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Crete & Mycenae

by Victor Bryant
Last checked 19th September 2002


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5. Crete & Mycenae

Aegean Ceramics before Classical Greece

The Eastern Mediterranean The Eastern Mediterranean There is evidence of Man's occupation of Greece and the Aegean islands from the Old Stone Age. We find the first evidence of ceramics about 6000BC in Greek villages of the New Stone Age, or Neolithic Period. The maps and the date chart should help you to get your bearings.
Click for MapRemember to click on the magnifying glass icon for further maps or a detail.

These first images of clay figurines echo common threads worldwide: the early stages of Man's development as a social animal, an artist-craftsman and perhap also his hopes and beliefs as he reflects on the mysteries of life, death and the frightening forces of nature.

Typical Neolithic Symbols and Beliefs

This early ceramic figurine of a standing woman has slit eyes, no chin and hands characteristically placed under the breasts. Almost certainly an idealized figure of woman-the-mother. ca.6000-5500BC. It was found in Nea Nikomedeia in Northern Greece.

A clay figurine dated ca.5000-4000BC. and found near Pharsala, Thessaly, Northern Greece. It portrays a more credible fleshy body of a woman sitting in a surprisingly natural position. But, she still has the "coffee bean" slit eyes. A gigantic nose and blobs of hair indicate a head on the top of the neck stump. It is almost certainly a mother-goddess or fertility image.

This third example comes from Kato Hierapetra in Eastern Crete, a Mother-Goddess image made ca.4500-3500BC. Although also a sitting position like the last image, this is a more formal pose and the technique and style are quite different. The sharp angular beaky head suggests scraping and carving. The incised lines indicate fingers and toes and perhaps clothing. The rounded forms are smooth and polished. There is a very weathered but originally light coloured slip painted over the clay body.

Migrations into the Aegean Region

From earliest times a succession of different cultures occupied and settled this Aegean region, most groups were fine metalworkers and potters particularly sensitive to form and ornament. We know that during the latter half of the third millennium BC. many tribes were gradually migrating southwards from Eastern Europe and westwards from the Black Sea and Anatolia into the Aegean Region. These newcomers brought many different ideas, new techniques and eventually bronze tools into Northern Greece and the Islands. These next examples show a variety of early ceramic styles.

A tiny clay model of a house. Sesklo,Thessaly, Greece ca.5000BC One of the earliest representations of a house ever found. Covered with white slip and decorated with red slip.

New Stone Age red patterned clay cup ca.5000-4000BC. Sophades,Thessaly,Greece. The geometric patterns in red slip are composed of solid rectangles or triangles which are almost interlocking shapes - and probably symbols. These are painted over a ground of white slip.

Late Neolithic bowl. Geometric chequered painted in dark brown/black colour on a white slip ca.2800BC found at Dimini, Thessaly, Greece. The style is not unlike some of the decoration found in Western Asia. See Tutorial No.1.

A late Neolithic polished red bowl Sesklo, Thessaly, Greece ca.3000BC.

This illustrates a ceramic ware influence from Western Anatolia ca.2200BC. An amphora with crowned lid and " arms", it is about 40 cm high. Although found on the north-eastern Aegean island of Lemnos at Poliochni, it is similar to jars found in Troy in western Anotolia. The pot has a brownish slip and was modelled and coiled without using a wheel, though this was probably in use elsewhere in the Aegean by this time. There are also parallels with contemporary copper vessels discovered in the Troy II site.

The Art of the Aegean begins to crystalize

Before 2000 B.C. prehistoric cultures on the Aegean islands made sophisticated marble figurines like this. Though probably part of a simple fertility cult, the sure and subtle way elements of the body are interpreted shows a highly developed sense of form. Settlers on the Cycladic islands of the Aegean produced these very characteristic idols during the latter half of the 3rd millennium BC. Since there was an abundant supply of smooth white marble available, stone rather than clay was preferred. The human form is angular and stylised. Often eyes, mouth and other parts of the body would have been represented in paint. Today the absence of these features on the white incised figures give a surprisingly contemporary quality.

From earliest times cups, jugs and other shapes made out of precious metals were often copied in clay. This Early Helladic "sauce-boat" is made out of beaten gold ca.2800-1900BC. In many respects it is not the sort of shape one would expect a potter to choose, but as the next illustrations show, potters were often asked to copy such metal objects with paper-thin walls and sharp angular forms. In most cases the less valuable clay version would have been a substitute in the grave for the precious gold original.

This beak-spouted "sauce-boat" looks fragile and it almost certainly is. Early Helladic II, found at Raphina, Attica, Greece. Made ca.2800-1900BC. This is a good example of a cheap substitute grave-gift. It has been brushed with "urfinis" - a primitive thin glaze made from fine clay slip containing some soda or potash. This can produce an attractive soft shine and to some extent seals the surface.

An Early Helladic amphora covered with the primitive alkaline slip glaze called urfurnis. This comes from Orchomenos, Boetia, Greece and is dated ca.2200-2000BC. It is a crisp refined shape with sharp changes of direction at the join of the globular form and the flared trumpet neck. Notice the thin clay wall of the rim and the small fine lugs. All these qualities emphasise the close links with beaten gold or silver vessels of a similar shape from the same period. It must have been difficult to make and would always have been fragile. It was found in many fragments in a grave site, stained from water and soil - hence its patchy colour. Now it has been pieced together and restored.

This strikingly decorated pot was made in northern Greece before 2000BC. Of course the painting is related to simple basket-work decoration, but as in other contemporary vessel shapes and fertility figures there is a sureness of touch, which emphasises the talent and aesthetic awareness of these various Aegean craftsmen. Look at the way the bands weave around the globular form. They are painted on with clay slip in a range of earth colours probably using a quill fitted to a horn to trail the slip lines. Notice the favoured technique of first covering the pot with a light or white slip before decorating. A wheel table was probably needed to produce the flowing curves of the trailed lines. Inset are zig-zag and spiral pattern symbols. They seem a common currency, we've met them before in other cultures but can still only guess at their significance.

