Ceramic Studies

The settlement of Sissi is quite remarkable considering the quantity, quality and variety of ceramic assemblages that have thus far been excavated. At the close of seven archaeological campaigns, we have inventoried no less than 590 crates of ceramic sherds as well as 3021 individual ceramic objects, which are undergoing conservation. Particularly large assemblages of pottery found in primary or secondary position and in a good state of conservation cover a very important time span of Minoan history. Parallel to the excavations campaigns, several pottery conservation (see the section on materials conservation and management) and study campaigns have been conducted, the continuation of which will eventually allow us to propose a reconstruction of a particularly long local ceramic sequence. Here are some preliminary results of our analyses.

Prepalatial pottery

  1. Early Minoan II

The earliest house tombs at Sissi date to the Early Minoan II phase. Very few pottery vessels were found in association with these burials but the settlement to which these Early Minoan II house-tombs belong has become more evident during the 2015-2016 campaigns. Indeed, in addition to EM II sherds associated with red clay floors within Building CD (top of the hill), extensive occupation layers with (disturbed) primary and secondary ceramic deposits related to this phase have come to light in the area of the later Neopalatial ceremonial building on the east slope . In particular, the EM IIB pottery from a secondary, homogeneous deposit found in Room 11.1 includes mainly imported Vasiliki ware vessels (such as a teapot and some shallow bowls) and locally produced Mottled ware (deep and shallow bowls), which imitates the Vasiliki ware, as well as Cooking and Semi-coarse wares.



Fig. 1 Zone 11, to the north of the later court-centered building on the east slope, imported Vasiliki ware from the EM IIB homogeneous deposit of Room 11.1© Sissi Project


  1. Early Minoan III/Middle Minoan IA

During the late Prepalatial period, plenty of activity went on in the cemetery . Several new tombs were constructed and reconstructed and the cemetery gradually extended to the western terraces. For example, the lower strata of compartment 9.1 has revealed a group of vases datable to EM III/MM IA that are associated with one of the several individuals buried in the room. The group includes two shallow bowls, one plain and one painted in red on the interior surface, one fragmentary two-handled spouted jar with incurving shoulder and one fragmentary jar decorated with a relief band.

Fig. 2 Zone 9, cemetery on the western terrace, EM III/MM IA pottery from Compartment 9.1© Sissi Project


EM III/MM IA pottery deposits within the settlement, which could allow us to link the funerary practices of the inhabitants of Sissi to their households, are still rare but do exist. They seem to be associated with structures on top of the hill that were cut through when the Neopalatial Building CD was constructed. This pottery is of very good quality.


Fig. 3 Top of the hill, open area south of Building CD, EM III/MM IA pottery deposit associated to some structures cut through by the construction of the Neopalatial Building CD © Sissi Project



Protopalatial pottery

  1. Middle Minoan IB

The Middle Minoan IB phase, the first stage of the Protopalatial period, is still not very well understood in the region, neither at Sissi nor at nearby Malia. The only area at Sissi that has so far provided layers containing MM IB pottery is the cemetery. The MM IB phase is especially illustrated by funerary compartment 9.5, excavated in 2016, where MM IB vessels are represented by one-handled goblets, which seem to anticipate MM II products, as well as a teapot and a miniature tronconical cup.


Fig. 4 Zones 1/9, cemetery, MM IB pottery from house tombs © Sissi Project


  1. Middle Minoan IIA-IIB

The Middle Minoan II phase can be subdivided into a MM IIA and a MM IIB sub-phase. Good amounts of MM IIA pottery have been found in the cemetery, both in compartments and external areas. In particular, during the MM II phase, open areas between the tombs were extensively used for some collective events that implied the consumption of food and drink, as suggested by the impressive and compact ceramic assemblages of broken MM IIA and MM IIB pottery collected outside the funerary structures. These mainly include small open shapes, but also some cooking (tripods, plates) and storing vessels (amphorae, ovoid wide-mouthed jars).

