View from Akrotiri, the Minoan Pompeii. In ancient times, the door and window frames would have been wood fitted together with wooden pegs; today, they are concrete, modeled after casts taken when archaeologists pumped plaster into voids in the compacted ash where organic material had deteriorated.
Minoan architecture made such liberal use of wooden tie beams, uprights, pillars, and door and window frames that some experts believe this practice contributed to the deforestation of Crete. One reason the Minoans might have done this was that the wood construction helped reinforce buildings against seismic stresses.
As you can see, though, the Minoans managed some rather generous windows, when most contemporary windows elsewhere were small and narrow. The people of Akrotiri must have enjoyed great natural light and views.
Minoan houses had stone foundations, and the visible sections of the ground floor walls would have been dressed with stone. While the framework was wood, the upper stories were probably mud brick. The Minoans used lime plaster to cover the walls and provide a smooth white surface for decoration, and they often plastered the floor as well. In wealthier establishments, the floor might be bordered with flagstones, and with soft gypsum in the center. Sometimes the floors were painted with spirals, colored rectangles, and aquatic life; the famous Dolphin Sanctuary fresco at Knossos might have been a floor decoration fallen from the level above.
Evidence from Akrotiri and Knossos indicates that the Minoans also utilized sliding wooden pier and partition doors, meaning the doors could be slid back to provide access and greater light, or closed to seal off a space for rituals, or simply to keep in the heat during the winter.
Life-sized Minoan cult statues have not survived, but they have left some traces. Bronze curls from one such statue, or xoanon, were found in the basement of the Great Goddess Sanctuary at Knossos, and other sites, such as Chania and Anemospilia, have yielded clay feet. Minoan cult xoana were made of wood, probably cypress, as it was very durable. Oftentimes the xoana were little more than a dressmaker’s dummy with a carved and painted head, with hair made from fine bronze or gold wires, and clay feet peeping out from under the sacral robes. Incidentally, this tradition of dressing the deity in new robes carried on into later, Classical times.
Below is an illustration of the Anemospilia xoanon as it might have looked, surrounded by artifacts in the positions in which they were found; as you can see, the fringed robes are draped around the wooden body, concealing it.
The ragged-looking mound to the lower right of the illustration is bare rock, and part of the altar. Bronze Age Aegean altars often incorporated living rock, possibly for the worship of chthonic deities, the earth-mother goddess, or the earthquake god, Poseidon.
There are still fifteen minutes in October, and on Halloween night, for me to write a ghoulish themed post.
One of the scenes on one side of the Agia Triadha sarcophagus. A priest and priestesses make offerings. Yes, a priest. Like the Egyptians, the Minoans color-coded their genders. So that woman with the dark skin playing the lyre is actually a man. From this and other evidence, we know that Minoan priests wore women’s vestments during some rituals. Perhaps it was to be able to participate in women’s rites to honor a goddess, who demanded that men cross-dress in her honor, or some other religious reason. Without written evidence, we can’t know for sure.
The final version of the Mycenaean Princess. I exchanged her wide cream sash for a narrower red one that highlights her red flounces and embroidered bodice, and posed her in front of a swallows-and-lilies fresco painting I did back in May.I am hoping to do the Minoan Snake Priestess soon, but have to find the right doll.
The Mycenaean Princess is dressed at the height of Bronze Age fashion. Her maid has dressed her long black hair in ringlets, gathering them, and binding her pin curls under a golden bandeau. She wears her best costume, soft wool saturated with olive oil to give it a silken sheen, and her best jewelry of gold and amethyst.
The Princess stands 5 1/5 inches tall and is porcelain. I did not assemble or wig her--that was done for me by artisan Lucie Winsky--but I dressed her in an approximation of 13th century costume using china silk and fine cotton. Everything, including the embroidery, was hand-stitched. Her skirt alone took 14 hours, and is not perfect, but then, she’s my first doll.
The Snake Goddess, the ubiquitous pin-up girl of Minoan Crete. She, along with another figurine, was discovered during the first excavation of Knossos, lying broken in pieces under the floor of one of the many cult rooms of the West Wing.
But she is actually the smaller of the two figurines, and known in expert circles as the Votary. Assuming the Minoans intended to render a “Snake Goddess,” then that label properly belongs to the larger figurine. I suspect she may be a representation of the Minoan goddess Diktynna in her aspect as the Mistress of the Animals--she who would later become Artemis. Then again, there is much about religion in the Bronze Age Aegean that we simply do not know.
The Votary and Goddess are the only two authentic “Snake Goddesses” that have ever been discovered. All the others are modern forgeries.
Fresco from one of the rooms inside the Cult House at Mycenae. A princess and/or priestess offers wheat ears to two goddesses, probably Hera and Athena; the blank area under the goddesses would have been the altar. The griffin with the princess/priestess signifies the presence of a divinity, but I can’t say with any certainty what the two naked men between the goddesses represent.
The Mycenaeans were a chariot-using people, and chariots and chariot parts are lovingly inventoried in the Linear B records. The Mycenaean chariot was small, swift, and typically only carried two passengers; the Iliad speaks of the Greek heroes and their charioteers.