Minyan Pottery

After the conquest of the mainland by the first Greeks in the Middle Bronze Age, around 2000-1500BC. the local schools of pottery developed on widely different lines. Schliemann named one style "Minyan Ware" after the legendary King Minyas of Orchomenus in central Greece, where he first came upon it. This example is typical: pale terracotta clay, thrown on a fast wheel, bold angular forms. When leather-hard it was burnished to a high polish, fired in a smoky(reducing atmosphere) kiln to under 1000°C. It became a uniform grey colour with a soapy feel. The shapes are all strongly ridged and unpainted and are strongly reminiscent of metalwork. This one is probably derived from a drinking vessel made out of silver or gold.

Equally characteristic of this period are mat-painted wares such as this pitcher; here rectilinear patterns are applied in dull black or lilac to a porous white surface. This style, although native to the Cyclades, was also widely imitated on the mainland; in the latest stage the ornament falls increasingly under the influence of the polychrome and curvilinear style of Middle Minoan Crete. We see examples later in this tutorial.

A Brilliant New Civilization - The Minoans

Map showing possible origin of the MinoansSometime around 2100-2000BC an extraordinary civilization began to take root on and around the island of Crete, which lies at the entrance to the Aegean Sea. Since the late nineteenth century, when the English archaeologist, Sir Arthur Evans, made the first discoveries on Crete, speculation has continued about the origins of these people Evans called the "Minoans". Many archaeologists believe that they migrated from somewhere in Western Asia, possible Palestine or south western Turkey(Anatolia). From archeological evidence, it seems very unlikely that they came from Greece or from the North. But, wherever this new influx of people came from, the evidence of Cretan customs and art show that a new vibrant culture developed here on Crete around the turn of the millennium - 2000BC. There was a gradual change from a peasant culture to a kingdom or group of kingdoms. This civilisation grew, flourished and eventually dominated the Aegean region for at least 500 years.

The Pre-Palace Period ca.2100-1900BC.

A new kind of pottery appears on Crete. Potters had learned great technical skill in using the wheel, which was probably introduced from Syria or Asia Minor at this time. Their vases and jugs are made in fine clay with thin walls and are outstanding achievments of the age. Looking at these next pieces of pottery, one can see various social changes reflected in these new decorative styles and techniques when the Minoans were establishing themselves in communities all over the island.

This clay beak-spouted jug comes from southern Crete. It has a sophisticated linear, probably trailed, decoration in a dark slip-glaze. An early example of Minoan pottery, made 2000-1900BC. It has a perky bird-like quality and a form that became very popular; many later Minoan jugs were made in a similar shape. The decoration is abstract and deceptively simple. Bands of slip-trailed lines wrap tightly around the little jug. Sometimes the lines bunch close together sometimes they're wide apart; bands overlap and lines vary in thickness from thick to very fine. The total effect is a strong yet sensitive pattern completely in harmony with the small round form with its thrusting spout and firm practical handle.

Here is the evidence of a lively influence. This jug has an enormous beak-spout. Probably it was used in some feeding or drinking ritual. It is covered with an unusual pattern and dark slip-glaze painting in a mottled style. It is dated between 2300-2000BC. from the Pre-Palace Period

Another beak-spouted jug from Crete. The bird-like shape is even more evident here and the dark mottled loosely painted slip-glazes complement the strong perky form; made during the Pre-Palace Period ca.2300-2000BC.

A ritualistic clay rhyton in the form of a bust of the mother-bird goddess squeezing the life-giving milk from her breasts. The painted patterns in a white slip-glaze on top of a bright blue-green are particularly novel. The blue is almost certainly produced from powdered kyanos(copper quartz frit-see Tutorial 4).This piece has been dated to Pre-Palace Period ca.2100-1900BC.

A bridge-spouted vessel in the new advanced technique developed out of frit paste inlays - see my previous tutorial. The range of colours used has by now increased and blue frit blues are used.

A ceramic votive figure of a worshipper with a dagger. It was found in a sanctuary in Eastern Crete. Thought to be from the end of the Pre-Palace Period or beginning of the Old Palace Period. ca. 20th century BC. The Minoans regarded hills and mountains as suitable places for sanctuaries of the deity. Votaries ascended to the peak carrying symbolic offerings. The bird-like features are probably significant, but like so much about this period we can only speculate. The lithe male figure with the loin cloth, cod-piece and dagger is the forerunner of the Minoan male seen in later wall-paintings.

Cretan Pottery
- A Revolution in Style

The fast potter's wheel began to come into use in Crete about the same time as in the Cyclades and on the mainland. Meanwhile, a revolution in the style of Cretan pottery was taking place. During the Early Bronze Age most of the finer vases everywhere in the Aegean area had been decorated with designs in dark, often shiny paint(vitreous slip), in shades of red, brown, and black, on a light surface.Example 1.
Toward the end of that period in Crete, however, there was a change to a "light-on-dark" style of decoration;Example 2. the vases were given an overall wash of the shiny paint previously used for decoration, and designs were applied to this dark surface in white. This new light-on-dark fashion was also adopted, to some extent, in the Cyclades and on the mainland, but in Crete it was developed much further, and, from the beginning of the Palatial Period, decoration in white was regularly supplemented with red to create a striking polychrome effect.Example 3. This kind of pottery, which flourished in Crete throughout the time of the first palaces and later (ca.2200-1600BC), is known as Kamáres ware from a sacred cave of that name on Mount Ida, where vases with fine polychrome decoration were recovered at the end of the 19th century. Most of the smaller vases in Crete, notably the drinking cups, now copy metal ones in their shapes and often in their moulded or impressed decoration, and the exquisite "eggshell" ware, made in the workshops of the great palaces, with walls as thin as those of metal vases and shiny black surfaces adorned with abstract flowerlike designs in a combination of white, red, and orange, is among the finest pottery ever produced in Greek lands.Example 4. The imitations in clay suggest that vessels of precious metal - gold and silver - were in general use in the palaces of Crete by this time. A silver, two-handled goblet of this period was recovered from a tomb at Gourniá in eastern Crete. Silver occurs in the Cyclades and it was being mined during the Bronze Age near Laurium in Attica on the mainland.

