Research projects

The archaeology of and on islands

The island as a metaphor for boundedness and isolation either as something to be feared or desired has long been part of everyday speech. Thus, it should come as no surprise that archaeologists, anthropologists and historians have become fascinated with islands. I am no exception, and all of my research projects have taken place on islands and engaged with island literature and intellectual debates.
image Following on from work on Cycladic island lifeways and theoretical frameworks for islandscapes, my current interest lies with the sea itself, the associations and emotions it evoked and the meaning it and its inhabitants held for communities in Bronze Age Greece. Intriguingly, despite knowledge of boats, and adequate navigation and seafaring skills marine food consumption was very limited in Bronze Age Greece. This stands in stark contrast to a more marine-based diet in the Mesolithic and Early Neolithic period. It is likely that the introduction of cultivated plants and domesticated animals at the beginning of the Neolithic resulted in a re-evaluation of symbolic meanings associated with different food classes, leading to a positive association for the new cultivars and a negative one for traditional food sources. A reduction in marine food consumption can be explained in this context. Perhaps surprisingly, this food taboo persists into the Bronze Age even though by this time the new food types had long become traditional. Thus, clearly, there are other reasons at play that insured that marine foods are not eaten regularly.

Purcell (1995) argues that the symbolic value of marine food is closely linked to our - often very ambiguous - attitude of the sea. In most cultures, the sea is seen both as a positive and negative force, and it is this ambiguity that also makes the consumption of marine food problematic and prone to social taboos and prohibitions. Indeed, a survey of (pre)historic views of fish demonstrates that they are often linked to death (both in its positive connotation (e.g. re-birth; regeneration) and its negative one ('away place')). While interpretation of the symbolism of the sea and its inhabitants will have to remain a hypothesis, the existence of octopi on Post-Minoan burial larnakes hints at an association with death, and may offer an explanation for the limited marine food consumption in Bronze Age Greece.

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image X-radiography is a powerful technique that allows us to 'look through objects' - be they bone, clay, metal, paper artefacts or even soil profiles. Common uses include understanding material composition, additions, breaks, repairs, as well as manufacturing and finishing methods, Surprisingly, until recently, the use of X-rays in archaeology was almost exclusively limited to conservators and bone specialist. Building on work undertaken by Carr (1990) and Rye (1977, 1981), one of my recent projects investigated the potential of X-radiography for our understanding of ceramic objects. Using vessels produced by modern potters as a control group, I was able to confirm observations by Rye that different primary forming techniques (such as coiling, moulding, pinching, wheel-throwing) can be recognized on X-rays by their distinct 'signature'.However, secondary forming techniques (such as knife-trimming, turning, scraping) did not show any recognizable marks and need to be deduced from macroscopic observations. As such, X-radiography is a formidable tool for understanding the original manufacturing method(s). In addition to ceramic vessels, X-radiography can also be used to understand ceramic figurines.

Some of the key results of my case studies are that the potter's wheel was introduced in Crete in the MM IB period and increased in popularity over time . However, device and/or skill limitations limited its use to small and medium-sized vessels. The technique of wheel-coiling (vessels first built up with coils and then wheel-thrown) existed throughout the Bronze Age. Handmade techniques remained popular throughout and are the most commonly used set of techniques for large vessels. Some vessels used a combination of primary forming techniques. As regards figurines, the human figurines studied were manufactured in a rather ingenious way with the aim to obliterate the central joint between the lower and upper half. Animal figurines investigated were mainly shaped from a single lump of clay.
Overall, X-radiography has a variety of advantages that make it a remarkable tool: a) it is non-destructive, b) it permits a comparatively rapid turn-over and thus presents value for money, c) unlike thin-section analysis, the whole vessel/artefact can be assessed, and d) X-ray facilities are available in most locations (though it must be said that not all hospital facilities, for example, are suitable for this kind of analysis).

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Experimental archaeology

imageWhen done correctly, experimental archaeology is a powerful methodological tool that allows the testing of many variables. As with any experiment, it is important to establish a known control group against which to compare your results. In the case of my X-radiography work, two potters were asked to produce large sets of pots according to specific manufacturing guidelines which acted as my control group and allowed me to interpret the Cretan Bronze Age material accurately.

An unexpected side-effect of the experimental work was the realization that not all pottery specialists are equally well trained in detecting manufacturing features. A comparison of macroscopically studied pots with an X-ray analysis of the same vessels demonstrated clearly the great variety in experience of pottery specialists. A larger scale study to investigate this variability is in preparation. Pottery specialists interested in participating, please drop me an email.

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Bronze Age settlements in the Southern Aegean islands (Greece) show a dramatic increase in the number of Cretan (Minoan) imports, local imitations and the adoption of Cretan architectural, ritual, and cultural features from the Middle to the early Late Bronze Age period.image Excavations also show growth in the quantities of local imitations of Cretan objects, technologies and practices. This escalating presence of imported Minoan and local Minoanising features and its social connotations (i.e. cultural, economic or even political - the so-called 'thalassocracy' - dependence on Crete) has been called 'Minoanisation'.

The three most influential approaches to Minoanisation are Davis's 'Western String', Wiener's 'Versailles effect' and Branigan's colony classifications. All three are useful as heuristic devices but can also be criticised for their limited explanatory potential as they viewed the islanders as passive recipients of superior Minoan culture rather than active players. While not necessarily powerful on a regional level, in-depth analysis of the pottery production and consumption at Phylakopi on Melos, Kea on Ayia Irini, Paroikia on Paros and Mikre Vigla on Naxos has demonstrated that the adoption of Minoan traits was selective and site specific. In conjunction with preferences observed in the acquisition of other wares, this behaviour can be interpreted as part of an actively pursued strategy by communities in accessing exotic goods and technologies for prestige-enhancing purposes.

In fact, Minoan imports were only part of an overarching import strategy for non-local pottery which varied from site to site. The fact that Minoan imports had been preceded by Grey Minyan vessels and were soon to be succeeded by Mycenaean wares shows how transient the impact of any fashion trend was. Arguably, the importance of pottery imports lay in the acquisition of non-local items rather than the specific acquisition of, say, Minoan, Mycenaean or Kytheran products and thus symbolises the generic desire of lower-ranking societies to acquire desirable sub-elite items regardless of their precise provenance.

While I believe that Minoanisation, an inherently homogenising, colonialist concept characterised by a top-down approach, is no longer relevant to our much more nuanced understanding of the relationships between Cretan and Cycladic communities, the questions it raises remain relevant today. What meanings did the Cycladic communities associate with being 'Minoan' and how is this expressed in their adoption/rejection of Minoan lifeways? What did it mean to be 'Cycladic' (Melian, Keian, Naxian, etc.)? What different relationships did individual Cretan communities have with Cycladic ones? How mobile were people and how did their identity change after relocation? What differences can be seen in the Mycenaean period?

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