Exhibitions currently showing at the University Museums of Oxford and Cambridge tackle the question of what it means, and what it has meant in the past, to be an "islander." The exhibition at Oxford's Ashmolean Museum, "Labyrinth: Knossos, Myth and Reality" (showing until 30th July), focuses, specifically, on the Bronze Age "Palace Civilisation" of Crete; whilst that at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, "Islanders: The Making of the Mediterranean" (showing until 11th June), deals with the prehistory and ancient history of three of the Mediterranean's largest islands - Crete, Sardinia, and Cyprus.
As an islander myself (born and brought up on the Channel Island of Jersey, and having lived all but one year of my life on islands and archipelagoes, including the UK "mainland," on which I live today), I have an inevitable interest in such topics. Back in 1996, I published a book, Islands in Time: Island Sociogeography and Mediterranean Prehistory(Routledge). In it, I sought to adapt the long-standing "Theory of Island Biogeography," used by biologists around the world, to the very different data-sets of archaeology, and the study of human communities. Island Biogeography Theory makes use of physical variables, such as island size, and distance from adjacent mainlands, to understand the processes of colonisation of islands by animal and plant species, and the probability of their survival in an insular environment. It has long been understood that evolution on islands can produce "endemic" species that occur nowhere else, including, famously, the marine iguanas and giant tortoises of the Galapagos Islands.
Unsurprisingly, the case studies that I used in my 1996 book are, by any modern standard, thoroughly out of date, yet many of the same questions about island societies continue to suggest themselves. Geographically, of course, there is a world of difference between Crete, Cyprus, and Sardinia, on the one hand; and the true "oceanic" insularity of, say, the Galapagos, Easter Island, or even the Trobriand Islands, on the other. These, however, are differences of degree, rather than differences of kind.
The Oxford exhibition focusses specifically on the site of Knossos, on Crete, the largest and longest-enduring of the Minoan "palaces" of Crete. One of my students recently asked whether "palace" was really the most appropriate term for these extraordinary buildings. Neither he nor I could suggest a better term, but the problem is a real one: they were clearly, at least in part, residential complexes, and the principal residents must surely have belonged to an elite, but there is none of the abundant evidence for "kingship" that one finds in contemporary Mesopotamia (Iraq) or Egypt, until the very end of the "palatial period," when it seems to have been introduced by Mycenaeans from the Greek mainland.
Whilst most of the objects on display at the Ashmolean come either from the museum's own collection, or from the Heraklion Museum on Crete, those on display at the Fitzwilliam are drawn from a wider range of collections, and vary, in date, from the time of the Mediterranean's first farming communities, more than ten thousand years ago, to the flourishing of Greek and Roman civilisation between the Fifth Centuries BC and AD.
There is a superabundance of extraordinary artefacts on display in both exhibitions, and questions are thrown up, to which, it seems, there are no more definitive answers available in 2023 than there were in 1996, although there are, incontestibly, more sites known, and more artefacts excavated and catalogued, and, thus, available to display.
For those, like myself, with an appetite for still more, both exhibitions are accompanied by a lively programme of events, and we have to hope that these will, in some way, be brought together and conserved as a permanent legacy of two exhibitions that I, for one, will not be forgetting any time soom.
Mark Patton is a published author of historical fiction and non-fiction, whose books can be purchased from Amazon.