Minoans and Mycenaeans: Comparing Two Bronze Age Civilizations
By Kelly Macquire
The Bronze Age Aegean in the eastern Mediterranean encompassed several powerful entities: the Minoans on Crete; the Mycenaeans on mainland Greece, and the Cypriots on Cyprus. These cultures are often examined separately, and thus the ample cross-cultural transmission between them is overlooked. Focussing on the Minoans and Mycenaeans, although they are often perceived as one following after the other, there were a few hundred years in which the dominance in the Aegean shifted from the Minoans to the Mycenaeans. The waning of Minoan influence and waxing of Mycenaean dominance has been observed from the archaeological evidence, and the close connection between the two cultures is represented in similarities in the architecture of the palatial complexes, burial practices, and the transmission of iconography and goods from Crete to the mainland.
The act of trade involves the transference of goods and people, which in turn causes exposure of beliefs and practices between different cultures. Artefacts uncovered at palatial sites and burials of both the Minoans and Mycenaeans display their extensive connections via trade networks with other civilisations of the ancient world, including Egypt, Cyprus and the Near East. The Minoans and Mycenaeans had frequent contact, and the elite at Mycenae used the shaft grave burials as a means of expressing ownership over foreign and exotic goods. It is primarily through the burial goods of the Mycenaean elite that a pattern for the preference of Minoan craftsmanship and iconography has been recognised.
Archaeological finds from Mycenaean sites such as Mycenae and Pylos indicate that the Minoans may have been working as intermediaries between the Mycenaeans and other cultures, such as Egypt, in their well-established trade networks. This theory has been addressed by Burns who commented: “not only was Minoan Crete a major source for prestige items in the Shaft Graves, but many of the materials and items imported from the eastern Mediterranean seem to have come through Minoan intermediaries” (76). This theory is corroborated through artefacts such as an ostrich egg, known from Egyptian craftsmen but found in a Mycenaean burial with Minoan embellishments, suggesting Minoan interference before its interment with a Mycenaean elite.
The understanding of Bronze Age trade and active networks is informed largely by multiple shipwrecks which have been excavated by underwater archaeologists. Due to their capsizing, the organic materials onboard the ships have preserved better in water than if they had been buried. The well-known Uluburun shipwreck capsized off the southern coast of Anatolia and dates to either the late 14th century of the early 13th century BCE. This shipwreck carried artefacts and raw materials from Egypt, Cyprus, the Greek Mainland, Crete, and the Levant; it was the pottery on board which aided in the dating of the ship.
Art and Craftsmanship
Since the Minoans are the older culture, it makes sense that they had influenced the Mycenaeans more than the other way around. The Minoans are known for their intricate, high-quality pottery and craftsmanship, and the numerous burial goods of Cretan provenance and Minoan influence on mainland Greece suggests there was a high demand for it in the elite Mycenaean society. The Mycenaeans not only expressed their preference for Minoan craftsmanship but incorporated common Minoan iconographical motifs such as the octopus from the iconic Marine Ware into their own, more structured and geometric-style art. The Minoans were known for their free-flowing artistic decoration and showed a preference for marine and plant life.
The best example for the contrast of artistic styles of the Minoans and Mycenaeans is displayed through the two gold cups found at the Mycenaean Vaphio tomb. This LH II tholos tomb presented two gold cups; known as the Vaphio cups. At first glance they seem identical, however, with greater analysis, they not only convey two entirely different scenes but also represent different aesthetic styles, which suggests two different craftsmen. With one cup being named the quiet or calm cup and the other the violent cup, it seems as though the similarity in the bull scenes may have been planned by the same person but executed by different people; the calm bull scene by a Minoan craftsman and the violent bull scene by a Mycenaean. The calm bull scene is well-executed and freeform, with the handles placed on top of the design, seemingly as an afterthought. This conforms to the Minoan preference for free-flowing scenes and their superior craftsmanship.
Often the quality of artefacts uncovered in Mycenaean burials suggests they were made by Minoans for a mainland audience. This theory is corroborated by the inlaid daggers often depicting hunting scenes but made with such intricacy that they are believed to be from the hands of Minoan artisans. Recently, the discovery of the Griffin Warrior tomb at Pylos by Jack Davis and Sharon Stocker has added hundreds of elite burial goods to the corpus found at Pylos. One of the most detailed warrior scenes from the Aegean world was found in this burial, the Combat Agate, and is believed to have been manufactured on Late Minoan Crete for a mainland audience.
The palace centres on Crete were not palaces in a modern sense but seem to have been the centre of administrative business, religious activity, and a centralised space for commerce and trade. The palaces were grand structures, with Knossos being the largest of the main sites and the only one that kept its grandeur after the widespread destruction c. 1700 BCE. One striking feature on Crete is the lack of fortifications around the palatial centres, which has encouraged speculation that the Minoans were fairly peaceful and may have not feared attack from outside forces. Since we cannot decipher the language of the Minoans – Linear A – what can be inferred of the usage of the centres rests entirely on the archaeological record.