The Old Palace Period ca.2100-1700BC

Crete advanced rapidly along the path of civilization during the period of the Early Palaces, while the mainland relapsed into comparative agricultural stagnation. Around 1900BC the Minoan settlements on Crete expanded,palaces were built. It is assumed that this society was becoming more organised and prosperous. This is a view of a couryard in the ruined remains of the Palace at Malia. Most of these sites show evidence of earthquakes and fire which could explain the re-building during the later centuries. On the right is a huge storage jar or pithos almost as tall as a man and decorated with successive rows of lugs or handles. The applied decoration consists of rope-like bands.

Certain changes in customs and ritual took place in the Old Palace Period: huge mass burial tombs were replaced by individual burials in pithoi or clay sarcophagi. This one was found at Vorou, Megara, Crete 1900-1700BC. The numerous massive clay lugs were used for roping the lid and body together. These would have helped when moving or transporting such a heavy object. In addition they would be used for sealing, when used as a coffin - or for storing valuables.

Kamáres Pottery

In this photo we are looking northwards across the ruins of an important Cretan Old Palace settlement, Phaestos in southern Crete. Beyond in the distance we can see Mount Ida, the highest point on Crete. On the slopes of this mountain, just below the saddle between the twin peaks on the right, is a great sacred cave. Nearby lies a village called Kamáres. It has given its name to the collection of Minoan pottery already mentioned. The pottery pieces found in that cave were made over a period of two or three hundred years from around 2000-1700 B.C. (We have already seen some examples.) The find included examples of the painted pottery that flourished on Crete during the pre Palace and Old Palace periods from about 2100-1700BC. Surviving pieces include ridged cups, small, round spouted jars, and large storage jars (pithoi), on which combinations of abstract curvilinear designs and stylized plant and marine motifs are painted in white and tones of red, orange, and yellow on black grounds. Similar pieces in similar styles have been found elsewhere in Crete and also in Egypt.

In the Old Palace Period the decorative styles became more exuberant and often based on plant forms and sea-life. There is rarely an image which is overtly religious, political or military as is the case in the other ancient civilizations of Egypt and Western Asia. This Old Palace pithos in the Kamáres style is from Phaistos and 50cm. high. The decorative and rhythmic design in three colours shows fish being caught in a net. The naturalism of the decoration was combined with careful and sensitive attention to many details: the bold, deeply undercut rims, the strong handles, the globular form swelling from a dark coloured narrow base, the division of the fish decoration from the light waving bands of pattern below, a dark solid colour at the base. All this combined to give a feeling of stability combined with a bold upward thrust. This is a typical example of the lively Minoan work of the Old Palace Period, decorated pottery quite exceptional in the art of the ancient world.

This detail of a fish caught in a net from the pithos illustrates a style of drawing which is mature and confident. Though the image of a fish is stylised this enhances the feeling of natural movement. Painted on a dark ground, the colours are a sort of vitreous slip. Such pottery would have been fired to under 1000°C.

What an extraordinary piece: sculptural flowers fixed on this large goblet or stemmed bowl. In many other respects it is typical of the later Kamáres dark on light style decoration. The brightly coloured design painted on is still striking even though worn. The prominent rim deeply undercut and with a distinctive dark repeated pattern. The two lug handles for lifting. The background painting on the stem reminds me of curly seaweed. A wide band of a similar seaweed pattern has been painted on the top half of the goblet, but the chequer pattern painted below it has been drawn in a seemingly casual undulating band around the cup. The wide but fairly thin foot would be as fragile as the flowers if used. Its purpose is unknown. It could be a wine krater to be used for serving in some ceremony. It may have been of some symbolic significance in a ritual. It could be a "one off" but I am inclined to believe it may imitate a much smaller gold goblet which in beaten gold would have been much stronger and more practical, even with flowers and a wide foot.

A large Kamáres ware jug ht.69cm. From the Old palace at Phaistos 19th century BC. Painted in red and white slip on a black/brown background. There are 3 handles - high up on the shoulder you can see one of the pair of horizontal lifting handles . On the right you can just see the edge of the vertical handle used for pouring. The rim with its small lip is emphasised both by the band of slip decoration and by the strong shadow of the deep undercut of this lip. The boldness of the rim is a characteristic of many Minoan storage jars and large jugs. It was probably used for securing a covering over the opening to protect the contents. The swirling spiral decorations perhaps represent waves. Much of the inspiration for the decoration of Cretan pottery comes from the coastal plants and the animals in the sea. A band of dark paint emphasises the taper towards the base. This increases the sense of upward thrust and lightness this pot has, but, at the same time, the dark colour also produces a feeling of weight and stability in this narrow base.

Beak-spouted Kamáres ware pot. From the first palace at Phaistos. Approx. 1800BC ht.27 cm. This is a characteristic example of the intricate decoration on Kamáres pottery. The design derives from four "S" scrolls in an oblique position with the ends of two adjoining coils connected to the whorls. The oblique combinations have been enriched by an oval shaped motif which features a red design resembling a double tongue enhances by the fact that they direct the viewer's eye diagonally across the surface of the vessel... The spirals are thus made to serve the torsion in a unique and magnificent way. This decoration not only has a quality of movement about it but also has a curious affinity with the vegetable kingdom.

