Swallows are common in Crete and all around the Cyclades, except for Santorini. From the Theran Spring fresco, it's clear they once inhabited the island; the 1600 B.C. eruption must have been so massive that it must have imprinted "DANGER! AVOID!" on all subsequent swallow generations.
Funds permitting, I would like to do another Minoan doll, this time one of the three Blue Ladies from Knossos. They’re not actually dressed in blue, just posed against a blue background. Here, you can see my faithful watercolor rendering of the ladies, with their pearl-bound tresses and patterned orange jackets.
But wait, you say, how can you do a doll when you don’t know what the bottom looks like?
I realize I have been neglecting my journal lately. But I have been working diligently on finishing Orestes: The Outcast, and on crafting this 1-inch scale doll: The Minoan Snake Priestess.Each of those fringes was hand-applied; each row took about 2-3 hours to complete. Yes, she is holding a coiled snake around her left hand, and the background is the Throne Room fresco from Knossos; the picture was taken prior to her being settled in her shadow box. Pictures of that will follow once I can get around the reflection off the glass.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
This lovely bowl was carved in the shape of a duck from a single piece of rock crystal, and dates from between 1600-1550 B.C. The rock crystal is Egyptian, but the carving appears to be Mycenaean. At this time, Mycenaean artists began imitating the exquisite stone vases and vessels which came to them not only through their Minoan and Cycladic contacts, but also from farther-flung regions: Egypt, Syria, and Canaan.
Unlike other arts, such as weaving and fresco painting, which began as imitation but soon took on its own, unique Mycenaean character, Mycenaean stone carving remained true to its foreign prototypes.The crystal duck bowl was discovered in Grave O in Mycenae’s Grave Circle B.
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.
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.