Lesson 10: Narrative

Middle Minoan Crete

  1. Pottery, Chronology and External Contacts
  2. Architecture
  3. Burial Customs
  4. Religion
  5. Weaponry
  6. Figures
  7. Writing

Pottery, Chronology and External Contacts

[The absolute dates listed below are essentially those suggested by Manning 1995: Appendix 8.]

Middle Minoan IA (ca. 2050/2000-2000/1950 B.C.)

The pottery of this phase develops directly out of that of the preceding EM III period. At Knossos, it is best represented by the finds from the houses under the kouloures (see below under “Architecture: Palaces”) in the area of the later palace’s West Court. The east Cretan equivalent is typified by the finds from House D at Mochlos and House B at Vasiliki. In the Mesara, the phase is well represented by a large deposit from Patrikies. At Mallia, pottery from houses underlying the southern edge of the later palace is contemporary. Polychromy in a light-on-dark style (the use of both white and red/orange on a solidly painted dark ground) begins in this phase, though it is relatively rare, especially in the east. Also beginning in this phase is the particular form of relief decoration known as “barbotine”. Dark-on-light pattern-painted pottery is still common, however, especially at Knossos, and all pottery is still handmade. The straight-sided cup (also known as a Vapheio or Keftiu cup) makes its first appearance. A major difference between EM III and MM IA pottery at Knossos is the far greater frequency of curvilinear decoration in the later period. In the east, representational or naturalistic motifs appear on pottery, more often floral than faunal. Although a good deal of MM IA pottery, as well as imitations of it, comes from coastal sites of the eastern Peloponnese (see handout on MH Greece), little has been found in the central Aegean islands (e.g. at Phylakopi on Melos) and only a very few pieces have been found further east, on Samos and on Cyprus. The site of Kastri on Kythera was probably first permanently settled by Minoan colonists in this phase.

Middle Minoan IB (ca. 2000/1950-1900/1850 B.C.[palace sites], 1750/1720 [non-palatial sites])

The first certain palaces are now constructed at Knossos and Phaistos. The pottery is characterized by the first use of the fast wheel, by increasingly thinner vessel walls, by more complex polychrome decoration (Walberg’s Early Kamares), and by crinkled rims and other features indicative of the influence of metalwork. The {carinated} cup first appears now and continues to be common through the MM IIIA period. Close contacts are maintained with the eastern Peloponnese and now are extended for the first time on a similar scale to the central Aegean islands (Ayia Irini on Keos, Phylakopi on Melos, Paroikia on Paros, and probably Mikri Vigla on Naxos). The earliest Minoan pottery from the Dodecanese (the Serraglio on Kos, Ialysos/Trianda on Rhodes) and the coast of Western Anatolia (Iasos, Miletus, Knidos) is probably also of this period. Cretan sherds of MM IB-IIA date have been found at Kahun and Harageh in Egypt in levels datable to the early 19th century B.C. Minoan objects are now also firmly attested at such Levantine sites as Ras Shamra (ancient Ugarit) and are more numerous on Cyprus.

Middle Minoan IIA-B (ca. 1900/1850-1750/1720 B.C.)