Cup. Kamáres ware.From the First Palace at Phaistos. Approx. 1800BC. dm.12cm. This comes from the same stylistic phase as the jug above. It is an example of 'egg shell' ware indicating the refinement of this thin-walled and decorated cup. The scale motif is popular in textile decorations and is one of the favourite patterns in Minoan surface decoration since it conveys a sense of unity instead of dividing the surface into panels. On this cup it is combined with small buds emerging from two red calyx-leaves with white centres. They are like chains of interconnected flowers. All Kamáres pottery contains this linking and interlocking element.

A graceful high-stemmed Kamáres vase or dish decorated in the beautiful light on dark style. If you compare the drawing of a flowerbud in the last illustration with the drawings on this pot, you will see that the light coloured "comma-like" shapes probably represent petals either side of the flower centre. This simple form is then reflected below and then alternated with a linear diamond design to produce a very decorative running pattern around the stem. The underside of the bowl is painted with lilies? Notice the way the strong projecting rim is made even more important by the group of vertical lines in white, alternating with ochre yellow bands. The Cretans had managed to evolve a coloured slip which was vitreous by around 900°C. It is doubtful if their kilns reached much higher tewmperatures. Nothing is really known about their glazing techniques. Made about 1700BC.

Minoan Low Temperature Vitreous Slips

    My own conclusions about the materials used:
  • A very finely ground or levigated slip must be used.

  • Each glaze must contain enough alkali(soda and/or potash from minerals or plant ash) to produce a surface with the soft shine characteristic of a vitreous slip.

  • The Minoans were experts in making objects in quartz paste frit - containing SODA. So they would have supplies of soda material.

  • Between dark brown red and white, many colours could be obtained using red and white clays.

  • The blue is almost certainly obtained by using the powdered blue frit material, kyanos.

  • Pale blues to dull greens could be produced using kyanos with amounts of white and/or red clay.

  • It is quite possible that they added other minerals to red or white clay slip and soda to increase their colour range.

  • Lead is the only other possible flux material besides soda or potash(alkali) for such low temperature glazes, and there is no evidence of lead being used.

Volcanic activity & The New Palace Period ca.1700-1450BC.

Sometime around 1700BC. many of the old palaces seem to have been destroyed by earthquakes or fire. New palaces were built to replace them at Knossos, Mallia, Gournia and Haghia Triada. This was the greatest building period and had a stimulating effect on the other arts including ceramics. From the remains of these palaces we try to speculate about their way of life. The details of plumbing and water-supply are well thought out and because of the painstaking reconstruction of a few of the palaces like this one at Knossos we do have a picture of comfort and elegance. They used clay pipes for water supply and sanitation 1500 years before the Romans.

The Cretan way of life is still a mystery in many ways. Very little of their written language has come to light and what has survived merely confirms facts already known. Scratched on this small clay disk is an example of their early script called Linear A. The stamps form an outward spiralling line of symbols which seems to be a list of some sort. The script is pictographic like the Egyptian Hieroglyphs or Chinese writing. Figures and objects of everyday life were impressed in the soft clay using individual stamps. Since this is the principle used in printing with moveable type, it is claimed that this disk is the earliest known example of printing. No one has been able to translate this script, though many think the disk was an object of sacred and ritual character.It was found in a small compartment of the Palace of Phaistos and has been dated to between 1600-1500BC.

Scratched on this clay tablet is a later script, called Linear B, which was translated only in 1952. It appears to be a form of primitive Greek, confirming the theory that the Mycenaean Greeks were ruling in Knossos by 1450BC.

Map showing possible trade routes of the Minoans

The Cretan leadership, civil and religious, is remarkable for its low profile. There are no defensive walls or castles here. No evidence of a military clan in the structure of their buildings nor in the naturalistic wall paintings. It is assumed that the Minoan trading fleet must have been powerful enough to protect them from external attack. In fact there seems every indication that for much of the first half of the second millennium BC the Minoans traded peacefully and profitably throughout the whole of the Eastern Mediteranean region.

Unlike contemporary Egypt, Babylonia and Assyria this island culture seems based on commerce not military conquest - trade in useful and decorative pottery, fine bronze metalwork and delicate gold jewellery such as this example from the 16th century BC: part of a gold pendant, a royal jewel with delicate filigree decoration. Two wasps suck at a drop of honey: the small flower disk in the centre shows how expert the Minoans had become in the granulation technique.

This frieze of dolphins in the Cretan palace of Knossos decorates apartments of a lady who was perhaps the queen. The playful nature of these animals emphasises the buoyant liveliness so characteristic of Cretan decoration. Nowhere else in the art of the ancient world is there such a lightness of spirit.

This fragment of a fresco from the Palace at Knossos is about 12 inches high. It was painted in the 16th century BC. It has been called "La Petite Parisienne" a reference to the late 19th century French fashions. The blue colour materials used in the paintings are of particular interest to us. This colour was almost certainly based on Kyanos, the frit paste material mentioned in the last tutorial. To related Material in Tutorial No.4.

