Friday, April 10, 2015

The Minoans: The Old Temple Period

The West Porch with the west facade behind it, at Knossos

As the brief Sumerian renaissance faltered and its culture was replaced by the Babylonians, the first megalithic signs of hierarchy on Crete were evolving. After around 100 years (by 2,000 BCE) Minoan scribes transformed their hieroglyphics into a new system, called Linear A. While aesthetically it is less elaborate, it refined and democratized the use of symbolism by Minoans. The need for faster writing continued to trend towards the simplification of the written Cretan language, in turn allowing for more people to learn the language. This opened the door for foreigners to learn the language, either after intermarriage or for trading, expanding the trading network and general cultural periphery of the Minoans. This helped their culture leap from not only their origin, but to other Aegean islands as well. Strangely enough, even with its successor deeply implanted in Cretan culture, the use of hieroglyphs did not vanish. The antique symbols were re-purposed, no longer representing the mode of everyday communication. Instead, they were used on specific objects or in a ritual context. The context of hieroglyphic signs are radically different than the context of Linear A. Linear A was the language of bureaucratic record keeping, personal seals, and trade contracts. Cretan hieroglyphics were used even hundreds of years after the ubiquity of Linear A, and it is not known what these hieroglyphs eventually came to symbolize. Their transition from a working script to an antiquated script may have been similar to various other transitions seen throughout recorded history known as sacred languages.

A fragment of Linear A writing

A tablet in Linear A from Zakros

A Minoan cylindrical seal using Linear A

The proliferation of writing, seals, and trade across Crete points to the ever expanding class of merchants and the general increase in wealth during this period. As wealth expanded, it centralized, and by 1,930 BCE the first palace structure at Knossos was built. Since the old period palaces were rebuilt/redesigned and used through the new period, it's difficult to completely understand the original structure of the Knossian palace. As Knossians erected their first megalithic structure on the island, they laid the foundations of the classical Minoan palace economy.

Generally, the institutions sitting in the palace survived through the wealth of the countryside. Periodically the crops or other objects were brought (or ordered) to the nearest palace, and redistributed across society. Redistribution was at the discretion of the ruling class, who also allotted themselves some of the wealth. This created the classical Minoan luxury focused and class based aristocracy. Orders to the countryside were reinforced, either by political or religious force (or both) it is not known. Different types of artisans were given patronage by this palace class, eventually being set up in and around the palace proper. The close connection between these early bands of artisans and their rulers/patrons was not accidental, they lived too close to shirk their taxes but operated in areas with the highest foot traffic in town. The art and craftsmanship of pottery was not squelched but continued its unending process of innovation. By 1,800 BCE a new style of pottery, Kamares ware, became popular but only among this new palace class.

A Kamares ware cup from the old palace at Phaistos, around 1,800 BCE

Kamares ware jug from Phaistos, 1,800-1,700 BCE

“The Fish Vase”, a Kamares ware jug

A flower petal or star design, Kamares ware

Kamares ware vases and cups from Phaistos and Knossos, made between 1,800-1,700 BCE

Knossos had set off a chain reaction, and between 2,000-1,900 BCE a wave of megalithic building swept the island, solidifying what top-down hierarchies had emerged in the prior few hundred years. The construction of such a building was symbolically similar to a countryside castle in medieval Europe, it exuded dominance over the local populace and projected your power at the expense of neighborly nobles. It is difficult to describe with high accuracy what exactly these buildings were used for, no record explicitly states their entire use, and the structures housed both cultic areas and food storage. They likely represented merging of both, projecting religious authority and political power through an aristocratic priesthood. Surprisingly the King did not stay in the temple-palace at Knossos, there was a complex interconnection between different groups, families, classes, and titles all within local Minoan politics. Those who did live and rule in the temple were wealthy, and shared similar enough unique clothing to be deemed a new class: the priestesses. This new class procured scribes to record the structure's stores in Linear A, and gave patronage to nearby potters to make Kamares ware (as well as many other specialty craft items).

A goblet with sculpted flowers, Kamares ware, made around 1,700 BCE. The flowers were made separately and attached after the goblet was completed

A beautifully decorated Kamares ware bowl from Phaistos

It should be said that the majority of people associated with a palace-temple were not wealthy priestesses, but were slaves, artisans, attendants, cooks, scribes, or guards. The entire civilization of megalithic structure building and expensive elite en vogue pottery rested on the shoulders of local farmers. Without the commoner's tithes of grain, the palace-temple hierarchy would have quickly collapsed, bringing down the rest of their precarious aristocracy. It is disingenuous to say the Minoan society as a whole wrote Linear A and made Kamares ware: the only people who could write were scribes, and only a select few artisans were given the patronage to craft Kamares ware. Commoners throughout the rest of society used pottery as well, and while it was not as extravagant as Kamares ware, it included its own styles made by its own popular artists. While merchants, potters, and artisans in general carved out a space for themselves, another channel to wealth was through writing. While the contemporaneous Babylonians in Mesopotamia sent their children to scribal schools, it is not known how Minoan scribes were trained and brought into the exclusive palace-temple system. If you could not pay to have your child taught to write, their economic success was not entirely stilted. Most people used seals as a method of signing their name to documents, allowing the illiterate inclusion into financial deals. While it is debated how far seal use proliferated throughout society, generally the use of seals gave the average personal both financial independence and power.

