Mycenoan Crete—Archaeological Evidence for the Athenian Connection

2016.04.27 | By Andrew J. Koh


As a budding doctoral student at the University of Pennsylvania, I was sternly, and repeatedly, warned that the Scylla of Aegean prehistory was the search for ethnicity in the archaeological record—i.e., equating pots with people—while Charybdis was reserved for any student who attempted to interpret this same archaeological record through the lens of well-known customs of classical and modern Greece. While the metaphor may not be perfectly suited to the Homeric text,[1] thanks now to the fading power of these taboos and thanks also to Gregory Nagy’s recent forays into understanding Minoan-Mycenaean civilization, I am now presented with the ideal opportunity to overcome any residual Pavlovian conditioning from those early years and dive into an important topic gaining considerable traction among Greek archaeologists. It is good fortune, indeed, for Aegean prehistory to receive such expert commentary from a Homeric researcher. Such work is too infrequent in the 21st century by my estimation, just as it is rare for archaeologists today to absorb Homer during their all too polytropic graduate studies. Manifold reasons exist, which are outside the scope of this posting, but Nagy’s recent musings have been a happy occurrence for at least the researchers of early Greece within my academic biosphere.

On 2015.08.26, Nagy started his Minoan-Mycenaean postings by coming to the same conclusion that Aegean archaeologists have arrived at themselves concerning what it means to be Minoan or Mycenaean, but through his sweeping knowledge of myth, ritual, and classical studies as a whole. Around the same time I was receiving dire Odyssean warnings in Philadelphia, the problem of defining cultural identity at the conclusion of the Bronze Age, with special attention given to the terms Minoan and Mycenaean, was the central theme of a 2003 archaeological workshop, Ariadne’s Threads: Connections between Crete and the Greek Mainland in Late Minoan III, convened in Athens.[2] During this event, in the same spirit of Nagy’s more recent use of Minoan-Mycenaean, the participants playfully coined the term “Mycenoans” in reference to the inhabitants of final Bronze Age and early Iron Age Crete, where we commonly find Minoan remains culturally infused with Mycenaean elements—just as Nagy found with Greek myths pertaining to Minoan-Mycenaean civilization.[3] As the recent discovery of the “Griffin Warrior” shaft grave at Pylos has reinforced for us[4] (following the earlier excavations at the Grave Circles of Mycenae in 1876 and early 1950s), this cultural hybridization between Crete and the Mainland is a two-way street with Mycenaean remains throughout the Peloponnese having a Minoan flavor by the very beginnings of the Late Bronze Age (LBA), ca. 1600 BCE.[5] One of the first questions that came to my mind after reading Nagy’s postings was whether his conclusions, especially those pertaining to an Athenian connection with Crete, shared any common mechanisms by which archaeologists have arrived at a similar place concerning the intertwined nature of LBA Crete and mainland Greece.

The Divide: Evans vs. Wace & Blegen

Moses Finley is an American who has been taken on at Cambridge. He refuses to call Mycenaean art Greek. For him the only Greek things are [red-figured] pots, Elgin marbles, Plato, Sophocles, etc. Who is Finley? Where was he educated? He seems to me to talk a lot of bosh.

J. B. Wace to C. W. Blegen, 17 March 1957[6]

It is fitting that Nagy highlights the most obvious commonality shared by all scholars of Mycenoan culture—the Linear A and B tablets of administrative centers.[7] These tablets were at the heart of a divide between Minoanists and Myceneanists that still lingers to a certain extent. It is well known that Arthur Evans, excavator of Knossos, espoused a Minoan-centric view of the LBA Aegean to the point of doing some harm to the archaeological proceedings on site. His British compatriot Alan Wace, who excavated Mycenae from 1920 to 1923, had the misfortune of experiencing the wrong side of Evans’s considerable influence after concluding that mainland Greek culture was a distinct development even if highly influenced by Crete. While his close collaborator Carl Blegen was able to support this conclusion through the toil of numerous subsequent excavations, it was not until Blegen started work at Pylos in 1939 that a clear path finally emerged by which to challenge Evans’s dogmatic and sometimes overwhelming views. This happened, of course, when Blegen discovered the Linear B archive at the palace of Nestor that clearly postdated the final destruction of Knossos. Once Michael Ventris with the help of Alice Kober and John Chadwick deciphered the tablets around 1952 to reveal the earliest manifestation of the Greek language, it was only a matter of time before both Wace and Blegen were vindicated.

