Blog Post #17: Grad Student Feature with Rachel Dewan

One of Peopling the Past’s goals is to amplify the work of young and/or under-represented scholars and the amazing research that they are doing to add new perspectives to the fields of ancient history and archaeology (broadly construed). We will thus feature several blog posts throughout the year interviewing graduate students on their research topics, focusing on how they shed light on real people in the past.

What topic do you study?

I am currently finishing up my doctoral dissertation at the University of Toronto on the use and significance of miniature ceramic vessels in Minoan Crete. Miniaturization is a hallmark of the material culture of Bronze Age Crete, with carved signet rings, detailed miniature frescoes, and intricate engravings on gems and sealstones attesting to the propensity towards the small-scale in its art and the technical skill of its artists. Miniature pots, however, have been given far less scholarly attention.

Since the early days of Minoan archaeology, miniature vessels have been associated with the mountain-top sacred sites of Bronze Age Crete known as peak sanctuaries and have often been uncritically dismissed as ritual objects. Their presence at peak sanctuaries alongside other small-scale objects such as figurines and architectural models, led to the interpretation of miniature vessels as votive offerings to deities, regardless of their contexts. But if they are gifts to the gods, what does it mean when miniature pots are found in domestic assemblages, included alongside the mundane pots and tools of houses, or in groupings of palatial ceramics? Do these tiny vessels always serve ritual functions? These are among the questions that my research attempts to answer, interrogating the qualitative and quantitative features of these objects, their contextual associations, and theoretical approaches.

What sources or data do you look at?

As a prehistoric archaeologist in an art history department, I am all about the material remains! And since objects are really all we have when it comes to the study of Minoan material culture, my doctoral research focuses on the miniature pots themselves. In the summers of 2018 and 2019, I conducted a material study of more than 500 miniature pots dating to the Protopalatial and Neopalatial periods of the island (this correlates with the early to mid-2nd millennium BCE) from 13 sites across Crete.

The results of this study were diverse! Miniature Minoan pots exist in all forms and shapes, including miniature cups, bowls, jars, jugs, scoops, and kantharoi. Although miniature cups and juglets were the most plentiful forms in my study corpus, the great range of shapes was striking and many of them were found in a variety of sizes from tiny token-like pots less than 1.5 cm high, to 8 cm juglets that would serve just as well as coffee creamers in modern cafés as they must have in Minoan Crete.

Uncovering a miniature pot during excavations at Palaikastro, Crete in June 2015. Photograph by the author.
Uncovering a miniature pot during excavations at Palaikastro, Crete in June 2015. Photograph by the author. 
The author studying miniature pots in the basement of the Institute for Aegean Prehistory (INSTAP), Crete in June 2018. Photograph by Jonathan M. Flood.
The author studying miniature pots in the basement of the Institute for Aegean Prehistory (INSTAP), Crete in June 2018. Photograph by Jonathan M. Flood.

When I was in the field studying these pots, I recorded their measurements, took note of their forms, decoration, fabric, manufacture, and sketched and photographed each one. Later, after I had entered this data into a database, I investigated their contextual associations, noting each miniature pot’s context within the site and any associated artifacts. The wide variety of contexts in which miniature ceramic vessels were found was surprisingly large. If their ritual status is to be accepted, we might expect a large percentage of the study corpus to have been found in explicitly ritual or sacred contexts; this was not, however, the case – only 5.56% of all 503 miniature pots were uncovered in areas associated with ritual activity. Beyond their occasional ritual functions, miniature vessels appear to have been integral to the secular world, used as tools in manufacturing, as part of cooking assemblages, or incorporated into dining sets. The ways in which miniatures were used and their significance in various contexts seems to have relied on their semiotic meanings; while some types of miniature pots were used in practical, domestic activities, others were powerful signs and objects employed in ritual.

How does this research shed light on real people in the past?

My research suggests that many of the small-scale pots found in secular Minoan spaces were used in everyday activities integral to the daily lives of Crete’s Bronze Age inhabitants. Miniatures cannot be regarded exclusively as ritual, are not restricted to one type of context, and do not appear to be associated exclusively with a particular socio-economic class of people. Instead, miniature vessels seem to have been a pervasive type of object in Minoan society, and a study of their characteristics, findspots, and assemblages can tell us much about the real people of Bronze Age Crete.

Studying miniature vessels at Phaistos, Crete in July 2018. Photograph by the author.
Studying miniature vessels at Phaistos, Crete in July 2018. Photograph by the author.

Furthermore, a reinvestigation of published peak sanctuary material suggests that the presence of miniature pots at these Minoan sacred sites may not be as ubiquitous as previously thought. The uncovering of small-scale pots at some peak sanctuaries but not others, and the appearance of certain miniature forms at specific sanctuaries, may suggest that when they were incorporated into ritual, miniatures were employed in a personalized and individualized form of worship rather than a necessary feature of all Minoan ritual.

I am intrigued by the ways in which humans grapple with the ineffable facets of life and the ritual activities and material objects that help humans to enact their spirituality in the physical world. In matters such as these, it seems to have been the miniature to which the inhabitants of Bronze Age Crete turned for support, recognizing that sometimes, as Mark Morris (2006, 110) eloquently notes, “the small conjures up infinity more easily than the large.”

Further References

Knappett, Carl. 2012. “Meaning in Miniature: Semiotic Networks in Material Culture.” In Excavating the Mind, edited by M. Jessen, N. Johansen and H. Jensen, 87-109. Aarhus: Aarhus University Press.

Morris, Mark. 2006. Models: Architecture and the Miniature. Chichester: Wiley-Academy.

Simandiraki, Anna. 2011. “Miniature Vessels in Minoan Crete.” In Πεπραγμένα Ι΄ Διεθνούς Κρητολογικού Συνεδρίου, Χανιά, 1-8 Οκτωβρίου 2006, edited by M. Βλαζάκη and E. Παπαδοπούλου, 45-58. Vol. A3. Χανιά: Φιλολογικός Σύλλογος.

Tournavitou, Iphiyenia. 2009. “Does Size Matter? Miniature Pottery Vessels in Minoan Peak Sanctuaries.” In Archaeologies of Cult: Essays on Ritual and Cult in Crete in Honor of Geraldine C. Gesell, edited by A.L. D’Agata and A. Van de Moortel, 213-230. Hesperia Supplement 42. Princeton: The American School of Classical Studies at Athens.

Rachel Dewan is a current PhD candidate and SSHRC Doctoral Fellow in the Department of Art History at the University of Toronto. Her research investigates the use and significance of miniature ceramic vessels in Bronze Age Crete, analyzing their changes over time, functions within the domestic sphere, and potential uses in ritual. She is interested in the intersection of art historical and archaeological methods and their applications to ancient art, particularly the manipulation of scale and the materiality of religion. Prior to her doctoral work, Rachel obtained a Master of Studies in Classical Archaeology from the University of Oxford and a BA in Near Eastern and Classical Archaeology from Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. She has excavated in Jordan, at the Minoan settlement of Gournia, and is a current team member of the Palaikastro and Mochlos archaeological projects on Crete. Rachel is also passionate about archaeological outreach and student engagement, currently serving as Student Representative on the Board of the Canadian Institute in Greece (CIG), outgoing Chair of the AIA’s Student Affairs Interest Group (SAIG), and editor of the AIA Toronto Society’s bi-annual newsletter.




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