An ancient Cretan town comes to light

Rare is the book that genuinely attempts to bridge the popular and the scholarly, in any field and any country. Rarer still is one that can be useful for a scientific community and still read for pleasure by the non-specialist. This gap can be especially wide in the case of Greece, whose timeless landscape tends to evoke dreamily poetic literature that shares shelf space with painstakingly detail-oriented archaeological studies, often valuable to the historian but, for the average reader, as dry as the dust that swirls around antiquities at midsummer. A significant exception is «Kommos: A Minoan Harbor Town and Greek Sanctuary in Southern Crete,» by Joseph Shaw (The American School of Classical Studies, 2006), which, in just 150 pages of illustrated text, documents the rise, fall, and gradual unearthing of ancient Kommos. The book brings to life this ancient port town, long buried under up to four meters of beach sand after being established around 2000 BC and abandoned to its fate 800 years after that. The site itself, near Phaestos, is situated on a rare north-south stretch of the south Cretan coastline, buffeted by western winds that profoundly affected its development. «Kommos» also provides a wider overview, three decades on, of site works that Shaw has headed up since 1976, from an academic base at the University of Toronto. It is testimony to the hearts, as well as heads, that have gone into the massive project, putting the scientific and sleuthing sitework into a welcome social context. These he calls «the humanistic aspects, the anxieties and difficulties, the excitement of discoveries, the beauty of a changing landscape» of the excavated area and its surroundings. It recounts the trials and tribulations of the site’s development as «one year melded almost seamlessly into another» – «don’t use a bulldozer» was the sage early advice from one operator – as exciting treasures were unearthed: a terracotta bull, a bronze horse figurine, a temple. Later much grander finds were unveiled as the dig’s dimensions grew and as unexpected Minoan elements, including stoas, came to light. The project directors worked hard to involve the nearby locals in their work. «Instead of living in splendid isolation in an English-speaking compound,» he writes, «we joined the present community which still belongs to the land.» The project employed over 300 villagers at one time or another, including multiple generations of families, clearly to mutual benefit. «Kommos» gives a flavor of the long stretches of routine site work interspersed with occasional yelps of delight at a new discovery – and reveals, with a dry comic touch, the ups and downs of paying for it all. This includes the dicey question of buying, over many years, three successive plots of land on which to dig, a burning necessity in light of successive finds. Early on, for example, expropriation procedures scotched a planned hotel complex (to the chagrin of an ambitious developer), and at another point four separate groups of land claimants appeared, «with pipes and posts being used as property markers, with strings stretching in all directions» – not even counting an attempt by a nearby mayor to demarcate a «public road» right in the dig’s midst. All, however, was eventually settled, in one case (1978) through an unexpected act of generosity by a farsighted local landowner. Eventually the director, Shaw, and his assistant director wife, Maria – the two apparently making for a formidable archaeological and life pairing – were declared honorary citizens of nearby Pitsidia. Like any unearthing, mysteries remain, such as a supposed submerged wall several hundred meters into the sea (the ancient shore was farther out than it is today), claimed by fishermen but never found by snorkelers, or Menelaus’ nearby shipwreck as recounted in Homer but which remains unsolved. The photographs are first-rate, the diagrams useful and the text fascinating, though with ancient and contemporary elements abutting each other it sometimes gets disjointed; the small print doesn’t always help. Even so, it is an admirable crossover effort that others would do well to learn from, and a worthy testament – along with, of course, many heftier tomes detailing the Kommos endeavor – to a life’s project.