Wednesday, April 8, 2015

The Minoans: The Labyrinth

The hierarchical social structure which emerged on Crete around 2,000 BCE grew in parallel with localized hierarchical architecture. The dominant building in any Minoan and Mycenaean town was its central Palace Temple. Since there is no written explanation as to the function of the structure, it was originally considered by Arthur Evans to be a palace. Later archeologists have pointed out the multitude of ritual scenes and cult objects within the structure, leading many (such as Rodney Castleden) to believe the building is a grand temple. It is also possible that it served multiple purposes, being the symbolic focal point for both the secular and religious hierarchy, and possibly even a necropolis. Other regional civilizations built large temples which helped centralize the urban secular and religious authority. In nearby Anatolia, the Hittites built a large temple in their capital Hattusa, and in Mesopotamia the most powerful city states each had their own megalithic ziggurat. The division of power in such societies is not quite clear, with the power of each authority varying by culture and period. In Egypt there is evidence that priests were sent to conduct trade deals, so there was some crossover between religious and secular duties.

The Temple at Knossos, from
The first temples were built through the 20th century BCE lasted til around 1,700 BCE, when an earthquake destroyed most everything on the island, ending the Old Temple period. Minoans would stand resilient in the face of such devastation, as each city rebuilt their temple and life went on. Thus the New Temple period began and temples increased in their structural complexity. Ambitious planners took advantage of their opportunity to re-envision old traditions, and to re-solidify old power structures. New ideas spread during the NT period, a new style of pottery called the Marine style dominated the Minoan art world. This New Temple period lasted from 1,700 til around 1,470, brought to a brutal end by the Theran eruption. Dating this eruption is problematic, with many dates ranging from 1,600-1,400, I'm using Rodney Castleden's dating for the sake of simplicity. The eruption not only wiped the Minoan colony of Thera off the map, but brought earthquakes and floods to the rest of the Minoan heartland. The Minoans were not destroyed by this calamity, but they were shaken to their core. This brutal disaster brought an end to the NT period and to their ancestral power structures.

“The Demise of the Minoans” by Aaron John Gregory

Differing design plans of the OT palaces (on the top) and the NT palaces (on the bottom) at Knossos, Phaistos, and Mallia

Once again, the slate was wiped clean, but this time only one city managed to rebuilt their temple: Knossos. For about 90 years, from the 1,470 Theran eruption until about 1,380 (or from 1,600-1,510 or 1,450-1,360), the only large city with a palace-temple was Knossos. Most likely this good fortune afforded its Wanax dominance over neighboring rivals, possibly the whole island. In 1,380 a fire destroyed the Knossian temple for the 3rd time, and this layer was its last, as it was never rebuilt. The ancient urban core of the city was mostly abandoned, and the last remaining temple hierarchy finally collapsed. Sadly, Arthur Evans' destructive and clumsy excavations permanently destroyed much of our ability to reconstruct the temple's layout during Knossos' final glory, although there is much more to be said about Arthur Evans later. At least he did not use dynamite, as Heinrich Schliemann did at Troy.

“Evans had stripped most of the palace down to its MMIII to LMI skeleton [1,700-1,450 BCE], so that its later plan is now difficult to reconstruct.” - Colin Macdonald

The final abandonment of Knossos around 1,370 BCE was also due to the city's lowland placement. The LBA period was rife with disorder and warfare, the old maryannu order was collapsing all across the Aegean. During this period the large valley cities were abandoned as Minoan society reformed its manner of urban planning. Slowly, over the course of centuries they eventually forgot they had ever changed. Looking down from their defensive mountain holds onto the ruins of vast cities, after a few generations did any Cretan remember their glorious past?

A colorful reconstruction of the interior of a Mycenaean palace-temple

The Minoan palace system created three general variations of palace-temples. The first generation or Old Temple period from 2,000-1,700 BCE, the second generation or New Temple period from 1,700-1,450 BCE, and the third generation or Knossian period from 1,450-1,380 BCE. Each generation of temples was structured differently, and those who lived inside such temples viewed the world from three temporally separate worldviews. The largest temple which ever existed was Knossos during its period of solitary dominance, and analyzing that structure can help us understand the general underlying themes of usage from such buildings.

