Sunday, April 12, 2015

The Great Thalassocracy of Minoa

In the history of the earth, often one encounters the rise and fall of civilizations. It is so common that it is almost unremarkable, but in its ubiquity it hides thousands of cultural gemstones. Simply stop and magnify one small piece of the earth and you will find multiple invisible layers of unique expressions of culture. For example, take the Mediterranean island of Crete. Today it sits peacefully in the Mediterranean as a region of Greece with a unique Creto-Greek culture. More recently, it was involved in WWII and its history is deeply tied to the rise of the Greek nation state in the 19th and 20th centuries. Yet this is only the picture within the last 200 years, it is still painted on the surface of the island. Monuments to WWII are still active, Ottoman and Venetian castles are now walk-around tourist sites. All these cultures are within humanity's written history, their existence was recorded in our species' collective memory. Greek children learn the history of Crete simply because it is unavoidable. The question of what is our history is brought up simply by seeing a memorial, or a castle. The residue of those lost cultural expressions remain, constantly pushing the knowledge of its prior existence to the present.

The Venetian castle of Koules, at Heraklion, Crete

There are many civilizations which are not so lucky. Their unique expressions of culture are lost, and never brought to the present. The monuments and castles they built were destroyed and covered in dirt. Information pertaining to these remnants of lost civilizations are then forgotten, even by the people who live near them. If someone ignores a building long enough it will naturally be buried by the earth. The memory of that cultural expression is pushed out of peoples' minds for so long that eventually all of humanity forgets they even existed. This adds insult to injury, erasing the culture from not only the earth but from all human minds and memories. Once everything relating to a culture is forgotten and its buildings buried beneath the earth, the culture transforms. Its existence passes from not present but known to humanity into not present and unknown to humanity. This is by far any civilization's longest period, and it is quite a frightening place for a culture to be in. It is frightening because it is nearly all hopeless, their only hope is that humans at the ever receding present both declare their intention to uncover newly found cultures, and accurately piece them together again. For the vast majority of cultures throughout time this period of both not present and unknown may last indefinitely into the future.

A satellite image of Crete

Crete has a striking example of such a lost-and-found culture, brought back from non-existence through the science of modern archeology. Looking back 4,000 years on this island, at the height of the Bronze Age, you'll find a powerful, complex, and brilliant culture staring back at you. They are called the Minoans, and their palace-based society flourished for nearly 1,000 years. Luckily they did write, but no literature has been found thus leaving the incessant internal dialog of a culture invisible to modern onlookers. At first glance, the immensity of information relating to this culture which has been destroyed is staggering. Assuming the golden age and decline lasted 800 years with each generation lasting 25-30 years, the main period of Minoan culture brought forth about 28±4 successive generations. While a few names are known the vast majority of people who lived, raised children, and died within this culture are entirely lost. We don't even know their own name for themselves, or even what their language sounded like. At some point soon after the complete collapse of Minoan culture (around 1,000 BCE) every aspect of the culture's existence was forgotten. This was the dark ages of Minoan history, and for thousands of years not a single human on earth realized they existed.

This dark age lasted for around 3,000 years...until a certain Friday, March 23, 1900 CE at 11:00 AM. At that minute, over 100 years ago, Sir Arthur Evans began excavations at Knossos. It should be noted that the Greek archeologist Minos Kalokairinos went searching for legendary Knossos in 1878 and found large pithoi jars. However it would not be until the larger dig by Arthur Evans that this lost culture was finally brought back into our collective present knowledge. Evans unearthed a large structure, which he deemed a palace, and named its makers The Minoans. While it is facetious to think of Bronze Age cultures in terms of classical mythology (although don't tell that to Heinrich Schliemann), the myth of King Minos of Knossos was the only remnant onto which Arthur Evans could cling. The only inclination that a powerful culture existed on the island was from this mutated shard of existence, transformed into a moral fable about the dangers of power hungry kings. Every aspect of Minoan society was distorted, as the storytellers were people living hundreds of years after the culture's erasure. While the name Minoan stuck, it is only a placeholder until modern humans can figure out what they called themselves.

