Sunday 7 May 2023

On Being an Islander: Reflections on Current Exhibitions in Oxford and Cambridge

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.

Summary diagram of Island Biogeography Theory, from B.H. Warren et al. 2015, in Ecology Letters 18, 200-217.

I was struck, in the 1990s, by possible archaeological corollaries of such phenomena, which I termed "cultural elaborations:" the Minoan "palaces" of Crete occur nowhere else in the Mediterranean; likewise the stone temples of Neolithic Malta; and the Bronze Age towers known as nuraghe, on Sardinia. On the other hand, as Mary Beard has pointed out in a contribution to the Fitzwilliam exhibition, islands, in archaeological terms, can be as much about "connectedness" as about isolation. The early 20th Century ethnographer, Bronislaw Malinowski, in his famous study (Argonauts of the Western Pacific) of elaborate exhange networks on the Trobriand Islands, to the north of Papua New Guinea, showed how such "connectedness" could be a medium for the emergence of social complexity in island communities.

The stone temple of Ggantija on Gozo, Malta, 3600-2500 BC. Photo: BoneA, Licensed under CCA.

Nuraghe Losa, Sardinia, 13th-14th Century BC. Photo: Elena at Italian Wikimedia (image is in the Public Domain).

Nuraghic bronze warrior figurines from Sardinia, 1000-700 BC. Photo: Prc90, Licensed under CCA.

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.

The Palace of Knossos. Photo: Lapplaender, Licensed under CCA.

"Kamares Ware" pottery from Crete, c1800-1700 BC. This distinctive pottery seems to have been produced in workshops closely associated with the palaces themselves, but some vessels were exported, and have been found as far away as Egypt, attesting to Minoan Crete's "connectedness" to the wider world of the eastern Mediterranean. Photo: Bernard Gagnon, Licensed under CCA.

"Marine Style" ewer from Poros, Crete, 1500-1450 BC, on display at the Ashmolean Museum. This style seems to have emerged at Knossos in the aftermath of the destruction of Crete's other palaces, possibly as a result of a tsunami following the catastrophic eruption on the neighbouring island of Thera. Photo: Mark Patton, Licensed under CCA.

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.

Marble figurines from the Cycladic Islands, 2800-2000 BC, made, probably on the island of Naxos, and widely exhanged around the Aegean, probably before the age of sail. Photo: Sailko, Licensed under CCA.

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.

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