Inside the Labyrinth

The Bull and Tree fresco at Knossos

The extant temple palace at Knossos represents its latest iteration, completed around 1,400 BCE at the height of Knossian' LM dominance. It is the largest Minoan building ever built, standing 140 meters on each side (covering 20,000 meters). Its design reveals its prior NT (New Temple) era plan, it was built from the inside-out in step by step agglomerative fashion without an original master plan. Its structure is reminiscent of a labyrinth, a multitude of intricate corridors and rooms, towering up to four stories tall. Around 300 ground floor rooms survive, including stairways off the main court.

The plaza area outside the palace-temple

One fundamental purpose of the structure was to house its countryside's produce, and each palace had long narrow storerooms filled with large pithoi jars. At Phaistos and Mallia well paved sections surround the massive granaries, suggesting these objects were focal points and saw heavy foot traffic. Presumably these areas were another focus of the structure, possibly places were public ceremonies occurred. Although food storage is evidenced, it is important to note that many doubt the grain aspect of the granaries, and people such as Ian Swindale estimates that food storage in temples was reserved only for workers and feasts, and not redistributive taxation.

A person standing next to a pithos storage jar

A narrow storage passageway with pithoi jars

A large pithos jar covered with handles

The Wings of the Temple, The West Wing

Knossos labyrinth with details

Detailed interior plan of the temple with rooms labeled

The Priest King fresco in situ at Knossos

The west side of the Knossos labyrinth housed Cretan hieroglyphic tablets, storage, and cultic rooms, and was probably the administrative center. This section also includes the most famous room uncovered by Evans: The Throne Room. In this room, a stone seat sits centered on a wall, flanked by altar benches and painted geometric griffons. Sitting before the throne is a stone offering bowl. The throne room is low, without windows, and symbolically private. It is connected to the central court, but separated by an anteroom. This mysterious room was not actually the king's chambers (as Evans thought), but served a cultic purpose as an adyton (a restricted sacred space). A priestess representing a goddess would have sat on the throne, the focus of a specific devotional practice.

The Throne

The Throne Room

Plan of the Throne Room Suite (after Evans, Palace of Minos IV, figure 877)

Drawing of the Throne by Theodore Fyfe

Detail of a griffon fresco in the Throne Room

Continuing deeper into the labyrinth, off of the throne room are two exits: one leading to 9 rooms and the other to storage. This cluster of rooms beginning with the throne room were probably considered separate from the general temple, and the throne room itself was probably the cultic focal point of the temple.

Reconstruction of the full Throne Room

Looking outside from the Throne Room

Deep within the west wing of the labyrinth was a crypt, filled with pillars. On these pillars were multiple double axe motifs, symbols of both the Minoans central goddess and of execution. Under the floor of this room were the ashes of presumably sacrificed animals. Beside the pillars were rectangular depressions for offerings. Blood sacrifice was rife within the Minoan religion, and the executioner's axe was a sacred symbol of power.

In addition to the throne room, the administrative west wing includes the snake goddess sanctuary. This room housed multiple snake goddess statuettes which have become the most famous object associated the Minoan culture. They were buried within cysts in the floor of the room. One figurine was intentionally broken in half for some purpose prior to its deposition.

Items found by Evans in the Snake Goddess Sanctuary

A faience snake goddess figurine from the Snake Goddess Sanctuary

A stone cross found in the Snake Goddess Sanctuary

The west wing also includes the cup bearer sanctuary, with its vivid life-sized fresco of a servant/celebrant.

Reconstruction of the Cup Bearer fresco in situ at Knossos

Another important room in the west wing is the great sanctuary. This room is abnormally large (16 meters cross) with a large window and the famous bull leaping fresco. During ceremonies a priestess representing a goddess would appear in such windows, this integral aspect along with the elaborate fresco points to this room's importance.

Reconstruction of the Bull Leaping fresco

The North Wing

The north section of the labyrinth holds the north pillar hall, connected to the outside by a small doorway. This section also held administrative tablets. There is a long passageway leading from the north pillar hall to the central court, which was covered by the NT period although probably uncovered in the OT period. Also in the north section is the bull chamber with its bull leaping fresco. The north east section of the palace contained store rooms as well as clay cups, most likely an area where meals were eaten or prepared. Sadly the north east section was badly damaged in Arthur Evan's excavation.

