East-Central Crete, showing the main places we visited. We stayed in Hersonnissou, on the coast just west of Malia. The main Minoan Palaces we visited were Knossos, Phaestos and Malia. Lato is a Dorian fortress site, and Lassithi a fruit-growing plateau surrounded by a ring of mountains.

Minoan Crete

The artistry of the Minoans was of a very high order, as evidenced by the frescos found at Knossos and in Akrotiri (Santorini). Not least of the witnesses to this artistry is a small gold bee brooch (shown here larger than life size--Click on it to see a magnified version) found in the palace at Malia.

In Crete we visited the Minoan Palaces (or Temples?) of Knossos, Phaestos, and Malia. The Minoan civilization changed after 1650 BC, after the explosion of the Thera (Santorini) volcano, which is calculated to have created a tsunami as high as 250m (about 800 ft) high along the coast of Crete. The tsunami would certainly have swept right over Malia, which is situated on the coastal plain looking toward Santorini, and could well have swept up to the head of the valley where Knossos is siuated. It would not have affected Phaestos directly, but the subsequent ash-fall over central and western Crete would have damaged or destroyed the crops for several seasons. Charles Pellegrino (Unearthing Atlantis, New York: Random House, 1990) says that on the basis of the known behaviour of pyroclastic flows at Mt St Helens and other larger explosions, it is not inconceivable that the pyroclastic flow from Thera could have destroyed Phaestos by burning, even though nearer places were not burnt.

Whether by immediate damage or by the destruction of their ships and agriculture, the Minoan civilization was disrupted, and the Myceneans had an easy takeover at Knossos, whether by invasion or after assisting the victims of the disaster with whom they had been trading.

In Phaestos and Malia (especially Phaestos) I transcribed many symbols cut into the stones. These are sometimes called "Mason's Marks" and their meanings are not known. I have not been able to find a catalogue of known marks, and the nearest thing I could find to such a catalogue has very few of the ones I transcribed. Here is a page about the symbols, with my sketches of them, photos of some that were relatively easy to photograph, and copies of other transcriptions of the marks and possibly related writings.

The detail work on the bee brooch is amazing, considering what we normally assume to be the technological advancement of people of so long ago. But our estimates of their technological sophistication may be wildly wrong. Perhaps they had a high technology in some areas that was lost by later peoples, much as the technology of the Roman Empire was lost to Western Europe for 1000 years after its collapse. According to Rodney Castleden (Minoans: Life in Bronze Age Crete, London and New York: Routledge, 1990) the Minoan jewellers had magnifying lenses made from rock crystal, in itself an extraordinary fact, given that such lenses were unknown in Western Europe until the mid-17th century--3500 years later. And we saw in the Archeological Museum of Santorini, in Fira, a casting of an exquisite "coffee table" that had been buried in Akrotiri by the ash-fall. It would have been at home in the most elegant Victorian drawing room.

Dating problems

There are wide discrepancies in the dates various authors ascribe to events and personalities in the Eastern Mediterranean. The Theran explosion was conventionally dated to about 1450BC, and some authors seem still to stick to that date, which apparently is based on the idea that a pottery style lasts X number of years and there were Y styles after the explosion until some known date. However, there are worldwide indications of a sunless summer (as was the case after the equally large Tamboro explosion in 1815) and of acid rain in the Greenland ice-cap. The only pre-industrial source of acid rain was volcanic explosion. Both the tree ring dating and the ice-core dating agree that there was a volcanic explosion of worldwide significance in 1650BC, probably in the Autumn. The Theran explosion is the only one within several centuries to be a candidate. It is therefore highly probable that 1650 is the correct date.

But 1650 presents a problem for the conventional dating in Egypt, and an even worse problem for David Rohl's "New Chronology". Frescos from the time of Queen Hapshetsut show "people of Kheftiu" dressed in the Minoan style as shown in the Cretan frescos. Kheftiu is generally agreed to be Crete. In the tomb of Rekhmire, a vizier of her son, Thutmose III, there is an even more significant picture, in which the Minoan kilt of the Kheftians has been painted over with a Mycenian style, suggesting that some time not long before Thutmose died, the Minoans ceased to be the dominant people on Kheftiu. They also carry pottery shown in the Late Minoan 1B style, which did not occur until after the explosion. According to the conventional chronology, Thutmose III died in 1425BC, which fits well with a 1450BC date for the Theran explosion. Hapshetsut died in 1457BC, before the explosion. However, these dates do not fit with a date of 1650BC for the explosion. Rohl's "New Chronology" makes matters worse, because he dates the deaths of Hapshetsut and Thutmose III at 1116 and 1085BC respectively, more than 500 years after the Theran explosion. Something is wrong.

