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A Network Approach to Urbanization and Processes of Invention/Innovation in the Material Culture of Bronze Age Crete (3100-1200 BCE)

Final Report Summary - NETURBIN (A Network Approach to Urbanization and Processes of Invention/Innovation in the Material Culture of Bronze Age Crete (3100-1200 BCE))

[Summary description of project context and objectives]

The project focused on the relationship between urbanization and processes of invention/innovation in the material culture of the Bronze Age society of Minoan Crete (3100-1200 BCE).

In essence, it first addressed issues of settlement growth, layout and elaboration, but also developed a diachronic approach to connections between settlements and investigated issues of site hierarchies. Methodologically, along with a description of urban infrastructures, the intra-site study made use of space syntax, an approach to spatial organization through graph analysis, to highlight characteristics of the selected sites in terms of accessibility, street layout, and density of occupation. At the inter-site level, comparisons allowed the production of a typology of settlement patterns. These corresponded to the objectives of the first research period. In its last phase, the project subsequently adopted a network approach to model and test hypotheses in terms of how settlements related to one another through time and across different scales (local, regional, island-wide).

Secondly, the project intended to consider the appearance of technological innovations constituting crucial watersheds in the production of various aspects of Minoan material culture (including architecture, ceramics, glyptic, metalwork, script, etc.) and analyzed their spatial distribution. The proportion of technological novelties exhibited in the archaeological data of various types of settlements through the history of their occupation were then highlighted. These corresponded to the objectives of the second research period.

Finally, on the basis of the hierarchies of settlements and the demographic processes they implied, a network analysis of scenarios of diffusion of innovations was conducted and evaluated in terms of their congruity with archaeological data. Through these analyses, the project ultimately aimed at exploring to what extent urbanization played a role in the appearance of technological inventions, the spread of innovations, but also the persistence of traditional expressions of material culture of Bronze Age Crete.

[Main results]

A / Urbanism and urbanization of Bronze Age Crete

The project was first dedicated to documenting Minoan urbanism and investigating processes of urbanization in Bronze Age Crete. Urban settlements are indeed usually considered a prominent feature of Bronze Age Crete. We therefore first focused our research on providing a critical assessment concerning statements on the Minoan urban phenomenon. Although Minoan scholars have collected numerous data and provided precious insights, a thorough evaluation of these results was still lacking. Such a perspective was a necessary step to devise a broad framework in which to successfully mobilize this rich data set and successfully implement our research project. This was all the more necessary considering that, in recent years, there seems to be a growing interest for complex phenomena such as the urbanization and settlement patterns of Bronze Age Crete.

Our research highlighted the existence of a weak link in our chain of inferences concerning the Minoan urban phenomenon. In most – if not all – studies the gap between data collection and interpretation is usually bridged by a simple formal description. In other words, after selecting a data sample (e.g. a set of particular urban features) or a case-study (e.g. a site or a type of building), scholars usually rely on a visual examination and/or comparison of published plans which, in the best case scenario, is supplemented with field observations. In a second time, features that can back up the interpretation are emphasized and usually described with a certain level of details. As common and widely accepted as it may be, such a process remains problematic. That data description should bridge the gap between collection and interpretation is incontestable; it simply is one of the cornerstones of archaeological research. What is in question here is the type and degree of that description. It has long been acknowledged that there is more in the built environment than simple formal characteristics; complex spatial and structural properties can indeed be analyzed in buildings, towns and cities.

We therefore underlined that a lack of assessment of such properties had a deleterious impact on the way we understand the Minoan urban phenomenon and on the degree to which we acknowledge its inherent complexity. First of all, because our descriptions are essentially geared towards interpretive goals and rely on a selective approach of formal characteristics, a whole range of elements that constitute the urban fabric are usually disregarded or treated atomistically. Secondly, it follows that, to date, Minoan urban settlements are almost exclusively presented as relatively static by-products of socio-political processes. Detailed hypotheses are made on site hierarchies, settlement patterns and, ultimately, state formation, whereas our understanding of the ‘building blocks’ with which such interpretations are constructed is lacking if not fundamentally flawed.

Consequently, we argued that paying due attention to the broad range of spatial and structural urban properties can allow us to go beyond a mere description of Minoan urban settlements as static products and foster an analysis of the townscapes of Bronze Age Crete as dynamic processes. Not only in terms of their temporal evolution – recent and detailed diachronic studies already exist – but more fundamentally in terms of how they operated, which particular circumstances they created, which phenomena or practices they triggered, potentiated or constrained. It is suggested that a perfect conceptual framework to foster such an analysis – in other words to try to understand what Minoan urban environments did – can be found in a particular understanding of urban environments as problems of organized complexity. Progressively developed in the last decades, this perspective considers urban aggregations in terms of the flows of energy, matter and information they host and aims at investigating the structural relations, or networks, making such flows possible. Towns and cities are hence seen as self-organizing systems subjected to operational and evolutionary principles that can be approached analytically. Adopting such a perspective – i.e. thinking of Minoan urban environments as processes – could help us to approach their material remains differently, to pay attention to characteristics that were not deemed meaningful before and, by going beyond basic formal descriptions and functional approaches, to potentially create innovative and informative links in our data set. Furthermore, by focusing on what could be termed ‘urban agency’ and highlighting complex spatial and structural properties, we could start to think about the Minoan urban phenomenon for itself and decouple it from hypotheses pertaining to socio-political organization. It has been shown that the dynamics of urban aggregation had no necessarily link with particular forms of political structure or types of social groups. Therefore, we have to admit that the patterning of built environments is not a mere product of human intent but also follows its own dynamics that need to be analyzed before any explicative or causal associations are drawn.

