Palaces, pots and pictures

Im Labyrinth des Minos

June 1, 2001

The civilisation of Crete in the Bronze Age, termed Minoan by its primary discoverer Sir Arthur Evans, is widely known for the brilliance of its achievement. This ranged from the creation of palaces (buildings combining control of economic, political and religious affairs) to the manufacture of tiny seals, semi-precious stones and gold rings engraved with scenes of natural life and cult activity; from successful agriculture to overseas trading enterprises for metals and exotic raw materials. There was a deep empathy with the natural environment and its products; their fertile continuance was an important part of religious belief and ritual that, on occasion, included human sacrifice.

The chief Minoan centre from about 1600BC to 1450BC was Knossos, now visited by more than 1 million people each year. The major collection of Minoan objects is in the Archaeological Museum of Herakleion. Recently, the museum, under the direction of Alexandra Karetsou, has mounted a series of highly successful exhibitions, thematically arranged to convey knowledge of the civilisation and made permanent through beautifully illustrated catalogues with scholarly essays. The most recent is on the relations between Crete and Egypt, from the Bronze Age to the Graeco-Roman period. At the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, another revolutionary exhibition has been devoted to organic-residue analysis, that is to tell us what was actually in the pots and large storage jars used by the Minoans and Mycenaean Greeks.

In the first four months of this year, the Minoans moved outside Greece with a magnificent exhibition at the Badisches Landes-museum at the Schloss, Karlsruhe. There were contributions from 24 collections, including all the main museums of Crete, in particular Herakleion. The superbly produced and richly illustrated volume reviewed here is the catalogue of the exhibition, supported by a large collection of essays. The volume is in German; an English translation would have assisted dissemination of the contents, as with this exhibition's Aegean predecessor in 1976 ( Art and Culture of the Cyclades in the Third Millennium BC , published in 1977).

The 19 essays, several by leading scholars in the field, explore current understanding of the Minoan world in all its major aspects. Michael Maass, leader of the five German scholars responsible for the research conception of the exhibition, sets the scene in terms of attributes of the Minoans (vitality, rationality, aesthetics, humanity and culture). Following this are reviews of landscape and environment (by Jennifer Moody and Oliver Rackham - see their The Making of the Cretan Landscape , 1996); chronology, with the eruption of the Thera volcano correctly dated at about 1520BC; the civilisation before, during and after the period of the palaces, with individual essays on the palaces (1900 to 1430BC), the contemporary country mansions and estates, settlements and cemeteries; a substantial review of the Minoan writing systems and administration (by Stefan Hiller); engraved sealstones; religion; jewellery for the living and the dead; food and medicine, incorporating the organic-residue analysis work; and trade, including the complex and important evidence of weight systems.

Three special topics conclude these studies: the relationship of Tell el-Dabca, the Hyksos capital Avaris in the Nile Delta, with the Minoan world, chiefly the evidence of the astonishing Minoan wall paintings at the site (by Manfred Bietak); the famous Greek hymn from Palaikastro, studied in terms of surviving traces of Minoan religion in classical times (by Eugenia Vikela); and Sir Arthur Evans and his work at Knossos (by Lesley Fitton). This series of writings is stimulating and informative, but not controversial.

The exhibit and the catalogue mirror the essays chronologically and in subjects. The catalogue comprises 454 objects, 19 pottery fragments from Knossos in German collections, six fine models, a wood replica of the throne from Knossos and the marble bust of Arthur Evans by David Evans ( c .1934). Catalogue data are exemplary and the colour photographs usually excellent. But the devices engraved on the sealstones are often difficult to detect from a photograph of the stone without a picture of the impression.

The exhibition and the volume do much to promote knowledge and appreciation of Minoan civilisation. There is, however, one controversial, indeed unfortunate, element. While most exhibited items come from controlled excavations - the Cretan authorities have been exceptionally generous in what they have loaned - not a few are from private collections, objects without provenance, with no indication of legal acquisition and quite probably products of looting. Their find contexts and their value as historical evidence are lost for ever. While it does make them known, their exhibition alongside provenanced objects loaned by Greek museums spuriously elevates their status. One wonders whether the co-patron of the exhibition, the president of the Republic of Greece, was made fully aware of all that he was granting his imprimatur to.

Most astonishing is the inclusion of 38 objects, including fine, unbroken, apparently Middle Minoan pottery and later Minoan necklaces of gold and semi-precious stones. They come from "the collection of Batya and Elie Borowski" in Jerusalem. These pieces might be genuine and not fakes. If so, from where do they come, when and by what means did they enter a collection of which few have ever heard? Their remarkably unbroken condition is suspicious, unless a tomb was involved. Object number 300 is likewise an unbroken, finely decorated Middle Minoan II vase, c .1700 BC, from a tomb at Byblos in Lebanon. Could this or a related tomb have been the source of the pots in Jerusalem? If that were so, the find, officially excavated, would have been of exceptional interest. Unlike the position of most pieces in the catalogue, we may never know. What, then, was the purpose of showing these objects?

Peter Warren is professor of ancient history and classical archaeology, University of Bristol.

Im Labyrinth des Minos: Kreta: die Erste Europäische Hochkultur

Author - Konstantinos Stephanopoulos and Erwin Teufel
ISBN - 3 930609 26 6
Publisher - Biering and Brinkmann (
Price - €40.00
Pages - 372

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