Influences on Crete's Material Culture


Internal Influence

Crete as an example of Peer Polity Interaction
by Lawren Crowson


Ancient Crete was not unified under a single government. Areas of the island developed into separate political entities that were centered at several palaces. The palaces served as administrative centers and controlled the areas surrounding them. (Fitton, 2002) In 1986, Colin Renfrew and John F. Cherry proposed that the palaces of Crete at Knossos , Phaistos , and Mallia served as the centers of individual peer polities. (Van de Moortel, 2002) Interestingly, mythic tradition names three kings, brothers Minos, Rhadamanthys, and Sarpedon, who were the rulers of Knossos, Phaistos, and Mallia. (Warren, 1989) Renfrew and Cherry also proposed that centers in the same region will develop in complexity at similar rates and that social, intellectual, and institutional trends that appear at one polity will occur in the other interacting polities due to various forms of exchange. (Crumley, 1988)
I argue that this is an extremely valid proposal. Architectural similarities between the palaces, distribution of similar craft and art items, and similar cultural practices and religious themes throughout the island indicate that there was exchange of cultural ideas, knowledge and technology throughout the polities of Crete.

Architectural Similarities:

Many of both the major and minor palaces of ancient Crete have several structural similarities. Most notably, many of the rooms of the palaces were laid out in the same way, and for similar uses. Their likeness in construction illustrates a unified ideal of architecture and structure throughout the island, and potentially collaboration by leaders, or those that they commissioned to build the palaces.
To begin, it has been discovered that the people of Crete used a standard unit of measurement, which equaled 30.36 centimeters. This is evidence of very detailed architectural planning that was used across the entire island. (Warren, 1989).
The palaces were built in distinct periods. The first palatial period spanned roughly 2000- 1600 BC. During this period, it has been determined that the palaces at Knossos, Mallia, and Phaistos were constructed using stone, wood, and mud brick. Each of these palaces contained a central court, and a second court on its western side. (Warren, 1989) Nearly all of these courts measured roughly 80’ by 170’, and all were arranged north to south. The courts and surrounding rooms were built so that they could make the best use of natural light and included many columns. (Branigan, 1970). The rooms surrounding the central court were also used for similar purposes. At Knossos and Mallia rooms on the western side of the central court were used for cult purposes, and guest rooms were also included on this side. Rooms on the eastern side of both palaces were used to store goods. (Willetts, 1977)
During the second palatial period, which lasted from 1700-1450 BC, reconstruction on the palaces occurred in order to repair damages that had resulted from earthquakes. The central courts from the first palatial period were retained. The western side of the court contained storage rooms for oil, wine, and grain. The opposite side of the court was likely used for apartments for the royalty. (Warren, 1989) Other rooms surrounding the courts were used for craft production and the keeping of records at each of the palaces. Also, like during the previous period, columns and other architectural elements were used to make best use of the natural light. It has also been determined that the palaces contained banquet halls separate of the central court. (Fitton, 2002) There were also public rooms, such as the banquet halls, located on upper stories. They have been seen at Knossos, Mallia, and Zakros , and are roughly the same size, and each contain stairways and associated kitchens on lower stories. (Graham, 1979).
Knossos and Phaistos each contained an area that has been called a “Theatral area” by Evans, and could have been used for ceremonial purposes. These structures could also have been used by leaders to make announcements to the public. (Fitton, 2002)
Excavations have also determined that the palaces contained an area on their second floor, on the west side of the court that has been called the “Piano Nobile”. This area contains domestic quarters at Knossos, Phaistos, and Mallia, (Graham, 1959)
The Palace at Knossos
The Palace at Mallia

Crafts and Art:

The distribution of crafts and art throughout the palaces and other minor sites in Crete is further evidence of exchange and interaction between the polities. The appearance of similar crafts in multiple sites shows that either economic exchange occurred (goods were traded or commissioned from neighboring areas), or that the knowledge of how to create such works of art was transferred between people of different areas. Both of these scenarios could have occurred simultaneously, and the movement of individuals between polities might also explain distribution of similar items. There are many examples of identical material culture that can be found throughout the island in both major and minor palace sites, including pottery, stone vases, and frescoes.
Like many archaeological cultures, over time, many different pottery styles emerged on the island of Crete. These styles included the Kamares ware type, which was in use during the First Palace period. This type of pottery was created on pottery wheels, and was decorated using multiple colors on a dark background. Some examples of this type also include relief decoration. Some of the best examples of Kamares ware have been recovered from the palaces of Knossos and Phaistos. (Fitton, 2002)
Crafts made from stone have been found from both the First and Second Palatial periods. These goods were created using a variety of different types of materials including marble, breccia, calcite, and gypsum. (Willetts, 1977) Workshops used for making stone goods have been discovered at Mallia, Knossos, and Zakros, and vases created at these sites can be found throughout the island. The vases created during the Second Palace period are usually decorated with elaborate and detailed scenes. (Warren, 1989) Stone vases from this period that were decorated using complicated relief carvings have been found distributed throughout both palaces and minor sites. Vases that were made with relief decoration have been traced back to workshops located at Knossos. Vases of this type include the famous Harvest Vase and Boxer Vase, and are thought to have been used for ceremonial purposes. The Boxer Vase includes carvings of bull leaping. (Willetts, 1977). The Harvest Vase depicts a group of men leaving to sow the fields. (Warren, 1989)
The Boxer Vase
The Harvester Vase

