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Minoan Crete and History of the Palaces

Minoan palaces Crete

CRETE: all of it geographically, with one essentially uniform culture by the time the palaces get built. And Crete sits at the west end of the Bronze-Age Club of the East Mediterranean and the Near East beyond; alongside its bigger cousins in Egypt, the Levant, Mesopotamia and Anatolia.

… BRONZE AGE: In Crete, this last over two millennia (say 3200-1000 BC), with the Palatial era occupying 700 years (2000-1300 BC). If you have been to Knossos, then most of what you saw belongs to the very end of the third Palatial period – in green here (say 1350-1325 BC), when the mainlanders exercised some degree of control. I concentrate today on the time before that: the two periods in Blue.

Luckily for me, I can broadly afford today to ignore the internal time divisions within this 7 centuries or so of the palatial life style: the fundamental physical aspects are very early established, and do not significantly alter thereafter. The social construct is another matter altogether.

Modern research has to a degree shown, or more often suggested, that some of the crucial features we find in the palaces may go back, in simpler forms, quite a bit earlier. That therefore the palaces do not spring – mushroom-like – from nothing, and need not have been imported as a detailed concept from further east.

So .. here we are, around 2000 BC, at one of the main urban centres in middle Crete .. let us say Knossos, but it could just as easily be Phaistos or Mallia ..and yet others further afield. A group of specialists are getting ready, with suitable prayers and requests of divine assistance, to lay out what might today be described as an Exciting New Concept in Elite Living.

We can call them architects …


They stand in the middle of a levelled piece of soil .. a very large piece of levelled soil. They are about to measure out .. a piece of nothing.  An empty space .. what we call the Central Court. For, somewhat counter-intuitively, this is going to be the beating heart of every palace, around which all palatial life revolves in the built structures of the wings. The architects have already determined the main N-S axis of this (with reference to the daily rising and setting points of the sun), as the two annual solstices of its rising have already long been built into the annual round of the Minoan religious expression.

Their chief tools at the moment are these: knotted cords and pegs to drive into the soil with a mallet.

You should not be surprised to learn that the basic unit employed to measure space in this sort of way was .. the foot. Theirs was much the same length as ours, despite their being a head shorter in the main than us. They also realized it was worth combining a number of feet into a larger unit, indeed plural and various units .. just as we do in making 3 of them equal a yard, or 660 in a furlong. The knots in the cords will have indicated these larger units.

A corner is fixed, a peg driven into the ground: I have made it the NW one .. and they start walking, paying out the knotted cord, to the east and to the south to an agreed distance. In the case of Knossos this some 176 UK-feet southwards and 88 eastwards (about 1:2 ratio). A third team, with an already measured-out and known length of cord, could then have been positioned along the diagonal between the two, to anchor the two new corners at a known and exact measurement between them – a la Pythagoras theorem.  If they had not worked this measurement out beforehand (some 192 UK-feet), then empirically they could have done it on the ground.  From the two new points, they walk out east and south respectively to the same distances, until the two cords meet. The new diagonal could then be checked, using the same pre-measured cord. It ought to be exactly correct. In reality, it is likely that adjustments would need to be made, shifting the three corners until the diagonals match up. Fiddly, but not that difficult.

They now have a true rectangle of known proportions marked out. They check their master plan – for such they had from the start (as we will see in a moment). Such a plan would probably have been on animal skin (vellum) in some ink or paint: skins were easier to acquire than papyrus-paper from Egypt! The plan requires that – on the west façade of the court – that there are needed pegs at 6, 9, 15 units along the cord, where each unit equals about 7 UK-feet. Each section so demarcated makes one architectural block facing onto the court .. the Throne Room complex, the grand staircase, the central Shrine and the last bit. With the façade fixed .. one turns inwards and fixes the other three borders of each unit in the same basic manner: e.g. 3 units westwards. And thence to other broad zones, and finally to the internal divisions into individual spaces within each broader unit.  And voila .. the whole ground plan of the wing is in place ..  eventually.