Fig. 5 Zone 9, MM IIA and MM IIB pottery from the external area © Sissi Project


The MM IIB phase is very well-known in the region, thanks to the excavations of an impressive series of monumental buildings at the neighbouring site of Malia, in particular Quartier Mu, which has produced evidence for an extensive MM IIB destruction (Poursat & Knappett 2005). At Sissi, MM IIB pottery is attested both in the settlement and in the cemetery.

Residential evidence related to MM IIB is still scattered, as mainly revealed by some isolated deposits and tests made in the different large and later buildings located on the top of the hill (Buildings CDE) and on the east slope (Building F). The remains of a MM IIB occupation horizon recognized in Building CD may correspond to the south extension of a substantial building for which better evidence may come from the area to the north of Building CD – zone 8. There georadar survey identified major alignments of walls and first excavation trials have provided MM II pottery (to be continued in 2017-2019).

Fig. 6 Building CD, Room 4.5, homogenous MM IIB deposit © Sissi Project


During MM IIB a major change occurred in the funerary area, with pithos burials inserted in pits being dug within the previous house-tomb cemetery. The pithos illustrated in Fig. 7, bearing both relief decoration on the base and black drippings on the body, finds good comparisons in the MM IIB destruction levels identified at Malia, especially in Quartier Mu and Building Dessenne.


Fig. 7 Zone 9, MM IIB pithos from the cemetery © Sissi Project



Neopalatial pottery

  1. Middle Minoan IIIA-IIIB

The ongoing excavations and study of substantial MM III ceramic deposits at Sissi promise to shed some new light on the intermediate period which is Middle Minoan III, or the beginning of the New Palace period, which remains enigmatic, although current projects in different regions of the island have allowed a recent reappraisal of this issue (Macdonald & Knappett 2013, Intermezzo). At Sissi, the excavated contexts in question need further study but we think we can distinguish at least two different occupation horizons, Middle Minoan IIIA and Middle Minoan IIIB. It will be particularly interesting to compare our results with the current ceramic analysis of the MM III pottery at Malia, since in Quartier Pi, a similar subdivision of the MM III occupation and ceramic horizon has also been suggested.

A primary floor deposit comprising quite a variety of pottery that we attribute to a MM IIIA horizon was found in a test within the north-east sector of Building CD (Space 4.4). This varied repertoire shows evidence for continuity from the earlier local MM IIB assemblages, as indicated by similar fabric recipes and the consumption of similar shapes such as the coarse ledge-rim bowl or cups decorated with barbotine, but also important changes, such as a red slip and burnishing of some fine open and closed vessels, and the clear diminution of the MM II omnipresent straight-sided and carinated cups, which contrasts with the appearance of new shapes such as the ubiquitous plain handleless cup, or the perked-up, beaked jug.

Fig. 8 Building CD, N-E sector, space 4.4 © Sissi Project


Excavations in the area of the megalithic wall, located at the foot of the south slope of the hill has yielded an important MM III fill. This is a mixed assemblage, including earlier MM II sherds, but with a most possibly MM IIIB terminus post quem.


Fig. 9 Foot of the south slope, megalithic wall, MM III fill (MM IIIB terminus post quem) © Sissi Project


A MM IIIB ceramic horizon seems to characterize two large fills of mainly open drinking vessels, excavated in two different zones of the site: the first one was found in the open area located on the top of the hill, between Buildings CD and E, the second one comes from what may have been a plastered bench in the east wing of the court-centred building on the east slope of the hill. If the latter corresponds to a foundation deposit, MM IIIB may be the moment at which the complex was constructed. It is worth noting that the ceremonial building, excavated in 2015-2016, does not seem to have had a long life since the few vases collected on the floors of the different wings, which were left there when the building was abandoned, include a few ledge-rim and handleless cups and some other early Neopalatial vases, making it LM IA at the latest. The Theran ash confirms this date.