Sir Arthur Evans

The early discoveries and interpretations by Arthur Evans have been long since superseded. Humans have spent the last 115 years piecing this culture back together. While there is much we do not know, and much that is lost forever, what we have found is amazing. The more and more we uncover, the more unique this local expression of culture becomes. It is a beautiful fact that such complexity and local innovation can be confined within such a small piece of earth. This culture is based around only one island on earth, and its golden age lasted only hundreds of years. Its recent rediscovery only confirms the mystery of the unfolding of history and science; every once in a while the entire game is thrown into the air without warning. It is overwhelming to be so vividly reminded of the magnitude of the unknown.

Of course, to most of the living today it seems inconsequential that our understanding of ancient history was so radically changed in the last 200 years. Yet the knowledge of the Hittites (rediscovered in the 1880s) and the Minoans is integral to our current understanding of the late Bronze Age Aegean world. Prior to these discoveries in the late 19th century, what were ancient historians really saying when they spoke about this time period? If they were leaving out its most vital aspects, then it seems they weren't saying much of anything at all. Any larger statements of fact would be nonsensical about 19th century European history if you only knew about the British empire but had no clue the French or German empires existed. Only people now truly understand what past historians had missed, and while the picture is still incomplete it should be appreciated how much collective human knowledge has changed. In 200 years surely people will have the same attitude towards our time, and only they will know what they had gained in the intervening period.

The Minoans: Paleolithic and Neolithic Crete

Here in the present we do not have the luxury of future archeological discoveries. We can only collect and synthesize what we know, and compare that with the abyss of prehistory. This is not to say we know nothing about the time, while many personal details are obscured a general narrative is not. The story behind this little island begins not with humans, but with even earlier hominins. Neanderthals found their way to Crete around 130,000 years ago, having made canoes or used floats to cross the sea. They left Acheulean hand axes, the earliest deposited hominin tools on the island and in a sense the beginning of its recorded history. Over 100,000 years later, around 12,000 BCE Homo Sapiens crossed the sea, coming to an island filled with pygmy elephants and giant rodents. These earliest settlers killed off these creatures, or at least assisted their slow death during the last Ice Age. With no carnivorous animals on the island, it was quickly dominated by humans and has been ever since.

Acheulean tools found on Crete, most likely made by Neanderthals

A comparison of a pygmy elephant and a human, from

The history of the island quickly picks up around 7,000 BCE, when another large invasion brought Neolithic people to the island. Throughout the next 500 years Neolithic Cretans changed their daily habits, switching from hunting, gathering, and fishing, to a more settled lifestyle of farming and rearing animals. By 6,500 BCE these newly settled Neolithic Cretans had invented pottery. People lived in groups of 50-100 in semi-subterranean huts dug into the ground. People farmed einkorn and emmer wheat, barley, lentils, and peas as well as raising sheep, goats, cattle, pigs, and dogs. While farming and rearing animals were becoming popular, people still certainly foraged or wild fruits and hunted wild animals. People made tools out of flint, obsidian, and bone, and unique hooked bone objects from this period are presumed to be belt adornments. People also made figurines from unfired or semi-fired clay, and jewelry from clay, stone, bone, and sea shells. This period marks the beginning of identifiable sedentary human cultures on Crete, a period which continues today.

Around 7,000 BCE the wider Mediterranean area was flourishing as well, nearby Catalhoyuk in southeastern Anatolia was at its peak at this time, and by 6,500 BCE as Cretans invented pottery the town of Sesklo in Thessaly was founded. During the 7th millennium Seskloans made mud houses, and adopted seal stones for their aesthetic value (not yet signing documents with them).

