Rethinking Minoan Destruction

While looking for something else, I chanced upon this column in the Seismological Society of America newsletter (July/August 2012) … here’s the first paragraph as a bit of a tease:

Since its discovery in the beginning of the twentieth century by British archaeologist Arthur Evans, the Bronze Age (Minoan) civilization of Crete (Greece, ca. 3000–1200 B.C.) received considerable scholarly, scientific, and popular attention (e.g., Papadopoulos, 2005). Although subject to critique and revision (e.g., Hamilakis, 2002), Evans’s ideas and hypotheses about Minoan society remain remarkably central to modern archaeological research on the island (e.g., Schoep, 2010). The recognition of the disruptive effects of earthquakes on Minoan society represents one of Evans’s enduring legacies. Earthquakes have been considered as responsible for the successive destructions of the palace of Knossos (Evans, 1928) and as convenient time markers for Minoan archaeological periods (e.g., Driessen, 1987). Nowadays, they are often seen by Minoan archaeologists as an unattractive explanatory concept (Cadogan, 2011), at least when divorced from their wider social, political, and economic contexts (e.g., Driessen and Macdonald, 1997). Fear of catastrophism, undesirable use of deus ex machina phenomena, and resistance to Occam’s razor (lex parsimoniae) as a heuristic guide to archaeological explanation partly account for this situation. The ambiguous value of Minoan archaeological remains as indicators of ancient earthquakes may also have played a role: although damage typologies have been put forward in Greek archaeological contexts (Stiros, 1996), their applicability to Minoan earthen and rubble constructions is often limited. As a result, recognition of ancient earthquake damage on Minoan archaeological sites is frequently based on isolated observations (e.g., Sakellarakis and Sapouna-Sakellaraki, 1981; Vallianou, 1996; Monaco and Tortorici, 2004) and limited archaeological/palaeoenvironmental evidence (e.g., Gorokhovich, 2005), thereby perpetuating a catastrophist research tradition initiated by Evans more than a century ago. In the current context of increased scientific and scholarly interest in evaluating the role of archaeological data in seismotectonic studies, we feel that the time is ripe to critically evaluate the nature of Minoan archaeological data and assess their significance as indicators of ancient earthquakes. Getting to grips with the Minoan case may provide us with a new methodological basis for assessing the archaeoseismological potential of comparable archaeological stratigraphical contexts in the Eastern Mediterranean (Bronze Age Greece, Anatolia, Cyprus, and Levant) and in other parts of the world where cultural remains mainly consist of earthen and/or rubble constructions (e.g., Indus valley civilization and American Indian cultures). […]