Sunday, April 12, 2015

The Minoans: Paleolithic and Neolithic Crete

Here in the present we do not have the luxury of future archeological discoveries. We can only collect and synthesize what we know, and compare that with the abyss of prehistory. This is not to say we know nothing about the time, while many personal details are obscured a general narrative is not. The story behind this little island begins not with humans, but with even earlier hominins. Neanderthals found their way to Crete around 130,000 years ago, having made canoes or used floats to cross the sea. They left Acheulean hand axes, the earliest deposited hominin tools on the island and in a sense the beginning of its recorded history. Over 100,000 years later, around 12,000 BCE Homo Sapiens crossed the sea, coming to an island filled with pygmy elephants and giant rodents. These earliest settlers killed off these creatures, or at least assisted their slow death during the last Ice Age. With no carnivorous animals on the island, it was quickly dominated by humans and has been ever since.

Acheulean tools found on Crete, most likely made by Neanderthals

A comparison of a pygmy elephant and a human, from

The history of the island quickly picks up around 7,000 BCE, when another large invasion brought Neolithic people to the island. Throughout the next 500 years Neolithic Cretans changed their daily habits, switching from hunting, gathering, and fishing, to a more settled lifestyle of farming and rearing animals. By 6,500 BCE these newly settled Neolithic Cretans had invented pottery. People lived in groups of 50-100 in semi-subterranean huts dug into the ground. People farmed einkorn and emmer wheat, barley, lentils, and peas as well as raising sheep, goats, cattle, pigs, and dogs. While farming and rearing animals were becoming popular, people still certainly foraged or wild fruits and hunted wild animals. People made tools out of flint, obsidian, and bone, and unique hooked bone objects from this period are presumed to be belt adornments. People also made figurines from unfired or semi-fired clay, and jewelry from clay, stone, bone, and sea shells. This period marks the beginning of identifiable sedentary human cultures on Crete, a period which continues today.

Around 7,000 BCE the wider Mediterranean area was flourishing as well, nearby Catalhoyuk in southeastern Anatolia was at its peak at this time, and by 6,500 BCE as Cretans invented pottery the town of Sesklo in Thessaly was founded. During the 7th millennium Seskloans made mud houses, and adopted seal stones for their aesthetic value (not yet signing documents with them).

A map of neolithic sites across Greece

Site plan of Nea Nikomedeia, an early neolithic (6,500-5,800 BCE) settlement on mainland Greece

After a thousand years, by 5,500 BCE, the town was flourishing with a few hundreds to even a few thousand inhabitants. By the 6th millennium BCE these people were no longer living in mud houses, but ones made of unfired adobe mixed with hay which sat upon stone foundations. By this millennium hearths and ovens were put between houses or in common areas, and some houses were even two stories high. Seskloan potters produced colorful painted geometric pottery in a creative explosion during this period, especially after the invention of fired pottery. Between 5,500-5,000 BCE painted pottery was more commonly found in the “citadel” area of settlement as opposed to the “town” section, evidence of an early social stratification.

A clay model of a house, from Sesklo, Thessaly. Made around 5,000 BCE

A reconstruction of a middle neolithic (5,800-5,300 BCE) house with a stone foundation from Greece

A reconstruction of Sesklo

Warriors from Sesklo in the 6th millennium BCE, by Giuseppe Rava

A picture of the remains of Sesklo today

A red patterned clay cup from Sophades, Thessaly. Made between 5,000-4,000 BCE

Clay cup from Sesklo, Thessaly. Made between 5,800-5,300 BCE

Clay bowl from Sesklo, Thessaly. Made between 5,800-5,300 BCE

While the most dense region of middle neolithic settlement was in Thessaly, the inhabitants of Crete also lived a culturally intricate lifestyle. Tantalizing clues to their life often comes from bits and pieces of figurines from this period, indicating fine clothing and jewelry.

A middle neolithic (5,800-5,300 BCE) figurine from Franchthi Crete, showing clothing

A middle neolithic (5,800-5,300 BCE) figurine from Knossos, showing body decoration

A late neolithic (5,300-3,000 BCE) figurine from Makriyalos Crete, with a box highlighting jewelry

Between 5,300-4,800 BCE (called the Pre-Dimini phase) people began settle all over Greece, especially in the plains. The population boom during this period is also seen in an increase in the variety of regional pottery, and novel rectangular and megaron style buildings. Hearths and ovens were now placed inside people's houses, showing that cooking had become a familiar instead of a communal affair. Villages were surrounded by ditches 4-6 meters wide and 1.5-1.7 meters deep, to protect against foraging wild animals as well as other humans. The earliest lakeside village in Greece existed during this period (at Dispilio-Kastoria), people had built timber-post framed platforms in order to raise their towns above the water. During the Pre-Dimini phase the population of local villages skyrocketed, going from the prior 50-100 average to 100-300. People invented new foods like bread wheat, millet, rye, oats, and chickpeas.

