Monday, April 6, 2015

The Minoans: Craftsmanship

By the EM period (3,000-2,000 BCE) the production of certain material activities had become separated from the general population, and the producers of such items can be termed artisans. The genesis of an entire class of such people was cemented in Minoan society in the MM and LM periods. The creation of an artisan class led to precious objects being worked by professionals for their livelihood. The rise of such a class was likely tied to international trade, as local experts' wares were going not only to the nobility in Crete but to those who could afford it around the eastern Mediterranean.

A Minoan axe head mold from the MM period

Around the start of the MM period in nearby Mesopotamia the notion of an artisan was evolving simultaneously. In the northern Mesopotamian town of Titris most crafts were still done at home by the whole family, such as: pottery, stoneworking, or metalworking. By this time certain tasks were being done in specialized workshops either in a specific location in town or outside the city. Specifically these early Mesopotamian artisans were working in textiles and flint knapping. Mesopotamia is an interesting parallel, but such early detail is not known for the development of Cretan artisanry by the MM period.

Minoan potter and kiln, in the south stoa of building T, Kommos, Crete

The general trend was that certain difficult tasks were siphoned off to specific people who were experienced aficionados in operating with that object. People like doing specific things, and in a world where most of your daily use objects were made by your family, certain people enjoyed and were better at doing certain crafts. While the average commoner would pass their skills down to their children (presumably), these experts would have become well known and been flooded with aspiring apprentices. Parents still compete to send their children to experts in order to learn some useful skill, that human phenomenon is still rife in all urban societies today. Urban artisans were often grouped into sections of towns, most likely from devotees tending to live nearby their master or by a royal decree. Highly skilled artisans in each town likely vied for influence among the local ruling class, as during the Italian Renaissance 3,500 years later, temple painting and noble patronage were paramount to an artist's fame and success. Not every artist was painting frescoes in the palace-temple, the majority of artisans made pottery or tools for commoners.

A cup with reed decorations, from Knossos

Throughout the EM period artisans were not confined to a quarter in town or in the temple, and were dispersed throughout cities and the countryside. With the rise of the temple hierarchy the lives of artisans changed, and during the MM period at Mallia artisans became confined to one quarter of the town, Quarter Mu. At Knossos by 1,700 BCE specific artisans were confined in the temple. While it is not known if the other Minoan cities had artisanal quarters, it is likely that the palace-temple concocted some manner of oversight. The close contact between artisanal excellence and the wealth of local nobility continues throughout the remainder of the bronze age.

A woman (priestess or goddess) on a swing, from Agia Triadha, 1,450-1,300 BCE

Stone and Bronze

A stone goblet from Zakros

By the MM and LM periods expert artisans had a place in their society comparable to modern artists. Artisan workshops existed for any and all materials, completely woven into the fabric of daily life for commoners and the nobility alike. Specialization created a multiplicity of different workshops: lapidaries for gemstones, bronze smiths, seal carvers, ivory carvers, faience workers, and stone carvers who worked with many varieties including rock crystal.

Minoan gypsum vase manufacture diagram

Rock crystal rhyton from Zakro, 1,700-1,400 BCE

Stone chalice from Zakro, 1,700-1,450 BCE

A pouring bowl with a duck head handle, made of rock crystal and found in grave circle B at Mycenae, 1,600-1,500 BCE. This piece's origination is disputed, but even if it is Mycenaean such expert rock crystal artisans on Crete most likely made similar objects
The Bull Head rhyton from Knossos. Carved out of stone, the horns were probably gilded wood, its eyes had painted irises, its eyelashes are jasper, and its muzzle is tridacna shell

A stone lamp from Mallia

A marble Minoan bowl

A dolomitic limestone bowl, from Khania, Crete

A highly decorated stone axe head from Mallia, Crete, 1,600-1,500 BCE

Bronze smiths made a diverse variety of items, such as: weapons, tools, utensils, votive figurines, mirrors, as well as vases and pots. While no such metal pots have been found, there have been many clay pots found with designs mimicking bronze rivets and chain links. Bronze smiths also made jewelry, and bronze bracelets were popularly worn from central Europe through mainland Greece. While no such bronze bracelets from Crete survive it is highly likely they were made considering they are found in the Mycenaean material world. Decorated examples from across Europe show that the local bronze smith was not only a weapons craftsman, but a creative and inventive artist as well.

