crete in history

Sir Arthur Evans

Archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans, best known for his excavations at Knossos in Crete, was born #onthisday in 1851. These are some materials from the Sir Arthur Evans Archive.

Evans was Keeper of the Ashmolean from 1884-1908, and his ambition to make the museum a centre for archaeology resulted in thousands of new acquisitions and a new department for antiquities. 

Drawing of a polychrome pot from a tomb at Isopata near Knossos, from the Sir Arthur Evans Archive.

The Minoan and Mycenaean collections on display in our Aegean World gallery. The Ashmolean’s Aegean collection, containing many items holds around 10,000 objects and is the largest and most comprehensive outside Greece. Many finds from Evans’ own excavations are in the museum’s collection.


The Dolphin mural at The Palace of Knossos~ Crete

The restoration of the frescoes in the Knossos Palace by E. Gillieron and Piet de Jong at the beginning of the last century received many critics for the excessively bright colours employed, but the truth is that the final result is probably not very far from the original aspect of the paintings, created at the heart of the Minoan splendour.

This fresco is a fabulous example of early Minoan Painting, very interesting for its precise representation of the natural world without any human presence. Located in the Bath Hall -where such aquatic motifs were very suitable-, the “Fresco of the Dolphins” is an authentic masterpiece, either for its undeniable decorative value and for its remarkable effect of movement.


Minotaur and Labyrinth Coin from Gortyn, Crete

Silver stater struck in Gortyn circa 425-360 BC
Obverse: Minotaur in a kneeling-running stance to right, its head facing
Reverse: Labyrinth, in the form of a swastika, five pellets in a floral pattern at the center, four sunken squares in the corners

This fascinating coin depicts an image of one of the most famous of all mythological creatures, the Minotaur, which had the head of a bull and the body of a man. The myth surrounding this beast dates from the period of the Minoan civilization on Crete, long before the Greeks inhabited the island. The reasons for the destruction of the Minoan culture are not clear, but might have been the result of an earthquake or an invasion. When the Greeks discovered the complex remains of the palace of Knossos centuries later, the legend of the Minotaur and the Labyrinth were born. The Minotaur was said to have been imprisoned in the Labyrinth, designed by Daedalus for King Minos to hold it captive, and was fed with condemned criminals, maidens and young boys sent from Athens as tribute to the Cretan King. In the well-known mythical tale, the Minotaur was killed by Theseus, who had tied a ball of string, given to him by Ariadne, to the entrance to the Labyrinth upon entering so that he would be able to find his way back. When he discovered the Minotaur deep within the Labyrinth, a fierce struggle ensued before Theseus killed the monster with his sword. Although this coin appears from its style to be archaic in origin, with the Minotaur positioned in the familiar kneeling-running stance, it does in fact date from the classical period. This is usually attributed to the fact that Crete was more isolated than the city-states on the mainland and therefore developed more slowly. Crete also relied upon imported coins for the silver used to strike its coinage; the traces of the overstruck coin can be seen on the obverse of the above example.

Evelyn De Morgan (1855-1919)
“Ariadne in Naxos” (1877)

Ariadne in Greek mythology, was the daughter of Minos, King of Crete, and his queen Pasiphaë, daughter of Helios.


Grave of ‘Griffin Warrior’ at Pylos Could Be a Gateway to Civilizations

Source: New York Times

Archaeologists digging at Pylos, an ancient city on the southwest coast of Greece, have discovered the rich grave of a warrior who was buried at the dawn of European civilization.

He lies with a yardlong bronze sword and a remarkable collection of gold rings, precious jewels and beautifully carved seals. Archaeologists expressed astonishment at the richness of the find and its potential for shedding light on the emergence of the Mycenaean civilization, the lost world of Agamemnon, Nestor, Odysseus and other heroes described in the epics of Homer.

Keep reading

World Record $479,000 Stater from Gortyna, Crete Circa 330-270 BC

The obverse depicts the mythological scene of the Rape of Europa, where Zeus appeared in the guise of a bull and an eagle to ravish her. Europa is semi-nude and seated in a tree trunk in the form of a bull’s head. She’s raising her veil with her right hand and holding an eagle with spread wings in the left hand. The reverse shows a bull standing left with its head turned back to ward off a fly from his left rear hoof.

This is the finest of only three known examples of this variety. It is unusual that Zeus is shown in his guise as both a bull and an eagle.

Ancient Greece (Part 10): The Mycenaeans

Around 1630 (when Thera was destroyed), the mainland Greeks were beginning to emerge into their civilization stage.  They were heavily influenced by the Cretans, and took on the model of the Minoan (Cretan) state.  And about a century later, they invaded Crete and took over the power centres.

