Thursday, December 11, 2014

Greece (Crete and Cyprus) is the Word

My PhD thesis, which is provisionally titled “The Cultic Life of Trees: What Trees say about People in the Prehistoric Aegean, Cyprus and Israel,” involves both an iconographical element and an archaeological component. The main goal of my research project is to investigate the meaning of images of trees within ritual situations depicted on Minoan and Mycenaean (prehistoric Crete and Greece ca. 1700–1450 BCE) stone seals, gold signet rings and frescoes. I am therefore studying two categories of evidence: images of proposed tree-cult rituals as depicted on gold rings, seals, clay sealings and frescoes held in museum collections, and actual three-dimensional archaeological sites situated within the landscape that have been proposed to correspond to the glyptic imagery.

I was awarded the Jessie Webb Travel Scholarship in 2013, but did my travelling in the first half of 2014. Beginning in Greece in January of that year, I was based at the British School at Athens for a month and a half but also spent a week at the British School at Knossos (Crete). During this time I undertook research within museum collections, at archaeological sites, and within libraries. 

I started off with an appointment at the National Archaeological Museum of Athens where I was able to visually examine, handle, photograph and draw Minoan style gold signet rings and stone seals relevant to my PhD thesis. Because my appointment was during a time when the museum was closed to the public (a Monday) I also had the opportunity for an uninterrupted view of all the displays in the Bronze Age gallery. I was accompanied by the curator of the Bronze Age gallery, Mr. Costas Paschalidis, and a conservator who were extremely helpful and accommodating. While in the study room of the museum I was also fortunate to network with Minoan archaeologist, Ina Berg, from Manchester University, who happened to be there and whose work I have cited in my thesis. On other occasions, while in Athens, I examined Minoan Style gold rings and ceramic figurines from Minoan peak sanctuaries in the Benaki Museum and the Museum of Cycladic Art.

I was also able to visit the sites such as the Temple of Hephaistos in the Athenian Agora which, while chronologically later than the scope of my thesis, is of interest in regards to understanding the feasibility of growing plants within rock-cut pits, as proposed for the garden at the Minoan palace at Phaistos, discussed below. I also visited the Athens Acropolis, reputed to have had a sacred olive tree, and the Cave of the Nymphs, both of which are important examples of urban sites that incorporated natural features and housed supernatural figures symbolic of trees (nymphs). I also visited the Panhellenic rural sanctuaries, Epidauros and Delphi, thought to derive from Minoan-style rural sanctuaries and which also both have Mycenaean era remains, as well as the important Bronze Age palatial site of Mycenae.

I alternated excursions to museums and sites with studying in the libraries of the British School and the American School of Classical Studies at Athens. During this time I worked on aspects of my thesis including both revision and editing of the presentation of my data, and on chronology and interconnections between the regions examined within my thesis. I also networked with other scholars at the British School, and attended talks hosted by the British School as well as the monthly Minoan Seminar hosted by the Athens Archaeological Society.

In Crete I studied the Minoan frescoes in the newly re-vamped fresco gallery at the Herakleion Museum, as well as figurines, ceramic vessels and other votive offerings from peak, rural and cave sanctuaries on general display. I hired a car and drove to Sitea in the east of Crete where I viewed the ivory pyxis from Mochlos in the Sitea Museum which is of extreme importance to my thesis and which is not yet properly published. In addition I visited the palatial sites of Knossos, Mallia, and Phaistos where gardens that may have incorporated sacred trees are reputed to have been. The purpose was to examine the locations around the palaces that previous scholars have claimed for “gardens” – all of which are speculative and unproven. In particular I was looking at the most commonly taken for granted claim for a garden at Phaistos – a rocky area which incorporates tiny pits – which on examination I was not convinced by.

Other urban sites I visited included the villa of Haghia Triadha near Phaistos where a famous larnax depicting trees in prominent cult contexts was found; Gournia where a baetyl which may have once been accompanied by a tree, as suggested by iconography, is located; and Vathypetro where there is a strong possibility that stone foundations are those of the elusive “Tripartite Shrine,” often depicted in iconography as being surmounted by a tree. I also visited the peak sanctuary of Jouktas twice to view its ashlar shrine, again a structure that within iconography is often topped by a tree, and the rural sanctuary of Kato Syme, a cult site that remained active from the Bronze Age to the Roman period and where, during the Archaic period, the god Hermes was associated with trees, possibly indicative of a continuation of Bronze Age cult.