Columns at the temple at Knossos

A screenshot from the game Depths of Fear, set in a fantastical version of the Knossian labyrinth. While not an actual intended reconstruction the design resembles the uncovered north wing passageway in the OT period

A courtyard at Knossos, from

The East Wing

The east side housed storage but most prominently over 400 loom weights suggesting an in-temple workshop, although these rooms also included altar benches. After the great earthquake around 1,700 the eastern section's storerooms were filled in and used as a foundation for its NT era purpose. In the east wing originally there were four levels, two beneath the ground level and one above. Luckily for us, only the top level was destroyed. The walls of the ground level east wing rooms are quite thick, suggesting knowledgeable architectural planning. The second floor of the east wing housed the sanctuary of the great goddess, which had collapsed onto the ground floor. Many cultic objects were recovered from this room, including a small three pillar shrine, altars, sacred horns, and bronze hair from a statue. This goddess statue was 3 meters high. The sanctuary of the great goddess was connected to the central court by a flight of twelve stairs.

Similar loom weights to ones found at Knossos, these are from building 4 at the palace at Arkhanes, Crete

Arthur Evan's “Gallery”, reconstructed during his excavations

Reconstruction of the Hall of the Shields at Knossos

 Picture of the Hall of the Shields fresco at Knossos

By far, the most impressive section of the east wing is the grand staircase, containing 54 steps descending four levels to the hall of the double axes.

Diagram of the grand staircase at Knossos

A picture from the top of the grand staircase at Knossos

The courtyard at the bottom of the grand staircase, from

At the bottom of the grand staircase the hall of the double axes was most likely a cultic area. It was very private and intentionally set back from public areas, being one of the most internally closed off rooms. It should also be mentioned, that it was near crafting rooms which may have been noisy or may suggest a different purpose for the hall of the double axes. The hall has two sections, an inner and an outer chamber. The inner chamber could be closed off by 11 sets of double doors, and a similar deeply recessed room was found at Phaistos. While the activities done in this room are unknown, its extreme privacy points to its function as an adyton. Near the hall of the double axes is the beautiful dolphin sanctuary. The dolphin sanctuary was adjoined to a lustral basin, and both the adjoining room and the sanctuary itself had an unknown purpose.

Reconstruction of the dolphin fresco

Picture of the dolphin fresco

Detail of the dolphin fresco

Life in the Temple

Its labyrinthine allusions are tempered by reminders of everyday life. A miniature fresco shows a temple with netting hung over the windows, presumably to keep out birds. Although the dove was a religious symbol, the practical concerns of ceremonies took precedence. Temples also generally had entire suites of chambers separated from regular access by pier-and-door partitions. Interspersed through palaces are rectangular sunken chambers for offerings. While a large portion of the temple was dedicated storage, small rooms stored precious objects or religious equipment. Temples also included backstage rooms: dressing and preparing rooms for priestesses, communal dining rooms, kitchens, and several separate suites. Many people worked in the background to realize the elaborate ritual scenes found in many of its frescoes, and those people needed to eat. The north east section of the labyrinth contains many simple cups and was most likely an area where meals were prepared or eaten, and the area south of the court was most likely a domestic area.

Reconstructed domestic section of the palace at Knossos, south of the court

A large stack of common simple conical cups from the palace at Arkhanes, Crete

A room in the NT period palace of Gournia with hundreds of cups, sealed after a celebration ca. 1,700 BCE. The feast and its deposition is considered by the excavator John Younger to be a kind of foundation deposit

Daily life in the temple also necessitated multiple lavatories and baths. MM and LM period plumbing was astonishingly similar to modern and medieval systems.

The water, which was conducted from the roof and the light areas, was gathered into cisterns and from these conducted down the tiles to the baths and latrines, from which it was again discharged to great stone sewers, many of which were large enough to admit a man. These were connected with huge drain-heads and every provision was made for the excess surface water, just as we to-day have built our storm sewers. Every joint in the tile drains was held together by cement and the floors of the rooms were laid in gypsum.” - W. J. Corrigan

There is evidence of a “flushing” toilet in the labyrinth, as the toilet was connected to a drainage shaft and would have been “flushed” with either rainwater or by (servants) pouring water down the channel.

On the face of the gypsum slab to the right is is a groove for a small wooden post for the support of a seat about 57 c.m. above the floor. Outside the doorway of the latrine is a flag, sloped towards a semi-circular hole forming a sink and from this opens a small duct leading to the main drain. The aperture leading to the main drain deviates from the centre of the seat thus leaving room on the right for some vessel for flushing the basin. As an anticipation of scientific methods of sanitation the system of which we have here the record, has been attained by few nations even at the present time.” - Arthur Evans

There is evidence that stone sewer channels remained in use for hundreds of years with only minor repairs. Cisterns were built with water resistant plaster.

