Legitimacy through Contact: the Archaeological Site of Phaistos by: Lauren Astafan


The archaeology of the last one hundred years on Crete has been able to establish close contact with the other powers of the eastern Mediterranean during the period from the Middle Minoan to the Neopalatial. Society at Phaistos was quite cosmopolitan and the material record offers glimpses of ithe influence from the Near East, Levant and Egypt. The elites of the Phaistian polity were able to use this contact to their advantage to enhance their legitimacy. The youngest complex society in the Eastern Mediterranean, it is clear to see why the Cretan elites would use the tools of those who had come before them to solidify their prestigious roles. However, as contact waned in the Neopalatial period, legitimacy suffered, and the evidence demonstrates that the urban core of Phaistos was greatly diminished until finally being replaced by the time of Mycenaean arrival.

About the Site - General Geography and Excavations


The archaeological site of Phaistos (often transliterated as Phaestos, Festos, Faestus) was the second most important Bronze Age settlement on the island of Crete (Hogan 2007). The palace is spectacularly situated on top of ridge overlooking the relatively fertile Mesara plain. According to C. Michael Hogan's 2007 fieldnotes of the site, the region reached its "zenith of art, language and architectural achievement in the middle of the second millenium BC."

The first documented excavators were two Italian archaeologists, namely Federico Halbherr and Luigi Pernier. The site consists of two palaces from different eras, one having been rebuilt after an earthquake. The palaces contain the important elements of inequality, including “royal apartments, [a] theatre, grand staircases, [a] raised processional walkway, stormwater runoff systems, paved courtyards, [a] magazine and offering basins for animal sacrifice” (Hogan 2007).

In research conducted from 1984 to 1987, L. Vance Watrous, Despoina Hadzi-Villianou and Harriet Blizter provide an intricate picture of life in the Mesara plain and particularly Phaistos. Dwarfing all the other sites in the western Mesara, Protopalatial Phaistos was undoubtedly the urban center during this time period (Watrous, et al. 2004).

Minoan chronology
3650-3000 BC

2900-2300 BC

2300-2160 BC

2160-1900 BC

1900-1800 BC
(Old Palace Period)

1800-1700 BC

1700-1640 BC
(New Palace Period)

1640-1600 BC

1600-1480 BC

1480-1425 BC

1425-1390 BC
(At Knossos, Final Palace Period)

1390-1370 BC

1370-1340 BC

1340-1190 BC

1190-1170 BC

Settlement Patterns in the Middle Minoan

Unfortunately, not much remains of Middle Minoan I Phaistos. In 1935, Luigi Pernier and Luisa Banti were able to unearth a Middle Minoan building beneath the palace, along with prepalatial houses and pottery in the west court (Watrous, et al. 2004). There are several indications leading scholars to believe that the site grew in population and physical size during this time. Coupled with pottery sherds found on the slope of Ephendi Christos (a mountain 600 m away from Early Minoan Phaistos) are the remains of a settlement named Monasteraki (Watrous, et al. 2004). Watrous et al assumes this site is somewhat of a suburb of Phaistos and if indeed the region was occupied continuously from Phaistos proper to Monasteraki, the city would have encompassed nearly 27 hectares. Using fifty to one hundred persons per hectare, as Watrous et al did, this renders the approximate population for Middle Minoan Phaistos at 1350 to 2700 persons.

Ancient-Greece.org has a great page dedicated to Phaistos

Evidence of Contact with other Cultures

Through archaeology, it has been established that widespread trade was happening between Egypt and Mesopotamia for millennia by the establishment of the Middle Minoan period on Crete which is the foundation point of this study. Hall (1921) reminds us that “Egypt, for instance had relations with the Phoenician coast and the Lebanon district from time immemorial, and Greece with Egypt certainly as early as the time of the Six Dynasty (Third Early Minoan Period), if not far earlier.” It is important to remember that Crete’s position in the Mediterranean provided it with a convenient location for trade and communication between Europe and western Asia (Knapp 1992).

