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Athena Review, Vol.3, no.3: Minoan Crete

Understanding the Minoan Palaces

Louise A. Hitchcock

The Cotsen Institute of Archaeology, UCLA

Introduction: The Minoan civilization of Middle to Late Bronze Age Crete, named after the legendary King Minos, presented a tantalizing mystery to the outside world even before Sir Arthur Evans began his excavations at Knossos just over 100 years ago. The remains of this rich civilization include colossal labyrinthine structures which Evans originally called "palaces," and art works consisting of naturalistic, bold, and graceful depictions of lush landscapes, bull-leaping acrobatics, and bare-breasted women. The fragmentary nature of the archaeological evidence, the selective emphasis on certain categories of evidence, several varieties of as yet undeciphered pictographic scripts, and various Greek legends that have filtered down to us over the past centuries, have heightened both fascination with and speculation about the Minoans.

Today, new discoveries, careful consideration of the existing evidence, and improved methods of analysis are giving scholars new insights into the function of the Minoan palaces. These current findings call into question the popular stereotypes of the so-called "peace-loving" Minoans and "warlike" Mycenaeans.

Recent research has determined that the Minoans did, in fact, build walls, and evidence for them has been found at Malia, Gournia, and at Petras. Because none of these walls forms a complete circuit, their function as a defensive feature has been questioned. However, the labyrinthine architectural layout of the Minoan palaces and villas (smaller elite residential structures) may be seen as constituting an internal defense system. Owing to this complexity, the outsider would have been confronted with a confusing and unwelcoming set of choices. What would the outsider have done if he saw seven doorways opening off of a single corridor or closed off the entire wing of a building just by closing a single door?

A scientific approach to studying Minoan architecture implies an explicit methodology (Hitchcock 2000), systematic observations, and quantifying specific types of architectural features. Once a building has been analyzed, the problem becomes one of interpretation. At this point, the study of anthropology becomes invaluable. Anthropological studies provide the archaeologist with many possibilities for trying to make sense of the Minoan past apart from imposing the cultural values of our modern, industrialized society on it.

The iconography from Minoan seals, sealings, and wall paintings provides another source of evidence for interpreting architectural remains. Themes and motifs depicted in Minoan art are both naturalistic and abstract. They include narratives, representations of ritual activity, landscapes, animal depictions, marine motifs, and geometric motifs. Although Aegean frescoes are quite beautiful, it is generally agreed that they also had important symbolic significance. Frequently, Aegean frescoes work in tandem with the architecture to communicate meaning. The meaning of such scenes is not always clear, and complex narratives, such as those found at Akrotiri in the West House or the house called Xeste 3 (see below), have engendered multiple readings accompanied by fierce debate.

The Emergence of the Palaces: The first palaces on Crete were built in the Middle Bronze Age (ca. 1900 BC) and, despite Late Neolithic and Pre-palatial components at many of the palace sites (Knossos, Malia, and Petras), the large palace structures seem to have appeared out of nowhere. Their emergence, however, might be connected with the construction of well-built and visually impressive monumental tombs that preceded them. Such tombs take various forms and have been located in eastern, southern, and central Crete. We can infer that the building of such tombs required an individual or small group of individuals to coordinate, oversee, and direct the actions of workers who constructed them. Amid the overall context of an emergent stratified society based (presumably) on trade wealth, these activities would have re-enforced the authority of the individuals in charge of the projects. The daily repetition of the building and supervisory activities occurring throughout the construction process would have contributed to hierarchical relationships being considered routine. The finished monument, in turn, became a highly visible and permanent symbol of authorities that were already in place.

In all likelihood, the elite groups in Minoan culture (perhaps families) were responsible for the construction of the first Minoan palaces. The idea of creating monumental religious and administrative structures may have been inspired by trade contact with the Near East, but the style of execution was purely Minoan. Other markers of social complexity that accompanied the emergence of the palaces include writing, mass-produced wheel made pottery, and craft specialization (all criteria traditionally used to identify Bronze Age civilizations, by Childe [1930] and others).

