W.P. 2: Collapse from the ground up: A Cretan View


The Island of Crete, set in the middle of the East Mediterranean between the Aegean basin and the cultural spheres of Cyprus, Egypt and the Levant, is important both as a bellwether or harbinger of change, as well as an early warning site for trouble coming from farther west. While the 13th century on Crete has received some scholarly attention, it has not been considered in its full chronological and international context as a contributing step or stage in a process that culminates in the 12th c. B.C. troubles further east.

Crete is also rich in archaeological data both traditional (e.g. material culture, architecture, settlement patterns) and modern (palaeo-climatic and environmental) and a standard of scholarship that is both theoretically (e.g. systems collapse, actor/network theory, social organisation, state formation) and methodologically (e.g. GIS, modern excavation/survey techniques and protocols) robust. The island has been intensively explored and comparatively well-published. Furthermore its selection plays to the strengths of the UCL team, which comprises experts in Bronze Age Cretan environmental studies, settlement patterns, social organisation, architecture and ceramics, along with three active excavations. Work Package 2 then forms the bulk of the archaeological investigations of the project. In essence, the work package consists of three inter-related themes: context, comprising environmental conditions, settlement patterns and social organisation; materials, comprising studies of architecture and ceramics; and case studies, presenting integrated analyses of three sites on Crete.


Although 13th c. B.C. climatic deterioration and increased tectonic activity have been documented throughout the Eastern Mediterranean, records of these large-scale phenomena remain under-represented on Crete (Drake 2012). As a result, the effects of environmental changes on its Late Bronze Age society remain poorly understood. Moreover, while earthquakes have been repeatedly invoked as potential mechanisms leading to the destruction and abandonment of archaeological sites, this has been without any systematic examination of available archaeological and geological information, nor have the effects of earthquakes been disentangled from alternative explanations (war/looting, abandonment, ground instability) resulting from other (though potentially interrelated) phenomena (e.g. migrations, invasions, climate change).

Secondly, the establishment of ‘refuge settlements’ on easily defended summits seems to have followed the destruction and/or abandonment of numerous occupation sites during the second half of the 13th c. B.C. on the island. This has been interpreted as strong evidence for a threat coming from the sea: terrified by raiders devastating the coasts, the Cretans retreated to the mountains for security at the expense of convenience (e.g. distance to water resources and agricultural lands). This model suffers from methodological weaknesses, however, focussing on a few type sites and a limited time horizon and thereby failing to properly account for other sites that remained occupied or were newly established along the coast, in plains and on low hills. Within the sites that survived the destruction of the Palace of Knossos and the disappearance of a centrally administered state at the end of the LM IIIA2 period, a new communal organization seems to have emerged, most likely based on kinship. This is suggested by the construction of a series of building complexes of a scale and with a range of functions exceeding the frame of the nuclear family. These sometimes include spacious and monumental halls and open-air areas allowing the gathering of larger numbers of people. Rooms devoted to medium scale storage and various industrial activities were also identified. These buildings also show evidence for the emergence of new rituals and cultic practices, perhaps also following the end of a state-imposed religion. Small shrines incorporated in communal buildings appear with evidence for a new religious syncretism combining traditional local characteristics and external influences.

Materials: Buildings and settlements of the Late Minoan IIIB period or 13th c. B.C. are often considered as bleak and utilitarian remnants of the architectural grandeur of previous times, characterized by the concomitant permanence of traditional vernacular forms and the development of layouts strongly influenced by mainland (i.e. Mycenaean) architecture. However, the processes responsible for this evolution have rarely been considered, especially with regard to the 13th c. B.C. As architecture tends to be the cultural product least prone to radical change it is necessary to consider its evolution in a broader chronological framework. Therefore, a series of analyses will be applied on the architectural landscape from the LM II period onwards, and parallels drawn with earlier catastrophic events and their architectural repercussions (e.g. the Theran eruption and its consequences on LM IB architecture). Through the application of space syntax and cost analysis, the organizational principles and socio-economic actualities of the 13th century architecture on Crete will be examined and correlated to issues of socio-political structures and changes.