Kyanos & Polychrome Quartz Frit Paste

Here is a pile of powdered kyanos from a Minoan/Mycenaean site in Greece. It is a reminder that the Minoans were probably the first to exploit properly these fritted materials not only for press-moulding, but also for colouring glazes or slips and mixing with gums or plaster to produce blue pigments for wall paint colours. (See T4)

This plaque in blue frit is an example of the many decorative objects which were inlaid into furniture or boxes. This and other such plaques were found in the temple repositories at Knossos...(See T4)

An incomplete votive statuette of a priestess or Goddess. Modelled in polychrome frit paste. Found in the treasury of the sanctuary at Knossos and date from about 1600BC. The colours here are almost washed out or blackened. However, faint lines of flower decoration can be seen on the lower part of the dress in this example. Remember this frit-paste Egyptian necklace(T4). It was made a century or two LATER than these Cretan figurines. The Minoans were far more skilled than the Egyptians in this technique, so because of their poor state today, you have to imagine the rich colour originally possessed by Minoan figurines in polychrome frit paste by comparing them with the superb examples which have survived in dry tombs in Egypt.

These two frit-paste figurines are almost complete. Usually the ones grasping snakes have been labeled "Snake Goddesses". The original colours must have be brilliant. The modelling of these tiny figures in this difficult material we can still marvel at.The Knossos Snake Goddess(T4).

One of the few pieces of multicoloured Cretan fritpaste to have survived in good condition is this drinking cup, or rhyton, found in a Cyprus sanctuary. The frit paste decoration can still be seen in almost pristine colours. Detail-top half(T4).

Part of an underground storage chamber in the palace of Knossos. It dates from about 1600BC. We do not know how this was used but valuable things were certainly stored here. This vast site at Knossos may have also been a depot. The high quality of Minoan pottery, metalwork and jewellery made trade more profitable than war to obtain all they needed to make life pleasant.

These are fine examples of ancient Cretan storage jars. These stand about four feet high, but examples six feet high have been found. These would be filled with products such as olives or dried grapes and exported. The thick deeply undercut rims were designed for tying in a cover stretched over the mouth of the pot. Notice the many lugs. These would enable the jars to be roped together for stability during transport on land or sea. The simple but effective decoration echoes these ropes; a variety of applied and incised clay bands and circle patterns. The clay body is quite coarse, maybe crushed brick as well as sand was mixed into the body to reduce the problems of building and firing such large pieces. They were built by the fast coiling method(T2). I have seen this technique still used today in remote Cretan villages.

Minoan Thera - The Volcanic Explosion ca.1628BC (most recent dating-2001)

Map showing trade routes of the MinoansDuring the seventeeth century BC there seems to have been more serious earthquakes in the Aegean. Many Palace sites show probable evidence of destruction. This seismic activity culminated in a series of enormous and catastrophic volcanic explosions on Thera(EB) (sometimes called Santorini), a small island some 100km to the north of Crete. The scale of these explosions is difficult to imagine, but they appear to have been many times greater that the enormous Krakatoa(EB) volcano explosion in 1883.

In Crete foreign trade may have been largely under palace control; in the islands of the Aegean there no doubt existed a class of private merchants engaged in overseas commerce. Centred in the middle of the Aegean and with good safe harbours, Thera was probably an important Minoan trading post or perhaps it was THE Minoan trade centre. If so, it was especially disastrous when the whole island was blown up and the harbours and settlements destroyed. The outpouring of gas and ash, and gigantic tidal waves are also thought to have affected the climate and the political stability of the whole area for some time. See my animation showing the possible shape of the island and how it changed after the volcanic explosion... Many believe that these natural catastrophes were at the root of the decline of Minoan civilization. As its naval power weakened it was replaced by the increasingly powerful Viking-like Mycenaeans spreading from their strongholds in Greece across the Aegean to Crete.

Later Minoan Palace Pottery - Dark on Light

Thera may have been the centre of Minoan trading and perhaps the Cretan fleet was crippled after the island exploded around 1628BC. But the Minoan culture seems to have survived and prospered for another century and a half. Palaces were rebuilt even more elaborately and trading recovered. The quality of the work made in Crete during the first half of the fifteenth century as creative as before. For whatever reason, the style of Cretan pottery decoration changes. The light-on-dark style of pottery characteristic of the Kamáres style is replaced by dark-on-light ornamentation - now usually limited to a brownish black slip or slip glaze. For the next hundred years or more, dark painting of intricate curvilinear patterns and a variety of vegetation and seashore designs were produced on lighter clay backgrounds.

A combination of high-swelling form and the strong, dark fountain-like lines of painted irises make this an impressive exercise in ceramic design. The bold rhythmical movements shown here are a common characteristic of the period when Crete was at the height of its power, early 15th century BC.

This large storage jar is unusual in that natural forms, plants or sea life are not the main subjects. Here are drawn symbols which probably were of regal or religious importance to the Cretans: a double headed axe and a rosette pattern. Unfortunately we do not know the exact significance of either. Plants do play a useful part in this design, as a foil or a background decoration.

This is a type of pottery vessel sometimes called a pilgrim flask or stirrup jar. It was used by thirsty travellers and carried over the shoulder on a leather strap threaded through the neck lugs. The mouth would have been plugged. Made out of two similar leather-hard bowls, which were luted together to produce the globe-like shape. A hole would be cut into this globe and a small neck thrown on the top. To finish, two small lugs were fixed to the neck and then the pot was allowed to harden somewhat before being decorated with a dark iron rich clay slip-glaze. The tentacles of this painted squid or octopus grasp the globular shape in a very convincing manner, emphasising the rounded form. There is a similar one on the other side. They are swimming in a diagonal direction, subtly drawing one's eye around the pot. These sea animals are surrounded by coral-like reefs with seaweed and shells. Again the naturalistic forms are combined with movement. Another excellent example of Cretan sensitivity to pottery form and decoration. This superiority of Cretan design becomes even more obvious when compared with the efforts of other contemporary cultures. ht.28cm. Dated to the close of the 16th cent.BC.

