Friday, April 3, 2015

The Minoans: As An Expression of Culture

The Minoans lived through a remarkable period in human history. No one really knows when Homo Sapiens first came to Crete, but Neolithic migrants came to an island filled with giant fauna. They exterminated them, and soon after made pottery. As the island's inhabitants learned to smelt copper, then bronze, their culture participated in a continuum of near eastern governance and bureaucracy. The details were invented, or learned from others, but the daily structure of a Minoan life would have felt common to the other city dwelling king based cultures on earth at the time.

Their cities were cramped and crowded, crowned with central megalithic temples. Painted clothing was draped on to the elect, who lurked out of view in painted palaces which inspired mystery and authority within their populace. Power was based on power, underlings and killing instruments assured your status. Nobles wore shining bronze armor, wrapped in heavy hot metal. Dressed like this, they rode into battle on highly advanced chariots. Only the nobles had swords, which were cleaned of human remains and carefully repaired by bronze smiths after each battle. As javelins and spears would have been commonly lost or broken in battle, and an entire industry likely existed to replace them. Disputes in a town led to a disagreement, disputes between towns led to large-scale warfare.

This system functioned, and only functioned, on the backs of slaves. Stolen from foreign lands, these people were enslaved in boring repetitive (and labor intensive) tasks within temple-palaces. These people filled the galleys of warships. A small few owned these slaves, and many worked the land likely in utter poverty. As in all other civilizations, this unequal balance of wealth with no respite for the vast majority in the lower class led to instability. Power and violence were used to cement this social system, there were no restraints on kings and their will was the law.

While the king may or may not have been able to read, the only fully literate section of society were the scribes. The amount of these literati were absolutely miniscule compared to the masses of the farming populace, and were hidden away from view clustered around the king. They existed purely for the sake of the upper classes. Their actions allowed the government to function, society now created a record of wealth. This only facilitated more control over wealth, as now kings knew when wealth was flowing to them and when it wasn't. This entire system required a bureaucratic layer of orderlies and ranks, titles and governors. A whole class of people existed to filter this wealth to them, obtaining prestige at the behest of the king. This social system was common then, and a version of this ideology exists within Homo Sapiens society today. A tiny fraction of wealthy and the literate ruling over a humungous mob of farmers and slaves. While barely any humans are farmers anymore, and slavery as a governmental institution is nearly wiped out across the earth, a much more similar system existed in the west merely a few hundred years ago.

It is astounding to consider the many thousands of lives which were lived. Each individual had a name, likely a complex name and formal/informal variations. Each individual was raised by parents, each of them had names as well. Their king had a name, their city a name, their gods all had names, even their farm pets had names. All of that information is lost, a tiny fraction is locked within the tablets of Linear A. Their sole existence has been reduced to a series of artifacts in the dirt, and their lives reduced to pretty pictures in books. This existence, hidden in the dirt and in fiction conceals their true nature. Each Minoan existed, in the same manner in which anyone currently exists. Each Minoan mind was raised in its own self-sealed environment. Each person assumed some personalized version of the then-accepted world views, and likely had strong opinions about the controversial subjects of the day. Many then, as are now, either religious and militaristic. The vast majority were likely both. They believed in the power of their gods and their kings, and performed rituals and gave tribute in service to them. In this way, their world resembles ours today.

Yet their politics, while also similar, was vastly more complex. Their geopolitical conflicts involved an infinite tapestry of city states: war, mythology, and prejudice were widespread without any concern to human life, our species' common history, or for a scientific skepticism. The recognition of those things would come thousands of years too late for those slaves who accepted their status, for those massacred when a city was razed, for those who believed in the existence of their gods. The wealthy then, as now, attribute their wealth to divine fortune, to the universe's grand luck conspiring for their sake. The vast majority then as now never realize the common brutality laden in their social pyramid. Many have come to understand now that life is more complex than venerating a king and your city's god. It is unlikely any did then, there was no wealth of skeptical texts for those inquisitive souls to read. Your life, your farm, your city, your king, and your god, were all one. If someone did come to realize the horror of war, or the self-serving nature of every single king, that individual never overthrew the social order. Revolutions do occur, and each time these manifested in assassinations and coups. Each time, a new head was then placed on the top of the system, granted the system's entire authority and the city marched on...until it didn't. Eventually, migrations disrupted this system and it collapsed. This time, when a new order was thrown together, it was reforged with a much less distant leader. These new leaders did not need scribes, they did not need mystical priestesses and fresco'd walls. Something had changed.

By the CP, palace bureaucracies seemed foreign to the Greeks living on both the mainland and Crete. It reminded them of the old world in Asia. If only they knew merely 1,000 years prior their palace bureaucracies could pry the Asiatic coast from its internal mountain dwelling rulers. They told each other stories about a great conflict in the region between the Greeks and foreigners, yet if only they knew the true complexity of that geopolitical world. The Greeks finally returned to politics under a palace bureaucracy under the Macedonians, under duress and in foreign servitude. They consented only on the condition that their ideology was the paramount thought of the Empire. When this was the case, Greeks were happy to participate in empire building, contributing in this manner to both the Alexandrian and Roman Empires. Today, western nation-states often trace their “modern” history back to the Roman Empire, and throughout the west many still consider Greek philosophy foundational to our thought now.

