Sunday, April 5, 2015

The Minoans: International Trade, Colonies, and Shipping

“The evidence preserved to us by the passage of time constitutes but a small fraction of that which must have once existed. Each imported vessel...represents scores of others that have perished.” -Helene Kantor

Humans have had simple boats and traded foreigners for unique objects since at least the Paleolithic period. Even Neanderthals sailed to Crete, so assuredly the earliest colonists around 7,000 BCE were skilled seafarers. They crossed a larger ocean than their hominin predecessors only to land on an island infested with pygmy elephants and giant rodents. Once the more dangerous creatures were exterminated, humans could fully control the land and the surrounding sea. Earlier neolithic ships were much better at traveling along coasts, and the constant connection between coastal ports on Crete helped foster island-unique cultural traits and eventually a shared heritage. Foreign objects have intrinsic value to humans, this value increases with the object's uniqueness and distance. The ability to navigate local waters allowed traders to capitalize on this common emotion, and the invention of pottery and seals in the region through the 7th millennium most likely exacerbated the ease of trading in exotic foreign objects. Owning a boat, conducting contracts, and trading foreign goods was likely a lucrative profession throughout the neolithic period. Decorative foreign pottery and personal signature's on contracts (through seals) were innovations for neolithic sea merchants.

A few thousand years after the invention of pottery in Anatolia, international trade had connected the lapis lazuli and tin mines in Badakhshan, Afghanistan to the large Pre-Dynastic city states of Egypt. Afghani metals and precious stones were mined by local BMAC (Bactria-Margiana Archeological Complex) peoples and traded south through early Indus River Valley civilization cities, eventually reaching the coast at the mouth of the Indus river. From here, it was carried by sea up the nearby Sumerian gulf to large port cities at the mouths of the Tigris and Euphrates, of which there were many contenders even in the 4th millennium BCE. Then it was shipped up river, touching every large Mesopotamian town, eventually reaching the large towns of the upper Euphrates in what is now eastern Syria. From here, it made its way either to the large Syria port of Ugarit, or south through Canaan, reaching Egypt by both land and sea.

An Egyptian limestone vessel in the shape of a camel, made between 3,200-3,000 BCE

It is also likely that trade penetrated all presumed barriers even during this era, as land connections also existed between the Indus River Valley, Mesopotamia, and Egypt. Camels were an astounding innovation for cross-desert travel in the bronze age, with the earliest finds of domesticated camels coming from Somalia and southern Arabia around 3,000 BCE. Camels are seen across the bronze age Eurasian world, such as at Shahr-e Sukhteh in Iran by 2,500 BCE, and in Mesopotamian seals. It is likely that a camel route managed to cross the desert between Sumer and Canaan, cutting a large amount of time off of the journey.

An Egyptian petroglyph showing a man and a camel, made between 3,000-2,000 BCE, from Ripinsky 1985

The earliest actual depictions of ships are from around 3,000 BCE and are strangely enough, these are not from actual ships themselves but clay models. Only a few hundred years after the dawn of international trade, the ship was a well known enough symbol on Crete to have become a popular toy or votive offering.

A clay model of a ship from Mochlos, Crete, made between 3,000-2,700 BCE

A drawing of a clay model of a ship from Palaikastro, Crete, made around 3,000 BCE

The earliest shipwreck is sadly hundreds of years after this, the Dokos wreck around 2,200 BCE. The Dokos wreck is representative of trading vessels throughout the 3rd millennium BCE, it carried local pottery (from the Argolid) to coastal sites in its region (the Aegean). Ships like this one were already plying the routes between the disconnected Aegean islands by the EM period, and as more and more people lived on these islands they demanded more and more from international tradesmen. The wreck carried not only pottery, but lead ingots. The intended customers were not only the wealthy who bought foreign goods, but metal smiths who supplied the local population with tools. Already by the EM period the local smithing economy was connected to international trade. The ship carried multiple millstones for ballast, which at first seems like an uninteresting fact, but actually points to the kind of pragmatic deals a captain would have to strike with a wide range of people to keep the business afloat. The pottery on this wreck was not all for bulk storage, they traded: cups, bowls, urns, sauce boats, braziers, washing basins, baking trays, and utensils. These traders had something for everyone, their motive was profit and many were successful. Although it should be said that some, like those in the Dokos wreck, lost everything including their lives.