A vase from Dimini, Thessaly. Made between 5,300-4,800 BCE

A reconstruction of the town of Dimini as it existed during the 5th millennium BCE

A reconstruction of the town of Dimini as it existed around 3,700 BCE

As the cultural geography and population density shifted, so did the focus of artistry and craftsmanship. By the middle of the 5th millennium BCE (between 4,800-4,500 BCE) the village of Dimini began to outshine its neighbor Sesklo. During this millennium the shift towards plains settlements continued and was aggrandized. While communities continued to be around 100-300 strong, certain activities became specialized such as: pottery workshops, sea shell jewelry carvers, and obsidian arrowhead manufacturers. These novel “professions” became localized in a workshop, and utilized by a local specialist. During the 5th millennium BCE silver and copper beads are rarely found, suggesting a continuation of class stratification. The “House of the Potter” in Sesklo is a beautiful snapshot of the time period, being destroyed/preserved by a fire around 4,400 BCE.

Cup of Urfinis ware, southern Greece, made between 5,000-4,500 BCE

Urfinis ware table or footstool made of clay, southern Greece, made between 5,000-4,500 BCE

While the evidence for regional trade is not as widespread as it is during the early Minoan (EM) period, neolithic Greeks traded using exchange networks. Obsidian from the Aegean island of Melos is found across the Aegean, even reaching Macedonia. Jewelry from Dimini in Thessaly went as far as the Balkans and central Europe, as did ring idol pendants. The sophisticated pottery made at Sesklo, Sophades, and Dimini certainly found its way into the hands of prospective buyers hundreds of miles away from its site of origination. The question remains, how far were such objects traded by a single person, or by people generally? While people did trade precious objects, painted pottery, and raw materials, it is also an open question whether each town's culture also traveled along these trade routes. Sesklo is the presumed originator of massive amounts of female figurines which are found as far north as the Karanovo culture (in Bulgaria) and the Koros culture (in eastern Hungary). It is completely unknown what these female figurines represented, but trading symbolic figurines is very different than trading painted pottery. Owning beautiful pottery is still valued today, but finding one particular reason for owning a schematic figurine is much more mysterious. It is certainly possible that they were only used as toys, and that Sesklo had become a popular site of such production. The question remains completely unanswered, but the neolithic period shows the birth of well developed regional exchange networks. These networks would cement routes and associations which early Minoan traders later exploited.

Votive figurines from Sesklo

Clay model of a decorated boat, from the late neolithic (5,300-3,000 BCE) period on Crete

Map of late Neolithic cultures across Europe and Anatolia, generally of the 6th millennium BCE

Neolithic chronology of the Aegean and surrounding regions

In comparison to the Minoan golden age, much less is known of Neolithic Crete. Even with that lack of information, the early settlements at what would become future Minoan cities (like at Knossos and Phaistos) point to an increasingly urban population on Crete. There is one curious fact which ties neolithic Cretans to the glorious palaces of the late bronze age Minoan civilization: the initial neolithic settlement on Crete was at Knossos, directly at the future site of the central court at its palace. By the Minoan era, this court was to be the central feature and focus of the palace hierarchy and ritual, as the court of each city's palace held high importance in Minoan culture generally. This connection is remarkable, while the Minoans had no idea who their Neolithic forebears were many thousands of years prior, through some process of agglomeration this specific spot kept its importance. For thousands of years the village at this site grew and expanded, blossoming and evolving into the peak Minoan town of Knossos by the 2nd millennium BCE. At its peak this town was the largest and presumably strongest of the Minoan cities. The palace surrounding that central court was the largest and most elaborate on the whole island. If only the Minoans knew how deeply connected they were to their ancestors many thousands of years prior.

The site of the earliest settlement on Crete, Neolithic Knossos, around 9 kya, shown as it existed during the Minoan golden age (the early and middle 2nd millennium BCE) as the central court of the Palace of Knossos

The central court at Knossos now


Prehistoric Crete on Wikipedia
Neolithic Pottery in Greece, from IME.Gr
Small amount of info on Sesklo and Dimini
The House of the Potter at Sesklo
Figurin' Out Neolithic Crete, by Marina Mina
Aegean Neolithic Transition, What-When-How

The FN to EBA Transition in Crete, Nowicki


  1. Why, oh why is that every time I locate a truly intelligent and captivating blog, it has been neglected for a year? Still, I'll be pouring over this site for days!

    1. Thanks! Don't worry I'm still here, it's just taking me quite some time to write the next installment of posts.