Ancient History & Civilisation


“There is a land called Crete, in the midst of the wine-dark sea, a fair, rich land, begirt with water; and therein are many men past counting, and ninety cities.”4 When Homer sang these lines, perhaps in the ninth century before our era,* Greece had almost forgotten, though the poet had not, that the island whose wealth seemed to him even then so great had once been wealthier still; that it had held sway with a powerful fleet over most of the Aegean and part of mainland Greece; and that it had developed, a thousand years before the siege of Troy, one of the most artistic civilizations in history. Probably it was this Aegean culture—as ancient to him as he is to us—that Homer recalled when he spoke of a Golden Age in which men had been more civilized, and life more refined, than in his own disordered time.

The rediscovery of that lost civilization is one of the major achievements of modern archeology. Here was an island twenty times larger than the largest of the Cyclades, pleasant in climate, varied in the products of its fields and once richly wooded hills, and strategically placed, for trade or war, midway between Phoenicia and Italy, between Egypt and Greece. Aristotle had pointed out how excellent this situation was, and how “it had enabled Minos to acquire the empire of the Aegean.”5 But the story of Minos, accepted as fact by all classical writers, was rejected as legend by modern scholars; and until sixty years ago it was the custom to suppose, with Grote, that the history of civilization in the Aegean had begun with the Dorian invasion, or the Olympic games. Then in A.D. 1878 a Cretan merchant, appropriately named Minos Kalokairinos, unearthed some strange antiquities on a hillside south of Candia. The great Schliemann, who had but lately resurrected Mycenae and Troy, visited the site in 1886, announced his conviction that it covered the remains of the ancient Cnossus, and opened negotiations with the owner of the land so that excavations might begin at once. But the owner haggled and tried to cheat; and Schliemann, who had been a merchant before becoming an archeologist, withdrew in anger, losing a golden chance to add another civilization to history. A few years later he died.6

In 1893 a British archeologist, Dr. Arthur Evans, bought in Athens a number of milkstones from Greek women who had worn them as amulets. He was curious about the hieroglyphics engraved upon them, which no scholar could read. Tracing the stones to Crete, he secured passage thither,and wandered about the island picking up examples of what he believed to be ancient Cretan writing. In 1895 he purchased a part, and in 1900 the remainder, of the site that Schliemann and the French School at Athens had identified with Cnossus; and in nine weeks of that spring, digging feverishly with one hundred and fifty men, he exhumed the richest treasure of modern historical research—the palace of Minos. Nothing yet known from antiquity could equal the vastness of this complicated structure, to all appearances identical with the almost endless Labyrinth so famous in old Greek tales of Minos, Daedalus, Theseus, Ariadne, and the Minotaur. In these and other ruins, as if to confirm Evans’ intuition, thousands of seals and clay tablets were found, bearing characters like those that had set him upon the trail. The fires that had destroyed the palaces of Cnossus had preserved these tablets, whose undeciphered pictographs and scripts still conceal the early story of the Aegean.*

Students from many countries now hurried to Crete. While Evans was working at Cnossus, a group of resolute Italians—Halbherr, Pernier, Savignoni, Paribeni—unearthed at Hagia Triada (Holy Trinity) a sarcophagus painted with illuminating scenes from Cretan life, and uncovered at Phaestus a palace only less extensive than that of the Cnossus kings. Meanwhile two Americans, Seager and Mrs. Hawes, made discoveries at Vasiliki, Mochlos, and Gournia; the British—Hogarth, Bosanquet, Dawkins, Myres—explored Palaikastro, Psychro, and Zakro; the Cretans themselves became interested, and Xanthoudidis and Hatzidakis dug up ancient residences, grottoes, and tombs at Arkalochori, Tylissus, Koumasa, and Chamaizi. Half the nations of Europe united under the flag of science in the very generation in which their statesmen were preparing for war.

How was all this material to be classified—these palaces, paintings, statues, seals, vases, metals, tablets, and reliefs?—to what period of the past were they to be assigned? Precariously, but with increasing corroboration as research went on and knowledge grew, Evans dated the relics according to the depth of their strata, the gradation of styles in the pottery, and the agreement of Cretan finds, in form or motive, with like objects exhumed in lands or deposits whose chronology was approximately known. Digging down patiently beneath Cnossus, he found himself stopped, some forty-three feet below the surface, by the virgin rock. The lower half of the excavated area was occupied by remains characteristic of the Neolithic Age—primitive forms of handmade pottery with simple linear ornament, spindle whorls for spinning and weaving, fat-buttocked goddesses of painted steatite or clay, tools and weapons of polished stone, but nothing in copper or bronze.* Classifying the pottery, and correlating the remains with those of ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt, Evans divided the post-neolithic and prehistoric culture of Crete into three ages—Early, Middle, and Late Minoan—and each of these into three periods.

The first or lowest appearance of copper in the strata represents for us, through a kind of archeological shorthand, the slow rise of a new civilization out of the neolithic stage. By the end of the Early Minoan Age the Cretans learn to mix copper with tin, and the Bronze Age begins. In Middle Minoan I the earliest palaces occur: the princes of Cnossus, Phaestus, and Mallia build for themselves luxurious dwellings with countless rooms, spacious storehouses, specialized workshops, altars and temples, and great drainage conduits that startle the arrogant Occidental eye. Pottery takes on a manycolored brilliance, walls are enlivened with charming frescoes, and a form of linear script evolves out of the hieroglyphics of the preceding age. Then, at the close of Middle Minoan II, some strange catastrophe writes its cynical record into the strata; the palace of Cnossus is laid low as if by a convulsion of the earth, or perhaps by an attack from Phaestus, whose palace for a time is spared. But a little later a like destruction falls upon Phaestus, Mochlos, Gournia, Palaikastro, and many other cities in the island; the pottery is covered with ashes, the great jars in the storerooms are filled with debris. Middle Minoan III is a period of comparative stagnation, in which, perhaps, the southeastern Mediterranean world is long disordered by the Hyksos conquest of Egypt.9

In the late Minoan Age everything begins again. Humanity, patient under every cataclysm, renews its hope, takes courage, and builds once more. New and finer palaces rise at Cnossus, Phaestus, Tylissus, Hagia Triada, and Gournia. The lordly spread, the five-storied height, the luxurious decoration of these princely residences suggest such wealth as Greece would not know till Pericles. Theaters are erected in the palace courts, and gladiatorial spectacles of men and women in deadly combat with animals amuse gentlemen and ladies whose aristocratic faces, quietly alert, still live for us on the bright frescoes of the resurrected walls. Wants are multiplied, tastes are refined, literature flourishes; a thousand industries graciously permit the poor to prosper by supplying comforts and delicacies to the rich. The halls of the king are noisy with scribes taking inventories of goods distributed or received; with artists making statuary, paintings, pottery, or reliefs; with high officials conducting conferences, hearing judicial appeals, or dispatching papers stamped with their finely wrought seals; while waspwaisted princes and jeweled duchesses, alluringly décolleté, crowd to a royal feast served on tables shining with bronze and gold. The sixteenth and fifteenth centuries before our era are the zenith of Aegean civilization, the classic and golden age of Crete.

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