The Dokos wreck carried pottery which resembled EH (early Helladic) styles from mainland Attica and ECyc (early Cycladic) styles from the islands of the central Aegean. This shows that even by 2,200 BCE people on Crete obtained and desired foreign art from around the Aegean. While politically the world was comprised of disconnected city states, the art world had create an early aesthetic union around the coast of the Aegean. This EM period artistic connection was exacerbated by early Minoan colonial efforts in the Aegean. Prior to 2,000 BCE (sometime in the EM period) the site of Kastri on the island of Kythera was settled by Minoans. Originally the site would have been a trading post placed precariously between the Peloponnese mainland and Crete proper, allowing for an easier transfer of goods between the two regions.

A Minoan seal of a ship from Palaiokastros, made around 2,000 BCE

As the MM period began on Crete an entirely new class of the wealthy developed, and they lived in an entirely new and dense type of habitation. This created an immense impetus to import and export goods for profit, more so than what had existed in the EM period. By this period Minoan trade was crossing the Mediterranean. A Minoan jug was found in the grave goods of a Prince at Byblos, on the Levantine coast, around 1,850 BCE. For the rich on the coast of the fertile crescent, such objects were not only idle fascinations but had become such an integral part of an individual's life. These objects were so intimately bound with an individual that they would be included in their eternal potted panoply.

Some of the 153 silver cups in the Tod Treasure, a cache of precious objects which was tribute from a Syrian King to the Pharaoh around 1,920 BCE, it was possibly of Minoan craftsmanship

An interesting story involving King Hammurabi of Babylon also points to the wide reaching impact of Minoan craftsmanship. The King of Mari, Zimri-Lim, sent as a gift a pair of leather shoes to Hammurabi, “One pair of leather shoes in the Caphtorian [Cretan] style, which to the palace of Hammurabi, King of Babylon, Bahdi-Lim [an official] carried, but were returned.” Even by the 18th century BCE Minoan high class imports such as exquisite shoes had been associated with a distinctive and rich Cretan brand. It would have been quite a dishonor to reject such a lavish and expensive gift, and it is unknown why Hammurabi rejected the offer. Although only a few years afterward Hammurabi turned on his previous ally Zimri-Lim and sacked Mari in 1,762 BCE, Zimri-Lim was not heard of after and presumably killed. Maybe Hammurabi was already planning his conquest, and did not feel the need to ingratiate a soon-to-be-rival.


Map of Eastern Mediterranean cultures in the LBA (late bronze age)

The renewed interest in rebuilding and redesigning temples after the Great Earthquake of 1,700 also showed itself in the revitalization of trade. The period from 1,700-1,500 saw a prolific increase in Minoan trading connections and the birth of many Minoan colonies. Foreigners are also found on Crete during this time, at the Ailias cemetery near Knossos the remains of several foreigners were found, dated to around 1,600 BCE. Not only was Crete connecting itself to the outside world, but the outsiders were coming to Crete as well. The creation and popularization of the Marine style of pottery around this time is also interesting and may be related to larger trends in their culture during this period. Although it is unknown why exactly adding sea creatures became so popular by this period, it may have been related to the increase in trading, colonists, and seafarers. As more Minoans saw these strange creatures, their images became more popular which was expressed on Minoan pottery.

Ships depicted on a vase from Kolonna Aigina, 1,800-1,650 BCE

While Kastri, on Kythera, was the earliest colony it was only a collection of foreign traders. Through the MM period, what had started as a collection of traders quickly became settlers, and soon enough they had brought their religion. Kastri is an ideal example of this, a peak sanctuary was built nearby, along with multiple Minoan villages along the coast. In addition to the import of Minoan settlers and culture, the previous native Mycenaean culture was displaced during this period. This was not necessarily an invasion, but only signifies the adoption of popular foreign aesthetics over your parent's native styles. By the flourishing of Minoan culture, the entire island could be considered a branch of the Minoan culture.

The island of Kythera circled

Kastri was only the first, many were to follow on even more far flung islands. Rhodes was colonized, at the site of Trandha. Iasos was a colony in southwest Anatolia, and Minoan influence was at nearby Mycenaean Miletus. Naxos, the largest island in the Cyclades possibly had Minoan colonial influence, as well as the island of Karpathos between Rhodes and Crete. Agia Eirene on Kea (directly off the coast of Attica) and Phylakopi on Melos were also important trading sites or colonies. By 1,550 the site of Akrotiri on the island of Thera had become the largest colony within the Minoan trading sphere. There were so many upper class settlers that the city developed its own version of Minoan figurative art. It is hard to say whether this site is a colony, or had become a fully integrated part of Cretan society.

