North American Archaeological Work in Crete, 1880 to 1990

By: Joseph W. Shaw

Originally Published in 1990

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The First Phase of Research

The island of Crete with its rich Minoan and Classical civilization has been the field of intensive archaeological explora­tion for over a century. In the early part of the 19th century, English explorers with an antiquarian in­terest, such as Robert Pashley (1834) and Captain (later Admiral) T.A.B. Spratt (1851-3), located ancient sites and discussed aspects of their topo­graphy and history. After Greek independence from Turkey in 1832, the Greek people themselves be­came involved. Cretans from Herak­leion (Candia), calling themselves the Association of the Friends of Education, founded the Archaeologi­cal Museum of Herakleion in 1878. During the same year a Heracleiote, prophetically christened Minos Kalo­kairinos, excavated trenches at Knossos, at “Kephala,” within what was later identified as the West Wing of the Knossos Palace. Arthur Evans began excavating there in the spring of 1900, the third year of Cretan independence from Turkey.

Some interesting and relatively unknown incidents in Cretan archae­ology had already occurred. William J. Stillman (Fig. 1) had been ap­pointed U.S. Consul in Crete, one of Abraham Lincoln’s last official acts before he died in 1865. Not long after Stillman’s arrival in Crete, as he wrote in his autobiography (1901), “Having no occupation but archae­ological research and photography, I decided to make a series of expedi­tions into the mountain district.” He would later visit and study the great walls and pithoi that Kalokairino revealed at Kephala (Fig. 2), and in the spring of 1880 he received assur­ances from the Turkish governor of the island, Photiades Pasha, “that should he desire to make explora­tions of any of the sites of ancient cities in the island, every assistance should be given him to do so” (Archaeological Institute of America Annual Report 1880-1881:32).

Stillman consequently approached the Archaeological Institute of Amer­ica (AIWA), which was interested in archaeological research but also de­sired antiquities for the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. He then applied for a Turkish “firman” (permit) through the U.S. Department of State that would “authorize the agent of the Institute to investigate the sites of Gnossos [Knossos] and Gor­tyna [Gortyni]” (AIWA Annual Report 1880-1881:33). Gortyn is a very large and well-preserved Graeco-Roman town in south central Crete, for a time the capital of a Roman province consisting of Crete and Cyrenaica. In January of 1881 Stillman was in Crete ready to carry out his mission. accompanied by a Mr. J.H. Haynes. who had been sent out by the AIWA as a volunteer assistant. Local unrest, however, and the recollection by the Turks, still governing Crete, of Stillman’s former friendly relations with Cretan revolutionaries, pre­vented Turkish approval, and Still­man and his companion returned disappointed to Athens.

One wonders how the course of archaeological history in Crete might have changed had Stillman’s pro­posal been accepted. Both Knossos and Gortyn, however, were granted for archaeological exploration at the turn of the century, the former to British, the latter to Italian archae­ologists.

In the same AIWA report (1880­1881) that describes Stifiman’s ven­ture, the Institute was encouraged to establish an “American School of Classical Literature, Art, and Anti­quities at Athens,” in effect today’s American School of Classical Studies at Athens. Not long after that School’s founding in 1882, and again through the AIWA reports, we en­counter Federico Halbherr (Fig. 3), an Italian and the first great foreign scholar to make the archaeology of Crete his profession. In 1884 he was to make the astounding discovery of the now famous Law Code inscribed on the wall of a later Odeion at Gortyn. He was also the first to explore many parts of Crete, and in 1892 during a visit to the United States, he arranged for AIWA sponsor­ship through the backing of Pro­fessor Augustus C. Merriam and in this way helped to introduce North Americans to archaeological work in Crete. Gortyn was once again sched­uled to be the object of research. The Turkish authorities, however, prevented excavation, so Halbherr turned instead to a year of intensive survey work in various parts of the island.

Like Stillman, Halbherr was also provided with an official “com­panion,” Mr. John Alden, a graduate of Harvard and at that time a student at the American School. In the ori­ginal arrangement Alden was to be the expedition’s photographer, so in December of 1883 he went to join Halbherr at Cortyn, not realizing the excavation plans had fallen through. Instead, he stayed on to accompany Halbherr on his survey trips and to witness the discovery, on behalf of the AIWA, of the site of Prinias, where Halbherr and Pernier were later to unearth an Archaic Cretan temple, still unique for the quality of its sculptural decoration. To help pre­pare these reports he commissioned M. Gilliéron to come to Crete and make drawings; Gilhéron and his son were later hired by Evans for work at Knossos.

Halbherr was to fulfill his obli­gation to the AIWA fully. In return for $2,984.62 for expenses, he and his Italian colleagues (Lucia Mariani, Paolo Orsi, Antonio Taramelli, and others), along with a local archae­ologist, Stephanos Xanthoudides, published a series of major detailed reports in the American Journal of Archaeology (1896-1901) that still serve as introductions to Neolithic, Minoan, and Graeco-Roman Crete.

