Zakros and the Rise of Minoan Social Complexity from Tradeby Richard Robbins


On the eastern coast of Crete are the ruins of the ancient Minoan palace of Zakros. The island of Crete itself is 200 km long, and 58 km wide at its widest point. Crete is located in the eastern part of the Mediterranean Sea, it’s location making it a trading hub in ancient times which helped sponsor the rise of Minoan civilization. The palace of Zakros is one of four Minoan palaces which were used to oversee trade on the island (Graham 1969: 57-59). Crete’s location led it to possess great trading privileges during the reign of Minoan civilization, and it was this exchange network which enabled Minoan elites to rise to power and then oversee their bureaucracy from the four palaces of Crete (Branigan 1970: 104-110). The archaeological site of Zakros gives sufficient evidence to show how Minoan elites aggregated and maintained their power through a control of trade on Crete.

Minoan Trade and the Rise of Minoan Elites

To understand how social complexity arises from trade on Crete, we must understand the nature of the trading network itself, and the nature of resources that the island provided. The island of Crete is located in the eastern Mediterranean, aptly placing it at an economic hub of commodities and ideas between Greece to the north, Egypt to the south, and other lands in the near east. Crete was involved in extensive trade with these ancient civilizations (Pendlebury 1967: 12-13).


The Minoan civilization we speak of dates from 2600-1150 BCE. Nikolaos Platon divided Minoan Crete into four time periods which will be useful in describing Crete later on: Prepalatial (2600-1900 B.C.E.), Protopalatial (1900-1700 B.C.E.), Neopalatial (1700-1400 B.C.E.), and Postpalatial (1400-1150 B.C.E.). Taking a look at the resources of ancient Crete, the climate is very suitable to growing food surpluses, and this was done in Minoan Crete. Along with this, the Minoans exported vast amounts of timber, which seems contrary to the treeless landscape today. Minoans also exported currants, wool, cloth, wine, herbs, olive oil, and purple dye. Minoans imported primarily many types of precious metals, stones, jewelry, and other valuable commodities. Specifically, the importing of tin to make bronze alloys illustrates the far reaching extent of these ancient trade networks around the Mediterranean, as the closest known tin mines were located in Iran, Spain, Britain, and central Europe (Branigan 1970: 38-39).

Along with goods, many foreign ideas found their way into the Minoan culture. Egyptian influence is evident in the stylization of Minoan wall frescoes. Along with this, Minoans learned their process of goldsmithing from the Syrians. The influence of contact with other cultures can be seen in many aspects of recovered Minoan artifacts, and indeed the art of Minoans itself can often times look like a mix between Egyptian and Mesopotamian styles (Pendlebury 1967: 87-92).

Such extensive trade led to the establishment and centralization of wealth and power in ancient Crete. In Prepalatial Crete (2600-1900 B.C.E.), there was not an archaeologically coherent centralized culture. By the Protopalatial period (1900-1700 B.C.E.) authority began to centralize around a king. The first large palaces came to be at this time period, acting as centers of bureaucratic administration. Social classes also began to form around this time, including elite nobles, peasants, and possibly slaves. Minoans prospered from their trade in this time period, after the initial volatility of this great shift of power and life ways. Protopalatial palaces met a sudden end, which is uncertain still to archaeologists as to the cause of their destruction. Archaeologists lean towards attributing the destruction of these palaces to an earthquake, although foreign invaders are still a possibility. An earthquake is the favored proposition, because there is no yet found archeological evidence for fire, and along with this, Minoans very quickly recuperated, and seemed to have no subjugation to another culture after this collapse (Branigan 1970: 12-16).

The Palace of Zakros

To understand how inequality was created and maintained, first we must understand how the palace and trade systems of the Minoans operated. The palace of Zakros is a fitting archaeological example from the height of these trade systems, and so we will take a look. The elites and social classes of the Protopalatial period resumed again in the Neopalatial (1700-1400 B.C.E.), except, now the palaces grew larger, and their power more concentrated in the four main Minoan palaces of Knossos, Phaistos, Malia, and Zakros. Many smaller palaces, or villas, dotted the landscape, but it was these four main palaces from which the authority trickled down, and where most bureaucratic decisions were made, especially from Knossos (Adams 2007: 370-376).

Palace of Zakros

The palace of Zakros itself is the smallest of these four main Minoan bureaucratic centers, and also the most recently discovered. The site of Zakros includes both a palace and urban center. The urban center appears to be roughly an interconnected complex of about 30 rooms, but it is believed now to have served some purpose to the palace itself. The palace alone covers 4,500 square meters, while the palace and urban center as a whole spread over 8,000 square meters. Zakros is only about a fifth the size of Knossos, Knossos being the largest of the Minoan palaces, while also serving as the center of administration and culture. Despite being the smallest of all of the major Minoan palaces, Zakros has proven to be possibly the most important. Because it was excavated later than any of the other palaces, more advanced archaeological techniques were used, allowing the preservation of more information; but just as important, if not more so, Zakros was never robbed, remaining very well preserved over all these millennia (Platon 1971: 37-42).

Archaeological evidence shows that Zakros was an administrative and religious center. Its location was key to maintaining power of Minoan elites over the trade network of the Mediterranean. Zakros watched over a very important commercial harbor. Not only did this location serve as a trade hub between Crete and the Asia and Africa, but the geography sheltered the palace from the harsh winds on the coast. Large amounts of raw materials and export goods were stored here, which archaeologists have traced to various sources in Egypt, the Middle East, and Cyprus. Rather recent archaeological expeditions have detected and verified large quantities of salt near the site of Zakros, showing yet another skilled production craft to be exported from the island (Kopaka 2003: 53-66).

