Minoans: Conclusions


What then can the Minoans tell us about these great pre-money societies? Undoubtedly they were rich, successful and complex.  But they worked in a very different way to the market economies that we know so well, and think of as being ‘normal’. We should see the Minoans as being typical ‘higher Barbarians’ and try and interpret the palaces in the light of Malinowksi’s ideas from the Trobriand islands. The palaces were essentially places for redistribution, places to which tribute was rendered and from which the goods were redistributed as ‘gifts’

In 2010 we went to Crete and were able to see all four palaces. I took a lot of photos which have helped and stimulated me greatly in the setting out to reinterpret Minoan Crete. I was looking for two things in particular: evidence for storage, and evidence for workshops.

The storage was not difficult to discover — Knossos is famed for its ‘magazines’ and the lavish display of ‘pithoi’, that is large jars for containing olive oil, and it is clear that the Minoan world was based on olive oil which was the equivalent of gold and silver. The magazines at Knossos are famous, though when we arrived, they were closed for restoration and all the pithoi had been removed, though this meant that one could see well the earlier alternative forms of storage, that is the cists, or cupboards in the floor in which the ‘treasures’ in whatever form they may have been,  could have been stored. In the other palaces too, the pithoi are very prominent.

Phaistos pithoi

Phaistos: the two great pithoi, or jars for olive oil are in the most prominent position of the central courtyard, by the stairway that led up to the private apartments. But is this their original position?

At Phaistos, there are two modest sized pithoi prominently placed against the north wall of the courtyard, but I could not make out whether they were actually there in Minoan times,  or had been placed there by the excavators.

Phaistos display room

The Display Room at Phaistos? The excavators call this a vestibule but was this the display room where all the finest treasures were displayed?


However Phaistos was particularly interesting because the main magazines were set, not in a row behind the main rooms in the West Wing, but in a corridor leading off from the main courtyard. I thought at first this was the entrance to the wing, but I gather that the end wall was in fact closed off in Minoan times.  What was interesting however was that the corridor opened out into what the excavators called a ‘vestibule’, one of the largest and most elaborate rooms in the whole palace, with a row of columns down the middle and apparently opening out onto the courtyard. What was it doing? Could it have been a ‘Display Room’, where the wealth of the rulers could be displayed? There would have been other treasures in addition to the olive oil, notably textiles. Judging by the tablets textiles probably played an equally large role for display, though they have not survived.

Textiles often played a major role in earlier societies — one thinks of the vast numbers of loom weights discovered in excavations, and this is confirmed again by the linear B tablets. And one thinks of the potlatches observed in the early 20th century among the West Coast Indians in British Columbia who burnt blankets to show how wealthy they were. Surely we must envisage the palaces as being decked out with textile hangings on all the many feast days and the high point of the ceremonies could well have been the giving out of textiles to visiting dignitaries as well as perhaps the deliberate destruction of them in a potlatch just to show how wealthy the rulers were.

In the Palace at Malia in exactly the same position, there is a similar room which they call a ‘portico’: it is up three or four steps though I wasn’t quite certain what lay behind – I think the pithos on display was in fact in a separate room.

The Display Room at Knossos? This is usually considered to be the ante-chamber to the Throne Room. But was this a display room in its own right? Photo: Flickr

Knossos Antechamber

Knossos the Ante-chamber to the Throne Room left. Was this a room where treasures were displayed?

But what was the situation in Knossos? This is the position where the throne room is set at Knossos, clearly the most important position in the Palace. However the throne room is fronted by a sort of ante-room which is generally ignored.  Today this is a sort of waiting room for tourists about to go into the throne room.

But I did take a sideways view of a wooden throne built for the attendants: if any of our readers go out to Knossos, would they please take a proper photo of this ante-room for me. But could it be that this too was a Display Room and that only the selected few would go through to the throne room beyond?

My pursuit of workshops was at first less successful. The obvious place to look is Phaistos, where in the outer North East courtyard there is what appears to be a kiln or oven — there is no good evidence for precisely what they were used for. But it seems to be an outer courtyard surrounded by small rooms which could well be workshops of some sort. It is a good place to start, suggesting that the north east corner is the place to look for workshops. I then found that at Knossos, the ground falls away steeply at the north east corner, so the upper stories are all gone, but nevertheless a ‘schoolroom’ was discovered which may have been where the scribes performed their duties; there is also evidence for a stone working workshop fallen down from an upper story.

Malia Factory

Malia: was this the factory where olive oil was turned into a wonderfully scented beauty product?

However the most interesting evidence comes from Malia. Here the eastern side of the courtyard is occupied by a strange building that is today preserved under a cover building,  which appears to be a set of magazines with a plaster floor and plaster walls. In the floor there are recesses for pithoi, and also runnels to catch any oil that might be spilt. There is only one entrance to this building and it looks as if it was heavily guarded, but why was it placed under a cover building? Was it because the plaster happened to be preserved and one should assume that many of the other buildings were originally plastered? Or was this an unusual building with a special plaster floor and was in fact some sort of factory in which olive oil was processed?

A similar room with plaster floors and walls and runnels in the floor is to be found in the area to the north where a large feature known as the Agora has been excavated. It has been suggested that this may have been a sort of proto-Palace. Was this too a factory for olive oil products?

Olives are not only useful as foods and as a fuel for lamps, but it can also be processed in many ways, both in a more mundane fashion for soap, but also for elaborate perfumes and ointments and beauty preparations. Today women are persuaded to lavish large sums on make-up ‘Because you’re worth it’:  did a similar precept hold sway in Minoan culture? Was this one of the secrets of the success of the palaces that this is where olive oil was processed into perfumes and make up?  Were all those bare breasted ladies made beautiful by the application of olive oil?