**An aside: the Minoans were skilled bean-counters .. even happy to work in fractions and in systems that combined their units of whatever with comparable ones in Egypt and the Near East. They developed several ways to measure lengths and volumes, both wet and dry.  All the Bronze Age cultures did this – in part deriving from their interest in measuring heavenly cycles of sun, moon and constellations. Their approaches are still with us today: the 60 seconds in each minute of a 60-minute hour, and the 360 degrees in a circle are all ultimately owed to the Mesopotamians of 3000 or so BC: they preferred a sexagesimal base (one based on 60, as opposed to say 10 or 12) as it was divisible by 12 whole numbers (by 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 10, 12 etc etc) and so making it highly versatile and subtle.**

I have blithely said that the architects employed knotted cords. How can we show this? Happily, quite easily .. the wall plans we make on excavation are known entities. If we then make grids on tracing paper of the suspected units being employed, then we can shuffle them about until a match is made. And the Minoan unit/module being used is thereby revealed.

Here are two examples ….  First the Magazines in the west wing at Knossos

The actual walls are in colours, the successful grid picked out in red and pink lines over them.

And then       House C at Tylissos

One need not expect total perfection, nor the use of the same grid throughout a single structure.

What next? Start building walls? Well, no – not in the case of something as complex as a palace, at least. Holes do get dug, but not for wall foundations. (As an aside, the Minoans didn’t do foundations as we do .. at best tidying up uneven bedrock.) The holes – trenches really – are for drains. Flat courts and flat roofs collect vast amounts of rainwater, with nowhere to go: it all needs channelling away – at times fast. And this is best done underground. So a pre-planned (and I stress this once more) network of larger and smaller drains is put in place. For everyday and so relatively minor amounts of water, it was sufficient to have terracotta cylindrical pipes, slotted end to end and the junctions sealed with plaster. But for winter storms, massive stone conduits existed: big enough to send small humans down – the Minoan equivalent of chimney-sweeps – to clean them out. Inserted in a few critical positions, they could shift huge quantities of water, being fed into them from all sides by the terracotta pipes. In the case of Knossos, this excess was directed eastwards .. to emerge well down the slope of the hill on which the palace sits, down to the river running there.

Back to the walls.  As they started to rise, the architects turned to consider the vertical aspect of the structure: using the same general approach, but rotating it through a right-angle. A weight can be added to the end of a knotted cord, converting it into a plumbob – so keeping the walls perpendicular, whilst measuring them out at the same time.

And up they went. But how did they go up? Nothing has come down to us on this point. One must assume a mix of wooden scaffolding, simple A-frame cranes, and even earth ramps.

So, what was required in the walls and structures generally? Three basic materials.

STONE: These are usually gathered locally: limestone, sandstone and gypsum are all able to be quarried. Mostly the extraction was done at an outcrop, open-face; just occasionally they may have tunnelled into a hillside. Massive blocks (up to 3 x 1 x 1 m) were removed by opening channels around their intended edges, cutting deeper and deeper with metal picks; at their bases they were likely to be split away by soaking inserted wooden wedges and so exploiting natural lines of fracture in the rock. It seems likely that many of the blocks and slabs being cut were already destined for specific areas under construction: what we term mason’s marks are often to be seen on those in situ, and occasionally at a quarry-site. But even more needful than nice regular ashlar masonry (as we term the cut and quarried pieces) were fieldstones, the irregular lumps found scattered across the landscape by nature, or produced as debris in quarrying. Less visually important, but still strong, walls devour all such stuff. To these building-blocks, the Minoans were keen to add ‘points of interest’ with stones of other varieties, often brought in from further away: such are wall veneers in veined marbles, crazy-paving floor slabs in greeny-silver schists set in and off against red plaster .. column bases, sculpted friezes in low relief .. and so on.

