Monday, April 6, 2015

The Minoans: Urban Life

The earliest neolithic houses on Crete were wooden and partially dug into the ground, within 500 years these people had pottery and 1,000 years they began to build true (one room) houses. Walls were made of posts during this period, the 6th millennium BCE. The island consisted of small farming villages, and this village life was inherently communal: ovens and hearths were placed in the open to be used by multiple families. By 5,500 BCE the urban settlers at Sesklo in Thessaly were building houses with not only wooden post frames but also stone foundations. Seskloans also built out of unfired mud bricks during this millennium, strengthening them by adding a mixture of clay and hay. Mainland Greece was much more developed and populous as both Sesklo and Dimini were larger urban proto-cities during the 5th millennium BCE. People on Crete during this time had also began to form small towns, with 100-300 people in each village. These larger settlements were lined with ditches and eventually low stone walls. The once communal village ovens retreated into houses, as settlements grew larger and required protection their neolithic lifestyle was interrupted.

Clay model of a house from Sesklo, Thessaly, Greece. Made around 5,000 BCE

Villages became larger and larger and by the EM period extensive trading networks between villages had contributed to the creation of a wealthy upper class. Most of the settlements during this time were focused in the central and eastern regions of Crete, regions which with continued habitation became the large settled areas of the MM period. The first evidence of monumental funerary architecture is seen in the EM period, the tholos tomb. It was a magnificent burial fit for the burgeoning aristocratic class. By 2,000 BCE the first large-scale cities appear, tied to the birth of a structured cultic temple complex and wealthy trader/slaver maryannu. By 1,930 BCE the early OT period city of Knossos had covered 45 hectares and housed around 12,000-18,000 people. Even today most of the city is unexcavated.

A reconstruction of Knossos and its surrounding town
A wooden reconstruction of Knossos, showing the many stories

Another wooden reconstruction of a palace-temple

Depictions of Minoan standing structures are hard to come by, but a few do exist. Called “The Town Mosaic”, a series of beautiful faience plaques have been found which were elaborately painted to resembled the facades of houses. These plaques were originally decorating the sides of a chest, giving the container the appearance of a miniature house.

Mosaic plaque depicting a house, made around 1,850 BCE

Group of 5 mosaic plaques, 1,850 BCE

Group of 11 mosaic plaques, 1,850 BCE

Even more beautiful and impressive is a model house from Arkhanes. It was found in a workshop, and is a 2 story house complete with a roofed court on the ground floor, and a room with a balcony on its second floor. Columns are interspersed throughout the house, and hold up both the first and second story. The ground floor has two rooms with slit windows. Similar houses are spotted in the Theran naval fresco.

A clay model house from Arkhanes, south of Knossos, made around 1,700 BCE

Detail of the city from the Theran Naval Fresco, with original paint

Reconstructed detail from the Theran Naval Fresco

Houses were two stories tall, and did not have 1st story windows unless they were narrow slits. Windows were located mostly on the second story. As in Mesopotamian and Indus houses the roof served as a bedroom when the weather was hot, although common rain on Crete would have dissuaded this practice. Houses were built with wooden beams giving structure to the walls and ceiling, filled in with mud brick or stone. Such beams were fixed to each other with pegs, and had some amount of earthquake resistance. A house's interior was coated in lime plaster, and the wealthy used veined gypsum or had frescoes painted on their plaster walls. For the floors people would mix plaster with pebbles and place larger stones around the edges. The poor had dirt or stone for their flooring. The average Minoan household would have 4-5 pithos jars, which would hold enough food for a year.

