From Static Data to Dynamic Processes

New Perspectives on Minoan Architecture and Urbanism

5-7 January 2015

University of Toronto

Toronto (Canada)

The workshop is co-organized by Pr. Carl Knappett (Department of Art, University of Toronto) and Dr. Quentin Letesson (Department of Art, University of Toronto & Département d’archéologie et d’histoire de l’art, Université Catholique de Louvain).


This international workshop brings together specialists of Cretan Bronze Age architecture and urbanism with scholars from outside the field of Minoan archaeology to critically assess the current state of research, stimulate fruitful cross-disciplinary approaches, and outline promising agendas for future research. Since Sir Arthur Evans’ excavations at Knossos at the dawn of the 20th century (Evans 1921-1935), Minoan Crete (c. 3100-1200 BCE) displays one of the most idiosyncratic and distinctive built environments of the ancient world (McEnroe 2010; Papadopoulos 2011). Consequently, Cretan Bronze Age architecture and urbanism have attracted a lot of scholarly attention. Although this long tradition of studies of the Minoan built environment clearly laid solid bases, ongoing excavations and new field projects provide us with a tremendous amount of new data. Simultaneously, new interpretive frameworks for examining the socio-political organization of Bronze Age Crete are opening up (Driessen et al. 2002; Hamilakis 2002; Schoep et al. 2012), while theoretical and computational approaches to ancient space, adapted from the fields of urban studies, geography, and complexity science, are gaining ground (Bevan and Lake 2013; Knappett et al. 2011; Letesson 2013; Paliou et al. 2014). A forum to allow the sharing of recent results and new methods is therefore particularly timely. Ongoing research on architectural configuration (Hillier 1996) and the current emergence of a new science of cities (Batty 2013; Bettencourt 2013) indeed invite us to go beyond static descriptions of our data, and to generate a more dynamic understanding of Minoan buildings and urban environments in terms of flows of people, matter, energy, and information.


Monday 5th January

9:00 [INTRODUCTION] Quentin Letesson and Carl Knappett

Minoan built environment: recent perspectives, future challenges

9:45 Todd Whitelaw (University College London)

Minoan urbanism as a dynamic process: context, structure and change

10:30 Coffee

11:00 Joseph Shaw (University of Toronto)

The Middle Minoan Slipway for Ships at the Kommos Harbor, and Harbor Development in Prehistoric Crete

11:45 Matthew Buell (Trent University) and John McEnroe (Hamilton College)

Community Building/Building Community at Gournia

12:30 Discussion

1:00 Lunch

2:30 Tim Cunningham (Université catholique de Louvain)

Best Laid Plans: An Archaeology of Architectural Errors in Bronze Age Crete

3:15 Jan Driessen (Université catholique de Louvain)

‘The House of the Mother as Fact and Symbol’. Understanding in-House Minoan relationships.

4:00 Coffee

4:45 [KEYNOTE] Michael E. Smith (Arizona State University)

Minoan cities in the context of comparative urbanism

5:30 General discussion

Tuesday 6th January

9:00 Maud Devolder (Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin)

Architectural Energetics and Cretan Bronze Age Architecture. Measuring the Scale of Minoan Building Projects

9:45 Clairy Palyvou (Aristotle University of Thessaloniki)

Group Design Formations in the Minoan Era

10:30 Coffee

11:00 Andrew Bevan (University College London)

Computational models of settlement and their relevance to Bronze Age Crete

11:45 Eleftheria Paliou (University of Heidelberg)

Spatial interactions and socio-political change before the first palace of Phaistos: modelling the evolution of regional settlement hierarchies in South-Central Crete

12:30 Discussion

1:00 Lunch

2:30 Louise Hitchcock (University of Melbourne)

Lost in Translation: Urbanism in Mycenaean Crete at the end of the Bronze Age: A View from the East

3:15 Rodney Fitzsimons (Trent University)

Taking a Seat at the Minoan Banquet: An Architectural Approach to the Minoanisation of the Aegean Islands

4:00 Coffee

4:45 Final Discussion

Overall Goal & Objectives[1]