WOODS:  Now largely perished, their exploitation would have eaten up the forests over time. Most, again, were initially locally sourced: cypress, pine and oaks were all available and used to provide large weight-bearing beams, >>>>> and innumerable planks and smaller beams for doors, floors, window frames and shutters. Smaller shrubbier plants and trees (eg. olive) could provide useful masses of a twiggier nature, suitable for packing into floor/ceiling and roof constructions. Though the Minoans did make nails, staples and rivets of copper, they preferred when joining structural wooden components to employ pegs and tenons of wood, aided by glues when appropriate. Some of this, writ small, can be seen in miniature work in ivory …

… and some of the bronze tools they developed have also come down to us. Massive 2-man ripping saws, smaller typical wood-working ones; a whole array of chisels of all sizes and lengths – suited to cutting anything between a large and deep socket or mortise, down to adjusting precise angles and mitres. They also made use of double axes and adzes (for chopping and trimming), awls and piercing points, and the bow-drill, for opening circular holes for pegs or threading cords or wires through.

The Minoans also developed a somewhat unusual approach in combining wood and stone in their walls. It was NOT a matter of building a wooden and self-standing framework, and then infilling it sequentially; but more of combining the two processes as an integrated whole. There were verticals, horizontals and cross-ties. Here – rendered in modern materials in part – is one of Evans’ reconstructions, done with just this didactic point in mind …  >>>>>>

Archaeologists believe that this approach was developed as a way of giving stone walls a degree of flexibility – in earthquakes. Wood is ductile, flexible, and has a high strength-to-weight ratio (though I assume this last is large negated when inside a masonry wall). It has also been suggested that wood also provides give and elasticity when the stone component is heated or cooled in temperature changes, mostly in the summer.

And the final component is MUD. Cretan soils, being often calcareous thanks to the common presence of limestone in its geological make-up, make good bricks, when a suitable binding agent is added (usually chopped up vegetation). Made in wooden moulds (to ensure some standardization in size), they were not fired as ours are, merely sun-dried .. and so not a winter-time activity. Nor were they small like ours .. but of this sort of size (up to 50 x 30 x 10 cm) , requiring both hands to lift them safely. Apart from being cheap to produce, much quicker than quarrying stone or cutting up timber, they are relatively light, and so suitable for upper storeys and non-load bearing walls. They are also a boon to archaeologists: a collapsing house produces a considerable amount of mud-brick debris – this rapidly disintegrates and infills all holes and such. In so doing it covers and seals items trapped in the collapse – and helps preserve them. A nice fire destruction of a half mud-brick edifice has archaeologists chortling with anticipation.

Mud also makes a sort of mortar (not much so used), and infilling for a rubble core of a wall, and a plaster (as e have just seen). The last, slapped up against an uneven face of a stone wall, makes it a bit stronger and certainly gives a more regular surface. It also tends to make interiors brown and so dark. However, this last unfortunate effect can be readily countered by floating a LIME-plaster coating over the mud one: white, easy to keep clean and reflective of light .. and of course the perfect base on which to create those wall-paintings/frescoes for which the Minoans are justly famed.

The Egyptians are quite well known for their pyramids, and many Mesopotamian city-states liked to run up a ziggurat or two, to hang a few plants on or whatever. The Minoans did not create structures on that sort of scale, but did develop architectural signatures peculiarly their own. I will run a few past you now.

The Lustral Basin. Its name indicates its ritual purpose .. and for once we can go with that identification. These spaces are found attached to a room of importance, be it in a palace or an elite structure in town or countryside; they are set lower than the same, and entered by a short stairway of stone; they are paved in stone and the lower walls also clad in slabs of stone. They are never very large, and events inside them were only witnessed by a relatively few people, watching from a window or balustrade. We have no idea of went on in them.

The Many-doored Room. Living up to its name, these are spaces in which up to three of the walls – mostly of stone – are composed of a series of doors (with a small transom window above each). The resulting room lends itself to multiple modes of expression: closed or open, light or dark, cool or snug. Combined with the flanking architectural units (corridors, porches, open spaces), it can host a range of atmospheres, from the intimate to the expansive. These tend to be the main Official Room of a building, and quite often have a Lustral Basin lurking nearby.

