Rock art enthusiasts and researchers will be pleasantly surprised while discovering the moderate but diffused presence of Minoan Palaces “rock art”; two main categories are present: mason’s marks and cup-marks – so-called kernoi – all these engraved upon the ashlars limestone blocks of the Minoan Palaces, mainly in the first centuries of the 2nd millennium BC. Some interpretation problems arise, concerning the sacred or practical character of the marks and the use of the kernoi as offering tables or as popular or childish board games. A great concentration of such items may be found at the Phaistos Palace...
by Andrea Arcà
Phaistos, Crete, cup-marks and other signs
summarising notes and photogalleries
If you look at the masterpieces of Cretan archaeology, you won’t be able to count them on ten fingers (or even more…); worldwide renowned, they show their architectural strength in the “Palaces ” of Knossos, Phaistos, Mallia and Hagia Triada, visited yearly by more than a million turists.
Considering the great amount of points of interest, the “rock art” – broadly speaking – of Minoan Palaces could be likely ranked out of a generalist top ten list; but not for rock art enthusiasts and researchers, who will be pleasantly surprised while discovering, along with its features, its diffused and moderate presence.
We may briefly divide it into two main categories: (so-called) mason’s marks and cup-marks, all these engraved upon the ashlars blocks, mainly limestone, cut to build the Minoan Palaces or their monumental stairs, or upon their pavement slabs. Both mason’s marks and cup-holes – using a Greek archaeological definition cup-holes are referred to as kernoi, in analogy with vessels later used in Eleusinian mysteries for multiple offerings – have been thoroughly treated in literature; we may cite: for the mason’s marks Stillman 1881, Mariani 1895, Evans 1921, Pernier 1935, Hood 1987, Cucuzza 1992 (extensive bibliography) and 2001, Begg 2004; for the kernoi Boyd 1901, Chapoutier 1928, Evans 1930, van Effenterre 1955, Hood 1984 and 1995, Whittaker 1996 and 2003, Hillbom 2005, Ferrari and Cucuzza 2004, Cucuzza 2010.
As always in archaeology, some interpretation problems arise, concerning the sacred (religious? magical?) or practical (identification of the stonecutter or positioning signs) character of the marks – also their possible alphabetical origin or meaning – and the use of the kernoi as offering tables or as popular or childish board games, with tokens. Considering the nature of these short notes, the better advice is to refer to the cited references.
A great concentration of such items may be found at the Phaistos Palace, the second most important Minoan palace after Knossos, unearthed by the Italian Archaeological Mission of Crete since 1900; archaeological diggings were supervised by three important Italian archaeologists, in chronological order Federico Halbherr (Halbherr 1902, 1905, 1906), his disciple Luigi Pernier, who published two complete and thorough volumes dedicated to the 1st and the 2nd palace (Pernier 1935, 1951), and Doro Levi, who directed the Italian Archaeological School of Athens and the Phaistos diggings from 1951 to 1966 and published a monumental work in four volumes (Levi 1976).
More than 220 mason’s marks are reported at Phaistos by Pernier 1935 – the same by Hood 1987, who reports also 750 mason’s marks at Knossos and 130 at Mallia – mostly connected to the First Palace (Pernier 1935: 399-415), which is dated 1900-1700 BC. On the other side 94 kernoi are catalogued by Ferrari and Cucuzza in their 2004 in-depth paper, scattered along the stone paved west court and its related steps, an open-air structure believed to be an area for shows or ceremonies, i.e. a theatre, as defined by the archaeologists who unearthed it, mainly because the steps are not connected to any exit way.
Considering their shapes, but ignoring their meaning, nowadays still unknown, “mason’s marks” are catalogued in the Hood 1987 paper as double axes, tridents, stars, branches, gates, crosses, raised arms (bras levés), arrows, thunderbolts, dumbbells, snakes and so on; eight of these categories – mainly double axes, tridents, star and branches – are present in all the three Minoan main sites (Knossos, Mallia, Phaistos). Some of them (“thunderbolt”, and a specimen not inserted in the Hood’s table) may recall schematic anthropomorphic figures.
