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A cut away view inside the so-called Treasury of Atreus, showing what a Mycenaean funeral might have looked like. Tholoi were not built as individual burial monuments, but as family tombs. As family members died, the older burials would be moved to the side to make room for the most recent. Oftentimes, the older bones would be washed with wine and placed inside an ossuary called a larnax, and the grave goods shifted over.  Or sometimes, the older burials would be dug into the earthen floor.  At least one such burial was hidden from tomb robbers, and survived to be found by archaeologists.

Here, you can see the most recent burial, laid out in the center of the burial chamber.  The door on the side leads into a smaller burial chamber.

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A lovely gold and blue glass child’s ring from a fourteenth century B.C. tomb near Thebes. Such exquisite craftsmanship and simple elegance would, with a bit of restoration, sell in any modern-day Manhattan or Beverly Hills fine jewelry boutique.

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A Minoan seal stone discovered during the most recent excavations at Vrysinas, near Rethymnon, Crete.  At one time, Vrysinas was an important Minoan peak sanctuary; the seal dates from the First Palace period (1900-1700 B.C.)  It is red jasper, and is carved on all four sides with Minoan hieroglyphics which are not Linear A.  In fact, the seal stone appears to be the earliest example of Minoan Hieroglyphic script yet discovered.

You can read more about the find here.

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A Minoan bathtub decorated on the inside with a fish, and a wavy line (water?) running toward the drain, which would have been plugged while in use.

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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.


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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.


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The famous Dolphin Fresco, gracing what Sir Arthur Evans called The Queen’s Megaron. What you see today is a reconstruction which is not without its controversy. It’s thought now that the dolphins might have decorated a floor rather than a wall on the level just above, and when Knossos was destroyed for the final time around 1200 B.C., the upper floors crashed into the lower ones, and the fresco ended up lying in the so-called “The Queen’s Megaron.”
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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.

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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?)

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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.
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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.


Sep. 25th, 2011 11:40 am
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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.

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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.

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Near Leonidio, on the eastern coast of the Peloponnese, heavy rains recently revealed five Mycenaean tombs dating to the fourteenth century B.C.  So far, the excavators have discovered clay vases; there is no word about the condition of any human remains.  Intact Mycenaean burials are rare, so here’s hoping that the occupants were found preserved in their tombs, and can tell us more about health, diet, and life expectancy in the Late Bronze Age.

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Render this exquisitely carved side table in polished oak or mahogany, and it would fit right into a Victorian drawing room.

It is a plaster cast of a Minoan table that once stood in a house in Akrotiri some 3,600 years ago.  The late Spyridon Marinatos and his team of excavators pumped plaster of Paris into a void of hardened ash; once it set, the ghost of an elaborate table emerged from the ash.  Rattan beds, chairs, and wooden beams have also been cast.

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In my earlier article on the Thera eruption of 1628 B.C., I mentioned tsunami deposit layers at sites along the north coast of Crete.  Here is a deposit layer from Palaikastro in northeastern Crete.  The colored material you see is jumbled pottery, animal bones, bits of frescoes, and other debris from the tsunami which slammed into the town; the presence of deep-sea marine shells and microbial life among the deposits demonstrated that it was a tsunami, not an earthquake or other disaster, that was responsible for the destruction layer.

The material is so widespread, thrown together, and removed from its proper archaeological context that I don't know whether a serious effort has or will be made to carry out excavations.  Archaeologists are always short of money and resources, and most of their work nowadays deals with the conservation of existing sites and artifacts.

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Thera, also known as Santorini, is the southernmost of the Cyclades Islands, and sits like a croissant in the Aegean some seventy miles north of Crete.  It is a favorite among photographers, and its blinding white buildings and blue rooftops can often be seen in travel brochures hugging the sheer cliffs against a brilliant blue sea and sky; it makes your mouth water for an Aegean vacation.  It is also a dry and sterile place, where vegetation struggles to survive, and where water must be carefully conserved and recycled.

Once, Thera was called Kalliste, the most beautiful, and Strongyle, the round island, because at one time, some thirty-seven centuries ago, that croissant was more of a pancake, with lush forests and fields, towns and seaports, and a high mountain in the center.  The people who lived there loved life and nature, and decorated their houses with beautiful frescoes that showed what the island was like in their time.  They did not know that their paradise sat atop one of the world's most dangerous volcanoes.

Sometime around 1628 B.C., the island began to signal the impending cataclysm.  There would have been frequent ground tremors, and the mountain would have begun to vent; we know the ground shook before the main eruption, because under the ash layers the few houses which have been excavated at Akrotiri show signs of violent jolting which threw objects to the floor. 