The Storage Magazine. Storage was very important in Minoan structures of all sizes and types. The Palaces developed a formula. The substantial units, often long and narrow, have little or no internal connections, but are served individually from a flanking access corridor.

The Light Well. Getting light and fresh air circulating into a block of rooms some 80m long, by 25 wide and 5 storeys high .. is a matter of priority, but is never going to be easy. The Minoans solved this by leaving what are essentially open chimneys, or shafts, reaching from ground floor to the roof (with a suitable top covering). Carefully positioned, in a network of such, each can serve a cluster of rooms off it. The resultant oases of air and light can be joined up by stairs, corridors and lesser rooms.

You have, I think, been around Knossos by now? It will have seemed depressingly – beige. However, nothing could be further from the truth. Any of you who have been to India will have suffered from sensory overload – to which the sheer kaleidoscope of colours contributes. Something would be true to a Minoan palace too. We have the figurative and patterned frescoes on the inside, and the likelihood of painted exteriors too; we have red and green crazy-pavements, we have facades of polished gypsum, that would have sparkled as the sun caught the crystals. And the people could be bedecked and bejewelled in a riot of patterns and colour, all on the move. Dull, I doubt it was.

And so, I bring this severely practical first part of the talk to a close. You have – more or less – been exposed to enough facts and figures to enable you to build your own backyard Minoan palace!


Minoan Palace .. two simple words: but ones that embody all the problems inherent in this second part of my exposition. Namely: How were the Palaces used?

Minoan .. first. We all use the term today, but no Minoan ever would have. True, the word has its roots in the past – the Classical Greek authors were well aware of King Minos, the ruler at Knossos, and surrounded by a myriad tales, often unpleasant. Labyrinth, Minotaur, Theseus, Ikaros .. I’m sure you have heard of them. So, of course, had Sir Arthur Evans, the large-scale excavator of Knossos, and he went on to adopt the term. Which has stuck. However, the Egyptians called people from Crete, Keftiu, and some Near Easterners refer to the island as Kaphtor. So I would hazard they called themselves something with a K, a F and a T in it. The moral is that of the abhorred vacuum filled.

Palace .. next. So termed by Evans .. in keeping with the zeitgeist of the day. But recently derided, spurned and rejected .. in favour of what? Central-Court Building .. or CCB .. perfectly accurate. BUT, in English English, a palace can be both secular (Buckingham – for royals) and religious/spiritual (Southwark – for a high-ranking bishop); and in its Italian original sense – it is just an elite building. So Palace will do, I maintain – what else is Knossos other than an elite structure used by people who arguably combined secular with religious in a seamless whole?

Pharaohs display much the same admixture.  As can modern Hindu-life and that of medieval Christians. But why the semantic fuss in the first place?  Well, in today’s crowded market-place that is academe, with too many people and too little resources/jobs: every Bright Young Thing needs to get noticed. The time-hallowed way .. going right back to ancient Greece .. is for the Aspiring Young Turk to attack an establishment figure. The moral here is political game-playing, which should have no part in what we do.

So .. Gloves Off, Cards on the Table, and No-More Mr Nice Guy.  What do we know of the Minoans who lived in the Palaces and used them?      I hope you like worms ..

Because the answer is .. almost nothing!

We do not know if there was a King or a Queen. We do not know if positions were passed down within one family, or shared between a cluster of families. We do not know how the kinship pattern worked. We do not know if society was matriarchal or patriarchal. Overseen by an oligarchy, a gerontocracy or a theocracy. Or … or …    You get the picture .. and you see the vacuum beckoning?

Yes, we do know that Palaces had elite residential quarters, reception/ritual points of focus, that it stored foods and raw materials, that scribes worked there listing and relisting the assets of the ‘state’, and probably some artisan types worked there too. But these are more the mechanics, not the soul we are observing.