The mentioned MM IIIB fills include quantities of plain handleless cups, made in various fabrics and characterized by various profiles, from tall and bell-shaped to large and conical, to compact and rim-inverted. Other types of drinking shapes (less than 5% of the assemblages) include some ledge-rim cups, some with ripple decoration, but also straight-sided or rounded cups, with a wide flat base and a strap handle, decorated in light-on-dark. More particularly, the deposit excavated in the east wing of the court-centred building comprised at least 110 handleless cups, six cups of other types, two basins (lekanes), five bowls, four cooking pots, one amphora, three closed vessels, one lamp, one miniature vase, one snake figurine, and finally, a globular rhyton painted in dark-on-light lustrous ware of brownish-red spirals and tortoise-shell ripple; it is one of the very few pattern-painted vessels found in these MM IIIB contexts and has a close parallel in the Malia palace.


Fig. 10 Open area between Buildings CD and E on the top of the hill, MM IIIB fill full of drinking vessels © Sissi Project


Fig. 11 East wing of the court-centred building on the east slope, MM IIIB fill full of drinking vessels© Sissi Project


  1. Late Minoan IA-IB

In 2016, outside the west wing of the court-centred complex to the south, we found considerable quantities of volcanic Santorini ash mixed with a large assemblage of redeposited pottery. The mendable vessels are few but the deposit seems homogenous in date and is related to the LM IA phase and perhaps at an early stage of the latter. This ceramic group is neither properly conserved nor studied as yet, but we may already pinpoint some features that distinguish it from the MM IIIB ceramic horizon: the use of lighter fabrics (more buff than red), the first evidence for the typical (at Sissi and Malia) LM IA S-profile cup with a handle which is round in section, and a greater homogeneity in the profiles of the handleless cups, which mostly tend towards a conical outline, although they most often show a large base and an everted shape which still differs from the narrow-based, compact and rim-inverted typical LM IA conical cups found in zone 2 (see below) but also by the thousands at LM IA Malia.


Fig. 12 Zone 10, area south of the west wing of the court-centred complex, LM IA (early?) pottery mixed with volcanic Santorini ash © Sissi Project


LM IA ceramic assemblages from elsewhere on the site mainly come from the so-called industrial quartier in Zone 2, on the west slope of the hill. The repertoire is limited and very homogenous, in terms of paste recipes, shaping techniques and morphological types. Rooms 2.6 and 2.8 were found full of LM IA domestic pottery in secondary position, with no evidence for fire. There is a large proportion of mendable vessels, including conical cups, mainly with a small base and a more compact profile, S-profile cups with a handle round in section and a thumb impression on the underside of the base, plain or rim-dipped, tall convex cups with a handle round in section, plain or rim-dipped, tripod cooking pots and large basins with relief rope decoration.


Fig. 13 Zone 2, rooms 2.6 and 2.8, LM IA (mature?) household assemblages in secondary deposition© Sissi Project


LM I deposits have also been excavated in different areas and trenches within Building CD on top of the hill, but further ceramic analysis is needed to allow us to distinguish the LM IA and LM IB deposits, since most of the fine ware is undecorated throughout LM I and an important continuity seem to characterise the repertoire of shapes and the technical practices (paste recipes and shaping techniques, with a majority of wheel-thrown small open shapes from LM IA onwards, in contrast with the still large proportion of wheel-fashioned cups in MM III) between these two phases. Among these different Neopalatial contexts, an extensive fire destruction deposit from a destroyed basement (room 4.19) has provided a substantial number of vases, mostly conical cups and, to a lesser extent, S-profile and tall convex cups, associated with burned seeds, a dozen very heavy and large melon-shaped loomweights, and a lentoid seal engraved with an agrimi . Besides the evocative contextual data, the preliminary analysis of the ceramic assemblage seems to indicate a LM IB horizon. Typo-stylistic features in favour of such a date concern the introduction of taller convex conical cups, of particularly large (rim D. 12 cm) and wide-based S-profile cups and maybe, of a strap handle for the regular S-profile cup (rim D. 8-9 cm). Otherwise, the seemingly LM IB local repertoire is much in continuity with LM IA traditions.