So far, no human remains have been found at Akrotiri.  It has long been assumed that the people fled the island, but then again, only a fraction of Akrotiri has been excavated, and the current thinking at the archaeological site is that the people are still nearby, that they left their houses and camped outside as people will do after large temblors.  They may have fled back inside after the ash began falling, as at Pompeii, or ran to the harbor to try to evacuate by ship, except it would have been too late.  No person or ship could have outrun the eruption's pyroclastic death cloud, or the tsunami which followed.  Nowadays, they still find remains out in the Pompeiian countryside, where Vesuvius's final surge caught hundreds, perhaps thousands, on the run.  Akrotiri's dead must still be in their houses, where they suffocated waiting for the ashfall to stop, or out in the landscape somewhere.  There might even be a boathouse by the remains of an ancient harbor, as there was at Herculaneum, where people huddled waiting to be rescued. 

All that remains of an island that was once circular.

Like Krakatoa, Thera blew itself apart.  Forests, vineyards, towns, sanctuaries, and people were hurled twenty-two miles into the stratosphere, to the very edges of space, and were vaporized.  And when the eruption column collapsed, and the Aegean rushed in to the crater, the results were cataclysmic.  A death cloud of superheated gas and ash raced toward northern Crete, followed by a tsunami which swallowed towns by the dozens: Amnissos, Malia, Palaikastro, and more.  More died from the sea than from the eruption itself.  Houses well above sea level had their north-facing walls blown out by the wave; in places, the tsunami reached to a height of 420 feet.   The Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004 had an 80% mortality rate.  Think what it must have been like in Crete and the nearby islands, where people lived by the sea.  Today, you can walk along the seashore at Palaikastro and find bits of jumbled potsherds, colored plaster, and animal bones in the eroding hillside.  You can go a mile or more inland and find the same.

The Theran eruption and tsunami did not bring an end to Minoan civilization, but certainly weakened it, and brought about a slow decline.  The Mycenaeans, who were themselves affected by the catastrophe, invaded and occupied Crete more than a century-and-a-half later.

A note to the user who emailed me this morning: you have set your account to receive no messages, so I cannot reply to you.

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Among other things, Minoan artwork is known for its plethora of floral depictions.  It seems that the Minoans, like their Egyptian contemporaries, loved flowers, and wanted them in their homes; archaeologists have found not only fresco fragments with many species of Aegean and Cretan flowers, but the remains of hanging flower pots.  In fact, several floral species known today, including crocus and narcissus, retain some form of their original Minoan names.

Rather than parrot information from my sources, I am linking my readers to an exhaustive but wonderful article on flowers in ancient Crete.  Andras Zeke, the webmaster, has a marvelous blog on the Minoans, with particular emphasis on Linear A, so stay and peruse the articles.

I would also like to take this opportunity to say hello to several new readers.  My articles here are meant to be nibbles of information from the Mycenaean and Minoan periods, entertaining and informative without being too dry or scholarly.  I use my research to write my novels, and currently have a novel out on Kindle: Helen's Daughter, about Hermione, the daughter of Helen of Troy.  What, you didn't know Helen had children?  Yes, she did!  Head on over to Amazon and Smashwords to sample the novel and find out!

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While there is much that we still don't understand about Minoan religion, from the physical evidence it appears that the Minoans had a tripartite belief system. A tripartite altar was found on the western end of the Central Court at Knossos, near the Throne Room, and fresco fragments from the palace's north quarter depict what is probably that same altar as priestesses and other spectators sit on the surrounding terraces presumably waiting for the Bull Dance or some other spectacle.


Below is an artist's rendering of what a tripartite shrine might have looked like. It is not known exactly what the tripartite elements of Minoan religion were, but some have reasonably speculated that the Minoans worshipped the heavens, earth/sea, and the underworld, about which I will discuss in greater detail in a future post. 

Imagery of the tripartite shrine made it as far as Mycenae, where a delicate golden piece was found among the burials of Grave Circle A (circa 1500 B.C.).  If you saw the program The Exodus Decoded, then you saw journalist Simcha Jakobovici present this little appliqué as evidence that the Ark of the Covenant was made by Mycenaean goldsmiths, and that the piece itself is a view of the Ark with the doves, with the Tabernacle's high altar behind.  Sadly, no.  Jakobovici does not know his Aegean archaeology.  The gold work represents a Minoan tripartite shrine, with sacred doves and the horns of consecration. 


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A Minoan maze and bull fresco found near Avaris, Egypt.  Minoan artists were apparently working in Egypt around the time of Tuthmose III.  It has been theorized that, as the Minoan civilization on Crete went into decline, out-of-work artists settled in Egypt and decorated houses and palaces either for Egyptians who liked the Minoan style, or for wealthy Minoan expatriates seeking a better life in Egypt.

Out-of-work Minoan artists also took their skills to Mycenaean Greece, and, from recent archaeological discoveries in the Levant, to the Canaanite cities.

You can read more about the theories surrounding this puzzle here.

March 2012

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