Homer does not mention the chariot actively being used in warfare, merely as a kind of taxi ferrying heroes to and from the battlefield. By Homer’s time, chariot warfare had gone out of fashion, but in the thirteenth century B.C., the time of the Trojan War, chariots were mobile fighting platforms from which warriors could hack, impale, shoot, or simply run down their enemies. The Bettany Hughes documentary Helen of Troy includes a wonderful demonstration by warfare expert Mike Loades on how chariots would have been used at Troy.
The Mycenaean chariot was made from lightweight wood or wicker, with a flexible platform of plaited leather or perhaps more wicker. The front was usually covered with hide or painted leather. The wheels were also lightweight, and spoked.
Here is a painted clay model of a chariot. Perhaps it was a child’s toy. I can imagine a prince like the young Orestes playing with such an object.
This charming pair of women with a young child is an ivory piece discovered on the palace mount at Mycenae. It’s been speculated that the women might be goddesses, perhaps Hera and Athena, the patron goddesses of Argolis, and the child squirming between them a divine child. The clothing detail is so exquisite that experts use the piece as part of their studies to determine what Mycenaean ladies wore, and how they wore it. The back of the carving has the women (goddesses?) sharing a patterned shawl (possibly Athena’s tasseled aegis referred to in the legends?)
Back in June, I mentioned kourotrophoi. These ceramic mother-child figures have turned up at Mycenaean sites all over the Aegean, particularly in children’s graves. Kourotrophoi were not exclusive to the Bronze Age; the practice continued into later times.
The kourotrophos might have represented a divine Mother Goddess and Child, like the Christian Madonna and Child, or it could simply have been a form of sympathetic magic. Mycenaean and Minoan Goddess and Divine Child representations have been found elsewhere, and my next post will be devoted to a very special such artifact.
I mention kourotrophoi in my books. Here is a passage from Helen’s Daughter in which Hermione reflects on childbearing and the talismans that accompany it.
As high priestess in Sparta, I had seen women die in childbirth. Sometimes, they asked for me, to give them my blessings, and perhaps avert disaster by it, but though I held their hands, wiped the sweat from their brows, and said the prayers, they died, anyway.
Opening my eyes, I gazed at the kourotrophos standing on the table nearest the bed. She was very old, crafted in an outmoded Cretan style. Her scarlet and black paint was fading, but she had faithfully watched over the confinements of my foremothers for eleven generations, and had not lost a single woman in childbirth.Purchase Helen's Daughter on Amazon Kindle or at Smashwords.
An iconic fresco, the mysterious young Prince of the Lilies graces Cretan postcards and tourist tchotchkes. Little do the tourists who flock to Knossos each year by the thousands know that the fresco is a fake. Fake, that is, in that it was reconstructed three fresco fragments that might not even be related to each other. In the image below, you can see that only the crown, torso, and part of the left leg are original fresco fragments; the rest is a fanciful modern reconstruction.
The Minoans followed Egyptian standards in coloring--that is, they used brown or Indian red for male skin, and white for female. What is peculiar about the Prince of the Lilies is that his skin is white. So the original fresco might have depicted a girl rather than a youth.
The fresco you see in the Corridor of Procession when you visit Knossos, and on postcards and other trinkets, is a reproduction; the original is housed in the nearby Heraklion Archaeological Museum.
Akrotiri was once a thriving large town on Santorini/Thera. It was a Minoan outpost, which was buried under a thick layer of ash and pumice, cocooning the buildings and their contents from the pyroclastic surges of the 1628 B.C. Theran eruption.
The site was discovered by accident when a donkey broke through an eroded surface layer of ash and fell several feet into one of the preserved rooms.
During the 1960s, a handful of buildings and the streets between them were excavated by the late Spyridon Marinatos. Beautiful frescoes and pottery have been discovered, as well as voids which, when pumped full of plaster of Paris, have yielded the ghosts of ancient wooden furniture and supporting beams. Surveys of the area have shown that the town covers many acres, so there is quite a bit left to discover.
The current archaeological team, headed by Marinatos’s protegé Christos Doumas, are still analyzing finds from the original excavation. These days, conservation takes precedence over excavation, and no further digging can be done until the archaeologists can assure the preservation of whatever artifacts and structures come out of the ground. The site was roofed over to protect it from the elements, but in 2005, a partial collapse killed a tourist. It takes money to repair and maintain that roofing, and to extend it--and money is one thing archaeologists never have enough of. So it may be a while before we see more of the magnificent frescoes and other treasures that are sure to be waiting out there.
The Phaistos Disk is one of those archaeological oddities that defies explanation. It was discovered during excavations of the Minoan palace of Phaistos in southern Crete in July 1908. The disk was found in the main chamber of an underground repository thick with ashes and dark black earth, but few artifacts apart from some burnt cow bones and a fragment of a Linear A tablet; the rooms above appear to have collapsed during an earthquake.
Most historians and archaeologists agree that the Phaistos Disk is authentic, though experts have not been able to determine an exact date for the artifact, or explain its function or purpose. It may be a record of a religious offering, or even an ancient board game.
45 pre-processed clay stamps were used to produce the writing on both sides of the disk, making it the earliest known example of movable type in the world. However, the script may or may not be Linear A; no one can quite agree on what language the disk is written in. It may be some unknown syllabary or alphabet, and the fact that there are no other examples of the script makes deciphering the disk all the more difficult.
You can peruse some of the attempts at decipherment here, though keep in mind that most of the claims are pure pseudoscience.