When the Minoans Looked East

22096432Laura Gill writes novels set in Mycenaean Greece and now, in her most recent book called Knossos, Minoan Crete. Click here to get to her books on Amazon. When we chatted about a guest post, neither of us thought there was a direct connection between our two writing projects (Hittites/Trojans and Minoans)–not so far away but not directly related, we thought. So Laura’s discoveries come as a delightful surprise to me and a welcome addition to my understanding of the grand adventure that is the ancient Eastern Mediterranean. Here’s a wonderfully in-depth post about the connections between Minoans that Laura writes about and the Anatolians that I write about (although these connections precede my period). Prepare to learn something new!

Here is Laura Gill’s post:

When I proposed contributing an article on Minoan Crete and the Anatolians for her blog, Judith and I both agreed that the relationship between the Minoans in my most recent novel Knossos and the Hittites in her new release Hand of Fire could be summed up thus: virtually nonexistent in the archaeological record. By the time the power of the Hittite Empire reached its height around 1250 B.C., one of several dates traditionally associated with the Trojan War, Minoan Crete had declined and was ruled by the Mycenaean Greeks, whose power centers were in mainland Greece. The Knossos Labyrinth, having suffered a violent destruction by fire and/or earthquake around 1380 B.C., lay in ruins; only a single shrine and the central court continued in use.

In the millennia between the first Neolithic settlement and the first temple complex at Knossos in 1900 B.C., merchants from Crete made a name for themselves as the premier traders of the eastern Mediterranean. For much of their history, the Minoans looked east, toward Anatolia and the Levant, rather than north toward mainland Greece. There is a reason for this. Current research tends toward the Minoans originating in Anatolia. This may surprise readers. Whenever I mention having written a novel about the Minoans, even those familiar with the Greek legends assume that the Minoans were Greek. After all, modern Crete is part of Greece. However, that was not so in the Bronze Age.


Minoan Labrys reconstruction

Legend tells that the architect Daedalus built the Labyrinth to house the Minotaur. No doubt the Mycenaean Greeks who conquered Crete around 1450 B.C. and made Knossos their administrative headquarters found the three-thousand room complex a confounding jumble of corridors, porticoes, courtyards, and antechambers; no wonder that “labyrinth” later became a byword for “maze.” But the earliest meaning of “labyrinth” is “Place of the Double Axe.” Ceremonial double axes have been discovered in abundance in the ruins of Knossos’s sanctuaries. Masons carved the labrys symbol onto pillars in the basement of the complex as a talisman, a Bronze Age good luck charm.

People assume Daedalus is a figure of myth and legend, but he might have been a real person. Certainly the scribes of Knossos in the final days of the Labyrinth, sometime in the early summer of 1380 B.C., believed that he had existed; they had to go no farther than their own administrative records to find him. A Linear B inscription records: da-da-re-jo-de OLES S2. To the Daidalaion, 2 measures (24 liters) of olive oil. The “Daidalaion” means the building erected by or sanctuary dedicated to Daedalus; no one is quite sure what the scribes meant. Was Daedalus being remembered as the Labyrinth’s architect, or as a quasi-divine figure like the Egyptian architect Imhotep?

Let us assume for the sake of argument that Daedalus was a real man, and that he built the Knossos Labyrinth. Which Labyrinth did he construct? At least three successive Places of the Double Axe occupied the site on Kefala Hill between 1900 and 1380 B.C. The Labyrinth that Sir Arthur Evans excavated starting in 1900 is an aggregation of rooms, corridors, storehouses, and courtyards constructed, added to, closed off, and renovated over a period of roughly five hundred years.

If Daedalus masterminded the first Knossos Labyrinth, then he must have worked his genius all over the island because the twentieth century B.C. was a watershed era for the construction of temple complexes, administrative centers where the priests (it is unlikely that a secular ruler lived at or ruled from the Labyrinth) collected taxes in the form of grain, wool, oil, and other produce, redistributed those goods, and conducted grand communal rituals to venerate Crete’s capricious gods. Massive religious and administrative centers existed in Egypt and Mesopotamia, serving perhaps as inspirations for the Knossos Labyrinth, though there is no direct evidence that the Labyrinths of Crete were not a homegrown phenomenon. Regardless, it might be better to think of a real-life Daedalus as a Babylonian or Egyptian émigré to Crete rather than the Athenian Greek of the legends. He might even have been Hurrian, because as a number of Hurrian names appear on clay tablets from Knossos.

