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K. Kris Hirst

The End of the Minoans: A Cretan Insurrection?

By July 17, 2008

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Since the first excavations at Knossos by Arthur Evans, the end of the Late Bronze Age Minoan civilization on Crete in the Aegean Sea [ca 1470/1490 BC] has been attributed to volcanic eruptions and a Mycenaean invasion. A current theory suggests that the real cause of the downfall was a local insurrection which incorporated symbols of Mycenean culture. Recent strontium isotope ratio analysis supporting that theory is reported by scholar Argyro Nafplioti in the August 2008 issue of the Journal of Archaeological Science.

The Invasion of Mycenaean Culture

Reconstructed fresco at Knossos
Reconstructed fresco at Knossos
Photo Credit: Juan Manuel Caicedo Carvajal/

For some 600 years, the Bronze Age Minoan civilization thrived on the island of Crete. But in the latter part of the 15th century, the end came rapidly, with the destruction of several of the palaces including Knossos, and the replacement of Minoan buildings, domestic artifacts, rituals and written language by Mycenaean cultural elements brought from the Greek mainland. Mainland tomb architecture and burial practices are found on Crete after circa 1470/1490, including Mycenaean 'warrior graves', shaft graves, and burials with bronze items and pottery types associated with mainland culture.

Traditionally, the abrupt end of the Minoans was attributed to a volcanic eruption on Santorini: recent redating places the eruption at 1600 BC, over a century too soon. Interstate warfare on Crete or invasion from the Argolid mainland by the Mycenaeans has also been suggested. However, scholars have begun to recognize evidence for a local insurrection on Crete. Primarily, it seems that the 15th century destruction on Crete appears to have been selective, targeted at the administrative centers and elite Minoan residences. Additionally, archaeologists believe that the 'abrupt' shift in cultural material took place over a period of one or two generations.

The Minoan Insurrection Hypothesis

East Side, Central Court at Knossos.
East Side, Central Court at Knossos.
Photo Credit: James Preston

Support for the Cretan insurrection hypothesis has been growing among Aegean scholars for the past decade. Argyro Nafplioti of the American School in Athens reports in the August 2008 issue of the Journal of Archaeological Science that strontium isotope ratios of skeletal material recovered from "Mycenaean type" graves on Crete are of persons born and raised on Crete, not from the Mycenaean mainland.

Nafplioti sampled dental enamel and cortical thighbone from 30 individuals previously excavated from tombs in cemeteries within two miles of the Minoan capital of Knossos. Samples were taken from contexts both before and after the destruction of Knossos in 1470/1490, and 87Sr/86Sr ratios were compared to archaeological and modern animal tissues on Crete and Mycenae in the Argolid mainland. Analysis of these materials revealed that all of the strontium values of individuals buried near Knossos, whether before or after the destruction of the palace, were born and raised on Crete. None could have been born or raised on the Argolid mainland.

Importance of the Study

Treasury of Atreus at Mycenae.
So-called 'Treasury of Atreus' at Mycenae
Photo Credit: Frank Fleschner

Minoan scholar Yannis Hamilakis of the University of Southampton comments "This important study, based on doctoral research carried out at the University of Southampton, provides further supporting evidence to a hypothesis that many of us had found quite plausible for some time: that the so-called Mycenaean phase in the Late Bronze Age of Crete is more to do with the cultural adoption of certain material identity signifiers by local elites, rather than with an invasion of groups from mainland Greece. Moreover, this study sheds indirect light onto the nature of social and political structure in Late Bronze Age Crete. If external factors such as invasions or colonisations from the mainland cannot account for the extensive (but selective) destructions seen during the so-called "neopalatial" period, then internal social causes gain further currency. I argued in 2002 that factionalism and factional competition seems to be more consistent with the nature of the evidence at hand, and these selective destructions may have to do with episodes of social unrest as part of this unstable social and political landscape. The conclusions of this study provide some further support to this scenario".

Agamemnon Mask from Mycenae
So-called "Mask of Agamemnon" discovered at Mycenae by Heinrich Schliemann
Photo Credit: Alun Salt

A. Bernard Knapp, Mediterranean prehistorian at the University of Glasgow, comments "'Mycenaean' invaders, colonists and traders have long animated archaeological narratives that seek to explain seemingly abrupt changes in the material culture of several Late Bronze Aegean or eastern Mediterranean societies. Nafplioti's strontium isotope ratio analyses of human dental enamel and bone offers a compelling corrective to those who still see post-LMIB Knossos as the domain of 'Mycenaean' elites controlling the social, political, ideological and material cultural traditions of the island of Crete."

Source and Further Information
Nafplioti, A. (2008). "Mycenaean" political domination of Knossos following the Late Minoan IB destructions on Crete: negative evidence from strontium isotope ratio analysis (87Sr/86Sr). Journal of Archaeological Science, 35(8), 2307-2317. DOI: 10.1016/j.jas.2008.03.006

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July 22, 2008 at 10:46 am
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