and Dr. Alexander MacGillivray, I sometimes managed to get information from graduate students (henceforth referred to as GS) in Aegean studies.  Our conversations often went like this:

Me: So the people living/working in the Old Palace period at Knossos would have used these cups, right?
GS: Yes, yes.
Me: Thanks. Can I give you a shout out in the book acknowledgments?

Okay, well. I respected his/her/its wishes, but Knossos turned out to be a good book, so he/she/it had nothing to worry about.  Onto the pottery.

The Middle Minoan period saw the introduction of the potter's wheel, the construction of the first palaces, and the spread of Minoan pottery to other parts of the Aegean.  This is when Minoan pottery really gets Minoan.

Middle Minoan IA (2160-1900)

This is the Prepalatial Period at places like Knossos.  Peak sanctuaries like Mount Juktas were at their height during this period, and the first written inscriptions, on seals, date from this time.  Pithoi begin to appear, and, as far as archaeology tells us, Minoan pottery starts to be exported to the Peloponnese.

Spirals and whorls had started appearing on Minoan pots in Early Minoan III (2300-2160), but now with the potter's wheel potters could turn out some very fine pieces, including:

Kamares (MM IA) is named for the cave site where some of the first specimens of this delicate, eggshell pottery were discovered.  This is the first, great, polychrome ware, decorated in red/brown/orange, white, and blue/purple on a black background.  Favorite motifs were abstract floral designs and spirals.  Because they were so delicate, and the quality of the clay much finer than previously used, Kamares vessels were a kind of prestige ware used by the elite; they were used in the first palaces of the Protopalatial Period (1900-1700 B.C.)

Middle Minoan II (1800-1700 B.C.)

In MM II, Minoan pottery becomes more widespread in the Aegean; it is found in the Cyclades, as well as Egypt and the Levant.

Middle Minoan III A and B (1700-1600 B.C.)

Keep in mind that earlier pottery styles like Kamares continued to be used; the Minoans didn't suddenly stop using older wares on January 1, 1800 B.C.  In fact, Kamares evolved into styles like Patterned and Floral Ware, which was less abstract and took inspiration directly from nature.  This is the Neopalatial Period, when all over Crete sites like Knossos and Phaistos were rebuilt following an island-wide destruction (probably an earthquake) severely damaged the Protopalatial sites.

Patterned Ware (MM III A and B) is an evolution from Kamares, in which we begin to see more realistic natural forms like lilies, palms, and papyrus.  This type of pottery further evolved into the Floral Style, whose motifs also appear in frescoes from the period; the Neopalatial saw the first Minoan-type frescoes.  There isn't much to distinguish these two pottery types, so I've lumped them together.


Next time: the Late Minoan and Minoan-Mycenaean periods, the Marine Style, and the Age of Effloresence.
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Writing A Historical Knossos II: Early Minoan Pottery

One item I left off the list from my initial "Writing A Historical Knossos" post of two weeks ago is pottery.  That's because pottery is such a hugely important and complicated subject that it needs its own post--indeed, it's so complex that I will have to give the subject three separate posts.

Why am I writing these posts? Lately, I've been seeing a lot of bad writing about the Minoans.  Now I don't claim to be an outstanding writer, but I did spend a lot of time doing the research for Knossos and thought maybe sharing what I learned during the process might help somebody who would otherwise find the prospect too daunting.

Pottery, of course, is one of the ways in which archaeologists determine the dating of a site and establish a chronology.  Sir Arthur Evans established the basic Minoan chronology a century ago.  The main categories--Early, Middle, and Late Minoan--each have numerous subcatergories, which sometimes have additional subcategories.  I'm not a formal student of Aegean archaeology, so it's beyond my ability to get that detailed or technical, but I will cover the basics which any writer tackling this period should know:

Final Neolithic/Early Minoan I (3650-3000 B.C.)

What you ought to know about the whole Early Minoan period is that potters didn't use wheels; potter's wheels were invented in the Levant and made their way to Crete around the time the first palaces were erected.  Pots, cups, plates, and jugs were made by hand using the pinch pot method.  Here are the major types:

Pyrgos (EM I) is a patterned, burnished ware that's black, gray, or brown in color.  It was typically decorated with incised linear designs, possibly in an attempt to imitate wood.  Keep in mind that these early Minoans would have had wooden vessels, too, that haven't survived.


