Sunday, April 12, 2015

The Great Thalassocracy of Minoa

In the history of the earth, often one encounters the rise and fall of civilizations. It is so common that it is almost unremarkable, but in its ubiquity it hides thousands of cultural gemstones. Simply stop and magnify one small piece of the earth and you will find multiple invisible layers of unique expressions of culture. For example, take the Mediterranean island of Crete. Today it sits peacefully in the Mediterranean as a region of Greece with a unique Creto-Greek culture. More recently, it was involved in WWII and its history is deeply tied to the rise of the Greek nation state in the 19th and 20th centuries. Yet this is only the picture within the last 200 years, it is still painted on the surface of the island. Monuments to WWII are still active, Ottoman and Venetian castles are now walk-around tourist sites. All these cultures are within humanity's written history, their existence was recorded in our species' collective memory. Greek children learn the history of Crete simply because it is unavoidable. The question of what is our history is brought up simply by seeing a memorial, or a castle. The residue of those lost cultural expressions remain, constantly pushing the knowledge of its prior existence to the present.

The Venetian castle of Koules, at Heraklion, Crete

There are many civilizations which are not so lucky. Their unique expressions of culture are lost, and never brought to the present. The monuments and castles they built were destroyed and covered in dirt. Information pertaining to these remnants of lost civilizations are then forgotten, even by the people who live near them. If someone ignores a building long enough it will naturally be buried by the earth. The memory of that cultural expression is pushed out of peoples' minds for so long that eventually all of humanity forgets they even existed. This adds insult to injury, erasing the culture from not only the earth but from all human minds and memories. Once everything relating to a culture is forgotten and its buildings buried beneath the earth, the culture transforms. Its existence passes from not present but known to humanity into not present and unknown to humanity. This is by far any civilization's longest period, and it is quite a frightening place for a culture to be in. It is frightening because it is nearly all hopeless, their only hope is that humans at the ever receding present both declare their intention to uncover newly found cultures, and accurately piece them together again. For the vast majority of cultures throughout time this period of both not present and unknown may last indefinitely into the future.

A satellite image of Crete

Crete has a striking example of such a lost-and-found culture, brought back from non-existence through the science of modern archeology. Looking back 4,000 years on this island, at the height of the Bronze Age, you'll find a powerful, complex, and brilliant culture staring back at you. They are called the Minoans, and their palace-based society flourished for nearly 1,000 years. Luckily they did write, but no literature has been found thus leaving the incessant internal dialog of a culture invisible to modern onlookers. At first glance, the immensity of information relating to this culture which has been destroyed is staggering. Assuming the golden age and decline lasted 800 years with each generation lasting 25-30 years, the main period of Minoan culture brought forth about 28±4 successive generations. While a few names are known the vast majority of people who lived, raised children, and died within this culture are entirely lost. We don't even know their own name for themselves, or even what their language sounded like. At some point soon after the complete collapse of Minoan culture (around 1,000 BCE) every aspect of the culture's existence was forgotten. This was the dark ages of Minoan history, and for thousands of years not a single human on earth realized they existed.

This dark age lasted for around 3,000 years...until a certain Friday, March 23, 1900 CE at 11:00 AM. At that minute, over 100 years ago, Sir Arthur Evans began excavations at Knossos. It should be noted that the Greek archeologist Minos Kalokairinos went searching for legendary Knossos in 1878 and found large pithoi jars. However it would not be until the larger dig by Arthur Evans that this lost culture was finally brought back into our collective present knowledge. Evans unearthed a large structure, which he deemed a palace, and named its makers The Minoans. While it is facetious to think of Bronze Age cultures in terms of classical mythology (although don't tell that to Heinrich Schliemann), the myth of King Minos of Knossos was the only remnant onto which Arthur Evans could cling. The only inclination that a powerful culture existed on the island was from this mutated shard of existence, transformed into a moral fable about the dangers of power hungry kings. Every aspect of Minoan society was distorted, as the storytellers were people living hundreds of years after the culture's erasure. While the name Minoan stuck, it is only a placeholder until modern humans can figure out what they called themselves.

Sir Arthur Evans

The early discoveries and interpretations by Arthur Evans have been long since superseded. Humans have spent the last 115 years piecing this culture back together. While there is much we do not know, and much that is lost forever, what we have found is amazing. The more and more we uncover, the more unique this local expression of culture becomes. It is a beautiful fact that such complexity and local innovation can be confined within such a small piece of earth. This culture is based around only one island on earth, and its golden age lasted only hundreds of years. Its recent rediscovery only confirms the mystery of the unfolding of history and science; every once in a while the entire game is thrown into the air without warning. It is overwhelming to be so vividly reminded of the magnitude of the unknown.

Of course, to most of the living today it seems inconsequential that our understanding of ancient history was so radically changed in the last 200 years. Yet the knowledge of the Hittites (rediscovered in the 1880s) and the Minoans is integral to our current understanding of the late Bronze Age Aegean world. Prior to these discoveries in the late 19th century, what were ancient historians really saying when they spoke about this time period? If they were leaving out its most vital aspects, then it seems they weren't saying much of anything at all. Any larger statements of fact would be nonsensical about 19th century European history if you only knew about the British empire but had no clue the French or German empires existed. Only people now truly understand what past historians had missed, and while the picture is still incomplete it should be appreciated how much collective human knowledge has changed. In 200 years surely people will have the same attitude towards our time, and only they will know what they had gained in the intervening period.