The Palace at Knossos

Peaceful Trade Ventures

The archaeological site at Knossos was heavily influenced by surrounding societies, the most intriguing being northern Africa and the Near East. Although farther away than the rest of the Aegean, the locations of these societies on the Mediterranean Sea did not detract from trade at all. They were in fact major contributors to the steady flow of trade with Crete, the Mediterranean Sea itself as a pathway to exchange. The widespread influences are also supported by some very unique artifacts that link Knossos to other places around the world and gave rise to its status as a center of wealth. Knossos became wealthy without the use of warfare; many of the frescoes found on the walls of the palace illustrate scenes of tranquility and the warrior style tombs that were found date to after the Minoan civilization was conquered by Mycenae (de Blois, 1997). Also there are no defensive walls to protect the citizens determining the lack of warfare (Martin, 2000). Instead the area became wealthy through its trade, exchanging goods across the Mediterranean and dispersing ideas throughout. Knossos influenced and was influenced by outlying cultures and at the height of its time it became a peaceful economic hub for Mediterranean trade.

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The Location of Knossos
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Mediterranean Sea

Knossos is located on the northern coast of Crete, in fertile lowlands near present-day Iraklion. Knossos is approximately five kilometers inland in the Kairatos river valley, and is hidden from the sea by low hills (Roberts, 1979). Knossos is close enough to the sea to realize how easily it would have been to import and export via ships. There is evidence that Knossos traded with mainland Greece, which is not an incredible distance from Crete. Archaeologist Arthur Evans who excavated Knossos argues that the Mycenaean culture (that would later conquer the Minoans at Knossos) was inspired by colonists from Knossos (Martin, 2000). Although the distance between Crete and North Africa and the Levant is much greater there is substantial geographical evidence that suggests cross-sea trade was possible. The currents in the Mediterranean Sea all circulate around the coasts of Africa and the Near East, making travel by sea moderately straightforward. Obviously to engage in cross-sea trade, strong and reliable ships were needed. The Minoans were believed to have begun carrying cargo as early as 3,000 B.C.E. and by the height of their civilization they were accomplished seafarers. Representations of their vessels show them to have more than one mast and in later years were made with more fortifications such as ribs and keels. The Minoans exported obsidian to Egypt, which was then made into tools to create ships similar to the Cretan ships, spreading wealth and ideas across the Mediterranean (Woodman, 2002).
The palace itself is very large, and has been rebuilt. The first palace appeared by 2,200 B.C.E., was destroyed by an earthquake in 1700 B.C.E. and was then rebuilt even grander than before (Martin, 2000). The area is very seismically active and earthquakes and tremors are common (Roberts, 1979). The light brown soil, called rendzina, is particularly suitable for vine plants; wild pistachio and olive grow abundantly. At the height of the Minoan civilization, the Kairatos River flowed continuously and cypress and oak trees dotted the landscape. In recent years pines were planted by Sir Robert Evans when he undertook the restoration project on site (Roberts, 1979).
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Mediterranean Currents





Art and Artifacts

Frescoes

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Fragment of the fresco at Avaris, only part of the bull is visible.
On the walls of the palace are very distinct and captivating frescoes. They depict scenes of wildlife, religion, and human interaction. The depictions of humans are similar to those of Egypt and Mesopotamia, with the full eye view on one side only. The scenes of the bull leaping are extremely interesting, the artists used special visual techniques to highlight the spirit of the activity; elongating the bull to show action, and the lengthening of the lively and animate bull leaper adds to the intensity and vibrancy of the depiction (Gardner, 2005). A fascinating find in Egypt illustrates the wide realm of exchange throughout the Mediterranean; while excavating at Tell el-Daba, archaeologists found Aegean style frescoes on the walls of the residence at ancient Avaris. Not only were they Aegean style, but there were scenes that are extremely similar to ones at Knossos depicting bull leaping with half rosettes on a maze background (Bard, 1999). The scenes at Avaris are also not painted with the same method as other Egyptian paintings, but with the exact method of fresco used by the artists at Knossos. This leads scholars to believe that the scenes are not Egyptian copies of Aegean frescoes, but actually made in Egypt by artists from Knossos (Gardner, 2005).

Bull leaping fresco at Knossos.
Bull leaping fresco at Knossos.
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Fresco in the Throne Room.
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La Parisienne fresco at Knossos.






The Snake Goddess

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Knossos was first settled around 6,000 B.C.E. and by 2,200 B.C.E. the products of metallurgy had skyrocketed it to high social status (Martin, 2000). One of the most interesting objects found pertaining to metallurgy is the snake goddess statuette made of gold and ivory. The ivory is possibly imported from Anatolia and the gold from Egypt, as there are no known sources of gold on the island of Crete (Lapatin, 2002). Other similar snake goddesses have been found, suggesting it may have been an important deity. Many other gold objects have been found at Knossos suggesting that there were skilled artisans there using the imported gold to construct jewelry and other objects similar to these.
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There is a suggestion that the many female figures and statues are attributed to a matriarchal society or a female centered religion not unlike civilizations of indigenous Europe (Martin, 2000).