Though such deep-rooted animosity between Minoanists and Mycenaeanists about fundamental premises is virtually unheard of today, there remain somewhat parallel streams of development between archaeological studies of Crete and of the mainland. Crossover does occur, but enough differences and complexities exist that archaeologists tend to dive deep into one stream but not both. Even on Crete, as archaeologists focus more on issues of regionality, research during the last phase of the LBA is only just starting to overcome a Knosso-centric perspective.

The Archaeology of Mycenoan Thalassocracy

Though researchers such as Arne Furumark rejected the Minoan domination of the Greek mainland even before the decipherment of Linear B,[8] it was still thought by many that some vestige of a Minoan thalassocracy was perceivable in the material record. Decades earlier at Knossos, it was not by chance that Evans dubbed the open area with large tiers of steps the theatral area, an obvious reference to the choros built by Daidalos for Ariadne.[9] It was also difficult to overlook the influence of Minoica at sites like Phylakopi on Melos and Trianda on Rhodes, but what did this evidence exactly mean? Were these full-fledged Minoan colonies? Locals ruled by a Minoan elite? Perhaps the so-called Versailles effect where one culture emulates an external one greatly admired—but without the existence of political control, economic domination, or mass migrations?[10] In 1982, a symposium was organized at the Swedish Institute of Athens, “The Minoan Thalassocracy: Myth and Reality,” to address these questions.[11] It is obvious from a quick glance at the published proceedings that little consensus existed at the time, and discussions were quite spirited to say the least.

After this initial attempt at consensus, it must have been self-evident that more archaeological evidence from both within Crete and outside of it was needed to start answering these far-reaching questions with any satisfaction. Research did continue apace for decades with a periodic reconvening of archaeologists, such as at the 1990 Aegeaum 7 meeting in Corsica aptly named “Thalassa.”[12] Efforts outside of Crete on Melos, Rhodes, Kythera, etc. were quite successful at gathering data, but it is ironic that on Crete itself the later part of the LBA was relatively neglected outside of a few seminal works.[13] But this is where the 2003 workshop restarted dialogue in Crete, along with more recent research.[14]

Kastri, Trianda, and Akrotiri as Regional Gateways for Crete

What do we now know from archaeology about the LBA connections between Crete and the mainland? Thanks to recent exhortations by Ian Morris, we know that geography matters tremendously.[15] Though Minoan influence is prevalent throughout the Aegean during the time of its palaces, we know that three off-island sites in particular had exceedingly strong Cretan ties and are the most likely candidates for direct Minoan governance—Kastri on Kythera, Trianda on Rhodes, and Akrotiri on Thera. They surely served as regional gateways from different areas of the island during the heyday of the Minoans.[16]

Regional Trade Routes
Regional Trade Routes for Crete and Athens. Map Data, 2016 Google Maps

From West Crete, likely Kydonia, the island had access to the southern mainland, particularly Laconia,[17] via Antikythera and Kastri on Kythera. Kastri could serve as the staging point to destinations farther northwest, such as Pylos and Ithaca, or farther northeast, such as the Argolid. Penelope Mountjoy recalls being told on Kythera that it was a 10-hour journey by rowboat to Antikythera and another ten to Chania (i.e. Kydonia) in West Crete,[18] demonstrating that this was a well-known route even in recent memory.

From East Crete, likely Zakros, the island had access to Asia via Trianda on Rhodes. As in the west, one could island-hop from Zakros toward Rhodes using Kasos, Karphathos, and Saros. One could then use Trianda as a staging point to head north to Kos, Miletos, Samos, and Troy. One could also head east to Cyprus and the Near East following the Anatolian south coast, which is exactly where impressive LBA shipwrecks such as Uluburun[19] and Gelidonya[20] were found.

Finally, we have the Cyclades. From a port like Amnisos, Knossos had access to all the Cyclades through its gateway at Akrotiri.[21] This connection could very well be the journey and geographic bond depicted in the Miniature Frieze at Akrotiri.[22] Harriet Blitzer reports that older fishermen from Naxos could recall rowing to Thera and Crete before returning home using the same route.[23] From Thera, Minoans could sail to the mainland on a northwestern island-hopping path via Melos, Siphnos, and Kea. They could also sail northeast to Naxos, Paros, Delos, Syros, and Kea, which is then an easy jump to Athens, Aegina, or even the Argolid. They could also leave Delos for Tinos, Andros, Euboea, Lokris, Magnesia, and points farther north. Perhaps it is not by chance that many of these locales are the very ones attached to our Homeric heroes?

