Kamares Ware: Style as Transgenerational Memory
by Emanuele Prezioso, PhD candidate, University of Oxford
Thanks to the support of the Gerda Henkel Stiftung and the ERC HANDMADE, I am currently undergoing research fieldwork at the Knossos Research Centre of the British School at Athens (BSA). Precisely, the fieldwork consists of analysing and populating a database with information on the ceramic materials known as “Kamares Ware”. The research stay in Knossos is part of my doctoral project Style as Memory: An Anthropological Approach to Kamares Ware in Crete supervised by Dr Lambros Malafouris (AP Cognitive Archaeology) at the University of Oxford.
In 1900 Sir Arthur Evans began excavating at Knossos what would be later considered the legendary Palace of King Minos. The trench pits he dug from 1900 to 1906 in different areas of the Palace revealed a significant quantity of Middle Bronze Age materials, mostly pottery. Among these, Evans and his field director Duncan Mackenzie found a finely decorated polychrome ware with white, orange, and red painted designs placed against a lustrous black background: the Kamares Ware – from the name of the cave where Kamares pottery was first found in Crete. Further excavations carried by Evans in 1922 and 1926, as well as later ones by Sinclair Hood in 1959 and 1960, brought to light more strata containing pottery with polychrome decorations.
Most of the Kamares Ware I am currently analysing at the Stratigraphical Museum comes from the original excavations by Evans and Mackenzie. These materials are still to date an invaluable source of data to understand the socio-cultural dynamics of the Middle Bronze Age. The ceramic kept in the Knossos Stratigraphic Museum I am analysing in these weeks comes from different areas of the Palace (e.g., the Area of the Polychrome Jug, the West Court, The Royal Pottery Stores, the Room of the Olive Press, the S.E. Kamares Area). The whole bulk of materials consist of more than 180 boxes. Most of these have already been thoroughly studied and published in the past decades. However, I believe these materials have still a lot to give us not just about Minoan archaeology but also regarding our ways of thinking and acting over time. In fact, all these materials are the bedrock on which I am supporting and developing the theoretical and methodological underpinnings of my doctoral research.
My doctoral research focuses on exploring how Kamares Ware guided potters’ ways of thinking and acting in the making of new pots in this style. By working within the framework of Material Engagement Theory, my research examines how the notion of style in archaeology (i.e., a tradition of doing something in a certain way) is a transgenerational memory. That is, a memory that guides ways of thinking and acting according to the qualities that regional traditions of Kamares Ware exhibit over different generations.
By thinking style in terms of memory, my research shows how this notion describes a creative process. Rather than remembering something from memory, I look at how ways of thinking and acting are re-created every time potters make new pots in a certain style. According to my ethnographic investigations and studies on embodied approaches to cognition, re-created refers to the capacity our bodies and brains have of adapting previously acquired ways of thinking and acting according to the situated context of action. Therefore, a style is re-created when potters engage with raw materials, tools, and previous creations through previously acquired practices in the context of making. Instead of being only a carrier of information or a recipe to be followed, my study highlights how style is a dynamic flow of materials, actions, and choices continually re-created according to social, cultural, and historical factors. Style, hence, is a kind of memory that is not relegated solely to the brain. Rather, it is distributed over space and time through every single form of material culture that shares functions and physical qualities.
My approach to style also explores how Kamares Ware is experienced as having a specific temporality and how this phenomenon is related to memory. The data collection I am carrying in Knossos is showing that each Kamares Ware pot accumulates and recapitulates all previous ways of thinking and acting. At the same time, each pot anticipates future creations (i.e., produce possibilities for actions and choices). Such an accumulation of past and future is one of continual discovery, modification, and emergence; it is not a linear sequence from a simpler to a more complex form. Nonetheless, styles are usually perceived as having a precise temporal trajectory from past to future. They even play a role in defining our experience of time. Thus, my study is focusing on understanding what role material culture has in our experience of time (e.g., generating narratives that link past, present, and future), and how it affects the re-creation of memory.
Kamares Ware presents us a unique kind of pottery and the perfect case study for my theory of style. Generally, ’Kamares Ware’ has proved to be a usefully ambiguous concept that allowed for dating the so-called Old Palace period. It seems to appear out of nowhere in the Middle Minoan IA to dissolve after circa 500 years into other forms and styles. However, this type of pottery does not only strike the eye; it is also extremely creative. Combinations of lines, dots, and other geometrical figures come together producing different motifs that accumulate, combine, and become standardised (or normalised) over time. Processes of accumulation, combination, and normalisation follow different regional traditions of Kamares Ware, with potters that embrace some forms over others. That is why, in my research, I take into account both temporal and regional variations with other sites (e.g., Phaistos, Malia, Palaikastro, Kommos).
My analysis of the Kamares Ware from Knossos examines how every pot with traits similar to others is an accumulation and combination of ways of doing and thinking. The memory of doing specific gestures, such as tracing lines and running spirals, and of thinking, in terms of choices taken and not taken. In this regard, what I am doing in Knossos at the moment is populating a database built to analyse Kamares Ware as an aggregation of actions that recur, change, or combine over time. Particularly, I record into specific tables of the database the sequences of elementary gestures (e.g., lines, dots, geometrical motifs) and their relationships into motifs. These motifs are then associated with others according to the macroscopical observation of the Kamares vessels.
At a later stage, the patterns obtained from interrogating the database will be compared to ethnographic data on pottery making. The aim is:
- to provide a model for the development of Kamares Ware regional styles that can explain knowledge and cultural transmission from the vantage point of Material Engagement Theory;
- to raise questions as to how we should understand Kamares Ware;
- to produce a theory of transgenerational memory that can be further explored with future projects on the intersection among temporality, materiality, and creativity.
Thanks to the kind support of Dr Kostis Christakis, the Knossos Curator, and to the BSA that allows me to analyse the Kamares Ware material, I can study at the Knossos Research Centre. The BSA in Knossos has a long history of studies, since Sir Arthur Evans established a ‘Reference Museum’ in 1905 within the Palace. High-level research has been carried out within the walls of the Stratigraphic Museum, which houses the materials unearthed since the early excavations at the Palace. But it is not only the long traditions of studies that make the Knossos Research Centre the place where I can carry out my doctoral research. The centre is the heart of a vibrant community of international academics from a plethora of different backgrounds. Looking at all these specialists studying and analysing their materials, and participating in discussions about their research, theories, and findings, it is invaluable. Each of these scholars has different specialisations, experiences, and tradition of studies. They are a source of inspiration for me to explore novel frontiers, study materials, and plan my future career. The academic and historical atmosphere of this place is what I like of pursuing my doctoral research at the Knossos Research Centre; a place where the flowing of ideas and inspiring conversations are the norm.