A reconstruction of Akrotiri, on Thera

Map of sites where Minoan Linear A were found across the Aegean. These sites may equally have been trading hubs or pure colonies. In an age of sole local politics these sites only represent Minoan culture not settlers

A map of Minoan Crete and its trade nodes

A map of Minoan trade, from around 1,570 BCE

There was more contact between the wider world and Crete than just the profiteering merchant. At some point between 1427-1401 BCE the popular Egyptian vizier Rekhmire died and was honored by Minoan envoys. They were called “The Prince of Keftiu...and the Isles [The Cyclades]” which was possibly either Minoan embellishment or Egyptian ignorance. Certainly the Minoans would want foreign powers to believe they ruled the nearby islands, although some places like Thera and Kythera could be considered under absolute Cretan authority.

On the left: Two Minoans from the Egyptian tomb of User. On the right: Two Minoans from the Egyptian tomb of Rekhmire

A detailed image of the two Minoans from the tomb of Rekhmire, 1427-1401 BCE

Detail of the shoes which one of those Minoans was wearing, by the author

Procession from Keftiu, tomb of Rekhmire

Procession continued

Egyptian officials on the right recording gifts given from Keftiu, with Minoans on the left
In addition to the known colonies across the Aegean, the place name Minoa also appears in the Aegean and in multiple places in Sicily. It even appears on the island of Corfu, west of Greece proper. It is entirely unknown whether these places are circumstantial, or were actually Minoan colonies or trading depots. It is reasonable enough that once Minoan colonists and traders had completely dominated the Aegean and de facto ruled Kythera and Thera, that they would look elsewhere for unexploited profits. It is very likely there were colonies on mainland Greece, and certainly throughout the MM period the Minoans held a strong cultural influence over their Mycenaean neighbors.

The Theran Eruption

The island of Thera before and after its eruption around 1,470 BCE

Minoan buildings from Akrotiri today

All great things come to an end, and the Theran eruption of 1,470 BCE not only destroyed the island but the Minoan's most profitable trading colony. While Castleden and others put the date around 1,470 or 1,450, it could have happened anytime as far back as 1,600 BCE. Others say it was around 1,500 BCE, and radiocarbon dates from an olive branch buried under lava say between 1,600-1,628 BCE. Multiple scientists have acquired different datings of this event, and if that was not confusing enough, multiple historical events also give different dates. Supposedly the Tempest Stele made during the reign of the Pharaoh Ahmose I describes the result of the eruption, which would put the it in the mid-late 1,500s BCE, but the eruption which heralded the fall of the Xia and the rise of the Shang dynasties in China was in 1,618 BCE.

Casualties of war in the water, from the Naval Battle fresco at Akrotiri

While the OT period is very well set from about 2,000-1,700 BCE, the NT period may have lasted only 100 years, or up to 250. This stark difference in dates is seemingly inconsequential for ancient history, yet each one gives a very different theme to the MM and LM periods, and each hints at a different cause to the Minoan collapse. If the NT period lasted til 1,450, and then Knossian dominance only lasted 70 years (til 1,380), then the decline of Minoan culture went hand in hand with a lack of temples and a single city's monopoly on power. If the NT period lasted til 1,600 and the subsequent Knossian dominance lasting 220 years, then the peak of Minoan power was under its single state rule with the earlier temple periods becoming a backdrop for the Knossian renaissance and hegemony. The Minoan collapse in this second view is tied more to the fall of their glorious capital than to the rise of a single city state hegemony.

The eruption was devastating yet there are no bodies and very few precious items found on the island. It was most likely evacuated directly before the eruption. The eruption and subsequent disaster did kill many people even if local Therans escaped unharmed: it caused a 115-492 foot high tidal wave which wiped the north coast of Crete clean. At Amnisos on the north coast of Crete there is a visible change in its walls after this period, there was a significant architectural disruption. On the island of Anafi the ash was 10 feet deep. Regardless of how long the period of post-eruption Knossian dominance lasted, the disaster drastically changed Crete and brought an end to a prolific period of temple building. The eruption was one more step towards the decline and fall of the Minoan culture, and within hundreds of years Mycenaean culture would come to dominate both Crete and its historic Aegean colonies.

