Cycladic, Minoan, and Mycenaean Civilization

Geography of Greece

Greece is a country in southeastern Europe, known in Greek as Hellas or Ellada, and consisting of a mainland and an archipelago of islands. Greece is the birthplace of Western philosophy (Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle), literature (Homer and Hesiod), mathematics (Pythagoras and Euclid), history (Herodotus), drama (Sophocles, Euripedes, and Aristophanes), the Olympic Games, and democracy. The concept of an atomic universe was first posited in Greece through the work of Democritus and Leucippus.

The process of today’s scientific method was first introduced through the work of Thales of Miletus and those who followed him. The Latin alphabet also comes from Greece, having been introduced to the region by the Phoenicians in the 8 th century BCE, and early work in physics and engineering was pioneered by Archimedes, of the Greek colony of Syracuse, among others.

Mainland Greece is a large peninsula surrounded on three sides by the Mediterranean Sea (branching into the Ionian Sea in the west and the Aegean Sea in the east) which also comprises the islands known as the Cyclades and the Dodecanese (including Rhodes), the Ionian islands (including Corcyra), the isle of Crete, and the southern peninsula known as the Peloponnese.

The geography of Greece greatly influenced the culture in that, with few natural resources and surrounded by water, the people eventually took to the sea for their livelihood. Mountains cover eighty percent of Greece and only small rivers run through a rocky landscape which, for the most part, provides little encouragement for agriculture. Consequently, the early Greeks colonized neighboring islands and founded settlements along the coast of Anatolia (also known as Asia Minor, modern day Turkey). The Greeks became skilled seafaring people and traders who, possessing an abundance of raw materials for construction in stone, and great skill, built some of the most impressive structures in antiquity. (41)

Cycladic Greek Civilization

Greek history is most easily understood by dividing it into time periods. The region was already settled, and agriculture initiated, during the Paleolithic era as evidenced by finds at Petralona and Franchthi caves (two of the oldest human habitations in the world). The Neolithic Age (c. 6000 – c. 2900 BCE) is characterized by permanent settlements (primarily in northern Greece), domestication of animals, and the further development of agriculture.

Archaeological finds in northern Greece (Thessaly, Macedonia, and Sesklo, among others) suggest a migration from Anatolia in that the ceramic cups and bowls and figures found there share qualities distinctive to Neolithic finds in Anatolia. These inland settlers were primarily farmers, as northern Greece was more conducive to agriculture than elsewhere in the region, and lived in one-room stone houses with a roof of timber and clay daubing.

The Cycladic Civilization (c. 3200-1100 BCE) flourished in the islands of the Aegean Sea (including Delos, Naxosand Paros) and provides the earliest evidence of continual human habitation in that region. During the Cycladic Period, houses and temples were built of finished stone and the people made their living through fishing and trade. This period is usually divided into three phases: Early Cycladic, Middle Cycladic, and Late Cycladic with a steady development in art and architecture. The latter two phases overlap and finally merge with the Minoan Civilization, and differences between the periods become indistinguishable. (41)

Minoan Civilization

The Minoan Civilization (2700-1500 BCE) developed on the island of Crete, and rapidly became the dominant sea power in the region. Under Minos’ rule, Knossos flourished through maritime trade as well as overland commerce with the other great cities of Crete, Kato Sakro (Phaestos) and Mallia. The Minoans developed a writing system known as Linear A (which has not yet been deciphered) and made advances in ship building, construction, ceramics, the arts and sciences, and warfare. King Minos was credited by ancient historians (Thucydides among them) as being the first person to establish a navy with which he colonized, or conquered, the Cyclades. (41)

The Palace at Knossos

Picture of a stony path leading upwards to the Northern Entrance of the Palace of Knossos. On the top level are the remains of bull fight fresco behind three crimson columns.
Figure 4-1: The North Portico in Knossos by Bernard Gagno is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

This first palace was destroyed c. 1700 BCE and re-built on a grander, though less massive, scale. Great attention was paid to intricacy of architecture and design with less effort spent on defensive walls. As the pottery of this period shows a unity of culture throughout Crete, it has been determined that the culture of Knossos prevailed at this time and the island was a unified nation under a central government. This palace had four entrances, one from each direction, all leading to the central court. As the corridors within were dark and circuitous, it is thought that this gave rise to the story of the labyrinth of Minos. The throne room was particularly impressive. According to The British School at Athens, “Two double doors led into the Throne Room with gypsum benches on three sides and the magnificent throne in the center of the north wall flanked by the reconstructed Griffin fresco.” (42)

The Snake Goddess of Minoan Civilization

The Snake Goddess of the Minoans was the supreme deity who may have been an early version of the Greek goddess Eurynome. Images and figures of the Snake Goddess (now at the Iraklion Museum) have been found at Knossos and elsewhere in Crete dating from this period. Further evidence of the goddess is the repetition of the motif of the double axe, most notably in the Hall of the Double Axes in the palace. There is no doubt that the double axe symbolized an important goddess of the Minoans but it is not clear whether it was the Snake Goddess or another. (42)

Knossos figurine of a bare-chested woman holding a slithering snake in each hand.
Figure 4-2: Minoan Snake Goddess, Knossos by Mark Cartwright is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

Bull Mythology and the Knossos Civilization

For centuries, Knossos was considered only a city of myth and legend until, in 1900 CE, it was uncovered by the English archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans and excavations were begun. Through frescoes on the walls, the excavated site revealed more about the Minoan sport of bull jumping and the ancient story of Theseus and the Minotaur (half-man-half-bull) seemed more probable than fanciful. The possibility that there existed a Minotaur became more acceptable once it was understood that, in the Minoan sport of bull-jumping, the male athlete became one with the bull as he vaulted over the bull’s horns.