Drawing of an elaborate Minoan bathtub

A simpler Minoan bathtub from around 1,350 BCE

A Minoan toilet

A drawing of a flushed toilet at Knossos

Inter-fitting 4”-6” wide terracotta pipes were common and sometimes buried down to 11 feet deep, such technology was only superseded much later by iron age lead pipes. In an act which can only be described as the result of trial and error, the pipes did not run under the living spaces of the palace, but under specific hallways. Cracks and leaking must have been an issue, yet terracotta piping is surprisingly effective, as the tapered edges create a seal when under water pressure.

A piece of Knossian terracotta pipe, with handles for carrying

A piece of revealed Knossian terracotta pipe protected by a grate, by Peggy Sugarman

The steep grade of the countryside around Knossos allowed its plumbers to create an effective drainage system for the temple's many lavatories. There were three in the east wing alone, all connected to a single main sewer. Professional masons constructed a main sewer, and attached to this central structure were four stone shafts leading from the upper stories. Such shafts acted as trash receptacles, ventilation, and light wells in addition to their primary sewage purpose. By the mid MM period Knossos had drainage systems in both the domestic quarter and by the north entrance.

A stone drainage channel at Knossos

A sewer outfall on an exterior wall of the temple at Knossos

Picture of a Minoan drainage channel underneath a walk way, Knossos

The “Queen's Bathroom”, so named by Arthur Evans, has beautifully decorated walls and features water jugs, washing basins, and a bathtub. The 5 foot long terracotta tub is painted with a design involving reeds. The tub has no drain, so emptying it was probably done by servants. In the floor of this room is a chute designed specifically for this purpose, connected to the main drain.

“The Queen's Bathroom” at Knossos

A reconstruction of “The Queen's Bathroom”

The Central Court

The central court at Phaistos now

All temples were centered around an open air court, most famously used for bull leaping. At Phaistos this court was bounded by doorways which could be closed, blocking off some sections of the court, and at Mallia a large door could close off the north colonnade. It is not known whether this was done for ritual, privacy, or protection. The east side of the court at Mallia had railings attached to wooden posts, creating the division between the arena and spectators. This is supported by frescoes at Knossos which show a priestess leaning against a three tiered wooden railing. Lining the west end of the court are multiple frescoes, highlighting the court's symbolic importance as the heart of the structure.

The central court at Knossos now

The central court pointed out at Knossos

The rooms which directly opened onto the central court were designed either to be more important or simply to hold more foot traffic. At Phaistos two primary chambers open onto the court, both having bench altars and presumably these two chambers were ritually related to bull leaping or other courtly activities conducted in the court. The most prominent room off of Knossos' court is the throne room, which itself includes bench altars. Multiple rooms in temples contained such altars, with at least one being made of gypsum. These bench altars may have had offerings, votive figurines, or larger statuettes placed on them. While they are geographically near to the court, it is entirely impossible to know how the rituals which took place in these rooms were related to bull leaping or any other court activity. It is possible that different activities which took place in the court were linked to rituals in separate rooms.

The west end of the court at Knossos

A cultic procession at Knossos

From the Entrances to the Central Court

The labyrinth had 7-8 entrances, yet strangely none are obviously its main thoroughfare. Each one is blended into its section of the wall, none of them are grandiose nor even share the same design. While each entrance connects to the rest of the structure, they all funnel to the central court.

Wooden model of the temple at Knossos

This was by no means a straight line, and to the uninitiated it must have seemed absolutely random, mysterious, and religious. It must have been part of the experience, possibly involving levels of initiation as in many classical period mystery religions. To the average Cretan, if they were permitted in if only to the central court, it must have been an awe inspiring experience. It was after all, designed to fulfill Minoan society's needs, to inspire reverence in your deity through monumental architecture. How much this also inspired loyalty to ones' Wanax is an interesting question. Individual Sumerian Kings struggled slowly for hundreds of years to usurp the power of each of their city state's theocratic cabal, did the same fluctuating tug-of-war riddle Minoan society?

