How was it that in the second millennium BC, Crete nurtured one of the world’s great civilisations, and achieved a position of wealth and influence that it had not achieved before or since?
It is perhaps useful to compare Crete with the other large island in the east Mediterranean, Cyprus. In many ways, Cyprus has all the advantages: it is nearer to the fertile crescent to the east, where the first civilisations arose. It is more fertile than Crete, and above all it is rich in copper, being one of the best sources of copper in Europe if not in the world. Yet it never achieved the predominance of the Minoan civilisation.
Cyprus did indeed get away early: there are a number of settlements of the Pre-Pottery Neolithic in the 8th millennium BC or earlier, when plants and animals were beginning to be domesticated, but pottery had not yet been invented. True, in the Neolithic itself from the 7th millenium onwards, Crete had a very major settlement underlying the later palace at Knossos. Knossos is not only the biggest of the Minoan palaces, it is also the oldest of the Minoan sites. Arthur Evans began finding traces of Neolithic pottery at Knossos but it was left to his namesake (no relative) John Evans, the later Director of the Institute of Archaeology in London, to carry out deep soundings in the courtyard of the palace and to reveal that there is a very long Neolithic sequence going back to at least the 7th millennium BC. Soundings in other parts of the palace have revealed that the settlement was very extensive, though obviously it has not been possible to explore it in any significant manner. But outside Knossos, Crete lagged behind Cyprus, which continued to flourish throughout the Neolithic and down into the early Bronze Age.
In his outline of Minoan chronology Arthur Evans used the term ‘Minoan’ to cover the whole of the Bronze Age, and to correspond approximately to Egyptian chronology, Early Minoan being the Old Kingdom, Middle Minoan the Middle kingdom, and late Minoan the New Kingdom. The Early Minoan period was thus the period before the palaces, the first palaces were built in the Middle Minoan and went on until their final destruction at the end of the Late Minoan.
But how was it that in the Early Bronze Age, that is the Early Minoan, Crete went from being a typical, perhaps somewhat backward, Mediterranean economy, into producing one of the world’s great civilisations? It is tempting to believe that the secret of Minoan Crete was the olive. The olive is an interesting fruit in that it grows mainly in the Mediterranean area: where it grows in the rest of the world today, it is a modern introduction. The olive may not have been domesticated originally in Crete: domesticated olives differ from the wild olive in that they are bigger (and therefore edible) and these bigger olives appear first in Palestine and Syria, but by the beginning of the Bronze Age the olive was well established in Crete. The olive has one big advantage in that it can grow on much rougher ground than cereals: the ground did not need to be cleared of stones, and olives can be grown on steep hillsides without the need for terracing.
Colin Renfrew has argued that the introduction and intensive cultivation of the olive meant that the area of cultivatable land could be doubled. The olive has many uses: in addition to its use in the kitchen it can be used as fuel for lamps and for a wide range of preparations for soap or medicine, and above all as the basis for perfumes and cosmetics. And it would appear that in the Early Minoan, the intensive cultivation of the olive gave Crete the surplus that enabled the palace revolution.
Thus, shortly after 2000 BC, three palaces were built. The date for all three seems to come out in what is called the MM I a/b interface, (Middle Minoan Ia), traditionally dated to around 1950 BC. They are all strikingly similar. There is a rectangular central courtyard all built to a measurement which J.W.Graham calculated to be the Minoan foot of 30.36 cms, or 11 15/16th inches long. Indeed in two of the palaces, Phaistos and Malia, the central courtyards appear to be the same size – 170 ft long by 80 ft wide. In all cases there were ceremonial rooms on the western side with elaborate stairways leading up to the principal rooms on the first floor. There were rows of magazines filled with olive oil jars and there was an elaborate approach to the North West. And though there are other grand buildings approaching the same size, none of them have the regularity and formality of the palaces. Why then are there just three palaces, all built at the same time, to the same design? The answer surely must be that there was just one man who designed and built all three palaces.
Current archaeological thinking is totally opposed to any idea of great men, or a single individual, dramatically changing the whole course of history by himself. I feel that archaeologists generally are too sceptical about this and that there are individuals that can, and do change the course of history – Augustus being an obvious example. But if one can allow the great man theory, then surely this provides the answer to the building of the Cretan palaces. A parallel might be sought in Egypt where a thousand years earlier around 3100 BC the crowns of upper and lower Egypt were united into a single Pharaoh and Egypt to this day has been a single political unity. Did a similar event happen in Crete? Here again there could well have been a northern and southern kingdom, with the northern centred round Knossos, the southern centred round Phaistos, with the best crossing through the mountains of Crete between them. Malia then becomes a sort of summer palace only twenty miles to the east of Knossos, with the fertile Lasithi plain behind it. Were all three of them built according to an overarching master plan?