A gold ring with a sealing showing a priestess, a building, and stairs. The building has two stories with a three story tower, and a pair of sacred horns on top

Reconstruction of Minoan houses from Kastelli Hill near Kydonia, Crete

Traditional buildings on Crete which resemble Minoan houses

At Knossos the “Royal Road” led through the town from one side of the labyrinth to another. Workshops and houses with frescoes line the street. It was built with three lanes, a large central lane made out of two rectangular slabs and two smaller and lower lanes on either side made from unshaped stone. If there was a difference in function between the three lanes it is lost to us now. Such a busy thoroughfare required planning to construction, and one such architectural feature is called “The Sleeping Policemen”. Three blocks are slightly raised out of the cobblestone. Only raised 3 cm but fully lay across the road, perhaps to funnel away rain or block/hinder wheeled vehicles. The inner city area was packed with people, it would be understandable to partition some of the city solely for pedestrians. At Knossos when the royal road reaches the temple it expands into an open courtyard area, which presumably hosted festivals. Similarly at Mallia next to the temple is a possible agora area and a building which may have been a prytaneum. By the classical era the prytaneum had become an assembly and banquet hall for popular representatives, and it is possible that the roots of this early public meeting space was in LBA culture.

Diagram of the construction of the Royal Road at Knossos

Some of the road near Knossos

Some of the road near Knossos

It is not known whether artisans were individually separated throughout the town, or had their own quarter. At Mallia the Mu quarter was for artisans, but such a quarter has not been found at Knossos. As far as anyone can tell, most or all of the artisans were confined to working in the temple by 1,700 BCE. At Gournia during the OT period modern excavations have unearthed over 50 houses and other areas which were used by artisans in the town. These buildings were unique in that they did not have the usual pithoi for food storage, it is presumed they bartered their wares with the surrounding farmers for survival. Of these 50 areas, 20 of them produced pottery, 15 stone, 18 bronze, and multiple with varying degrees of textile industry. They also discovered a foundry, and an Afghani tin ingot. All of this activity occurred when Gournia was only a town, prior to its NT palace-temple. Rare foreign tin was imported, trade thrived, and artisans formed a tight knit templar oversight required.

[talking about a pottery shop he excavated in the north of Gournia] There were pots inside pots for storage, just like I have in my cupboard at home...and each one was a unique shape, so I think this was a kind of shop. [About a room with 10 similar cups] I think you came here, picked out the pots you wanted. You could say 'I want a set of these, or ten of those' and then they were made and left to dry out in the yard.” - John Younger

At Hattusa in Anatolia and Ugarit on the Syrian coast, craftsmen who worked nearby the temple probably comprised some form of a guild system, although it is unknown whether similar organizations existed on Crete. The Pylian Qasireu specifically had oversight of multiple bronze smiths, delegating any problems resultant of organized labor to another individual, possibly this was a form of delegating the responsibilities of handling such an important guild. Since multiple nobles had oversight over different sectors of the economy, the feudal system in effect operated to divide and conquer the urban and rural working classes. In rural areas craftsmen were dispersed among communities or semi-organized near a landowner's estate. At Mycenae during the LM period craftsmen were confined to a specific part of the city. 

It is similarly unknown where exactly the Wanax resided. Evans' “Throne Room” in Knossos was a cultic area, and there is no obvious example of a large throne room and reception area fit for a king (as there is at Mycenae called the megaron). This presents a strange dilemma, how exactly to fit in the king's exclusion from the temple into the Knossian political landscape? There is much speculation that the Little Palace at Knossos was the king's residence, and that the Unexplored Mansion was a storage annex to the Little Palace. The Little Palace has 37 rooms on its first floor, a lustral basin, pillar crypts, and gypsum staircases leading to other floors. While there are other similar structures for the elite in Knossos, the Little Palace is unique because of its size. It was also most likely planned in its entirety and constructed outright, unlike the ad hoc structure of the labyrinth.

