Defensive architecture of prehistoric Crete

Defensive architecture of prehistoric Crete

During his PhD-study of classical archaeology (specialization Aegean Bronze Age) at the Charles University of Prague in 2001-2005, Tomas Alusik dealt – within the framework of his dissertation – with the study of the existence, typology and chronology of the prehistoric defensive architecture in Crete. The notion “defensive architecture” shall be understood as a term covering all architectonic solutions that defend or at least contribute to the defensibility of any settlement or building and its use for “military purposes”.

The remains of Cretan defensive architecture were found as early as the 19th century by various explorers and travellers. Pashley (1837) and Taramelli (1899), for example, mentioned the remains of a massive enclosure wall – at that time almost 5m high – on the Juktas Mountain. A. Evans travelled at the very end of the 19th century (1895-9) – at certain years together with J. L. Myres – through one part of Crete, especially the area of the Lasithi Mountains and saw numerous strange buildings made from the massive “Cyclopean masonry”. In his notes and diaries he called them “forts, strongholds, castles, guard stations, acropoleis” or he used the Greek term “phrourion” meaning “castle”. (Nowadays and also in this book the term “guard house” is mostly used to describe buildings of this type.) Therefore he presumed and stressed their military function and importance (several of these smaller “forts” were – in his opinion – subordinated to the bigger “mother fort”). In 1900 Evans started his excavations in Knossos and in the first years of his research he almost fully uncovered the whole palace. He also discovered several examples of defensive architecture. In 1930 on the outer side of the Western Court a section of the exterior fortification of the old palace, the “Outer Enceinte Wall”, was uncovered. In the meantime remains of the so-called East Enceinte Walls (on the opposite side of the last mentioned fortification), and a tower in the Northern Entrance into the palace, were also discovered. Several rooms located in the entrances to the palace or near them were called “guard rooms, warder’s lodge, porter’s lodge” and judged to be rooms in which the guardians checked incomers. Remains of the “Outer Enceinte Walls” and towers were on the whole ignored by Evans and thus during the first 30 years of his research – also thanks to Thucydides’ report about the Minoan Thalassocracy, i.e. supremacy at sea – he formulated a hypothesis on Minoan peace known as “Pax Minoica”. On the basis of this conception – strongly maintained till the end of the 1970s – Minoan towns and palaces were not supposed to have any ramparts because the possible danger was eliminated by the strong Minoan fleet at a sufficient distance from the Cretan shore. On the island itself – particularly during the Neopalatial period – peace was obviously maintained because the Cretan inhabitants were said to be a peace-loving nation, fond of art and flowers. This aspect of their character was deduced and presupposed by Evans on the basis of splendid finds from the Knossos palace, mainly frescoes depicting persons with distinguished expressions, occupied with any activity except for war. This conception was not questioned for a long time – based on Evans’ authoritative influence – and for a considerable period of time it determined interpretations of the basic character of Minoan civilization despite the fact that even before World War I and in the interwar period other examples of defensive architecture in Crete were discovered.

The most significant role during the research of defensive architecture played in the interwar period J. Pendlebury’s travels and research. Pendlebury systematically explored the whole island and recorded all remains of prehistoric and ancient buildings with the aid of Evans’s diaries from the end of the 19th century. Pendlebury confirmed the existence of many Evans’ “forts” and “guard stations” and he discovered many new similar locations but on some sites he did not find any remains of buildings being recorded earlier or he had his doubts about their correct localization. In the article “Lasithi in Ancient Times” of 1936/37 he discussed pre-historic “forts/guard stations” in the area, he stressed their military purpose and as the first scholar he questioned the “Pax Minoica” concept. The most important of Pendlebury’s works, “The Archaeology of Crete: An Introduction” was published in 1939 and he had mentioned a number of sites with defensive architecture. His book has been useful in certain respects till our time.

After World War II the conception of Minoan peace and Thalassocracy strongly influenced research on Minoan civilization. Till the 1980s all the discoveries of defensive architecture were considered either exceptional or isolated cases. Sometimes they were perceived as evidence of dangerous periods of crisis. Special emphasis was put on the chronological gap between the main periods during which Minoan civilization flourished.

