MINOAN & MYCENAEAN CULTURE
Starting from the beginning of the Early Bronze Age, Crete developed a distinctive cultural idiom which is widely known as Minoan, after Minos, the legendary king of Knossos. The Mycenaean civilization, which flourished in the Aegean during the Late Bronze Age, gave birth to the language and religion of ancient Greeks.
Starting from the beginning of the Early Bronze Age, Crete developed a distinctive cultural idiom which is widely known as Minoan, after Minos, the legendary king of Knossos. The sovereignty of Crete in raw materials, the variety of rocks and minerals combined with its favourable geographical position, contributed to the cultural development and prosperity of the island. Cities with well-organized administration, monumental architecture, wall painting and vase painting of excellent quality, have been excavated across the island.
The earliest traits of that culture are traced to the Early Minoan period (3000-2000 BC), when many new settlements were established all over the island and such crafts as stone-carving, metallurgy, seal-engraving, and the production of painted pottery made their appearance. From the Early Minoan II phase (2700-2150 BC) onwards, several settlements started to develop into towns with proto-urban characteristics and large built tombs were constructed to receive collective burials. Nevertheless, until the end of the 3rd millennium BC there is no evidence of anything like a centralized political structure; Early Minoan settlements seem to have been independent and self-sufficient.
Protopalatial (Old Palace) period
Entering the 2nd millennium BC, Minoan society underwent fundamental changes that were to affect enormously Aegean culture as a whole. The construction of monumental palaces at Knossos, Phaistos, Mallia, and Zakros ca. 2000-1900 BC – similar in plan and design to Syrian palatial complexes at Mari and Ebla – reflects the development of a rigid power structure and a solid administrative system, with parallels only in the contemporary Near Eastern empires. Material evidence from palaces and tombs suggests that contacts with the Orient were getting closer, and that Crete was gradually being integrated into the economic and cultural network of the Eastern Mediterranean.
Increasing contact with the great civilizations of the Near East and Egypt resulted in the adoption of advanced systems of political organization – such as bureaucratic administration in the form of sealings and written records (hence the development of a hieroglyphic system of writing and, soon after, the syllabic Linear A script) – religious practices, and new artistic techniques and media. For the next 500 years, large numbers of exotic materials and finished luxuries from Egypt, Syria, Mesopotamia, and southern Anatolia reached the palaces, which became centers of economic activity and artistic production. By ingeniously adapting new styles and materials to local tastes for the royal elites, Minoan artisans developed a wide array of previously unknown or underdeveloped crafts with a characteristically Cretan flair. The elegance of Minoan art is evident in almost every manifestation of the Middle Minoan (2000-1600 BC) and Late Minoan (1600-1100 BC) culture: gold jewellery, silver and bronze vessels, bronze weapons, stone vases, sealstones, ivories, ornaments and vessels of faience and glass, and decorated pottery.
Eventually, a major novelty, that is the art of painting, made its appearance in Crete. Certain techniques and artistic conventions used in Minoan wall-paintings point to Egypt as the most probable source of inspiration, although the style is distinctively Aegean. The very technique of fresco (the direct application of pigment on lime plaster while still wet) was, in all probability, a Minoan invention of the 17th c. BC which was subsequently transmitted to Egypt and the Near East.
Active interaction with the Orient also extended into the sphere of religion. Minoans, of course, did not adopt religious ideas as such. What they did adopt was the means of representing their own divine symbols. Several imaginary creatures depicted in Minoan art, such as the griffin, are definitely of Near Eastern origin. The frequent representation of animals that are non-native in Crete, such as lions and monkeys, also betray eastern influences. Ritual vessels with a long history in the Near East, such as tritons and rhyta, became common in cult practices next to clay animal and human figurines, objects with a long Minoan ancestry. The bull, a hallmark of Minoan religion, was a major religious symbol in almost every eastern Mediterranean culture; some scholars have suggested oriental parallels even for the main female deities of the Minoans, such as the “snake goddess” and the “goddess with upraised arms”.
Neopalatial (New Palace) period
Around 1700 BC Minoan palaces were destroyed by fire, possibly as a result of earthquakes, but were soon rebuilt in an even more grandiose manner. The so-called “New Palace” period represents the pinnacle of Minoan culture. Contacts with the Orient became much more regular and perhaps more politically important (the Keftiu – as Cretans were called in Egyptian – are frequently recorded in Near Eastern documents and depicted in Egyptian paintings from 1700 BC onwards). Considerable amounts of oriental imports reached both palaces and major urban settlements built close to harbours, such as Palaikastro, Gournia, Mochlos and Tylissos.
A large number of monumental mansions (known as “villas”) were erected around Crete, probably to function as regional centres for the collection of agricultural production and the re-distribution of goods. Minoan art achieved an impressive level of sophistication: lively frescoes decorated palaces and other important buildings, while elaborate artifacts made of semi-precious stones, glass, ivory and faience furnished houses, cult areas, and graves alike.