The ruins of complex delta, at Akrotiri, on the island of Thera

The cultural effect of the eruption is unknown, but the classical reference to Atlantis may be a cultural memory of this disaster. If this is the case, then the consequences of the eruption were far reaching indeed, stretching into the mythical memory of the iron age in an almost unrecognizable form. By the classical period in the minds of Athenians, Atlantis had come to symbolize a prehistoric island based naval power which rivaled Athens until its destruction. If this is a cultural memory of that eruption, the myth had likely conflated Thera and Crete, although generally the notion of a doomed thalassocracy destroyed by an eruption and flood is very similar to the actual events of the 15th century BCE.

Exports and Imports

There was an immense interconnection between bronze age states in the eastern Mediterranean. Both goods and services were exchanged, with each civilization having its own specialty and unique goods. The Egyptians had a monopoly on hippopotamus/elephant ivory, and Nubian slaves. Whereas the Minoans had a monopoly on “Caphtorian” shoes and swords. The Egyptians were also known to export gold, linen, stone perfume boxes, monkeys, and chariots disassembled in kits. While there was an immense amount of background trade among the rich between countries, it was in the best interest of the Kings and Pharaohs to personally conduct tin and chariot kit dealings.

Shipped objects were not only precious materials, but sometimes preserved food, human slaves, or exotic animals. Since there was a complete lack of copyright law, artistic monopolies lasted as long as they stayed unnoticed. A Marine style vase made in Egypt is an interesting indicator of this process, since soon after a specific country's fashion became popular it spread with trade far outside of its origin. Every artisan across the Mediterranean was constantly searching for the next popular style, and once it was found it was copied and exported to death. The native Cretan Marine style is only one pottery fad of many, a burst of popularity and cultural hegemony followed by over-use and decay. Eventually it was superseded by another style, and the ever-churning gears of the fashion industry continued on, as they still do today.

Half of a food case containing a preserved goose, Egypt, 1,550–1,479 BCE

A plaster reproduction of a Minoan Marine style vase made in Egypt

The Minoans exported and imported an immense variety of objects. They exported textiles, such as fine clothing and shoes, and most likely exported general cloth and wool as well. They may have exported silk, which was found on the Aegean island of Kos directly after the Minoan collapse. They exported all sorts of metal objects, such as lead and bronze figurines. Minoan gold cups and swords are found in Mycenae and Sparta, but such ultra-precious objects were probably sent around the eastern Mediterranean. Silver and bronze vessels, in addition to the premier gold ones, were also exported. Finely decorated ostrich eggs were also a rare commodity across the Mediterranean elite, and were exported by the Minoans. First ostrich eggs were acquired as raw material from a trader and then transformed by a Minoan artisan and exported. As in Egypt, the Minoans also likely exported food. The majority of Minoan exports are their decorated pottery, which is found across the Aegean, Levant, and Nile delta, and as far west as the Lipari islands (between Italy and Sicily). Minoan pottery was en vogue in Egypt until after the reign of Pharaoh Tuthmosis II (1,492-1,479 BCE) after which the majority of Aegean pottery imported to Egypt was Mycenaean. This does not show Mycenaean political dominance, only that the established norms of Minoan artistry had a new and able international competitor.

A commonly overlooked aspect of trade was the exchange of artists. Specifically, rulers in Canaan and Egypt would hire Minoan artists to paint those fashionable Minoan frescoes on their palace walls. Artists in this period could become internationally famous, and a preponderance of Minoan artists only added to the power of the island's cultural hegemony. Many aspects of Minoan culture seeped into their neighbors besides painting: Minoan spells were adopted into Egyptian medical texts in the Minoan language (the London Medical Papyrus). 16th century BCE Egyptian school children wrote exercises which were lists of Minoan personal names translated into hieroglyphics. Minoan shipbuilders built “Kaftiu-ships” in the harbor of Memphis under Pharaoh Thutmosis III. Egyptians used foreign texts to train professional translators, ambassadors, priests, and physicians, so likely many more Minoan documents than only the London Medical Papyrus may have been spread through Egypt. The Egyptian court also included translators specifically for the Minoan language during the New Kingdom period, showing the influence of Minoan culture even in the highest levels of neighboring countries. Although it should be said that NK Egyptian rulers also included translators for Nubian, Libyan, Akkadian, Hurrian, and the Hittite languages, Pharaohs needed the utmost linguistic flexibility to manage international politics.

