Collapse of the Minoan Civilization

Minos Triumphant:

How World History Might Have Been Different without Thera


Colin Renfrew tells us that the development of the Aegean has “considerable continuity from the early Neolithic period to the full development of civilization.”[i] But since the continuity of a principal Aegean culture was terminated in full flower at the beginning of this process, we must ask what effect its absence had on the rate and level of progress of the societies that survived. Specifically, given the high level of societal and technological development obtained by the Minoan civilization in the second millennium BCE, to what point might human society have progressed had this people not abruptly disappeared? Rodney Castleden asserts that “Minoan Crete may be seen as a cradle of civilization on a level with the Nile, Indus, Tigris and Euphrates valleys”, but highly distinctive in its own development.[ii] Thus the Minoans may appropriately be characterized as the “over-achievers” of the Mediterranean theatre.[iii] Examination of Minoan attainment in social organization, technology, and the arts illustrates that humanity lost centuries of evolution when this unique society vanished.

Historians have long observed that certain aspects of the Minoan culture were unmatched for many centuries. “The Golden Age of prehistoric Crete equaled and in many ways surpassed that of Athens itself over a thousand years later.”[iv] “Minoan culture must be seen in its Mediterranean context as one of the early urban civilizations to be compared with those of Egypt and Mesopotamia rather than later Greek.”[v] Given this perspective, we may well speculate upon what level of development European civilization might have achieved had the Minoans not disappeared.

For a brief survey of this sort we are forced to compress two millennia of history. Nevertheless, the persistent cultural identity of the Minoan civilization retains such strong characteristics that it is easy to identify across the centuries. When we study a vanished civilization whose written language has yet to be deciphered, we must work from other sorts of records: architectural sites, pottery shards, burial jewelry. This is the case with the Minoans. The opportunity for conjecture is large, and the scope of speculation expands the further back in pre-history we travel. Lacking the traditional written history that historians prefer to work with means “that scholars have had to be ingenious in arriving at research methods that will extract the maximum” from the other types of information we have.[vi]  In the case of the Minoans, our task is further complicated because some of their artifacts originally identified as genuine by Sir Arthur Evans and others are now suspected to be forgeries, thus adding to the challenge of reconstructing this vanished culture.[vii]

An Ideal Home

Crete, located in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, is an ideal birthplace for an early trading society. At 155 miles east to west and 37 miles north to south, no part of the island is far from the sea. In earliest Neolithic times this meant protective isolation for the developing culture. Later, this location would mean access to the wealth of the Mediterranean basin. The land was especially fertile. In antiquity, Crete produced the staples of the “Mediterranean triad”: grain crops, vines, and olives, and the Minoans herded sheep and goats. The horses that appear in Minoan art were rare, and ownership would have indicated wealth. The fierce bulls that feature so prominently in frescos may have been imported from the mainland, but were certainly the largest land animals on the island.[viii] There were no large indigenous predators. The prominence of fish and other sea life in Minoan art suggests that the local diet was rich and varied.[ix] This abundance, the protective isolation provided by the surrounding sea, and the more forgiving nature of the island’s topography would have made Crete a fertile birthplace for any new society – certainly a less challenging environment than, for instance, prehistoric Greece.

Crete lacked many of the raw materials necessary for a Bronze Age culture. “In all probability the island must always have been bronze-hungry”, and we know that from the Early Bronze Age, copper was brought in from Kythnos. Likewise copper ore may have been imported from the Greek mainland and tin from Anatolia or perhaps even Afghanistan.[x] Consequently, the necessity for developing regular sea trade would have originated early on Crete. It is therefore no surprise that Minoans developed ships and trade that strongly connected their precocious culture to the other developing civilizations in the Mediterranean basin.

An Abrupt and Total Fall

The crescent-shaped island Thera lies 75 miles north of Crete. In Bronze Age times, Thera was a prosperous part of the Minoan empire. It supported at least two cities on its inner shore, facing a volcanic island that was intermittently active. One of these cities, Akrotiri, was forever preserved in the second millennia BCE when many weeks of volcanic activity buried it in seven meters of fine volcanic ash. The tephra that buried the buildings protected them from further damage during the eruptive phases that followed.[xi] The subsequent eruption of Thera then sealed the city until modern times. Consequently, much of what we know about the Minoans outside of Crete is based upon 20th century discoveries at Akrotiri. Architectural records reveal a sophisticated society with international trade, highly-developed arts, and almost modern sensibilities. At the moment of their doom, Minoans had attained an unprecedented level of development. They were a confident and affluent people, illustrated by the fact that, unlike the fortress cities on the Greek mainland, it lacked defensive, fort-like walls.[xii]