This sport, then, it is now supposed, gave rise in ancient consciousness to the ‘myth’ of the Minotaur through the impression that these athletes were half men and half bulls. The story of the labyrinth also was given more credence once the intricate interior of the palace was uncovered. It was Evans who first called the ancient inhabitants of Crete ‘Minoan’ after King Minos of Knossos, and his efforts in excavation and re-construction, however controversial, paved the way for all future work in both physical and cultural anthropology concerning the Minoan civilization. (42)

Fresco from Knossos depicting a brown-skinned performer somersaulting over a large bull with the aid of two light-skinned assistants. The fresco may indicate that Knossos was a multi-cultural society.
Figure 4-3: Minoan Bull Leaping by Mark Cartwright is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

The Collapse of Minoan Civilization

Archaeological and geological evidence on Crete suggests this civilization fell due to an overuse of the land causing deforestation though, traditionally, it is accepted that they were conquered by the Mycenaeans. The eruption of the volcano on the nearby island of Thera (modern day Santorini) between 1650 and 1550 BCE, and the resulting tsunami, is acknowledged as the final cause for the fall of the Minoans. The isle of Crete was deluged and the cities and villages destroyed. This event has been frequently cited as Plato’s inspiration in creating his myth of Atlantis in his dialogues of the Critias and Timaeus. (41)

Mycenaean Civilization

The Mycenaean Civilization (approximately 1900-1100 BCE) is commonly acknowledged as the beginning of Greek culture, even though we know almost nothing about the Mycenaeans save what can be determined through archaeological finds and through Homer’s account of their war with Troy as recorded in The Iliad. They are credited with establishing the culture owing primarily to their architectural advances, their development of a writing system (known as Linear B, an early form of Greek descended from the Minoan Linear A), and the establishment, or enhancement of, religious rites. The Mycenaeans appear to have been greatly influenced by the Minoans of Crete in their worship of earth goddesses and sky gods, which, in time, become the classical pantheon of ancient Greece. (41)

The City of Mycenae

Mycenae was a fortified late Bronze Age city located between two hills on the Argolid plain of the Peloponnese, Greece. The acropolis today dates from between the 14 th and 13 th century BCE when the Mycenaean civilization was at its peak of power, influence and artistic expression.

Situated on a rocky hill (40-50 m high) commanding the surrounding plain as far as the sea 15 km away, the site of Mycenae covered 30,000 square meters and has always been known throughout history, although the surprising lack of literary references to the site suggest it may have been at least partially covered. First excavations were begun by the Archaeological Society of Athens in 1841 CE and then famously continued by Heinrich Schliemann in 1876 CE who discovered the magnificent treasures of Grave Circle A. The archaeological excavations have shown that the city has a much older history than the Greek literary tradition described.

The large palace structure built around a central hall or Megaron is typical of Mycenaean palaces. Other features included a secondary hall, many private rooms and a workshop complex. Decorated stonework and frescoes and a monumental entrance, the Lion Gate (a 3 m x 3 m square doorway with an 18-ton lintel topped by two 3 m high heraldic lions and a column altar), added to the overall splendor of the complex. The relationship between the palace and the surrounding settlement and between Mycenae and other towns in the Peloponnese is much discussed by scholars. Concrete archaeological evidence is lacking but it seems likely that the palace was a center of political, religious and commercial power. Certainly, high value grave goods, administrative tablets, pottery imports and the presence of precious materials deposits such as bronze, gold and ivory would suggest that the palace was, at the very least, the hub of a thriving trade network. (43)

Picture of the Lion Gate from Mycenae. The walls surrounding the gate are comprised of enormous rectangular stone blocks. Two lions site another atop the gate under which visitors entering the city must pass.
Figure 4-4: The Lion Gate at Mycenae by Andreas Trepte is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5

Mycenaean Artifacts

The Mycenaean grave site was excavated by Heinrich Schleimann in 1876. Schleimann had excavated ancient sites such as Mycenae and Troy based on the writings of Homer and was determined to find archaeological remains that aligned with observations discussed in the Iliad and the Odyssey. Upon excavating the Mycenaean tombs, Schleimann declared that he found the remains of Agamemnon and many of his followers.

Schleimann’s dig uncovered Repoussé death masks were in many of the tombs. The death masks were created from thin sheets of gold, through a careful method of metalworking to create a low relief. These objects are fragile, were carefully crafted, and were laid over the face of the dead. Schleimann called the most famous of the death mask the Mask of Agamemnon , under the assumption that this was the burial site of the Homeric king. The mask depicts a man with a triangular face, bushy eyebrows, a narrow nose, pursed lips, a mustache, and stylized ears. This mask is an impressive and beautiful specimen but looks quite different from other death masks found at the site. The faces on other death masks are rounder; the eyes are more bulbous; and at least one bears a hint of a smile. None of the other figures have a mustache or even the hint of beard. In fact, the mustache looks distinctly nineteenth century and is comparable to the mustache that Schleimann himself had. The artistic quality between theMask of Agamemnon and the others seems dramatically different. Despite these differences, the Mask of Agamemnon has inserted itself into the story of Mycenaean art.

Image of a gold mask depicting a bearded man with closed oval eyes, long slanted nose, and pronounced ears.
Figure 4-5: Death Mask of Agamemnon by Xuan Che is licensed under CC BY 3.0

Decorative bronze daggers found in the grave shafts suggest multicultural influences on Mycenaean artists. These ceremonial daggers were made of bronze and inlaid in silver, gold, and niello with scenes clearly influenced from foreign cultures. Two daggers excavated depict scenes of hunts, which suggest an Ancient Near East influence. One of these scenes depicts lions hunting prey, while the other scene depicts a lion hunt. (44)