The period following the destruction of the Knossian palace and its hegemony in LM IIIA2 sees the resurgence of newly independent power centers in Crete and the intensification of commercial and cultural exchanges in the Central and Eastern Mediterranean. This regionalism and internationalism are well documented by the ceramic assemblages of the time. A detailed analysis of ceramic production will provide the chronological backbone for the articulation of new data. A finer diachronic and regional definition of Cretan society during the 13th c. seen through the prism of its production, exchange, and consumption of pottery will enable the comprehensive distinction of concomitant phenomena: long-term indigenous developments, pan-Aegean increasing syncretism and brutal local responses to unexpected external intrusions. Against this framework, the presence of non-local material culture needs to be re-evaluated.

Case Studies: Although the island of Crete in general is studied in this WP, we will engage in data collection at the three active excavations where members of the Aegis research group are working: Malia and Sissi at the centre or core of the island and the other, Palaikastro, at the far eastern tip or periphery. These case studies will provide data for, and draw results from, the specialist studies. Sissi and Malia are located at short distances from each other on the north-central coast of the island, a location which makes them especially open to maritime contact. Both sites illustrate a long term occupation with obvious Knossian influences during their earlier 15th and 14th c. history and an increase of their regional character during the 13th c. when the palace at Knossos is destroyed. Their proximity but topographical differences allow for subtle differentiation at the local level. Palaikastro lies at the far eastern end of the island of Crete. In the 14th c. B.C. it was the main centre for that region of the island. By the beginning of the 13th c. B.C. the town had been largely abandoned and, after a minor earthquake, left in ruins. During the subsequent period (LM IIIB) there are only sporadic instances of habitation on the coast – circumscribed pockets of settlement, short lived and decidedly non-local, with distinctive ‘drinking kits’ and other cultural markers. What caused the original inhabitants to leave the area and where did they go? Who were the transient ‘arrivistes’ that followed?


  • Reconstruct palaeo-climate and environmental conditions and transformations on 13th B.C. Crete;
  • Reconstruct settlement and land-use patterns;
  • Identify the prevailing social models operational on the island;
  • Characterize LM IIIB Crete in social, cultural and ethnic terms;
  • Identify architectural responses to crisis diachronically;
  • Examine ceramic changes as reflections of socio-political and economic transformation of Cretan society during the LM IIIB period;
  • Identify, contextualize and explain non-local material culture on the island;
  • Fine-tune local developments on the basis of active data-collection operations, two in the centre of the island, at Sissi and Malia, one in the far east, at Palaikastro.


  • Obtain and analyse high-resolution palaeo-environmental records (fluvial and coastal sedimentary successions) through a combination of sedimentary facies analyses, radiocarbon dating and palaeo-ecological studies (in collaboration with Dr. D. Kaniewski, UToulouse, and Dr. Maria Triantaphyllou, UAthens) to reconstruct the palaeo-climate.
  • Update the data-base of archaeological sites (all categories) of the 13th c. by using a series of geo-informatics technologies and equipment including topographic surveying by GPS, Geographical Information Systems (GIS), Geo-Databases and Satellite Remote Sensing (with software and geographic datasets in part provided by the Laboratory of Geophysical – Satellite Remote Sensing & Archaeo-environment (I.M.S.–F.O.R.T.H.).
  • Evaluate the human occupation of the landscape and shed new light on the processes that led to the establishment of defensible sites in the mountain.
  • Provide an integrated framework and create a 4D model (i.e. time-dependant) to highlight the chronological evolution and regional variations of settlement patterns on the island during the 13th c. B.C.
  • Clarify the nature and the origin of external influences in the material culture of the island by studying internal spatial organization of sites and residential units, architectural features, metals, ceramics and domestic deposits.
  • Investigate and compare the function of communal buildings, along with the artefacts recovered.
  • Analyse the built environment along two complementary axes: an ‘architectural energetics’ approach based on a quantitative estimation of labour cost (time and energy, with an emphasis on the ‘chaîne opératoire’ that generates the final architectural form); and an analysis of the spatial configuration of buildings and settlements within the theoretical and methodological framework of space syntax analysis, graphing and quantifying spatial relations with Depthmap software. Both energetics and space syntax highlight specific behaviours in communities and are thus good indicators of stress situations, as for example, the collective and intense investment of time and labour in the case of defensive architecture, changes of circulation patterns etc.
  • Offer an integrated typological and stylistic analysis of regional ceramic patterns and emphasize ceramic consumption and distribution patterns in archaeological contexts.
  • Study and contextualise all non-local material culture: Visualise and clarify the nature and the origin of external influences in the material culture of the island by studying internal spatial organization of sites and residential units, architectural features, metals, ceramics and domestic deposits.
  • For site-based approaches:
    • integrate all existing records, data and knowledge about sites in and around Malia, Sissi and Palaikastro in a georeferenced GIS environment, including various levels of habitation (urban, village, hamlet, and farmsteads), cemeteries and individual tombs, and natural features; using GPS and extensive survey to locate these data spatially and chronologically to establish a nuanced and specific settlement history.
    • Use high-resolution, multispectral satellite imagery obtained from Worldview 2 and ASTER, aerial vertical photographs obtained from the Hellenic Military Geographical Service and low-altitude aerial photographs suitable for cadastral and land use mapping, planning of visible architecture, and the extraction of a digital elevation model (at 5 m resolution), to facilitate GIS-based environmental analysis of the area around the settlements, including ancient land use and erosion modelling.
    • Perform geomorphological and sediment analyses, to include coring, providing sound, local palaeo-environmental data.
    • Excavate and study specific 13th c. contexts to illustrate local developments.
    • Perform laboratory analysis of human remains from tombs to investigate possibility of famine and or disease.

