Lesson 11: Narrative

The First Palaces in the Aegean

  1. History of the Problem
  2. Significant Aspects of the Larger Problem
    1. Time and Chronology
    2. Locale
    3. Function
    4. Settlement Pattern
    5. The Basis of the Elites Authority

The History of the Problem

Until quite recently, few Aegean prehistorians devoted much time or effort to the questions of how and why palatial civilization arose in the Aegean world where [on Crete] and when [in the early second millennium B.C.] it did. The earliest writers on the subject tended to view the Minoan palaces as inspired by and, to some degree or another imitations of, functionally similar buildings in the Near East. Such authorities also saw in the peculiarities of Minoan palatial culture expressions of a nature-loving, anti-militaristic population whose geographical isolation, coupled with a rich environment, resulted in a “complex society” or civilization quite distinct from those of Egypt, Mesopotamia, or, at a somewhat later date, the Greek Mainland. During the later 1960′s and early 1970′s, however, there was a general tendency to abandon invoking the Near East and other areas outside the Aegean as the sources for major developments within it. Instead, notions of indigenous development came to the fore and the Early Minoan period was increasingly viewed as a long period of gestation during which many of the forms which were to characterize the later palatial culture of Crete were devised. Renfrew in 1972 was the first to propose a theoretical model for the indigenous development of “civilization” in the Aegean. At the end of the 1970′s and the beginning of the 1980′s, alternative models were suggested by Gamble and Halstead. By far the most prolific, as well as most provocative, authority on the subject during the middle and later 1980′s Cherry, who deserves much of the credit for making “the emergence of the state” one of the most genuinely interesting and multifaceted problems presently confronting Aegean prehistorians. At essentially the same time, Runnels pointed out the weaknesses in Renfrew’s emphasis on new developments in agriculture and suggested that Renfrew’s alternative explanatory model based on trade provided the key to understanding the rise of complex society in the Aegean. The most recent extended treatment of the problem is by Manning (1995), who has argued in favor of an enhanced role of social factors at the expense of economic ones. At more or less the same time, Watrous (1987, 1994) has sought to revive the view that the Minoan palatial system owes more to Near Eastern models than has been generally conceded since the publication of Renfrew’s The Emergence of Civilization in 1972.

The Nature of the Problem

At the beginning of the Early Bronze Age in the later 4th millennium B.C., there is no evidence on Crete for the existence of powerful authorities operating out of dominating architectural complexes at a few sites of major importance (“central places”). There is also to all intents and purposes no evidence for social ranking or stratification nor for craft specialization or the institutionalized division of labor. An agriculture based on cereals and pulses is the basis of a self-sufficient subsistence economy in no way dependent on exchange extending beyond the local residential unit. But the palatial society of MM IB Crete in the 19th century B.C. boasts monumental architectural ensembles which we call “palaces”, the centers of small-scale states ruled by governing élites. Within the palaces, provision is made for the storage of large agricultural surpluses, for the production of prestige artifacts in a wide variety of materials of which a number are necessarily imported from outside the island, and for record-keeping in a series of scripts of which unfortunately none have yet been deciphered.

The problem is not so much to explain how the particular architectural form of the palace itself took shape but rather to account for the social, economic, and political developments which made such a complex necessary. In other words, the problem is to document what is commonly termed in contemporary archaeological parlance “the emergence of the state”. Cherry has defined “state” in this context as follows: a state is a powerful, complex, permanently instituted system of centralized political administration. It exercises sovereignty in carrying out basic political functions (e.g. maintaining territorial rights and internal order, or making and executing decisions regarding group action) and its authority in these matters is buttressed by sovereignty in the use of force within its jurisdiction. States are also societies with relatively complex and specialized administrative organization, involving hierarchically ordered personnel who perform specialized administrative tasks and make decisions.