After Greece I went to Austria, for the 15th International Aegean Conference, Metaphysis: Ritual, Myth and Symbolism in the Aegean Bronze Age, held in Vienna. A paper I had co-written with Sam Crooks and Louise Hitchcock, “Numinous Tree and Stone: Re-Animating the Minaon landscape,” was presented. Of course I went to all the museums and art galleries I could whilst there. A big highlight was seeing the famous Paleolithic figurine, the Venus of Willendorf, and my favourite Northern Renaissance painting of Adam and Eve by Hugo van der Goes.

Then from Austria I went to Cyprus where I stayed at the Cyprus American Archaeological Research Center (CAARI). My time in Cyprus was spent visiting regional archaeological sites and museums, visiting the main museum in Nicosia, and studying in the CAARI library. I hired a car and drove to the Sanctuary of Apollo Hylates at Kourion, where I studied the rock-cut pits thought to have contained trees. I also went to Lemba, Paphos, Palaepaphos-Kouklia, Kalavassos, Choirokoitia, and Kition – the main highlight being the aniconic cult stone of Aphrodite in Palaepaphos-Kouklia. In addition to southern (Greek) Cyprus I also went to Turkish Cyprus in the north, to Maa Palaikastro (which I could not find) and Enkomi (which somehow I did find). The largest amount of Cypriot Cylinder seals have been excavated at Enkomi.

As well as visiting regional museums I spent a lot of time in the Nicosia Museum looking at Late Bronze Age cylinder seals. Unlike the rest of the Near East, Cyprus has a lot of surviving cylinder seals, but practically no surviving sealings, or imprints on clay of those seals. This has led scholars to suggest that Cypriot seals were not used for administration but were talismanic. I also looked at ceramic vessels that had been decorated with (now disintegrated) wooden rollers, thought to be evidence of the use of seals for actual sealing, contra the above. I also studied votive miniature copper ingots, and possible evidence of male figures holding full sized oxhide ingots in the vicinity of trees on Mycenaean vases, a scene that appears also on Common Style cylinder seals. Other vases of interest included another Mycenaean example depicting what is thought to be scenes of pillar worship. The Cyprus Museum in Nicosia has many wonderful objects, including half the terracottas from the sanctuary of Ayia Irini, the other half of which are in Sweden. At the Bank of Cyprus Cultural collection I also saw intriguing wood evidence from Bronze Age copper mining.

From Cyprus I then returned to the British School at Athens where I mainly worked on my thesis in the library, having visited the Athens museums extensively when I was there earlier. I attended several archaeological lectures and meetings hosted by various organisations in Athens, including those put on by the British School, the Archaeological Society of Athens, and the Aegaeus Society. I also worked in the library of the American School of Classical Studies, next door to the British School.

I also went back to the British School at Knossos, hired a car and went to various sites. Particularly interesting was Archanes, which I visited in order to study its position in regards to Jouktas, the largest and most important peak sanctuary in Crete. This was useful because I was able to determine that Archanes was situated in a direct line west from the peak sanctuary which must have been a deliberate placement that linked the Minoan villa at Archanes with the most important cult site in the region.

I also studied the position of the cemetery of Phourni Archanes in regards to Jouktas, determining that it as well was deliberately placed in proximity to the peak sanctuary. The settlement of Archanes must have been situated within a wider cultic landscape that intersected with the palatial site of Knossos in the north. The sanctuary site of Anemospilia, on the north flank of Jouktas faces Knossos. These sites are important because the may prove to be the cult places where the cult scenes in the rings I am studying turned out to be enacted. In addition to peak sanctuaries I also visited the cave sanctuary of Psychro in Central Crete.

Fortunately, since my last trip to Crete in February during which only the frescos and a small amount of other objects were available to see in the Heraklion Museum, by the time I was there again in May the whole museum was open, after having been closed for many years. I consequently went several times to the museum because now all the important material is on display. Particularly important for my purposes were the gold and bronze rings, the stone seals and the clay sealings. Especially interesting for my thesis was the ability to look closely as the clay sealings in order to determine just how much of the mages on the sealings was visible – not much! Because when studying Minoan glyptic one tends to look at drawings of the sealings, it was very enlightening to see exactly how small they were, the degree of breakage, and the visibility or not of the images. Althoguth the sealings were tiny and their images hard to see, better lighting of the glyptic display would improve their presentation.

