The Minoans

The Minoans were the smallest of the sophisticated pre-money economies of the near East, but they are also one of the most interesting. Since they were confined to a single small island, and operated at their height for rather less than a millennium, we can set out to describe them as a coherent whole.

There are two particular reasons why we should study the Minoans. Firstly, because they are dominated by their palaces. There were four great palaces but no great temples or rich  tombs to distract attention, so we can study the palaces by themselves and get a very good idea of how a Palace economy works.

And secondly we can now study their language, Minoan Linear B. This was only deciphered only quite recently in 1952, when it was revealed to be Greek. Admittedly this is probably not the language of the Minoans themselves, but of the Mycenaeans who conquered them towards the end of the Minoan era. Nevertheless the tablets surely reflect life in the Minoan period as well. But the great interest of the Minoan linear B is the feature that is generally considered to be their big disadvantage, that they are essentially accounting records.

Unlike the Egyptian hieroglyphs which are used to record the achievements of the Pharaohs and to offer up prayers for their souls, the Minoan linear B records are accounting records, inscribed on the cheap and cheerful clay tablets which just happen to have survived because the rooms in which they were stored were accidentally burnt and the clay tablets fired and thus persevered. Some people say that this makes them terribly boring, but I find them terribly exciting, for here we can see precisely how the society worked with the accounts of who owned which flocks of sheep, or which products were brought up to the Palace and which goods were then redistributed downwards. There are indeed similar accounts in Mesopotamia, particularly in the later kingdoms of the Assyrians,  but it is in Crete that we can see the accounting system at its best and reap the lessons to be learned of how a higher barbarism actually worked.

We begin with an account of Sir Arthur Evans, who first discovered the greatest of all palaces at Knossos and named the civilisation, the Minoans. Evans was a powerful and dynamic figure who stamped his personality on the Minoans so that at times it is difficult to get away from under his shadow. But how far are his interpretations correct? How far should we accept the views of his modern critics and how far should we allow that he was largely correct?

We then go on to look at the great Palace at Knossos and get a glimpse of how the Palace economy works. We then look at the other three palaces at Phaistos, Malia and Zakro, before moving on to look at what the Minoan Linear B tablets tell us.  We then move on to the problems of chronology: the chronology has recently been greatly upset by the scientific dating of the eruption of the volcano on the nearby island of Thera, apparently in 1628 BC, -  the exact date is given by tree ring dating, and we discuss how this affects the whole dating of the Minoans.

Finally we move onto our conclusions:  what  are lessons to be learnt from Minoans about the workings of the pre-money economy? Finally we take a quick look at Mycenae, on the mainland Greece and consider the Barbarians who finally defeated the sophisticated Minoans.


On to Sir Arthur Evans

15th November 2011, 22nd February 2012