These two designations describe ceramic styles (Walberg’s Classical Kamares) current at the palatial sites of Knossos, Phaistos, and Mallia but rarely found outside of them except in certain specialized cult contexts (e.g. the Kamares Cave or the peak sanctuary on Mt. Iuktas). As a result, MM IIIA directly succeeds MM IB at most Minoan sites, although MM II is stratified between MM IB and MM III at Knossos and Phaistos and therefore does have some chronological value, however limited. At Knossos and Phaistos, the end of MM IIB is marked by a major destruction horizon (probably due to an earthquake) which defines the end of the Protopalatial or Old Palace period. At Mallia, a shrine and the impressive Protopalatial complex known as Quartier Mu appear to have been violently destroyed by fire at about the same time or perhaps slightly later. During the 18th century, ceramics became a major art form and the best “{Kamares ware}” (also known as “eggshell ware” due to the thinness of its walls – it is so fine that many have argued that it must have been mouldmade rather than having been thrown on a wheel) is of a technical and artistic quality never again attained during the Aegean Bronze Age. Significantly, use of this extremely fine tableware, elaborately decorated with complex abstract patterns and occasionally representational motifs in the form of stylized plants, animals, or human beings, was to all intents and purposes restricted to the palatial centers where it was produced, to cult centers on peaks and in caves which were probably maintained by the palatial élite, and to foreign centers which arguably acquired it through the medium of gift exchanges between their élites and those of the Minoan palaces. A notable feature of this class of pottery is the rich polychromy of its decoration in a light-on-dark style employing abundant white and a number of shades of red, orange, and yellow on a black ground. By far the richest assortment of this pottery comes from the place at Phaistos, and the Mesara area of southern Crete is arguably the region within which this particular art form reached its technical and aesthetic apogee.

Middle Minoan IIIA-B (ca. 1750/1720-1700/1675 B.C.)

This period witnesses the rebuilding of the palaces at Knossos, Phaistos, and possibly Mallia (where the existence of a true palace in the Protopalatial period is not altogether certain at present), as well as the construction of the palace at Zakro. Pottery no longer appears to have constituted a major art form in this phase (= Walberg’s Post-Kamares), with the result that MM III vases, though perfectly serviceable and technically still of high quality, seem dull and lack-luster compared to those of MM IB-II. Most tableware is either unpainted, solidly painted, or decorated with white patterns on a dark coated ground. Polychromy is relatively rare. The {carinated cup disappears during this period and the most popular drinking vessels are straight-sided (Vapheio or Keftiu) cups and semiglobular “teacups”. At Knossos, the pottery from the Temple Repositories and the Room of the Lily Vases, as well as from several quite recently published large deposits found in houses west of the palace, exemplifies the shape and decorative ranges of the period. During this phase, Minoan influence expands and intensifies throughout the southern Aegean. For the first time there is good evidence for Minoan contacts with the western Peloponnese, especially with Messenia. Minoan artists and craftsmen have been considered by some to be resident at some Mainland sites at this time (potters at Ayios Stephanos, smiths at Mycenae). The sites of Trianda (Rhodes), the Serraglio (Kos), Miletus, Iasos, and Knidos are thought by many to be firmly established Minoan colonies by this time if indeed they had not been settlements of this kind earlier. In the Cyclades, Minoan influence becomes so pervasive in this and the ensuing Late Cycladic (LC) I period that Cycladic culture in many ways is in danger of losing a distinct identity. It is against this backdrop of marked Minoan cultural expansion in the early Neopalatial period that, in the opinion of most specialists, the later Greek traditions of a Minoan thalassocracy (or sea-empire) must be evaluated for their potential historicity.

Architecture

Palaces

At Knossos, and perhaps at Mallia, architectural remains of the Old Palaces are largely overbuilt or otherwise masked by remains of the later New Palaces. Although this is also true for much of the Old Palace at Phaistos, there the entire west facade, the west court in front of it and the associated theatral area, and a good part of the west wing (including a suite of rooms usually identified as a shrine) are easily visible due to the fact that the builders of the New Palace relocated the later western facade a considerable distance to the east of the Old Palace’s western margin. This west wing was fronted by a series of large paved courtyards at three different levels and was entered by means of two major entrances [one into the southwest wing near its southernmost point; a second and more impressive one at the junction of the northwest and southwest wings where a paved {causeway crossing the west court apparently led directly through the palace's western half and into the paved and colonnaded central court] as well as through at least five minor entrances. In the paved courts west of the main west facades of the first palaces at both Phaistos and Knossos are three monumental examples of the stone-lined, circular pits known individually as a{kouloura}. The Protopalatial successors of the earlier EM III hypogeum at Knossos, these constructions, significantly, lie outside the palace buildings themselves, in a large public court which separates the palace from the surrounding town. Often identified in the past as storage facilites for grain, these semisubterranean (at least in this period) structures are not at all well-suited for such a purpose, as Strasser has made clear. They may therefore have more to do with the control and storage of water or simply, as Evans originally thought, with refuse disposal.