The Hurrians occupied southeastern Anatolia in the Middle Bronze Age, around 2400 B.C.. The Hittites, who emigrated from the Black Sea steppe lands around 2000 B.C. and seized control of the Anatolian highlands, adopted a number of Hurrian gods, including the storm god Teshub.

The Knossos tablets mention several individuals, presumably men: Ku-ba-ba, Sa-ma, Ta-ri-na, Ti-ti-ku, Pi-ta-ja, and Di-di-ka-se. These might have been native Minoans whose parents liked the sound of Hurrian names, Hurrian merchants or craftsmen doing business at Knossos, or even immigrants from southeastern Anatolia. Since Neolithic times, Crete has been a crossroads between Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. A person visiting the Knossian marketplace in 1700 B.C. would have encountered dozens of languages: Egyptian, Akkadian, which was the diplomatic tongue of Mesopotamia, Mycenaean Greek, Canaanite, Hurrian, a smattering of various Cycladic dialects, Libyan, Assyrian, and others. Minoans conducted business with everyone.

The Minoans were famous for turning raw materials into expensive luxury goods. Crete lacked certain resources such as obsidian and precious metals, so trade with other peoples began early among Neolithic sailors. The most profound innovations in Minoan society were either homegrown or trickled into Crete from the east. Metalworking, the cultivation of grapes and olives, and advanced technologies in ceramics and weaving: these are thought to have entered Crete via Anatolia and the Levant before 3000 B.C. In exchange, Minoan artists decorated Levantine palaces and supplied luxury items: jewelry, inlaid weapons, vessels, saffron, scented oil, leather shoes (including a pair for the Babylonian king Hammurabi himself), and dyed fabric. The coveted, costly purple dye associated in later times with Tyre originated in the mollusk farms of Kommos. If Daedalus lived around 1900 B.C., he was either a native Minoan or from the east, but not Greek; the age of Mycenaean monumental construction had not yet dawned.

Anatolia was there from the beginning. It was there in the seeds of the Minoan religion, in the genetic material of the ancient Cretan population, and perhaps even in the language. Among the current theories about what language the Minoans spoke: a form of Luwian, the Anatolian, Indo-European-based language that Briseis in Judith’s Hand of Fire would have spoken.


Model room from Çatalhöyük; reconstruction in their original positions of the bull’s heads; Museum of Anatolian Civilizations, Ankara, Turkey

Bull worship. Think of the Minoans, and bull leaping immediately springs to mind. The subconscious recalls the gruesome tale of Theseus and the Minotaur. Bull motifs permeated the art of Minoan Crete, the Levant, and Hittite Anatolia. The bull worship of Crete had its earliest roots in Anatolia, and those roots went deep, nine thousand years back to the Neolithic. Which should not be surprising in the least, given the size and ferocity of prehistoric bulls. For the beasts depicted on the color washed walls of Çatalhöyük, a Neolithic community in southern Anatolia, were no domesticated Holsteins but aurochs, an enormous, bad-tempered stock with hoof prints almost as large as a man’s head. Aurochs skulls were reverenced by these ancient Anatolians as cult objects, vessels of sympathetic magic; remains have been discovered in the ruins of Çatalhöyük’s cult rooms. Visitors to the site today can view reconstructions of these sanctums with their ocher-washed, frescoed walls, plastered aurochs skulls mounted upon them like hunting trophies.

The Minoans—and later, the Mycenaeans, imitating their Cretan neighbors—crowned their sacred buildings with crenellations of aurochs horns. Greek legends of Crete were dark and ominous, with bulls at their heart. Herakles’ seventh Labor required him to capture the Cretan Bull. Poseidon, angry with Minos, cursed Minos’s wife Pasiphae with an unnatural lust for a white bull. Theseus delved into the Knossos Labyrinth to slay the man-eating Minotaur. Were these tales bardic memories of a time when the Mycenaeans stood in awe of Minoan Crete?