Expected Outcome:

  • Examining alluvial/colluvial sediment successions accumulated along active normal faults will result in a better understanding of their Holocene earthquake history. This approach will help us address the question of seismic destructions during LM IIIB by constraining the timing and number of ruptures that produced the slip. Sedimentological and palynological analyses carried out in fluvial and coastal sediment successions will, on the other hand, help us resolve the middle to late Holocene climatic history of the island and shed more light on the scale and environmental impact of putative climatic changes.
  • The reconstruction of settlement pattern transformations will allow the recognition of the importance of spatial parameters in the localisation of settlements which will help to understand abandonment, continuation of use, establishment of new habitation sites, and the importance of spatial and visual relations between the existing habitation pattern and environmental parameters (e.g. topographical layout, and proximity to water resources, arable land, raw materials, coast line, etc.), spatial and visual relations among the sites, including clustering and linkage and the importance of inland and coastal communication networks (through the use of least cost paths and viewshed analyses).
  • A general reappraisal of the LM IIIB ceramic sequence will help a diachronic fine-tuning and a regional understanding of ongoing socio-political transformations. Hopefully, it will also allow synchronicity to be recognized, backed up by Carbon 14 dating. Since technological, distributional and consumption choices are inherently social, they will potentially also inform us about the definition, maintenance and transformation of socio-cultural and socio-political identities of the studied communities.
  • By focusing on a detailed analysis of specific case studies through an attention to architectural stratification, plan, phasing, material culture and environmental conditions, we aim at fine-tuning this rather long period within each site and compare patterns between the different sites. By detecting minor changes, such as architectural modifications, phases of abandonment, destruction and reconstruction, we hope to be able to synchronise events within the wider frame of archaeological contexts of 13th c. settlements throughout the island with the goal of producing a reliable relative and absolute chronology.

Planning and deliverables:

  • Invite experts for lectures on site-based approaches, regional studies (survey) and international relations; podcasts will be made available on the project’s website.
  • Organise thematic workshops which will be published rapidly. Four are already planned but others will be added:
    • Out of Rubble. Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Minoan Earthquakes (29-30/11/2012)
    • How Long is a century? Late Minoan IIIB Pottery. Relative chronology and regional differences (Autumn 2013)
    • The Destruction of the Palace at Knossos – Again? (Spring 2014)
    • Reconstructing Minoan environments (Autumn 2014)
  • Actively engage in fieldwork through on-site study, collection of environmental and topographical data, and excavation, especially at Sissi, Malia and Palaikastro where operations will concentrate on LM III contexts, but also in specific regions where environmental data can be retrieved. This also implies field reconnaissance, geomorphological mapping and identification of potential trenching sites, a palaeoseismological trenching campaign, coring campaigns in selected fluvial/coastal plains. All these actions will yield publications, either as preliminary reports to be published in the Aegis series, the Bulletin de Correspondance hellénique or the British School at Athens Annual, or in peer-reviewed international journals.
  • Engage an experienced postdoctoral researcher to study non-local material culture especially with regard to metals, ceramics and objects related to domestic activities (including cooking and weaving). The candidate should have wide knowledge of material culture of the entire Mediterranean. His/Her work should result in the publication of at least one monograph and several papers in peer-reviewed international journals.