This feedback loop between an in-depth analytical approach of urban environment and an acknowledgment of townscapes of Bronze Age Crete as dynamic processes fostered a better integration of the abundant but somewhat disparate studies that already existed in a more coherent research framework and was key to a better understanding of the Minoan urban phenomenon. This, of course, required a comparative approach to Minoan urbanism which was developed in collaboration with Prof. Michael E. Smith and Prof. Carl Knappett. An innovative methodology was developed to evaluate the urban character of various types of settlements while summarizing the major features of Minoan urban built environment. Eventually, it also contributed to lay solid bases for our approach of the diffusion of technical innovations in the material culture of Bronze Age Crete. Finally, the project also revolved around the characterization of the three scales of the built environment involved in our research: the micro-scale of architecture and building dynamics, the meso-scale of urbanism and communities, and the macro-scale of processes and patterns overall Crete and beyond its shores.

B / Technical innovations in the production of material culture in Bronze Age Crete

This second phase of the project was first geared towards a timeline of invention/innovation in the production of Minoan material culture. Our first objective was to chart their spatial distribution and to classify sites according to the proportion of technical novelties they exhibited. Practically, the project focused on the creation of a database listing the technological breakthroughs in various crafts, a characterization of innovative features, the chronological span of their existence, their spatial distribution, and finally, their imbrication with other artisanal activities and/or particular settings in the built environment. Given the wide variety of crafts during the Minoan period, a specific focus was put on architecture, sphragistic and glyptic, administrative practices, stone vessels production, ceramic, utilitarian and precious metals, plaster and fresco production, and textiles. Innovations in these crafts were also compared to the development of sailing techniques which certainly played a major role in the diffusion of such features throughout the eastern Mediterranean world.

The beginning of this survey of innovation in the production of Minoan material culture also allowed us to address important corollary questions such as the problem of data preservation, the combination of novelties and the new technical demands of innovations but also the cumulative effect of innovations or piggy-backing. More importantly, this study highlighted crucial chronological markers for the appearance of particular innovations and regional patterns in their spatial distribution. During the last phase of the project, this survey was completed and provided an integrated overview of technological breakthrough in the production of Minoan material culture.

C / Correlation between the urbanization of the Crete and the diffusion of technical innovations

Investigating the correlation between urban environments and technological breakthroughs in the production of material culture in Bronze Age Crete aimed at defining how Minoan urbanization might have worked as a catalyzer for innovative behaviors. Evaluating the different settlements considered in the project showed a strong correlation between urban development (i.e. street system with drainage, overall arrangement of buildings, formalized public space/area, rise in site size, etc.) and the presence of innovative ways of production in various crafts. More precisely, on the basis of the diachronic data base completed during this third phase of the project, it was determined that most of the technological breakthroughs attested in the archaeological record were actually concomitant with the urban development of the major Minoan sites (e.g. Knossos, Phaistos, Malia, etc.) between EM II-III and MM I-II (i.e. 2550-1750 BCE). This corresponds to a period of an important demographic pressure coupled with more intense contacts and trade with the rest of the Aegean and the Near-East.

It is also worth noting that, although some of the major technological breakthroughs are first evidenced in palatial sites as early as EM II it is not before MM II that material culture attests to a progressive adoption of new techniques throughout Crete. Furthermore, only the Neopalatial period (1650-1400 BCE) saw a diffusion that can be considered really extensive, reaching most of the settlements on Crete, whatever their size. Ultimately, these innovations took hold and evolved throughout the beginning of the Late Bronze Age and finally withered with the palatial collapse to the exception of new techniques linked to the production of weapons (i.e. new types of swords), armor (e.g. corselet, helmet) but also in terms of sailing techniques with the invention of the loose-footed brailed sail in LM IIIB2 (ca. 1330-1190) which gave a higher navigational flexibility to ships. Both elements are considered important features of the crisis period that characterized the very end of the Bronze Age.

Through similarity measures we began to determine potential interconnections between different settlements and to define if these could have contributed to produce the particular spatial distribution of new techniques attested in the archaeological record and in various crafts. For doing so, different modeling experiments were conducted using the Ariadne platform (Knappett et al. 2008 and 2011). Although more tests are required, especially to allow for a fine grain analysis at a regional scale, these experiments showed that the innovation cradles that were the major palatial sites were truly hubs in the diffusion of technological breakthroughs. More surprisingly, some simulations also made clear that minor sites, depending on their location, could have a very strong impact on the diffusion as relays or gateway to more remote regions of the island. Of course this raises important questions related to the area of influence of the palatial settlements as well as to the longevity of regional idiosyncrasies despite the emergence of an island-wide culture, particularly strong since the beginning of the Neopalatial period.

[Contact information]

Dr Quentin Letesson

FIAL - Place Blaise Pascal 1 bte L3.03.13 à 1348 Louvain-la-Neuve

Phone: 010 47 49 60