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    Aegean Civilization


    Aegean Civilization, term used to denote the Bronze Age civilization that developed (circa 3000-1200 bc) in the basin of the Aegean Sea, mainly on Crete (Kríti), the Cyclades (Kikládhes) Islands, and the mainland of Greece. It had two major cultures: the Minoan, which flourished in Crete and reached its height in the Middle Bronze period, notably at Knossos (Knosós) and Phaestos; and the Mycenaean, which developed in the Late Bronze period on the mainland at Mycenae and other centers, including Tiryns and Pílos (Pylos). See Achaeans; Minoan Culture; Mycenae.

    Ancient Greek writers had related stories of an “age of heroes” before their time, but nothing definite was known about the Aegean civilization until the late 19th century, when archaeological excavations began at the sites of the legendary cities of Troy, Mycenae, Knossos, and other centers of the Bronze Age.


    According to Greek mythology, there once was a time when great events had occurred and the gods had involved themselves in human affairs. The story of King Minos and the slaying of the Minotaur he kept in the labyrinth by the Greek hero Theseus may be the mythic rendering of the battle for hegemony in the Aegean in which Mycenae took over Knossos. Homer’s epic the Iliad describes events of the Trojan War, which is believed to have brought about the fall of Troy sometime between 1230 bc and 1180 bc at the hands of the Greeks, or Achaeans as the poet calls them. The poet also mentions well-known places believed to be the centers of the Mycenaean period, such as “golden Mycenae,” where King Agamemnon ruled; Pylos, where Nestor was king; and Phthia in Thessaly (Thessalia), the home of the hero Achilles.


    A German amateur archaeologist, Heinrich Schliemann, was responsible for some of the most famous discoveries of the 19th century. In 1870 he began excavating a mound called Hisarlık, in what is now Turkey, and found what is believed to be the ruins of Troy. In Greece he uncovered the sites of Mycenae in 1876-1878 and Tiryns in 1884. Finds of fortress palaces, pottery, ornaments, and royal tombs containing gold and other artifacts demonstrated the existence of a well-developed civilization that had flourished about 1500-1200 bc. Schliemann’s work has been continued by modern archaeologists, including the American Carl Blegen.

    In 1900 the British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans discovered at Knossos, Crete, a huge palace complex that he associated with King Minos and the labyrinth. Evans also found baked clay tablets with two types of writing, dating from the middle of the 2nd millennium BC; these are called Linear A and Linear B. Linear B tablets from about 1200 bc have been found at Pylos and other Mycenaean sites. The British cryptologist Michael Ventris and John Chadwick, a classical scholar, proved that Linear B is an early form of Greek. Linear A, the language of Minoan Crete, has not yet been deciphered. The discovery of Linear B on Crete supported the conclusion that the mainland people, the Mycenaeans, gained ascendancy over the Minoans.

    The existence of a Cycladic civilization that had connections with both the mainland and Crete is indicated by artifacts found in these islands. Since the 1930s Greek excavations of a Cycladic settlement on the island of Thíra (Thera), also known as Santoríni, have yielded frescoes and artifacts similar to the Minoan. Thíra was apparently destroyed by a great volcanic eruption about 1640 BC. The disaster may have been the basis for Plato’s writings on the lost continent of Atlantis. More recent excavations on the islands encircling Delos traced back the Cycladic culture to the 4th millennium bc, when merchants, in search of obsidian (a volcanic glass), and fishermen established seasonal settlements there. Although no examples of writing have been identified, Cycladic culture possessed viable pottery, jewelry, and characteristic marble idols, generally of women and often life-size in scale, that were originally lavishly painted. Incorrectly termed “mother goddesses,” these idols associate the deceased with the powers of the sea, which was central to Cycladic life.


    Recent archaeological discoveries, such as the excavated village of Dimini in Thessaly, produced material evidence of a cultural progression from the Neolithic (New Stone Age) to the Bronze Age, which commenced about 3000 BC and of which three phases were recognized: Early, Middle, and Late.

    AEarly Bronze Age

    About 3000 bc new people apparently arrived in the Aegean, perhaps from Asia Minor. They used bronze for their weapons and tools, thus introducing the Bronze Age to the area. On the mainland their villages appear to have been small independent units, often protected by thick walls; over time, the buildings on Crete and in the Cyclades became more complex. Burials were communal throughout the Aegean, but burial practices varied. On the mainland, pit graves and some of more elaborate construction were common; in the Cyclades, stone-lined burial chambers (cists); and on Crete, circular stone tombs, rectangular ossuaries (bone depositories), and caves. All had places for cult offerings, and the dead were often buried with beautiful objects.

    BMiddle Bronze Age

    About 2200-1800 BC another wave of newcomers arrived in the Cyclades and on the mainland. They caused considerable destruction, and for about two centuries civilization was disrupted, especially on the mainland. New pottery and the introduction of horses at this time indicate that the invaders were of the Indo-European language family, to which both Ancient and Modern Greek belong.