Some time in the year 1628 BCE, the volcano at Thera exploded with a force exceeding 150 hydrogen bombs detonating at once, creating a hole in the ocean floor one mile deep. Within hours after the Theran upheaval, “death rolled into southern Turkey on the tongue of a tsunami.” In some areas where peninsulas jut into the Aegean Sea, the tsunami would have been squeezed into a wave eight hundred feet tall when it hit the shore. The Minoan’s core islands were inundated and their impact upon the Mediterranean was suddenly and dramatically diminished. The severely-weakened Minoan civilization would disappear within another two hundred years. Nevertheless, a thousand years later Plato would capture the oral records still circulating the Mediterranean in his story of Atlantis, the island of superior beings who disappeared in a single night. One of Aristotle’s contemporaries, the Greek historian Cantor, went to Egypt around 300 BCE to verify whether or not, as Plato had claimed, the priests of Sais actually possessed ancient records of a great seafaring civilization that had vanished in a single day and night of misfortune. The priests confirmed such records still existed.[xiii]

The Thera caldera is four times larger than at Krakatoa. Spyridon Marinatos has proposed that the natural forces unleashed by the explosion caused the end of the Minoan civilization. According to his theory not only were palaces and towns destroyed, but the Minoan fleet, the basis of Minoan power, was wiped out. Marinatos assumed that the destruction of the Minoan fleet afforded the Mycenaeans of the Greek mainland an opportunity to expand.[xiv] Although some historians dispute this monocausal explanation, modern science has calculated the impact of the event with shocking effect.

The earthquakes and tsunami associated with the eruption of Thera would have devastated the Minoan world, destroying harbor towns and coastal lowlands. Prevailing winds blew ash from the explosion southeast and left deposits some 20-30 centimeters thick in Crete. Half this amount would have put farmland out of production for years, causing famine and paralyzing the Minoan economy. Minoan society would be partially reconstructed after the disaster, but in a reduced and haphazard manner. Most historians now surmise that in its weakened state, the Minoans fell prey to opportunistic invasions by Mycenaeans from the mainland. The destruction in Cretan palaces in 1380 BCE (the year when the Knossos palace was burned and abandoned) shows signs of fire, but without the structural damage that would have accompanied earthquake. Further, Thebes was sacked in the same year by unidentified invaders.[xv] Conquest seems to be the likely explanation.

Other scholars, however, tend to dissociate the immediate desolation of Crete from the eruption of Thera. Christos Doumas, for instance, lists several reasons why the eruption of Thera preceded the destruction in Crete by some number of years. He also doubts the wholesale destruction of the Minoan fleet as described by Spyridon Marinatos, referencing a study that gives an estimate of a mere 10 meters for the resulting tsunami in all but certain coastal lands.[xvi] Other factors may have exacerbated the Minoan crisis, such as the severe disruption of trade and a prolonged “nuclear winter” caused by volcanic dust suspended in the atmosphere. Yet another theory is that as the Minoan civilization prospered, Crete was inexorably deforested. This process would have affected such factors as soil erosion, water quality, and the availability of boat-building materials.[xvii] While these other factors might have contributed to the fall, it is likely that explosion-weakened Crete was first conquered by the Mycenaeans, then suffered the fate of other Aegean cultures of the period 1200-1150BCE, when northern Hellenic tribes overran the mainland and the Cyclades, destroyed the Hittite empire, and attempted to invade Egypt in the attacks attributed to the “Sea People.”[xviii]

All of these conjectures are very recent. It was not until 1967 that Spyridon Marinatos came to Thera to test his theory that the eruption of the volcano was responsible for the abrupt end of the Minoan world on Crete. Minoan debate has been unrelenting since then. There is even continuing dispute over the exact date of the Theran explosion. Simply put, a scientific determination based on carbon dating and tree rings conflicts with Egyptian Pharaohic records and traditional pottery dating techniques. Calibrated radiocarbon dates give the eruption as 1645-1615 BCE.[xix] Analysis of broken pottery and Egyptian chronology suggests that the destruction of Akrotiri must have occurred about 1525-1550 BCE. The pattern of earthquake destruction on nearby islands during the same period suggests that the epicenter was at or near Akrotiri.[xx]

However we reconstruct the sequence of destruction, it is clear that after some fifteen centuries of peaceful rise to civilization, Minoan Crete suffered an enormous disaster around the mid-15th century BCE, after which the island never again rose to its former splendor. Every major site on the island was destroyed. Thereafter Crete “becomes nothing more than of marginal significance externally, while the Mycenaeans now begin, suddenly, to dominate the Aegean.”[xxi]

A Society of Pacifist Priest-Kings and Queens?

The term “Minoan” is derived from the Greek legend of Minos, an all-powerful ruler of Crete in deep antiquity. In the accounts of ancient historians and in later Greek tradition, “Minos” is described as building a huge navy to defeat pirates and extend control over the Cyclades Islands. Thucydides tells us that Minos controlled the greater part of what is now called the Hellenic Sea, and he called this kingdom a “thalassocracy”, which means ‘rule of the sea.’[xxii] Minos is reported to have founded colonies throughout the Mediterranean and even to have led an expedition to Sicily.[xxiii] Mycenaean Greeks remembered a time when Crete received tribute and awe.