During that period, the Minoans exercised strong political and cultural influence all over the Aegean. Cycladic settlements of the 16th and 15th c. BC bear such strong Minoan characteristics that some scholars still consider them as Minoan colonies (a view not shared by others, though). On Mainland Greece, the emerging Mycenaean civilization adopted almost every aspect of Minoan mastery in art.
The Minoan supremacy, however, was to be violently disrupted around 1500 BC. By that time, Cretan palaces and towns suffered widespread destruction, apparently caused by earthquakes, from which they were unable to recover. Several explanations have been suggested, one of which refers to the effects of the eruption of the Thera volcano a generation or so earlier; certainly the collapse of the Minoan palatial system was a more complex phenomenon subject to several factors (e.g. possible pressures from the emerging Mycenaean states and the very limitations of Minoan economy itself, the only independent palatial economy that was based on an island).
Final palatial & Post palatial period
The Minoan legacy, however, was not lost. The Mycenaean conquest of Knossos ca. 1450 BC opened the road for the transmission of the most sophisticated Minoan achievements to Mainland Greece: palatial architecture, writing (in the form of Linear B), and religious iconography in the form of frescoes and engraved sealstones. Nevertheless, by the early years of the 14th c. BC, the palace of Knossos was also destroyed, signaling the fragmentation of Crete into smaller political units centered on sites that were to survive until much later periods, such as Kydonia (Chania), Kommos, and Knossos itself. It was at about the same time that the first Mycenaean palatial complexes appeared on Mainland Greece.
During the next two centuries, Mycenaeans successfully replaced Minoans as active agents of trade in the Aegean and the eastern Mediterranean. Their activity revitalized Aegean societies and allowed Crete to continue to flourish, albeit short of its earlier creativity. By ca. 1200 BC however, the general collapse of economies and political institutions all over the Eastern Mediterranean and the Near East took its toll in Crete. It seems that a considerable number of Mycenaean refugees arrived at the island, while at the same time local populations were abandoning coastal settlements in favour of defensible sites on mountain tops – apparently for security reasons. Certain Minoan traits survived into the 12th c. BC and perhaps much longer, especially in the fields of religion and burial customs. Overall however, the Minoan culture as a complex system of economic and social organization, religious and burial practices, and art died out at the end of the 12th c. BC, giving way to new features that would gradually form the culture of Crete in the Early Iron Age.
The Mycenaean civilization, which flourished in the Aegean during the Late Bronze Age (1650-1100 BC), is one of the most celebrated periods of ancient Greek history and formed the basis for the Homeric epics. Some of the most famous heroes of Greek mythology (e.g. Ulysses, Agamemnon, Achilles, Theseus, etc.) were probably actual Mycenaean kings and princes. Archaic and Classical Greek cities boasted of their Mycenaean past. Even the language and religion of ancient Greeks have their roots in the Mycenaean period.
Early Mycenaean period
The Mycenaean civilization emerged in Mainland Greece in the 17th c. BC. It was first manifested in the famous Shaft Graves of Mycenae – a site that would eventually lend its name to the whole period. Those graves were remarkable not only for their size and shape (they were large and received the dead members of whole families, in contrast to the humble graves of the Middle Bronze Age, which held single burials) but also because of their extravagant wealth. Grave offerings included luxuries from Crete and the Cyclades, as well as numerous weapons, metal vessels, and pottery of local manufacture – the first real examples of ‘Mycenaean art’. So strong is the Minoan influence on these artifacts that many scholars have attributed the development of early Mycenaean craftmanship to Cretan artisans working for Mainland rulers.
The Shaft Graves of Mycenae mark the end of a period of poverty and introversion for Mainland Greece (which coincides largely with the Middle Bronze Age), and usher in a new era of creative interaction with Minoan Crete and the Cyclades. The reasons for that change should probably be sought in the increasing commercial activity of the Minoans, who by that time (the Neopalatial period) were looking for new metal resources and trade routes in the Aegean and Mainland Greece. Accordingly, the establishment of closer contacts with Crete and the Cyclades created favourable conditions for major economic and social transformations on the Mainland.