Crete: in close proximity to the rest of the Mediterranean

The Near East and Phaistos

The Palace at Mari, Syria

There is substantial evidence for this contact in the art and architecture at the site of Phaistos. Knapp (1992) suggests that trade contacts with western Asia seriously influenced the development of the palatial governing system and the construction of the palaces, a clear effort to enhance legitimiacy. Certain elements, such as the drainage systems, ashlar masonry techniques and wall paintings that are shared between the Near East and Crete led L. Vance Watrous to conclude that there was a direct exchange of ideas (Knapp 1992). However, the importance of the central court found in the Cretan palaces is not shared by their Near Eastern neighbors (Knapp 1992). H. R. Hall, in his 1921 article Egypt and the External World in the Time of Akhenaten, argues for intense contact between the island of Crete and the Hittite regions on the coast of Anatolia and the northern Levant. The warrior head symbol on the infamous Phaistos Disk is the pivotal point of his argument. He claims, along with Sir Arthur Evans, that the crest on the warrior's head is characteristic of the Philistines from this region.

Warrior head - Symbol 2

Minoan culture also seems to share the idea of mason’s marks in their architecture with cultures in the Near East. First to observe and record these marks was William James Stillman in the latter half of the 19th century. Sir Arthur Evans references the marks found on the Phoenician walls at Eryx, which dates to a time period fitting with those on Crete and suggests that they establish a link for the transfer of script from the Levantine coast to Crete (Begg 2004). Marks have been reported at the Israeli sites of Megiddo, Samaria, Gezer and Hazor, although these do date from a later time period (Begg 2004). Luigi Pernier, while excavating Phaistos, believed that most of the marks, excluding the double axe imprints found on pillars, were used by groups of workers to identify their efforts (Begg 2004). Remarkably, J. D. S. Pendlebury, a few years later, came to the same conclusion regarding the marks he found at an entrance at Amarna (Begg 2004).


Influence from Mesopotamia is also demonstrated in the use of stamp seals on Crete. While stamp seals unsurprisingly originate later on Crete than in Mesopotamia, they have a much quicker rate of change on the island (Gorelick and Gwinnet 1992). In both cultures, the seals first used were created from soft stone and gradually changed to hard stone (Gorelick and Gwinnet 1992). However, Gorelick and Gwinnet conclude that the transfer from soft to hard stone usage takes almost three millennia in Mesopotamia but only approximately one millennium on Crete. In both cultures, the use of hard stone was associated with status due to its expense and on Crete it “coincide[s] with the development of palaces, central administration and the internationalization of trade” (Gorelick and Gwinnet 1992). The rapid rate of change on Crete may correspond to the transfer of technology from Mesopotamia, allowing the Cretans to capitalize on what had been developed elsewhere.

Contact with Egypt

Fresco from Avaris, Egypt
In Egypt, there is substantial evidence for contact with Crete. At the Nile Delta site of Avaris, a Minoan style fresco, complete with women in Minoan dress, bull-jumping and a Cretan mountainous landscape was found indicating very close ties (Knapp 1992) and even perhaps expatriate communities. An inscription on a statue base in the funerary temple of Amenophis III mentions the city of Phaistos by name (Knapp 1992). The idea of a close connection between Egypt and Phaistos has long been researched by J. Walter Graham. In his 1970 article Egyptian Features at Phaistos, Graham argues that the façade at the north end of the Phaistos central court, “…by reason of its monumentality, its proportions, its symmetry, and its axial doorway…” is typical of a New Kingdom Egyptian temple pylon. He furthers his discussion of the influence of Egypt by a hypothetical reconstruction of this façade. The western façade construction on Crete in general also shows contact with Egypt. Facades in both regions share undulating elements in their decoration, although the “Cretan elements are both fewer and much longer than the Egyptian” (Graham 1970).