The columned bridge at the south entrance of Knossos

Another version of the columned bridge at the south entrance of Knossos

As the power of urban temples grew, it began to dominate local shrines and sanctuaries spread across the countryside. In doing so, it began to replicate the power of such places through its architecture. As the power shifted from the countryside to the urban centers, religious importance shifted as well. Subterranean rooms such as the Hall of the Double Axes at Knossos evoke the dark power of hidden cave sanctuaries. The Throne Room with its stone peak surrounded by landscape frescoes evokes the windswept glory of peak sanctuaries. Prior to the OT period, a devotee would go to such natural places like caves, peaks, and forests to praise their god. But now it was all packaged together in one convenient location, under princely oversight.

Knossos courtyard at the bottom of a stairway, by

Bull Leaping

The Bull Leaping figurine, made of bronze between 1,550-1,450 BCE on Crete

A primary activity of the central court was to sport bull leaping events. It is important to note that the images we have of bull leapers represent different stages of different events, and even then only an idealized version of that event. It was complex enough that teams would have certainly rehearsed feats or routines. Such acrobatics would have been intended to dazzle spectators, with somersaults around the bull and even over its back. This is commonly represented in Minoan art with a seemingly complacent bull simply standing by, but realistically that would have been near impossible. Some depictions of bull leaping show a possible standard practice, which was to have 2-4 people hold down the horns for such dangerous jumps. This jump was certainly the primary attraction as they would flip headfirst over the bull's horns to land on their feet behind the animal. Even more fantastical is a statuette from Rethymnon showing a jumper performing this headfirst leap and somehow landing on their feet on the bull's back.

An ivory figurine of an acrobat leaping over a bull, it was originally attached to a bull figurine by a thin gold stand which can be faintly seen hanging off the bottom of the figurine

A diagram of a bull leaping maneuver

In the corners of some courts, such as at Phaistos, a raised block was possibly a step for the jumpers. Acrobats are shown in Minoan art aside from bulls as well, such as on various seals where acrobats perform handstands. A gold hilt from Mallia shows an acrobat doing a backflip. Performances involving bulls or not were both performed by skilled professionals, they were most likely choreographed to heighten the audience's experience. It is unknown where exactly acrobats performs when seen isolated on seals, but their common depiction in Minoan life attests to their wide notoriety.

A seal from Mallia, Crete, showing an acrobat balancing over a sword

The acrobat on a gold roundel from Mallia

The evidence of railings (even up to three layers) at around courts points to the danger inherent in such practices, even with four people holding a bull down things are bound to go wrong. On the Boxer rhyton, one unlucky acrobat is seen being gored by a bull, showing that this scene of was common enough in the Minoan mind to be represented in art. In an age without modern medicine, grievous injuries were all the more deadly.

The only depiction a bull leaping related injury in Minoan art, on the Boxer Rhyton

Youthful skilled entertainers could make a career out of dangerous spectacles then, just as people still do today. Famous acrobats were probably celebrities, fulfilling a similar role to classical Roman gladiators and modern racecar drivers. An acrobat using a springboard to leap over a stationary “horse” has become a common modern trope in acrobatics, an interesting piece of continuity in principle with bronze age bull leapers.

Bull leaping has not gone out of fashion. Modern recortadores still practice the dangerous sport, giving credence to depictions of the figurines leaping unaided

A recortador doing a back flip

A recortador finishing with a handstand, one upping the Minoans!

The Bull Leaping fresco from Avaris, Egypt. Done in Minoan style with Minoan artists but in the capital of the Hyksos kingdom in occupied lower Egypt. One dating even suggests it may be older than the Knossian taureador fresco, but that is contested

Scribes and Tablets

The primary tablet stashes are at Knossos and Pylos. Each stash is comprised of a single archive of tablets, with a new archive being drawn up each year. The archives found at cities were most likely records of the operation of its final year. These tablets were mostly itemized lists and produce documentation. These records were written and read by fully literate scribes, although probably many people who dealt with writing on a more common basis were semi-literate out of practicality and familiarity with certain pictographs. Some bronze age Mesopotamian Kings were literate even funding libraries, but many others delegated those administrative tasks to their scribes and did not need the skill to exercise their authority. It is unknown whether Aegean Kings faced a similar situation, although it certainly was helpful to read the treaties and financial records of which you had oversight.