How far there were proto-palaces of an earlier era remains uncertain. Certainly Evans at Knossos thought he distinguished a large rectangular building which he called ‘the Keep’ in the north western corner of the palace which appeared to precede the main building. But the concept of a rectangular court surrounded by a maze of buildings certainly appears to be based on a novel and coherent concept.
Then around 1700 (assuming the ‘long’ chronology), all three palaces were destroyed and almost immediately rebuilt. In the Evans Chronology this is at the end of MMII, and a massive earthquake is generally considered to be the cause of the destruction. At Phaistos a large part of the old palace was abandoned and was thus left to the archaeologists to explore, though sadly this area is not open to the public. Elsewhere the old palaces are only known by fragments. However there was massive rebuilding – basically the palaces that we see today as excavated, and a new palace was built at Zakro, in the far eastern end of the island.
A generation or so afterwards, Thera erupted (see below), but it appears to have had little effect on Crete itself and the neo-palatial period saw the highlight of Minoan society. Not only were the four palaces operating at the peak, but numerous other settlements throughout the countryside notably a number of rich villas.
The best known of these is that at Hagia Triada, just 2 miles away from Phaistos. This is much richer in finds than Phaistos itself, and it is often suspected that this was the summer palace or perhaps the place where the rulers of Phaistos actually lived. A number of Linear A tablets were discovered there — there were none at Phaistos itself — and evidence for workshop activity, including some bronze ingots for metalworking and bizarrely two large saws.
The end comes in around 1450 BC, at the end of LM Ib. Three of the palaces – Phaistos, Malia and Zakro were all abandoned around this time, Zakro indeed quite suddenly, with many of the objects being abandoned, making it the ‘richest’ of the palaces for the archaeologists because it has the most finds. Only Knossos survives for a further century, but here Mycenaean influence is apparent. The change is most obvious in the change of script, for the Minoan linear ‘A’ is replaced by Minoan linear ‘B’. Minoan linear ‘B’ is also found on the mainland at the palaces of Mycenae and Pylos and has now been deciphered as being a primitive form of Greek. Linear ‘A’ is still undecyphered and it is generally believed to denote some other language, not Greek. The obvious explanation is that this marks a conquest of Minoan Crete by the Mycenaean Greeks and the establishment of Mycenaean rulers at Knossos. Unfortunately ‘invasions’ are also out of fashion among archaeologists, and one has to talk about Mycenaean ‘influence’ rather than Mycenaean invasion. But just as the Norman conquest of England in 1066 was indeed an invasion, even if the Normans formed a very small part of the subsequent population of England, so it is surely the easiest conclusion to accept that there was a Mycenaean conquest of Crete.
The conquest must have been a very ugly one. All four palaces were destroyed and only Knossos was rebuilt. Furthermore virtually all the villas in the countryside were also destroyed and there are signs of destruction on many of the farms. Some archaeologists have therefore argued that there must have been a major earthquake which the Mycenaeans then took advantage of. But one must suspect an altogether harsher scenario, with all the Palaces being captured, the inhabitants being put to the sword, and grim Mycenaean rulers taking over in Knossos with only a subdued Minoan population continuing in a shadow of their former glory.
But while the Mycenaeans were growing, Cyprus was expanding too. From around 1600 onwards, the Cypriot Bronze Age begins to expand. True, there are no palaces on the island, but there are a number of rich houses marked by the possession of ashlar masonry – that is cut stone that usually indicates the existence of a ruling elite.
The most remarkable site however is the large town at Enkomi on the eastern coast of the island. Today it is several miles inland, but originally it probably lay on an inlet of the sea. It is a predecessor to Greek and Roman Salamis and the Medieval and modern Famagusta, and sadly just to the Turkish side to the modern ceasefire line that divides Cyprus.
But this is one of the largest towns in the eastern Mediterranean at the time when Cyprus grew rich under the export of copper. Cypriot copper was in the form of the ox-hide ingots – that is ingots with legs projecting at each corner, which are found all over the Mediterranean – there is a considerable concentration in Sardinia. Sardinia is indeed the greatest single source of modern finds of copper ingots in the Mediterranean in the Late Bronze Age – it was presumably the middle man for the export of copper to the Western Mediterranean – but it all comes from Cyprus, and presumably Cyprus grew rich on the export of copper. But outside of Engkomi and the lesser town at the other end of the island at Kition, there is little evidence for the success of the copper exports.
Uploaded 20th February 2012