It is this geographical context that lends plausibility to the hypothesis that Amenhotep III’s “Aegean List” found at his mortuary temple in Upper Egypt actually records a westerly sailing itinerary across the north coast of Crete to the mainland and back again.[24] Amenhotep III did after all decorate the ceiling of his antebedroom in his nearby palace at Malqata[25] with what appears to be painted Mycenoan textiles. We must also not forget that his cartouche along with the cartouche of his principal wife, Tiye, were found at Mycenae[26] and other sites along this route.[27] Proposed toponyms on this Aegean List in order of presentation include Amnisos, Phaistos, Kydonia, Mycenae, Nauplia, and Kythera, before returning easterly across Crete with stops at Knossos, Amnisos, Lyktos, and Siteia. If this list does indeed detail a round-trip sailing itinerary, it would seem that during the Mycenoan period on Crete before Knossos’s final destruction around LM IIIA2 (ca. 1300 BCE), visitors from the Near East still utilized Crete as a gateway to the mainland with the Argolid the ultimate destination. This would stand in contrast with the twilight of the Bronze Age when a northerly arc from Rhodes to Athens was important enough to allow Crete to be bypassed with some frequency or at least mediated to some degree by Perati on the Attic coast.[28]

Ceiling Painting from Malqata, palace of Amenhotep III. Photo via the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Thera Eruption and the Athenian Connection

We are now at the proper point to propose some ideas regarding why this alternate route between Rhodes and Athens became prevalent by the twilight of the Bronze Age and how Athens’s connection with Crete via the Cyclades evolved to the point that it became more connected with the Cyclades to the exclusion of Crete. This state of affairs is echoed later on by the Delian League, by particular cultural and political affinities between city-states, and by Mycenoan myth traditions outlined by Nagy.[29]

We know that the mainland was connected with the Cyclades from a very early point in human history. Evidence from Franchthi Cave, approximately 30 miles to the southeast of Mycenae, indicates that its inhabitants were sailing to Melos to gather obsidian by 13,000 BCE, during the Upper Paleolithic.[30] Recent work on Naxos suggests even earlier Middle Paleolithic activity.[31] By the third millennium BCE, Crete exerted an increasing cultural influence on the Cycladic islands until the latter were largely submerged by Minoan culture during the age of palaces (ca. 2000–1500 BCE).

Almost thirty years before Spyridon Marinatos first excavated Akrotiri on Thera in 1967,[32] he postulated that the LBA eruption led directly to the demise of the Minoans.[33] Once the site’s chronology was better understood and it was revealed that the Minoans continued at a high level for generations after the eruption, this initial theory was discarded or modified by some to say that the eruption might have played a role, but it was not the direct cause of their demise. With the accumulation of decades of new evidence from across the Aegean, we are in a better position than ever before to contribute to this long-time discussion.

If we accept the Minoans’ strong maritime reliance on regional gateways throughout their five-century dominance of the southern Aegean, the eruption of Thera can once again be seen as playing a major role in the eventual demise of Minoan hegemony at the end of LM IB (ca. 1450 BCE). The eruption would have helped determine the uneven manner in which Mycenoanization might have occurred on the island following Mycenaean intervention. If Thera was as critical a gateway to the Cyclades and beyond for central Crete as I suggested earlier, the eruption would have had an instantaneous and devastating effect on this important trade network.[34]

Knossos would have lost its most direct link to the outside world in a cataclysmic flash.[35] Prior to this event, it is quite possible that through this trade route Knossos was connected to Attica, which did not particularly stand out for state formation during the five-century period of Minoan dominance. Nevertheless, Attica as a contributor to this Minoan network could have very well established its own trade networks with places such as Delos, an island that would certainly play a prominent role later in its history. At Phylakopi on Melos, we have convincing evidence of a quick turn of events upending the status quo between Crete, Athens, and the Cyclades.[36] Prior to the eruption near the end of LM IA, material culture on Phylakopi is heavily dominated by Minoica—pottery, architecture, frescoes, script, rituals, etc. In LM IB, in an instant by archaeological reckoning, the Minoan influence is replaced by mainland trade mostly in the form of pottery.[37] Equally important is the fact that the mainland pottery originates from Attica, not the Argolid. This would seem to support the idea that Athens opportunistically filled the void in the Cyclades left after Thera’s total destruction, which unexpectedly removed Crete’s strategic Cycladic gateway, paving the way for Athens’s rise in the LBA and beyond through its now unfettered access to the Cyclades and the Near East.[38]