In 1894, Halbherr’s request for financial backing was rejected by the AIWA, which was no longer in­terested in sponsoring research in Crete as the island was still under Turkish domination. Rather, the AIWA wished to establish an archaeological domain for itself on the mainland of Greece. The concession for the great Greek sanctuary at Delphi was first offered to the American School, but was lost in the following year to the French, at least in part because of a new commercial treaty concerning Greek currants! On the other hand, as early as 1896 ancient Corinth was granted to the American excavators, and AIWA funds were diverted from Halbherr’s project in Crete to fund the excavations at Corinth, although Halbherr was promised he would receive funding as soon as Corinth was completed. Halbherr, neverthe­less, went on to found the Italian Archaeological Mission to Crete in 1898, began major excavations at Phaistos in 1900 (at the same time that Evans started excavations at Knossos), and established the Italian School of Archaeology in Athens in 1910.

Boyd, Seager, and Hall

The better known and more suc­cessful chapter of North American excavation in Crete begins with Harriet Boyd (Fig. 4). After grad­uating from Smith College and teaching for four years in various secondary schools, Boyd joined the American School at Athens in 1896. Her social consciousness was soon expressed by serving as a volunteer nurse on the Thessalian front in the Graeco-Turkish conflict, for which she was to be decorated by the Greek people. Her attention was next to turn to Crete, where she determined to take advantage of the archaeological opportunities made possible by the freeing of Crete from the Turks (Crete remained indepen­dent of Greece until 1913). Fol­lowing the example set earlier by Halbherr, and with the encourage­ment of the British archaeologists, especially Evans and Hogarth who were about to begin work at Knossos, she sailed for Crete despite the doubts and apprehensions of the Director of the American School, Mr. Richardson, with whom her proposal to go to the island, in her words, “fell flat” (Hawes 1965:97). She planned to use the unspent part of her American School fellowship for archaeological work. Her sub­sequent work in Crete illustrates the “splash” or “founder’s”   known as a teacher of great integrity, with a “unique balance of vigorous active life and enthusiastic scholar­ship” (James 1971:497).

More Recent Work on Crete

There is a long lapse of time before North American archaeological work in Crete resumed. In 1955 J. Walter Graham of the University of Toronto visited the island to carry out re­search on Minoan architecture, re­sulting in The Palaces of Crete (1962), the first major synthesis of our understanding of the subject. In 1959, Gladys Weinberg of the University of Missouri excavated at ancient Tarrha at the mouth of the Roumeli Gorge in an unsuccessful search for a Roman glass factory (Weinberg 1960:90-108).

Graham’s work with Homer Thompson at the Athenian Agora led to the hiring in 1965 of Joseph Shaw, then working as an excavation archi­tect. During the previous summer Shaw had worked for Nicholas Platon at Kato Zakros (Seager’s last site). Eventually this acquaintance led to Shaw’s replacing Graham at the University of Toronto upon the latter’s retirement in 1972. Thus Toronto became the institutional base for Shaw’s excavation at Kommos, which he first saw in 1965. Kommos, on the southern shore of the Mesara Plain, was first identified as a possible Minoan harbor town by Arthur Evans in 1924.

It took over ten years to make the picture come together, to arrange for the expropriation and subsequent purchase of the land, to raise funds, and to obtain an excavation permit from the American School. Excava­tion began in 1976 under Shaw’s direction (Fig. 9), with the sponsor­ship of the University of Toronto and the Royal Ontario Museum. Part of a Minoan town, a broad road, and an enormous Late Minoan I ashlar build­ing (Fig. 10) with a great court (possibly part of a palace) were exposed. The latter, as well as its huge Late Minoan III successor, seems to have been devoted to sea­borne commerce. Above the build­ings, in later levels, a series of temples had been built during Greek and Roman times (ca. 925 B.C.-A.D. 250). These were part of an unusual Cretan sanctuary.

Working with Shaw at Kommos was his Greek wife Maria (née Cou­troubaki), who also held an appoint­ment at the University of Toronto.

Other colleagues were Philip Betan­court of Temple University; L. Vance Watrous, teaching at the State Univer­sity of New York at Buffalo; James Wright of Bryn Mawr College; and John McEnroe of Hamilton College. There was a host of scientists, in­cluding geologist John Gifford of the University of Miami, Jennifer and Tom Shay of the University of Manitoba advising on botany and archaeology, ancient and modern. and David Reese, an expert on fauna. Richard Hope Simpson of Queen’s University led a survey team, in­cluding Lucia Nixon, to examine the Kommos area.

The Kommos excavations had off­shoots elsewhere in Crete. Thus Watrous (Fig. 11), who in 1973 began and later published the first archae­ological survey of the Lasithi Plain (Watrous 1982), continued with fur­ther survey work in the Mesara area, beginning in 1985 in cooperation with Despina Vallianou of the Greek Archaeological Service. In 1987 Nixon initiated a survey in the Spha­kia region of western Crete in co­operation with Jennifer Moody, who brought to the project her own survey experience in the Chania area of western Crete. Reese, Simpson. and McEnroe were to continue work with Betancourt at Pseira.