A diagram of Minoan metal tools

A similar Mycenaean bronze double axe and pickaxe, 1,550-1,500 BCE

A copper spouted cup from LM IIIB period (1,300-1,200 BCE)

A metal pot from LM III A-B periods (1,400-1,200 BCE)

A bronze Mycenaean arm band from Kadmeia, the citadel of Thebes, from 1,370-1,300 BCE

The Mycenaean bronze armlet from Thebes is in fact much more ornamental than other bronze armlets seen across Europe in the late bronze age.

A bronze bracelet from Germany, 1,250 BCE

A bronze bracelet from Halstatt, Austria, 1,100-1,300 BCE

A bronze bracelet from central Europe, made around 1,000 BCE


In Minoan culture, wearing gold and silver jewelry was not reserved for one gender. This high demand across the entire island by every noble created a dense market and severe competition. Gold artisans operated on very small scales, creating fine precision in necklaces and rings. Often the items required multiple precious materials, although it is unknown whether a single artisan would do this work or multiple artisans would collaborate. Multiple styles of gold and lapis lazuli rings are found in the Aegina treasure, each with a different and unique aesthetic style.

A Minoan gold and lapis lazuli ring, 1,850-1,550 BCE

A ring in the shape of a shield or double axe, from the treasure of Aegina, Minoan

A ring with a knot design made of gold and lapis lazuli, from the Aegina treasure, Minoan

A ring with a meander design made of gold and lapis lazuli, from the Aegina treasure, Minoan

Minoan necklaces from Arkhanes, Crete

Gold and rock crystal necklaces from Agia Triadha, LMI period

Two necklaces from the Aegina treasure, Minoan, the bottom one is made of gold and the top one is made of gold, carnelian, and jasper

Gold earring from the treasure of Aegina, of Minoan craftsmanship

Gold was not only used for jewelry, but fine inlays decorated the swords as well. Gold artisans also made elaborate inlays on hilts and hammered miniature designs into round gold crossguards. Small gold objects were found throughout the graves at Mycenae and at the treasure of Aegina. A few of these small gold objects show specific motifs shared with classical Greek art, such as the meander design in a ring and two owl pendants. Certain objects such as the ivory bull leaper figurine included both careful gold working as well as masterful ivory carving. Both of which are difficult tasks to individually perfect and suggests that at least some high quality objects were combinatorial efforts between multiple experts, likely being commissioned or planned by palace-temple patronage.

Gold necklace beads of lions and bull heads, from Agia Triadha, 1,350-1,300 BCE

A gold bead in the shape of a duck, from Knossos

A gold bracelet from Mochlos, Crete, 2,500-2,000 BCE
A gold leaf attachment to the gold diadem from Mochlos, Crete, 2,500-2,000 BCE

A gold necklace bead with cylindrical design, from Kalathiana of Mesara, Crete
The gold crossguard with an acrobat, Minoan

A small flat gold tripartite shrine from grave circle A at Mycenae, most likely Minoan craftsmanship and made between 1,600-1,500 BCE

Multiple small gold items found by Heinrich Schliemann at Mycenae

Two gold pendants in the shape of owls, from the Aegina treasure, Minoan

A gold bee pendant from Mallia, Crete, 1,800-1,700 BCE

There was significant overlap between individual artisans and styles between Crete and mainland Greece. A trove of gold objects found on the island of Aegina off the coast of Greece was first presumed to be Mycenaean, but the pieces are much more in common with Minoan styles. These pieces were made by either local Greeks familiar with Minoan designs, acquired from Minoans by trade, or by were made by traveling hired (or captive) Minoan artisans. Some pieces, like the “Master of Animals” shows Egyptian influences as well, and some pieces may have been uniquely Mycenaean such as the circular decorated gold plaques. Detailed, complex, and elaborate gold pieces have been found on both the mainland and Crete, and many pieces share common motifs (like rosettes). Minoan artists were hired on commission by Egyptian rulers, certainly similar situations would have occurred between Greeks and Minoans. Whether these expert gold smiths received foreign commissions is unknown, although certainly fresco painting and gold working were the two artisanal trades most closely connected to the nobility.