A fresco in Avaris, Egypt, done in the Minoan style most likely by a hired Minoan artist, showing the exotic and foreign practice of bull leaping

Detail of the bull's face on the fresco at Avaris

Minoans imported a plethora of objects from around the Mediterranean. Much of this was in metals, stone vessels, and foreign pottery, but Crete lacked the exotic raw materials which many other countries had. Egyptian elephant tusks and Anatolian obsidian were common imports, and gold mines in the Sinai and Anatolia provided the Minoans with raw gold and foreign trinkets. Minoan traders would have landed in foreign towns to both buy and sell wares, and would have developed a relationship with the local townsfolk. In the iron age, the Phoenicians quickly turned this temporary transaction into a yearlong trade post along with intermarrying Punic merchants into the local populace. While it is unknown if the Minoans created similar de-facto trade colonies, the common place name Minoa on Sicily and around the Aegean may point to such outposts. Certainly islands nearby to Crete were flooded with settlers, as the trading post on Kastri quickly expanded into a series of Minoan villages nearby along the coast. Intermediaries in Sicily would have been very helpful for Minoan rulers, as Sardinian copper and Villanovan (proto-Etruscan) tin would have been highly desirable. Crete, as with every other bronze age empire, required large quantities of tin to support the state's bronze armaments. While near eastern nations acquired their tin from the Badakhshan mountains in Afghanistan, Minoans may have acquired theirs from northern Italy, the Czech Republic, Spain, or even Britain (through many intermediaries). Amber found its way to Crete from the Baltic states, trading hands an unknown amount of times as it worked its way south. Possibly Minoan amber came from Britain's Wessex culture as well.

Minoans trading

Mycenaean Sicilians, from the Age of Bronze mod for Rome II

The Aegean region provided most of Crete's imports: emery was imported from Naxos, white-speckled obsidian from Yiali, and obsidian, tin, and seals from Anatolia. Cyprus was also a major exporter of copper, which the Minoans also utilized. From Syria the Minoans obtained Afghani lapis lazuli and ivory, and from Egypt obtained veined white alabaster, amethyst, carnelian, ostrich eggs/plumes, and manufactured goods. It is remarkable that such an extensive trade network was developed thousands of years before the advent of currency. On Crete, wages were paid to workers as rations, and the entire exchange system was based on bartering. Being successful as a merchant not only required exploiting the best deals, but also being able to barter your way into a profit.

Trade During the Amarna Period

In the mid 14th century BCE various letters between the rulers of large city states across the near eastern region have been found. Called the Amarna letters these correspondences show the great amount of contact and care that rulers put into their trading and social networks. Tablet letters between the Pharaoh of Egypt and the King of Babylon found in Amarna show the Pharaoh sent gold and the King sent back horses and lapis lazuli. The Amarna letters also include fascinating details about the personal connections between rulers: when the Pharaoh Amenhotep III (the father of Akhenaten) died in 1,351 BCE, the neighboring King of the Mitanni (in Syria) replied, When I heard that my brother Nimmureya had gone to his fate, on that day I sat down and wept. On that day I took no food, I took no water.” While the term “brother” was used out of respect between kings, the family was intimately connected: one of Amenhotep's wives was Tushratta's daughter. Other letters show the King of Alasia (Cyprus) offering the Pharaoh 500 bronze talents in exchange for silver, clothing, beads, and disassembled chariot kits. The ornaments of the wealthy along with their weapons of war were traded in personal contracts between rulers, although the physical connection (the handing off of goods) may only have been between various dignitaries in service to their ruler's commands.