A map of neolithic sites across Greece

Site plan of Nea Nikomedeia, an early neolithic (6,500-5,800 BCE) settlement on mainland Greece

After a thousand years, by 5,500 BCE, the town was flourishing with a few hundreds to even a few thousand inhabitants. By the 6th millennium BCE these people were no longer living in mud houses, but ones made of unfired adobe mixed with hay which sat upon stone foundations. By this millennium hearths and ovens were put between houses or in common areas, and some houses were even two stories high. Seskloan potters produced colorful painted geometric pottery in a creative explosion during this period, especially after the invention of fired pottery. Between 5,500-5,000 BCE painted pottery was more commonly found in the “citadel” area of settlement as opposed to the “town” section, evidence of an early social stratification.

A clay model of a house, from Sesklo, Thessaly. Made around 5,000 BCE

A reconstruction of a middle neolithic (5,800-5,300 BCE) house with a stone foundation from Greece

A reconstruction of Sesklo

Warriors from Sesklo in the 6th millennium BCE, by Giuseppe Rava

A picture of the remains of Sesklo today

A red patterned clay cup from Sophades, Thessaly. Made between 5,000-4,000 BCE

Clay cup from Sesklo, Thessaly. Made between 5,800-5,300 BCE

Clay bowl from Sesklo, Thessaly. Made between 5,800-5,300 BCE

While the most dense region of middle neolithic settlement was in Thessaly, the inhabitants of Crete also lived a culturally intricate lifestyle. Tantalizing clues to their life often comes from bits and pieces of figurines from this period, indicating fine clothing and jewelry.

A middle neolithic (5,800-5,300 BCE) figurine from Franchthi Crete, showing clothing

A middle neolithic (5,800-5,300 BCE) figurine from Knossos, showing body decoration

A late neolithic (5,300-3,000 BCE) figurine from Makriyalos Crete, with a box highlighting jewelry

Between 5,300-4,800 BCE (called the Pre-Dimini phase) people began settle all over Greece, especially in the plains. The population boom during this period is also seen in an increase in the variety of regional pottery, and novel rectangular and megaron style buildings. Hearths and ovens were now placed inside people's houses, showing that cooking had become a familiar instead of a communal affair. Villages were surrounded by ditches 4-6 meters wide and 1.5-1.7 meters deep, to protect against foraging wild animals as well as other humans. The earliest lakeside village in Greece existed during this period (at Dispilio-Kastoria), people had built timber-post framed platforms in order to raise their towns above the water. During the Pre-Dimini phase the population of local villages skyrocketed, going from the prior 50-100 average to 100-300. People invented new foods like bread wheat, millet, rye, oats, and chickpeas.

A vase from Dimini, Thessaly. Made between 5,300-4,800 BCE

A reconstruction of the town of Dimini as it existed during the 5th millennium BCE

A reconstruction of the town of Dimini as it existed around 3,700 BCE

As the cultural geography and population density shifted, so did the focus of artistry and craftsmanship. By the middle of the 5th millennium BCE (between 4,800-4,500 BCE) the village of Dimini began to outshine its neighbor Sesklo. During this millennium the shift towards plains settlements continued and was aggrandized. While communities continued to be around 100-300 strong, certain activities became specialized such as: pottery workshops, sea shell jewelry carvers, and obsidian arrowhead manufacturers. These novel “professions” became localized in a workshop, and utilized by a local specialist. During the 5th millennium BCE silver and copper beads are rarely found, suggesting a continuation of class stratification. The “House of the Potter” in Sesklo is a beautiful snapshot of the time period, being destroyed/preserved by a fire around 4,400 BCE.

