Aegean Neolithic and Bronze Age Civilizations
By Sally Mallam
“There is a land called Crete, in the midst of the wine-dark sea, a fair, rich land, begirt with water, and therein are many men, past counting, and ninety cities. … Among their cities is the great city Cnosus, where Minos reigned when nine years old, he that held converse with great Zeus, and was father of my father, great-hearted Deucalion.”
Homer, The Odyssey, ca 8th century, BCE.
The Cycladic Civilization Circa 3300 to 1100 BCE
Settlements have been located that date from as early as 5000 BCE, by people thought to have come from Caria in southwestern Anatolia (Turkey). Natural resources such as obsidian (volcanic glass) which they exported throughout the Aegean as a cutting tool, and later exports of lead, copper and marble enabled the islands to flourish during the Bronze Age.
The Cycladic civilization came to an end when, after several earthquakes, the Thera volcano of 1628 BCE erupted, totaly destroying the island of Thera and leaving the surrounding islands almost completely destroyed from the tsunami waves that followed.
Minoa – Europe’s First Civilization ca 2000–1400 BCE
The lower levels of the Knossos palace complex provided some of the earliest evidence to date of human activity on the island from around 6100-5700 BCE. The skeletons of seven children were found buried in shallow tombs dug under the dwelling floors. Three of the children were newborns while the others were all under 7 years old, all lying in fetal position in tombs empty of offerings or other objects.
Communities of several families are thought to have lived in close quarters with each other with their animals and crops, and appear to have spent most of their time outside. Excavations found one or two-room clay houses, with flat roofs made of branches and clay.
Around 4000–3000 BCE, the island’s population increased dramatically, suggesting an immigration to the island. As time went on dwellings grew more substantial with one particularly large one, indicating perhaps some sort of community center, which may also have been the home of the chief or priest. By the end of the Neolithic (ca 2800 BCE), the Knossos settlement is thought to have reached 2,000 inhabitants, and human activity had spread throughout the island.
Single cave burials of a number of people have been found in the north and the east of the island. Neolithic settlements such as at Myrtos and Mochlos have been found dated from about 2600 BCE, with architectural remains consisting mostly of circular domed tombs, which were used by entire families or clans.
A Bronze Age Success Story
As far as we know they were the first Europeans to use a written language. They wrote in a hieroglyphic script known as Linear A, which has as yet to be deciphered, so like the Indus Valley civilization, we can only deduce what their lives were like from the architecture, art and objects they left behind.
But they left a wealth of evidence: uniquely creative palaces, frescoes, pottery and seals which indicates a prosperous, peaceful society, whose people lived in intimate harmony with nature. But, as Dr. Nanno Marinatos says, “At the same time, there is no shrinking from realism and violence. You have the ideal and the reality of life juxtaposed, and it is just a beautiful way of looking at life.” It appears to be one where women enjoyed equal status with men, if not higher.
Trade and Influence
5,000 years ago, Minoan oarsmen rowed boats of cypress wood wrapped in animal skin from ports such as Mochlos on the east coast to Egypt, the Middle East, Cyprus, and the Greek mainland. They were the first sea power in the Aegean and had uncontested maritime control from about 2100–1600 BCE. Trade winds worked to the advantage of their large fleet, which was useful for both trade and defense. It is likely that they used their naval power as defense, strategically placing vessels among the islands nearby to protect their isolated position. Their palace citadels had no fortified walls: the walls that have been excavated appear not to go completely around the palace site, for example, at Knossos. However, the labyrinthine layout of the palaces and even of smaller villas found of the same period, may well have provided the protection they needed. When a single door might close off an entire wing or seven or more doorways open up from a single corridor, the outsider would definitely be confused and wonder if, once in, would he find his way out?
Trade obviously enabled the cross-pollination of ideas, but additionally, as civilizations developed, artists and craftsmen were lent out to other cities and states by rulers as a mark of generosity and a display of their own prestige. Minoan metal workers were renowned and many artisans worked abroad in mainland Greece, the Aegean islands and elsewhere. The Mycenaeans learned the art of inlaying bronze with gold from the Minoans.
The Egyptian Amarna (Echnaton) letters are the earliest written evidence of a network of diplomatic and trade relations between the major powers around this period. Written on clay tablets in cuneiform script in what seems to have been an international language – a kind of Akkadian – the correspondents include the leaders of Egypt, Babylon, Syria, Mitanni, the Hittites, Canaan Alaschia (Cyprus), Mycenae and Crete.
The Minoans revised, redesigned and embellished artifacts wherever they could. Their frescoes depict people whose faces are always in profile reminiscent of Egyptian art, but each one is imbued with a natural grace and fluidity, often interacting with the natural world, or depicting elements of that world in a way that is so elegantly stylized, so joyous, it can take your breath away.
In all likelihood, their descendants maintained their power over the “palaces.” They may have been inspired to erect these imposing, monumental structures after trade or diplomatic visits to the Near East or Egypt – suggestions have been made that the many labyrinthine rooms reflect those they may have seen in the Hawara Labyrinth Egypt Complex, mentioned by Heroditus.
These large and complex structures appear to have been built around the same period as the emergence and flourishing of writing, mass-produced, wheel-made pottery, and crafts – aspects of society only possible once an agricultural surplus allows people to take up full-time occupations other than farming. The organization of materials and labor, the planning and labor-intensive craftsmanship that had to have been involved implies a socially complex society that was almost certainly hierarchical.
Minoan palaces were three and four stories high, with large staircases, light wells, water and drainage systems, flush toilets, hot water heaters and hinged doors.