Incised/Scored Ware (EM I) features round-bottomed, dark jugs and bulbous cups and jars.  This style originated in north and northeastern Crete.  Its incised lines were more elaborate than Pyrgos ware, with vertical, horizontal, and herringbone patterns.

Early Minoan II (2900-2300 B.C.)

Potters start using colors on their ware beginning in EM II.

Koumasa (EM II) features geometric, slip-painted designs carried on from a south-central/northern Crete ware called Ayios Onouphrios Ware.  Koumasa is identified by its red or black designs on a white background.
beak spouted jug from southern crete, EMI 2600-2300 bce

Vasiliki (EM IIA-B) is named for the site where this ware was found.  Vasiliki Ware is characterized by the intentional mottling of its surface through the careful application of hot coals during the firing process and its elongated, elegant spouts.  This style could have been influenced by the use of similarly mottled stone cups in use during this period.


Early Minoan III (2300-2160 B.C.)

This period's pottery sees the introduction of checkered motifs, rosettes, spirals, and footed goblets.

In the next installment on the Middle Minoan period, we'll see the first wheel-thrown and polychrome vessels, the first pithoi, and the emergence of the Kamares and Floral Wares that accompany the rise of the Proto-palatial centers of Knossos and Phaistos.
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The Bees of Malia

In 1915, archaeologists began digging at a site 45 km east of Heraklion and Knossos.  What they uncovered was the palace site of Malia, the third-largest in Crete after Knossos and Phaistos.

Unlike Knossos and Phaistos, Malia's ancient name isn't known.  Its Old Palace was built between 1900-1800 B.C. and destroyed 1700 B.C., and its New Palace went up circa 1600 B.C. and was destroyed around 1450 B.C.--in short, following the patterns of building, destruction, rebirth, and destruction that befell its larger counterparts.

Malia has yielded a variety of rich artifacts, some of the most splendid from the Old Palace-era cemetery nearby, called Chrysolakkos ("pit of gold") for the splendid objects farmers sometimes discovered there.  Of these, the most famous is the Malia Bee Pendant, which depicts two honeybees or possibly wasps storing honey in a comb.

The Bee Pendant, for which there are many reproductions you can buy and wear, features fine granulation; you can see the same technique on another bee pendant below.  I've often wondered if the circular drops held pearls.

Bees were sacred in Crete and in the Near East, and the Minoans kept beehives.  There was even, as some believe, a Minoan bee goddess named Melit, Melitta, or Melissa, though none of these names has ever been found on a list of Minoan deities.  If she existed, she was probably a minor aspect of some other goddess. 
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The Harvester Vase?

Among the most famous of Minoan artifacts is a steatite vase, a ritual libation vessel known as a rhyton, called the Harvester Vase.  It was discovered in the royal villa at Hagia Triada, near Phaistos, in the south of Crete, and dates to 1500-1450 B.C.  Yet only two pieces of the original have been preserved: the neck and the upper body; the lower half has been replaced with black plaster to give observers a sense of the completed vase.

Most describe the scene depicted on the vase as a harvest sowing procession, with sowers, priests, and singers celebrating the earth's agricultural bounty.  However, there are some who interpret the scene as a military procession, with sailors, singers, and a commander in a scaled cuirass coming home from a successful raid; their "agricultural" hooks and winnowing rakes in this case were used to secure enemy ships during a maritime raid/boarding.  Hence, the question mark above.

The basis of the argument is that the hooks and rakes as shown are too flimsy for actual agricultural work, and that the men are really, really muscular, better suited to being soldiers than farmers.

I have to argue here that the adherents of this idea are very few, that the bottom of the vase which might have provided more information about the scene is missing, and that, hey, artistic license.  For example, if I with my less-than-stellar sketching skills draw someone shooting a bow, I may not get the archer's stance or the details of the bow and quiver quite right--but you would know at first glance that the figure was an archer.  The Minoans themselves would have understood the context of the scene, and probably wouldn't have quibbled about how sturdy the implements being portrayed actually were.  They could think symbolically, whereas we in the modern world with our camera phones and digital cameras and whatnot expect realistic images; our minds don't engage as much with the abstract as in earlier times.  I see the vase scene as depicting the exuberence of a successful harvest, with men coming back from the fields rejoicing.

But where are the women, you might ask.  Women helped with sowing and reaping right alongside the men, so why aren't they depicted on the vase?  Because the Harvester Vase is a libation vessel, it might be associated with men-only rituals.