Soon, extensive networks of communication and exchange were established, attracting the participation of several regions in the Peloponnese (the Argolid, Laconia, and Messenia) and central Greece (mainly Boeotia and Attica). Increasing wealth caused economic imbalances and competition among emerging social elites, which was clearly expressed in the funerary field. Early Mycenaean aristocrats were more interested in the erection of monumental tombs and ostentation during funeral rather than the construction of impressive houses or mansions. This unusual preoccupation with death gave rise to the most characteristic type of Mycenaean architecture: the tholos-tomb, that is a circular stone structure with corbelled roof and side entrance, built partly underground and covered with an earthen mound (apparently a survival of the Middle Helladic tumulus). Dozens of tholos-tombs were constructed in the Argolid and Messenia during the 16th and 15th c. BC to accommodate the wealthy burials of elite members and their families. Next to them, there appeared rock-cut chamber tombs possibly used by lesser members of Mainland aristocracies. Chamber-tombs were usually cut on hillsides, in varied shape and size, and – like the tholoi – were provided with a side entrance and access-way (dromos).
In arts and crafts, the Mycenaeans adopted sophisticated styles and techniques from Crete but managed to adjust them according to local tastes, thus creating a distinct idiom – more austere and inflexible than the Minoan one – in almost every field: pottery, metallurgy, jewellery, seal-engraving, the working of ivory, faience, glass, etc. However, for the first two centuries of the Late Bronze Age, Mycenaean art was exclusively preserved for social elites. Its main products were luxury items destined to serve the aristocrats’ appetite for funerary display: the most impressive early Mycenaean artefacts come from graves and only occasionally from settlements – where objects of Middle Helladic tradition were still used.
Late Mycenaean period
The Mycenaean culture reached its apogee during the 14th and 13th c. BC, when palatial complexes were built in Mycenae, Tiryns, Pylos, Thebes, etc. Mainland palaces are much later in date than the Minoan ones but had a similar administrative function, with large spaces for the storage of agricultural products and imported goods, workshops for the production of luxuries, and areas for official ceremonies and rituals.
The Mycenaeans borrowed from the Minoans most aspects of political and economic administration, especially after they conquered Knossos around 1450 BC, an event which brought them in closer contact with the organization of a palatial complex. We should remember, however, that the destruction of most Minoan centres from earthquakes at the beginning of the 15th c. BC had already diminished Minoan power and paved the path for Mycenaean expansion in the Aegean.
By the mid-14th c. BC, palatial complexes had been erected in major Mainland centres (Mycenae, Tiryns, Pylos, Thebes, etc.). Mycenaean palaces, however, differed from Minoan ones in several ways. They were smaller in size, usually built on top of steep hills, and instead of a central courtyard focused on the megaron, a rectangular building with a porch, a vestibule, and a square throne room with a central hearth; storerooms, archives, and residential quarters were built around the megaron, which was preceded by a small open court.
Alongside palaces, Mycenaeans adopted two other major achievements of the Minoans: writing (in the form of Linear B, a syllabic script which had derived from the Minoan Linear A) and religious iconography (in the form of fresco paintings, seal engraving, and figurines). The decipherment of Linear B tablets found in palatial archives proved that the Mycenaeans spoke an early form of Greek and worshiped some of the ‘Olympian’ gods, including Zeus, Poseidon, Artemis, and perhaps Dionysus.
The period of the “Mycenaean coine” (14th-13th c. BC)
Those changes had a profound impact on Mainland Greece as a whole during the 14th and 13th c. BC. Political and economic organization assumed a more structured form, with a network of palaces from Messenia to Thessaly ensuring control of agricultural production, steady supply of metals and other raw material, and social stability. Mycenaean art reached impressive levels of elegance and sophistication and gradually became available to a wider social strata. Some of the finest examples of Late Bronze Age wall-paintings, ivories, jewellery, and metal vessels were produced in that period. Mycenaeans were particularly active in maritime trade: such products as olive oil, wine, and perfumes, stored in high-quality decorated containers, were exported to the major ports of the Eastern Mediterranean and southern Italy in exchange for metals, ivory, and finished luxuries.
Engineering was another field Mycenaeans mastered, as evident in the construction of paved roads, stone bridges, dams for the collection of water, and above all, the colossal undertaking of draining Lake Copais. However, their most amazing achievement was the erection of massive fortifications around palaces in the course of the 13th c. BC. The defensive system of Mycenaean citadels consisted of guarded entrances, arched galleries for unobstructed traffic in times of war, and secret passages to springs in order to ensure access to fresh water during sieges. The most convincing parallels for Mycenaean fortifications come from the citadels of the Hittites, a fact suggesting close contacts with Anatolian kingdoms.
The reasons for the construction of these impressive fortifications (called “Cyclopean” because they looked like the work of the legendary Cyclopes) are not entirely clear. It is apparent, however, that the final stage of the Late Bronze Age was a troublesome period in the Aegean. The extensive destructions suffered by all Mycenaean palaces at ca. 1200 BC – paralleled by similar disturbances all over the Eastern Mediterranean – caused the irreversible decline of the Mycenaean civilization. Some of its traits (such as burial customs and pottery types) would survive for another 100-150 years, but its most impressive achievements such as writing and painting, were lost, not to be re-invented until the 8th c. BC.
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