Friday, April 10, 2015

The Minoans: The Common People

Detail of the crowd of commoners surrounding a grove and priestesses, from the Sacred Grove miniature fresco

The history of the island is often simply the history of deposited objects. These objects can explain the mind of their bearers, as elaborately decorated pottery serves to illuminate the evolving thought process within local aesthetics. More often than not, this sequential series of artifacts leaves out the rest of the potter. Models often given intricate views into personal lives, and such models of boats and houses are fantastic finds. In a twist of fate, these spectacular objects only raise more questions than answers. They posit the existence of fishers, and construction workers, yet those workers are invisible within the object. Any evidence about their actual lives is absent, the only remains of their entire existence is the material result of their labor, an object itself full of meaning for Minoans yet silent on any details. The existence of models suggests a change in the way society views potters and pottery. Detailed models suggests the possible specialization of artisans, and artists who could master unusual shapes. Votive models suggest a general faith, especially by those who had the excess to give. Toy models suggest a world of childhood imagination, and the leisure of the wealthy. While we can imagine such objects in the hands of Minoans, the actual lives of the majority remain silent.

A Minoan clay sistrum (a rattling percussive musical instrument), 2,100-2,000 BCE

A celebrant playing a sistrum, from the Harvester Vase, 1,500-1,400 BCE

A bronze cleaver with ivory handle, from the palace at Agia Triadha

A great question remains, if there is no literature, how do we ask questions about the average Cretan's life? The first place to start is with what literature we do have, translations of Linear B. While this script was used exclusively during the LM period, the wealth of information uncovered on these buried tablets can also apply to the MM period. These tablets describe what the majority of farmer villagers could grow and give to their rulers. They grew: grain, barley, vetch, chick/pigeon/cultivated peas, sesame, hemp, flax, castor oil, grapes/raisins/wine, olives/oil, quince, figs, pistachios, palms/dates, almonds, and collected bees/honey (their only source of natural sugar). Just as during the classical period, olive oil and wine were popular and daily use commodities. Bees are found on many objects within the Minoan culture, pointing to the important status of beekeepers. We still use honey today, but it is important to remember that during the bronze age it was the paramount (and only) sugary food snack.

A golden bee ornament, made between 1,700-1,600 BCE

A Minoan bee smoker from the House of Sacrificed Oxen at Knossos, 1,700-1,450 BCE

A grape crushing workshop at Vathypetro, Crete

A terracotta oven from the Minoan colony of Akrotiri on the island of Thera, 1,700-1,600 BCE

Farmers used wooden plows probably with leather wrapped around its handles. During the Chalcolithic (primarily the LN) period, they dug furrows with copper blades. Probably one of the first bronze tools was a plow blade. Farmers relied on animals, rearing: cattle, goats, pigs, sheep, and primarily the heavy lifters oxen. From Linear B records at the palace of Knossos, oxen are given names such as: Dusty, Noisy, Fair, Red, Sandy, Dapple, White-Foot, White-Muzzle, and Red-Rump. With such affectionate, yet commonly descriptive names, the Linear B tablets at Knossos remind us that some people continue to have a sense of humor. Thousands of years later, it would still be hilarious to name an ox Red-Rump (or Red-Ass if you would allow the translation some flexibility). Possibly the names of farm animals were given by the children of the farmers, as children often do this to pets today (with parents then applying the name seriously to the animal).

Bronze sickles from Greece, the first metal sickles on Crete were from the MM period

Terracotta sculpture of a bull, made around 1,200 BCE of Minoan craftsmanship

Frescoes are also an invaluable source of information about the lives of individuals. Fresco scenes of birds and cats show us that the Minoan imagination extant 3-4,000 years ago was as enraptured by such animals as modern humans are today.

A Minoan river landscape fresco showing a cat chasing a bird

Frescoes also show us celebrations, giving us a sense of what a Cretan would do for fun. Banquets and feasts are still common and popular today, although now called dinner parties. Anyone who could afford to do so, would have taken the opportunity. Simple aspects of human nature, such as our social appetite, were appeased in the same way 4,000 years ago. The wealthy elite of Old Temple Knossos could afford to host a large group, and at some point of excess the host was (presumably) expected to hire musicians. Live music was common at parties of the Minoan elite. Group feasts, now called pot-lucks or picnics, still exist and continue their societal function. Such community driven events cut across all boundaries and classes, being hosted on special days to celebrate some figure or event throughout the year. In an era without immediate community connection through the internet, these events functioned as group bonding activities. We moderns should consider ourselves lucky that we live in an age of prolific recorded music. Truly that aspect of large parties has become democratized, now almost anyone can afford to have public music at gatherings. Events with a party atmosphere: eating, drinking, speaking to friends, playing or listening to music, are just as enjoyable now as they were thousands of years ago.