Mason’s marks at Knossos were firstly reported at the end of the 18th century, thirteen years before the arrival of Evans at Crete, by the American journalist and historian William James Stillman: “the characters inscribed, whether they are taken as hieroglyphs, indications for the builders, or keys to the threading of the passages, evidently belong to a period prior to the use of letters or any complete system of numeral record” (Stillman 1881). A more detailed sketch – a star, a double axe and a swastika are depicted – was published in 1895 by Lucio Mariani, archaeologist and professor at Pisa and Rome universities, reporting that that “Stillman already noted on the ashlar blocks the quarry marks, on which Mr. Evans found a fundamental basis to support his discovery of the pre-Hellenic alphabet of Crete” (Mariani 1895).
A complete catalogue of Phaistos Palace marks was published by Pernier in his 1935 work, with detailed descriptions, position of the marks and many drawings. Reading Pernier’s pages, it is possible to confirm that most of them were cut on the ashlar blocks of the First Palace; some characteristics, as their positioning upon hidden faces of the blocks or traces of plastering testify that they were hidden from view after the completing of the palace; for these reasons we may argue that they were more likely connected to the building phases than to the symbolic decoration of the palace. This is also the advice exposed in Ian Begg 2004: “their purpose, however, may have remained the same: to record the masons responsible”.
If interested, you may take a look to the related TRACCE photogallery (23 images): Phaistos Palace, mason’s marks photogallery.
On the other hand, sir Arthur Evans thought that these incised marks, which also at Knossos mainly belong to the earlier Palace, had a religious meaning: “it will be shown that these square gypsum pillars, on which the Double Axe symbol is continually repeated, were themselves objects for offerings” (Evans 1921: 218). A table with the sketches of nearly 50 marks is published by Evans at page 135 of the same book.
Even more intriguing is the situation of the so-called kernoi. If found elsewhere, like in the Alpine or Scandinavian petroglyphic complexes, they would be defined as cup-marks, or better little cup-marks, arranged in circular or square formations, often around a central large cup-mark or basin. However it should be underlined that, while the morphology of each single cup-mark is the same – a simple shallow hole – the arrangements of the cup-holes of the Cretan stone kernoi are peculiar and don’t match Alpine or Scandinavian comparisons. A key point seems to be the well-known cylindrical hard-limestone Mallia table, connected to the architecture of the New Palace, roughly 17th-15th century BC. It was discovered in 1926; measuring 90 cm in diameter, with 34 carefully shaped circular cups – one larger than the others and slightly extruding from the circumference – positioned around a central larger and deeper bowl 15 cm large, it is perfectly worked and smoothed. Stone kernoi often reproduce this pattern – a central larger depression surrounded by a series of little ones – on a small scale; interpreting the Mallia item as an offering table – Chapoutier in his 1928 paper thought it was utilised for the panspermia rite, the un-bloody offering of the country products – or as a board game – van Effenterre in 1955 proposed a relation with a game of chance, called Naumachia on the base of a later Greek inscription – would alternatively suggest the same function for the little kernoi engraved on stone pavement slabs. The question gets more difficult if considering other theories, mainly suggesting that the cups might have been containers for burning oil lamps, for funerary (Demargne 1932) or heating (de Pierpont 1987) purposes.
Other two similar cylindrical stones have been found at Chrysolakkos (Demargne 1932; Chron. 1952) – the site has been interpreted by Demargne as the Mallia princely funerary monument – both with cup-marks regularly arranged in one or two circles and a central bowl. Although not so regularly and carefully worked as the Mallia stone-table, other boulders with a flat upper surface and regularly arranged cup-holes are coming from the Mallia Palace again (Chapoutier 1928 p. 302), with a larger central basin and 40 surrounding cup-holes, of which one is greater, and from Gournia (Hood 1989), 30 cup-holes roughly arranged in a circle.
Chapoutier supports his interpretation by similarity, citing some paragraphs of the Deipnosophists, written by Athenaeus of Naucratis (2nd-3rd century AD) more than 1500 years later than the Mallia table, where different kinds of cups are treated; the kernos, carried in processions, is described as a “vessel made of earthenware, having a number of little cups glued to it”, containing different kinds of offerings, like cereals, beans, “honey, oil, wine, milk and sheep’s wool unwashed” (Athen. XI 476 , 478). Otherwise, a clear relation between kernoi and lamps is referred by the scholiast of Nicander’s (2nd century BC) Alexipharmaca, again cited by Chapoutier: kernoi are “mystical kraters where lamps are put”.