Stone Vessels
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The total volume of the large stone storage vessels found at Knossos equals approximately 240,000 gallons (Martin, 2000).


There also was a large sphere of influential trade based on different types of serving vessels. Many of the vessels were used for storing agricultural goods, like wine and olive oil (Martin, 2000). There have been a large number of vessels found at Knossos that “represent a curious range of exotica (Bevan, 2007).” Many of them resemble Egyptian, Levantine, and Cypriot vessels of the same time periods. They are mostly closed stirrup jars, and some that were found are open bowls or cups (Bevan, 2007). Egyptian stone vessels have been found at Knossos from as early as the Early Dynastic Period and are thought to be the motivating factor in the Minoan stone vessel trade (Bard, 1999). The very distinct dates associated with these vessels from neighboring sites around Crete and the Mediterranean suggests that Knossos later acted as a working center for such vessels, based on discarded drilling cores found in certain buildings of the palace and spinning pottery wheels for ceramic vessels from a design in the Levant and then exporting them across the Mediterranean (Bevan, 2007). Not only were many of these vessels for trading, but Knossos was based on a redistributive economy like those of Mesopotamia, and the large stone vessels found in the palace were used for storage of goods that were to later be distributed among the people as well as traded (Martin, 2000).











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Linear A script
Writing


It is believed that the Minoan contact with Egypt helped influence early writing. By 3,000 B.C.E. the Cretans at Knossos were in enough contact with northern Africa to nearly copy their hieroglyphic designs (Smith, 2008). At first hieroglyph-like pictures were used as symbols representing objects and were specifically used for record keeping; over 2,000 clay tablets have been found in different rooms at Knossos alone (Martin, 2000). This type of writing was found on clay tablets and especially on seals. The seals had up to eight sides; the sides are so similar on all the discovered seals that it is believed to be a basic formula describing fruit, olive oil, or wine and the name or title of a person or place (Haarmann, 1996). Eventually the pictographic writing evolved into a linear form representing word sounds. Called Linear A, it remains largely undeciphered but recent studies suggest that it might be Indo-European. It is understood well enough to a degree to see that it was mainly used for list keeping and accounting, supporting the economic status of Knossos. The Minoans were meticulous about their record keeping and even kept records of sacrificial offerings (Martin, 2000). Egyptians were notorious list makers as well.
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Linear B script


















Conclusion


The Minoans at Knossos prospered with their profitable trade. Their common trade routes encompassed most of the Mediterranean Sea area. We can see by examining the artifacts that remain that they were a peaceful and wealthy community, and exhibited high economic social status with the large quantities of imports and exports. Their location and technologies of the Minoans at Knossos supported their abundant lifestyle, and allowed for trade not only with other countries of the Aegean but even places as far away as northern Africa and the Levant. Unfortunately the peaceful influence of Knossos came to a violent end. The Mycenaeans invaded Crete near 1400 B.C.E. and pushed out the Minoans. There is speculation that the Mycenaean motive was the extreme jealousy of the lavish lifestyle of the Minoans, particularly at palaces like Knossos (Woodman, 2002). Knossos was the last Minoan settlement to fall to the Mycenaeans, who quickly assumed leadership over the Aegean. The peaceful trade at Knossos had come to an end. Numerous warrior tombs found at Knossos contain distinct artifacts resembling those of Mycenae on the mainland after the fall of Knossos (Vermeule, 1963). On a smaller scale the Minoans continued to operate their trade and influence, just more quietly and under Mycenaean rule (Drews 1993).



References:



Bard, Kathryn A. and Steve Blake Shubert
1999 Encyclopedia of the Archaeology of Ancient Egypt. New York: Routledge.

Bevan, Andrew
2007 Stone Vessels and Values in the Bronze Age Mediterranean. New York: Cambridge University Press.

De Blois, Lukas and R.J. van der Spek
1997 An Introduction to the Ancient World. New York: Routledge.

Drews, Robert
1993 The End of the Bronze Age: Changes in Warfare and the Catastrophe Ca. 1200 B.C. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Gardner, Helen and Fred S. Kleiner and Christin J. Mamiya
2005 Gardner’s Art Through the Ages: The Western Perspective. Belmont: Wadsworth Publishing.

Grimbly, Shona
2000 Encyclopedia of the Ancient World. New York: Routledge.

Haarmann, Harold
1996 Early Civilization and Literacy in Europe: An Inquiry into Cultural Continuity in the Mediterranean World. New York: Walter de Gruyter.

Lapatin, Kenneth D.S.
2002 Mysteries of the Snake Goddess: Art, Desire, and the Forging of History. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Martin, Thomas R.
2000 Ancient Greece: From Prehistoric to Hellenistic Times. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Roberts, Neil
1979 The Location and Environment of Knossos. The Annual of the British School at Athens. 74:231-41.

Smith, Solomon Charles Kaines
2008 Greek Art and National Life. Whitefish: Kessinger Publishing, LLC.

Vermeule, Emily
1963 The Fall of Knossos and the Palace Style. American Journal of Archaeology. 67:195-199.

Woodman, Robert
2002 The History of the Ship: The Comprehensive Story of Seafaring from the Earliest Times to the Present Day. Conway Maritime Press.