Here, an artist has interpreted the scene on the vase as taking place in the courtyard of Knossos; that's the Tripartite Shrine in the background, and the farm tools have been replaced by sheaves of wheat.  If anything, this particular procession would have taken place at Hagia Triada or Phaistos--but that's me expecting absolute realism.

Minoan procession at the Temple at Knossos
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Writing A Historical Knossos

Knossos is both a mythical and a real place.  You can do anything you like with the fantasy Labyrinth and its mythological denizens without apprehension; no one will call you out for inaccuracy.

Knossos the real site, however, is more complicated.  Want to write a historical novel with attention to the utmost accuracy?  Here comes the bullet list.

  1. The Tell.  Knossos occupies a tell site called Kefala Hill.  A tell is comprised of successive occupation layers going back thousands of years.  The earliest evidence of occupation dates to 6300-6100 B.C., the latest to 1200 B.C., when the site was abandoned.  During the Minoan period, terraces were built, maintained, and reinforced to support the weight of the temple complex.

  2. Inland.  Many writers place Knossos by the sea, probably due to a bit in the Theseus myth where Theseus dives after and retrieves a ring Minos tosses into the sea.  Actually, Knossos is six miles inland.  Today it's a suburb of Herakleion, from which it's a short bus ride to tour the site, but in Minoan times it was served by two seaports, Katsamba and Amnissos.  There's not much to see of Katsamba because it lies partially under the local airport, but you can visit Amnissos, where archaeologists have found some lovely artifacts and frescoes. 

  3. The Palace of Minos.  The idea that Knossos was a royal residence comes from Sir Arthur Evans, who, like Heinrich Schliemann, gave evocative names to the areas he excavated.  A hundred years on, however, we have a different understanding of Knossos.  It functioned more as a temple/administrative site than a residence.  Did anyone live there?  Probably.  We don't have the upper stories, after all, and I can see there being dormitories for some, but most of its staff would have lived in the town surrounding the temple complex.  Want a well-documented parallel to Knossos for a better idea of how the temple complex system worked?  Look at the temple of Karnak in Egypt.  In addition to its religious sanctuaries, Karnak had administrative offices for various officials, workshops, and storehouses. 

  4. The Labyrinth. So Minos hires Daedalus to build the Labyrinth.  Here's the question: which Labyrinth? Notice that I'm capitalizing "Labyrinth."  That's because it's original, Greek meaning is "Place of the Double Axe."  If you visit Knossos, you'll see the stylized "horns of consecration" everywhere.  If you visit the archaeological museum in Herakleion, you'll see depictions of the ceremonial double axe, which is called a labrys.  There are at least three or four phases to the Minoan occupation of Knossos; the first, or Prepalatial Period, lasted from 1900 to 1700 B.C.  Yet much of the splendor we associate with Knossos comes from later periods; frescoes were not part of the original decoration.  So again: which Labyrinth do you want to write about?

  5. Daedalus. There's a Linear B tablet from circa 1380 B.C. which refers to the "Daidalion," the "structure of Daidalos" or the "structure that Daidalos built."  People in the 14th century B.C. certainly knew of someone called Daidalos or Daedalus who was associated with the Knossos temple, but who he was remains a mystery.

  6. Infrastructure.  Knossos had drains and light-wells to provide drainage and to circulate light/air, respectively.  Pier-and-partition doors allowed chambers to be shut against the cold in winter, and opened for light/air, and for ritual uses; these types of doors still exist in Crete today.  Chambers were small and dark, and lit by oil lamps which don't provide a lot of illumination.  Excavation has turned up a ground-floor bathtub or two, and evidence of privies; these tubs might be evidence of ritual activity rather than occupation.  In places, the temple complex rose four or five stories, and a conservative estimate gives Knossos about 3,000 rooms.  Some were sealed off at various periods, usually after a natural disaster, and not used again.  Yet to the Mycenaeans, who took over Crete circa 1450 B.C., the place must have seemed a maze, hence the shift in the meaning of the term "Labyrinth."

  7. The Mycenaeans.  It has long been thought that the Mycenaeans invaded Crete and subdued the Minoans.  Recently, though, this model has undergone some revision.  The Mycenaeans might traded with and even lived among the Minoans, becoming part-Minoan themselves; the so-called "conquest" might have been a more peaceful transition than previously thought.  So the old trope of Greek men/sky gods/evil rapists/killers versus Minoan priestess-queens/mother goddesses/good nurturers is just that, a trope that should be retired.