During the Neopalatial, the Minoans reach “administrative and economic unity throughout the island” (Branigan 1970: 203-209). This unity was in fact the height of Minoan authority and inequality. The palaces were linked bureaucratically through the main site of Knossos, but trade was watched over from the other main palaces. Golden artifacts, seals, and even spears at Zakros show us evidence of a very wealthy upper class on the island. Along with elaborate trade networks between the lands along the Mediterranean, there was also a great amount of trade between the residents of Crete, as is shown by the network of paved roads. This being the height of the Minoan culture, their influence spread through all of civilized mainland Greece, which is shown explicitly by the spread of the practice of grave circles originating in Crete. An increase of militaristic conflict in the Aegean is shown as more weapons began to appear in later tombs of the Neopalatial (Pendlebury 1967: 44, 78, 109-112).

Minoan Neopalatial decorative octopus vase

Minoans were experiencing conflict with the Mycenaeans, even culturally; whereas previously evidence of Minoan influence in culture is seen, a notable Mycenaean influence becomes apparent in Minoan burial goods dated to the later Neopalatial. It is even believed that Mycenaeans for a time took control of all of Crete, as a few tablets recovered from this period have documented. Crete eventually became more and more influenced and controlled by the Mycenaeans of mainland Greece, as Greek names for gods ,such as Zeus and others, begin appearing (Platon 1971: 165-166), while the pottery also began to take on a form very similar to that found on mainland Greece (Betancourt 1985: 111-112). After this, the Minoan culture suffered a fairly rapid decline in influence in the Postpalatial period (1400-1150 B.C.E.), which has been attributed to a weakening of infrastructure, deforestation, an eruption at Mount Thera, which possibly decimated the Minoans previously superior navy, and at last the invasion of the Mycenaeans. The palace of Zakros itself was destroyed for the final time in 1400 B.C.E. with the invasion of Crete (Platon 1971: 192-198).

Inequality and Complexity in Ancient Crete

The patterns of Minoan trade, and consequently their rise as a culture, especially during the Neopalatial period (1700-1400 B.C.E.), can be seen as directly responsible for the rise of inequality and social complexity on the island of Crete. All Minoan social inequality began with wealth, the wealth of resources which Crete offered to be traded throughout the Mediterranean. As Crete was inhabited from the mainland of Greece by boats, long distance sailing was not an issue in ancient times. Rather, the technology of long distance sailing was awaiting the development of controlled and organized systems of interaction between a handful of variable civilizations, to really take off and form a long distance trade network along the ancient Mediterranean. With the rise of social complexity, and gathering of goods into centralized locations for trade, residents of Crete were able to buy and sell more, growing more economically diverse and affluent. While the Minoans gained from this, so did other civilizations, and so by a universal interest, the trade routes became more and more engrained, with more wealth moving about on the seas (Branigan 1970: 217-218).

Ornamental carved bull’s head with gilded horns

The key to the success of ancient trade was centralization. Goods had to be amassed in a few suitable harbors to be readily traded. This is still true to this day, but especially in these times, where communication was extremely limited over large distances. With centralization a necessity to the success and mutually increased wealth provided by trade, it was only a matter of time before the construction of palaces began, and their power, and economic and religious administration took root (Branigan 1970: 154-160). Centralization of goods, people, and administrative power went hand in hand with the improving vitality and importance of these ancient trade networks. As a consequence of this centralization of goods and trade, those who controlled it initially gained even more wealth, power, and prestige. So too, did their counterparts in other lands. With the onset of trade, a general increase of wealth and standards took place, which would eventually translate into an increase in power for those who controlled it. With more now at stake than ever in ancient trade, more wealth being transitioned between lands, the escalation of political control and authority takes place in all civilizations involved in this network, but is especially evident on Crete. With more to be gained in trade, more controls were put in place to secure it. This same process would eventually escalate into what could be called states, as the increasing militaristic aspect of power and control becomes evident in the Neopalatial period of Crete. Naval power dominated. Once multiple lands had established control over their residents, they by then had constructed the means and will to seize it from other lands. So goes the centralization of power. It is important to keep in mind that trade and centralization ensued not because it was beneficial to one, but because it was beneficial to all residents, as they all gained new wealth, and were given a new consumer for whom to always be called upon to produce goods. Demand increased. Supply increased. Everyone grew wealthier. That some gained more wealth, was a byproduct of centralization.


Nonetheless, it is evident that this trade not only led to more wealth overall for everyone, but the level of disparity between the elite and the lesser becomes wider and wider. Although every citizen of Minoan civilization was fairly well off from the extensive trade of the Mediterranean, it was this trade, no doubt, which led to elites, who have more wealth than they can employ in even their own personal gain, and so come to invest in the most expensive commodity; control over the lives of others. The trade networks along the ancient Mediterranean can be seen to have led to the growth of social complexity and inequality in Minoan Crete, via the process of the back and forth of controlling trade, and this trade necessitating a response of the residents to gain in the wealth it provided.


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2007 Approaching Monuments in the Prehistoric Built Environment: New Light on the Minoan Palaces. Oxford Journal of Archaeology 26(4):359-394.

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

Graham, James
1969 The Palaces of Crete. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Kopaka, Katerina
2003 Just Taste Additive? Bronze Age Salt From Zakros, Crete. Oxford Journal of Archaeology 22(1):53-66

Pendlebury, John
1967 The Archaeology of Crete, an Introduction. London: Methuen and Co.

Platon, Nikolaos
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