A late 16th century BC jug made in a bird-like form reminscent of the Kamáres style. Now, in the Late Palace Period, the dark-on-light technique of painting is the style used. The design is simple; based on leafy stems which follow the upward thrust of the form in gentle undulating patterns. The decoration is finished off at the base with a subtle wavy line bands, dark and light. This painted emphasis of the narrow foot, the high swelling shoulders and the upward thrust of the beaky spout all contribute to the sense of lightness and elegance which this pot possesses. There are no swirling forms here, even though the design is essentially curvilinear and dynamic; the movement of a light breeze through the leaves is enough.

In the first half of the 15th century BC pottery decoration took on a somewhat busy crowded style. Nevetheless the designs were carefully thought out. In this example, we have a large vase(H.24.5cm.)covered with what archaeologists and museum folk call 'glaze paint', but what I would call a fine vitreous red clay slip! The effect of a bright flame and also smoky atmosphere in the kiln can be clearly seen in the part-red(oxidised) and part-black(reduced) colours. It was made during the first third of the 15th century BC and found at Palaikastro, eastern Crete. The plant-like decoration consists of a triple repetition of a long spiral-like coiled leafy flower stem ending in a flower at the centre of the spiral. The spaces in between contain simple stylised flower heads. The shoulder of the pot is decorated with a band of simple petals, and the design on the neck probably represents a flower head of petals - around the dark ring of the lip. The carefully turned and banded narrow foot adds to the idea of a blossoming plant springing upward from the centre. All of which is a product of the shape of the vessel, the motif and the overall decoration.

The Marine style. It was extremely popular. Examples are found in sites across the Eastern Mediterranean. Nearly every form of marine life is accurately reproduced in a riotous allover arrangement: octopus, nautilus, dolphins, and fish, against a background of rocks and waves. This amphora with three handles is covered with a shiny dark vitrified slip painting. Although this example was found in a tholos tomb near Kakovatos, Elis on the mainland of Greece, it was decorated by a Cretan painter. It is dated to the first third of the 15th century BC. and points to the widespread adoption of Cretan styles on the mainland of Greece. The three decorated panels have coral-reef-like borders aligned with the handles and lugs. These three dark painted strips of lugs project as blackish painted coral reef borders into the actual pictures which includes nautili,coral reefs and seaweed.

The shape of this large amphora is similar to the last one, but it was found in Crete. The main motif is the octopus, in fact there are three arranged around the vase. Their tentacles almost touch. Dispersed around them are different varieties of seaweed. The design is not as inventive as the previous amphoras or the octopus pilgrim jar seen earlier, but this was a popular design for export across the Aegean.

This large Amphora with three handles comes from the palace of Knossos. It illustrates the final phase of pottery at the palace.and is typical of the final 60 years or more before catastrophe struck the city about 1400BC. Round the vessel are six papyrus reeds which suggest Egyptian influence. The three below the handles are smaller than the others, with wavy stems covered with a shiny vitrified style. Latter half of the 15th century BC.

The End of Minoan Supremacy

In the 70 or 80 years after 1450BC, the spontaneity of the early Marine style has been replaced by a more rigid formality. The shape of of this large storage jar ca.1400BC. is traditional but the decoration is in a completely different style. Everything is arranged in horizontal bands or layers. Each of the elements has become so stylised as to become virtually abstract symbols or linear patterns. The naturalism and unity of design has disappeared. This is undoubtedly bold and confident pattern-making with a feeling of rigid control. It seems that the lively Minoan style of decoration is now dead. Such dramatic alteration in painting style almost certainly reflects some political, economic or social change. We know that the final destruction of the Palace at Knossos took place around 1400BC., and there is clear evidence of a cultural change from then on - with the Mycenaean Greeks in occupation. So it seems that by the latter part of the 15th century BC. Minoan pottery had become a provincial version of Mycenaean ware.

The Earliest Greeks.

Well before 1600BC.there were groups of potentially aggressive tribes moving down from the north. These Viking-like invaders were in fact the early Greeks - often called the Achaeans. Gradually they colonized the mainland and some of the islands. Until disaster struck the Minoans, these Achaean Greeks accepted and imitated the Minoan ways, but progressivly from about 1600BC onwards they built fortified castles and became bolder; took advantage of the changing situation and ultimately challenged the Cretans for control.

Mycenae and the Mycenaeans.

Most important amongst these early Greek tribes were the Mycenaeans, named after Mycenae, their fortress stronghold in Southern Greece. After the earthquakes and explosion on Thera they seem to have progressively increased their control of trade in the Aegean and, after the destruction and occupation of Knossos about 1400BC, they were effectively the rulers of the Aegean. One confirmation of this is that the written language used on Crete was replaced by an early form of written Greek.

From this hilly position the rulers of Mycenae could look down upon and control the fertile plain of Argos down to the sea. The world of the Mycenaeans was now one of fortified castles and feudal conflicts and also pirates infesting the Eastern Mediterranean. The stories of Homer are probably idealised versions of battles and events which actually took place during this time. It was not unlike the Medieval Period in Europe. Bands of armed marauders on land and sea.

One of the curiously shaped gold masks found in the royal grave circles at Mycenae. This impressive face of a bearded man with supposed "Greek" features led Schliemann, the archeologist,to believe that this mask belonged to the Mycenaean King Agamemnon, the great Greek leader in the eleventh century BC war of the Greeks against the Trojans. In fact this mask and others that were found actually belonged to much earlier leaders of the 16th century BC, when Mycenae was not yet the ruler of the Aegean. This mask does, however, suggest the viking-like qualities of these early Greeks.

The power and might of Mycenae is suggested in the strength of its walls and impressive gateway. Mycenaean jewellery, metalwork, and painting always owed a great deal to the skill and inventiveness of Cretan craftmanship and now that influence had gone the lively naturalism and refinement in Aegean art and craft gradually decayed into something coarser and more stylised. But, in the ceramic field we can notice a puzzling but important dichotomy throughout the remainder of the millennium in Greece.