General Characteristics of Minoan Palaces: Upon first glance, the most striking characteristic of the Minoan palaces is their monumentality, which incorporates ashlar (cut stone) masonry, and recessed façades to create a play of light and shade in their appearance, and architectural decoration such as stylized stone or clay bull's horns, termed "horns of consecration." Some of the ashlar blocks were engraved with symbols of uncertain significance, termed "mason's marks." The use of timber and rubble in building the walls may have provided flexibility during earthquakes.

Monumentality is significant in that it implies planning, full-time craftsmen, and the organization of materials and labor. Each of these factors implies a high level of social complexity that requires an agricultural surplus, as well as the emergence of social ranking and hierarchy. Symbolically, monumental structures communicate permanence, power, and status (cf. Trigger 1990). All of these factors convey exclusivity. Also notable are spacious paved courts on the west sides of the palaces, presumably for public gatherings. Another significant, though less obvious feature, is the placement of the palaces within the landscape. Their frequent orientation to sacred mountains housing peak and/or cave sanctuaries, was connected with the religious beliefs of the populace, and their coastal locations communicated prestige to visiting traders.

[Fig.1: Generic plan of a "Minoan Hall" (after Evans).]

Upon entering the building or looking at a ground plan, a visitor is next impressed by the labyrinthine layout of rooms organized around a rectangular central courtyard. Upon careful study, the visitor becomes aware of a specific architectural vocabulary and organizational structure (cf. Preziosi 1983), where specific types of rooms and other features, such as courts or basins, tend to be located in the same part of each building. This vocabulary includes elaborate halls that are located in the northwest and/or east wing, small sunken rooms termed "lustral basins," small dark rooms known as "pillar crypts" located near storage areas, other small areas devoted to ritual activity in the west wing, storage areas in the west, industrial quarters often located in the east wing, a main entrance, additional minor entrances, and a hypostyle (pillared) hall in the north wing. The palace walls were also decorated with wall paintings, painted stucco, and/or veneering. In addition, each building has certain types of features that make it unique, such as the famous "Throne Room" that only occurs at Knossos, or a round pool built of cut stone that only occurs at Kato Zakro. Variation in the ways corridors, stairways, and doorways connect various room types at each site, gives each building a complexity and uniqueness that underlie superficial similarities in the location of rooms. For example, two rooms might share a common wall but be separated by a winding route requiring the visitor to pass through six different doorways! As a result, each of the palaces is a one-of-a-kind architectural masterpiece.

Halls and Lustral Basins, an Old Debate: The "Minoan Hall" (fig.1) is one of the most notable features of Minoan architecture and contributes significantly to the maze-like appearance of Minoan palatial architecture (Palyvou 1987). It typically consists of several rectangular rooms separated by a row of columns and a set of square piers. These piers include sets of double doors which fold back into shallow recesses, thus allowing a great deal of flexibility in the admission of light and ventilation, and in the control or facilitation of movement. Archaeologists refer to this feature as a pier-and-door partition, and it separates a hall into two unequal parts known as a hall and forehall. A lightwell usually forms the third part of this system, separated from the other two parts by a row of columns. The Minoan Hall constitutes a feature that is uniquely Minoan and serves to distinguish the Minoans from other contemporary cultures.

[Fig.2: Hall with columns in the northwest wing at Phaistos (photo: L. Hitchcock).]

These halls could be put to multiple purposes depending on the time of day, seasonal changes, and specific needs. Possible functions include, but are not limited to, a ceremonial gathering and/or meeting area as well as a general living space.

In several instances, at Agia Triadha, Malia, Kato Zakro, and possibly at Knossos, Minoan Halls are located near small rooms containing tablet or sealing archives. This association raises the possibility that these rooms served as a meeting place for bureaucrats who administered palace inventories and kept records. In many ancient and modern, but traditional cultures, specialized knowledge such as writing or metallurgy is invested with religious symbolism. Thus, religion serves as a mechanism for restricting access to specialized knowledge, hence maintaining its exclusivity.