    On Crete, impressive buildings, frescoes, vases, and early writing are evidence of a flourishing culture of the 2nd millennium bc, which came to be known as Minoan. Great royal palaces built around large courtyards were the focal points of these communities. The most magnificent of the palaces was at Knossos. Destroyed presumably by an earthquake or a foreign invasion about 1700 BC, it was rebuilt on a grand scale. It seems likely that the Minoans maintained a marine empire, trading not only with the Cyclades and the mainland but also with Sicily, Egypt, and cities on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean.

    Minoan religion featured a female snake deity, whose worship involved the symbolism of fertility and the lunar and solar cycles. The central cult figure may have been a goddess of a Middle Eastern type, together with her dying and resurrected consort, symbolic of the seasons.

    CLate Bronze Age

    The destruction of the Cretan palaces about 1450 bc (that of Knossos took place shortly after 1400 BC) was followed by the decline of the Minoans and the subsequent rise of the Mycenaeans. Some scholars have connected this change with the volcanic eruption on Thíra, but recent calculations place this disaster some 200 years earlier. Mycenaean-style art and Linear B tablets found on the island of Crete indicate the presence there of people from the peninsula. In any case, heavily fortified mainland cities became the new centers of Aegean civilization. Extant painted vases and weapons depict hunting and battle scenes that suggest the Mycenaeans were warlike. The styles are also more formal and geometric than those of earlier examples, anticipating the art of classical Greece.

    A typical Mycenaean city had, at its center, the fortress palace of the king. The cities were fortified with massive structures of unevenly cut stones, known as Cyclopean walls. The Linear B tablets from this time include names of Greek gods, such as Zeus, and contain detailed records of royal possessions. The gold masks, weapons, and jewelry found by Schliemann at the royal burial sites suggest the great wealth and power gained by the Mycenaeans when they took over the Minoan trading empire. Troy, which is believed to have been situated on the mainland of Asia Minor (now Turkey) near the Hellespont, was in a good position to harass shipping and collect exorbitant tolls from the Mycenaeans. Archaeological evidence indicates that a city on this site was destroyed about 1200 bc, close to the date (1184 BC) accepted by the ancient Greeks.

    Shortly after 1200 bc the Aegean civilization collapsed, a fact that was attributed by some scholars to natural disasters, or, most likely, to widespread fighting among the Mycenaean Greeks. A period generally described as the Dark Age followed.


    Aegean art is remarkable for its naturalistic pictorial style, originated in Minoan Crete; the movement and variety of Minoan art, even in its earlier abstract phases, suggest living things. From Crete, this style spread to the other Aegean islands and the Greek mainland, where it was modified by geometric tendencies. The rhythmic pulse that characterizes Aegean art suggests a deep reverence for the divinities of nature.


    The organic quality of Minoan style is seen most clearly in the palaces of Crete. The four major palaces known—at Knossos, Phaestos, Mallia, and Zakros—followed the same basic plan. Rooms, on several levels, were functionally organized around a large central court. These courts must have accommodated crowds of worshipers, who gathered in front of the cult rooms to the west. The palaces also had extensive basement storage areas, artists’ workshops, dining halls, and sumptuous living quarters (including bathrooms) for the noble ruling families. The structures were light and flexible, rather than monumental, and entirely unfortified. The distinctive Minoan column, with its downward taper, suggests movement rather than stability. Another specifically Minoan feature was the polythyron, a wall made of doors, which allowed for flexibility in ventilating or closing off a room.

    The private habitations of Minoan Crete ranged from simple peasant dwellings to rich mansions and villas, constructed with the same features and fine techniques as the palaces. A wide variety of buildings were constructed for burials. The most distinctive were the tholos tombs of southern Crete, circular buildings with corbelled stone vaulting, built large enough to accommodate family burials for many centuries.

    On the Greek mainland, the palaces of the rulers were completely different from those of Crete. They incorporated the characteristic megaron, a dominant central hall. The megara of the best-known palaces—at Mycenae, Tiryns, and Pylos—were strikingly similar. Each was entered from a courtyard through a porch flanked by columns and had a large central hearth surrounded by four columns. The mainland sites tended to be fortified with huge walls of cyclopean masonry, constructed of massive, irregular blocks. Recent excavations at Mycenae indicate that, as in Crete, the palaces served as centers of worship as well as of government. For royal burials the Mycenaean Greeks first used shaft graves; later they adopted the Minoan tholos tomb and developed it into an impressive burial structure. The tombs were covered with earth tumuli, or artificial mounds, and were entered through long passageways. In the most developed tombs, such as the so-called Treasury of Atreus at Mycenae, the large, circular spaces were dramatically vaulted with thick canopies of stone.

    BPainting and Sculpture

    Minoan painting is found in two forms, the vivid frescoes on the palace walls and the graceful designs that decorate Minoan pottery. Surviving Minoan sculpture, with a few exceptions, is largely restricted to statuettes and figurines in various materials and to intaglio-cut semiprecious stone seals.