Pottery-making and Firing Techniques Remain High

This Mycenaean globular pot was made about 1350BC. The decoration has become just meandering curved strokes but the quality of the throwing, applied lugs, finishing and firing remains high. During the Mycenean Age, the style of decoration changes or deteriorates but the basic craftsmanship of pottery making remains good or excellent and continues to be so for centuries to come. The reasons for this are not properly understood, but it suggests that wheel-made pottery and firing techniques had reached as high a level on mainland Greece as on Crete, quite independantly. Refer back to Minyan Pottery.

In the 14th and 13th centuries BC, Mycenaen vases and storage jars were widely exported, not only to Egypt and the Levant but also as far west as Italy and Sicily. In the interests of commerce, pottery was mass-produced, and the Mycenaean colonies on Rhodes and Cyprus were as prolific as the mainland. Some shapes, like the stirrup-vase, were imported for their contents of oil and unguents; others, such as the tall stemmed goblets, were prized for the excellence of their form. Yet, in spite of their high technical standards, the decoration shows a lack of invention. In the absence of any new ideas, the old floral and marine motifs were subjected to an ever-increasing degree of stylization: the flowers degenerate into chevrons and dashes, the octopus into wavy lines. At the same time there is a new tendency to concentrate the decoration into a single focal zone; with hindsight,one might say, in anticipation of later Greek pottery. A few large jars bear crude representations of human figures in chariot scenes, probably derived from palace frescoes. (No less schematic are the painted female figurines found in tombs and shrines of this period.) In the pottery of the 12th century BC, which saw the collapse of Mycenaean civilization, there is an abrupt decline in quality as well as in artistic imagination.

The Decay of Ceramic Decoration - An Example

The octopus or squid image is an ideal group of writhing forms to embrace, contain and complement such a form as (1) Stirrup jar (ca.1600BC period.) The (2) Amphora (ca.1500BC) is perhaps not such a sophisticated design, but this later example is much worse(3) Conical Rhyton (ca.1450BC). This is an example of the beginning of the decay of ceramic decoration in the Aegean during Mycenaean Age. Here we see a popular Minoan image squashed thoughlessly onto a quite inappropriate shape.

These two sets of figurines show the same decay. On the left are two 16th century BC Minoan figurines, refined and delicate, complex technically and made in multicoloured frit paste. On the right are two examples of Mycenaean clay figurines of their goddess from about 14th century BC Compare the two sets of ceramic figures of a goddess. The contrast is stark!

The decoration on this clay bath-tub made about 1350BC consists of traditional motifs which were often repeatedly copied. By now though the painting is less sophisticated than earlier work. Perhaps appropriately, there are fish painted on the inside and panels of scale pattern outside. Though made primarily for domestic use such ceramic baths were often used for burial in Crete and on the Mainland.

Late Mycenaean Figures on Pottery

A stiff naive figure style also developed in the late 14th century BC. in some parts of Greece.. Adapted at first from frescoes and later from textiles, this style is seldom very successful, however and there are a range of local styles, all stiff and primitive. Unlike the classical Greeks much later, the Mycenaean potter-decoraters were not able to adapt their fresco style so as to form a convincing figure style for vases. These figures are painted on a clay coffin found in the cemetery of Tanagra. Coffin painting was a Minoan custom in some Helladic regions even after the 13th century BC. when this was made. This illustration shows the painting on the long side of a coffin: a procession of lamenting women with their hands raised to their heads: they are dressed in Minoan fashion. This simple line drawing, a primitive but direct and effective way of representing the grief of these women. Notice their traditional Minoan style dress.

By the 13th century BC, decline is evident in all branches of art in Mycenaean Crete. The surface of this lidded clay sarcophagus is decorated with even more primitive images and symbols. It comes from eastern Crete. There are a range of creatures portrayed here; wild goats, bulls and dogs as well as human figures in chariot racing scenes. All these are associated with worship of the dead. The naive drawing of all these objects and creatures is now worlds away from the sophisticated imagery of Minoan Art of the Palace Periods.

A large Mycenaean Krater ca.1400-1300BC. shows a decorative manner which is virtually style-less. In some areas the link with drawing and ornament of the past had gone completely. A similar child-like manner could be found on the pots of countless primitive tribes in history. What is extraordinary about this period though is the quality of the pot itself. This is the work of a craftsman. The art of drawing and decoration had been lost but the technique of pottery making and firing remains high.

In this detail from an amphora of the 13th century BC. the men, horses and chariots portrayed are portrayed in an extremely stylised manner, but the thrown and turned pot is a work of a craftsman.

This large bowl or krater was made on the Greek mainland in the 12th century BC. Once again it tells us that the craft of pottery making was still well established and continues to be of a high standard. It is the decoration much more than the shape which communicates the change in spirit between the Minoan and the very late Mycenaean world. The curving and swirling rhythms of plant and animal life, the wit and gentle humour are all gone, in their place are stiff and stylised drawings of chariots, horses and armed men bristling with helmets, spears and daggers.

By the latter half of the 12th century the Mycenaean fortresses were gradually overwhelmed and destroyed. Further invasions from the north by the even more war-like greek tribe, the Dorians, led to a complete breakdown of a settled way of life in the area. Amazingly, the basic techniques of throwing, slip-decorating, kiln-building and firing tecgniques had not been lost, but by 11th and 10th centuries BC pottery decoration in much of the Aegean had regressed into simple geometric basket weave patterns or slip-trailed circles and "stick drawings" of animals and people such as we saw earlier in other prehistoric groups in Western Asia long before.