The Musician Fresco from the Aegean island of Andros

Multiple ceramic sistra from Agios Charalambos cave in Lasithi Crete, MM period

People enjoyed sports such as boxing, wrestling, running, or jumping. It is not known whether people participated in these sports while in private or public celebrations. Wrestling and boxing matches are shown in frescoes and on a rhyton from Agia Triadha. During the classical period, Pindar wrote about the pleasures of life which someone in Elysium would continue to enjoy. This gives us a great description of fun activities at the time, shedding light on their LBA counterparts. There is another illuminating description of life's little pleasures in Book 8 of the Odyssey.

“For them the sun shines at full strength, while we here walk in night. The plains around their city are red with roses, and shaded by incense trees heavy with golden fruit, and some enjoy horses and wrestling, or table games and the lyre, and near them blossoms a flower of perfect joy, perfume always hovers above the land, from the frankincense strewn in deep-shining fire of the gods' altars...” - Pindar

A Minoan couple in color, by Dedasaur

A painted plaster reproduction of the gaming board from the Temple of Knossos. These boards were racing games, pitting two players against each other and involving dice for randomness. Variations of the game were played for secular and religious purposes, although those two connotations may not have been separate

A detailed photo of a reproduction of the gaming board and pieces from Knossos. It should be noted that this elaborate gaming board was found in the Temple Palace at Knossos, and commoners would have had a simpler version
“The things we take a perennial delight in are the feast, the lyre, the dance, clean linen in plenty, a hot bath, and our beds.” - Homer, from Book 8 of the Odyssey

A marble figurine of a harpist, probably funerary, from Keros in the Cyclades, 2,500-2,200 BCE

Detail from the Agia Triadha sarcophagus showing the male lyre player in a priestess dress

The Boxers Fresco

A boxer wearing a smooth possibly leather helmet, on an Agia Triadha rhyton, by Stelios Zacharias

A model of a woman (priestess?) sitting on a swing, from Agia Triadha, 1,450-1,300 BCE

Minoan Slavery

There is one group all to commonly left out of bronze age frescoes and mythical literature, the slave. While a small fraction of people were priestesses, rulers, or scribes, the vast majority of people were either laborers or farmers. This large productive class was itself divided into the free and the enslaved. LBA (late bronze age) slavery was similar to the CP practice, with slaves being prisoners of war or debtors. Often CP slaves had some avenues to leave slavery, but of course only the lucky could actually earn their way to freedom. Many people entered and exited slavery at least once in their lifetime (mainly from debt), there was less of a stigma attached to the term. Slavery was still probably inter-generational, as adults and children are listed as slaves in the Knossian and Pylian records. Slaves occupied some of the worst jobs in Minoan society: grinding grain, spinning wool, carding flax, and rowing galleys. Pylian tablets mention that 600 slaves are required for a fleet, and being a galley slave was the worst possible position for anyone to be in during combat. There were no escape hatches, and if you could flee few knew how to swim.

An illustration of LBA naval warfare

Slaves also occupied some of the best and most valued jobs, Pylian and Knossian tablets mention a significant number of slaves being sent to the temple. They became attendants and servants to the priests and priestesses (called 'slaves to the god' and 'slaves to the priestess' respectively). From the Pylian tablet PY Ae 303, the slaves of the priestess were paid for with “sacred” gold, and were attached to a specific shrine. From the Knossian tablet Gg 713, “for Marineus [a god], one female servant.” and another Knossian tablet mentions, “to the House [sanctuary] of Marineus, ten men.” It is unknown whether these temple servants were freemen or slaves. Since gold was not a universal currency but only a high value barter good, these temple slaves were certainly a high value commodity. The Pylian tablet Eo 224 gives the name of a female slave under a priestess who was a leaseholder. While this life was still slavery, many individuals forced into this life probably felt some vindication in aiding their deities. It is not known whether the Minoans on Crete used large numbers of temple-slaves like their mainland counterparts, but given the similar political structures between Pylos and Knossos it seems very likely. Slaves held a dual role in LBA Aegean society being both lease holders, debtor pariahs, and sacred servants. Galley slaves were the most abused members of Minoan society, yet their calloused hands moved Minoan fleets across the Aegean and assured Minoan political dominance.

Detail of the Procession fresco, frescoes showing temple attendants are possibly depicting slaves


The Minoans, by Rodney Castleden
Named Individuals and the Pylian State

Ch. 1, Linear B as a Source for Social History


  1. Interesting info to see that there were slaves in the garden. Nice simple life I think and not so bad really to till the soil and assist with food. Looks like wardrobe worries were minimal too. Maybe they did a little side work and earned a trip at the oar on a commerce galley and got to see distant places and maybe bring home a mate to serve a benevolent master. Maybe slaves had pie contests too, ie cooking contests for feasts.

  2. You seem to be using one of my images. While it is licensed under the Creative Commons license, you are using it without attribution. Please add my name under the image of the Boxer. Stelios Zacharias

    1. Sorry about that, I just did. Thanks so much for sharing your photos to wikimedia!