Despite its reputation for influence, the Minoan society does not appear to have been militaristic. At Knossos, the site of the largest Minoan “palace”, defensive considerations seem scarcely to have figured in the palace’s positioning. [xxiv]Rather than a warlord or a wanax, archaeological discoveries reveal a complex society administered in a form of social organization called the “priest-king.”[xxv] The Minoan priest-king combined church and state in a single individual, represented by the labrys, or double axe. Unlike Egypt, where the pharaohs were divinity, these priest-kings drew their power from deity itself. In Crete as in the civilizations of Asia Minor, this deity was manifest in a mother goddess, typically attended by a young male consort who would be transformed into Zeus, the principal deity of the Greeks.[xxvi] Archaic Greeks identified Crete as the birthplace of Zeus.

There is little direct evidence of internal warfare on Crete.[xxvii] In Minoan pottery we observe ranks of men parading with stalks of wheat over their shoulders.[xxviii][xxix] This depiction stands in contrast to Mycenaean art of the same general period, in which men would more likely be engaged in battle.[xxx] It is not until the rebuilding of the third palace at Knossos in the Late Minoan Age, when the Mycenaeans and the Minoans had long established contact, that we see a few frescoes of warlike processions replacing those of plants and animal life. If we imagine how enviously the militaristic Achaean warrior castes would have viewed the prosperous and wide-ranging Minoans, we may anticipate what followed. It is now generally believed that around 1400 BCE, Crete suffered yet another severe earthquake followed by an attack of some sort. Overnight, a different people with different ethnic traits left their records on the island. The written and spoken language changed. Faraway Egypt bemoaned that the Keftiu no longer came to trade.[xxxi] The lands surrounding the Mediterranean basin all experienced waves of invasion during this period. Some historians believe that these invasions displaced Ionians who first struck the Minoans, followed by the Achaeans and then the Dorians.[xxxii] But this threat and destruction did not figure in Minoan society until later. At its height, Minoan cities were not built on promontories like their mainland contemporaries, nor were they ringed with fortifications like their counterparts in the Cyclades.[xxxiii]

Rather than fortifications, Minoan priest-kings invested in infrastructure throughout their empire. Well-engineered roads were built with drainage systems and sophisticated viaducts to link the cities of the main island. Likewise, port cities such as Mallia were furnished with massive piers attesting to a long-range view of commercial power. Wealth increased notably during the Middle Minoan Age. By the second millennia BCE trade in both raw materials and finished goods flourished between Crete and the Cyclades, mainland Greece, Anatolia, Cyprus, the Levant, and Egypt.[xxxiv]

Mystic Practices That Spawned Later Religions

The concept of an Earth Goddess was central to the Minoan belief system. Many people who have no knowledge of the civilization itself nonetheless recognize the bare-breasted woman who holds snakes in her hands, and who transfixes us with her commanding stare.[xxxv] She is depicted endlessly.[xxxvi] Many scholars take the impact of the “Magna Mater” further. Through archive tablets they trace “The Lady” to Athena, Rhea and Hera, thus making the Minoan goddess the antecedent of later Greek beliefs.[xxxvii]  This goddess appears to have developed several manifestations over the centuries of Minoan culture. She represented “the unity of nature in its multiple expressions such as mountain goddess, Mistress of Animals, and symbol of birth and regeneration. Her attendant inferior male deity has survived as Zeus Kouros, or “Zeus the Boy.” It has also been suggested that “Poseidon” may have originally been another name for Zeus, meaning “lord of the earth.” Poseidon also comes to us as the “earth-shaker” and Crete was often shaken by earthquakes.[xxxviii] Thus natural forces were subject to the Lady’s will.

Other iconic symbols of ancient Crete include the bull’s horns and the double-bladed axe.[xxxix] Many of the roofs of Minoan homes were protected by a stylized version of the two-pronged symbol of bull horns. The axe is common in burial crypts and in the great halls of the palaces. One theory is that the word labrys means double axe and that labyrinthos means the place of the double axe. It is further suggested that the axe may have been ceremonially wielded to symbolically “slay” the bull.[xl] There are, however, no signs that the bulls were sacrificed. It is also possible that frescoes depicting bull-leaping are only symbolic, and that they depict an “appropriation” of the bull’s power.[xli]

This recurring image of control over the bull/Poseidon/earthquake is further reinforced by other symbols. Pillars, sacred trees, and standing stones all played a role in the Minoan religion, and are associated with the ability of the Mother Goddess to protect humanity from the destabilizing forces of the earth.[xlii]  Earthquakes were frequent in the region. Further, the depiction of audiences in “bull-leaping” frescoes suggests that this was a ritual observance which may have implied dedication to the Mother Goddess rather than a simple sporting event. Most historians interpret the frequent bull-leaping motifs as depicting a sacred ritual rather than the sort of male dominance theatre exemplified by Spanish bull-fighting.[xliii] One can speculate that if the bull represented Poseidon the earth-shaker, then the religious significance of grappling and leaping might be the attempt to control the frequent earthquakes that swept the region.[xliv] The image of the “man-bull” was common among Hittite cylinders and reliefs, as well as in Minoan art.[xlv] Athletic dancing with the god Poteidan/Poseidon may have also served as a rite of passage that young Minoans, both girls and boys, had to undergo.[xlvi]