Reconstruction of the Uluburun shipwreck. Traveling from Cyprus or Syria to the Aegean this ship sunk off the coast of Anatolia around 1,305 BCE. It contained hundreds of glass, copper and tin ingots, which were its primary trade item. It carried objects from around the world: African wood and elephant tusks, Canaanite and Cypriot pottery, Baltic amber, four different types of swords (one Italian), and in a bin of scrap metal a gold scarab amulet inscribed with the name Nefertiti (the only one of its kind found). Scrap metal often included the trinkets of previous pharaohs and was sold for basic supplies when the ship would dockThe shipwreck is a testament to the complexity of trade networks in the LBA world

A beautifully carved stone mace head from the Uluburun shipwreck

At times, specific high status individuals personally conducted trade with foreign rulers, such as wealthy or notable priests. In one Egyptian account:

“A priest of Ammon [in Egypt]...traveled to Byblos [in Phoenicia] with gold and silver to buy timber to build a sacred ship; after some haggling, the Prince of Byblos delivered timber in return for gold, silver, and raiment.”

This was not an average deal, and the priests (or the Pharaoh) needed more than simply well connected merchants to get the job done. The city of Byblos was in Phoenicia (in what is now Lebanon), which was the premier source of high quality timber. Considering every near eastern culture (including the Minoans) needed wood for buildings and ships, this gave Phoenician city states a lot of bargaining power. Perhaps there were many customers for such timber, and sending a priest as a personal representative of the Pharaoh gave more of an impetus towards a successful deal. Perhaps simply this priest was good at haggling. What is known is that the power structures of the near east were all intertwined through trade, relationships, and intermarriage. This connected structure extended through Anatolia, Greece, and presumably Crete.

Not everything which was imported stayed within its manufacturer's settings, an interesting example of this is from an Egyptian vase which was imported to Crete. At some point in its life it was considered boring enough to be re-used: it was flipped upside down, had its original base sawed off and had gilded bronze molded onto this new opening's rim. Finally wooden handles were added, completing the object as part-Egyptian part-Minoan and completely unique. It is not known why someone would do this, but presumably not all distance value goods were valuable forever. For aspiring artist potters in Crete, nothing was sacred not even a foreign pot brought from overseas.

An imported Egyptian vase made from porphyritic basalt, found at the temple-palace of Kato Zakros on Crete. It had been transformed by an artisan into the typical Minoan bridge-spouted jar. The artist even went so far as to copy the white spot aesthetic onto the added spout by inlaying white rectangles (which are now those depressions seen on the spout)

An imported lapis lazuli cylinder seal representing the Kassite Babylonian King Burna-buriash II (1,359-1,333 BCE). It was found in the Mycenaean palace at Thebes within a cache of 36 cylinders (some worked some unworked), which had been compiled from around the Near East: Cyprus, the Hittite empire, Mesopotamia, the Mitanni kingdom, and Kassite Babylon

For an import to lose all value, having become precious raw materials for the potter's next project, it must be so commonplace or cheap that its distance value becomes null. The Minoan market was presumably flooded with Egyptian pots, and likewise the Egyptian market was flooded with Minoan pottery. Such pottery is usually absent from Egyptian depictions of elite Minoan imports. This is strange, since Minoan pottery was still imported to Egypt and local potters copied Kamares ware styles. Minoan pottery was simply not considered high status (although other Minoan imports were), pots were imported for the sake of other segments of the population. Egyptian potters also replicated Minoan ritual rhytons (even in faience) for unknown purposes.

“...the more widespread availability of Minoan and Minoanizing pottery may have enabled Egyptians from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds to participate in an internationalizing cultural millieu.” - Caitlin E. Barrett

Ships and Shipping

By Andrea Salimbeti

The majority of depicted Minoan ships were small, only 30 oar galleys. These were smaller than the classical 50 oared pentekonter. This is not to say that the 50 oared galley was a classical invention, as it is used in the Odyssey by the 8th century BCE. Homer also mentions the pentekonter's use by the Phaeacians, which may represent some aspect of the Minoan culture. Even 30 oar ships were not meager creations, a Pylian warship from the 12th century BCE is shown with castles on each end connected by a gangway, and as seen on seals larger similar ships were built even as far back as the 17th century BCE. These galleys were outfitted for war, any island nation if it seeks to keep its international dominance must have a powerful navy, whether it is the 19th century CE or the 19th century BCE.

A Minoan galley

A Mycenaean triakonter (although the ram was not added to triakonters until the 6th-5th centuries BCE)

A type VI Achaean ship from the Tragana pyxis, by Peter Connolly

A type V Achaean ship by Eric Shanower from The Age of Bronze comic series, this one in particular is a reproduction of a ship from a pottery fragment from Kynos

Thucydides in book I of his history mentions King Minos of Crete as the first ruler to establish a formal navy, 

“The earliest ruler known to have possessed a fleet was Minos. He made himself master of the Greek waters and subjugated the Cyclades by expelling the Carians and establishing his sons in control of the new settlements founded in their place; and naturally for the safer conveyance of his revenues, he did all he could to suppress piracy.”