A tablet with Linear A from Zakros

A fragment of Linear A writing

A cylindrical seal using Linear A

The best preserved tablets at Knossos are about the production of wool. The temple had hundreds of such tablets, which fully explain its bureaucratic handling of both wool artisans and its wool stockpile. While tithes may have began as only a social obligation, by the LM period the temple set precise wool production targets along with noting each herd's population. Each herd is given with 0-2 names, presumably of any owners of those herds. Herds with two owners were probably the shepherd and another owner. Herds with one owner were solely owned by its shepherd, and herds without names were either owned by the King or had been ordered into stacks to show ownership (instead of writing the name of the owner on the tablet). The individual shepherds and wealthier herd owners were semi-independent, but also directly responsible to the palace-temple. This almost feudal system of allegiance and obligations was managed by the Wanax through those records his bureaucrats drew up. With the invention of record keeping there is also the simultaneous invention of written corruption, and the Wanax and his scribes in their “bronze tower” may at times been disconnected from the actual health of the economy (as seen by the shepherds) at the village level.

Fragments of Linear B writing

Once wool had been collected it was turned into textiles, with the amount, type, and producer specified by the palace-temple. Most production was at Knossos directly overseen by the temple in the east wing, which contained a large textile workshop staffed by unnamed women and children. Some tablets suggest these workers were paid in grain rations, and that they had supervisors. The child textile workers were labeled “larger”, “smaller”, and “under instruction”. At Pylos, the temple similarly used unnamed women and children as in-temple textile workers, but also gave their specific occupation and sometimes country of origin. Most of the occupations given to these workers were menial jobs such as spinning wool, grinding grain, carding flax. The scale of this operation is staggering, tablets from both Knossos and Pylos mention over 300-600 different workers, Andrea Salimbeti cites 700 women, 400 girls, and 300 boys.

It is not known whether these workers were free, debt slaves, or chattel slaves, but in tablets it is mentioned that the workers “belong to them” (the priestesses?). Enslaved women and children suggest predatory raiding, where the men in a settlement were killed and the rest of the population were enslaved. The countries of origin of these workers would have shown where they had come from, most are from the coast of Anatolia: Knidos, Miletos, Lemnos, Halikarnassos, Chios, and Aswija (possibly Assuwa a Hittite region based in classical Lydia). On a Knossian tablet and on PY Ep 705.6 slaves are mentioned from Toroja, and on another tablet a slave came from Thebes. The Mycenaean word for these people is lawiaiai (la-wi-ai-ai) or “captives”, which is the word Homer uses to describe the woman Achilles takes in a raid at Lyrnessos south of Troy in the Iliad. While it is still unknown whether these workers were enslaved or not, there is evidence that at least some of the workers in the palace-temple were slaves (at least on the mainland).

While hundreds of workers labored in the textile workshop scribes kept detailed records of the influx and outflow of material. Such a high position within the temple hierarchy demanded exclusivity, and there were far fewer record keepers than textile laborers. An analysis of the tablets found at Knossos shows that there were at least 70 scribes working in the temple by 1,380 BCE. Scribes in Mesopotamia during the 3rd millennium BCE were the children (almost all sons) of the wealthy and were sent to rigorous scribal schools to learn the profession. Once they graduated from such schools, they were employed throughout daily life. Some worked at temples as record keepers, but many others worked locally to help business owners write documents. Mesopotamian scribes played an important role in many aspects of society, from crafting adoption documents to mathematically dividing up a deceased parent's estate for their children. It is unknown whether Minoan scribes underwent such rigorous training and were so integrated into society, but both Minoan and Mesopotamian scribes worked in their society's halls of power, in close contact to nobility and their Kings.


Scribes during the OT and NT period wrote in three scripts, possibly four depending on how you want to classify the Phaistos disk. The original script on the island was Cretan hieroglyphics, developed independently although with some possible eastern inspiration. It was used on seals about 100 years prior to the first temples. The second script was Linear A, developed out of Cretan hieroglyphics at Phaistos, then spread across the island. It was used on seals and tablets by scribes in the OT and NT periods to write their native (non Indo-European) Minoan language. The third script was Linear B, which was used solely to write their Indo-European Proto-Greek during the LM period, and was introduced from mainland Greece. The possible fourth is only on the Phaistos disk. This tablet was made around 1,700 BCE (at Phaistos) and shares some symbols with Linear A signs from the Arkalochori Axe, but most of the symbols on the disk are unique. The disk is also unique in that many of the symbols are replicas, having been made (probably) into small seals and then repetitively stamped into the disk creating an early form of block printing.