Even while excavating at Kommos, Betancourt (Fig. 13a) maintained his interest in eastern Crete, in part an outgrowth of his research on the Minoan collection in The University Museum in Philadelphia. The collec­tion was the result of Harriet Boyd and Richard Seager’s work in the Isthmus of Hierapetra. In 1984 Betancourt published a book on East Cretan White-on-dark Ware (Univer­sity Museum Monograph 51, Phila­delphia), with the collaboration of other scholars. He was also drawn to Seager’s site of Pseira, where he returned in 1985 with the aim of producing a detailed and systematic publication through renewed survey and excavation (see article, this issue). The process in this instance was much eased by the interest and kindness of Costis Davaras (Fig. 13b), Ephor of Antiquities, who made possible a joint project in­volving the Archaeological Society of Crete and the Archaeological Institute of Crete.

Quite separate from any work at Kommos were the reinvestigations of Kavousi, Mochlos, and Vrokastro. At Kavousi, after preliminary study and cleaning seasons beginning in 1978, an American School excavation permit made possible further excava­tion both in the lower (Vronda) and upper (Kastro) sites under the general direction of Geraldine Gesell (a con­tributor to this issue), of the Univer­sity of Tennessee, Knoxville, with the collaboration of Leslie Preston Day (Fig. 12) of Wabash College as Field Director of the Vronda site, and William Coulson, present Director of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, as the Field Direc­tor of the Kastro site. Their work has already strengthened our understand­ing of the architecture, pottery, cult, tomb types, and burial practices of the end of the Bronze Age and Early Iron Age in Crete.

At Mochlos in 1989, Jeffrey S. Soles (Fig. 14) of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro began a long­term project of investigating the island, again in cooperation with Costis Davaras. Soles was hardly a stranger to the area, having written his dissertation in 1973 on The Gournia House Tombs (University of Pennsylvania). He was allowed to carry out limited cleaning at Gournia; later, he cleaned partially excavated tombs at Mochlos.

Finally, at Vrokastro, Barbara Hay­ den (Fig. 15), with the collaboration of Jennifer Moody of the University of Minnesota, is re-examining the site and its environment through an inten­sive archaeological survey of a 50-square kilometer area near the Bay of Mirabello (see article, this issue).

Other active North Americans par­ticipating in this recent “renaissance” of Cretan studies should be men­tioned as well. Harriet Blitzer, a member of the Kommos team has done extensive ethnological work in contemporary pottery production, pastoralism (see her contribution in this issue), and Minoan industries. Karen Foster, who spent much time in Crete, has published widely on Minoan faience and relief work. John Hayes, of the Royal Ontario Museum, has studied Roman pottery from many sites, including that from Knossos and Kommos. J.A. Mac­Gillivray of Columbia University joined L. H. Sackett as Co-Director in the reopening of the Palaikastro Excavations (1987), where part of a large Minoan town was excavated by the British School of Archaeology early in the century. Polymnia Muhly, author of another article in this issue, has worked for many seasons at the Minoan and Greek Kato Syme sanc­tuary site with her colleague and Director of the excavation, Angeliki Lembessi. David Wilson, of the University of Western Ontario, has dealt with Early Minoan pottery and architecture at Knossos, especially the buildings below the western court of the palace there. To the above and many others (for this list is far from complete), the ancient, welcoming island of Crete has been a rich field for archaeological research.

We have briefly reviewed the steps taken by North Americans to involve themselves in the investigation of Crete. We have also seen how the imagination, initiative, and devotion of a few pioneers—Boyd, Seager, and Hall—contributed to the study of Minoan and early Greek culture in the eastern part of the island.

Now, during the third phase of work, that of the past two decades, we can consider the initiatives taken. For example, the popularity of re­examining the old sites is striking and certainly a tribute to the wise choice of Boyd and her associates. It is also significant that five of the principal investigators of the sites (Betancourt, Hayden, J. Shaw, Soles, and Wa trouts) received their doctorates from the University of Pennsylvania, the base for so much earlier work in Crete. The return to Crete is also partly due to the growing awareness that the island’s distinctive prehistory and formative stages gave impetus to the Graeco-Roman culture, a culture that would eventually provide much of the basis for the European civiliza­tion that we in North America have to a large extent inherited.

It is of compelling interest to imagine how this present phase will end, a matter that only our successors will be in a position to evaluate. What substantive new results will the work produce? To what extent will old ideas be renewed or modified, new material and new concepts intro­duced? In the meantime the debate concerning aspects of Minoan and Greek culture in Crete will continue as we discuss issues with, among others, our Greek, English, French, German, Italian, and Swedish col­leagues. Each of them could tell a tale of archaeological commitment and achievement similar to, and in some cases greater than, the one sketched out above.

Cite This Article

Shaw, Joseph W.. "North American Archaeological Work in Crete, 1880 to 1990." Expedition Magazine 32, no. 3 (November, 1990): -. Accessed July 15, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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