Minoan Civilization Writing, Seals

Minoan civilization writing sealsMinoan Civilization Writing, Seals

The Minoan Civilization, the center of Europe’s first advanced civilization, the Minoans, from 2700 to 1420 BC, was located on the island of Crete in the Mediterranean Sea.

Crete has been a part of Greece since 1913. It is about 100 miles southeast of the Greek mainland, at the southern edge of the Aegean Sea.

Crete is 160 miles long, with 8,000-foot snow-capped mountains, covering an area of 3,219 square miles. It is the fifth-largest island in the Mediterranean Sea, after Sicily, Sardinia, Cyprus, and Corsica.

Archaeological Discovery of Minoan Civilization

Knossos Minoan Palace restored north portico Crete

The ruins of the Palace of Knossos, a Bronze Age settlement and ancient Minoan city, are now located in the capital city of Heraklion on the north shore of Crete.

The Minoan civilization was rediscovered in 1900 during excavations by British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans. He applied the name Minoan from the mythical King Minos. He unearthed the palatial site at Knossos.

The palace complex consisted of over 1,000 interlocking rooms, including throne rooms, artisans’ workrooms, temples, and food processing and storage centers with grain mills, oil presses, and wine presses.

It was used as a central storage point, and as a religious and administrative center, up to five stories high. Evans identified the maze with the labyrinth and the Minotaur from Greek mythology.

The Mediterranean climate and fertile soil of Crete are well-suited for agriculture and raising livestock. The Minoan palatial system with its many sleeping rooms may have resulted from an agricultural surplus that could support a large population of government administrators, craftsmen, and religious practitioners.

The palace used advanced water systems, with aqueducts carrying spring water, delivered by pipes and faucets, a stormwater drainage system, and flush toilets feeding into a wastewater disposal system.  It used air shafts for ventilation to augment the sea breeze.

At its peak, the palace and surrounding city had a population of 100,000 shortly after 1700 BC.

Many fresco scenes painted on the walls of the palace depict bulls, leading Evans to conclude that the Minoans worshiped the bull.  Some scenes depict a ritual or sport of bull-leaping.

Evans found 3,000 clay tablets, which he transcribed and organized, publishing them in Scripta Minoa.  It has been a valuable resource for researchers and scholars.

Minoan Civilization Sea Trade

Minoan ship reconstruction modelMinoan sea trade destinations around the Mediterranean region included the Aegean Islands, the Old Kingdom of Egypt, copper-containing Cyprus, Rhodes, Syria, Italy, Sicily, Spain, Canaan, the coast of the Levant, and Anatolia.

They traded for amber from northern Europe and precious stones from the Far East.

Herodotus wrote that King Minos of Knossos established a thalassocracy (sea empire).  Minoan pottery has been found in many foreign locations around the Mediterranean.

Trade not only exchanged goods but it spread the Minoan culture and brought back information, ideas, and customs from other regions.

No defense fortifications are found at Minoan palace sites. The Minoans were wealthy traders, not conquerors.  The ship fleet was powerful and provided defense at sea.

Linear A Minoan Script

Long before the Minoan civilization developed, the first human settlement in Crete was 130,000 years ago, during the Paleolithic age.

Linear A script Minoan civilization Sitia Museum CreteFrom around 1800 to 1450 BC, scribes used a Minoan writing system based on a script known as Linear A. The Minoan language encoded by Linear A is believed to be unrelated to any other known language. Scribes wrote mostly on clay tablets.

Scholars continue to study the Linear A Minoan script trying to decode it. Some believe it was used primarily as an accounting tool for recordkeeping. Once Linear A script is decoded, we will learn much more about Minoan civilization.

The term linear means that the script was written by using a stylus to inscribe lines into a clay tablet. With cuneiform writing, used in Mesopotamia, a stylus is used to press wedge shapes into the clay.

Linear A script uses thousands of signs, believed to represent syllabic, ideographic, and semantic values.  Over 1400 writing specimens, totaling over 7,000 signs, have been found in Crete, Greece, the Aegean Islands, Asia Minor at Troy, and the Levant.

Cretan hieroglyphs, also undecoded, were also used from about 1625 to 1500 BC.