This Cycladic trade route, dominated by Crete for five centuries and perhaps an early source of Thucydides’s Minoan thalassocracy, could have been the practical inspiration for Athens’s onerous sacrifice to Minos and the Minotaur detailed in myth. We have always known of Crete’s agricultural bounty throughout its long history, but we now have direct evidence that it produced the highest quality textiles by the 17th century BCE when the Minoans were utilizing royal purple dye from sea snails, possibly centuries before the Phoenicians.[39] Could these commercial activities somehow be related to Ariadne’s garland and thread[40] respectively? Could the slaying of the Minotaur represent a final throwing off of Minoan domination through the physical conquest of Crete by mainlanders at the end of LM IB, which is marked by island-wide destructions inaugurating the Mycenoan era during LM II and LM III?[41] Finally, could Theseus’s abandonment of Ariadne be emblematic of the Athenians repudiating their former lesser role during Crete’s domination of the Cyclades and signaling that it now controls its own destiny in the Aegean?

Evidence for Mycenoanization in Pottery, Painting, and Burial Customs

It is thought that the Mycenaeans settled on Crete but I doubt whether this is a satisfactory explanation for the profound influence of the LM IIIC style on the pottery of the koine. Possibly the Minoans were once again active in the Aegean which might explain the cremations at Kritsa, Mouliana and Praesos but not enough is yet known about Crete in LM IIIC.

Christopher Mee[42]

If the main points of my previous arguments hold true, it would help explain the phenomenon of Mycenoanization and cultural hybridization on Crete that is confusing not only for researchers today,[43] but also perhaps for the island’s LBA contemporaries. In the famous tomb of Rekhmire, vizier of Thutmose III and Amenhotep II, depictions of the so-called Keftiu are preserved, whom most researchers consider Aegean, probably from Crete.[44] The figures bearing gifts were originally drawn with breechcloths and codpieces but were subsequently repainted with kilts, which has resulted in vigorous discussions whether the update represents the newly established Mycenaean dominion over Crete—that is, are the existing depictions Mycenaeanized touchups of Minoans originally painted before the new Aegean order and thus requiring edits by Rekhmire’s artisans?[45]

TT100 detail 1
Detail of Keftiu from TT100, Tomb of Rekhmire.[46] Original photo via Osirisnet.
TT100 detail 2
Detail of Keftiu from TT100, Tomb of Rekhmire. Original photo via Osirisnet.

There is still much to learn about this Mycenoan period on Crete. Based on stylistic grounds, there is growing consensus that the throne room at Knossos is actually a later Mycenoan renovation in no way connected with any Minos figure from the Neopalatial period.[47] It is perhaps even the Daedaleion mentioned in Linear B tablet Fp 1.[48] This growing Mycenoan outlook by researchers also holds true of the famous Bull-Leaping Fresco, which Maria Shaw dates to LM II–III.[49] Shaw goes as far as to say that Minoan Knossos in some fashion controlled the rituals behind the bull symbols, which were then appropriated by the Mycenaeans starting in LM II (ca. 1450 BCE) and disseminated beyond the confines of Knossos. This is but one prominent example of how and why these cultures hybridized throughout the LBA until the ascendancy of Athens, and possibly explains the intertwined Mycenoan myths outlined by Nagy.

Returning to the uneven Mycenoanizaton of Crete, the continued existence of Kythera and Rhodes as gateways would help explain how Neopalatial Crete in LM IB thrived for generations after the Theran eruption. It would also help explain the regionalism on Crete conveyed through Odysseus’s Third Cretan Tale (Odyssey 19.172–184).[50] The eventual bypassing of Crete by Athens to reach Rhodes and the Near East more directly through the Cyclades, as well as East Crete’s position farthest away from the mainland, might explain the concentration of Eteo-Cretans in this region of the island. It would also help to explain the LM IIIC (ca. 1200 BCE) Mouliana warrior graves that are probably local Minoan elites who have adopted Achaean culture,[51] just as the earlier Griffin Warrior shaft grave at Pylos records an Achaean sporting Minoica. As Mee points out in the passage quoted at the top of this section, Mycenoanization is a complex and intriguing topic that we are just starting to understand with the help of ongoing excavations and the erudition of insightful scholars such as Nagy.

Mouliana warrior graves
Artifacts from Mouliana LM IIIC Warrior Graves, 12th century BCE. Photo after Xanthoudidis 1904.



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———. 2015.09.03. “Looking through rose-colored glasses while sailing on a sacred journey.” Classical Inquiries.