Fig. 14 Building CD, N-E sector, basement room 4.19, LM IB fire destruction deposit © Sissi Project


Final Palatial pottery

  1. LM II-IIIA1/2

There is good evidence for continuous occupation of the hill of Sissi in the aftermath of the LM IB destruction episode, although thus far LM II pottery and occupation have not been recognized. The LM IIIA1 pottery collected on the site, however, is of highest quality and follows Knossian standards, with well-tooled, ledge-rim rounded cups decorated with a frieze of typical LM IIIA1 motives, slipped and carefully burnished one-handled goblets, thin-walled, finely executed and well-fired plain conical cups, sometimes provided with a handle, and pyxides. This said, LM IIIA1(/IIIA2 early) pottery has not yet been found in clear association with architectural structures and the largest LM IIIA1 deposit thus far unearthed at the Sissi comes from the outside area just in front of the south façade of Building CD. Further study will assess the possibility whether this assemblage has fallen from the first floor of a LM IIIA building situated at the location of the later Building CD.

Fig. 15 Open area between Buildings CD and E, LM IIIA1 secondary deposit found against the south façade of Building CD© Sissi Project


  1. Late Minoan IIIA2

The LM IIIA2 occupation at Sissi is mainly identified in Building E, the south wing of the hilltop complex. This phase ended with a destruction by fire suggested by primary destruction deposits found in rooms 5.11, 5.12 and 5.13. The fine wares consists in a variety of drinking vessels including large open conical cups, footed cups, deep cups with a slight ledge-rim, a deep conical kylix, pulled-rim ogival bowls, but also the collar-necked jug. This assemblage is technically very well-made, with elegant thrown shapes, plain or slipped and sometimes carefully smoothed or even burnished. A macroscopic examination of vessels which were not over-fired suggests the use of a similar, semi-fine orange to brown fabric for the majority of the table wares except for the kylix, which is thrown in a fine light buff paste and decorated with a painted band at rim. These LM IIIA2 drinking vessels seem then to constitute a homogenous group in terms of pastes, types and technology, which clearly differs from the later LM IIIB drinking wares found in Building CD (see below). Coarse plain wares include a flat-based cooking jar, and a snake-tube. The latter is provided with two ‘snake’ handles but also two pairs of vertically arranged short horizontal protuberances, which is an uncommon feature. Two other types of ‘snake’ and ‘snakeless’ tubes come from the LM IIIB advanced shrine 3.8 in Building CD. Finally coarse painted wares in Building E are represented by a transport stirrup jar and a bath-tub larnax (not yet conserved).

The particular decoration of the transport stirrup jar deserves a few comments. Two elegant antithetic spirals developing above into two elaborate loops adorn both sides of the shoulder. At least two transport stirrup jars from Malia, one from Quartier Nu and a second from Quartier Epsilon (Deshayes & Dessenne 1959: 131, pl. XLVII:6, 8), and two others from the last palace at Knossos (Popham 1964: 13, pl. 3d-f; Haskell et alii 2011: 140, fig. 4, pl. 8, KN32-33) show a similar motive and decorative syntax at shoulder. LM IIIA2-B transport stirrup jars with a more complex painted decoration on shoulder than simple horizontal or undulating bands on the body seem to belong to Central rather than Western Cretan production centres (Haskell 2004: 155). The Knossos examples mentioned above are made in red clay, while the two stirrup jars from Sissi and Malia, Quartier Nu are in a semi-coarse buff fabric with numerous black and grey inclusions. A first program of petrographical analysis conducted on Postpalatial pottery from Quartier Nu had identified this particular stirrup jar as belonging to a consistent production group from the ‘South Coast’ (Carl Knappett, unpublished study). However further research by Florence Liard (2015; forthcoming) on the same lot and additional petrographical samples from Quartier Nu, combined to a micro-regional geological survey along the north-eastern coast of Crete, has suggested a closer origin for, at least, some vessels of this petrographical group, and links it to the exploitation of clay sources in the area of Chersonissos, 7 km to the west of Malia.