At Phaistos the stone kernoi are interestingly concentrated over the limestone steps of the terraces of the so-called theatral area and along the paved flooring beneath, which constitutes the west court. They appear worn, more likely for anthropic use than for natural weathering, so testifying foot traffic and/or the sitting of spectators. Depressions are too shallow to contain anything, apart from holding little pebbles or seeds. Such a connection with open-air shows or ceremonies would favour the game-related interpretation, if intended as a leisure activity whilst awaiting the beginning of the shows, or, on the contrary, a reduced offering ritual, imitating on a small-scale the greater one, possibly performed on the court. They were firstly described by Pernier as “little round holes arranged in a circle or a rectangle, maybe with game purposes”. Also the recent works of Helene Whittaker (2002) and Niklas Hillbom (2005) favour the game-related interpretation, even if, for Whittaker, connected to elite activities with ritual implications.
If interested, you may take a look to the related TRACCE photogallery (20 images): Phaistos Palace, kernoi photogallery.
In his 1930 work, Arthur Evans strongly supports the idea of pavement games. Regarding Knossos, he refers to a broken cupped slab from the Queen’s megaron, where 7 cup-holes are disposed in a semicircle – two of them, opposite, larger and doubles, are aligned along the diameter – and the circle was most likely completed by five more symmetrical cups on the missing part. The idea is strengthened by the “Southern steps of the ‘Theatral area’ at Knossos as well as at Phaestos, [where] there are plentiful traces of a Minoan game of a similar kind in which the cups are arranged in parallel rows so as more or less to form a square” (Evans 1930: 395).
Moreover, as concerns the famous Mallia table, which is also embedded in the pavement of the palace, the adjacent flat stone should be interpreted as a sitting bench for the players, the central bowl may have been a container for the pieces and the small one-columned portico a sort of “salle de jeux” (ibid. : 394). Regarding the later Early Geometrical Age, Evans cites a cupped slab found in the Room 1 of the kastro of Kavousi, the “Chieftain’s residence” – for this exceptionally large room today is presumed a special function, public, political or religious (Haggis et al. 1997: 340) –, with 10 circled cups regularly arranged along the inner side of a compass engraved circle, divided by a diameter line with two cross lines; thanks to the information reported by the American pioneering archaeologist Harriet Boyd Hawes in her 1901 paper, the interpretation as a board-game “used for some game like draughts or roulette” seems to be assured by the finding inside the same Room 1 of a “clay counter which exactly fits the holes in the stone” (Boyd 1901: 141-143).
A further element is spent by sir Arthur Evans to support his interpretation: a painted stucco fragment, coming from the “waste heap near the North-West portico” of the Knossos palace, shows four squatting figures of boys in lively action; the main character is “half kneeling with the arm that is visible resting on the ground; [his] interest would appear to centre on the pavement below” (Evans 1930: 396); the action of playing a pavement game seems here to be clearly depicted.
Again a double line of sacred or practical interpretation is suggested by the two portable Protopalatial stone kernoi of the Juktas Peak sanctuary (Karetsou 2012), a few kilometres from Knossos. The disposition in rows and the shape of the numerous and shallow cup-holes, executed by drilling, would be suitable to contain little pebbles or beans, to be collected into the larger basins after the play; on the other hand the finding of these items in a sanctuary area, at the base of a stone altar, although upside-down in a secondary use, should be interpreted as a clear evidence of a ritual connection.
The same question is attentively faced by Nicola Cucuzza in his 2010 paper, trying to find a conceptual link between offering pots and “slabs with depressions” (kernoi), suggesting that the common factor might have been the redistribution of foods and beverages, as performed both in Palatial and funerary contexts with a ritual and religious background.