The 1970s were the most important years for drawing attention (again) to Minoan defensive architecture. Alexiou read his paper at the 4th International Cretological Congress in Herakleion in 1976 (published in 1980; a similar article had been published as early as 1979 in the Cretan magazine Κρητολογία) and emphasised the number of defensively situated (on high or rocky hills) or forthrightly fortified sites which had originated in all periods of Minoan history except for the Neopalatial period. B. Rutkowski and K. Nowicki started their systematic research expeditions in the 1980s and concentrated chiefly on the eastern part of Crete and the Lasithi area. Both scholars registered many defensively situated sites (often with defensive architecture) mainly from the late Bronze Age and the Early Iron Age. Many surface survey projects started at the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s, and thanks to them some other sites with defensive architecture have been discovered. Many projects are still continuing.

On the basis of his studies of publications and/or his personal visits to several hundred prehistoric Cretan sites, Tomas Alusik discerns five types of the architecture in question. Besides the enclosure walls which are the most common in the prehistoric and ancient times, this category encompasses also towerlike structures (towers or bastions) as parts of enclosure walls or buildings respectively. Various guarding structures in the landscape as well as nearby the settlements, being known as “guard houses”, are very common and for Crete maybe the most typical. They were discovered and documented mainly with reference to the road system. This group includes bigger constructions with the character of forts and small watchtowers and guarding posts in the form of simple rectangular or circular walls. It is assumed that these structures also had guarding and monitoring purposes (among others) and sentries could warn inhabitants against the upcoming danger and control movement on the roads. Their specific function could differ though according to the region and topography. Enumeration of the defensive architecture will conclude with two types that occur in connection with the entrance to the settlement or the interior of the building. So-called guardrooms are spaces found mostly in the entrance corridors of buildings – Minoan palaces and so-called Minoan villas or “Country houses”. They were judged to be specific guardrooms or porter’s lodges. In several cases such spaces are connected with the entrance (gate) to the whole settlement. The author uses the term “modifications of access systems” in cases when the entrance to the building (mostly a palace or a villa) is gradually closed by architectonic means (by wall constructions and/or by the construction of a guardroom or a tower) and the entrance through it is limited. The building is more closed from the outside and thus its defence potential is increased.

However, the real military meaning of many examples of defensive architecture was in fact small or at least limited – often only psychological. Size, construction technique, location as well as other significant signs like low military defence potential and strategic defects of many concrete examples of fortifications have also some psychological, or psychosocial purpose. Their important task would be then to discourage subjugated inhabitants and other potential attackers from the raid on the settlement or its central building. As for other possible war situations the construction method and actual appearance of most fortifications would suggest only smaller occasional and short-term military actions than permanent massive war operations connected with long-term siege.

During the prehistoric era – from the Late/Final Neolithic phases continually through the whole Bronze Age in all its periods and chronological horizons – the defence in Crete was expressed also architectonically with the help of the defensive architecture. The history of defensive architecture in Crete was, in the Prehistoric period, very long, (surprisingly?) varied and often complicated – and it obviously did not finish with the end of the Bronze Age.

The result of this project was Tomas Alusik’s PhD-thesis, the revised version of which was published in May 2007 as Defensive architecture of prehistoric Crete (British Archaeological Reports – International Series 1637) in Archaeopress publishing house (in Oxford;

Tomas Alusik has been still dealing with the study of the wider aspects of Aegean Bronze Age warfare, incl. the defensive architecture. His related activities or follow-up projects (see “Projects” section for more information) are:

  • Defensive architecture of prehistoric Crete in wider context
  • Excavations at Choiromandres – a part of “Minoan Roads Research Programme” (2007)
  • Archäologische Geländeprospektion Südostkreta (2008)
  • Excavations in Gournia (2011)

For more information on Minoan defensive architecture see:

Alušík, T., 2007: Defensive architecture of prehistoric Crete. British Achaeological Reports – International Series 1637, Oxford.

Driessen, J. – Macdonald, C. F., 1997: The Troubled Island: Minoan Crete before and after the Santorini Eruption. Aegaeum 17, Liége – Austin.

Laffineur, R. (ed.), 1999: Polemos. Le contexte guerrier en Egée a l’age du bronze. Actes de la 7e Rencontre égéenne internationale, Université de Liége, 14 – 17 avril 1998. Aegaeum 19, Liége – Austin.

Nowicki, K., 2000: Defensibles Sites in Crete c. 1200 – 800 B.C. (LM IIIB / IIIC through Early Geometric). Aegaeum 21, Liége.