We have discovered few buildings that might have been temples, in the sense of the massive public monuments familiar in the Near East. “By and large, Minoan worship appears to have been admixed with secular construction, e.g. small shrines within private domestic structures.”[xlvii] J. Lesley Fitton agrees and points to private shrines are part of “what seem to be essentially ‘private’ cult-places within domestic settings.”[xlviii] Minoan religion therefore appears to have been more a personal than a state concern. Numerous cult sites have been discovered in mountains and locations far removed from settlement. Further, many homes feature the so-called “lustral basin” near the front door or entrance hall. This element probably served a religious function. The lustral basin is “an idiomatic architectural type well known from Crete.” The “Xeste 3” building in Akrotiri, for example, prominently features the lustral basin in an entrance lobby with stone benches. The walls of the building are covered with exquisite wall paintings that show rituals of passage.[xlix]  Xeste 3 may have been a communal building with ritual function, or it may be that most Minoan homes had similar feature, akin to the crèche or prayer-box of Hebrew homes. Seals and “talismanic” seal-stones frequently depict an apparent ceremony in which water is poured from a ewer into a jar. Evans presumed this to record a “sympathetic” ritual designed to bring rain.[l] These clues suggest religion as a private rather than collective practice.

Also indicative of religious sensibilities, it is interesting to note that from the earliest times, the doorways of Minoan tombs face to the east, and the settlements lie to the west of the cemeteries. “The living are therefore not overlooked by the dead, perhaps in a conscious effort to separate the two realms.”[li] This separation of the domains of the living and the dead was unusual in the archaic past. It is, again, a strikingly modern concept.

A Prosperous Trading Empire

Egypt and Crete were in regular contact during the Neolithic period and enjoyed especially robust trade. Minoan architects and engineers traveled to Egypt in service to the Pharaoh. Likewise, as early as the Middle Bronze Age (2200-1800 BCE), Crete engaged in vigorous trade with the Greek mainland and the coast of Asia Minor.[lii] A fresco in West House at Akrotiri illustrates this aspect of Minoan life with a fleet of ships sailing from Thera to another harbor city. Minoan traders traveled far. One of the rooms in the Delta Complex has wall frescos depicting antelopes of a species only found near the headwaters of the Nile, attesting to the interest of these people in distant lands and cultures.[liii] Minoan trade goods have been found in far-flung regions: the Upper Nile, the Tigris-Euphrates, and ancient Anatolia. Minoan forms particularly dominated the region in ceramics, fresco painting, and the design and distribution of seal stones.[liv] The Early Minoan II period (2900-2300 BCE) already shows evidence of domestic textile and pottery production from the remains of loom-weights and turntables.[lv]

Trade goods found their way into the broader Mediterranean by means of Minoan colonies and trading sites. Cities on Cythera and Laconia have been identified as Minoan cities, while the islands of Rhodes and Miletos already had Minoan elements from the Early Bronze Age.[lvi] Likewise Miletus and Iasos on the Anatolian coast were Minoan colonies. Even cities of other ethnic origins see traces of Minoan influence in culture and the arts. It is fair to characterize Crete as “the lynchpin at this period, broadly connecting the lands of the Near East and Egypt to the Greek mainland, which itself was beginning to be in contact with the rest of Europe.” This process of “Minoanization” in the Bronze Age Aegean has been compared to the present influence of American culture, “exporting style and tone as much as products.[lvii]

Modern Gender Attitudes

Prehistoric Knossos appears to have had a distinctively modern and democratic attitude about women. In Greek myth, for example, Minoan princess Ariadne is present at funeral games, implying that she was free to mingle with the opposite sex – something typically forbidden to Athenian women. Further, when Theseus visits Crete, he finds Ariadne in charge of the palace in her father’s absence. Minoans traded with Babylon, whose culture of the same period provided women with the right to own property and the right of divorce. Agnes Vaughn concludes that “From the number of women in the frescoes, one must conclude that…there could have been few restrictions upon a woman’s activity.”[lviii]

Both sexes wore flamboyant clothing styles. Until late in their history, Minoan men wore clothing with distinctive codpieces. Women’s clothing, like that of men, was designed for display, with frequent use of bare-breasted designs that featured narrow waists and flounced skirts.[lix] As Castleden comments, “their clothes are not the clothes of women kept in a purdah, but women who expect to take the centre of the social stage.”[lx] Recent analysis is overturning earlier interpretations of frescoes that have been influenced by Sir Arthur Evans and other early historians. Most importantly, where Evans and others assumed that partial figures shown in religious roles would be male, increased scrutiny reveals these figures were girls or priestesses. Although there is disagreement among scholars regarding the practice of “bull-grappling” (or “bull-leaping”), numerous frescoes and other representations show that both young men and young women participated in the event. Louise Hitchcock has even speculated that the most frequently reproduced bull-leaping scene is a coming-of-age ceremony, where certain features of the participant’s hair styles suggest adolescent men and women.[lxi] The Mother Goddess herself is often shown in minimal dress like the other participants, poised as if about to enter the competition.[lxii]

