The Minoans and Mycenaeans have been hailed as the predecessors of ancient Greek culture. By looking at their burials, we can learn more about their society and culture. Most of these burials lack written artifacts, but the people who buried their loved ones and ancestors speak to us today clearly through how they conducted burials. Burials are an archaeological nexus of culture, people, and ideas about death and the dead. By interpreting archaeology, we can hear all the Minoans and Mycenaeans are trying to say about themselves.
Who Were the Minoans & Mycenaeans?
The Minoans and Mycenaeans were Aegean peoples active during the Bronze and Iron ages. Though the Mycenaeans were separate in origin from the Minoans, the Mycenaeans took much influence from the Minoans. Therefore, it is useful to examine the two in tandem. This allows us to see how they were different or similar and trace the origins of practices back through time.
Evidence of the Minoan culture, primarily found on the Greek island of Crete, begins to appear around the Early and Middle Bronze Ages. Many timelines put the start of the Minoan Age at 2100 BCE when the first Minoan Palaces were built on Crete. The major Minoan Palace complexes are Knossos, Zakros, Phaistos, and Malia.
Crete sits just to the South of the Aegean Sea and consists of about 8336 square kilometers of varied landscape: scenic mountains, dramatic valleys, and beautiful beaches that would stun any tourist.
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On academic timelines, the end of the Minoan age is often designated as 1500 BCE. This is when evidence of violence and destruction of Minoan sites begins. Many scholars think this points to a takeover of Crete and the Minoans by warlike Mycenaeans.
Though the periods of Minoan and Mycenaean prominence likely overlap, Mycenaean cultural dominance across the Greek mainland and Crete begins in the 1600s BCE. They enjoyed immense power and success until the period of cultural, economic, and political decline, often termed the “Dark Ages.” This began in the Aegean around 1150 BCE.
The Mycenaean culture can be traced to the development of Archaic and Classical mainland Greek culture. From these cultures, humanity has gotten some of its most cherished artifacts, architecture, mythological stories, and philosophies. The story of ancient Greek culture will always have a significant chapter on the Minoans and Mycenaeans.
The Minoan and Mycenaean ages are those which later Greeks told stories about. It was a time of heroes and myths like the Minoan king Minos and his Minotaur, of the Iliad, and The Odyssey. What was it about these people that captured the imagination of later Greeks?
1. The Minoan Tholos Tombs of Odigitria
Around 3000 BCE, tholos tombs began to appear on Crete. A tholos tomb consists of a beehive-shaped structure made of stones. They often featured small doors positioned on their eastern aspect. This was usually facing away from nearby settlements and facing towards the sunrise. They varied from 4 meters to 13 meters in diameter.
Most tholoi were found with big slabs against this entrance. This could be an indication of reverence towards the deceased buried, as the slab could serve to prevent looting or scavenging animals. On the other hand, this could have been done out of fear of the deceased, a desire to prevent them from accessing local settlements.
It is unknown what shape most tholoi were, as they are mostly found without roofs. However, scholars have speculated they may have had corbel rooves, which gave them a beehive shape. Tholoi represent a huge amount of social investment into the dead, as the corbel structure would have been difficult to construct from stone. These tombs would have been more expensive to build than contemporary wattle and daub dwellings for the living. Tholoi are found all over Crete, but most are concentrated on the southwest “Mesara” part of the island. This alluvial plain site is home to some of the earliest tholoi on Minoan Crete, including those at Odigitria.
The oldest tholos at the site is Tholos A. It is one of the oldest existing Minoan tholoi, as its initial construction was completed in the Early Minoan I period, around 3000 BCE. Though the tomb had been thoroughly looted by the time archaeologists were able to excavate, they did still find early Minoan pottery, Middle Minoan pottery, a bone pipe, a bone pendant, and many beads. This tomb is important because it provides some of the earliest evidence of Minoan attitudes towards death.
The high level of dedication of resources to the dead, i.e., stone buildings, beautiful beads, and bone objects, suggests a reverence for the people being buried. It is striking that the Minoans would choose to take valuable resources like pottery and beads out of the economy of living for the dead. These ancestors must have been truly important to the Minoans to occasion such treatment.