    In Crete the palaces and houses were often decorated with bright murals. The Minoans made a major contribution to the art of landscape painting. Only in the Aegean were landscapes depicted for their own sake, without human figures. Minoan artists represented the terrain with undulating contours and swirling striations of color to emphasize the life of the earth. The scenes were enlivened with animals, such as monkeys and birds, in sprightly movement amid swaying foliage. The Minoans had a special facility among ancient peoples for capturing motion. Figures were depicted in instantaneous moments of action and in a great variety of poses. Minoan figures are usually slender, which enhances their look of mobility. It is primarily in ritual scenes, such as the bull-leaping fresco from the palace at Knossos, that human figures are depicted. Occasionally, frescoes were rendered in a special shorthand method of painting known as the miniature style, whereby crowds of people were depicted in a small area with a few light sketchy strokes.

    Recently excavated on Thíra, in the Cyclades, well-preserved frescoes from prosperous private homes show a close relationship to the art of Crete, although the nature scenes are rendered more abstractly. Many of the Thíra frescoes feature children, who are portrayed at different ages and with their heads shaved, except for specific hairlocks. One especially important painting, from a site known as the West House, presents a narrative scene in an elaborate setting, the most extensive landscape known before the Hellenistic period. An entire Aegean world is depicted, with a fleet of lavishly ornamented ships sailing from town to town. Despite the remarkable achievement of the painting, the artist clearly had no notion of perspective.

    The Minoan pictorial repertoire and fresco technique were later adopted on the Greek mainland, where religious scenes similar to those from Crete and Thíra were depicted. Hunting and fighting scenes were also popular. Recent excavations at Tall al Daba in the western delta of Egypt have uncovered fragments of frescoes, the motifs of which include bull-jumping scenes and the like painted with Minoan, not Egyptian, colors. The relationships between Egyptian and Minoan painting must now be investigated anew.


    Among the earliest examples of sculpture from the Aegean are those from the Cyclades in the form of schematic idols recalling the contours of violins. From these beginnings evolved life-sized, brightly painted marble figures, generally of women with their arms folded beneath their breasts, and an astonishing array of seated male figures generally playing harps or holding drinking cups in their hands.

    Unique among the artifacts of the Aegean civilization are the bronze figurines associated exclusively with Minoan sites. These metal sculptures include male and female worshipers with their arms raise in adoration as well as an image of a crawling infant, a bull with its jumper, and a reclining goat. The Minoan artists excelled in the carving of ivory figurines to which secondary materials were added to enhance their effect. To the goddesses associated with animals can now be added an extraordinary image of a youthful god, the body of which is sculpted in ivory covered with gold leaf and the head of which is carved from a single piece of blue-gray serpentine. This image was first excavated at Palaikastro in 1987.

    The Minoans excelled in the sculpting of stone vessels as well, many of which were enhanced with relief decoration. Stone sculpting on a large scale, however, is best represented by Mycenaeans, who embellished their architecture with reliefs. The facade of the so-called Treasury of Atreus at Mycenae is adorned with contrasting red and green marbles in the form of columns and a frieze of spirals. The stone stelae, or commemorative plaques, recovered above the royal shaft graves at Mycenae, contain both geometric and figural motifs. Within this context the monumental stone relief of the Lion Gate at Mycenae, in which the felines—whose heads were made of different material—heraldically flank a column, is not exceptional. The Mycenaeans excelled as well in the carving of circular ivory containers, statuettes, and decorative plaques.

    CPottery and Metalwork

    With the building of the great Cretan palaces came the development of pottery as a luxury art. Employing the same three-part firing technique later used by Attic potters, Cretan artists created splendid vases of numerous shapes and a seemingly endless variety of colorful decorations. Highly regarded in the ancient world, Minoan pottery was copied throughout the Aegean and even exported to Egypt and the Near East. In the later periods, the decoration included naturalistic motifs, such as floral forms and the well-known Marine style, with octopuses, shellfish, and seaweed painted in rich overall designs. Minoan pottery was imitated on the Greek mainland, where it gradually evolved in both shape and decoration into stricter, more disciplined forms. In the final phase, the Mycenaeans introduced pictorial elements, such as animals and human figures, as decoration.

    The art of fine metalworking was also developed in Minoan Crete under palace patronage (see Metalwork). Although little remains, a few objects such as the granulated gold “bee pendant” from Mallia testify to Minoan expertise at working precious metals. The most impressive Mycenaean finds of metalwork were discovered in the shaft graves and tholos tombs of the mainland. They include gold masks and grave goods embossed with geometric designs. The burials also contained luxurious gold and silver vases and ornamented bronze weapons, many by Minoan artisans. Some of the vessels were decorated with elaborate figures and scenes hammered in repoussé relief. Other vessels, as well as daggers of bronze, were inlaid with designs of different colored metals, a technique sometimes referred to as “painting with metal.” These intricate products of the metalworker were by no means minor arts; they were the most prized objects of the Aegean.

    Contributed By:
    Ellen N. Davis
    Jay Bregman

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