Historians such as Martin Locock and Louise Hitchcock have noted the use of frescoes “rich in female imagery.”[lxiii] Particularly elaborate frescos show what appear to be female initiation or puberty rites, with blood imagery perhaps symbolic of first menstruation. Saffron and crocuses shown in other frescoes has been connected with their use as a pain-killer during menstruation.[lxiv] Traditional analysis assumed that large rooms belong to men and smaller rooms to women. These assumptions are now being called into question. For instance, Locock quotes Nordfeldt as saying “there is no evidence of Minoan women having been either smaller, or fewer, or less important than Minoan men.”[lxv] Similarly, Hitchcock concludes that earlier historians interpreted the layout of public and private buildings as intended to segregate male and female into public and private spheres. She believes these oppositions are not evident in Minoan architecture.[lxvi]

Other historians have argued against the determination that certain prominent figures in Minoan frescos are female, or that women played such a prominent role in religious life. Kenneth Lapatin, for one, has proposed that the familiar “bull leapers” are all male, and that the pieces of Sir Arthur Evans’ original “snake goddess” were incorrectly assembled and should be holding sheaves of wheat, not snakes. Lapatin further speculates that a number of later depictions of the snake goddess were inventions of 20th century artist Emile Gillieron.[lxvii] This is a minority opinion and examination of the bull-leaping artifacts in particular rather obviously contradicts Lapatin’s conclusions.[lxviii]

Modern Sensibilities Revealed in Fresh Artistic Forms

Although the Minoans developed advanced technological and administrative structures, their culture did not fall into the social stasis of their trading partner, Egypt. Minoan art retains an originality and vitality that impresses even today. Textile designs were highly complex, inventive and multihued. During the Minoan Middle Age, urban centers grew and art began to reveal the influences of cosmopolitan connection to the wider Mediterranean culture. Demonstrating their willingness to implement new ideas, Minoan men adopted Libyan hairstyles and the dress of women became increasingly stylish.[lxix] Nevertheless, while they freely borrowed from other far-flung cultures, each adaptation was colored by the unique Minoan style. They retained a “wide range of distinctive artifacts which only the Minoans could have designed and made, (thus indicating) an intensely dynamic and original culture.”[lxx]

These were a people of strikingly modern sensibilities. Whereas the art of Greeks and later Romans features brutal and warlike acts as major themes, very little violence is depicted in Minoan artifacts. We search in vain for the frequent Mycenaean motifs of hand-to-hand combat over slain warriors or battles with giants and centaurs. Instead, we find a single fresco of a sea battle involving three ships and drowning sailors, and another of five soldiers marching in single file – either of which might illustrate defensive actions. One of the few depictions of violence within Minoan society is a fresco of “boxing children” whose activity appears to be more of a game than anything else. Far more representative are the portrayals of springs with swallows and lilies, fields of papyruses, or of an intimate conversation between several women.[lxxi]

Although Minoan social attitudes were not fully modern, they appear to have been advanced for the time. For instance, Aristotle, referring to historical texts still extant in his time but now lost, noted that Cretan slaves enjoyed the same rights as other Minoan citizens, except the right to bear arms. Further, there is no evidence that anyone in the buried city of Akrotiri, or in any of the other Minoan cities, erected huge statues or tombs to celebrate his own glory.[lxxii]  In extreme contrast to practices in contemporary Egypt and the Near East, the creation of large-scale stone sculptures seems not to have been a feature of Cretan craftsmanship at any period.[lxxiii] Instead, Minoan art focuses on social and communal activities. Almost half of the rooms at Akrotiri and Knossos are decorated with scenes of flowers and wildlife. A fresco at Knossos depicts women and men together at a public festival, extending hands to each other and engaging in animated conversation.[lxxiv] Such innovation and private art does not seem to have been reserved to the upper classes. Prior to the Theran explosion, there was “a proliferation of palatial privileges in the towns and of the rich rural installations in the countryside.”[lxxv]

Over its 1500-year period of development, Minoan fine arts reached a level of sophistication unrivaled by its contemporaries. Potters worked in fired clay, stone, glass, rock crystal and other diverse materials to produce imaginative yet practical designs.[lxxvi] Artistic styles underwent definite evolution while retaining distinctive Minoan characteristics that make them easy to distinguish today. In the so-called Harvest Vase, for example, a 15th– century BCE artist managed to portray a procession of 27 men in a stone vase only a few inches high, and to carve them in a field of relief only a few millimeters in depth. Yet another example is a pair of gold cups depicting a highly naturalistic scene of youths capturing wild bulls. One cup depicts a capture by force using nets and struggle; the other shows a female decoy distracting the bull while its feet are bound. These scenes are rendered with great skill, portraying the capture in successive stages and displaying “a wonderful sense of space through the balance of arrest and movement.” Peter Warren has noted that while these cups may be called a work of genius, “there is nothing to suggest that the craftsmen regarded themselves as distinct individuals, achieving personal works of art.”[lxxvii] Unlike works from the Greek Classical period onwards, none of the Minoan creations exhibit signatures in any sense.

