Minoans new introduction

Why Palaces?


If the traditional extraterrestrial being lands on earth, knocks on the gates of the nearest city, and makes the traditional request: “Take me to your leader”, where will he be taken? In many of the great cities of the past, the answer will be easy: he will be taken to the Palace, where he will be received (or not) by the ruler, the Pharaoh, the Minos, or the Emperor — and there will be no doubt as to who is the ruler.

However in classical Greece or Rome, the answer would have been more complex. Indeed in classical Athens, he would have been led to the Prytanaeum, where the standing committee of the Council for the month was accommodated, and he would have been introduced to the chairman for the day, probably a simple farmer chosen by lot who had just for that one day become the representative of the city.

There is a huge gulf between the two approaches, the gulf between what I call a Palace society and a market-based society, and it is this difference that forms the difference between what I call barbarism and what I call civilisation.

Palaces are basically the norm among the more complex ancient societies.  Simple societies — those which emerged with the beginning of farming in the Neolithic are often assumed to be relatively egalitarian.  But soon more complex societies emerged — I like to think that the invention of bronze played a role, for bronze needs two metals: copper and tin, and it is complex to procure them from different places. These societies need to have centralised direction, which means a ruler, and gradually the ruler became more powerful:  the ruler was at the top and everyone else was beneath him, often in a series of steps or ranks. These societies have a pyramid shape with the ruler at the top of the pyramid and relative levels of the society in steps beneath him.  These societies can be organised in different ways: sometimes round a temple, for the ruler becomes a god. Sometimes they are organised round the burial place of former rulers, like the pyramids of Egypt, or the Maya in America.  But many are organised around a palace and of these palace societies, the best example is that of the Minoans on Crete.  I thus use the term ‘palace societies’ to encompass all these different forms.

There are many questions we need to ask of these palace societies. Palaces are rarely the place where the rulers live. Palaces are for official functions where there is little room for the crude necessities of life. Rulers are semi-divine and do not like to reveal too much that they are in fact human, so they prefer to live their private lives discreetly in private splendour. Indeed even today, our own great Queen lives only occasionally at her official residences at Buckingham Palace, or Windsor Castle, but spends most of her time at her own private residences, at Sandringham or Balmoral.

Palaces may be said to have had three functions, economic, political and ritual.  The most important of these, and the one that for archaeologists is the easiest to track, is the economic function. We are dealing with a gift exchange society, where the ruler organises how goods are to be distributed, and the palace is the peak of the gift exchange organisation.  Archaeologically it can be seen most obviously by storage capacity, granaries for grain or magazines for olive oil, stored in huge quantities. Partly this is a realistic function as a reserve against famine, and partly too these are stores from which goodies can be distributed.

But above all, they were a display of power, not only of the state, but also of the society itself, something of which the ordinary people could be proud, as the culmination of their efforts, so to show how hard and successfully they had worked: for though the ruler is the state, the people form the other part of the state.

There are two other economic aspects. Sometimes, surprisingly, there are workshops in the palace, where gifts could be prepared, to be ostentatiously given to the princes and generals who form the next layers down in a hierarchical society. And then there is the existence of writing, which normally begins as an accountancy function,  as labels to record what is in which boxes, which bags, which jars,  and these labels reveal the existence of a complex gift exchange society where goods have been brought in in sufficient quantity and variety to need labelling. Writing was invented by accountants.

And secondly, there is ritual, or ceremony. For most of my life, ritual has been a dirty word, only used by diggers who fail to understand what they are digging up. Yet, even if ritual can rarely be understood, it nevertheless existed, and was a major function of the Palace. Indeed, temples are often more dominant than the palace – though with temples, one should always look to see whether there are storehouses attached — the distinction between temple and palace is often blurred. And sometimes we can guess at the ritual, the bull-leaping in the Minoan palaces, or the processions from the Egyptian temples – or the ball-courts of the great Mayan palaces.

Finally, politics. In the palace society, politics are nowhere and everywhere.  Politics in the sense that we understand it, where the affairs of state are debated and decided, or at least pronounced to the masses, do not really exist in the Palace society. If debating is done it is done by a ruler with his family and intimate advisers: though rulers, being gods, do not debate or have doubts: they just do. But at the same time, politics is a whole point of the Palace. The palace society is the welfare state par excellence, where the state is everything, and you are nothing. The ruler is omnipotent: his word is law, and you must never ever think of going against him. And that is the beginning and end of politics in a palace society.

But there is a different form of society. It is one which first came into existence in Greece and Rome, a type of society in which we are living today. This is based on a different form of economics where instead of goods being distributed by the ruler, they are bought and sold in the market place from one person to another, without the intervention of the ruler.  To do this properly, money is needed, so this sort of society is normally linked to the invention of money.

And once this new form of economics comes into existence, the whole shape of society changes.  Instead of being a pyramid, it becomes much flatter, more like a pancake or doughnut: people no longer have to kowtow to the ruler, and they begin to think for themselves, and have their own ideas — subversive ideas about things like democracy: they want to take their own rule into their own hands – quel horreur!

And in the second part of this book, we will see how these societies came into existence, and how they changed the world.


Let us start by looking at the Minoans.

Who were the Minoans? 


13th July 2016 revised 18th March 2020