I just mentioned scribes .. and these are our only hope of breaking the impasse. One day we may get lucky and find a large, well-preserved archive of clay tablets; one day we may get lucky and someone will translate the same. At the moment we have some ideas concerning inscribed objects dedicated: there are clearly formulaic ‘words’, repeated patterns of signs, but at present .. we can get no further. The Minoans remain sadly mute …

… but their successors in the palaces, the Mainland Greeks, are anything but. The difference is simply .. we can read their bureaucratic Linear B tablets. True, it is not literature and tells us little of their world-view: nothing like what we can extract from all the other contemporary cultures further east. The Book of the Dead from Egypt; the creation legends of Mesopotamia; tales of the gods from the Hittites. Never mind, half a loaf will do for now …

A tempting Mainland crumb or two for you, from the 4-5 generations who lived at Knossos:

Around the fields of Mycenaean Knossos walked two oxen, one called Dusky, the other Loudmouth.

The textile industry was vital for foreign exchanges: accordingly close tabs were kept on the process. We know shepherds by name, location in the landscape and the size and composition of their flocks; we know the yield of wool; we know the wool was sent to barrack-like structures in the landscape, where gangs of women with their smaller children, controlled by the Big Men and in receipt of rations from the palace, were kept busy – carding, spinning, dyeing and weaving; where specialist craftsmen affixed fringes and the like; and whose end products were classified by their intended designation. Many were destined for trade assets, as the Egyptian tomb and palace ceilings proclaim.

The society is essentially feudal: with the wanax at the apex of the triangle, and with numerous other officers and henchmen with numerous roles and titles. You don’t hear about Iannis Elafaki (the Greek John Doe) .. what a surprise!

We know names of months: Deukios, Wodewijo, Diwijojo, and RapatoL but – asla – know not what they might mean.

And names of the gods. Some go on to make it through into the Olympian Pantheon – Zeus, Poseidon, Athena, and Hera. Others vanish, or were absorbed as local variants of more successful deities. One interesting goddess – Potnia is her generic title – is often referred to: as the Mistress of … the Labyrinth, of the Winds etc. This recalls the Catholic Christian naming of the Virgin Mary .. Our Lady of Sorrows, of Lourdes; and of the Orthodox Greek habit with the Panagia Voulkaniotissa and so on.

But back to our silent palatial Minoans. All 20+ generations of them. One has to assume there were social changes in these 600 years – no urban-based society stands stock still for such a time: compare the splendours of Elizabethan Tudor England with the woes of Elizabeth II’s Brexit Britain! No single snapshot of Minoan society can stand for all those centuries.

BUT, less I be accused of dereliction of duty, I will end up with a series of vignettes of matters I feel are critical aspects of the social composition and workings at the times of the Minoan palaces.

They are a divided society – Haves and Haves-Less: the very existence of the Palace and Grand Houses proclaims this. This is normal for the High Cultures of all contemporary Near Eastern countries in the Bronze-Age. All such social divisions rest either on a species of dictatorship or on some form of social contract. I am sure there were Minoan tyrants, but we cannot detect them now.

The secular and religious aspects of life were much more entwined that what we 21st century westerners comprehend. Again true everywhere in the Bronze-Age. We may scoff at the idea of Divine Right of Kings to Rule – or if you like the Right of Divine Kings to Rule, but that merging was normal back then. I mentioned the Pharaohs earlier. We can in Crete identify places in the landscape endowed with sacred qualities, where people gathered en masse to worship: Peak Sanctuaries, Sacred Caves, Shrines centred on large permanent sources of water. Votives by the thousand mark their presence.

The Palaces controlled territories. We can catch glimpses of this in the way the Palaces are scattered across the landscape, and the way the people developed local twists in living when set against an overarching and comparable cultural backdrop. Such idiosyncrasies may express themselves in the way pots were made and decorated, or again, in a preference for certain sorts seal shapes and motifs.