Gold pendant of the figure called “Master of the Animals”, from the Aegina treasure, Minoan, 1,700-1,500 BCE

A gold plaque with a rosette design from Mycenae, made around 1,500 BCE

A gold baldric (shoulder belt for a sword) with rosettes from shaft grave IV at Mycenae

A gold bracelet with a spiral rosette from shaft grave V, Mycenae, from around 1,500 BCE

A black and white picture of another gold bracelet with a flower rosette from circle A, tomb IV, Mycenae, 1,550-1,500 BCE

A color photo of that gold bracelet with a flower rosette

Gold necklace attachments in the shape of a bull's head, 1,350-1,300 BCE, from Agia Triadha

Minoan artists also copied Egyptian forms, as seen in this gold pendant falcon, NT period


People enjoy looking at their reflections, and this desire to see oneself and beautify oneself compelled artisans to create mirrors. While most mirrors during the bronze age were made of bronze, other materials worked just as well if not better. The earliest mirrors in the middle east come from Catalhoyuk and are from around 6,000 BCE. These mirrors were 9cm long polished obsidian disks, and were very effective for their purpose. The use of such a precious and difficult material necessitated these objects being the playthings of the wealthy in neolithic near eastern society. Prior to the copper age most people could easily obtain mirrors through using reflective water. These mirrors would use any wetted dark polished stone or ceramic bowl which was filled with water or oil. Even after rise of copper/bronze mirrors, such simple reflective mirrors are still common. It is assumed that various ceramic “frying pan” objects from the Cyclades contemporaneous to the EM period on Crete were most likely this style of early mirror. These objects have a small lip along the edge, allowing the interior to be filled with the reflective liquid.

A person reflected in an obsidian mirror from Catalhoyuk

A Cycladic “frying pan” terracotta piece of unknown function, from Chalandriani Syros, 2,500-2,200 BCE

The first metal mirrors in the near east were polished copper disks from the Uruk period in Mesopotamia and during the Pre-Dynsatic period in Egypt, during the 1,000 years prior to the EM period. Specialized metal working eventually spread to Crete, with metal mirrors appearing during the EM period made of gold, tin, copper, or silver. Of these materials, silver was the most reflective, moreso than bronze. By 2,600 BCE the best metal mirrors were being produced with an alloy of bronze, using 6-15% tin. This new bronze quickly eclipsed previously popular mirrors made of arsenical copper. It was not only more reflective than previous EM period mirror, but it was cheaper to manufacture as well. Before this development, people had to be able to afford expensive silver or copper designs in order to have a fine mirror. With this technological revolution metal mirrors had become democratized amongst the EM elite. The new style also involved casting the whole object in a single mold, then allowing the liquid metal to settle which forms a curved reflective surface when cooled. Even if the most reflective surface known to artisans of the period was still silver, the previously excluded group now holding bronze mirrors in their hands did not seem to mind.

An Egyptian New Kingdom period bronze mirror cast in one piece in a similar manner to Minoan mirrors, 1,570-1,070 BCE

Minoan artisans most likely experimented with the ratios between copper and tin. Each differing ratio changes the reflectivity, with 8% tin creating less reflection and 20% tin much more. High levels of tin with bronze creates a material called speculum which usually has 33-45% tin, with this level of reflectivity it almost looks like silver. In addition to resembling silver it is also resistant to tarnishing. Although no speculum mirrors have been found, it is likely that they were made considering the huge desirability of silver mirrors among both elites and commoners alike.

Other Crafts

Glass faience working was first imported into Crete from Egypt around 2,000 BCE. Originally it was only used for pendants and beads, but eventually people were creating vases, statuettes, and plaques. The most elaborate faience objects found on Crete are from the repositories in the west wing of the Knossian labyrinth. The snake goddess figurines and votive dresses were all faience, and made by masters in their craft.

A reconstruction of the inside of a Knossian faience workshop

A faience snake goddess figurine from Knossos

A faience plaque of a wild goat from the Snake Goddess Sanctuary at Knossos, made between 1,700-1,600 BCE

Another faience plaque of a wild goat from the Snake Goddess Sanctuary at Knossos, made between 1,700-1,600 BCE

At times multiple crafts were combined into composite works of art, such as with damascening which was perfected and used on some swords. This process consists of finely inlaying silver and gold threads into bronze along with patches of black enamel. Shell carving as an art form was developed by the Cycladic culture prior to the MM period focusing on figurines and bracelets. By the NT period Minoan society had adopted this skill and perfected its aesthetic power. Shell inlays were routinely integrated by design into wooden chests and furniture of the wealthy. Ivory carving was also used to decorate wooden chests and other pieces of furniture, and the gaming or divination board from the east wing of Knossos is a prime example of the Minoan's expertise in what was originally most likely a Syrian craft.

