The Bull-Leaping Fresco from the Great Palace at Knossos, Crete

Aegean Neolithic and Bronze Age Civilizations

By Sally Mallam
Contributing Writer

“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

Map of the Cycades Islands
More than 30 small islands form an approximate circle around the central and most sacred island, Delos, which would become an important holy place for Ionian Greeks. Together they are known as the Cyclades, from the archaic Greek word kyklos “cycle.”

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.

Cyclades figurines 3200 - 1500 BCE
Cycladic marble figure seated
Cyclades figure standing
Cycladic marble figure of a woman without a head
Cycladic marble figurines 4500–2000 BCE.
During the early part of the Greek Bronze Age (3200–1500 BCE), the people of the Cyclades produced hundreds of wonderfully unique marble figures and figurines now identified as “the Cyclades.” They have been found in a variety of sizes and types, scattered about the Aegean. However, since we have no written records, we know very little about them. Probably because the vast majority are stylized female figures, scholars have speculated that they represented goddesses of nature and fertility. They were regularly buried with the dead irrespective of the deceased gender.
Akrotini frescoe – Spring
Akrotiri frescoe – Spring.
Saffron gatherers (detail)
Saffron gatherers (detail).
So successful were the Minoans at trade, that from about 2200 BCE and by the late Bronze Age (ca 1700–1000) BCE, all the Aegean islands, including the Cyclades, were dominated by Minoan culture, their pottery, architecture and frescoes are all remarkably similar. An excellent example is the settlement of Akrotiri on the Cycladic island of Thera (modern Santorini). Luckily for us, volcanic ash preserved the city remarkably well until it was discovered by Spyridon Marinatos in 1967.

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

Map of Minoan Crete
Crete is one of the largest islands in the Mediterranean Sea, situated in its eastern center at the crossroads of Africa, Asia, and Europe. In 1900, the famed archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans provided the first evidence of an extraordinary civilization there. He named it Minoan, after the legendary King Minos, son of Zeus.

Neolithic Period

The earliest evidence of human habitation on the island dates from around the 7th millennium BCE, most likely when Neolithic populations migrated to Europe from the Middle East, Turkey, and the Greek mainland.

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.

Earthenware jar in the shape of the goddess of Myrtos

Goddess of Myrtos, ca 2000 BCE.

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

The Minoans were the first Europeans to construct paved cobblestone roads. Their society included highly-skilled artisans and engineers and they were excellent ship builders and sailors. Their maritime empire included Spain and parts of modern day Turkey, the Middle East, and Egypt.

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

Connection and trade with the outside world was imperative to the Minoans’ ability to initiate and sustain their successful Bronze Age civilization, which emerged around 2000 BCE and lasted for about six centuries.

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?

Minoan pottery
(Left) Kamares ware jug  2300–2000 BCE. (Center) spouted Jar, Kamares ware 2000–1700 BCE. (Right) Kamares banquet vessel with decorative lilies, Phaistos from 1800–1700 BCE.
Minoan amphora
Minoan amphora – used to hold water, wine, olive oil or grains.
Raw materials were imported, especially metals like gold and silver; or copper and tin – for bronze – the making of which they most likely learned from the Middle East. Exports were of wood and luxury items: delicate pottery and ceramics such as the eggshell-thin Kamares ware, perfumed oils, wine, textiles, jewelry, fine crafts and the purple dye Minoans acquired from farming murex mollusks. Known as “royal purple,” this was the most valued dye of the ancient world, used internationally for the garments of high society. The Minoans are said to have been first to develop the purple dye industry, some time before 1750 BCE.

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.

Amarna letter

Amarna letter

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.

Egypt fresco palace of Tuthmose
Avaris, capital of Egypt under the Hykos, (Tell el-Dab’a) Egypt fresco palace of Thutmose III (ca 1479–1425 BCE).
We know that Minoans travelled up the river Nile to the Valley of the Kings. Frescoes, undoubtedly Minoan, have been found, for example, in the tomb of Thutmose III (1479–1425 BCE). As Dr. Alicia Meza says in Research in Anthropological Topics, “There is plenty of evidence for the ancient Egyptian-Minoan interaction dating as far back as prehistory times.” She goes on to say that in later times “Knossos sent delegations with rich goods to present to the Egyptian king in 1300 BCE. … Representations on the walls of the tombs of high officials show the Keftiu bringing their presents during the Durbas of the Egyptian kings.” The now famous fresco paintings in the tombs of Rekhmire, who served Thutmose II and Amenhotep II as vizer, are what we recognize as Minoan, as are those in the palace of Thutmose III reproduced here. Minoans are described as “the Keftiu,” which must have been their real name. They are also referred to in the Old Testament as “the Caphtor.”

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.

Minoan “Palaces”

Called “palaces” by Evans, it is more likely that these monumental buildings of Middle Bronze Age Crete (ca 1900 BCE) functioned as ceremonial and religious centers, storehouses and meeting places: the hub of community life and likely the domicile of their leaders, whether priests, priestesses, kings or queens. As with the Knossos site, they were generally erected over Late Neolithic and Pre-palatial tombs—tombs that may well for the first time have symbolized ownership and the authority of one family or clan over an area.

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.

(Left) North-East entrance Knossos with bull fresco. (Center) “throne room” and (right) Lion-Griffin (detail from the “throne room”).
Knossos frescos
“The Dolphin Sanctuary” and figurative examples of ladies and cupbearers at Knossos.
So far four palaces have been excavated: Knossos (Cnossos), Phaistos, Malia and Kato Zakros, all on the East of the island. But the number of possible “palaces” keeps growing – including Khania (Chania), Petras, and Galatas, and perhaps Palaikastro and Arkhanes.