Concerning chronology, the situation of the Phaistos engraved kernoi is rather well defined by stratigraphic data: all the first five lower steps of the theatral terraces were covered by the concrete pouring of the second palace flooring; the four remaining steps stood in use during the period of the second palace (Pernier 1935: 342-343), and maybe later. So a clear terminus ante quem is available – before the second Palace, which was built during the Late Minoan IB, roughly 1500 BC – at least for a part of these kernoi. Moreover, as observed by Ferrari and Cucuzza in their 2004 paper, the similarities among the kernoi engraved on the lower steps and on the flooring and the ones of the upper steps likely suggest, at Phaistos, a dating of all these items to the Protopalatial period. It should be underlined, on the other hand, as observed by Cucuzza, that similar holes, although more precisely and geometrically executed, in two cases arranged in a perfect circle, are present over the steps and as a reutilised stone of the Monumental Civic Building of Azoria (Kavousi Kastro; Haggis et al. 2005-2006), built during the 6th century BC and destroyed in 480 BC, thus suggesting the use of these boards until the archaic period.
Spiral and cup-marks
Two other elements should be briefly outlined: first of all, a well engraved spiral is present over the 7th step (from below) of the Phaistos west court; as it is clearly different from the nearby cup-holes or kernoi, and as it lies over the Protopalatial level, its chronological attribution cannot be as clearly delimited as the one of the cup-holes. If one prefers a game-related interpretation, it should be added that the spiral could be someway related to the ancient Egyptian Mehen board game (3000-2300 BC), a plate in the shape of a coiled snake with a multi-segmented body.
The last point is related to four real cup-marks, identical to the alpine ones (e.g. Foresto or Susa), with flushing out grooves – also a kernos over the same step shows an S-shaped groove – engraved over the 6th step; these cup-marks are deeper than the nearby cup-holes, although similarly smoothed. As I wasn’t able to find any reference, nor do they seem to have been catalogued, it is worth deserving some attention to such engraved items, which could give some chronological suggestions also for a part of other areas cup-marks.
– Pisa University, Dottorato in Scienze dell’Antichità e Archeologia;
– IIPP, Italian Institute of Prehistory and Proto-history;
– Footsteps of Man archaeological society
Acknowledgments: Nicola Cucuzza for his kind helpfulness and his papers.
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Appendix – Phaistos on site panels
(by Ministry of Culture, 23rd Ephorate of Prehistoric and Classical Antiquities)
The Palace of Phaistos
The hill of Phaistos was inhabited as early as the Final Neolithic period (4500-3200 BC), when an extensive Neolithic settlement was established, succeeded by a settlement of the Prepalatial period (3200-1900 BC). These early settlements were followed by the foundation of the First Palace of Phaistos (1900-1700 BC), which was built on the NE part of the hill in order to control the whole of the fertile plain of the Messara. Around this arose, in the Minoan period, the extensive city of Phaistos, which continued to flourish until Hellenistic times (323-67 BC).
The First Palace was built around 1900 BC. It was extensive, covering an area of approximately 8,000 sq.m, and spread over the three stepped terraces of the hill. It was inhabited for about two and a half centuries, during the course of which it was destroyed and rebuilt three times, and was destroyed for the last time by earthquake in about 1700 BC. After the final destruction, its ruins were covered in a thick layer of lime mixed with clay and pebbles, on which the New Palace was built.
The New Palace was smaller in size but more monumental than the Old Palace. It was destroyed in 1450 BC as were most Minoan centres. The Palace of Phaistos was not rebuilt after its destruction. The city around it continued to be inhabited, flourishing in Geometric (800-700 BC) and Hellenistic (323-67 BC) times. Around 150 BC the city was destroyed by neighbouring Gortys, which now arose as the new power of south Crete.
The west court and the theatral area
The large, paved West Court, in front of the facade and the central entrance to the palace complex, dates from the time of the Old Palace (1900-1700 BC) and played an important part in the lives of its inhabitants.
On the north it is bounded by a high wall which also supports the Upper Court, which is on a higher level. At the foot of the wall are eight wide steps which formed the seats of what may be called a theatral area. As with the corresponding “Theatre” of Knossos, from here spectators would have watched the religious events and festivals taking place in the court. The West Court is crossed by a raised “Processional Causeway” similar to that of the Upper Court, which continues up the steps of the Theatral Area.
During the time of the New Palace, the West Court was widened and raised to a higher level, so only 4 of its 9 steps remained visible. After the reduction of the Theatral Area, the great staircase must have been used as an additional theatral area for the events and ceremonies held in the West Court.