Cup of Urfinis ware, southern Greece, made between 5,000-4,500 BCE

Urfinis ware table or footstool made of clay, southern Greece, made between 5,000-4,500 BCE

While the evidence for regional trade is not as widespread as it is during the early Minoan (EM) period, neolithic Greeks traded using exchange networks. Obsidian from the Aegean island of Melos is found across the Aegean, even reaching Macedonia. Jewelry from Dimini in Thessaly went as far as the Balkans and central Europe, as did ring idol pendants. The sophisticated pottery made at Sesklo, Sophades, and Dimini certainly found its way into the hands of prospective buyers hundreds of miles away from its site of origination. The question remains, how far were such objects traded by a single person, or by people generally? While people did trade precious objects, painted pottery, and raw materials, it is also an open question whether each town's culture also traveled along these trade routes. Sesklo is the presumed originator of massive amounts of female figurines which are found as far north as the Karanovo culture (in Bulgaria) and the Koros culture (in eastern Hungary). It is completely unknown what these female figurines represented, but trading symbolic figurines is very different than trading painted pottery. Owning beautiful pottery is still valued today, but finding one particular reason for owning a schematic figurine is much more mysterious. It is certainly possible that they were only used as toys, and that Sesklo had become a popular site of such production. The question remains completely unanswered, but the neolithic period shows the birth of well developed regional exchange networks. These networks would cement routes and associations which early Minoan traders later exploited.

Votive figurines from Sesklo

Clay model of a decorated boat, from the late neolithic (5,300-3,000 BCE) period on Crete

Map of late Neolithic cultures across Europe and Anatolia, generally of the 6th millennium BCE

Neolithic chronology of the Aegean and surrounding regions

In comparison to the Minoan golden age, much less is known of Neolithic Crete. Even with that lack of information, the early settlements at what would become future Minoan cities (like at Knossos and Phaistos) point to an increasingly urban population on Crete. There is one curious fact which ties neolithic Cretans to the glorious palaces of the late bronze age Minoan civilization: the initial neolithic settlement on Crete was at Knossos, directly at the future site of the central court at its palace. By the Minoan era, this court was to be the central feature and focus of the palace hierarchy and ritual, as the court of each city's palace held high importance in Minoan culture generally. This connection is remarkable, while the Minoans had no idea who their Neolithic forebears were many thousands of years prior, through some process of agglomeration this specific spot kept its importance. For thousands of years the village at this site grew and expanded, blossoming and evolving into the peak Minoan town of Knossos by the 2nd millennium BCE. At its peak this town was the largest and presumably strongest of the Minoan cities. The palace surrounding that central court was the largest and most elaborate on the whole island. If only the Minoans knew how deeply connected they were to their ancestors many thousands of years prior.

The site of the earliest settlement on Crete, Neolithic Knossos, around 9 kya, shown as it existed during the Minoan golden age (the early and middle 2nd millennium BCE) as the central court of the Palace of Knossos

The central court at Knossos now


Prehistoric Crete on Wikipedia
Neolithic Pottery in Greece, from IME.Gr
Small amount of info on Sesklo and Dimini
The House of the Potter at Sesklo
Figurin' Out Neolithic Crete, by Marina Mina
Aegean Neolithic Transition, What-When-How

The FN to EBA Transition in Crete, Nowicki

Friday, April 10, 2015

The Minoans: The Pre-Temple Period

As Neolithic people across the Middle East began to utilize copper tools, then bronze tools, slowly Crete was changing too. During the 4th millennium BCE metalworking became popular across the Aegean, and people began to use gold, silver, and copper for jewelry. A larger and more pronounced class of nobles emerged in the Aegean during this millennium, with their status cemented by the ownership of symbols of prestige, such as: gold strips, schematic figurines, silver earrings, copper pins, and obsidian spearheads. These items were only owned by nobles, and must have been traded between nobles. For the general population, pottery floods the record such as at Lera and Gerani caves.