To be dated earlier than the earliest surviving, positively identified palatial structures are certain novel building techniques (e.g. the use of cutashlar masonry; drilling of mortises in the tops of ashlar blocks to hold tenons for the attachment of large horizontal timbers) which are prominent features of the first palace buildings. These techniques are first employed no later than MM IA, and probably as early as EM III, both at Mallia (the monumental tomb of Chrysolakkos) and Knossos (the massive terrace walls to the northwest of the later palace identified by Hood as the remains of an EM III palace). These breakthroughs, however, are not cited here to diminish the significance of the architectural revolution which occurred when the first palaces were constructed in MM IB, for it was only then that certain tools (e.g. the pick and the axe-adze) as well as numerous, subsequently typical Minoan architectural features (e.g. orthostates, cut jamb and column bases, dadoes, stone drains, etc.) are either first attested or at least attested with any frequency. Public architecture on the scale of the palaces would have required not only specialized masons but also very large labor forces, far greater than those employed in any earlier Minoan building projects.

Another impressive architectural form which may predate the earliest palaces and which seems to have persisted for at least some time after these were first built before disappearing is the fortification wall. Long thought never to have existed in Minoan architecture, fortifications have quite recently been documented in substantial numbers by Alexiou during the last couple of centuries of the Prepalatial era (the EM III and MM IA periods) and into the age of the first palaces (MM IB-II). They include examples from both palatial (Knossos, Mallia) and non-palatial sites. The most impressive of the latter is a recently discovered circuit at Kouphota (Ayia Photia) in east Crete which features both towers at intervals along the exterior and a large, 37-room rectangular complex on the interior, all probably constructed in MM I and abandoned before that period’s end.

Recent excavations in southern Crete at the sites of Monastiraki (in the inland Amari valley) and Kommos (on the coast just southwest of the sites of Phaistos and Ayia Triadha) have revealed additional palatial complexes of the Old Palace period. That at Monastiraki has produced several important deposits of sealings as well as a well-preserved building model (of a shrine?) comparable in a number of respects to the somewhat later example from Archanes (see below). The newly recognized palatial complex at Kommos [Building AA] is a large building organized around a central rectangular court which is bounded on the north and south short sides by stoas fronted by half-a-dozen columns; unlike the nearby palace at Phaistos, that at Kommos was not built until late in the Protopalatial period, during MM IIB, and consequently had quite a short “lifetime” before being buried in the Neopalatial era under another palatial complex [Building J/T].

Monumental Non-Palatial Complexes

Impressive Protopalatial structures which are clearly not palaces in form (although they may have had many of the functions of a Minoan palace) are best studied at Mallia. To the northwest of the later palace is a large rectangular open space (29.10 x 39.80 m.) furnished with a plaster floor and enclosed on all four sides by massive foundations which originally supported banks of seats. This space was probably the functional equivalent at Mallia of the theatral areas at Knossos and Phaistos, here four-sided because the unit as a whole, owing to the flat topography of the site, could not be easily built up as high as at Phaistos and Knossos. To the southwest is a large, for the most part subterranean (as preserved) building known as the “Hypostyle Crypt”. Within it are a series of five large storerooms furnished with rows of platforms on which pithoi holding liquids were set and along which elaborate drainage facilities were constructed to recover anything that was spilled. Rooms with carefully plastered walls to the west of the storerooms are furnished with benches and have been suggested by the French to constitute a council hall.