Some Palaces were bigger and better than others – Knossos generally being deemed the First (Amongst Equals): this pre-eminence is registered in the fact that it has the largest palace, the largest urban settlement, the widest range of master craftsmen .. and, a telling detail,  the greatest access to tin, that vital, imported and expensive metal to mix with copper for the best sort of bronze.

With the palaces go hierarchies. Across the territory of a palace were situated local Big-Men: charged with harvesting the local resources and maintaining the status quo. Sometimes such people lived in smaller urban settings – Tylissos; sometimes in what look like the Minoan equivalent to Romano-British rural villas, or Medieval manors – Vathypetro. The Minoans were very well aware of a Good Location too. Whatever the physical setting, the local Lords kept in touch with the palace, informed the palace as to their production quotas (all such places produced stuff, any surplus fuelling all trade and specialist activities), and carried out the requests of the palace. Clay tablets record such traffic, and seal-impressed documents reveal actual persons in the chain. With enough of such tokens and documents, it is possible to start isolating groups of seal-holders: those, say, working in a palace, and those from outside it. One glimpses the structure and relative importance within the corresponding seal-owners.  >>>>>

The seals are objects of beauty in themselves: the Minoans excelling in miniature work.

But, despite all of the above, there are no signs of a Mighty Ruler – as there are in every other contemporary society. Or at least none that we can gauge. No Minos the Umpteenth glowers down on us from wall-fresco or graven image in stone; no boastful accounts of Battles Won, Rivals Humbled and so on. I cannot stress too much how unusual this is. And I think we can be pretty sure that we are not missing something obvious: we have enough frescos and objects of all sizes. What we do see are generic depictions of Minoan men and women: all shaped from the same formulaic approach. It feels almost egalitarian.

Women – are everywhere depicted, and very often in central roles, acting by and for themselves, it might seem. Again a surprise when other societies are reviewed. This is shown in every media – from over life-size fresco portrayals to ivory caskets to miniature gold rings; again and again the elite ladies hold central stage, if they are not acting just by themselves. Much of what they are doing has ritual overtones. There is but one exception; a single, albeit important class of object – stone low-relief carved vases. Here are found scenes of male ritual activity .. and only male: everything from sacred processions, to perhaps military parades to harvest-home rioting.

Does this mean the Minoans practised matriarchy? If such a thing ever existed in this time frame. One can see why the question could be asked: but it is interesting to note WHEN it was asked .. in the 1970s, when gender-studies and feminism first entered mainstream life in the west. It is, I repeat, correct to observe the pivotal role the court ladies possess: but this is not the same as an all-out matriarchy. How could we, as archaeologists, come any closer to answering this from a merely material point of view? The obvious one is: were women conspicuously better off than men in some way. Materially, it is not obvious. But might their bones say something? Modern analytical science can tell us about the degree of presence of certain isotopes trapped in bone: isotopes that correspond with aspects of diet. In the very little exploration of this done to date, there is no obvious difference in what either sex ate. Unless we have been looking at the wrong women (did the hoi polloi enjoy such status differentials as the elites?).

Another label oft attached to the Minoans is that they were peaceniks, wouldn’t harm a fly. Partly this chimes with the matriarchy business, partly with the glorious representations of the natural world seen in frescos. Again such attitudes gained much ground in the 1960s on, Flower-power time in certain places. But to deflate this, one has but to look at Japanese historical culture, where a developed appreciation of nature and the Fleeting Moment went hand in hand with a very militaristic warrior caste, and a not noticeably prominent position accorded to women.  Besides, a study of an upland village of Minoans (just around the start of the palaces) shows clear indication that the population suffered a level and manner of damage that went beyond the habitual wear-and-tear of being a hill-shepherd, or a daily grinder of corn. A noted amount of injuries sustained by the traditional ‘blunt object’ suggests a certain amount of Saturday-night brawling, at least. And worse …

And while we are about it, they and other skeletons show that some Minoan doctors were very capable of setting a broken limb to heal straight, and were confident enough to indulge in trephination .. boring holes through the skull down to the brain membrane – to let the devils out, so to speak.