In addition to looking at tiny sealings I was also able to study other objects relevant to my thesis such as the Haghia Triadha sarcophagus, the Zakro Rhyton, the Mallia vase featuring cats under a tree, and many other important object and images. Whilst in Crete I also went to INSTAP, the Centre for Archaeological Research in Eastern Crete, where I was taken on a tour of the facilities (and to lunch) by the head conservator, Kathy Hall. From Crete I went to the island of Naxos to view an important seal which was, however, extremely difficult to photograph because of the abysmal lighting in that museum. At least I could see it; I just could not photograph it very successfully. Finally, I went to the island of Santorini in order to look at the archaeological site of Akrotiri and the frescoes in the museum. One of the buildings in particular at the archaeological site, Xeste 3, had important frescoes depicting cult scenes that I discuss in my thesis. The frescoes are not on the walls now, and are still being conserved, but it was useful to look at the building they were originally in.

The Jessie Webb scholarship emabled me to work in the regions that I am studying in my thesis: Greece, Crete and Cyprus (I have been to Israel several times on other occasions), and to investigate two particular apects of those places: the spatial and the iconographic. Without this trip I would not have been able to see and handle important Minoan Style gold rings and stone seals and visit palatial and cult sites in Greece and Crete, or examine Cypriot glyptic evidence, sanctuary sites, and the use of trees within metallurgy. In Crete it was particualry enlightning to personally view the relationship between the villa of Archanes and the peak sanctuary of Jouktas, in conjunction with viewing an important funeral cache from Archanes that includes one of the most important Minoan rings depicting a cult scene.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Witch Head Nebula

As we approach another sabbat, this is a reminder of how beautiful our universe is.

Thursday, October 2, 2014



I'm attending the joint annual meeting of the Society for Classical Studies and the Archaeological Institute of America in New Orleans from January 6 to 11th 2015 (really excited to finally be going to New Orleans!). I'm on a panel called Greek Shamanism Reconsidered, and I'm presenting a paper titled "Trance-former/Performer: shamanic elements in Late Bronze Age Minoan cult". Here's the abstract: 

The religion of Late Bronze Age Minoan Crete was characterised by several features that can be termed “shamanic”. These include ecstatic trance, dialogue with spirits, divine possession, the traversing of other worlds within a tripartite vertical cosmology, and therianthropic metamorphosis. Such activities were publically performed at cult sites situated upon mountains and within caves, as well as at urban locations. In addition they were engraved upon gold signet rings and stone seals, thus the events were both recorded and advertised through the multiplication of images associated with the Minoan administrative sealing process. Initially interpreted in the early twentieth century as blanket depictions of possession, Minoan cult procedure was characterised as involving the ingestion of psychotropic substances, the arrival of a possessing deity in the form of a bird, and the subsequent possession of the human participant – all of which manifested in frenzied dancing signifying a loss of control (Evans, 1901). Later scholars modified this diagnosis of possession, suggesting that rather than being “out of control” the scenes depict altered states of consciousness in which participants underwent non-ordinary bodily states but which were not necessarily characterised by the loss of control suggested by the term “possession” (Morris and Peatfield, 2002). Analysis of “shamanic” activity within Minoan religion can be more precise however. This paper argues that, along with images of classic ecstatic possession, glyptic art also depicts scenes of entasy in which spirits appear outside human figures, soul journeys to different realms, and the subjective trance experience itself. Three types of evidence will be used to support this contention: glyptic art, architecture, and the Minoan landscape. The main focus will be on miniature glyptic scenes on gold rings and stone seals. These depict images in which male and female figures exhibit extensive motor behaviour such as dancing and violently shaking trees, and alternately calm, contemplative visionary states whilst leaning over baetylic stones. Human figures also communicate with tiny airborne human and animal figures, see hovering abstract forms, and undergo possession by, and subsequently enact the role of, deities. These performances occur within the natural landscape, at peak or rural sanctuaries, in caves, and at urban sites. Scenes depicting the subjective trance state, shapeshifting, metamorphosis and therianthropic hybridisation will also be analysed. Architectonised versions of peak and cave sanctuaries such as stepped platforms, tripartite shrines, column shrines and pillar crypts, which evoke the idea of a central world axis through referencing trees, pillars and mountains, and incorporate the vertical cosmology of the Minoans within an urban environment, will also be examined. 

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Deciphering the Witches' Sabbath

Readers of London pal, Ethan Doyle White's, blog Albion Calling, may have seen the recent interview with Professor Ronald Hutton there in which he, among other things, discusses his book on Shamanism. He says there were two reasons why he wrote a book on Shamanism, the second reason being "Carlo Ginzburg's promotion of a universal archaic shamanism as a key influence on early modern images of witchcraft." We all know who Carlo Ginzburg is, right? Author of books useful to modern Witches such as The Night Battles, originally published under the title I benandanti, and particularly Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches' Sabbath, originally published as Storia notturna: Una decifrazione del Sabba.