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.

frescoes from Akrotiri, Thera: The fisherman & boxing boys or girls
The fisherman, boxing boys or girls and antelopes – frescoes from Akrotiri, Thera (Santorini).
By about 2200 BCE the Minoans were in control of the Aegean islands, not through violence, but through trade. A most perfect example of recognizably Minoan culture is Akrotiri on Thera (modern Santorini). Ash from the infamous volcanic eruption on Thera in 1628 BCE covered the entire settlement in volcanic ash, preserving the city, its pottery and art for three and a half thousand years, until it was discovered by Spyridon Marinatos in 1967.

Minoan Religious Belief

Minoan “palaces” were built on top of hills, positioned towards sacred mountains, where religious rituals were held in cave sanctuaries. In these and in the palace cult rooms, opiates, music and dance lead to trancelike altered states of consciousness as participants connected more deeply with the spirit world.
Gold signet ring with women dancing
Gold signet ring depicting women possibly having ecstatic visions
Gold signet rings and stamps, depict either women dancing, having ecstatic visions or perhaps goddesses.
Using wet pigments requiring quick execution, the Minoans painted walls with great skill and fluid brush strokes, which in their hands accentuated the movement of life in their world, where nature and man were inextricably intertwined. As was typical with pre-Axial peoples, their world was suffused with the divine and charged with religious meaning. They worshipped trees, sacred stones, and springs and their rituals included animal sacrifices. There is some evidence – at the sanctuary at Anemospilia (Archanes) some seven kilometers south of Knossos – that indicates human sacrifice as well.
The snake goddess
The snake goddess, wrapped in snake – its head appears at the top of her head. Her votary is on the right. (1600 BCE)
The Minoan goddess of animals on the left and the poppy goddess on the right
(Left) the goddess of animals – two felines suckle her breasts. (Right) the poppy goddess with opium poppy seeds in her diadem.

Goddess pendant

Pendant of a goddess holding 2 birds.

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.

Gold signet ring with bull leaping
Bull's head libation vessel
Bull-leaping depicted on golden ring and engraved bull’s head libation vessel.
The ubiquitous bull, whose image was first noted on the Paleolithic cave walls –  and later in the ancient rituals of Mesopotamia, the homes of Catal Hoyuk, and the seals of the cities of the Indus Valley – appear again in Minoan culture. No doubt highly venerated, giant bull horns—called by Evans “horns of consecration” – adorned the top of palaces. These horns, libation bull’s head vessels presumably used in ritual ceremonies, frescoes of charging bulls, and bull-leaping constantly reminded people of their relationship with this powerful animal.

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

Earthquakes, often severe and ruinous, were frequent in Minoan times. According to most scholars, this was the main cause of the several reconstructions of not only the palaces but of settlements as well. The first palace at Knossos was built around 1900 BCE on the ruins of previous settlements. It was destroyed for the first time along with the other palaces around Crete in 1700 BCE, probably by a large earthquake or foreign invaders. It was immediately rebuilt to become an even more elaborate complex until its demise.

Thera from space

Island of Thera: formerly a single, circular island. Satellite image of modern Santorini. Clockwise from center: Nea Kameni; Palea Kameni; Aspronisi; Therasia; Thera.

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.

It was one of the most violent volcanic eruptions ever since human beings have been on this planet.

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

Map of Mycenaean and Minoan civilizations
Called Achaeans in Homeric epic poems, by 1600 BCE a warrior class we know as the Myceneans had already conquered the native populations of central and southern Greece. In 1450 BCE Knossus and other “palaces” on Crete were sacked and destroyed by a combination of earthquakes and these invaders. They took over the Minoan trade routes in the Eastern Mediterranean, and adopted and adapted their culture. They appear to have re-built the damaged palace of Knossos, which became an important base of operations and capital of the Mycenaeans until it was destroyed by fire in about 1375 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.

lLinear B writing

Linear B tablet.

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.

lLinear B writing

A Mycenaean funeral mask identified as the “Mask of Agamemnon” by Heinrich Schliemann.

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.

Mycenaean swords and cups
Mycenaean swords and cups.
Detail of a Mycenaean dagger with hunting scene.
Detail of a Mycenaean dagger with hunting scene.
Gold signet ring with men in a chariot hunting deer
An archer targets a deer from a two-horsed chariot. Signet rings were precious objects and may have been used by the Mycenaean rulers as personal seals. Grave IV, Grave Circle A. Mycenae, 16th century BCE. National Archaeological Museum.
Like the later classical Greek civilization, the Mycenaean Lords did not control religious life. People worshipped as they wished at the many cults and shrines often under the control of traditional priestly families. These religions were all almost certainly polytheistic. Most likely the Myceneans arrived in Greece with a pantheon of their own gods, headed by a ruling sky-god, which may have been Dyeus of the early Indo-Europeans. In later classical Greek, this god would become “Zeus,” and among the Hindus, “dyaus pitar.” As seen so often in the ancient world, they adopted and absorbed the religious traditions of the conquered population, so that once they took over Minoa, for example, their religious rituals would include honoring the Minoan goddesses.
They fought many civil wars, which we know from later legends, and established a settlement at Miletus on the Aegean shore of Asia Minor.
Map of the location of Miletus
Location of Miletus at Maeander River’s mouth.
The Myceneans most likely arrived in Greece with a pantheon of their own gods, headed by a ruling sky-god which may have been Dyeus of the early Indo-Europeans. In later classical Greek, this god would become “Zeus,” and among the Hindus, “dyaus pitar”.

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.

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