———. 2015.09.10. “From Athens to Crete and back.” Classical Inquiries.

———. 2015.09.17. “A Cretan Odyssey, Part 1.” Classical Inquiries.

———. 2015.09.24. “A Cretan Odyssey, Part 2.” Classical Inquiries.

———. 2016.03.24. “Things noted during five days of travel-study, 2016.03.13–18.”Classical Inquiries.

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———. 1990. “The Isles of Crete? The Minoan Thalassocracy Revisited.” In Thera and the Aegean World III, Vol. 1, Archaeology, Proceedings of the Third International Congress held in Santorini, Greece (3–9 September 1989), ed. D. A. Hardy with C. G. Doumas, J. A. Sakellarakis, and P. M. Warren, 128–160. London.

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[1] Bollack 2016:24–29.

[2] D’Agata and Moody 2005.

[3] Nagy 2015.08.26; Nagy 2015.09.03; Nagy 2015.09.10.

[4] See Reilly 2015.10.26 and the Griffin Warrior website.

[5] The two gold Vapheio Cups come to mind.

[6] Fappas 2015:74; many thanks to Dimitri Nakassis for bringing this quotation to my attention.

[7] Nagy 2015.08.26.

[8] Furumark 1950.

[9] Cucuzza 2011; Nagy 2015.09.17 §8.

[10] Wiener 1984.

[11] Hägg and Marinatos 1984.

[12] Laffineur and Basch 1991.

[13] E.g., Kanta 1980; Hallager and Hallager 1997.

[14] Koh and Clinton 2015.

[15] Morris 2010.

[16] For initial discussion of these three main trade routes from Crete for raw metals, see Wiener 1990.

[17] We are told that the Spartans paid special attention to Kythera specifically due to its strategic location at Laconia’s most accessible point from the sea (Thucydides 4:53:2–3).

[18] Mountjoy and Ponting 2000:179.

[19] Pulak 1998.

[20] Bass 1967.

[21] Doumas 1983.

[22] Nagy 2015.08.26; Nagy 2015.09.03.

[23] Watrous 1992:178.

[24] Cline and Stannish 2011:6–16.

[25] Lacovara 2014.02.17.

[26] Nagy 2016.03.24 §8.1.C.

[27] Cline and Stannish 2011:10.

[28] Murray 2013:333–334.

[29] Nagy 2015.08.26; Nagy 2015.09.03; Nagy 2015.09.10.

[30] Jacobsen 1976:76–87; Jacobsen 1981:303–319.

[31] Carter, Contreras, Doyle, Mihailović et al. 2014.

[32] Marinatos coincidentally also excavated the site of Amnisos, among many others.

[33] Marinatos 1939:425–439.

[34] Mountjoy and Ponting postulated the importance of Akrotiri as a Minoan staging point for its trade network in the Aegean over fifteen years ago (2000:180).

[35] For a dramatic digital reenactment of the LBA eruption and its devastating power, see Greece High Definition 2015.09.15.

[36] Mountjoy and Ponting 2000.

[37] Mountjoy and Ponting 2000:180.

[38] This could also help explain the wealth of imported luxury items from the Near East found at the nearby Protogeometric “heroön” of Lefkandi (ca. 950 BCE); see Lemos 2009.

[39] Koh, Betancourt, Pareja, Brogan, and Apostolakou 2015; the study of the purple dye industry during Middle Bronze Age Crete will be a part of a much larger study investigating the nature of organic commodities production, exchange, and consumption in the Eastern Mediterranean throughout antiquity, Koh forthcoming.

[40] Nagy 2015.09.24.

[41] See Lincoln 2000 for modern theory along these lines.

[42] Mee 1982:91.

[43] For a recent treatment of cultural hybridity as it pertains to archaeology, see Van Pelt 2013 and especially the contribution by Hitchcock and Maeir.

[44] For historical background, see Panagiotopoulos 2001.

[45] For a summary of arguments, see Rehak 1998.

[46] For a detailed description of TT100 with photos, see the Osirisnet project.

[47] For a summary of dating the throne room, see Hitchcock 2010:111.

[48] Hitchcock 2010:111–114.

[49] Shaw 1995:103.

[50] Nagy 2015.09.17 §1.

[51] The Mouliana warrior graves are a subject of a new project I am commencing this year in collaboration with Miriam G. Clinton from Rhodes College and Georgia Flouda from the Heraklion Archaeological Museum. More information can be found at the Mouliana Project.