Fig. 16 Building E, rooms 5.11, 5.12 and 5.13, LM IIIA2 destruction deposits


Fig. 17 a. Sissi, Building E, room 5.11. LM IIIA2 transport stirrup jar (photo: C. Nikolakopoulos; drawing: H. Joris); b. Malia, Quartier Nu. LM IIIA2-B transport stirrup jar (J. Driessen) © Sissi Project



In the LM IIIB Building CD, a test beneath the floor of room 3.6 yielded an earlier deposit comprising a figurine, a kylix and an incomplete conical rhyton that seem to date to this earlier, LM IIIA2 occupation horizon of this extensive LM IIIB complex.

Fig. 18 Building CD, room 3.6, LM IIIA2 occupation horizon© Sissi Project


Post-palatial pottery

  1. Late Minoan IIIB

Late Minoan IIIB middle

A new major moment of construction took place at Sissi at the beginning of the LM IIIB phase. The main complex is now concentrated in the north area of the hilltop, Building CD, while Building E was abandoned. Important deposits of heavily broken but complete LM IIIB pots, mostly in primary position, were recognised on many of the floors of the rooms of Building CD. Based on stratigraphical and architectural data, the use of most of the numerous peripheral rooms of the building corresponds to a major LM IIIB early phase of occupation, ending around LM IIIB middle or a bit later (ca. 1250/1230 BC). The good preservation of the many ceramic vessels seems to indicate a rapid burying. The hypothesis of an earthquake destruction of Building CD in mid-LM IIIB has been proposed (Jusseret et alii 2013). Some contextual data may disagree with this hypothesis, such as the fact that some rooms were found almost empty or the virtual absence of metals and precious objects – or human remains – from these deposits. This would rather suggest a deliberate and organised abandonment of the complex, with the most valuable goods taken away. The rapid sealing of the finds may still be due to an earthquake, which could have happened sometime after the desertion of the building. The ceramic analysis of the abundant deposits of Building CD is still ongoing. The three following illustrations of well-circumscribed deposits from Building CD (rooms 4.9, 4.15 and Pit 87) give a good idea of this ceramic horizon at the site. Main changes concern the use of buff fabrics, in addition to red ones, for similar, common shapes, including the footed cups, shallow bowls, but also amphorae and transport stirrup jars, as well as evidence for several Mycenaean imports.


Fig. 19 Building CD, room 4.15, LM IIIB middle floor deposit© Sissi Project



Fig. 20 Building CD, room 4.9, LM IIIB middle floor deposit© Sissi Project



Fig. 21 Open area between Buildings CD and E, Pit 87, LM IIIB middle fill© Sissi Project



Late Minoan IIIB advanced

Following this main LM IIIB occupation horizon which ended in mid-LM IIIB or a bit later, a brief reoccupation of Building CD at a slightly later stage within the same phase is suggested. Although no stratigraphically consecutive LM IIIB layers have been identified, a reoccupation – most probably after some hiatus – is indicated by the discovery of several blocked doors of rooms that comprised abandonment deposits of the previous phase. Cleaning operations and reoccupation during a later stage of LM IIIB seem then to have happened only in a few internal spaces, including rooms 3.3, 3.6, 3.8, 3.9, 3.10, and possibly large halls 3.1 and 4.11 as well. Further study of the stratigraphical, architectural and ceramic data is certainly needed to reinforce this hypothesis but a preliminary presentation of the pottery can be proposed. The pottery from the primary deposits collected in some rooms includes several vessels for which the best parallels date to an advanced stage of LM IIIB – that is, in the second half of the 13th c. BC. Moreover, these vessels often represent entirely new shapes at the site, as far as we can compare them with contexts currently linked to the previous LM IIIB phase. The floor deposits excavated in rooms 3.3 and 3.8, with the latter being a shrine (Gaignerot-Driessen 2011: 89-92), are currently related to this LM IIIB advanced and last occupation horizon at Sissi, which is, in particular, illustrated by a panel-patterned decorated krater, a cylinder-necked jug and a wide flat-based stirrup jar.