2. Kamilari Tholos
This Minoan tholos tomb was first constructed around 1900-1800 BCE. It consists of a main circular structure and five additional ancillary rooms. At this point, Minoan tholoi were not just the burial chambers themselves but often included surrounding rooms and courtyards. These were for other practices around burial, cult activities, and community gatherings. These ancillary rooms and the artifacts found inside have added significantly to knowledge of how Minoans interacted with the dead. The archaeological tracings of these behaviors build on evidence from earlier tombs, like those at Odigitria.
Over 2000 pottery vessels from Kamilari, 800 of which were conical drinking cups, have led to the conclusion that a final meal was had with the dead before their burial. This is corroborated by one of the most curious finds from Kamilari, a terracotta model of smaller figures kneeling and serving larger figures. The kneeling posture, the size difference between the two sets of figures, and the funerary context of this model suggest it represents the living offering food to the deceased. Not only were the Minoans giving up their stone architecture and valuable items to the dead, but they were also giving up their food.
3. Griffin Warrior’s Grave
This shaft grave was found by the processional way leading up to the Mycenaean palace of Nestor at Pylos. It dates to around 1500 BCE. The location of this grave near to such a central site demonstrates the centrality of the buried person’s legacy to the community. It was named after the griffin-decorated ivory plaque found with the corpse.
One thousand five hundred items were recovered from this intact grave, including a plethora of gold and silver cups, a bronze basin, a mirror, beautiful beads, weaponry, and many golden seal rings. Ancient seal rings served as a sort of signature that could be applied to documents, clay storage vessels, and even doorways. The possession of four seal rings denotes this warrior’s high status- how many things did he own or manage that he needed four of these rings?
And what does it say about the Mycenaean perception of Minoans that all four rings featured Minoan imagery and craftsmanship? Nanno Marinatos notes that high-status Greeks valued these “Minoan insignias of power.”
It is not the case, however, that Mycenaeans were purely Minoan copiers. They had their own distinct culture. The most explicit difference between the two visible in archaeology is their attitudes towards violence. Minoan imagery noticeably lacks a direct representation of violence. Contrastingly, Mycenaean imagery represents their military ethos, such as in the chariot fresco from Pylos.
The Mycenaeans did not value Minoan artistry and power displays because they thought the Minoans embodied war-like ambitions. Rather, they valued these because of their memory of the Minoans: their gods, heroes, their ancestor spirits. The admiration and reverence the Minoans displayed to the memory of their own dead seem to be replicated by the Mycenaeans towards the memory of the Minoans.
4. Grave Circle A, at Mycenae
This is one of the most noted graves for enthusiasts and scholars of Mycenaean culture and Homeric tales. This is the grave Heinrich Schliemann dug in his search to find the glittering golden home of Agamemnon, the kingly leader of the Mycenaeans from the Iliad. When Schliemann pulled the famous golden death mask from the ground here, he claimed he had “gazed upon the face of Agamemnon.” While the identity of the death mask’s owner was never proven, the finds at Grave Circle A and what we can learn from them are astounding.
Grave Circle A began construction in 1600 BCE. It is in the walled city of Mycenae, one of the capitals of the Mycenaean people. However, the grave circle predates the building of Mycenae, which started around 1200 BCE. The Mycenaeans chose to build the famous Lion Gate of Mycenae right next to the grave circle, so the grave circle was one of the first things one saw when entering the city. This was not just a city of contemporary glory but an ancestral legacy as well.
Among the grave goods from this tomb is an abundance of imported goods, including an Egyptian ostrich egg jug. Gold appliques with Minoan imagery and craftsmanship were sown onto burial shrouds. Gold seal rings were also found with Minoan religious imagery, such as a tripartite shrine.
This is one of the most famous and richest graves of all Mycenaean archaeology. Yet, like the Griffin Warrior grave, it contains many Minoan artifacts. What this suggests is not only an intense cultural significance around the memory of the men and women buried in these graves but also a memory of the Minoans as central to the beginnings of Mycenean culture.
These are cultures that venerated and protected their dead from the time of the earliest Minoans to the height of Mycenaean power. It is up to us to see for ourselves how we can cultivate a relationship with our ancestors to honor where we came from.