In the last days of Thera, pottery designs shifted away from Late Minoan 1A (characterized by lines, swirls and geometric shapes) to Late Minoan 1B (characterized by animal motifs, typically dolphins, fish and octopi).[lxxviii] At roughly the same time, the metallurgical arts also advanced. The skills and knowledge required for these accomplishments…are considerable, even by modern standards.[lxxix]

A Sense of Individuality

In their architecture and images, Minoans across many centuries of development reveal a strong sense of individuality. Dress and hairstyles were varied and showy.[lxxx] Nearly every depiction of a Minoan man or woman presents a hat of different and more fantastic design.  Houses were built without apparent concern for symmetry, and no two homes have the same design.[lxxxi] Pottery and amphora designs were intentionally elaborated beyond any functional purpose.[lxxxii] In his study of “signification” in Minoan house designs, architect Donald Preziosi repeatedly uses phrases like “visually complex”, “highly complex” and “highly colorful” to describe the idiomatic style of this culture. He pointedly comments that this characteristic style was true not just of great mansions and palaces, but is also “characteristic of relatively modest houses.”[lxxxiii]

The West House in Akrotiri is presented by Clairy Palyvou as a “typical Theran house.” Today we would call the design “eclectic” and individualistic. It is set off a public square, with eight rooms on six different levels of more or less three stories, with windows and a broad doorway. Models and ruins of Minoan buildings show us that their houses, even those of the lower classes, featured balconies and roof-top verandas with tile and cloth coverings.[lxxxiv] Some frescoes depict Minoans, mostly well-dressed women, relaxing under awnings, perhaps playing one of the intricate board games discovered at Vapheio, built with inlaid lapis from Afghanistan.[lxxxv] These seem to imply a culture which valued leisure.

Advanced Technology

By the period 1700-1800 BCE, the Minoans “had advanced technically and artistically far beyond any of their neighbors.” [lxxxvi] We find underground drainage systems with fitted terra-cotta pipes both at Akrotiri and at the first palace at Knossos as early as 2000-1600 BCE.[lxxxvii] Akrotiri had a public sewage system, a network of underground conduits running under the town. Interior lavatories, including those on second floors, were connected with jointed pipes in a system designed with maintenance access points. Underground slabs were arranged with the apparent intent to serve as a siphon for gases – the earliest siphon known in the world. Such systems would “prevent smells and gasses from coming up to the lavishly decorated upper floors.[lxxxviii] Europeans would not employ similar technologies until 1500 years later, and would then lose them again with the fall of the Roman Empire. During the Minoan Middle Age, fixed hearths give way to clay fire boxes that could be moved from room to room.[lxxxix]

Minoan buildings were typically multi-storied.[xc] It is also apparent that they were…materially composite, having been constructed out of combinations of stone, wood, and clay and plaster “not unlike the familiar construction of medieval Europe.[xci] The individual designs had featured complex internal plans and significantly, were not bilaterally symmetrical. Apartments in the capital city stood up to six stories tall. Some of the homes were actually equipped with showers. The “West House” in Akrotiri was even equipped with sophisticated plumbing, including a bath and a flush toilet. The Minoans were the first to employ sophisticated stairwell construction that transferred loads from upper stories through internal frames. Although other cultures developed window openings in their buildings, Minoans pioneered the use of light wells and windows ganged in multiple pier-and-window partitions to provide more light.[xcii]

The homes of Minoan private citizens had toilets with ceramic drains, rattan beds and running water. This was how ordinary people lived. These examples of technologies we accept as commonplace today were of a complexity not seen again until the Islamic empire of the Middle Ages.[xciii] The legend of Atlantis, which has often been tied to the destruction of the Minoan empire, also speaks to these unprecedented levels of attainment. The historian Critias refers to Atlantis as having warm baths, cisterns, fountains running hot and cold water, and aqueducts.[xciv]

Other examples of precocious progress abound. Although we have not yet deciphered the Linear A alphabet, documents from Phaistos use a decimal system that is recognized as advanced for its time. At least rudimentary medical knowledge is revealed by the evidence of the setting of bones and the extraction of teeth. We also see evidence that a significant industry in carved hard stone flourished by 1900-1700 BCE, using imported jasper, amethyst and carnelian, worked with fast rotary drills and cutting wheels.[xcv] Other examples of technological achievement, and there are many, cannot be explored in a brief survey like this one.

Conclusion – A Tragic Loss for Human Development

The absence of any Minoan literature severely hinders our ability to deduce the culture of these fascinating people. Nevertheless, the rich evidence of their arts and technologies permit us to propose intriguing speculations about this vanished civilization. If the devastation of the Theran explosion and the subsequent (hypothesized) sack by Mycenaeans had not occurred, western civilization would have experienced a very different vector. A brief accounting of what vanished illustrates this conclusion. The Minoans developed technologies during the Bronze Age that when lost, would not be duplicated for centuries – or for millennia. They developed a broad and thriving commercial empire that connected the various cultures of the Mediterranean basin to a degree that would be only painfully reconstructed over centuries. They appear to have interacted with their neighbors through trade rather than conquest. If indeed they had the power to sweep the sea clear of pirates, we have no evidence that Minos truly employed this power to demand tribute from the backward Greeks on the mainland. Instead, the Greeks – who inherited their arts and even their gods from the Minoans – probably recalled their cultural inferiority in the legend of Theseus and the Minotaur.