The Mycenaean palatial centres are similar but smaller than Minoan centres and were almost all heavily fortified, except for Pylos. The ruins of the palace of Nestor provide evidence of small fortifications a fair distance from the city centre, as opposed to other cities like Mycenae and Tiryns. The enormous size of the fortification walls led the earlier Greeks to call them ‘Cyclopean walls’ since they could have only been built by the race of one-eyed giants, the cyclops. We know from the extant Linear B archives, primarily from the archives found at Pylos and Knossos, that the Mycenaean city centres were, like the Cretan centres, centralised spaces for the redistribution of goods and had areas for the storage of oils and grains, and rooms for specific crafts. We also know that these Mycenaean centres were ruled by a wanax, which was like a lord, and their second-in-command was a lawagetas, which was like a governor.
The Minoans buried their elite in pithoi (singular: pithos), or large burial jars, a practice which has been uncovered in the Grave Circle at Pylos, although the discovery of multiple bodies in one burial jar exhibits the Mycenaeans’ adoption of and subsequent deviation from the Minoan burial practice. Additionally, the Minoans constructed tholos or beehive tombs, which was a style of burial also used by the Mycenaeans. The tholos tomb is a structure created by a process known as corbelling which constitutes layers of bricks or stones which grow increasingly smaller to form a tomb with a beehive resemblance. The earliest tholos tomb on the mainland is believed to be Tholos IV at Pylos, however the most iconic is the Treasury of Atreus, also known as the Tomb of Agamemnon, built c. 1250 BCE at Mycenae. Two previously undiscovered tholos tombs have recently been uncovered next to Tholos IV at Pylos; although they have not yet been dated, they have been named Tholos VI and Tholos VII.
The burial goods from the Mycenae shaft graves (where the iconic gold death masks were discovered) express a close relationship with the Minoans. As Higgins has noted; “many of the treasures from these two Grave-Circles are of Cretan origin, and nearly all show Cretan influence,” an occurrence which has been identified at Pylos, especially with the discovery of the Griffin Warrior burial (76). The majority of artefacts published from the rich burial of the Griffin Warrior expresses a preference for Minoan religious iconography and Minoan craftsmanship. The Shaft Grave period of the Mycenaean civilization was during the formative stages of the culture. The exotic Cretan artefacts “were recontextualized in graves like that of the Griffin Warrior, as foundations for the Mycenaean civilization were laid,” influencing their decorative preferences and cultural practices (Davis, 2016, 652).
Although the intricacies of Minoan religion are a mystery to us, facets of Minoan religious practices have survived through art. From frescoes, signet rings, seal stones and deposits, we know they participated in libations, processions, feasts, and even the ritual event of bull-leaping. The Minoans had many prominent religious symbols which have been found in religious sanctuaries, burials, and at palatial sites: the horns of consecration, the sacral knot, and the double axe.
There are several depictions of priestesses and women performing religious rituals, and numerous ivory carvings of a deity who has been given the name of The Snake Goddess by modern-day scholars; her original name is unknown. The presence of a main female deity and its transmission to the mainland has been noted by Marinatos: “the dominant goddess of the Minoan pantheon was a female one, and… her symbol was the double axe. Representations of this goddess abound in murals, rings, and seals even on objects found on the mainland of Greece” (249).
Frescoes show the use of rhytons which were libation vessels used for ritual purposes and were often highly ornamented. The Minoans took part in religious activities in sanctuaries which were either on a high mountain peak (no further than 3 hours walk from settlements) or in caves, and it seems these subterranean rituals required the presence of stalactites and stalagmites to be effective, but what the meaning of these was is unknown.
Not much is known about the religion of the Mycenaeans, other than what has been assumed from preserved art and the archaeological record. This is due to the Linear B archives being used exclusively for economic and administrative records. There is evidence of communal feasting, animal sacrifice, libations and food offerings, and although they seem to have adopted some religious symbols from the Minoans, such as the double axe, it is not clear whether this symbol meant the same to the Mycenaeans as it did on Crete. We do, however, have Linear B tablets which mention some of the same gods that were venerated by the Classical Greeks who came after them, including Poseidon, Zeus, Artemis, and Hermes.
The Minoan and Mycenaean civilizations were separate cultures with distinctive features and differences, but they did not exist entirely separately. The archaeological record has provided us with a great deal of information about their interconnectedness, transmission of ideas and goods, and shifts in political and trade dominance in the Mediterranean. The influence on the Mycenaeans by the Minoans on Crete has been expressed through their similar yet smaller palatial centres, their burial practices, possession of goods and adoption of common Minoan symbols.
- Burns, Bryan E. Mycenaean Greece, Mediterranean Commerce, and the Formation of Identity. Cambridge University Press, 2012.
- Cline, Eric H. The Oxford Handbook of the Bronze Age Aegean. Oxford University Press, 2012.
- Ellen Davis. “The Vaphio Cups: One Minoan and One Mycenaean?.” The Art Bulletin, 56. 4. 1974, pp. 472-487.
- Higgins, Reynold. Minoan and Mycenaean Art. Thames & Hudson, 1997.
- Jack Davis and Sharon Stocker. “The Combat Agate from the Grave of the Griffin Warrior at Pylos.” Hesperia, 86. 2017, pp. 583-605.
- Jack Davis and Sharon Stocker. “The Lord of the Gold Rings: The Griffin Warrior of Pylos.” Hesperia, 85. 2016, pp. 627-655.
- Nanno Marinatos. “Minoan Religion.” The Cambridge History of Religions in the Ancient World, edited by Salzman, Michele. Cambridge University Press, 2018, 237-255.
Originally published by the Ancient History Encyclopedia, 09.24.2020, under a Creative Commons: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.