A good deal further to the west is a large, irregularly shaped and multistoreyed complex known as Quartier Mu which actually consists of three distinct house units, the most impressive of which is the “Central House” covering an area of some 450 m.2 and consisting of some thirty rooms on the ground floor alone. This large building includes a shrine at the west with a fixed rectangular hearth at its center, four storerooms along the north having the same elaborate provisions for drainage as those in the “Hypostyle Crypt”, a paved hall, a sunken “lustral basin” of the type common in Minoan palaces and later Neopalatial villas, a lightwell, and two stairways leading to upper floors which are no longer preserved. Industrial (E), storage (NW), and residential and cult (W) areas are neatly compartmentalized and segregated as in the contemporary palaces. Architectural features in this structure without parallel in EM houses includeashlar masonry, columns and cut-stone column bases, and pavements and {causeways of cut slabs. This and other large Protopalatial houses are evidence for an emerging stratification in MM society not attested in this fashion during the EM period, during which all houses at a given site (e.g. Myrtos) are of essentially the same size. On the other side of a narrow road from the three large houses of Quartier Mu are located three contemporary workshops: one used by smiths in which were found several moulds for the production of bronze tools; one by potters whose tools included moulds for the production of figured attachments to clay vases in the form of shells, fish, and cats; and one by seal-cutters who appear to have specialized in three-sided prisms. These smaller and much less elegantly appointed buildings are considered by the excavators to have housed artisans employed by the higher-ranked residents of the quasi-palatial structures across the street to the west. Found mostly within the larger, more impressive residences were numerous clay objects of different forms inscribed with signs of the “Hieroglyphic” script: 9 tablets, 13 medallions, 2 cones, 16 noduli and several kinds of sealings. The entire complex was short-lived, having been both built and destroyed (by a fierce fire) within the MM II period (ca. 1800-1700 B.C. by the conventional lower chronology).

Whether all of these distinct buildings at Mallia were simply annexes of a Protopalatial palace which occupied the same site as the preserved Neopalatial palace or were instead dispersed elements with palatial functions which did not coalesce into a single building until the Neopalatial period at the site still remains to be established. It is, however, clear that major portions of the Neopalatial palace site were occupied by significant constructions in the Old Palace period (e.g. the probable shrine in the northeastern part of the later west wing from which come a ceremonial bronze sword and the well-known stone axe in the form of a leopard; a second probable shrine under the later residential quarters, somewhat further north in the later palace’s west wing, in which two other swords and a collection of miniature juglets, one incised with a hieroglyphic inscription, were found; the storage rooms of the later palace’s east wing which feature moulded channels and buried jars in the plastered floors so that, as in the Hypostyle Hall and the storerooms of the mansions in Quartier Mu, loss from spillage of valuable liquids could be kept to an absolute minimum).

The “Town Mosaic” from Knossos

A series of some two dozen mould-made faïence plaques representing building facades which probably served to decorate a wooden chest and which were found in MM IIIA fill near the Loomweight Basement in the east wing of the Knossian palace is known as the “Town Mosaic”. Other fragments of this complex work of art represent trees, soldiers, goats, oxen, the prow of a ship, and bits of sea water. The whole composition may have been comparable to that on the silver “Siege Rhyton” from Shaft Grave IV at Mycenae or to that of the “Fleet Fresco” from Thera, both of which are quite a bit later in date (LM IA). All of the houses have two or three storeys. Windows are common in the upper storeys, rare on the ground floor. A common feature is a small rectangular projection above the flat roof, marking a covering over the staircase leading to the roof as the somewhat later three-dimensional model building from Archanes described below makes clear. A number of features of the buildings represented by these plaques (e.g. frequency of ashlar masonry; beam-end friezes; combinations of half-timbering and ashlar masonry) do not appear to correspond with the realities of most MM house architecture.

