Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Home of the Minotaur?

Fresco in Palace of Knossos
I’ve spent the last few posts describing extremely ancient civilisations so I’ll stick with the theme and describe the Minoans. The Minoans were the first major civilisation in what is now Europe. Their culture was based primarily on and around the island of Crete around the years 1900-1400 BC. Like the Indus Valley Civilisation, they left behind an undecipherable script, but unlike the Indus Valley their cities and palaces have been extensively excavated and we know a fair amount about them.

Their culture is named after a mythical Cretan king from Greek mythology called Minos. Minos is said to have had a large fleet and to have demanded human sacrifice from the mainland Greeks, who were sacrificed by being fed to a monster (the Minotaur, the progeny of Minos’ wife and a bull) in a labyrinth underneath Minos’ palace. This continued until a hero from ancient Athens slew the Minotaur. The classical Greek myth is extremely confused but there may be the slightest elements of history lurking around in them. There may be the occasional reference to their culture in Egyptian texts and the Old Testament but apart from these snatches of myth and minimal reference we only have archaeology to go on.

'Throne Room' in Knossos
Archaeology shows the Minoans to have been great palace builders. The main palace was at a site called Knossos but there were other palaces at sites such as Phaistos that were significant. These palaces were very large, haphazardly planned, decorated with magnificent frescoes and supplied with luxuries like flushing toilets. The palaces could contain up to a thousand rooms and palace is probably the wrong word to describe them. They were more like miniature cities (but palace is the usual archaeological description). The site at Knossos has been extensively restored and visitors can get a vague idea of what the original sites must have been like.

Fresco from Akrotiri showing a Minoan port
Upon discovery of this remarkable civilisation people were originally struck by how peaceful these people seemed to be. Compared to other cultures of the time, the Minoans did not depict warfare in their art, their cities were unfortified and very few weapons were found. This initial reaction is being revisited and evidence of weaponry has been discovered. The lack of city walls isn’t all that significant either. If the later Greek legend has any basis of fact in its description of Cretan sea power, the Minoans may simply have relied upon destroying enemies at sea and not bothered to fortify. As regards the lack of battle scenes in their art, most of the surviving artwork comes from ground floor walls of the palaces. The upper stories do not survive and so to draw a conclusion from a fraction of the material seems unwise.

Minoan Fresco of Bull Leaping
The Cretan religion is usually considered to be centred on goddess worship but the bull was very important in their artwork as well. Some of the most famous frescoes and statues show what appear to be ritual games where young athletes would compete to leap and vault over the backs of charging bulls. Perhaps it was their sport, perhaps it was an artistic motif but it was significant. In other Near-Eastern cultures around that date the horns of a bull were a symbol of power. It even appears that the roofs of all the Cretan palaces were ringed with stylised horns of bulls.

Detail from Knossos Roof
Perhaps the Classical Greeks, who would have seen the collapsed, maze-like remnants of the Cretan palaces and seen the ever-present frescoes of bulls may have used this to come up with the legend of the Minotaur: Or possibly not. The legends of human sacrifice may have had some bearing in reality as well, as some skeletons have been found that bear the signs of possible sacrifice.

If the Minoans (an island civilisation) had control of the sea why did their civilisation disappear? We move from one legend to another.

Minoan Fresco
The tale of Atlantis (told by Plato in the early 300’s BC) is of an ancient highly developed city whose inhabitants were the favoured people of the sea god. Their city flourished until they behaved wickedly and brought the anger of the gods upon them. The gods allowed them to be defeated by the Athenians and the sea god, after the defeat allowed their island city to sink into the sea.

The bay in the middle of the island is actually a crater
An island not far north of Crete, called Thera, was one of the most active volcanoes in the Mediterranean. Some time around 1600 BC the inhabitants must have realised something terrible was going to happen because they abandoned the city built on the edge of the island and presumably took to the sea. The volcanic eruption that followed was one of the largest in human history, launching huge amounts of ash into the atmosphere, darkening the sky. Major tsunamis followed that seem to have done serious damage to the Minoan coastal settlements and, if their fleet was at anchor on the north of the island, could have destroyed their fleet and merchant shipping. If any visitors from later times went to see the once powerful city on Thera, they would have seen the island as it now is (see picture). If there is a historical basis for the legend of Atlantis, this is probably it.

Mycenaean Weapons: The Mycenaeans were not peaceful
It seems that the Minoan civilisation survived the catastrophe of the Theran eruption but their civilisation was presumably weakened by the loss of their coastal settlements and fleet. The atmospheric ash after the eruption would have damaged their agriculture for years to come so with reduced farmland and reduced fishing abilities their culture must have tried to weather the continuing crisis. Their culture survives for less than a hundred years after the eruption before there is a change in the archaeological data. The palaces remain but now the artefacts are the same as artefacts from mainland Greece. It is probable that the Minoan civilisation had been conquered by the rising Bronze Age Greeks, better known as the Mycenaean culture. Perhaps the Atlantean reference to conquering Athenians and the Greek legend of Theseus’ slaying of the Minotaur are a very confused memory of the mainland Greeks overthrowing their weakened neighbours and overlords.

Linear A writing of the Minoan Culture
It is frustrating that we cannot read the Minoan writing (known as Linear A) but through the selective reading of myth and through the much more reliable method of archaeology we can get a rough idea of who the people who comprised this first European civilisation were.