Central Court, North Facade

It is also important to note that societies in both Egypt and Crete use columns extensively. Graham points out the example of his proposed reconstruction banquet hall at Phaistos. The banquet hall, he claims had two rows of three columns, mirroring the banquet halls of Amenhotep at Thebes (1961 and 1970). Also supporting Graham’s point are the internal peristyle courts that appear widely in Egypt and at the “Little Palace” at Phaistos (Graham 1970).
L. Vance Watrous et al provide further evidence of Egyptian influence in their book The Plain of Phaistos: Cycles of Social Complexity in the Mesara region of Crete (2004). In this book, Watrous et al note that the first palaces of the Middle Minoan period show a number of Egyptian features. As Preziosi points out (Watrous, et al 2004), the unit of measurement and basic layout of Minoan palaces suggests that of Egypt. Found at Phaistos is a widely used MMI seal depicting a bull battering down a battlemented settlement, a direct quotation from the Palette of Narmer (Watrous et al2004). In Egypt, this is a scene from royal iconography and was most likely the Phaistian ruler’s attempt at enhancing his own legitimacy (Watrous et al 2004).


Middle Minoan Growth versus Neopalatial Decline

L. Vance Watrous provides the clearest example of the settlement and trade patterns at Phaistos during these time periods. The Protopalatial period begins with the Middle Minoan IB and continues in to the Middle Minoan II. During this span, Watrous (2004) and his team noted a huge jump in settlement density. There were eight village sized sites surrounding the urban palace core at Phaistos, twenty-seven hamlets and fifteen farmsteads (Watrous et al 2004). Foreign exchange of ideas grew, as is evidenced above, as was the material culture. Found in and around Phaistos are cylinder seals from Babylon, Egyptian scarabs and Cypriote copper (Watrous et al 2004).
Beginning in the Middle Middle III, close to the Neopalatial period, Watrous notes a serious drop off in settlement patterns in the Mesara plain. Neopalatial Phaistos shrunk in size and was sparsely settled (Watrous et al 2004). A new palace was built over parts of the old one, but it was considerably smaller (Watrous et al 2004). The fact that they rebuilt the palace around the same time as the population decreased in size in the urban zone could indicate either a natural disaster or a new regime. However, what is strange is that while the size of Phaistos was shrinking during this period, grand urban villas surrounded its urban counterparts of Knossos, Mallia and Zakros. Also, there is more Middle Minoan pottery found in Egypt than Late Minoan pottery, suggesting a decline in external trade (Immerwahr 1985). In the city itself, the archaeological record demonstrates that the palace lost its paramount role in production. Watrous suggests that this demonstrates a political takeover by Knossos (2004), preceding the eventual Late Minoan IB takeover by the Mycenaean culture.
Distribution of Phaistian Protopalatial pottery sherds
Distribution of Neopalatial Phaistian pottery sherds


Exactly how Phaistos lost its preeminent role in southern Crete remains debated by scholars. However, during its climatic centuries, the archaeological record demonstrates that it was a hub of exchange for both material possessions and ideas throughout the Mediterranean. Whether it was through architectural ideas imported from Egypt or seal technology gleaned from contact with the Mesopotamians, Cretan elites had no troubles assimilating themselves with the elites of their neighbors. During my research, it became very clear to me that the Phaistian elites were using their trade status to enhance their legitimacy. The very best example of that is the ramming bull seal, which directly quotes the Palette of Narmer. Also, as it is the most widely used seal in Phaistos, the appropriation of seal technology can be traced to elite usage. Building using techniques reminiscent of royal Egyptian structures is also a clear way to enhance legitimacy. Although during the Protopalatial periods an independent Phaistos was able to command trade in south central Crete, it is clear that the Knossian and later Mycenaean elites who later occupied the site in Neopalatial and Late Minoan times had different goals for the city in mind, and it shows in the archaeological record.


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http://www.themodernantiquarian.com/site/10857/phaistos.html, accessed March 30, 2009
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