The gaming or divination board from the east wing of Knossos

The board is covered in plaques of ivory and crystal, plated in gold, all stuck together with silver and blue paste. In a similar fashion to miniature fresco painting, miniature ivory pieces have been found. At Phaistos such tiny carvings include a bull's leg, and a lion's head with gold mane. At Zakro ivory pieces in the shape of double axes were found. By the late NT period artisans were commonly carving even larger ivory pieces, and this tradition of combining both ivory and gold never died out along with the Minoans, but was passed down into the CP. That remarkable fact truly shows the power which expert artisans had on society: their influence and craft being so beautiful, valued, and powerful, that specific skills passed from expert to novice could outlast is originating culture entirely. Cretans could forget their history, language, writing, and deities, but could not forget gold and ivory artisanal techniques.

A detailed image of the Minoan divination gaming board and its pieces

A painted plaster reproduction of the gaming board

Vases were commonplace, and as they were such a ubiquitous item with an abundance of craftsmen, their artistic quality was highly intricate and their market highly competitive. Some of these expertly made vases still exist, such as: The Harvester Vase, Boxer Vase, and the Chieftain's Vase. They were made out of a variety of materials, sometimes using extremely hard rock, and other times clay. Likely artisans specialized in one type of material.

Plaster and wood reproduction of the Harvesters Vase, by Gillieron and his son. On the left the bottom half is left unreconstructed, on the right they added their imagined version

Full picture of the Harvesters Vase

The Chieftain's cup

The boxer wearing a smooth helmet from the Boxer Vase

A “fruit bowl” with a toothed rim, Kamares Ware, Minoan

A Minoan goblet with attached sculpted flowers, made around 1,700 BCE

Both wood and bronze furniture were extremely common and were also finely crafted, yet such fragile pieces rarely survive. This conundrum leaves modern archeologists with a smidgeon of the full abundance of such rich items. The Minoans also used sponges to fill their pillows and mattresses, and possibly also used sponges for painting. While this may seem odd, our current tradition involves plucked animal feathers.

A plaster cast of an ornate wooden table which was covered in ash from the Theran eruption, from Akrotiri. This piece of furniture is the only wooden object of its kind found from the Minoan civilization, its existence shows a highly developed woodworking industry even in Minoan colonies

Another example of a wooden table is seen on the Agia Triadha sarcophagus. Such wooden tables designed for sacrifices would have been commonplace but none have survived

A diagram of Minoan wood working tools


The earliest style of pottery is Pirgos ware. Imported to Crete around 2,700 BCE from the Cyclades, it resembled mainland neolithic pottery but its styles birthed the industry on the island. Within 200 years By 2,500 BCE a new styles had appeared such as Agios Onoufrios and Vasiliki ware, along with innovative shapes such as bird or animal form pottery. At some point right before the first great temples and the MM period, the potter's fast wheel and kilns are invented. These two innovations exacerbated the explosion in growth. It is not known whether these innovations were spurred from the growth in urbanism or results of novel urban intellectual contact. Potters could now create significant amounts of highly similar pots, and more easily create a signature style. Certainly the wealth and popularity of potters who had caught on to such technologies increased. Commoners in an urban setting also needed pottery as much as their rural counterparts, and an immense market was primed for prospective businessmen. Every household needed multiple bowls, cups, cooking jars, storage jars, washing basins, toys, and lamps, many people would want bath tubs although it is unknown how many had such luxury.

Minoan handled jar

A clay box in the shape of a boat from Akrotiri, LM period

Kamares ware was most likely invented at Phaistos, directly following the birth of urban temples and the fast wheel. This pottery was unique in that it is only found in OT palaces, its use was reserved for the elite. This was the first time on Crete that a distinct style of pottery had been completely monopolized by a class. Its creation was spurred on by both urban nobles who wanted distinctive and unique possessions, and the highly competitive world of urban potters with fast wheels. The artisans who created this style used delicate care in creating eggshell thin walls for cups, some down to 1mm wide.

Kamares ware cups from

A Kamares wear spouted cup from Phaistos, MM I-II period

Potters of the OT period also developed styles which resembled metal pots, such as placing unnecessary clay “rivets” on pots. This fashion would stay popular through to the NT period, as potters around 1,500 BCE perfected metal mimicry with the tortoise shell ripple effect (resembling the rippling of metal). While it seems unusual that potters would recreate metal pots with clay, they were in effect creating cheap knock-offs of high status goods. The tastes of the nobility through their bronze and silver cups were filtered down to rural areas from the fashionable urban palaces. Commoners desired these aesthetically appealing objects, and potters wanting to cash in on the latest trends fulfilled that desire.

