Urbanization in Bronze Age Crete: Between Palace and Landscape at Palaikastro



At first glance the smallish towns of the ancient world may not resemble the sprawling cities in which half of the world’s population now lives. And yet both fall on the spectrum, albeit at opposite ends, of what we know as urbanization. All such urban forms seem to function similarly, insofar as they act as the political centres for larger regional hinterlands. This is the comparative perspective within which our project ‘Palace and Landscape at Palaikastro’ is inscribed.


Our aim with this project is to contribute new data to the debate on the origins and character of early urbanization. Palaikastro is one of the biggest towns of Minoan Crete, a Bronze Age civilization that emerged some four thousand years ago on this large island in the east Mediterranean. Unlike the ‘continental’ civilizations, it provides a striking example of an insular development of urbanism, albeit attributable in some measure to contacts with the Near East. The Minoan towns—the most famous being Knossos—have at their centre monumental structures traditionally dubbed ‘palaces’. Recent scholarship, however, challenges this narrative of a hierarchical state society ruled by palatial royalty, while also highlighting the considerable variations in urban form and function across the island. What is interesting about Palaikastro in this regard is that, based on the size of the town alone, it is expected to have had a palace – though none has yet been found, despite its exploration stretching back more than a century. Indeed, excavations to date have shown the existence of a series of neighbourhoods, or town blocks – raising the very interesting possibility that Palaikastro was organized quite differently, without a palace at all.


So our current project is trying to find out if Palaikastro really does exhibit a neighbourhood-based urban organization so far unique in the entire east Mediterranean, or if there is actually a palace awaiting discovery. Excavations in 2013 and 2014 have targeted a previously unexplored part of the town – an area where we had some indications from geophysics that there may be a monumental palatial structure. However, what we have uncovered so far seems actually to show another neighbourhood, on the ‘edge’ of town. Though we cannot say what awaits us in excavations in 2015, we should be able to come to some conclusions about the history and character of this neighbourhood. Moreover, our intensive program of environmental analysis gives a lot of potential for making detailed comparisons between these houses and others in the town. Did different neighbourhoods pursue the same kinds of economic strategies—that is, all exploiting marine and agropastoral resources equally—or can we see major differences from one town block to another? Were all neighbourhoods equally engaged in craft activities, or did some perhaps specialize in textiles and dyeing, for example? And is our new neighbourhood, close to the route up to the peak sanctuary of Petsophas, perhaps more linked to religious activities? These are all open questions for now. But what we will try to do over the next few years is integrate the results of our micro-scale analysis within the broader landscape, to study the effects of urbanization on land management – was there an intensification and diversification of land use in response to population nucleation? We think that working across different scales is crucial if we are to shed new light on processes of urbanization.

The Archaeology Centre, 19 Russell St., Toronto, Ontario M5S 2S2.    email:  archaeology@utoronto.ca