For more than a century now, the archaeology of the built environment of Bronze Age Crete has thrived: many excavations initiated at the beginning of the 20th century have either continued or been revived, providing detailed descriptions of numerous settlements of various sizes; new projects have unearthed fascinating buildings; and many regions of the island have now been systematically surveyed. As a consequence, Minoan archaeologists have at their disposal an impressive and ever-expanding dataset. Of course, this wealth of information has produced a broad range of studies and invaluable syntheses. Nevertheless, although it is now clear that during the Minoan period (ca. 3100-1200 BCE), the island of Crete was characterized by a very distinctive architectural landscape (McEnroe 2010) and saw the development of the first urban settlements of Bronze Age Europe (Whitelaw 2001; 2011), our understanding of these phenomena has long been hampered by rather static approaches. Indeed, for decades, studies in Minoan architecture and urbanism were mostly concerned with materials and techniques (Shaw 2009), basic formal descriptions and functional evaluations (Hägg and Marinatos 1987; Hägg 1997).

In recent years though, many Minoan scholars began adopting innovative approaches in their architectural or urban studies (Bevan 2010; Bevan and Wilson 2013; Cunningham 2001; 2007; Devolder 2013; Driessen 2001; Knappett 2009; Letesson 2013; 2014; Palyvou 2009; Shaw 2011; Whitelaw 2001; 2011). First, new excavations and intensive surveys allowed detailed regional approaches, often undermining a monolithic narrative that was unilaterally applied throughout the island. Second, these fine-grained analyses were often strengthened by a diachronic focus, with distinct developmental stages of the built environment carefully identified. Third, the multi-scalar nature of the built environment was more systematically explored, with scholars seeking to articulate the micro-scale of individual buildings (households) with the meso-scale of settlement (communities) and the macro-scale of island-wide spatial organizations (polities). Finally, many of these studies were also characterized by the adoption of analytical tools and methods, often borrowed from other disciplines such as urban studies and complexity science.

These advances have clearly helped improve our understanding of various aspects of Minoan built environments. Nevertheless, they have usually been confined to a limited number of sites and explored by a handful of researchers remaining relatively isolated from one another. It is surprising that, for more than a decade, no formal event has fostered a pooling of these new studies and methodologies and a critical assessment of the new research perspectives they open up. Our workshop seeks to remedy this situation by bringing together advocates of diverse approaches, to explore how they can be integrated more effectively and applied to a wider range of evidence. More fundamentally, the workshop also aims to build connections with architectural and urban studies beyond Minoan archaeology and across disciplinary boundaries. Our argument is that to make the most out of the promising on-going research on the Minoan built environment we need to pay closer attention to recent advances in the science of cities, and to resolutely envision buildings and urban environments as inherently dynamic processes. For years, the active potential of architectural space has been demonstrated, whether focused on patterns of movements and interactions materialized in its configuration (e.g. Hillier 1996), or on the phenomenological and cognitive dimensions of its recursive interplay with human beings (e.g. Leatherbarrow 2008). The study of urban environments, though, is now characterized by extremely innovative approaches, mostly fueled by the contribution of complexity science (Lane et al. 2009; Batty 2013; Bettencourt 2013). Although some of its core ideas emerged as early as the end of the 1980’s and early 90’s (e.g. Castells 1989; Batty and Longley 1994; see also van der Leeuw and McGlade 1997 for an early application in archaeology), this new view of cities is made possible today by increasing opportunities to collect and share a wide range of data on various aspects of city life (such as land use, urban infrastructure, and rates of socioeconomic activity). Mobilizing these tremendously large sets of data allows specialists to go beyond formal descriptions of spaces and places, and “expose locations as patterns of interactions acting as the glue that holds populations together through flows of material, people, and information” (Batty 2013: 8). Studies of urban scaling have been particularly successful, with the evolution in a city’s size now known to have a direct correlation with many characteristics such as the number of patents it produces to the total length of its roads or the number of social interactions its inhabitants enjoy (Bettencourt 2013). The success of a city can then be understood as the right balance between large and dense social webs and extensive and cost-effective infrastructures. In other words, interactions and flows can grow – and a city be productive and prosper – only if the social, spatial and infrastructural networks that enable people, things and information to meet across the urban space are adapted to the extent of the city in question. This perspective indeed conveys a more dynamic understanding of cities; one could almost say an urban agency. As Bettencourt (2013) puts it, cities are “social reactors”: they attract people and accelerate social interaction and outputs.