A reconstruction of Aegean noble warriors from the 3rd millennium BCE, by Giuseppe Rava

Around 3,300-3,100 BCE international trade emerged between the city states of Afghanistan and the nomes of Egypt (at least at Naqada). First this was with a land route across the land locked city states of Persia, and later (by 3,000 BCE) with a sea route directly to coastal Sumer. Crete was increasingly living in a more globalized world. Earlier settlers had brought dogs, cattle, sheep, goats, and pigs, but during this millennium donkeys and rabbits were imported from outside of Crete. New styles of pottery proliferate across the island, pointing to an explosion of localism within the craft and an island wide population boom. In the latter half of the millennium (3,500-3,000 BCE) a concurrent population drop-off in the nearby Cyclades and Dodecanese islands points to migrations or large population changes in the areas around Crete as they experienced this population boom.

Map of bronze age sites in Iran, showing the possible stopping points across a land route from the Badakhshan mountains to Egypt, which opened between 3,500-3,000 BCE

Map of the Indus River Valley civilization between 3,300-2,600 BCE, by 3,000 BCE some amount of Afghani lapis lazuli traveled south to the mouth of the Indus river, or to Gujarat. From there it was transported to Magan (Oman), then Dilmun (Bahrain), then to Sumer

A reconstruction of the citadel at Dholavira, Gujarat. part of the Indus River Valley civilization

As the turn of the millennium neared, by 3,200 BCE, the first and foremost neolithic village of Knossos had become a sizable village. The boom of the latter 4th millennium BCE had created many new settlements, called neolithic ridge towns as many are in defensible positions. These new settlements continued the general trend towards urbanity, and probably added new cultures and ideas. These final neolithic ridge towns and ancestral neolithic villages all play a role in the island's fluid transition into the bronze age.

The urban development of the village of Myrtos near Fournou Koriphi between 3,000-2,200 BCE

A clay model of a ship from Mochlos cave, Crete, made between 3,000-2,700 BCE

A drawing of a clay model of a ship from Palaikastro Crete, made around 3,000 BCE

Much was changing around the wider Aegean world at the turn of the 3rd millennium BCE. In Egypt the Pharaoh Narmer united its city states into its first Kingdom around 3,100 BCE, and in Mesopotamia the city of Uruk held some cultural dominance over a collection of city states. In Crete, pottery which is considered distinctively Minoan is expressed throughout the island. This period is called the Pre-Temple period, and begins more or less around the advent of Pyrgos ware around 2,800 BCE.

Standard Pyrgos ware chalice, made around 2,800 BCE

Cycladic style Cretan pyxis, made between 3,000-2,300 BCE

Cycladic style Cretan pyxis, made between 3,000-2,300 BCE

Bird shaped clay vessel from Koumasa, 2,600–2,300 BCE

A Red-on-White (RoW) beak spouted jug from southern Crete, 2,600-2,300 BCE

A stone vase in the shape of a teapot from Mochlos, Crete, EM period

Once a general pottery fashion had taken hold on the island, it only spurred further innovation. Within 200 years (2,600 BCE) both Agios Onoufrios and Vasiliki ware were being produced on Crete. During the 3rd millennium BCE Cretan culture began to express itself in a multitude of variations, then shipped those variations off to other places for money. It was in this millennium that trading contacts began with Syria, and by 2,000 BCE certainly Cretan traders were fully integrated into the culture of their neighbors' coastal cities. This wider Aegean world changed significantly during this time. The Old Kingdom of Egypt rose and fell, leaving pyramids for humans to marvel at thousands of years later. The Sumerian culture flourished during this millennium finally dispersing after the Amorite invasion around 2,000 BCE. At the beginning of the millennium Mesopotamia had never been united, yet by 2,000 BCE Sargon the Great of the Akkadian empire (which had fallen by that time) had set the premier example of Kingship. He created a mythical national hero and perfect king, copied by all his successors to the greater kingship of Asia until Alexander the Great in the 4th century BCE.