The “palace” of Knossos was undoubtedly the most important ceremonial, trade and political center of the Minoan civilization. It was 3.861 square miles in area, and 3 and 4 stories high, with about 1,500 interconnecting rooms, many below ground. Levels were supported by red columns, white floors and white walls, with beautiful frescoes that scholars agree must have held symbolic meanings for the inhabitants. There are seven or eight separate entrances to the building, including a huge main entrance, that lead to a maze of workrooms, living spaces, theatre spaces, anteroom, cult rooms and storerooms, and what Evans described as “lustral basins” thought to have been used for ritual initiation, perhaps a purification ceremony of some kind involving a symbolic descent into the earth. Since their depth is about 2 meters, and some appear to be in public places such as opposite the stone seat or “throne” at Knossos, it is unlikely that they were used for regular bathing. A central court the size of 4 tennis courts is situated at the building’s heart and thought to be a space for religious rituals.
Close to the palaces are much smaller groups of buildings to house members of the palace elite. They often exhibit the same artistic and architectural motifs as the palaces, though on a less magnificent scale. Palaces were generally situated in or near towns and cities where all the workers lived, as well as the traders and crews who manned the Minoan ships. The city of Knossos, adjacent to the great royal palace, was one of the largest urban centers anywhere in the ancient world.
Minoan Religious Belief
Minoan iconography indicates that their society may well have been matriarchal. Multiple goddesses of the natural world abound. They had to be placated for life to continue: goddesses of rain, corn, wind, trees, earthquake and so on, all had to be honored with rites, votive offerings and sacrifice. It is estimated that the Egyptians spent 120 days – about a third of the year – devoted to ceremonies that would maintain the vital harmony with the gods, and the Minoans probably had something similar.
It’s interesting to note here that these bulls are crossbreed aurochs that stood about 6ft high with hooves the size of a man’s head. They most likely signified power and fertility and bull-leaping ceremonies may well have been part of an initiation rite. (Bull-leaping has also been depicted from Hittite Anatolia, the Levant, Bactria and the Indus Valley.) Perhaps, as the historian Bettany Hughes suggests, bull-leaping was a feat that, when achieved, transferred some of the bull’s power to the participants and reminded all Minoans that “The bull charges because that’s what he does, man leaps because he chooses to.”
Conflict and Calamity
In 1628 BCE a massive volcanic eruption occurred on the island of Thera (modern day Santorini), 100 km north of Crete. It was one of the most violent volcanic eruptions ever since human beings have been on this planet. According to Robert Ballard, National Geographic Explorer, an estimated 14 cubic miles of magma belched out of the mountain’s crater, causing massive tsunamis and blackening the skies over 115,000 square miles. Waves from 60 miles away moved stone walls on Crete over 200 feet and buildings were buried in volcanic ash, cities were devastated, shock waves destroyed the island’s navy and volcanic ash killed its crops.
The myth of the lost continent of Atlantis was probably passed on to the Greeks from the Egyptians whose trading partners, the Minoans, suddenly stopped coming to visit their shores. Stories drifted southward about an island blown into the sea which the Egyptians assumed was Crete. This was in all likelihood Thera – a map found in Crete depicts Thera as similar in shape to the Atlantis described by Plato. He most likely got the story via Critias the Younger, a relative of Solon who may well have heard an original version while in Egypt. The story is found in its most complete form in Plato’s dialogues, Timaeus and Critias.
This eruption weakened the Minoans and left them vulnerable to frequent and growing raids from the Myceneans from the Greek mainland — administrative records from this next period are written in Linear B, the script of Mycenaean Greeks. Contemporary pottery shows a blend of Minoan and Mycenaean stylistic traits. The final end of the Minoan civilization was about 1200 BCE after which there is no evidence of the culture. The Mycenaean Greeks had taken over.
The Mycenaeans 1600–1100 BCE
The Mycenaeans spoke an early form of Greek and adapted the Minoan Linear A syllabary (in which the written characters represent syllables rather than letters) to their own writing, now known as Linear B.
However, reading these texts tells us little about them: we learn the number of bulls or wagon wheels, for example, detailed inventories, bureaucratic records, accounts and taxes, but nothing about daily life.
The Mycenaean elites acquired a taste for Minoan goods and as a result imported Minoan craftsmen and artists as slaves to work in the dozen small kingdoms that came to dominate the Greek world, each headed by a wanax or “Lord” who ruled over the local population from fortressed palaces defended by chariot warriors. Later Greeks thought the massive walls and gates that protected the palaces had been built by a mythical race of giants known as the Cyclopes. These palaces were key to Mycenaean civilization. They were where the goods came from overseas, where literacy was confined to, and where slaves, mostly from Asia Minor came, bringing their skills in textiles, pottery and crafts.
Mycenaean frescoes clearly borrow the style of Minoan art. They display similar illustrations of lions and wingless griffins, and bulls are featured prominently. But the emphasis expressed in the Mycenaean art that remains seems to suggest the domination of man over the natural world: animals, for example, are now depicted as victims of the hunt. Archaeological remains also tell us that some Mycenaean Lords were fabulously wealthy not only from trade but also from occasional piracy. Gold funeral masks, jewelry, bronze weapons, tripods, and a storeroom with 2853 stemmed goblets have been found to attest to this.
Miletus at the time was almost surrounded by water, a protected peninsula, that enabled easy trade with Asia Minor. Miletus became one of the leading cities, transmitting Aegean civilization across the larger peninsula. It was later known as the home of Thales “the father of philosophy” and became the commercial and intellectual capital of the Greek world in the century before Athens.
Mycenaean civilization was martial, based on seaborne trade, raiding and piracy. It was obviously important to keep trade open with the Near East. As a result the Mycenaean Lords backed rebels and rivals of the Hittite Emperor along the southwestern rim of Asia Minor and were also active in Cyprus and along the Levantine shore and into Egypt.