Moreover, there are enough scenes of Minoans fighting and enough weaponry recovered to give the lie to the peace-nik label. It is of course still quite possible that fighting amongst themselves was not encouraged, unlike, say, in Roman or Viking times.

PYLOS  AGATE  SEAL   >>>>>>>>

SO .. what have we so far?  A culture headed by a ruling class, however that is expressed socially, and one in which women hold a crucial role, especially obvious in the world of ritual, but which also endowed males too with their sphere of influence and activity. It was a society that knew conflict; it maximized the natural resources of the island to underpin its existence; in its population, it equalled the other 2 or 3 floruits in historical times, that of the Romans for example, being excelled only by today’s population growth. To achieve this a highly organized bureaucracy was developed: set in the palace confines, its tentacles were all over .. but not absolutely everywhere perhaps (the everyday potters seem to have essentially gone their own ways). Clearly there have to be a vast number of non-elites willing to support the system .. and the only known force to bring that about (other than State-inspired terror) is if all participants accept that only then will the Deities grant balance, peace and prosperity to all. Religion lies at the core of such.

What can we say of their religion? Very, very little, though we can view any number of images of it, and handle objects involved in it. People could meet en masse in the open air, or in caves; and after a while more privately in their homes. Votives and requests to the gods were made (those diseased limbs from peak sanctuaries ask for healing, just as in Christian churches). Dancing and processions were important parts, as must have been music and song. Food and drink taken together will have played a binding role (and thus account for some of the storage in palaces, for handouts on High Days and Holy Days). We guess that there was a very important lady/ladies at the heart of all this – but who, what and why – we do not understand to any sensible degree.

And just in case you thought all was light and joy .. such religions based on farming cycles have to take account of Dread Winter, and death/regeneration. It could be too that Minoan religion countenanced human sacrifice in certain condition – we have several dead younglings in a house at Knossos, under Suspicious Circumstances.

The Dead were taken care of – and yet we do not have nearly enough of them. So what happened to the better part of them? We do know that the Minoans tended to bury in multiples – sometimes a single circular tomb suffices for the whole community (small villages really) for centuries. At other times, there are cemeteries of smaller communal chambers, cut into hillsides – the dead in each presumably linked by ties of blood or marriage. We do not find many outstandingly rich tombs .. nothing that might make us spot a bunch of royals; though clans/families competing in wealth and status in one settlement is visible. We are fairly sure that some sort of ancestor worship is going on .. perhaps not so much as individuals, but a collective weight of anonymous souls. Once reduced to bones, bodies are not accorded overmuch respect (though skulls and long-bones may be collected and stored in groups elsewhere). Tomb sites were often arranged so that there was a visual connection between the Cities of the Living and the Dead. You were never quite out of sight!

I have a suspicion that the Minoans were something of an odd-ball society, even amongst the quite differentiated Bronze-Age cultures existing in the east. Exactly why that should be, I cannot say. But I wonder if it has something to do with the relatively undisturbed way their culture developed over perhaps as much as five millennia before the Palaces emerged. Of course, new peoples arrived and settled: probably in dribs and drabs. We can detect them by their goods. Of course, there were periods of instability, when all sensible persons legged it to the hills for a generation or two, but not everywhere all at once. But from 7000 BC to 1500 BC, there is no need to envisage large-scale invasions or migrations of peoples in the manner all too vividly recorded in the land-locked territories to the east. Crete was able to develop unmolested to a degree that few others enjoyed. The Minoan way of life could have roots going back millennia; older customs may have endured.

But all good things come to an end .. and for Minoan Crete this seems to take place in a truly tragic episode around 1500 BC. Almost every settlement – from palace to humble shepherd’s abodes – is destroyed. The agonies went on for perhaps a whole generation. But this is another story, and one we have not got to the bottom of yet.

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