The House Model from Archanes

Found in a room identified as a possible workshop within an impressive building of MM IIIA date, this piece is paralleled in Minoan art only by an as yet unpublished model from a palatial complex at Monastiraki (on display in the Rethymnon Museum) and by some scrappy fragments of another model (or models) from Knossos. The Archanes model is a small (0.31 x 0.29 x 0.15-0.18 m. high) terracotta model of a two-storeyed building having windows, columns, a lightwell opening onto a typical Minoan hall, a stairway, and a projecting balcony on the second storey. Like the facades of the “Town Mosaic”, it is invaluable for the information it provides about the elevation of Minoan buildings, probably townhouses, of the 18th and 17th centuries B.C. Actual townhouses at Knossos of the MM III period (e.g. the House of Fallen Blocks and a recently excavated house on Gypsades Hill) are comparable to that represented by the Archanes model in that they occupy small areas in plan and feature no more than three rooms on the ground floor. Such humble dwellings lie at the opposite end of the spectrum of MM domestic architecture from the large manses characteristic of Quartier Mu at Mallia.

Burial Customs

Larnax Burial: In the MM period, larnakes become shorter and deeper when elliptical than they had been in the EM period. At the same time, the rectangular form, which always lacks legs in the MM period, appears. MM larnakes are painted only very rarely. By the end of the period, the custom of larnax burial has spread throughout east and central Crete and is unknown only in the west.

Pithos Burial: Appearing for the first time not long before the MM period begins, this is perhaps the most common type of MM burial. Pithoi containing bodies may be deposited in simple pits, either isolated or in groups referred to as “pithos cemeteries”, in caves, in tholoi, in rectangular ossuaries, and in chamber tombs. When used for burials, pithoi may be laid sideways, stood on their rim, or stood right side up. The size of the individual pithos varies considerably, usually according to the size of the corpse it contains. Pithoi, like larnakes, are rarely painted. Most appear to be re-used domestic vessels rather than items made expressly for funerary purposes. This mode of burial continues into the LM I period but has become very rare by LM III. Though attested from Chania in the west to Siteia in the east, it is perhaps most popular in the north and east.

Tholoi of Mesara Type: Tholos tombs of this type continue to be used, as well as to be built, until at least as late as MM II and probably until quite far into the MM III period. An important series of such tombs was excavated in the 1960′s and 1970′s at the site of Archanes not far south of Knossos. The latest of the Archanes tholoi, said to have been constructed in MM IA and to have gone through no less than six architectural phases before its final use in the LH IIIA period, is peculiar in having a dromos (or entrance corridor) which links it typologically with the earliest tholoi of “Mycenaean” type found both on Crete and on the Greek Mainland. It now seems more likely than ever that the “Mycenaean” tholos tomb is derived directly from the Early Minoan or “Mesara” type of tholos, despite the claims by a number of British authorities (e.g. Cavanagh and Laxton, Dickinson) that the “Mycenaean” tholos owes no debt of any kind to the earlier Minoan form. Another of the Archanes tholoi (Tholos C or Gamma), this one of MM IA date, is notable for its relatively complete state of preservation, which unmistakably reveals that small tholoi of “Mesara” type were indeed fully vaulted in stone. This particular tomb is also important for revealing close links with the Cyclades in the form of a number of both stone and bone or ivory FAF’s which it contained.

Chamber Tomb: Destined to become the most common type of tomb in the LM period, the chamber tomb is first attested by several examples of MM II-III date in the Mavrospelio cemetery near Knossos and in the Epano Gypsades cemetery at the same site. The normal Minoan, as well as Mycenaean, chamber tomb has a horizontal or downward-sloping entrance passage, the dromos. This usually widens a bit at the end closest to the door of the tomb and its side walls often have an inward inclination as they rise. The actual doorway of the tomb, the stomion, is narrower than the dromos and opens into what is usually a roughly rounded or rectangular tomb chamber with, at least on Crete, a ceiling which is either flat or convex (i.e. domed). Aegean tombs of this general type have been variously derived:

(1) [Evans] The Minoan form is derived from Egypt, the Mycenaean from the Minoan.