While King Minos never existed, Thucydides gives us a good guide as to what a bronze age Minoan ruler had on their plate. The nearby Cyclades were not nearly as militarily powerful as the Minoan city states, but controlling them meant beating back Anatolian colonizers as well. Wherever you took land, your immediate family operated as an extension of your power. Expanding and continuing your kingly wealth was entirely based on the safety of your merchants and tax collectors, which meant that as a ruler pirates certainly were your topmost concern. While Thucydides' claim that the Knossian fleet was the first in recorded history is dubious, there is some truth to his remark as the warships of Minoan city states were the largest and most advanced navies to have ever been seen in the Aegean by that time. No other Aegean, southern Italian, or Black Sea based power had come close to the power projection of Cretan city states.

The Theran Naval Fresco

The entire Theran Naval fresco, this picture is much larger please download and zoom in

A 3D reconstruction of one of the Minoan galleys as seen in the Theran Naval fresco

The most interesting and beautiful depiction of Minoan ships is not from Crete proper, but from the colony of Akrotiri on Thera. The fresco scene is called the Theran naval fresco, and it shows a series of ships presumably in a procession sailing between two cities on opposite ends of the picture. Both cities at the ends of the fresco include throngs of people standing outside or watching from their roofs, along with colorful rolling landscapes surrounding the brightly painted buildings. The right hand city includes a crowd of naked people standing directly at the landing spot, it is unknown whether these are workers, worshipers, or slaves. Interspersed among the multiple ships are dolphins.

The fresco condensed

All of the ships are galleys and all of them have a seated captain's quarters in the rear. One uniquely has sails, and certainly the central ship in the scene is both the most elaborate and probably the intended focus of the piece. Two of the ships have a central mast with no sail, but ropes strung between the top of the central mast and the front and back of the ship. The elaborate central ship has what seem to be gold dangles hanging off these ropes.

The central ship in the fresco

Detail of the captain's quarters from the central ship

A ship with a sail

A reconstruction of the sailed ship from the fresco
Detail of some galleys on the right side

A model of a Minoan galley

A life-size reconstruction of a Minoan galley

Unusual Ships

Not all ships are so obviously utilitarian. There are a few examples from scenes on rings, seals, and models, of ships which are not immediately identifiable in purpose or even construction. The strangest ship seen is from the Ring of Minos, it seems as if half of the ship was designed to resemble the head and body of a strange creature. A priestess is the only occupant in this vessel, and presumably she is transporting a small tripartite shrine in the boat. The meaning of this ship, and all of the symbols inherent in it are completely lost on us. It is luckily not the only depiction of such a strange thing, another version of this ship is also seen on a gold ring from Mochlos. This one too seems to have the head of a strange creature, and is solely occupied by a priestess and a shrine. Even with multiple finds, the ship and its presumed ritual purpose are unknown.

A gold ring with a cultic ship, from Mochlos

The sealing on that gold ring

Another type of strange ship is the so called “talismanic” ship, related to Andrea Salimbeti's type IV. It is seen on multiple seals, but its use and full design are a mystery. It seems to be entirely made up of a large squarish chamber in the center. It is not shown with rowers, and the chamber is not topped with sacred horns.

A Cretan seal showing a talismanic ship, 1,800-1,500 BCE

A clay model of a late Minoan ship found at Phylakopi is also very unusual. Its body resembles the ripples found in sea shells, most likely it was designed to look like a shell in this way. The model very well may have been only decorative and not functional, but since it is the only depiction of its strange design, speaking to the use or disuse of the ship is impossible.

A clay model of a strange ship, Phylakopi, 1,450-1,100 BCE


The Minoans, by Rodney Castleden
EM history of Kastri, Kythera. Abstract
History of Kythera, from
Minoan and Mycenaean Ships, Andrea Salimbeti
Egyptian and Minoan cultural transfusion (pg 3)
Minoan Pottery in Egypt, by Caitlin E. Barrett

Egyptian Imports in Minoan Society