Fresco of Minoan goddess with a griffin

Aegean art favors the motif of griffins and lions accompanying goddesses; these are representations of the deity’s presence and power. Knossos’s Throne Room Fresco immediately leaps to mind, although that fresco is controversial, an early twentieth century reconstruction ordered by Sir Arthur Evans. A genuine griffin, however, resided on another wall of the same room; whoever occupied the throne in that chamber, whether a high priestess or priest-king, did so with the goddess’s blessing. At Pylos, the charred remains of the throne from which a historical King Nestor might have presided over his court was flanked by a pair of griffins offering the protection of the divine “Two Queens” mentioned in the Linear B tablets. Sacred lions guard the main gates at both Mycenae and the Hittite capital at Hattusas. Lions and griffins decorated weapons, jewelry, seal stones, and other objects discovered in Aegean Bronze Age graves.


Mother goddess enthroned on lions from Çatalhöyük

This plethora of talismanic griffins and lions did not originate in this period. Excavations at Çatalhöyük yielded an enthroned clay goddess whose crude and gravid body owes much to her predecessor Paleolithic Mother Goddess figures. A fertility goddess, then. Of particular interest are the lions flanking her throne. It is not unreasonable to speculate that Neolithic Anatolian colonists might have brought her to Crete, where thousands of years later she reappeared on Knossos’s frescoed walls. What was she called? A Minoan goddess whose name was rendered as As-sa-sa-ra-me on Linear B tablets, and who would perhaps have been called Ashera, recalls the Levantine goddess Ashtoreth/Asherah and the Mesopotamian goddess Ishtar. The Neolithic Mother Goddess of Çatalhöyük might have had a similar name; she certainly enjoyed a long and varied career.

Archaeological evidence suggests that men and women at Çatalhöyük enjoyed equal status. Females as well as males were revered as ancestors. Parallels to Minoan Crete, where powerful priestesses apparently have ruled from the Labyrinth, and where ordinary women supposedly enjoyed a more liberated existence than the women of many of their neighbor states. Was this true, or simply a belief made popular by feminist theory? There is still a great deal we do not know about Minoan society.

This is not to suggest that the original, Neolithic colonists of Knossos emigrated straight from Çatalhöyük, which is highly unlikely, but they were most probably of Anatolian lineage. Based on archaeology and genetic research, the out-of-Anatolia theory replaces earlier theories which argued the original Cretans emigrated from Libya, Egypt, or the Cyclades, though I feel obligated to point out that the study samples do not reflect the entirety of the island. Could Neolithic sailors have reached Crete earlier? Viking expeditions reached the New World centuries before Columbus, so the same could hold true for Neolithic seafarers in the eastern Mediterranean. Knossos is simply the oldest known settlement in Crete, dating from between 7000 and 6300 B.C., but it lies inland. There must be an earlier site along the coast, or, accounting for rising seas, just offshore. If colonization first occurred in the Iraklion region, Amnissos or Katsamba might be the original settlement, and Knossos a later offshoot.

The limited genetic information we have about this epoch, based in part on Minoan remains from 2000 B.C., suggests that the farming population whose descendants would eventually become the original Cretans migrated out of Anatolia nine thousand years ago and spread into southern Europe. These four-thousand-year-old Minoan test subjects shared haplogroup markers with individuals from northern Italy, the Balkan states, and mainland Greece.

Allow me a moment to explain some technical terms. A haplogroup is a group of haplotypes that share a common ancestor. Haplotypes are genes that a child inherits from one parent. Haplogroups can be traced either through Y-chromosomes for male lineages or mitochondrial DNA for female lineages. Certain haplogroups, given alphanumeric designations, are more ancient than others. Geneticists can trace the spread of human populations by studying these markers and their mutations. The Minoan samples shared haplogroup markers with Anatolian populations, though not necessarily Neolithic ones.