But how exactly could this help us to understand ancient built environments and Minoan architecture and urbanism more specifically? By creating a sense of buildings and cities doing something (i.e. working, operating, and functioning), this perspective is actually a very powerful heuristic device: it invites us to mobilize our relatively static data (i.e. remains of buildings and settlements) into a more dynamic framework. We argue that, in archaeology, thinking of the active potential of architectural configuration and of flows and networks in an urban environment can be both exploratory and explanatory. In such a perspective, the first step is, of course, to collect as much data as possible but, more fundamentally, to present and analyze such data in ways that enable us to think of buildings and urban environments as dynamic processes. Often, built environments have been partially recorded, and data collection varies from extremely detailed at some sites to almost nonexistent for the large-scale early excavations of the beginning of the 20th century. This meeting will therefore allow us to explore what sort of evidence can most effectively be documented in similar ways, or can be salvaged from older excavations to allow comparisons. Of course, various valuable interpretations and insights on the specificities and development of built environments have been made. Nevertheless, at the junction between data collection and interpretation, that is to say at the intermediate stage of data processing or description, there is much room for improvement. Therefore, the core concern of this meeting is to foster the adoption of a systematic and detailed analysis of architectural as well as urban morphology, a research agenda recently championed by Michael E. Smith, our keynote speaker and principal discussant, in an influential series of papers on the forms of ancient cities. Smith has recently demonstrated that the streets, buildings and open spaces that constitute ancient urban environments can be analyzed in a systematic fashion (Smith 2007; 2011; forthcoming), that particular forms of spatial organization recurrent in urban fabrics such as blocks and quarters can provide invaluable information on neighborhoods and districts, their socio-economic and political counterparts (Smith 2010a), but also, together with the pioneering work of Fletcher (1995), that issues of urban density and growth can be inferred from the archaeological record (Smith 2010b).

Combined with ongoing studies of the Minoan built environment, a critical assessment of our current datasets and a deep commitment to the description of architectural and urban morphologies would allow us to raise new questions but also to re-consider recurrent issues in novel ways. Where architecture is concerned, is there a place for a renewed typological approach? How can we successfully address issues of models and variations? Can we devise a research program to encompass both polite and vernacular architecture? How can we explain and approach settlement growth? Can general patterns and principles of Minoan urban planning be identified? And, if so, how do they differ from or recall contemporary urban features from the Mediterranean or the Near East? How can we develop an integrated approach to settlement distribution and hierarchy? How can we simultaneously deal with the micro-scale of buildings and the meso-scale of towns? We believe that by considering buildings and towns as processes rather than products – for example, by focusing on the ways in which buildings, streets, and open spaces create opportunities for movement, occupation and interaction between people or by analyzing how the progressive development of urban infrastructures might have contributed to trigger and ultimately sustained particular dynamics (innovative behaviors, competitive emulation, increased flow in the exchange of goods) – that we can more satisfactorily address crucial issues of socio-political organization across time and space. As stated in a recent collaborative manifesto (Kintigh et al. 2014), understanding the transformation of small-scale human communities into spatially and demographically larger and politically more complex entities is among the “grand challenges for archaeology” – and it is certainly a central concern of our workshop.

As rich as our dataset is, it remains almost totally underexploited beyond the disciplinary boundaries of Aegean archaeology. In recent years though, many scholars have been at pains to underline the importance of comparative studies of ancient cities for research on modern urban issues (Smith 2010a; 2010b; York et al. 2010). By promoting an analytical and dynamic perspective, the workshop therefore aims at aligning studies of the Minoan built environment with ongoing analyses of the urban phenomenon over thousands of years across many parts of the globe (Marcus and Sabloff 2008). As advocated by Smith (2012), only this approach can allow us to make sense of the high variability of towns and cities throughout the ages and provide a long-term and world-wide perspective on the urban phenomenon that may well help scholars and policy-makers to understand issues relating to modern cities and environmental changes.

[1] We would like to express our gratitude to Todd Whitelaw for his insightful suggestions. Of course, any errors are entirely our own