For this reason, because of this mythical handing down of national identity, stories told during the Roman era from the LBA were retold surviving into our current modernity. Since the initiation of these stories, oral literature became written literature, written literature became printed literature, and now it is found freely on the internet. Merely 150 years ago Europeans began to actually investigate the evidence of these stories, and in doing so uncovered many many more. It is remarkable that we can hold in our hands these books, stories founded in long lost cultures now 3,000 years gone. It is even more remarkable that we can now prove those stories wrong, or really inadequate compared to our current knowledge of the period. If you asked the average western historian merely 200 years ago about this period they would give you an absurd answer, they would hand you their one and only source and say this is it. We now know, that source is barely even evidence.

The scale of human experience staggers the mind. The physical record of the Minoans is also a psychological record of the lives of many countless generations, stretching one thousand years on only one island, in one sea. A tiny stretch of land and time compared to the vastness of the 200,000 years of our species' worldwide conquest. Their smallness within the vastness of time does not diminish their civilization's vastness compared to the tiny human lifespan. Many generations gave their lives to the Minoan civilization, having spent their whole existence living and working within its cities and fields. There were many thousands of individual lives extinguished in battle, many thousands who lived in opulence ruling cities. Many thousands owned chariots, and many thousands more lived their whole lives as slaves.

Occasionally modern research can uncover small tantalizing glimpses into their personal lives. We can reconstruct small situations, like slave-servants emptying their noble's baths by hand. While this situation may not seem like a very interesting thing to imagine, it is precisely fascinating for this reason. It is not glamorous, it is not flashy, it is not recorded on some record or wrapped in gold leaf. It is simply some small part of someone's day, suggested from the archeological record. For the first time we today are allowed back to look into that individual's life, we have gotten a kind of access into the memories of someone which were destroyed 3,000 years ago. It is these situations which were never recorded, and are the most lacking facet of our historical understanding of all ancient peoples.

Other moments have been uncovered as well, a child playing with a rolling toy horseman. A blacksmith taking painstaking effort to craft a weapon with ornate strengthening features. A fresco artist carefully applying paint stroke by stroke (or however they applied paint), stepping back to look at their work and think how to continue. We can imagine the pain and frustration of an artist who after painting a repetitive dado had stepped back only to realize they had messed up the pattern. Each object has a designer, a maker, a user, and a reason why it was trashed. Each object is frozen in time, buried eventually in the last place in which it was used. Each object tells a story as to how it got there, why it was left, and why it was buried. There is always an explanation as to why humanity as a whole forgot about that specific object's existence, just as there is a reason now why such objects are uncovered.

Our knowledge of the Minoan people should astound any human alive today. They lived between 3,000-4,000 years ago, inhabiting a past whose sequential number is almost incomprehensible number when reckoned with the span of any one person's life. We know of them only because of the actions of other humans, only a few generations back, who are now all dead themselves. Their collective effort (and mistakes) have left us with an enduring legacy: a pile of artifacts and analytic writing. They started a process, a process of finding and spreading unknown information. This process is still ongoing today. The existence of the Minoans was only revealed to humanity merely 115 years ago. This may seem like quite some time, but my grandparents' generation (born in the 1920s) spoke to people who lived through the discovery. The parents of my grandparents were around 10 when the discovery occurred. The grandparents of my grandparents went most of their adult lives prior to the revelation. The current present is linked in this way to that strange world, a version of earth in 1899 which had up until that point never known of the Minoans' existence. A world which had been lost in its own fables and foibles, having collectively forgotten for nearly 3,000 years. That world is alien to us now, Minoan culture is widely known and generally known by children.

That continuum of ignorance was interrupted permanently in 1900. We will (hopefully) never go back to that world, to that existential ignorance. We have suffered this permanent revolution, and now those of the literati (which now includes a huge portion of the world) can ride this revolution to its future fulfillment. Luckily for us, there is no end in sight to our scientific inquiry, and our knowledge of these people is only expanding never contracting. This bodes well for the future, as it suggests that there will come some day when people look back at our knowledge of the Minoans now and consider it fundamentally flawed. And that is extremely good. To recognize that our currently held views will be drastically improved upon in the future is a great gift to pass down to future generations on earth. We are giving those future adults the benefits of our doubts, the results of our labor. Hopefully I will live into that day, when our current knowledge is deemed worthless in comparison to some richer fuller truth. 

1 comment:

  1. Hi, I've read your posts on the Neaderthals, and now on the Minoans. I just want to say that I'm really glad I've stumbled upon this gem of a blog. I like the way you think. If you ever post more, I'm sure I'll enjoy it, whatever the subject. Have a nice day.