Blog by Gillian Hovell, The Muddy Archaeologist www.muddyarchaeologist.co.uk
Ancient, Minoan Crete. It’s three and a half thousand years old. It’s full of riches. And it’s full of fuel for the imagination.
Most visitors get as far as the Minoan palace at Knossos, excavated by Sir Arthur Evans in the early 1900s. Here you walk on ancient paths while gazing at his reconstructions (which are loved by some, hated by others). But there’s so much more to Minoan Crete …
Imagine an island where you can not only visit several of the greatest palaces of prehistory but where you can walk through the streets of a hilltop Minoan town of Gournia and look down towards its harbour.
The same island can transport you through time, to the glory days of Greece: visit the odeon (small once-covered theatre) at Gortyn where the hugely influential law code, written snaking back and forwards, was set up in the 400s BC, alongside the plane tree that spreads not just branches but tales of myths of the mighty Zeus and his loves.
You can climb to the later Greek city of Lato, its defensive location, perched on a mountain top bearing witness to troubled times in the 400s/300s BC.
This is Crete. The Minoans flourished here from Neolithic times (consider getting to this island in simple boats!).
Then, in the Bronze Age their pre-Palatial days (c.2,600-c.1,900 BC) abounded with early pottery, bronze tools and burials in caves and circular tholos tombs. Don’t think of this as an isolated island; these artistic and creative people were trading with Egypt (where the recent pyramids had been built), and with Asia Minor (modern Turkey) and Syria to the East – copper, tin, ivory and gold enriched their lives.
Kings began to rule and palaces were built as centres of power and administration. Religion was central to this world and sanctuaries abounded in holy caves as well as in those palaces. The double axe (labrys) featured regularly, but as a symbol of what we cannot tell. For we cannot decipher the Linear A writing that they were writing in; part hieroglyphic, inspired from Egypt, this language has no links that we can find to Egyptian or Greek or indeed any other language.
We can appreciate their art though. Visit the Museum at Heraklion in Crete and you will be surrounded by the most magnificent pottery. The Kameres vases, multi coloured, with an abundant variety of designs, overflowing with enthusiasm in life and art. The potter’s wheel had enabled an explosion of new vessels, some practical, some religious, some surely just for fun. Notice how very thin the ‘eggshell’ pottery is – imitating the thin bronze vessels that must have been so much cheaper to make in clay.
Disaster struck though. About 1,700 BC (debate on actual date thrives), earthquakes destroyed the palaces. They were quickly rebuilt at sites around the island; the sites of Knossos, Malia, Zakros and Phaestos that we visit today are largely the rebuilds in this New Palace period which flourished for over 200 years. A wealthy upper class and powerful women led the rituals and lives of those in the palaces and the lands around them handed their produce to the central palaces to redistribute.
It was a wealthy time, rich in trade that included the Aegean islands and Greece. The bull leaping frescoes and figures celebrate a ritual that was vital to these people. Surely Knossos’ ‘labyrinth’ that contained the violent Minotaur, the half man, half bull monstrous offspring of King Minos’ wife and the bull gifted from Poseidon. It is likely that the extensive palace of Knossos with its winding corridors was the original labyrinth. And the tale of tribute of youths from Athens being offered to the monster matches with Athens’ tribute to the powerful Minoans who ruled the seas with their navy – the very first navy according to Homer. Perhaps the Minotaur was a priest with a bull headdress … perhaps one day we shall know more from the Linear A script, especially the Phaestos disk …
Their culture was well established, with frescoes, pottery and cult objects all reinforcing the same ideas. Burials were in huge jars (pithoi) like those used for storage and in larnakes (terracotta chests) as well as rock cut chambers and tholos tombs.
But in c.1,450 BC, the palaces were destroyed again. Was it caused by the eruption of Santorini, 100 miles to the north, as it blew its own island apart creating a massive tsunami that must have slammed into Crete with horrific results? Did the Mycenaeans invade the weakened island? They certainly adopted many of the artistic traits and they took over Knossos.
Centuries passed and the Dorians eventually settled, creating new towns. The population grew and in the Archaic period (c.650-c,500 BC) the time the town of Gortyn became the capital of the island, eventually, in the following Classical era, drawing up its code of laws and etching them into the very walls. There was much division in the island though and the hilltop town of Lato boasts impressive defences that supported its remote location. Rome annexed Crete in 67 BC and brought her own blend of cultures to Crete.
Yet it was the Minoan civilisation that had been the most distinctive culture of ancient Crete. Forgotten about until Sir Arthur Evans impoverished himself to bring these amazing people to the world’s notice. Sneer at the reconstructions at Knossos if you will, but remember that they helped to put Minoan Crete on the map. Without his work that began the exploration into the ancient Minoans, would the Minoans have captured our imaginations so vividly?
What a joy it is to spend a week travelling and touring these ancient sites with a wonderful group of people, all eager to explore, imagine and enjoy visiting an ancient world. My thanks to my guests on the Saga tour for sharing our recent visit. I hope you’ve enjoyed this brief virtual tour of an amazing island and its ancient wonders and the people who lived, loved, ruled and worked here.