The citizens of Minoan cities like Knossos and Akrotiri left clear evidence that they were highly individualistic people at a time when the records of their neighbors appear to depict static or rigidly controlled cultures. This individualism is reinforced by attitudes about the practice of religion, freedom of artistic expression, gender equality, and aesthetic values that resonate with those of 21st century Western society. What if the Minoan people had not fallen in 1375 BCE? Putting these observations together, we might speculate a history of Western civilization that included moon colonies in 1066, female suffrage in 1215, and Martin Luther using his personal computer to post his theses on the internet. In fact, given the strong example of a founding Minoan religion that appears to have been a private rather than a state matter, Luther might have become a blogger for the Martian Red Socks.

Agnes Vaughn has compared the Achaean conquest of Crete with the fall of Rome, both of which resulted in a “Dark Age.”[xcvi] Our analysis agrees with this perception. To contrast this view, J. Lesley Fitton quotes Robert Collingwood, a renowned historian and archaeologist of the early 20th century, as stating “In this respect – aesthetically – Crete is not the forerunner of Greece but its antithesis.” Collingwood saw Greece as bringing “the spirit of order and symmetry and proportion” to a Crete “whose entire life is…barbarous.” He found the ruins of Minoan Crete “undignified and mean” compared to subsequent Greek achievements. [xcvii] It is certainly correct that the classical Greeks created something quite influential, lasting, and valuable. But whatever the Greeks created, it was fashioned in large part from the inspirations and scant remains of a mightier civilization. The task is still in front of us to determine if the acclaimed Greek world was necessarily better than what we might have inherited had not the Minoan civilization vanished.

[i] Renfrew, Colin. The Emergence of Civilization: The Cyclades and the Aegean in the Third Millennium B.C. (London: Methuen & Company, 1972), 36.

[ii] Castleden, Rodney. Minoans: Life in Bronze Age Crete (London: Routledge, 1990), 3.

[iii] Castleden, 5.

[iv] Vaughn, Agnes Carr. The House of the Double Axe: The Palace at Knossos (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1959), 25.

[v] Hitchcock, Louise A. (quoting Immerwahr) Minoan Architecture: A Contextual Analysis (Jonsereds, Sweden: Paul Astrom, 2000), 25.

[vi]Fitton, J. Lesley. Peoples of the Past” Minoans (London: The British Museum Press, 2002), 9.

[vii] Castleden, 5.

[viii] Fitton, 17-19.

[ix] Octopus vase, as illustrated in Kreta, Thera und das Mykenische Hellas by Spyridon Marinatos  (Munich: Hirmer Verlag, 1986), Plate 87

[x] Fitton, 23-25.

[xi] Palyvou, Clairy. Akrotiri Thera: An Architecture of Affluence 3,500 Years Old (Philadelphia: INSTAP Academic Press, 2005), 4.

[xii] Pellegrino, Charles. Unearthing Atlantis: An Archaeological Odyssey (New York: Random House, 1991), 16.

[xiii] Pellegrino, 14, 23.

[xiv] Doumas, Christos G. Thera: Pompeii of the Ancient Aegean (London: Thames and Hudson, 1983), 142.

[xv] Castleden, 33-35.

[xvi] Doumas, 143-146.

[xvii] Vaughn, 220-222.

[xviii] Castleden, 36-37.

[xix] Palyvou, 9, 10.

[xx] Doumas, 43-44.

[xxi] Warren, Peter. The Making of the Past: The Aegean Civilizations (New York: Dutton & Company, 1975), 106.

[xxii] Fitton, 199.

[xxiii] Vaughn, 58.

[xxiv] Fitton, 69.

[xxv] “Prince of the Lilies” fresco, Knossos, as illustrated in The Master Impression: A Clay Sealing from the Greek-Swedish Excavations at Kastelli, Khania, by Erik Hallager (Goteborg: Paul Astroms Forlag, 1985), 69.

[xxvi] Vaughn, 45-46.

[xxvii] Fitton, 53.

[xxviii] Lapatin, Kenneth. Mysteries of the Snake Goddess (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2002), 138.

[xxix] “Harvester Vase” from Hagia Triada, as illustrated in The Master Impression: A Clay Sealing from the Greek-Swedish Excavations at Kastelli, Khania, by Erik Hallager (Goteborg: Paul Astroms Forlag, 1985), 66.

[xxx] Gold ring from Mycenae, as illustrated in Performance, Power and the Art of the Aegean Bronze Age, by Senta C. German (Oxford: Archaeopress, 2005), 26.

[xxxi] Vaughn, 223-226.

[xxxii] Vaughn, 227.

[xxxiii] Palyvou, 17.

[xxxiv] Warren, 40.

