Kommos is situated on the shores of the Libyan Sea, which borders the western area of the Mesara, the largest plain in Crete (). That plain, extending east-west between the Idaian mountain range and the hills of the Asterousia, has a long and rich history of habitation from as early as the Neolithic Period (ca. 6500 B.C.). The largest ancient sites in the Mesara itself are Phaistos and Gortyn, both excavated by the Italian School of Archaeology during the last century. Phaistos, located on a high bluff commanding spectacular views of the plain, is best known for its sizeable Minoan palaces (ca. 1800-1450 B.C.). After the Roman conquest of Crete in the first century B.C., Gortyn became the capital of the island, and its remains reveal ample evidence of its former status as an impressive Roman provincial city.
Joseph Shaw (center) discussing features of the excavation in the Southern Area of Kommos with colleagues, surrounded by workmen, trench masters, and an artist preparing site drawings.
Excavations on the western limits of the Mesara have been sporadic and less extensive. One exception is Aghia Triada, where a lavish villa-like complex dating to the Late Minoan period was uncovered by the Italian School. The other exception is the coastal site of Kommos, where our excavation has been ongoing since 1976. Kommos first attracted the attention of archaeologists in 1924, when the famed excavator of Knossos, Arthur Evans, heard of large storage vessels from the site and speculated about the existence of a Bronze Age "Customs House" there. Our excavations have borne out Evans's suppositions regarding the commercial nature of the site and greatly surpassed our own expectations of what might be found at this beach-side spot. After 25 years of digging, Kommos is revealed as a major harbour, with monumental , massive stone storage complexes, and a (ca. 1800-1200 B.C.). Post-Minoan remains include a that was active until the Early Roman period, when the site was abandoned (ca. A.D. 200). The portable finds, which range from to local and imported and sculpture, speak of the seagoing interests and mercantile nature of the place. Vessels from Cyprus, Egypt, and Sardinia indicate the sphere of trade contacts enjoyed by the citizens of Bronze Age Kommos.
After many years of fruitful excavation, priority is now being given to completing the publication of the site. Recently published volume five is the last in our series published by Princeton University Press. It describes and interprets the Monumental Minoan Buildings in the Southern Area. A monograph dealing with Minoan House X is underway. Equal stress is being given to conserving the Kommos site and opening it up for visitors. This requires restorative construction to prevent erosion, and the provision of parking, sanitary and guard facilities, ramps, walkways and bridges, as well as a protective shelter above the Greek temple area. Such projects are expensive and time-consuming, but it is our hope that, funding permitting, the next few years will enable us to complete a vital chapter in the story of Kommos and introduce its fascinating history to the traveller who visits its sandy shores - online and on foot.
Maria Shaw (front left) explains displays of archaeological objects to visitors from the village of Pitsidia during one of the Open Houses held at the excavation headquarters there. Villagers continue to support and take an active interest in the Kommos excavation.
Publication of the Site
Published results of the Kommos Excavation take the form of preliminary reports (mostly in the journal Hesperia) and separate studies by various people, all listed in the Bibliography. In 1990 we also began publishing a series of volumes on the site. These are: I The Kommos Area and the Houses of the Town (in two parts); II The Middle Minoan Pottery (Betancourt); III The Late Bronze Age Pottery (Watrous); IV The Greek Sanctuary (in two parts), and the final and summary volume in the series, V, The Monumental Minoan Buildings.
Fortunately the Kommos site, where we began with hopes of finding a small harbor town, turned out to be more extensive and with more substantial important buildings then we could have imagined, along with discoveries not just of the Minoan period but Greek as well. With our commitment to full publication of what we have found nearing an end, in 2004 we began to focus on preserving the site we had exposed. The first step was to consolidate the high scarps created when we excavated the Minoan remains, while we left those of the Greek Sanctuary upon the higher, later level. There were also the ancient walls, built with stone and clay, which should be consolidated to prevent erosion and eventual collapse. This expensive process, carried out by professionals every summer, continues. Now, in 2006, we have reached a final stage, namely protecting from erosion and exposure the precious Greek Temple and the underlying monumental Minoan buildings. Our solution, seen in a photomontage here, is to build an innovative shelter of steel, plastic, and glass over that entire area. The architectural study, made by a consortium of Greek Architects and engineers, is now being considered by the Greek Archaeological Council. If it is approved, then we must find the wherewithal to actually build this beautiful structure where visitors can stand in comfort, to view with wonder some of the more remarkable ancient structures discovered on Crete.
Our Thanks to
Our first thanks go to the Greek Archaeological Service, which has granted us permission to excavate at Kommos since 1976, and to the American School of Classical Studies in Athens, which has furnished the actual permits. Yearly research and site work are made possible through the financial assistance provided by various granting agencies, the University of Toronto, and private individuals. Over the years, support from the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada and the Institute for Aegean Prehistory in Philadelphia has been particularly helpful. We are especially indebted to the University of Toronto, which has donated significantly to offset publication costs. Thanks also go to Lorne Wickerson for his generosity.
Joseph and Maria Shaw hold vases discovered in a Minoan house in the Late Bronze Age settlement at Kommos.
J.W. Shaw, Director of the excavations at Kommos since they began in 1976, received his doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania and has been a professor at the University of Toronto since 1970. He and his wife, Maria C. Shaw, have co-edited and contributed to a series of final volumes on the Kommos site (six published so far). He specializes in Bronze Age Aegean architecture.
M.C. Shaw, Assistant Director of the excavations at Kommos, received her doctorate from Bryn Mawr College and, like her husband Joseph Shaw, has been a professor at the University of Toronto for many years. Maria worked at numerous archaeological sites before digging at Kommos, where she is active in the field and as a co-editor and contributor to the final volumes on the Kommos site. Her speciality is Bronze Age Aegean Wall painting.
The website was originally prepared by Maria Shaw with the help of Dawn Cain, and then completed by Joseph Shaw, with Gordon Belray providing the digital expertise. Most of the plans and restorations were made by Giuliana Bianco, the excavation architect for the project, although Tom Boyd and Chris Dietrich helped as well. Photographs of the site are by Joseph Shaw, Taylor Dabney, and Alexander Shaw. Object photographs are usually by Taylor Dabney; object drawings were made by Julia Pfaff, also Giuliana Bianco.