Surprisingly to our eyes the palaces do not appear to be domestic, or at least not primarily domestic. At Phaistos and Mallia there appeared to have been a domestic quarter, but it was not particularly grand.  At Knossos it has often been thought that the so called Little Palace discovered by Evans, a couple of hundred yards north west of the main palace, could have been the main residential quarters.  Instead the palaces probably had a primarily ritual function.  One of the odd things about the Minoans is that there are no large formal temples.  The nearest that we come to a Minoan temple are the peak sanctuaries that are discovered near the peaks of many of the mountains in Crete, notably Mount Yuktas, in centre near Knossos.  Here pilgrimages were made and feasts were held and food and drink was consumed, the remnants of which are often discovered.  Offerings were also made of double axes and vessels in the form of bulls’ heads, and statuettes of women often in faience.

Knossos Procession

Knossos:the procession fresco showing rows upon rows of ladies watching some sort of procession. Note that this is highly restored. But does this really represent life at Knossos? (double click on photo to enlarge)

However, Minoan religion was clearly different and was bound up with the life of the palaces, with presumably formal bathing in the lustral basins from which the priestess or queen, – one assumes that she was female, –  would emerge to oversee the bull leaping ceremonies.  Processions probably played a major role as in Egypt, indeed such processions and feasts still survived down until Medieval England, and even today the Lord Mayor’s show is a dim survival of the processions that probably dominated the life of these ‘grand higher barbarian’ societies.

Out in the countryside there were a number of smaller country houses ranging from the very grand at Hagia Triada, the very rich house just half an hours walk from the Phaistos palace that could well have been the actual dwelling place of the king at Phaistos.  A complete town is known at Gournia with a small mini palace at its centre.  And there are many other villas known in the countryside.

How then do we finally assess the Minoans? Or rather, how far have we been led astray by Arthur Evans into seeing an over favourable picture of the Minoans? Cathy Gere, in her  book Knossos and the Prophets of Modernism paints a fascinating picture of the extent to which the Evans obtained a considerable following among poets and artists and  the intelligentsia in the 1930s and seduced many with images of peaceful prosperity.

But if his followers may have been drawn to excess, much of Evans’ assessment must surely stand. There is surprisingly little evidence for war among the Minoans. The Palaces are all on indefensible sites — unlike the palace at Mycenae, or at Mycenaean Sparta.

Certainly there were plenty of weapons to be found in the tombs, though these may well have been essentially ritual. There were the watchtowers and traces of defences around Malia, but these are no more than would have been expected in an essentially peaceful society.  More important perhaps is the evidence of the frescoes. In Egypt and the Mesopotamian lands — one thinks in particular of the Assyrians – the rulers are often shown as mighty smiters of the enemy, with rows of prisoners awaiting their fate. The Bible too talks much of the smiting of enemies. The Minoan frescoes on the other hand have few scenes of warfare but instead  show scenes of the populace watching processions or is it the bull leaping ceremony?

Furthermore we should note that all the burials are modest – there is none of the emphasis on death of the Egyptians or the huge lavish tombs of the Mycenaeans.  True there is some evidence of human sacrifice, but the evidence is scanty and clearly the role of human sacrifice, if any, was a minor one.

Giant Pithoi

These two giant pithoi, largely reconstructed by Evans, were found in the north eastern quarter at Knossos, and judging by their decoration probably came originally from the Old Palace. It has been estimated that the cost of producing one of these giant pithoi would have been similar to the cost of building a small house.

There is also a remarkable absence of temples.  There are the peak sanctuaries up the mountains where ceremonies took place, and no doubt the palaces played a major religious role.  But there is no temple hierarchy which could have challenged the palace rulers for power and supremacy and people’s time.  They did not spend their surplus on lavish burials or lavish temples: they spent their surplus on the palaces.

I think we must conclude that this was a society built around the olive.  We tend to think of wealth as being expressed in gold or silver, but these played no role in Minoan society.  The olive was king and it was brought in to the palace in huge quantities and once in the palaces its value was increased by refining and adding to it, and no doubt the highest products were sweet smelling oils to adorn your body and increase your beauty.

It is not hard to be persuaded that overall, life was really rather pleasant.  No doubt there was always too much tribute to be rendered, and the demands of the scribes with their records on their tablets were always excessive.  No doubt too much time was spent waiting in processions and hoping you would receive from the rulers the right gifts and in the right quantities, and not be palmed off with gifts you did not want. But for the most part, you would surely be proud to be part of a great Minoan empire and to admire the greatness of the wonderful rulers, and their gorgeous wives.

Knossos Court ladies

Whereas in Egypt wall scenes tend to represent the Pharaoh smiting his enemies, in Minoan Crete the typical scenes tend to be these court ladies, all dressed up and waiting for ceremonies. Is this a fair reflection of life in Minoan Crete?

There is a saying that money is the root of all evil, but that is because money is the root of all choice.  Money is not only the root of all evil; it is also the root of all good.  In a pre-money society,  choice was always restricted. There was no choice as to as to which tribute you had to pay, which gifts you would receive or when you would work on your lord’s demesne. There was no choice as to which ruler you preferred or what choices he should make.  You simply accepted what you were given, and you believed it was good.  All those who live in non-money societies are essentially deluded into believing that their society is perfect.  But for the Minoans, the delusion was perhaps more soundly based than in most societies.