[xxxv] “Snake Goddess” figurine, as illustrated in Kreta, Thera und das Mykenische Hellas by Spyridon Marinatos  (Munich: Hirmer Verlag, 1986), Plate XXV

[xxxvi] “Mother on the Mountain sealing,” as illustrated in The Master Impression: A Clay Sealing from the Greek-Swedish Excavations at Kastelli, Khania, by Erik Hallager (Goteborg: Paul Astroms Forlag, 1985), 59.

[xxxvii] Castleden, 124-125

[xxxviii] Hitchcock, Minoan Architecture, 78, 96.

[xxxix] Bull’s Head and Labrys, as illustrated in Kreta, Thera und das Mykenische Hellas by Spyridon Marinatos  (Munich: Hirmer Verlag, 1986), Plate 114

[xl] Vaughn, Agnes Carr. The House of the Double Axe: The Palace at Knossos (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1959), 165-175.

[xli] Hitchcock, Minoan Architecture, 117-119.

[xlii] Vaughn, 180-183.

[xliii] Knossos Toreador fresco, as illustrated in Performance, Power and the Art of the Aegean Bronze Age, by Senta C.                      German (Oxford: Archaeopress, 2005), 21.

[xliv] Gold cup from Vaphio, as illustrated in The Master Impression: A Clay Sealing from the Greek-Swedish Excavations at Kastelli, Khania, by Erik Hallager (Goteborg: Paul Astroms Forlag, 1985), 65.

[xlv] Evans, Arthur. The Palace of Minos, Vol. IV (London: Macmillan & Company, 1935), 459.

[xlvi] Castleden, 148-149.

[xlvii] Preziosi, Donald. Minoan Architectural Design: Formation and Signification (Berlin: Mouton Publishers, 1983), 19

[xlviii] Fitton, 58.

[xlix] Palyvou, 57-61.

[l] Evans, 450-451.

[li] Fitton, 43.

[lii] Vaughn, 94-95.

[liii] Pellegrino, 136-137, 205.

[liv] Hitchcock, Minoan Architecture, 195.

[lv] Fitton, 46.

[lvi] Fitton, 96.

[lvii] Castleden, 118.

[lviii] Vaughn, 30, 58, 69.

[lix] Gold ring from Aidonia, as illustrated in Performance, Power and the Art of the Aegean Bronze Age, by Senta C. German (Oxford: Archaeopress, 2005), 22.

[lx] Castleden, 13.

[lxi] Hitchcock, Minoan Architecture, 80, 120.

[lxii] Vaughn, 148-149.

[lxiii] Hitchcock, Louise. Meaningful Architecture: Social Interpretation of Buildings. Martin Locock, editor (Avebury: Aldershot, 1994), 26-28.

[lxiv] Hitchcock, Meaningful Architecture, 28-29.

[lxv] Locock, Martin. Meaningful Architecture: Social Interpretation of Buildings (Avebury: Aldershot, 19940, 35.

[lxvi] Hitchcock, Meaningful Architecture, 17-19.

[lxvii] Lapatin, 111-119, 158.

[lxviii] Knossos Bull-Leaping fresco, as illustrated in Atlas of the Greek World by Peter Levi (New York: Facts on File, 1989), 38-9.

[lxix] Vaughn, 100-101.

[lxx] Castleden, 167.

[lxxi] Doumas, 34-36, 40.

[lxxii] Pellegrino, 206.

[lxxiii] Fitton, 92.

[lxxiv] Pellegrino,.206.

[lxxv] Palyvou, 187.

[lxxvi] Krater with flowers from Phaistos, as illustrated in Kreta, Thera und das Mykenische Hellas by Spyridon Marinatos  (Munich: Hirmer Verlag, 1986), Plate XII.

[lxxvii] Warren, 42-45.

[lxxviii] Pellegrino, 223.

[lxxix] Warren, 97.

[lxxx] The “Parisian” fresco, as illustrated in Kreta, Thera und das Mykenische Hellas by Spyridon Marinatos (Munich: Hirmer Verlag, 1986), Plate XV.

[lxxxi] Vaughn, 91.

[lxxxii] Pottery and Amphora designs, as illustrated in Kreta, Thera und das Mykenische Hellas by Spyridon Marinatos  (Munich: Hirmer Verlag, 1986), Plates XXII, XXIX, 84, 95, 111

[lxxxiii] Preziosi, 5.

[lxxxiv] Palyvou, 46-53, 106-107.

[lxxxv] Ivory and Lapis Lazuli Board Game, as illustrated in Atlas of the Greek World by Peter Levi (New York: Facts on File, 1989), 33.

[lxxxvi] Castleden, 121.

[lxxxvii] Vaughn, 46.

[lxxxviii] Palyvou, 39-41, 51-53.

[lxxxix] Vaughn, 113.

[xc] “Apartment block” at Akrotiri, as illustrated in Kreta, Thera und das Mykenische Hellas by Spyridon Marinatos  (Munich: Hirmer Verlag, 1986), Plate 148.

[xci] Preziosi, 4-6.

[xcii] Palyvou, 133, 150-153.

[xciii] Pellegrino, 17.

[xciv] Critias, 113c-114a

[xcv] Fitton, 89,92, 106.

[xcvi] Vaughn, 227.

[xcvii] Fitton, 210.