Map of the area surrounding the temple at Knossos

Reconstruction of the Little Palace

Even some villages, such as Tylissos, had paved roads built in a similar fashion to the Royal Road at Knossos. Such village-wide projects were presumably under the domain of The Damo. This organization would have been the local organ of Minoan governance, and would have been connected to the process of building public works. While the term is related to the Greek demos, it did not signify the community as a whole. The Damo was a local representative organization, most likely a official solidification of an earlier town council. An individual or individuals who represented the Damo brought offerings to Poteidan at the palace-temple, and would have participated in other public affairs. In tablets there is a clear distinction between people who held land privately, held land for their office, or held land for the Damo. In urban society, community polities were major land owners and leased it out to specific people for specific reasons. It is possible this delegation of ownership allowed the Damo authority over its leaseholders (and thus over their land), with the palace-temple only having managerial control over the Damo. Contemporaneous to this Minoan and Mycenaean feudal construct is the Hittite polity, which had administratively divided land into two types: directly under the King and under semi-autonomous city states. While the Minoan polity was not a multi-city empire, it may have shared that basic division at a local level (between the palace-temple and the Damo).

Map of Minoan Crete showing smaller settlements

The foundation of a fortified building (rural villa?) and two circular structures, near Agia Photia

By the LM period much of the rural areas in Crete were dominated by expansive villas, such as at Vathypetro near Arkhanes. These villas consisted of houses, workshops, and tripartite shrines all interconnected on a small piece of land. There are multiple living spaces at such villas, some of which were intended for the main occupants and are luxurious, but others were small and meager in comparison. Presumably the workers or servants of the villa owners lived in these smaller compartments. MM and LM period villas are much smaller than palaces but generally follow their architectural conventions. Late villas were built usually two stories high, using columns, pillars, light wells, and including private cult rooms. Some villas, like at Tylissos, were in the middle of cities; but most were in rural farmland.

The villa at Vathypetro today

Palaces and villas used decorative plants placed in flower pots, which are seen in frescoes at Amnissos and fragments of which have been found at Zakros, Knossos, and Akrotiri. These flower pots were painted, had holes in the bottom and were placed decoratively around palaces, possibly in light wells or in courtyard areas. The frescoes at Amnissos might even show a wooden pot, and Nanno Marinatos has suggested the use of wooden pots to carry trees. Arthur Evans even suggested that nice smelling plants were placed in decorated pots in the light wells of palaces, and so far this still seems likely. Vases holding cut flowers are seen in a fresco from the window jambs of room 4 in the West House at Akrotiri.

Gardens may have been used but their evidence is sparse and controversial. While there are often courtyard areas of palaces or in villages which could have held a garden, but without common identifiers (like pools and seeds in Egyptian gardens) it is difficult to distinguish between courtyards and gardens. While the court at Zakros includes a private bathing pool, it is unknown if the space was also a garden. While Egyptian gardens of the LBA have been preserved in ash and reconstructed down to the placement of individual plants, Akrotiri on Thera shows no petrified garden areas (ca. 2006). Another complication is that these proposed garden courts are all paved (except at Mallia), which further confuses their use. At Phaistos the Square of the Shrines is considered to possibly be a garden, having small spaced-out holes drilled into the ground in that area (possibly trees or posts for a tressle).

A reconstruction of the labyrinth at Knossos with gardens

Extensive amounts of research by various historians have resulted in a myriad of varying hypotheses each claiming to have found the typical Minoan unit of measurement, “The Minoan foot”. Since the Egyptians used a grid and planned figures based on an 18 block structure, some historians have asserted that Minoan craftsmen may have also used a grid. Such claims touting the discovery of invisible ancient measurement methods are often difficult if not impossible to prove; especially considering each system would require a clear uniformity in Minoan art and architecture.
Architectural uniformity to that degree is by no means accepted within the archeological community.

One problem with...[similar] proposals is that they are...products of 'paper architecture', largely two-dimensional schemata that can be fitted to the actual three-dimensional topography only with difficulty and take even less notice of the fourth dimension, time. The Palace at Knossos, for example, was under sporadic construction for a millennium. At what points would the geometrical design have been applied?” - John C. McEnrow


The Minoans, by Rodney Castleden
The Little Palace,
Architecture of Minoan Crete, Ch. 8
Flower Lovers? Jo Day
Gournia Excavations

1 comment:

  1. This is an exceptionally brilliant post. Beautiful illustrations and well presented. Thank you. !!