An elaborate, multi-storied monumental staircase decorated with a fresco was used to gain access to the halls at Knossos. The fresco is fragmentary, but enough information is preserved to indicate a procession. This iconography suggests that the halls served as an end point for a procession, perhaps connected with seasonal rituals and/or with receiving important visitors or traders. In short, we can view the "Minoan Halls" as all-purpose gathering spaces, although changing their context, or relationship to neighboring rooms could radically alter their purpose.

Another architectural feature that is uniquely Minoan is a small room referred to as a "lustral basin" in the archaeological literature (fig.3). A lustral basin is a small, rectangular room sunken below floor level and reached by a short flight of stairs, making a turn and running along a parapet. These rooms are typically well-appointed, often with gypsum veneering or paneling and fresco decoration. They always open off of a rectangular ante-room. The lustral basin has been interpreted as a place for ritual initiation, purification, symbolic descent into the earth, and bathing.

[Fig.3: "Lustral Basin" from the southeast wing at Knossos (photo: L. Hitchcock).]

The most common objection raised against the idea that these rooms were used for bathing is that the gypsum veneering is water-soluble and would have been damaged. In addition, all of these basin rooms lack drains, yet the Minoans skillfully built a variety of drains elsewhere. The basin in the northwest wing at Knossos is some 2 m in depth, much deeper than is necessary for pouring bath-water. Another basin is located opposite the stone seat or "throne" at Knossos. Benches on either side of the throne create a fairly public context for bathing!

In naming these small sunken rooms "lustral basins," Sir Arthur Evans (1921, pp. 405-422) believed that oil jars found in the Knossian basin were used for ritual cleansing. Descending into the basin and perhaps splashing on a bit of oil upon entering the palace may have been required of someone entering for the first time.

[Fig.4: Circulation pattern associated with the northwest lustral basin at Knossos (after Evans).]

The best argument against the use of lustral basins for bathing comes from the Bronze Age town-site of Akrotiri on the island of Thera, just 60 miles north of Crete. The center of Thera is an active volcano and its massive eruption in the 17th c. BC preserved some of the houses in the town to the second and even third stories. Prior to the eruption, many of the houses were modified or constructed to include many Minoan style frescoes (fig.5) and architectural features. One of these houses, Xeste 3, was appointed with an elaborate fresco program, pier-and-door partitions, and a lustral basin. It has been shown that the pier-and-door partitions could be gradually opened to reveal the fresco narrative scene by scene.

The basin and fresco program has been interpreted as connected with a female initiation rite. The basin represents a place of separation while a representation of a bleeding foot is believed to symbolize death, followed by renewal (cf. Marinatos 1984). While such an interpretation may sound a bit far-fetched from our modern perspective, it fits in with what we know from anthropological studies of rites of passage rituals in traditional societies.

Bringing lustral basins within the palaces might represent the palatial takeover of popular cult. This interpretation is based on what we know about Minoan religion. Evidence includes the palatial control over peak sanctuaries, and the religious significance of caves as indicated by the deposition of offerings. Although it would be desirable to be more specific about the use of lustral basins, to say more would mean abandoning reasoned interpretation and entering the realm of speculation.

[Fig.5: Fresco of female initiate from Xeste 3 in Akrotiri, Thera (after Marinatos).]

The Function of the Minoan Palaces - Storage, Work, and Ritual: It has been calculated that about one-third of the ground space of the Minoan palaces was devoted to storage (Begg 1975). Typically, storage areas were located in the west and north wings, where they took the form of a row of long, narrow rooms called magazines.

Magazines often held clay storage jars that were several feet tall, called pithoi. Although Minoan pithoi were excavated and cleaned before modern methods of residue analyses were available to determine their contents, anthropological studies of modern pithos use indicate they might have held a variety of contents. These included staples such as grain, wine, and olive oil, as well as household items such as pottery and textiles (Christakis 1999, pp.6-7).

Generally speaking, work rooms within the palaces tended to be slightly wider than storerooms, well-lit, undecorated, and distinguished by special features connected with a particular activity, and/or possibly containing raw or partially worked materials. Open areas and roof tops seem also to have been used for industrial activity. In addition, Linear A texts (Palmer 1991), archaeological remains, and evidence from seals and sealings (Weingarten 1986) indicate the presence of separate workshops that were working on behalf of palatial interests.