Renfrew and Redistribution (1972)

“…the growth of the palaces has to be seen in the first instance as the development of redistributive centers for subsistence commodities, controlled by a well-defined social hierarchy. The emergence of Aegean civilization can be comprehended only if this central point is kept in view.” [The Emergence of Civilization 297]

Renfrew’s redistributive model may be summarized as follows:

(1) At the end of the Neolithic period, the subsistence base of farmers in the southern Aegean was diversified by the addition of the olive and the vine to the earlier staples of cereals and pulses. This resulted in the genesis of “Mediterranean polyculture”, subsistence agriculture based on the triad of wheat, the olive, and the grape.

(2) The result of this diversification was local specialization in agricultural production, lower and flatter land lending itself to cereals while the slopes with thinner soil cover were better suited for the cultivation of olives and vines. The increase in land available for cultivation led to increased productivity with a consequent rise in population.

(3) “Redistributive chiefs” emerged at the local level to take charge of and arrange the resulting interdependence of farmers producing specialized products. The redistributive process also required large, new buildings where agricultural produce could be centrally stored pending its redistribution.

(4) The chiefs encouraged craft specialization and the production of prestige goods, which in turn required increased agricultural production and reinforced the interdependence of the specialized farmers.

Although Renfrew’s model accounts for the emphasis in the first palaces on storage facilities for agricultural produce and on workshop areas for specialized artisans, and although it explains why the first palaces appeared in the southern Aegean where modern vine and olive cultivation is most at home and where the highly varied terrain particularly favors specialized agricultural production (in contrast to both Thessaly and Macedonia), it also suffers from a number of weaknesses, namely:

(a) Despite increasing efforts by excavators to recover the maximum amount of botanical remains, the fact is that the evidence for the cultivation of both the vine and the olive at the early date and significant scale posited by Renfrew is very thin.

(b) It is highly unlikely that EBA farmers would have taken advantage of a more diversified subsistence base to specialize. Rather, then (as now) smallholders would probably have chosen to diversify their production in order to insulate themselves against the failure of any one crop.

(c) Renfrew’s model postulates basically altruistic motives on the part of the earliest chiefs in an emerging social hierarchy. Yet the vast majority of ethnographic data suggests that emergent élites are anything but altruistic.

(d) Renfrew also assumes that the change in the subsistence base (i.e. the addition of the olive and the grape to the list of domesticates) would result in surpluses, as well as in specialized production. Yet it is not at all clear what the incentive for surplus production would be for the individual farmer.

Gamble (1979)

Gamble envisages a manipulative, perhaps even forceful, élite rather than Renfrew’s implausibly altruistic one. This élite either coerced or cajoled the population to live in large nucleated settlements like Phylakopi I.2-3 rather than in tiny farming villages. As a result, self-sufficient mixed farming became impracticable for many farmers because they were too far removed spatially from their landholdings. Farmers were thus forced to specialize in particular products whose identity depended to some extent on the distance of their land from the new nucleated settlement. In this way, the small farmer became increasingly dependent on the redistributive power of the élite.

Such an argument is somewhat circular since the basis of élite power (forced economic specialization, leading to the interdependence of the population and the need for redistribution) takes shape only after nucleation of settlement, which was in turn dependent on the already existing power of the élite.

Halstead and Social Storage (1981, 1986)

In the southern Aegean where rainfall is both low and erratic, the possibility of crop failure is relatively high. In such an environment, farmers may have adopted the strategy of giving surplus grain to needy neighbors in the expectation that their help would be reciprocated in times when they themselves had suffered a crop failure. Since southern Greece’s topography and climate differ appreciably over very short distances, reciprocal exchanges of this kind could be very effective even though practised between populations living quite close to one another in space. This model of “social storage” furnishes a rationale for the production of surpluses as a form of insurance against short-term crop failure. Another form of surplus storage which likewise does not take the form of putting the surplus directly into a silo or other storage facility is to feed surplus grain to animals which can then be consumed for their meat when the crops do poorly. Sheep are particularly valuable in that they produce wool as well as meat. Since wool can be the source of textiles, the form of insurance chosen in this instance against crop failure will produce a dividend even when times are good.

The “social storage” model again posits a certain degree of altruism on the part of the human participants in the reciprocation process. A variant of it would eliminate this, however, by having surpluses be exchanged for prestige craft items which could be redeemed for food when the recipient of such items himself felt the pinch of insufficient food.