Ginzburg's work is often cited by Pagans as some sort of "proof" regarding Witches that counters Hutton's and other sceptical Witchcraft historians' work. But there is no need to polarise the approaches. It's not really an "either-or" situation. Historians of Witchcraft - including Ginzburg - are discussing this, that is Ginzburg's theories of Witchcraft, and there are published results from the Harvard Colloquium Nocturnal Histories: Witchcraft and the Shamanic Legacy of Pre-Christian Europe. I have a copy of this if anyone wants it.

The history of Witchcraft is an ongoing project, and as you can see from Hutton's latest interview there is some pretty interesting scholarship fermenting away right now at Bristol. (Can't wait for that!) Anyway, the main purpose of this blog post is to direct readers to an interesting review essay on Ginzburg by Perry Anderson at the London Review of Books (yes its old, but still worthwhile to get an understanding of Ginzburg's methodology), also a review of Storia Notturna (from 1990, and only partial unless you subscribe, but still interesting). 

Friday, May 23, 2014

The Artifice of Daedalus: Modern Minoica as religious focus in contemporary Paganism

I have a paper in the upcoming conference, New Antiquities: transformations of the past in the New Age and beyond, happening in Berlin in June 2014.

The conference focuses on the twentieth century surge of fascination with the religious culture of the ancient Mediterranean, whose allure was appropriated in innovative ways by various actors and movements ranging from Rudolf Steiner to Goddess-cult(ure)s, from Neo-Gnostics in Brazil to the Russian New Age.

In these diverse interpretations and productive misunderstandings of antiquity, ancient gods, philosophers, religious specialists, sacred institutions, practices, and artifacts were invoked, employed, and even invented in order to legitimise new developments in religious life. Focusing on the contemporary period (from the 1960s to the present day), the goal is to identify these appropriations and changes of ancient religious life. Conference papers will address transformations of the past in the literature and cultural discourse of the New Age and beyond, extending into movements such as Neo-Paganism and Neo-Gnosticism.

My paper is titled: "The Artifice of Daedalus: Modern Minoica as religious focus in contemporary Paganism", and this is the abstract: 

That human society was peaceful, matriarchal and goddesses-worshipping during the Upper Palaeolithic period (45,000–10,000 years ago) until around 3000 BCE with the rise of patriarchy is a common belief within both the modern feminist Goddess Movement and contemporary Paganism. This gynocentric utopia is thought to have reached its height during the Neolithic period (ca. 9500–4000 BCE) but subsequently degenerated, its “last flowering” occurring during the Bronze Age in Minoan Crete (3000–1450 BCE) where it was eventually extinguished by the patriarchal Mycenaean Greeks.

This paper examines the representation of Minoan Crete within the literature of the feminist Goddess Movement from the 1970s up to the present day. In addition it investigates the utilisation of outdated and erroneous interpretations of Minoan religion within the separatist feminist practice of Dianic witchcraft, the predominantly female pursuit of goddess tourism and pilgrimage, and the formation of the male-only Neo-Pagan group, the Minoan Brotherhood. Analysis and critique of the interpretation of Minoan material culture by these groups demonstrates that these archaeological objects are interpreted in a highly ideological manner in order to support both contemporary religious belief and magical practice. That such interpretations often have little to do with actual Minoan religion is emphasised by focussing upon a group of the most important and evocative feminist icons of the Minoan past: the faience and ivory “snake goddesses”. Recent scholarship has demonstrated that these objects range from being heavily reconstructed to outright forgeries and consequently are not reliable representatives of ancient Minoan religion.

The interpretation of “goddesses” for these figurines can be located within the early twentieth century Hellenist intellectual milieu of the Cambridge Ritualists, particularly Jane Ellen Harrison, herself heavily influenced by Sir James Frazer and his model of a Great Mother Goddess and her Dying and Rising consort. The projection back in time of mythical characters from Homeric literature and classical myth onto the non-Greek Minoans, taken for granted as acceptable practice amongst Goddess worshippers today, can be located in Sir Arthur Evans’ early twentieth century interpretation of Minoan Crete. The use of Minoan artefacts of questionable authenticity along with an interpretative reliance upon outdated scholarship by modern Goddess worshippers means that their rituals, festivals and tours function as heterochronies, conceptually transporting participants to an idealised, imaginary past that provides aesthetic compensation for the imperfect world of today.