In some area there is a glimpse of a different type of sophistication and sense of design. Here for example is small deep bowl with applied handles, made by a competent craftsmen using a wheel and a horn slip trailer for decoration. Wharever the changes in decoration and imagery, the basic techniques of wheel-made pottery and firing them have survived all these upheavals in this region. Consider this decoration. Dark bands to emphasise the lip and the foot. The panel to be decorated separated with a group of three trailed lines as the baseline. The part that is visible is a linear drawing of a Bull bending its head to the ground to allow a bird to remove ticks and other insects from its fur. The eyes of each creature are prominent features. The bull's has become an elaborately shaped affair, quite unlike a real bull's eye. The fur and feathers of each creature has been represented and a patterned field. Almost, but not quite, like woven or knitted patterns - nothing like fur or feathers. But there is here a conscious attempt to organise shapes, forms, images in a new way. We shall see how this works out in the next tutorial.

This is the last illustration, a barrel pot, thrown in pieces and joined together by a competent craftsmen using a wheel and a horn slip trailer for decoration. With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that these simple slip trailed designs on the last two pots are the building blocks in a new style of ceramic decoration that is beginning to evolve out of the past.

Sometime after 900BC as settled conditions gradually returned to Greece, villages began to grow again, farming, fishing and agriculture slowly recover. Most of the culture of the Minoan Age had faded from memory or been transformed into the epics and mythic origins of the Greek Gods and Heroes. The next tutorial will be the story of ceramics in the Greek City States.

Latest Revision 18th September 2001

A final note about the dating;
Many archaeologists now believe that previously accepted dates before 1000BC in the ancient Mediterranean world may be too high and perhaps should be lowered by 200-400 years. Unfortuately there is no agreement about this so different authorities can give different dates for the same object. Please assume most dates before 1000BC are approximate. I have tried to show most of my illustrations in sequence. V.B.

Summary: Tutorial No.5. Crete & Mycenae

  • Earliest Aegean pottery about 6000BC has similar beginnings to other stone age cultures.

  • From ca.3000BC there were continuous migratory movements into the area from the North and East bringing with them an increasing variety of ceramic styles.

  • By 2200BC highly original shapes and sensitive pottery decoration in Greece, the Aegean islands and Crete.

  • In mainland Greece, a particularly distinctive style of high quality thrown, undecorated, grey, reduced pottery - Minyan Ware made over a long period ca.2000BC-1500BC

  • Before 2000BC the new Minoan culture on Crete was already established. Possibly migrants from Palestine or Anatolia. They soon become the largest trading group in the area. The quality of their ceramics and metailwork design soon recognised beyond the Aegean. The pottery wheel was increasingly used.

  • Between 1900-1700BC the Kamáres style developed into the most colourful and vibrant style of pottery form and decoration yet seen anywhere. Images were painted on a black-brown background in reds, whites and blues. Sea and shore fauna and flora were the most important source of design. Linked curvilinear and undulating lines and patterns were also characteristic.

  • From 1700BC the technique of making and handling quartz frit paste had reached a higher standard than any other culture. Many small colourful plaques, figurines and jewelry in blue and polychome were made and exported to Egypt and the Levant

  • Despite eathquake catastrophes the Minoan civilization grew to maturity during the first half of the second millennium BC. Throught the export of gold jewellery, fritpaste ware, decorated pots and enomous storage jars the Minoans had a considerable influence on Egyptian art and Western Asia.

  • In later New Palaces period, fauna and flora of the shore and sea were the most common design element. The ceramic painting technique uses a dark brown,almost black, slip brushed onto the the lighter body clay. This becomes the standard style from about 1640s for the rest of the Minoan age. There is as yet no explanation for this change. In the early part of the 15th century it is a rich, decorative and sophisticated style.

  • During the second half of the 15th century BC this style deteriorated. The rythmical curvilinear patterns of sea creatures and plants were replaced by stiffer more geometric patterns in horizontal rows.

  • It is assumed that all these changes from the late the fifteenth century BC were due to the increasing social and political instability. Greek-speaking tribes, particularly the Mycenaeans from the mainland, competed with and eventually replaced the Minoans as the power in the Aegean. By 1450BC they were in control of Crete.

  • During the 14th and 13th centuries BC the situation in the Mycenaean Greeks tried to replace the Minoans in the Aegean but culturally they were not sucessful. In the 14th century BC the drawing became simpler, often primitive. Stylised often naive figures of armed soldiers and chariots which appear now on pottery reflect the feudal situation. Although ceramic decoration deteriorated, surprisingly the technical side of pottery making and firing did not deteriorate at all!

  • With further migrations the Aegean became more unstable. The By the 12th and 11th centuries BC. Pottery decoration was a style of simple agriculturalists and farmers - essentially geometric with basketwork patterns, simple, naive, extremely stylized linear drawings of people and animals, Colour: usually only dark brown or black trailed or brushed on red clay.

  • By the end of the 12th Century BC the Mycenaeans were overwhelmed by a new more ruthless Greek tribe - the Dorians - moving into Greece from the north. This is the end of the Mycenaean Age. Pottery decoration practically died but the techniques of throwing, simple slip painting and kiln firing seem to be have survived all these upheavals.

  • For a century or two there is a very unsettled period in the Aegean as more Greek tribes move into Greece hoping for rich pickings or a place to settle. When after about 900BC the situation stablizes, these later Greeks begin to develop their own culture and evolve their own individual style.

In the next tutorial
Tutorial No.6. Ceramics of Greece
we examine
Greek Pottery,
Beginnings, Development
The Various Styles

Adapted from the original versions which were written for my series of weekly illustrated lectures to ceramic students including those on the Harrow Studio Pottery Degree Course, Westminster University and The Central School of Art & Design, London UK from 1973 - 1994

Latest Revision for Web Page 18th September 2001
Victor Bryant ©1994,2002

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