A 2008 genetic study also linked Cretan populations with Anatolians.   However, the test subjects were modern Cretans and may have had recent Turkish ancestors, as the Ottoman Turks occupied Crete from 1669 to 1898. Not surprisingly, the results of this study remain controversial.

Far easier and more definitive would be a comparison of Neolithic Cretan and Neolithic Anatolian genetic material. Problems abound. Intact Minoan remains are in themselves difficult to obtain. Communal burial was common for much of the Minoan period. After a period of temporary repose, a corpse was disinterred, disarticulated, the remaining bones washed in wine and wrapped in a fresh shroud, and deposited in a sarcophagus called a larnax with several other individuals, sometimes as many as twenty. Three or four generations of one family might end up sharing a single larnax. Thus, the possibility of viable DNA diminishes, having been lost or contaminated by post-mortem handling.

DNA is extremely friable material. The farther back one goes, the lesser the chance of recovering DNA that has not degraded. Even DNA extracted from the molars and bone marrow, the most protected parts of a skeleton, sometimes fail to yield a genetic profile complete enough for study. A pertinent example of this problem comes from Mycenae’s Grave Circle B. Out of the twenty-two sets of human remains uncovered, only six individuals were intact enough for facial reconstruction, and only four of those individuals yielded sequences of mitochondrial DNA; the researchers were not able to recover any Y-chromosomal DNA. Two of these individuals, Gamma 55 and Gamma 58, were buried together around the same time and are believed to be brother and sister, a real-life Orestes and Elektra, based on those results. I even reported them as such in my blog, Helen’s Daughter, in 2011. They might be siblings, but all the analysis was able to demonstrate for certain is that the pair belongs to the same haplogroup. They could be cousins, or related at more distant removes.

Neolithic Cretans typically used caves for communal burial. At Knossos, archaeologists have discovered the remains of infants and young children buried in pits under the floors of houses; human remains have also been found buried under floors at contemporary Çatalhöyük. Geneticists have sequenced Çatalhöyük specimens to determine individual diets, pathology, places of origin, and whether the dead were buried according to family relationships, which they were not. I am not aware that any research has been undertaken to establish links between Çatalhöyük and Crete.

Whatever problems exist in establishing direct genetic link between Çatalhöyük and Crete, those difficulties most likely arise from the Greek end. It is a sad truth that Greek archaeology has taken a serious economic hit since 2008. Exhibits, including the famous Mycenaean gold from the 1876 Schliemann excavation, have been closed. Funds have been curtailed. The long-time Akrotiri conservation project run by Christos Doumas on Thera/Santorini recently closed its doors after more than forty years due to lack of funding. While Çatalhöyük became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2012, Knossos languishes on a waiting list, unable to take the necessary steps to prepare and maintain the site in order to quality for World Heritage status. There simply is no money for archaeologists and conservationists, much less for expensive genetic testing of prehistoric Minoan and Mycenaean remains.


Palace of Knossos

We have to assume that at some point funds will become available and that DNA testing will be attempted on Neolithic Cretan remains. Even then, is entirely possible that the test specimens may not yield viable DNA for sequencing. Grim as that sounds, remember that a wealth of evidence already exists to link the Minoans and their Anatolian forebears. Genetic research. Shared bull worship and other religious motifs. Linguistics. Work continues on Indo-European languages. The decipherment of Linear A and the tentative translations that have been made prove promising. No doubt more Linear A fragments will be found. Our knowledge of the Neolithic populations of Crete and Anatolia will grow. Our knowledge of the Minoans continues to grow. In the decades since Jacquetta Hawkes presented the Minoans as goddess-worshipping, nature-loving pacifists in her seminal work Dawn of the Gods, ongoing research has turned that notion on its head. History is much more complicated, and that much more interesting.



When the Minoans Looked East — 3 Comments

  1. The Greek myths talk about the Cadmean (Phoenician ) ancestors of the Minoans . All Greek History is connected with them.The idea of Anatolia`s connection is weak genetically too, and appeared together with the Renfrew`s hypothesis of Indoeuropean origin there. The Syrus Herzl` ideas of Phoenician A letters were ridiculed, but weakly refuted.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *