"Long before it's in the papers"
January 27, 2015


Fame as peace-lovers off-base for ancient Minoans, scholar says

Jan. 15, 2013
Courtesy of the University of Sheffield
and World Science staff

One of the first Eu­ro­pe­an civ­il­iz­a­tions, the famed is­land cul­ture of the Mi­noans, has been mis­un­der­stood, a schol­ar says.

The civ­il­iz­a­tion—some­times al­so said to be the orig­i­nal source of the myth of the van­ished peo­ple of At­lant­is—was no­where near as peace­ful as many por­tray­als have it, claims ar­chae­o­lo­gist Bar­ry Mol­loy of the Uni­vers­ity of Shef­field, U.K.

A mu­ral of dol­phins from the pal­ace at Knos­sos in Crete, a leg­acy of the an­cient Min­oans. The art­work is heav­i­ly re­con­struct­ed from small frag­ments in a way that even the man who dir­ect­ed the work—the 19th- and 20th-century Brit­ish ar­chael­o­gist Sir Ar­thur Ev­ans—ad­mit­ted could have been wrong. (Im­age cred­it: Chris 73, Wiki­me­dia Com­mons)

Al­so cel­e­brat­ed for lovely mu­rals of dol­phins and oth­er sub­jects (which may have been re­con­struct­ed in­ac­cu­rate­ly, though) the Mi­noans are de­scribed as Eu­rope’s first com­plex ur­ban civ­il­iz­a­tion.

Their flourishing, Bronze Age cul­ture col­lapsed shortly af­ter a mas­sive near­by vol­can­ic erup­tion in 1628 B.C., though a di­rect link be­tween the events re­mains un­prov­en.

The cat­a­clysm has been spec­u­lat­ed to be the true source of the long-endur­ing At­lant­is leg­end, first trace­a­ble in writ­ten rec­ords to the Greek phi­los­o­pher Pla­to. Pla­to wrote that he had heard of a once-fab­u­lous­ly wealthy, peace­ful is­land realm that in­vit­ed a to­tal, di­vine de­struc­tion up­on it­self by slip­ping in­to cor­rupt ways.

Some schol­ars be­lieve Pla­to in­vented the tale to sound an alarm about per­ceived mor­al de­cay in his own time.

Be that as it may, the real Mi­no­an civ­il­iz­a­tion, on the mod­ern Greek is­land of Crete, “was un­cov­ered just over a cen­tu­ry ago,” Mol­loy said.

In­i­tial re­search sug­gested Mi­nos was “a largely peace­ful so­ci­ety,” he added. “In time, many took this to be a par­a­digm of a so­ci­e­ty that was de­void of war, where war­riors and vi­o­lence were shunned.”

“That uto­pi­an view has not sur­vived in­to mod­ern schol­arship, but it re­mains in the back­ground un­chal­lenged and still crops up in mod­ern texts and pop­u­lar cul­ture with sur­pris­ing fre­quen­cy,” Mol­loy con­tin­ued.

But it is in­cor­rect, Mol­loy main­tains.

“Hav­ing worked on ex­cava­t­ion and oth­er pro­jects in Crete for many years, it trig­gered my cu­ri­os­ity about how such a com­plex so­ci­e­ty, con­trol­ling re­sources and trad­ing with mighty pow­ers like Egypt, could evolve in an egal­i­tar­ian or co­op­er­a­tive con­text. Can we really be that pos­i­tive about hu­man na­ture? As I looked for ev­i­dence for vi­o­lence, war­riors or war, it quickly be­came ob­vi­ous that it could be found in a sur­pris­ingly wide range of places.”

Build­ing on re­cent de­vel­op­ments in the study of war­fare in pre­his­tor­ic so­ci­eties, Mol­loy’s re­search sug­gests war was a de­fin­ing char­ac­ter­is­tic of the Mi­no­an so­ci­e­ty, and that war­ri­or ident­ity was one of the dom­i­nant ex­pres­sions of male ident­ity. “The study shows that the ac­ti­vi­ties of war­riors in­clud­ed such di­verse things as pub­lic dis­plays of bull-leaping, box­ing con­tests, wres­tling, hunt­ing, spar­ring and du­el­ing. Ide­olo­gies of war are shown to have per­me­at­ed re­li­gion, art, in­dus­try, pol­i­tics and trade, and the so­cial prac­tices sur­round­ing mar­tial tra­di­tions were demon­strably a struc­tur­al part of how this so­ci­e­ty evolved and how they saw them­selves.”

Even the fa­mous Myce­naeans, heroes of the Greek Tro­jan War, took up the Mi­no­an way of war—adopt­ing its weap­on­ry, prac­tices and ide­olo­gies, Mol­loy said. “In fac­t,” said Mol­loy, “it is to Crete we must look for the or­i­gin of those weapons that were to dom­i­nate Eu­rope un­til the Mid­dle Ages, namely swords, met­al battle-axes, shields, spears and probably ar­mor al­so.”