Homer mentions the wealthy owning bronze cauldrons, which have been found across the LBA Aegean. These large, heavy, and valuable objects were de facto methods of storing wealth, and were even traded as an extremely awkward form of currency. While high status items often showed your wealth, bronze cauldrons also stored that wealth and in turn became an exclusively high class object. The popularity of such items by the rich also spurred potters to create terracotta metal mimics, allowing a merchant or farmer to own a knock-off bronze cauldron of their own.

A reproduction of the Kamares ware “Lily Vase”, 1,700-1,550 BCE

As the use of Kamares ware flourished among the wealthy on Crete, potters experimented with other types of scenes. Some would incorporate elaborately decorated animals onto their work, creating a fanciful new styles which arose to rival Kamares' refined elegance. NT period pottery includes the new Marine, Floral, and Sea Life styles. Beginning around 1,600 BCE many potters began to incorporate more images of oceanic animals into their works, creating a style of bright colorful and playful designs in contrast to the darker contrasts of red, white, and black on Kamares ware. Around this period Minoan merchants were at their peak, travel across the Aegean at least. Possibly more people had experience with sea life, which drew more potters to experiment with its incorporation into art.

Three pieces of pottery with elaborate sea scenes, from Santorini

A Minoan pithos jar with dolphins

In addition to animal scenes, two other styles were invented in the NT period: the Marine and Floral styles. Each had a unique aesthetic standing in contrast to the now seemingly plain and antiquated Kamares ware. Specifically these two NT styles were the direct result of specific innovations in pottery technology: better materials, higher firing temperatures, and faster pottery wheels. Generally NT vases were more slender and tapered at the base, and the novel form of a stirrup jar became popular. As society evolved after the devastation of 1,700 its changing art forms truly shows a shift in the average patron's mentality. The background white so prominent on previous styles of pottery was disregarded, replaced with darker colors, spirals, and lines, and less commonly with plants and animals. The Marine style often used animals to cover empty spaces, a bronze age example of artists' horror vacui. The aesthetics of individual fashion on Crete were rapidly changing throughout its entire history, but a larger shift in the general style of pottery during this period shows a larger societal change in the Minoans' aesthetics.

The most famous Marine style jug with a decorative octopus, 1,500-1,400 BCE

A marine style Minoan jug decorated with reeds, made around 1,400 BCE

The most famous floral style Minoan jug, 1,550-1,500 BCE

A Knossian palace style jug with an octopus, 1,500-1,400 BCE

All good things come to an end, and for the highly elaborate Minoan pottery its end is in rigid formalism. Through the LM period artists continued to make beautiful pieces, but in general starting around 1,400 BCE there is a trend toward a straight and formal depiction of objects. This mirrored the trajectory of mainland Greek art, which during this period came to dominate Crete, replacing native styles with Mycenaean geometricism. Scenes of animals became simplified, and then standardized across the island. The wealthy palace elite no longer existed as a force for patronage as they once had a few hundred years before. Without the propulsion of the upper class' patronage expert artisans languished in obscurity.

A representative example of the decline in creative abstraction in late Minoan pottery, a Minoan jug made between 1,300-1,200 BCE

A Mycenaean stirrup jar with an octopus made between 1,200-1,100 BCE. This style of octopus is distinctively Mycenaean and begins to appear across Crete (replacing the Minoan marine style of octopuses) between 1,380-1,000 BCE

Novelty continued as always to stay en vogue, as the period of Knossian dominance from 1,470-1,380 heralded a new style called (who could have guessed) “Palace Style”. During this period Mycenaean styles were heavily imported into Crete, coming either through trade or brought by Mycenaean conquerors. Mycenaean pottery, while aesthetically different, was not stylistically bland. New forms such as three handled amphorae, squat alabastron vessels, ritual vessels with figure eight handles, and libation jugs with spikes. Birds, helmets, and shields begin to appear on Cretan pottery during this period. Similar to the 17th century BCE trend of colonists and seafarers bringing ocean life onto pottery, depictions of warfare show us artists trapped in a period of bloody warfare. As the entire system collapsed around the turn of the millennium, both Minoan and Mycenaean styles faded away, with minor stylistic continuity preserved in small mountain holdouts. This period heralds an emergence of a dark age Hellenic community with an aesthetic sense distinct from its Mycenaean and Minoan forebears.

A Palace Style jug from Katsampas, LM II period


The Minoans, by Rodney Castleden
Gallery of Minoan Objects, Manufacture Designs
Minoan pottery from ancient encyclopedia

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