Traveling Classroom Foundation
Thursday June 8th 2023

The Minoan Time Capsule

Every archaeological museum is a sort of time capsule that holds bits of history for us to examine. The museum of Iraklion is a particular delight for anyone interested in the Minoan civilization, because it contains the world’s largest collection of Cretan history.

Iraklion archaeological museum

To get a better idea of the depth of this history, you must consider that it begins in the Stone Age. Between 5000 and 2600 BCE, when the island of Crete was isolated from other lands, the people living here developed their own unique view of the world. This is reflected in their pottery, which is very different from that created on other islands. Some of the earliest examples are Vasiliki ware (named after the Lasithi village where it was excavated). It was very utilitarian, but with rather plain decorations.

Examples of Vasiliki pottery

Between 2600 and 2000 BCE there was a great cultural change when new settlers arrived, bringing with them the knowledge of bronze-working. There was rapid development of all forms of art (pottery, metalwork, gold work, stone carving and engraving), showing that the social and economic life of the island was becoming richer.

The first great age of Minoan Crete was the “Old Palace” period (2000 until about 1700 BCE), during which the great palaces Knossos, Phaistos, Malia and Zakros were built. The pottery during this period reveals artistry and love of nature. Artists used organic forms, often with red and white designs over the dark background of the clay vessel. This is called Kamares pottery.

Kamares jar known as the "Fish Vase"

The writing used at this time was hieroglyphic. The best example of this is a small clay disk from Phaistos (also spelled “Festos”). It is one of the great treasures of the collection. Both sides of the disk carry hieroglyphic symbols that were stamped into the clay when it was still wet. Some of the marks might be ideograms, in other words, symbols that represent ideas rather than sounds. There is no doubt that the disk shows the language of the ancient Minoans, because we find the same symbols on other artifacts. Unfortunately, no one can read them.

The Phaistos Disk with undeciphered symbols
Language is a problem when studying ancient civilizations, because their artifacts seldom provide enough information. Even when there is clear evidence of language (for example, the hieroglyphics on Egyptian monuments) it is difficult to figure out what the symbols mean and how a person would speak the sounds. Researchers could not read the ancient Egyptian language until a French archaeologist found the Rosetta Stone, a tablet on which two Egyptian scripts were written with equivalent symbols in a known language – classical Greek. With that knowledge, they could compare the symbols and translate the symbols and words.
Minoan script is called Linear A

It is not so easy with the Minoan language, because no one has found anything with which to compare it. So the Phaistos disk remains a mystery. Some experts are working with other written languages, such as Linear A (which Minoans probably developed) and Linear B (which Mycenaean Greeks adapted from Linear A). Linear B was deciphered in the 1950s, and examples have been found at many Minoan sites. However, the earlier Linear A language is still not understood, so no one really knows the Minoan language.

Mycenaean Greek script is called Linear B

Somewhere around 1628 BCE a great disaster changed everything. For a long time, archeologists thought an earthquake laid waste to the island of Crete. More recently, however, new scientific evidence has confirmed that an eruption of Thera (the volcanic island of Santorini, north of Crete) caused a horrific earthquake and a giant tidal wave that engulfed the Minoan cities on Crete. Until publication of this study, most archaeologists did not connect the destruction of Cretan cities with the Theran volcano.

After the disaster, everything was rebuilt during what is called the New Palace Period, which lasted from 1700 to 1450 BCE. During this period, art became even more beautiful and extravagant than it had been in the past. The new style pottery had decorations more freely inspired by nature. The paintings are naturalistic rather than simply decorative in both theme and composition, and many of them tell stories. This is truly unique in artwork for created more than 3500 years ago. You could almost call it modern.

This beautiful golden bee pendant comes from Malia

Pottery was flamboyant and playful. The artists of that time expressed a joy for life and nature. Many of the designs are of fishes and flowers and animals – things that people saw in their daily lives.

The "octopus jar" is a good example of creative design

The art of stone carving was perfected during the New Palace Period. Many wonderful carvings from that time have survived for us to see. One of the most important of these is the fabulous bull’s head rhyton. A “rhyton” is a vessel used to pour some liquid (often wine) in a ceremonial offering to the gods.

The bullhead rhyton is a jug for pouring ceremonial wine

The bull’s head vessel is an incredible work of art. The head itself is carved from a soft stone known as “steatite” and the horns are made of wood overlaid with gold. It was filled through a hole in the neck, and emptied during the “libation” ritual through another hole in the nostrils. Most rhyta have ordinary vessel shapes, but a few imitate animals – especially bulls. The bull was the most important animal in the Minoan religion, and it is a familiar part of Minoan mythology (look up the myth of the white bull that kidnapped Europa, and the legend of the Minotaur).

Some rhyta depict the joy of living, as in the “Harvesters Vase” discovered at Ayia Triada. A close-up of this stone vase shows a group of happy workers returning from the harvest. The fellow in the middle is playing a systrum, an Egyptian instrument sort of like a tambourine, and the other men are singing and laughing.

Close-up of the "Harvesters Vase"

Some religious art is quite small. The miniature “Snake Goddess” sculpture was a very important religious object found in the temple repository in the Palace of Knossos. It depicts the goddess (perhaps the Mother Goddess) holding snakes and clothed in a high-fashion Minoan outfit: a tight bodice which left the breasts bare, a long flounced skirt, and an apron of woven or embroidered fabric.

"Snake Goddess" figurine from Knossos Palace

Of course, no one knows if women dressed like this every day, or only on special occasions. However, the clothing is associated with religious ceremonies and is found in many pieces of Minoan art. The most interesting features of the figurine are the snakes that the goddess is waving in the air. In ancient religions, snakes often represent the underworld, healing powers and also reincarnation (because a snake comes out of the ground, sheds its old skin, and becomes “new”).

Some time around 1450 BCE things began to change. The Minoans had been weakened by the destruction caused by the Thera eruption, and their powerful navy was ruined. At the same time, the warlike Mycenaeans on mainland Greece were growing more powerful. When they became strong enough, they invaded Crete and took control of the great palaces, which were easy prey because they lacked any fortifications.

After the Mycenaeans arrived, the work of Minoan artists began to deteriorate. Pottery designs became simplified, often very geometric, and the shape of ceramic vessels became very utilitarian. Even religious art was simplified.

The "poppy goddess" shows deterioration in artistic style

This religious figurine known as the “Poppy Goddess” is much different from the earlier “Snake Goddess” statue. Perhaps the Minoans no longer had the time and freedom to create the sort of artwork that had made them famous. It is interesting to note that the Poppy Goddess was the deity of sleep and forgetfulness.

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