Ivory cone seal with spiral design, 2,300-2,000 BCE Minoan

While it is much easier to speak about a well represented king or priestess, it is absolutely necessary to talk about the lives of the rest, the invisible common people. They constituted the majority of Minoan society, and exhibited their culture as genuinely as any rich land owner. The great mass of farmers, fishers, traders, and laborers together form a silent majority within the historical record. Their discourse were stored in houses and leveled, instead of in large temple repositories and preserved. Their clothing was refitted, gifted, or ripped up, instead of being painted onto the walls of megaliths. From their silence, they become the most mysterious aspect of Minoan society, and the most appealing to reconstruct.

The Fisherman Fresco, the topknots on his shaven head are a hairstyle indicative of youth

For the moment, let's divert the straightforward chronological political history of Crete, and view their history laterally instead of sequentially. As the Old Temple period begins, Minoan society both flourishes, and many of its details are better preserved. Let's broaden the understanding of those individual cultural aspects, which constitute classical Minoan society during the Old and New Temple periods.

A Quick Aside on Notation and Chronology

With the creation of temple hierarchies on Crete, the political lives of everyday Cretans dramatically changed. The change is so radical that it creates a periodic divide, the boundary between EM (early Minoan) and MM (middle Minoan). While this common classification assumed Minoan society “began” around with the start of the EM period around 3,000 BCE, such a stifled formulation of society (truly only an archeological complex) is difficult to accurately define. While there is the rise and fall of the Minoan archeological complex, there are no finite divisions in Minoan civilization as any drawn lines are entirely artificial.

The beginning of Minoan society is arbitrary too, pinning its birth on material objects wrongfully asserts the primacy of those objects as the individual's identity. If some pottery is assigned to be the earliest Minoan pottery, what exactly changes when one crosses this boundary line? Its inventors had no changed their personal identities, they kept their name, language, family, land, clan, titles, and habits. If you followed the ownership patterns of the elite, warriors carried obsidian spearheads in the 4th millennium BCE and by the Old Temple period carried bronze ones. Different chronologies use this evidence to begin their EM period around 3,500 BCE instead (such as Andonis Vasilakis).

Constructing an end to Minoan civilization is somewhat easier, since specific habits such as fresco art (and its Cretan styles) and palace construction (and the scribal lifestyle) vanished entirely. These aspects of culture are still only material, there is no population interruption between the late bronze age (LBA) and the classical period (CP) on Crete. The distinction between LBA Minoan culture and that of the early iron age (EIA) culture is similar to the distinction between the CP Roman Empire and Byzantium.

One of many Bronze Age Aegean chronologiesI'll be using this one for simplicity's sake

Many images and objects people currently associate with the Minoans, such as palace-temples, priestesses, and bull leaping, are specifically from the MM and LM (late Minoan) periods. In popular culture these images are immediately considered Minoan, EM period people don't generate the same reaction. Popular culture rightfully so acknowledges a huge cultural leap between the two periods. If you examined the life of a fresco painter in LM Crete (around 1,450 BCE), and compared that person's life and habits to a fresco painter 1,000 years prior, every aspect of that person's existence would be drastically different. Their language, identity, beliefs, and artistic influences were confined within the immediate past. Identities were tribal and transitory: there is no evidence that Knossos led a confederation of city states, but was only one of many. The only connections those two fresco painters would have shared is location, urbanization, and a quasi-familiar religion.

In the next few sections, I'll talking about a general Minoan culture, which refers to people extant during the MM and LM periods. It can be said that the rise of the palace hierarchy along with its political baggage (around 2,000 BCE) is the beginning of a kind of golden age across the island. This period is the height of megalithic building, international trade, and artistic craftsmanship on the island's bronze age. It also has the most associated evidence. But, it is crucial to remember that the term Minoan is an invention. It's a catchall term, by the omniscient Arthur Evans, for objects made by many political identities in many periods on Crete and many nearby islands. The Old and New Temple periods only lasted around 600 years, and are themselves one small material snapshot of a much larger and more complex culture. In referring to Minoan culture, I'm primarily pointing to 2,000-1,100 BCE, tied into the popular conception of the term. Minoan or Cretan culture as an archeological complex stretches back through the neolithic, and forward into the Hellenistic era. Any culture brought under such a microscope will turn out to have subtle yet integral nuances.


The Minoans, by Rodney Castleden

Minoan Chronology by Andonis Vasilakis


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