(2) [Persson] Both Minoan and Mycenaean forms are independently derived from Egypt.

(3) [Pini] The Minoan form is derived from Cyprus, where chamber tombs begin in the local Cypriot EBA. The Mycenaean form is derived from the Minoan form through such sites as the Minoan colony at Kastri on Kythera.

Pini’s argument runs as follows: In both late MM and LM chamber tombs, pieces of bedrock are sometimes left in the form of piers within the chamber to help support the roof. The plans of such tombs are as a result bi- or tri-lobate and are particularly close to those of somewhat earlier Cypriot tombs. Significantly, such multi-chambered plans are rare on the Greek Mainland at any time during the Mycenaean period.Antechambers are rarely if ever present in Minoan chamber tombs, in marked contrast with the situation in Egypt where theantechamber of such a tomb remained open so that sacrifices and offerings could be made to the dead. A Minoan chamber tomb, on the other hand, was sealed by a blocking wall built across the stomion and the dromos was then completely filled in. If a tomb marker of some kind was not placed in the dromos fill, the location of a Minoan chamber tomb could easily be forgotten within a year or two of its last use, an unthinkable happening in Egypt.

It is, of course, by no means impossible, as Dickinson has pointed out, that chamber tombs could have been independently “invented” on both Crete and the Mainland or, alternatively, that both the Minoan and the Mainland examples are somehow connected with either EH versions of the basic form known from sites such as Manika in Euboea and Pavlopetri in Laconia or with early Middle Cycladic examples such as those from Phylakopi. In any case, the later chamber tombs, unlike tholoi of the “Mesara” type, have no consistent orientation in terms of their entrances or the alignment of their dromoi. The direction in which a dromos runs is entirely determined by the topography and often the geology of a particular necropolis. Individual chamber tombs normally contain multiple inhumation burials, but the manner in which these burials are disposed within the tomb chamber – in pithoi, larnakes, wooden coffins, or simply laid out upon the tomb floor – varies considerably. Chamber tombs are particularly characteristic of north-central Crete and are relatively rare in the east.

Religion

Both hilltops and caves for the first time reveal unambiguous evidence of being used for cult purposes in the MM I period. Of the fifty or so hilltops which have been claimed as Minoan “peak sanctuaries”, at least twenty-five are generally considered to be accurately identified as such and at none of these does the evidence for cult activity predate central Cretan MM IA. Cave sanctuaries are fewer in number (Amnisos, Idaean, Iuktas, Kamares, Psychro, Skoteino, Stavromyti) but are similar to the peak sanctuaries in that cult begins at them no earlier than MM I. It is likely that the development of both forms of cult place is to be connected with the rise of the palaces in MM IB or slightly earlier. Certain artifactual types, such as polychrome Kamares pottery and inscriptions in Linear A or a script allied to that on the Phaistos Disc (see below), are found only in the palaces or at such specialized cult locations, another fact suggesting a direct connection between the two. In all probability, the élite who built and occupied the first palaces on Crete maintained its power through claims to a special connection with divinities which were worshipped at special cult places established by that élite.

Weaponry

MM weapons are relatively rare, and this fact has led to the somewhat simplistic conclusion that the Minoans were peace-loving and simply did not indulge in warfare. An interesting hoard of apparently ceremonial weapons was found in the ruins of a Protopalatial building, perhaps part of an “Old Palace”, at Mallia. The hoard includes the earliest sword in the Bronze Age Aegean, a long, tangless rapier with a gold-sheathed hilt and a rock-crystal pommel, as well as a brown schist axehead in the form of a rampant leopard, extensively decorated with running spirals, and a dagger, also hilted in gold, which was probably a companion piece for the sword. Two other swords, one having a gold-plated pommel decorated in the repoussé technique with the figure of an acrobat, were found in another late Protopalatial context at Mallia, under the later residential quarters of the Neopalatial palace.