Sherratt, van Andel, and Runnels and the Secondary Products Revolution (1981, 1983, 1988)

Van Andel and Runnels reject the notion that Halstead’s model of “social storage”, conceived as a strategy to avoid risk in a marginal environment, can have resulted in the palatial economies of the Aegean for two reasons: first, since no society could hope to accumulate a surplus at the expense of its immediate neighbors, for the simple reason that whatever surplus it did generate could theoretically be called upon by those neighbors in an emergency, there was no particular incentive for the creation of truly significant surpluses; and second, the palatial economies which eventually arose on Crete were located in comparatively fertile and climatically less risky areas, that is, not in regions where the principles of “social storage” might have been best appreciated and most readily adopted.

Van Andel and Runnels prefer to return to an alternative explanatory hypothesis championed by Renfrew in 1972, one focussing attention on trade (whether commercial or based upon gift-exchange of prestige items), craft specialization, and the resulting accumulation of wealth by an élite. In their view, a modest network of trans-Aegean trade routes had gradually come into existence between late Mesolithic and Final Neolithic times. Late in the 4th millennium B.C., the introduction of animals exploited for traction in tandem with theard and the use of animal fertilizer opened up extensive areas of previously unused land to rain-fed agriculture. In addition, increased emphasis on the secondary products generated by animal husbandry (e.g. milk, cheese, wool/hair, hides) raised the demand for grazing land. Thirdly, improved shipbuilding technology as evidenced by the advent of the longboat (at least by the time of the Keros-Syros culture of EC IIA, if not earlier) and the sail (certainly by the EM III period) made possible bulk transport of goods on a scale and across distances not previously practicable.

The result of these changes was the colonization and exploitation of the Aegean islands and of previously neglected areas of the Peloponnese, a process which still further promoted trade and possibly at the same time increased the variety of the items exchanged. The broadly contemporary development of lead, copper, gold, silver, and bronze technology and what one imagines was a brisk exchange of both metallic raw materials and finished goods further enhanced the development of trade networks. These would have been punctuated by exchange centers (emporia) at fairly regular intervals, centers where wealth may have accumulated quite rapidly in the hands of emerging élites. The seats of these élites eventually became the foci of the first Aegean states.

The model proposed by van Andel and Runnels is not without its own problems. They are very casual about chronology and lump together in fairly tight cause-and-effect fashion a series of developments which spanned more than a millennium. Their emphasis on the prominent role of Sherratt’s “secondary products revolution” may be misplaced in that weaving (of wool, one imagines) was clearly already a major industry at Knossos well back in the Neolithic and thus hardly a novel development of the 3rd millennium. Moreover, if trade played such an important role in the emergence of élites, why did obvious middlemen like the Cycladic islanders, who furthermore had the readiest access to such regionally restricted raw materials as obsidian (Melos), emery (Naxos), marble (several islands), silver and lead (Siphnos and eastern Attica), and perhaps copper and gold as well, not become the architects of the Aegean’s first palatial polities? If van Andel and Runnels are right, it is far from clear why Minoan Crete should have been the home of the Aegean’s first civilization, although Aegina’s importance at the same early stage of the Middle Bronze Age is very well accounted for by their model.

Significant Aspects of the Larger Problem

Time and Chronology

Despite the widespread feeling that the rise of the palaces was a gradual process which stretched over centuries, there is no good reason why it could not have been a relatively sudden phenomenon, a “revolution” rather than the result of slow and measured “evolution”. To demonstrate that various features of Minoan palatial culture have Early Minoan ancestries, as Branigan, Renfrew, and Warren have done repeatedly, is not to establish that the Minoan palatial system was an inevitable outgrowth of EM culture nor do such demonstrations in and by themselves make any contribution to the question of whether the appearance of the first states in Crete was a relatively sudden or a gradual event. As Cherry has eloquently observed, time is not a cause of change but rather a dimension in terms of which change is measured – the ingredients of Minoan palatial civilization are not simply EM culture plus the passage of time!

