Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

Minoan Crete

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Sir Arthur Evans, the British archaeologist, characterized the Bronze Age culture of Crete as Minoan, after the legendary King Minos. From the material he excavated at Knossos, Evans devised a chronological scheme consisting of nine periods for Minoan civilization on Crete. His Early, Middle, and Late Minoan periods, each with three subdivisions, roughly followed the tripartite division of Egyptian history in the Old, Middle, and New Kingdoms. Our knowledge of Early Minoan Crete comes primarily from burials and a number of excavated settlement sites. Artistic works of this period indicate that advances were made in gem engraving, stoneworking (especially vases), metalworking, and pottery. Terracotta bowls on high pedestals appeared and burnishing tools were used for decoration.

Around 1900 B.C., during the Middle Minoan period, Minoan civilization on Crete reached its apogee with the establishment of centers, called palaces, that concentrated political and economic power, as well as artistic activity, and may have served as centers for the redistribution of agricultural commodities. Major palaces were built at Knossos and Mallia in the northern part of Crete, at Phaistos in the south, and at Zakros in the east. These palaces are distinguished by their arrangement around a paved central court and sophisticated masonry. In general, there were no defensive walls, although a network of watchtowers punctuating key roads on the island has been identified. The walls and floors of the palaces were often painted and colorful frescoes depicted rituals or scenes of nature. There were sanitary facilities as well as provisions for adequate lighting and ventilation. Living quarters of the palaces, like the better Minoan houses, were spacious.

With the palaces came the development of writing, probably as a result of the new record-keeping demands of the palace economy. The Minoans on Crete employed two types of scripts, a hieroglyphic script whose source of inspiration was probably Egypt, and a linear script, Linear A, perhaps inspired by the cuneiform of the eastern Mediterranean. The scripts are found on sun-dried clay tablets that are mostly administrative records; on ritual objects such as miniature double axes and stone libation tables; and on pottery and rings. Archaeological evidence suggests that the Minoan palaces also functioned as centers for ritual, although major religious activities also occurred at cult sites in the country such as caves, springs, and peak sanctuaries.

Much of the first half of the second millennium B.C. was a time of widespread prosperity for Minoan Crete and a period of active trade with other civilizations around the Mediterranean basin. Cretan exports consisted of timber, foodstuffs, cloth, and, most likely, olive oil, as well as finely crafted luxury goods. In exchange, the Minoans imported tin, copper, gold, silver, emery, fine stones, ivory, and some manufactured objects. For their basic needs, however, the Minoans on Crete were self-sufficient. During this period, great strides were made in metalworking and pottery—exquisite filigree, granulated jewelry, and carved seal stones reveal an extraordinary sensitivity to materials and dynamic forms. These characteristics are equally apparent in a variety of media, including clay, gold, stone, ivory, and bronze.

From 1500 B.C., there was increasing influence from the Mycenaean culture on the Greek mainland, and there is clear archaeological evidence for widespread destruction on the island around 1450 B.C. If the Mycenaeans were not responsible for this destruction, they certainly took advantage of the events—administrative records from this period are written in Linear B, the script of Mycenaean Greeks. Contemporary pottery shows a blend of Minoan and Mycenaean stylistic traits. Eventually, by the beginning of the eleventh century B.C., the Minoan culture on Crete was in decline.

Colette Hemingway
Independent Scholar

Seán Hemingway
Department of Greek and Roman Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art