Mol­loy said he found a “stag­ger­ing” amount of vi­o­lence in the sym­bol­ic gram­mar and ma­te­ri­al re­mains from pre­his­tor­ic Crete. Weapons and war­ri­or cul­ture came to light in sanc­tu­ar­ies, graves, do­mes­tic un­its and hoards, he said; it was vis­i­ble in port­a­ble ob­jects in­tend­ed for use dur­ing so­cial in­ter­ac­tions, for ex­am­ple, ad­min­istra­t­ion, feast­ing, or per­son­al adorn­ment. “There were few spheres of in­ter­ac­tion in Crete that did not have a mar­tial com­po­nent, right down to the sym­bols used in their writ­ten scripts,” he re­marked.

Mol­loy’s re­search looks at war as a so­cial pro­cess. He ex­am­ines what he calls the in­fra­struc­tur­al and psy­cho­log­i­cal sup­port mech­a­nisms that fa­cil­i­tated war, the means through which it was em­bed­ded in so­cial log­ic. “The so­cial and in­sti­tu­tion­al com­po­nents of war im­pact­ed on set­tle­ment pat­terns, land­scape ex­ploita­t­ion, technolog­ical and trade net­works, re­li­gious prac­tices, art, ad­min­istra­t­ion and more, so that war was indi­rectly a con­stant fac­tor in shap­ing the daily lives of peo­ple,” he ex­plained.

“Under­stand­ing the so­cial as­pects of war ‘be­yond the bat­tle’ is es­sen­tial if we are to bet­ter un­der­stand how elites ma­ni­pu­lated eco­nom­ics, re­li­gion and vi­o­lence in con­trol­ling their worlds.”

Mol­loy’s find­ings are pub­lished in the No­vem­ber is­sue of the jour­nal An­nu­al of the Brit­ish School at Ath­ens.

* * *

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One of the first European civilizations, the famed island culture of the Minoans, has been misunderstood, a scholar said. The civilization—sometimes also said to be the original source of the myth of the lost city of Atlantis—was nowhere near as peaceful as many portrayals have it, said archaeologist Barry Molloy of the University of Sheffield, U.K. Also celebrated for lovely murals of dolphins and other subjects (which may have been reconstructed inaccurately, though) the Minoans were Europe’s first complex urban civilization, Molloy said. Their Bronze Age culture collapsed shortly after a massive nearby volcanic eruption in 1628 B.C., though a direct link between the events remains unproven. The cataclysm has been speculated to be the true source of the long-enduring Atlantis legend, first traceable to the Greek philosopher Plato as a written story. Plato wrote that he had heard of a once-flourishing, peaceful island realm that invited a total, divine destruction upon itself by slipping into corrupt ways. Some scholars believe Plato invented the tale to sound an alarm about perceived moral decay in his own time. Be that as it may, the real Minoan civilization, on the modern Greek island of Crete, “was uncovered just over a century ago,” Molloy said. Initial research suggested Minos was “a largely peaceful society,” he added. “In time, many took this to be a paradigm of a society that was devoid of war, where warriors and violence were shunned and played no significant role. “That utopian view has not survived into modern scholarship, but it remains in the background unchallenged and still crops up in modern texts and popular culture with surprising frequency,” Molloy continued. But it is incorrect, Molloy maintains. “Having worked on excavation and other projects in Crete for many years, it triggered my curiosity about how such a complex society, controlling resources and trading with mighty powers like Egypt, could evolve in an egalitarian or cooperative context. Can we really be that positive about human nature? As I looked for evidence for violence, warriors or war, it quickly became obvious that it could be found in a surprisingly wide range of places.” Building on recent developments in the study of warfare in prehistoric societies, Molloy’s research suggests war was a defining characteristic of the Minoan society, and that warrior identity was one of the dominant expressions of male identity. “The study shows that the activities of warriors included such diverse things as public displays of bull-leaping, boxing contests, wrestling, hunting, sparring and duelling. Ideologies of war are shown to have permeated religion, art, industry, politics and trade, and the social practices surrounding martial traditions were demonstrably a structural part of how this society evolved and how they saw themselves.” Even the famous Mycenaeans, heroes of the Greek Trojan War, took up the Minoan way of war—adopting its weaponry, practices and ideologies, Molloy said. “In fact,” said Molloy, “it is to Crete we must look for the origin of those weapons that were to dominate Europe until the Middle Ages, namely swords, metal battle-axes, shields, spears and probably armour also.” Molloy found a “staggering” amount of violence in the symbolic grammar and material remains from prehistoric Crete. Weapons and warrior culture came to light in sanctuaries, graves, domestic units and hoards, he said; it was visible in portable objects intended for use during social interactions, for example, administration, feasting, or personal adornment. “There were few spheres of interaction in Crete that did not have a martial component, right down to the symbols used in their written scripts,” he remarked. Molloy’s research looks at war as a social process—looking at the infrastructural and psychological support mechanisms that facilitated war and the means through which it was embedded in social logic. This approach, argues Molloy, leads to a deeper understanding of war in the Minoan civilisation. “The social and institutional components of war impacted on settlement patterns, landscape exploitation, technological and trade networks, religious practices, art, administration and more, so that war was indirectly a constant factor in shaping the daily lives of people in prehistoric Crete,” he exaplained. “Understanding the social aspects of war ‘beyond the battle’ is essential if we are to better understand how elites manipulated economics, religion and violence in controlling their worlds.” Molloy’s findings are published in the November issue of the journal Annual of the British School at Athens. said