I think that's a good list for now.  No doubt I've forgotten something.  I still intend to write about Knossos again, but the problems in doing so--aside from my chronic writer's block--I'll leave for another post.
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La Parisienne

The famous La Parisienne fresco fragment is part of the larger Campstool Fresco series found in the western part of the Knossos complex, in what might have been an area for common dining or ritual feasting.

Another example of recreating a fresco based on very few surviving fragments.

La Parisienne has distinctive white skin, painted lips, and coiffed hair that led that would have been right at home in turn-of-the-century Paris, thus her label.  The sacral knot at the nape of her neck indicates she is either a goddess or priestess.

What also strikes me about La Parisienne is her nose. In profile, she has quite a honker.  She doesn't have that typical Minoan profile with the more gently curved nose you see, for example, in the Saffron Goddess or other frescoes of Minoan women.  And with the women who people the Minoan frescoes, I always suspect that the artist is drawing on the faces of real individuals, so La Parisienne could have been an actual woman who lived over 3,000 years ago.

I'd relegated this observation to the back of my mind until last night when, watching FX's new series Taboo, I saw that same nose on actress Oona Chaplin.

Oona's quite lovely and distinctive, and I suspect she resembles La Parisienne.  She also reminds me of digital reconstructions of Cleopatra VII from the coinage.  Cleopatra has a rather unflattering profile, but from the front she has pleasing features.  La Parisienne might have looked like her, also.

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Snowfall in Knossos

Crete in the southern Aegean generally isn't a place you'd associate with ice or snow, except in the highest places such as Mounts Dikte and Ida, but lo and behold, just last week I came across this recent photo from lowland Knossos:

Richard Vallance and other archaeological-minded individuals whom I follow on Twitter, and who have spent time on Crete, have assured me that the image has not been photoshopped, that it IS snowing at Knossos, and that this phenomenon happens very rarely.

This isn't the first year in recent memory that snow has fallen in the Aegean and eastern Mediterranean.  Snow fell on the pyramids of Giza last year, and in Jerusalem.  We attribute it to climate change, whether man-made or no.  Knossos may very well see more snow in the coming years.

Of course, that got me to thinking about the Minoans.  It's certainly odd to imagine the sun-loving Minoans dealing with snow, but as the Minoan period lasted from about 3000 B.C. to 1450 B.C. when the Mycenaeans took over Crete, snow must have fallen on the lower elevations at some point back then.  Global temperatures would have dropped worldwide after the massive Thera eruption, much more powerful than the 1815 Tambora eruption that caused the infamous Year Without A Summer.  And there was climate change at the end of the Bronze Age, around 1200-1100 B.C.  There were periods of drought, which we know about from tree-ring and ice-core samples, and from Hittite, Egyptian, and other, contemporary sources.

So for those of you readers and budding authors who still insist that Minoan women went around bare-breasted year-round, here's some serious food for thought.  Weather is a thing that happens.

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Three Ladies With No Heads

I've posted about the Ladies In Blue fresco before, back when I did a watercolor reproduction of the trio.


In researching the Saffron Goddess and Tiryns Double-S frescoes, I learned something intriguing about the Ladies In Blue that I'm surprised and a bit embarrassed that I hadn't noticed before.

Nothing of the Ladies' heads survives.

That's right.  Look at the patches of original fresco material.  You may even have to find a larger image of the fresco if you can't click on the one above and blow it up.  Not a single piece comes from any of the three Ladies' heads.  We know that there are three ladies, we know how they're oriented, and how they're dressed.  We even have an idea of part of the hairstyle from a surviving piece of the shoulder tress, but the rest of it--the elaborately coiffed hairdos with the pearls, the bandeaux, and the pin curls--that comes from the conjecture of Sir Arthur Evans and the Gillierons.

The faces, hairdos, and other, added details came from comparable works discovered elsewhere at Knossos.  The three faces come from the male figures of the Cupbearer Fresco; it's difficult to tell because of the color difference, with the males being rendered in reddish-brown, the ladies in chalk white.

It was for this sort of thing and other, worse infractions such as outright forgery that gave Evans and the Gillierons the dubious reputation they now have in the archaeological community.  Evans shaped the popular perception of the Minoans in a way that reflected his own sentiments, and that we still haven't been able to fully shake off.  The original Ladies In Blue fresco as painted by its ancient Minoan artist might very well have looked just like the "reconstituted" view of them, but we can't say for sure.