At present, the relative and absolute chronologies of the critical period between later EM II and MM IB are fairly coarse. In order to be able to decide between revolutionary and gradualist hypotheses on the subject of Minoan state formation, much more work on Minoan pottery of these periods is required. But improving our understanding of Minoan ceramic development by the publication in greater detail of substantial deposits of pottery will not automatically result in a more finely tuned chronology, since variability from deposit to deposit will also be conditioned by spatial and functional variables (i.e. how did the pottery vary from region to region during the period in question, and what functional ranges of pottery are present or absent in a given excavated context).

The common assumptions that Minoan culture developed not only gradually (i.e. the rate of cultural change was slow but constant) but also inexorably (i.e. culture necessarily becomes more complex or “advanced” with the passage of time) are not warranted. The example of EH-MH cultural development on the Greek Mainland clearly shows that culture regressed from the Korakou culture of the EH IIA period to the Tiryns culture of EH III in terms of complexity. If the notion of unidirectional development cannot be sustained for the Mainland, why should it be considered to hold true over precisely the same period of time on the island of Crete?


As both Lewthwaite and Cherry have pointed out, any viable explanation for the rise of palatial civilization on Crete must also account for why equally complex societies did not develop elsewhere in Mediterranean Europe, especially in insular environments which are quite closely comparable to that of Crete (e.g. Corsica, Sardinia, Sicily, Cyprus). In the southern Aegean, the only site which appears to have been at all comparable to the Protopalatial centers of Crete in terms of wealth in the first half of the second millennium B.C. is the fortified coastal settlement of Kolonna on Aegina. Was it, in fact, a peer of the early states on Crete? If so, why did it not survive as such into the Late Bronze Age?


In attacking the problem of the origin of palatial civilization on Crete, archaeologists all too often assume that the functions of the so-called “New Palaces” of the Cretan Late Bronze Age (or Neopalatial period), or even those of the somewhat later Mycenaean palaces of the Greek Mainland, may be projected backwards in time to the quite poorly known “Old Palaces” of the Middle Minoan (or Protopalatial) period. Cherry once again has cautioned that such an approach is unwarranted. Not only did Aegean palaces vary in form with time but the societies for which they served as economic and presumably also political focal points are likely to have differed considerably as well. Any explanation for the Aegean’s first palaces must proceed from as thorough as possible an understanding of how those palaces in particular appeared and functioned.

Settlement Pattern

The distribution of settlements across the landscape and the nature of the settlement hierarchy are certain to have changed quite dramatically on either side of the point in time when palatial “central places” emerged on Crete. Yet no intensive regional surveys encompassing the location of a Minoan palace have yet been published, although the final report on one conducted by Watrous and Vallianou in the western Mesara plain in the neighborhood of Phaistos is in press (see Watrous et al. 1993 for a preliminary report). Surveys of this sort, by making apparent what sort of change in settlement pattern took place and approximately when it did, will be of considerable help in establishing when and how quickly the rise of the state occurred on Crete. Moreover, in the process of analyzing the results of two or more such surveys, it should be possible to compare the changing settlement patterns and hierarchies in such a way as to reveal whether or not state formation followed more or less the same course in terms of these variables throughout the island of Crete. In situations where the initial appearance of palatial functions [e.g. writing, specialized craft production of such luxury goods as seals, polychrome (Kamares) pottery, and ceremonial weaponry (swords and axes for display rather than for routine stabbing or cutting purposes)] is associated with quite different kinds of settlement design (e.g. Phaistos vs. Mallia), it would be extremely interesting to learn whether the patterns of settlement surrounding such varied central places also differed appreciably.

The Basis of the Élite’s Authority

The conspicuous absence of the pronounced militaristic tendencies in Minoan society which are such a prominent feature of Mycenaean culture raises the obvious question of how an emerging Minoan élite established or maintained its authority. It may well be that the manipulation of religious ideology may have lain at the very heart of the Minoan rulership’s power, in which case correlations between changes in cult practice and the emergence of the state are to be anticipated. Relatively little is presently known about Minoan religious practices during the EM and MM periods so that in this area, as in studies of settlement patterns and ceramic chronology, much work needs to be done (see also handouts on Middle Minoan Crete and on Minoan Religion).

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