The Late Bronze/Late Helladic period (c.1580 – 1150 BC) is also called the Mycenaean Age.  The most prominent site was Mycenae, in the Peloponnese.

The development of mainland Greece’s hierarchical political & social system, based on centralized control of the economy, followed the same steps as in the Near East and Crete.  Before 1600, they’d gone through the preparatory steps – increased population, increased productivity, expansion of non-domestic trade (becoming full participants in the Mediterranean trading economy), and strengthening of the leaders’ economic & political power.

Contact between mainland Greece & Crete had begun around 2000 BC, and increased steadily.  Cretan influence on the mainland was so great that Arthur Evans (excavator of Knossos in Crete) believed that the 1300’s & 1200’s Greek palaces were occupied by Cretan kings who were loyal subjects of the king of Knossos, and that their mighty sea power had conquered Greece.  In fact, it was the opposite.

The Greeks were familiar with Crete’s defences and geography.  Sometime around 1500-1450 BC, they invaded, sacked some palaces & towns, killed the leaders, and took over Knossos & other centres, ruling in place of the old rulers.  The palace of Knossos wasn’t harmed much, but a number of important Cretan sites were badly damaged.

Around 1500 BC, Minoan exports to Aegean sites decreased, while Mycenaean (Greek) exports rose.  Mycenaean influence on some Cycladic islands grew. However, Cretan society & culture changed little for most people. The new kings lived & ruled like the Cretan kings had, with some exceptions (such as burial rites).  From the 1400’s onwards, there was a Minoan-Mycenaean culture, a fusion of the two.  Influences from the Near East & Egypt continued, further enriching their culture.

Under Greek rule, Knossos may have controlled much of central & western Crete (perhaps about 3,884 square km), bringing the formerly independent/semi-independent palace-centres’ territories under their rule.  But this success was rather short-lived, because in 1375, Knossos was burned and looted.

The ruined palace was still occupied after that, but Mycenaean Crete’s importance dropped, while Mycenae & other mainland Greek centres reached the peak of their prosperity & influence in the Aegean.  We don’t know who destroyed Knossos, but if may have been mainland Mycenaeans, who perhaps coveted the Cretan palaces’ riches & wanted to get rid of their biggest trade rival.

Linear A and B

The Minoans had developed a pictographic writing system around 1900 BC, and used it for palace economy records.  These pictographs were usually incised onto small stones which were used as seals, and pressed onto wax or clay to leave an impression of the symbols.  They were probably used as labels & marks of ownership.

This pictographic system couldn’t convey a lot of information, and from around 1800 BC, it was replaced by a syllabic writing system, which was incised onto small clay tablets.  This has been named Linear A.

Arthur Evans found a few Linear A tablets at Knossos.  Later on, some more were found at Mallia, Phaistos, and other sites in Crete & the Cycladic Islands.  This showed that Linear A was widely-used in the region from the 1700’s-1400’s BC.

Evans also found about 3,000 clay tablets in the destruction level of Knossos, inscribed with a more elaborate version of this script.  He named the earlier one Linear A, and the more elaborate version Linear B.  He assumed that both Linear A & B were for the Cretan language.

In 1939, hundreds more Linear B tablets were discovered at Pylos, a palace complex on the south-western Greek mainland.  This seemed to strengthen Evans’ theory that mainland Greece had been controlled by the Minoans.

Now there was enough material to begin attempting to translate the Linear B script, but it was extremely difficult.  Linear B wasn’t like any other Late Bronze Age script, and no-one knew what language it was really for. Little progress was made.

Then in the early 1950’s, Michael Ventris figured it out.  He hypothesized that the signs represented syllables rather than letters, and that the language was Greek, not Cretan.  He gradually worked out some of the signs – for example, a combination of ti-ri-po was the Greek word tripous (“tripod”).

In 1953, Ventris and John Chadwick (a collaborator from Cambridge University) published their findings in a famous article that completely changed historians’ understanding of the Bronze Age Aegean.  It is now certain that the Mycenaean culture spoke Greek; that they adapted the Linear A script for the Greek language; and that they were ruling in Crete by at least the 1400’s BC.

More Linear B tablets have been found in Pylos (1952), Mycenae, Tiryns, and Thebes, on the mainland; and also in Chania, on Crete.  There are over 5,000 Linear B inscriptions so far, and most have been translated. However, Linear A is still a mystery.

Linear B tablet (Pylos, 1200′s).