A few seals using Cretan hieroglyphics

The Phaistos disk

Strangely enough Cretan hieroglyphics were not discontinued as newer forms gained popularity. Such glyphs are found on tablets throughout the MM period and from the Theran eruption (around 1,470 BCE). Parallel secular and religious languages exist in many cultures, and the use of hieroglyphics and Linear A may be another example of such a cultural developmental scenario. Linear A was used until around the 1,400s BCE when it was supplanted by Linear B (proto-Greek). Since Linear A was not the predecessor of mainland Greek it most likely was used to write the native Cretan language, although it is still untranslated. By the LM period Linear B is found across Crete as well as on the mainland, Helladic culture had infiltrated the small island. Linear B was primarily used for accounting, inventories, and religious dedications, although the vast majority of tablets were lost. Linear B contains lists of people, places, commodities, and deities, but no commentary on such things. Since Linear A is still untranslated, it is possible that such commentary may still survive albeit locked in as-of-yet mysterious symbols.

A map of Linear A finds outside of Crete

The difficulty of translating Linear A, multiple possible meanings behind sign 301

Tablets are only found accidentally, it is the texts that were destroyed in fires which ironically survived to this day. Tablets buried in rubble deep within collapsed temples are the only literature from the Minoans which survived the intervening thousands of years. It is a terrible shame that no actual literature has ever been recovered. Clay cups have been found with ink, and Cretans were known to have parchment. Sadly the entirety of that form of literature along with any Minoan oral traditions have been erased by the cruel twists of history. It is a seemingly random fact that only temple records were preserved, as other forms of literature besides accounting were also (presumably) written down but were simply stored elsewhere and destroyed. The vast majority of tablets from Knossos and Pylos are from single repositories, these caches were the records of the previous year, with new records being drawn up yearly. Thus the records from Knossos only accurately detail its last year of operation, leaving the entire remainder of its history a mystery. What has been found is an extremely tiny fraction of the total records of that society, this scenario is similar to our records of Greek literature as we only have 45 full plays when 1,000s were mentioned in passing.

Linear B syllabary

Linear B pictograms

Linear B words. Top: Non phonetic spelling. Middle: Actual pronunciation. Bottom: English translation

Linear B vowel diphthong dropping. Top: The word's written form. Middle: The word's pronunciation. Bottom: English translation

Linear B logograms. Top: the symbol's original pronunciation. Middle: English translation. Bottom: The symbols actual pronunciation

Linear B symbols showing sex differentiation. Two dashed lines symbolize male, and two body lines symbolize female

The eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE buried a private library at a Roman villa near Herculaneum. While the texts were entirely burnt and disintegrate if touched by a human hand, modern scanning equipment invented thousands of years after the Roman era can decipher their faint symbols. The texts were packed into crates and were in the process of being evacuated by the owner when the pyroclastic flow froze them in time. If the scrolls had been successfully evacuated and taken elsewhere surely they would have been destroyed somehow. In this unexpected twist of fate, many Roman and Minoan texts were probably saved and hidden elsewhere during disasters, only to be destroyed. Individuals who tried to save their precious literature in turn destroyed it, and that which was destroyed by fire in turn became the only survived writing from their entire cultures.

Villa of the Papyri, Herculaneum

As the temple structure collapsed in the 11-12th centuries BCE, the profession of the scribe and the keeping of such intricate records were no longer necessary. The old forms of writing died out along with palatial bureaucratic titles. A few hundred years later when Cretans (and Greeks) would take up writing en masse again, it would be based off of a foreign Phoenician alphabet instead of their ancestral Linear B.


The Minoans, by Rodney Castleden
The History of Plumbing on Crete
Linear B Script and Language
The Palace at Knossos, by Odyssey Adventures
Knossian NT Palace, by Colin Macdonald
The Trojan War, by Andrea Salimbeti
Architecture of Minoan Crete, Ch. 8

Minoan Sanitation, W. J. Corrigan


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    1. I am forever in love with Cretan architecture. I am always surprised, because it is current. They fit perfectly, with environmental and ecological concerns. Virtually in its entirety, its gently dazzling construction, would receive several green stamps.

  2. a wonderful work. Thanks a lot :)

  3. Very thorough research. Enjoyed reading! Thank you!

  4. This is an absolute wonderful post,well researched and documented. The illustrations are the best I have seen Thank you for sharing. Love all the information with regards to the Linear B tablets which I have been studying for the past 5 years.