Frescoes became common in both palaces and minor sites during the Second Palace period. These paintings were created using a variety of techniques, and several types of pigments were used for paints, including materials made from minerals and bones. Many different types of scenes were depicted including people, vegetation, and marine animals, such as dolphins. While some of the images are quite detailed and realistic, many images depict animals or plants in colors that do not occur in nature. The ruins at Knossos and the lesser palace Ayia Triada contain some of the best examples of this type of art. (Willetts, 1977)
Dolphin Fresco From the Queen's Megaron at Knossos

Religion and Cultural Practices:

The distribution of material culture throughout the island of Crete clearly illustrates that the citizens of the individual polities shared a similar cultural and ethnic identity. The appearance of comparable religious and ceremonial items between palaces and palace associated sites show that the inhabitants of the island likely all subscribed to one general religion, and participated in the same sorts of cultural and spiritual activities.
During the first palace period, pottery used for drinking wine was created in mass quantities. These drinking vessels were similar in shape, and distributed around the palaces. Their numbers and similarity in shape show that they were created through mass production. This could indicate ritual consumption of wine, and the use of pottery vessels for feasting purposes. It has been suggested that this may be a parallel to the practice of feasting to create social inequality that existed in Bronze Age China. (Hamilakis, 1999)
The citizens of Palatial Crete clearly participated in the same kind of religious ritual throughout the various polities. Similar religious materials have been found within the palaces of Knossos and Mallia. These include clay figurines to be used in dedications, libation tables, altars and stone vases, and horns of consecration. (Adams, 2004) Throughout the island, items like these are found and often include themes with bulls, snakes, and doves. (Pendlebury, 1971)
Clay Figurines

In addition, sites called peak sanctuaries are found throughout Crete throughout the palatial periods. These are often associated with caves or mountain peaks, and many are related to palace sites, lesser palace sites and towns such as Palaikastro . (Warren, 1989) For example, the sanctuary at Juktas is linked to Knossos, the site at Traostalos is connected to Zakros, and the sanctuary at Profitis Ilias is linked to Mallia. (Fitton, 2002) These sites were used by the local people for worship purposes. Clay figurines, like those found in the palaces were used at these sites for dedications. Some figurines were burned along with possible animal sacrifices. The sanctuaries also included libation tables that could be used to offer food to the gods or goddesses. Other kinds of offerings have been identified at the peak sanctuary sites including bronze figurines, ceremonial double axes, and swords. (Warren, 1989)
Peak Sanctuary at Juktas, connected to Knossos


Renfrew and Cherry were correct; during the First and Second Palatial periods, Crete was divided into several peer polities, with the largest and most influential polities being located at Knossos, Phaistos and Mallia. These administrative centers interacted with each other and lesser palaces and towns through economic and social exchange. The architecture of the palaces themselves indicate an aesthetic ideal that was common to the island, and that leaders might have collaborated with each other to build similar structures. Exchange of similar material items, such as pottery and stone vases between the palaces and surrounding areas indicates economic interdependence within the island; and simultaneous creation of similar arts and crafts between the polities also illustrates a possible aesthetic ideal for the entire island of Crete. The existence of identical religious items in shrines at Knossos and Mallia are a clear indication that religious ideas were shared throughout the polities. Comparable religious themes, material culture, and shrines throughout the island show that the people of palatial Crete were governed by separate entities, but all subscribed to comparable religious faiths, and ethnic identities. Despite being governed by distinct groups, the polities of Crete were very much intertwined and interdependent.

Connections: While there is a great deal of evidence to support exchange within the island of Crete, there was also a lot of exchange between sites in Crete and the rest of the world. To find out more, check out the sites for Knossos , Phaistos , Zakros , and Palaikastro .

Works Cited:

Adams, Ellen
2004 Power and Ritual in Neopalatial Crete: A Regional Comparison. World Archaeology 36(1) : 26-42

Branigan, Keith
1970 The Foundations of Palatial Crete: A Survey of Crete in the Early Bronze Age. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul

Crumley, Carole L.
1988 Review of Peer Polity Interaction and Socio-Political Change. American Antiquity 53(2) : 429-430

Fitton, J. Lesley
2002 Peoples of the Past Minoans. London: The British Museum Press

Graham, J. Walter
1959 The Residential Quarter of the Minoan Palace. American Journal of Archaeology 63(1) : 47-52

Graham, J. Walter
1979 Further Notes on Minoan Palace Architecture: 1. West Magazines and Upper Halls at Knossos and Mallia. American Journal of Archaeology 83(1) : 49-63

Hamilakis, Yannis
1999 Food Technologies/ Technologies of the Body: The Social Context of Wine and Oil Production and Consumption in Bronze Age Crete. World Archaeology 31(1) : 38-54

Pendlebury, J.D.S.
1971 The Archaeology of Crete, An Introduction. London: Methuen & Co Ltd

Van de Moortel, Aleydis
2002 Pottery As a Barometer Of Economic Change: From the Protopalatial to the Neopalatial Society in Central Crete. In Labyrinth Revisited: Rethinking ‘Minoan’ Archaeology. Yannis Hamilakis, Pp. 189-211. Oxford: Oxbow Books

Warren, Peter
1989 The Making of the Past: The Aegean Civilizations. New York: Peter Bedrick Books

Willetts, R.F.
1977 The Civilization of Ancient Crete. Berkeley: University of California Press