Fig. 22 Building CD, room 3.3. LM IIIB advanced reoccupation; panel-patterned decorated krater; cylinder-necked jug; large shallow bowl© Sissi Project



Fig. 23 Building CD, Room 3.8. LM IIIB advanced reoccupation; conical bowl; snake tube; snakeless tube; transport stirrup jar; non-local closed shape; jug; wide flat-based stirrup jar© Sissi Project



Finally, room 3.6 is a special case. This room is mainly known for its impressive collection of 58 terracotta spools, hourglass-shaped loom weights generally considered as a typical production of the ‘Sea People’, here collected in what appears as one of the earliest contexts in the Aegean (see Building CD). These were found in two ‘nests’ in the central-north part of the room, just under the large fragments of two huge tripod cooking pots smashed on the floor. The fabric, profile, typological features and dimensions of the latter are quasi identical. Their profile and typological features are very comparable to examples from advanced LM IIIB sites such as Kalamafka (Aposelemis gorge) and from LM IIIC Kastrokephala (Kanta & Kontopodi 2011: 131, fig. 14b). These large containers were found next to finer shapes, such as a plain high-stemmed kylix, a monochrome footed cup, and a decorated miniature stirrup jar, as well as coarser vessels including a straight-sided pyxis decorated with linear bands in dark-on-light, a plain bell bowl, and a plain trefoil-mouthed narrow-necked jug with a wide base. The footed cup – although isolated – clearly differs in shape (much higher profile) and manufacture (fabric, shaping technique of the foot) from the examples found in the assemblages linked to the previous LM IIIB phase, as illustrated above. The jug is a totally new shape at the site for which we are presently not able to provide any relevant parallels. The small stirrup jar has a solid false-spout which is a late feature on Crete. Indeed this technique by which handles and false spout are fashioned in one unit, joined in a second step to the body of the vase, is typical of the Mycenaean mainland, from LH IIIA2 onwards in some regions. At Khania, it appeared in LM IIIB2 (Hallager 2003: 216). The stirrup jar from room 3.6 is most probably an import from the Mainland, which seems to suggest a LH IIIB2 or LH IIIC Early date. As such, this vase may support a later stage in LM IIIB as a terminus ante quem for this deposit.

Fig. 24 Building CD, Room 3.6. LM IIIB advanced footed cup; bell bowl; wide flat-based trefoil-mouthed jug; pyxis; miniature stirrup jar; huge tripod cooking pots © Sissi Project



Eventually, it will be particularly interesting to compare this LM IIIB late ceramic horizon at Sissi with the earliest pottery assemblages collected in the framework of the survey and new programme of excavations conducted on the nearby reliefs of the Anavlochos (EFA excavations, dir. F. Gaignerot-Driessen).

  1. Late Minoan IIIC and later material

Some isolated ceramic sherds found in the court area of the Ceremonial Building on the east slope suggest more or less limited later activities on the hill, later than the widespread desertion at the end of LM IIIB, such as a krater body fragment which looks LM IIIC, one or two pieces of Archaic and Hellenistic vases, and fragments of Late Antique or Early Byzantine vases.

Fig. 25 LM IIIC and latter isolated ceramic sherds found in the court area of the Ceremonial Building on the east slope© Sissi Project

Ilaria Caloi (Pre- and Proto-palatial periods)

 Charlotte Langohr (Neo-palatial, Final- and Post-palatial periods)

All photographs by Chronis Nikolakopoulos (except when mentioned)

All drawings by Hannah Joris


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