White-on-Black (WoB) spouted beaker, Vasiliki ware, 2,300-2,000 BCE

A Cycladic Kernos (vase for multiple offerings), 2,300-2,200 BCE

A long beak spouted cup, from Crete made between 2,200-2,000 BCE

Minoan early Kamares ware jug with dolphin, made around 2,100 bce

A clay hedgehog bowl from Syros island in the Aegean, made between 2,700-2,200 BCE

A similar sea changed had occurred in Crete by the end of the 3rd millennium BCE. Around 2,100 BCE early pictographs had transformed into a style of writing called Cretan hieroglyphs. These common symbols were stamped on seals or carved onto clay documents. The answer to why a common written language emerged on the island is found in the objects onto which the symbols were stamped and carved. Seals represented the individual's person-hood, and when put onto a legal contract impresses into that document the weight of that individual's fidelity. On such clay documents merchants inscribed items bought or sold, allowing Cretans from vastly separated villages to trade and profit together and from one another. With the spread of pictograms you see the spread of population, trade, and a unitary Minoan culture.

Seals with Cretan hieroglyphs

A green jasper seal with Cretan hieroglyphs, made around 1,800 BCE

Many things were held to be sacred by Cretans of the 3rd millennium BCE. By the end of the millennium specifically mountain tops had held high importance. The earliest peak sanctuaries were built in this period, heralding the rise of a novel complex mythology which calcified over the flourishing of the Minoan religion through the next thousand years. This proto-form of the classical Minoan religion dominated Crete during this millennium. Their belief structure did not end with the Minoans themselves, it was shared and passed down to the Mycenaeans and eventually (with heavy change) to classical Greece. The rise of this belief structure in the 4th millennium effected the culture of its local region for thousands of years afterward. Only with the dominance of Christianity over Hellenism in the 4th century CE were the last elements of this bronze age believe system truly dispersed.

Image of a peak sanctuary on a rhyton from Zakros, 1550-1500 BCE

A strange clay figurine/pot called the Goddess of Myrtos, found on Crete and dated to around 2,000 BCE (right at the end of the Pre-Temple period)

One of the earliest underwater shipwrecks in the Mediterranean is from the Pre-Temple era, from around 2,200 BCE. It was a trading vessel bearing pottery from the Argolid peninsula in the Peloponnese, and had sunk 60 miles east of Sparta by the island of Dokos. While its primary mission at the time of its sinking was bringing Argolid pottery to the island, due to the high variety of styles on the ship it was probably trading much further afield. The ship contained a multitude of potted items as well as lead ingots. An analysis of the items carried goes a long way to explaining what the wealthy were importing during this period. It traded mainly bulk storage amphorae and pithoi, but also cups, bowls, urns, sauceboats, braziers, washing basins, baking trays, and common utensils. By 2,200 BCE pottery was much more than just jars, and trade was much more than simply bulk produce. The ship also carried multiple millstones, which were most likely used as ballast. This fact also points to the interconnection of the agricultural economy and the shipping economy.

The stone anchor from the Dokos shipwreck, from around 2,200 BCE

The sauceboats the ship was carrying had a similar design to Early Helladic pottery in Attica and the Cyclades. While the Minoan thalassocracy would come to dominate much later in the Aegean, there was already a dense interwoven economic fabric by the early Minoan period. Each coastal locality was inextricably linked to its neighbors, creating not only a shared culture but a shared economic fate. This process wove the region together, at least those who could afford foreign pottery. Along with foreign objects came foreign languages, ideas, and transplants: truly these trade links spread knowledge and information. Crete sat directly in the center of all these links, both connecting the disparate eastern Mediterranean together, as well as stitching itself inextricably into the mainland world.


Aegean Neolithic Transition, What-When-How
The FN to EBA Transition in Crete, Nowicki
The Minoans, by Rodney Castleden
The Dokos Shipwreck, on Wikipedia
Ancient Egyptian trade, on Wikipedia
History of Lapis Lazuli, on Wikipedia

Sacred Neolithic Cretan Caves, Peter Tomkins