By Levi Clancy for Student Reader on
Our earliest evidence for settlement in Crete comes from Knossos in the Neolithic period, from about 7000 BC. During the Early Bronze Age the number of settlements grew rapidly: some became fairly large, and at sites such as Vassiliki in east Crete there were buildings of considerable architectural elaboration.
From the time of their foundation, about 1900 BC, the palaces stood at the centre of flourishing towns, and in the Middle and Late Bronze Age a complex hierarchy of sites evolved all over the island. These included towns, such as Gournia or Palaikastro, where important buildings may have been local governors' residence; country houses, a particular feature of the Late Minoan landscape, with evidence of processes such as wine and oil production and storage space for the agricultural products which were the basis of the Minoan economy; and sanctuary sites, sometimes in remote locations.
After the destructions that affected many sites in about 1450 BC, and the fall of Knossos, traditionally dated some seventy five years later, the island continued to flourish as part of the Mycenaean sphere of influence. Chania in West Crete seems to have gained particular prominence. At the end of the Bronze Age, in the twelfth century, the population moved to inaccessible upland areas that were readily defensible, presumably in response to a threat from the sea.
**Visit the 'governor's residence' in the centre of the Minoan town of Gournia in east Crete (1550 to 1450 BC)
Places identified as centers of religious activity in Minoan Crete divide into sites in the countryside, notably mountain-top 'peak sanctuaries' and sacred caves, and shrines within palaces and other buildings that can be recognized because of specific elements in their layout, contents or decoration. Areas for ritual are also associated with some tombs.
Votive offerings vary from place to place, but include fine pottery, bronze and terracotta figurines, stone vases and sometimes tools or weapons. Certain religious symbols are found in various materials, or decorating various objects, in both countryside and town or palace shrines. Most important are double axes and stylized bull's horns.
Representations apparently showing religious ritual and possibly depicting gods or goddesses are frequent in Minoan art. Nevertheless, it remains difficult to establish the nature of the Minoan deity or deities. The organization of religious life is also unclear, though the palaces probably played a dominant role.
The names of some Minoan deities occur on the Knossos Linear B tablets of the MYcenaean period, and some Cretan gods and goddesses are named in alter Greek writings, showing the legacy of Minoan cults in Mycenaean and alter Greek religion.
The geographical position of Crete favored the foreign contacts needed by the Minoans to supply resources, particularly metals, that the island naturally lacked. From the Early Bronze Age Crete was in contact with the Cyclades and the Greek mainland, and received some materials from the Near East.
With the establishment of the Minoan palaces in about 1900 BC links with the Aegean world intensified. Islands in contact with Crete included Kythera, Aigina and Rhodes, facilitating contacts with the Greek mainland and the west coast of Asia Minor. In the Middle Bronze Age Crete was also linked, perhaps intermittently, to a trade route around he eastern Mediterranean that included Egypt, the Syro-Palestinian coast and Cyprus. An eighteenth-century text from Mari on the Euphrates mentions imported Cretan weapons, textiles, pottery and sandals.
During the period of the second palaces (1700-1450 BC) Minoan influence was widespread throughout the Aegean, with many islands exhibiting elements of Minoan lifestyle and the Greek mainland extensively adopting Cretan arts and crafts. Minoan-style frescoes in Egypt, and Egyptian tomb-paintings showing Cretans, testify to the longer-distance relations of Minoan Crete.
*Tell el-Dab'a, Egypt, has a sixteenth century BC Minoan-style fresco with bull jumpers reconstruction.
The Aigina treasure is a rich collection of jewelry and a single golden cup. Although believed to have been found on the island of Aigina, it seems largely to be of Minoan Cretan workmanship, perhaps made between about 1850-1550 BC. The treasure may have belonged to members of a Minoan family or families living on the island, and may have been buried with them.
The workmanship of the treasure shows a high degree of skill and sophistication, perhaps pointing to an origin for some of the jewelry on Crete itself, though it could have been produced by immigrant Cretan craftsmen on Aigina. Most of the pieces are of sheet gold, beaten out thinly and then shaped by either pressing into a mould or worked over a former (a shape in rlief). Some also use gold wire. Most of the semi-precious stones used occur in the Aegean area, but amethyst probably came from Egypt, and lapis lazuli via a long trade route from Afghanistan.
Although Minoan stylistic elements predominate, foreign influences can be seen: for example, the nature god of the pendant, although Minoan in dress, stands among Egyptian lotus-flowers.