The use of writing and seals, and the setting aside of numerous spaces for storage have led archaeologists to view the Minoan palaces as centers for organizing redistribution, exchange, and trade (cf. papers in Hägg and Marinatos 1987). Under this system, staples might be released or elaborate feasts organized at special times of the year such as the planting and/or harvest season, and to mark periods in the transition from one life-stage to another, such as the transition from childhood to adulthood. The purpose of such celebrations would be to promote community solidarity and would serve to justify or legitimize the role of the palaces in these processes. The palaces would also regulate access to prestige goods and imported commodities such as bronze, ivory, or gold. These activities would have made it possible for craftsmen to obtain needed staples in exchange for their wares.

[Fig.6: Fresco fragment from Knossos depicting double axes embedded in column capitals (photo: L. Hitchcock).]

I believe that the palaces instigated, employed, and orchestrated religious belief and ritual as a means of legitimizing their economic activities. In this regard, I think that certain symbols and features connected with storage played an important role in this legitimation. Foremost among these features is the pillar room or pillar crypt. The term "pillar crypt" was coined by Evans to refer to small, dark rooms, located near the storage magazines at Knossos, that contained a central pillar with incised double-axe markings, suggesting sanctity to him and others. They are regarded as architectural and aniconic (non-representational) representations of the stalactites and stalagmites worshipped by the populace in sacred caves (cf. Evans 1901). They occur in most palatial buildings in close association with storage magazines. At least fourteen pillar crypts are engraved with double-axe mason's marks and/or contain pyramidal stone stands for holding double axes or other cult emblems. The double-axe is a prominent Minoan religious symbol as indicated by votive double-axes made of gold and found in caves. Fresco fragments from Knossos also show double-axes embedded in capitals (fig.6).

Tree, post, and pillar as cult symbols may be seen as symbolizing nature; the altar or receptacle associated with them served as a focal point of cult activity (cf. Wright 1992; Evans 1901). On a gold ring of probable Minoan workmanship from Mycenae, two altars are depicted: on one there is a tree; both altars shelter baetyls (standing stones) (fig.7).

Sacred groves in an urban context are most prominently associated with the so-called "sacred grove" fresco from Knossos. This depicts at least two trees, a walkway or temenos, and a gathering that includes female protagonists and male and female onlookers (cf. Marinatos 1987; Davis 1987). The activities are divided unevenly between onlookers and participants. The location of the grove and its related ceremonies have been associated with the west courts of the palaces at Knossos and Phaistos (e.g. Preziosi 1983: 85). These areas served as sacred enclosures, distinguished by their pavement, proximity to the palace, and raised causeways.

[Fig.7: Seal impression showing altars with trees and baetyl on gold ring from Mycenae.]

At each palace, public spaces allowed for the gathering of residents and visitors, but in each case they were presented with a unique set of architectural symbols. I believe that architectural differences at each site orchestrated different ritual practices, and that these different practices symbolized a ritual focus on different localized deities or aspects of a particular deity. The performance of these rituals was situated within a context of complex trading relationships that was probably regulated by the palaces and legitimized through the manipulation of symbolism. These inter-relationships were no doubt delicate and keeping them in balance may have contributed to the decline of Minoan civilization, which culminated in the violent destruction at the end of the Neopalatial period, ca. 1450 BC. Although I have treated the Neopalatial period as a monolithic entity for the sake of simplicity, change and upheaval marked this period of some 250 years, distinguished mainly by the periods termed Late Minoan IA and IB.

The effects on Crete of the Theran eruption that occurred in LMIA are still being debated. Driessen and Macdonald (1997) have convincingly documented many of the architectural changes between LMIA and LMIB. They have shown that those in control of the palaces and villas increasingly restricted access to them. It is not unlikely that competition for wealth, power, and status may have contributed to the instability that resulted in the end of Minoan civilization.

[Note: This is an abridged version of the article "Understanding the Minoan Palaces" by Louise A. Hitchcock, whose full text and illustrations appear in the printed issue of Vol.3, no.3 of Athena Review (pp.27-35). Copyright 2003, Athena Publications, Inc.]


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