Linear B Script, Mycenaean Civilization

Linear B Minoan script clay tablet Knossos CreteThe colossal volcanic eruption on the Aegean island of Thera (Santorini), around 1500 BC, about 70 miles north of Crete, with volcanic ash, earthquakes, or a massive tsunami, may have destroyed the ship fleet and led to the downfall of the Minoan civilization.

Around 1420 BC, the Minoan palaces and civilization were overrun by the Mycenaean civilization from mainland Greece. The Mycenaeans continued the Minoan economic system and bureaucracy. The Minoans assimilated into the Mycenaean society.

Mycenaean Greek, the oldest samples of writing in the ancient Greek language, is written in the Linear B script. The script was used from about 1425 to 1200 BC.  Samples from Knossos are preserved in museum archives.  Mycenaean Greek was identified by architect and self-taught linguist Michael Ventris in the 1950s.

Linear B script was an adaptation of Minoan Linear A script and shares many symbols with Linear A. It consists of about 87 syllabic signs and over 100 ideographic signs and appears to have been used for administration.

Phaistos Disc

Phaistos Disc Minoan civilization museum CreteThe inscribed baked clay Phaistos Disc was discovered in 1908 by Italian archaeologist Luigi Pernier at the Minoan Palace of Phaistos on the southern coast of Crete. It was created around 1700 BC.  It has unique stamped pictorial signs arranged into groups in a spiral configuration.

Experts do not agree on the meaning of the inscription and its relation to Cretan scripts. Certain combinations of signs are repeated, considered as evidence that the inscription is a hymn or a text of magic.

The Phaistos Disc is on display at the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion, Crete.

Minoan Seals

Minoan ship seal CreteBronze Age Aegean seals were made and used from pre-palatial times in Crete, around 2600 BC.  Artwork found shows that seals were worn as jewelry (necklaces, bracelets, and signet rings) as well as used for sealing purposes.

The seals were made from colored stones, bone, ivory, metal, and glass.  Imported material including ivory, amethyst, and lapis lazuli are evidence of trade with foreign regions. Signet rings were mostly made of gold.

green jasper seal CreteSeals may have been used to represent family clan identity, social status, government position or authority, or for religious purposes.

The Corpus of Minoan and Mycenaean Seals (CMS), founded in 1958, has gathered and published photos and impressions of thousands of seals from the Aegean Bronze Age. The collection is housed at the University of Heidelberg and is available to researchers.

Greek Mythology and Crete

Theseus and the MinotaurEarly Cretan history includes the legends of King Minos, and Theseus and the Minotaur, passed on orally by poets such as Homer.

According to Greek mythology, Crete was the birthplace of several gods, including Zeus and Apollo. King Minos was the son of Zeus and Europa, a goddess and princess of Phoenicia. When King Minos died, he became a judge of the dead in Hades.

The labyrinth of the Palace of Knossos was the place where Athens hero Theseus slew the half-man, half-bull Minotaur. Theseus then used a ball of string to find his way back out of the maze.

Daedalus crafted wings from bird feathers and candle wax for himself and his son Icarus to escape captivity imposed by King Minos by flying away. Icarus ignored his father’s warnings and flew too close to the sun. The wax in his wings melted and he crashed and drowned in the sea.

Artifacts of Minoan Civilization

Today, Crete’s archaeological sites and museums of the Minoan civilization are popular tourist attractions. The Heraklion Archaeological Museum has the most complete collection of artifacts from the Minoan civilization. including examples of Linear A and Linear B scripts and the Phaistos Disc.

Image Credits

1. Minoan Palace of Knossos, restored north portico, Crete, Wikipedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0
2. Minoan ship reconstructed model, based on Theran fresco, Fair Use for education, Kommos Conservancy, Crete
3. Linear A tablet from the Palace of Zakros, Archaeological Museum of Sitia, Crete, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 3.0
4. Minoan Linear B clay tablet KN Fp 13, dated to 1450-1375 BC, found at Knossos by Arthur Evans. It records quantities of oil apparently offered to various deities. Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.0
5. Phaistos Disc, Minoan Civilization Exhibit, Archaeological Museum of Heraklion, Crete, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0
6. seal impression, Minoan ship, Crete, Fair Use for education, CMS collection
7. green jasper seal, hieroglyphics, Crete, 1900 BC, Fair Use for education, CMS collection
8. Theseus and the Minotaur, Wikimedia Commons, public domain

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