Figures

There is a great variety of human and animal figurines during this period. The best known are the faïence “snake-goddesses” from the MM IIIB Temple Repositories at Knossos, the terracotta figurines of male and female worshippers from peak sanctuaries at Petsopha, Kophinas, Iuktas, and several other locations, and the groups of large bulls being grappled with by tiny human beings from tholos tombs in the Mesara.

Writing

At least three different systems of writing in Crete can be dated to the Middle Minoan period:

Pictographic or Hieroglyphic Script

This appears in MM IA and continues into the MM IIIB period, a “life history” of some 500-550 years. The signs are, as the name of the script implies, pictorial and the script has an overall “glyptic” character. The earliest examples occur on MM I seals with three or four sides. The number of surviving texts is small, examples coming only from Knossos, Phaistos, and Mallia. The texts themselves are very short. Aside from the numerals (a decimal system), the script is undeciphered and is likely to remain so. There is no uniformity in the direction in which the script is written.

Linear A

The discovery of early Linear A (so-called “Proto-Linear”) texts in the ruins of the First Palace at Phaistos has pushed back the date of this script’s first appearance to MM IIA or perhaps even to MM IB. It used to be thought that Linear A developed directly out of Pictographic (about one third of the signs in Linear A closely resemble Pictographic forms), but it now seems possible that Linear A and Pictographic are virtually contemporary in terms of their appearance. Linear A never appears on seals and has a general “graphic” character. Texts read uniformly from left to right and there is an extensive use of {ligature}s (combined or compound signs). There appear to be definite local variations in this script. It has a relatively wide distribution, having been found at some twenty different sites on a wide variety of different objects. Only three sites outside of Crete itself have so far produced examples of true texts (as opposed to an individual sign or two) in this script: Ayia Irini on Keos, Phylakopi on Melos, and Akrotiri on Thera. Texts occur most frequently on clay tablets. Major archives have been found at Ayia Triadha (168 tablets) dating to LM IA and at Chania dating to about the same time period. Tablets are also known from Archanes, Knossos, Mallia, Phaistos, and Zakro. Significantly, texts are also known on six stone libation tables from various sites, on spoon-shaped mortars, on a doorjamb, on a gold ring, on a miniature gold axe, on silver and gold pins, on a bronze tablet, on a fair number of bronze ingots, and in cuttlefish ink on the inside of a clay cup. The latest Linear A inscriptions appear to be no later than LM I and hence all predate the supposed Mycenaean occupation of Knossos in LM II and early LM IIIA. The language of Linear A is definitely different from the archaic form of Greek which is the language of the graphically related Linear B script. The Linear A script, like Linear B, is a syllabary and consists of some 85 distinct signs. Various decipherments of Linear A have been claimed but none have met with general approval. While it is possible that the language of Linear A comes from a known language family (e.g. Semitic or Indo-European) and hence that closely allied languages still exist, it is just as likely that the language of the Minoans, like modern Turkish or Basque, had no close linguistic relatives even in antiquity, in which case the chances of its ever being deciphered are exceedingly slim.

The Phaistos Disc

“…an approximation to printing, immense in potentiality but null in effect – a freak.”

Found in the north part of the palace at Phaistos in a MM IIIB context, this baked clay object lacks close parallels in Crete and is likely to be an import. The “writing” consists of stamped signs in groups of between two and seven divided by horizontal and vertical incised lines. The signs are to be read from the outside towards the inside, retrograde. On one side of the disc there are thirty-one groups, on the other thirty. The text is so neatly fitted into the space available for it that the impressed “writing” must have been fully planned before execution. There are forty-five different signs, so the script is probably a syllabary rather than an alphabet. There are no obvious numerals. The script may be of southwest Anatolian origin – Lycia has been suggested – but this is not much better than a guess, since no comparable contemporary scripts are in fact known from that part of Asia Minor. Similar signs, perhaps evidence of the same script, have been found on a bronze axe from the Arkalochori Cave.

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