An archaeologist, Mark Lehner, who has worked on the Pyramids and related buildings such as the Sphinx, in an interview for the PBS program "Nova" Has found that radiocarbon dating (with appropriate corrections for known discrepancies with calendrical dating) gives dates for the Old Kingdom builders of the Pyramids (and the Sphinx) that average 374 years older than the conventional chronology. This contrasts with Rohl, who puts the dates of Khufu, Khafre, and Menkaure 140-160 years later than the conventional chronology. Lehner has excavated a temple built by Amenhotep II, who immediately followed Thutmose III, over the base of the Sphinx, which he says in passsing was built 1200 years before Amenhotep II. Taking the shifted dates of the Pyramid builder Pharaohs, this gives approximately 1700BC as the time when Amenhotep II ruled. This is too old for the Theran explosion to have occurred during the reign of his predecessor. But Lehner did not assert the 1200-year figure so much as use it as a round number, which I use here as a guide to indicate that the Egyptian dates are not well established by scientific means such as radiocarbon or tree-ring dating. Accordingly, we might use the evidence of the overpainted pictures in the tomb of Rekhmire as arguing that he died long enough after the explosion for the Myceneans to have asserted dominance over Crete--perhaps 10-20 years. This would make the death date of Thutmose III around 1610=1600BC as compared to the conventional chronology date of 1485BC and the Rohl "New Chronology" date of 1085BC.

Possible connection with Ancient Sumer

Part of a Sumerian seal from about 2000 BC. Rohl ,1998 inteprets the bull-man as Gilgamesh. (Rohl,p170)

There are certain hints that the Minoan civilization might have been influenced by, or even descended from, the Sumerian / Mesopotamian civilization of a thousand years earlier. According to David Rohl (Legend: The Genesis of Civilisation, London, Arrow Books 1998), the Phoenecians and Canaanites who inhabited the coast of what is now Israel and Lebanon came from Sumeria (Ur, Uruk, Eridu) at the same time as others from the same region went to Bahrain and then to the Upper Nile, some time around 3000BC. A thousand years later, around the time of the Minoan civilisation and later, the Phoenecians were great sailing traders, and so were the Minoans.

The bull was important in the Minoan religion and culture, as it was in Sumer. Gilgamesh (who, according to Rohl, ruled in Uruk around 2487 BC) is shown as half-bull, half-man, as is the Cretan Minotaur in the much later Greek legend. Could the Sumerian representation (whether or not it represents Gilgamesh) be the original source of the Greek legend of 2000 years later?

The picture on the seal looks remarkably like depictions of the Minotaur, and it is possible that the Greeks knew of such depictions as well as of the bull cult in Minoan Crete. If they also had a bardic memory of their young men and women going to Crete to participate in Bull leaping games and not returning, it is not unreasonable to speculate that over the thousand intervening years the story could have turned into that of a half-bull half-man who demanded tribute.

There are similarities in the iconography of the Minoan and Sumerian cultures. The Knossos object that is said to represent bull horns looks remarkably like the Altar on Bahrain, which Rohl says is from the Sumerian diaspora. According to Castleden, in Minoan Crete, the bull and the moon were probably aspects of the same deity, who later became Poseidon in Classical Greece. This linkage ties the Sumerian (according to Rohl) Altar in the Temple of the Moon even more closely to the similarly shaped bull-horn shape that was a religious element in Knossos.

Common symbols? (Left) The Temple of the Moon--the Altar of Sin / Suen / Nanna on Bahrain. Plate 34 from Rohl's book: (Middle) Knossos: Formalised bull horns (Right) part of a fresco in Knossos, showing many of these bull horn objects in an obviously elite area for spectators of some event.

Another possible commonality of iconography is the "Master of Animals" figure, which is common in Mesopotamia, but rare in Egypt. However, a fine representation of it, believed to be Minoan from Malia, was discovered in the "Aegina Treasure" and a gem showing the same figure was found at Kydonia, a Minoan site on the west coast of Crete. In the Sumerian and Elamite Master of Animals images, the animals are usually lions. So they are on the Kydonia gem, but in the Aegina pendant, the master holds birds that might be geese or swans, with attendant snakes. In the Royal Ontario Museum, there are similar images from Assyria, in which the animals are stags. In other such images, the "Master" holds snakes. This strange configuration seems rather unlikely to have had two independent creations, and may signify a connection between the civilization of Eridu, Uruk, and Ur on the one hand and the thousand-year later Minoan civilization on the other. The attitude is remarkably similar to that of the famous "snake goddess" whose replica and postcard images are sold all over Crete, and the earlier existence of "Mistress of Snakes" images makes it reasonable to assume that the similarity is not coincidental..

Two "Master of Animals" images (Left) an early button seal from Susa (Elamite, near Sumer) (Right) from a knife found in Egypt, but on which the Master wears a costume tupical of early Susa and Uruk, not Egypt. (Pictures from Rohl, Legend, p273, plate 56). The Royal Ontario Museum has later Assyrian examples in which the "Master" holds two antlered stags in the same way. A "Mistress of Animals" holding snakes, from Sumer, ca 3000BC The goddess is supposed to be Innanna, who became Ishtar, Astarte, Aphrodite, Venus. If so, what is the significance of the snakes?
Two Minoan "Master of Animals" images. (Left) The Kydonia gem. (from Castleden, 1990, p128) (Right) The Aegina pendant thought to be from Malia. The similarity to the Susanian-Sumerian images, apparently typical in many ages of Mesopotamia, is striking. The "snake goddess" holding two snakes. There were many such images in Minoan Crete.

The Mistress of Snakes on the Sumerian cup is supposed to be the goddess Innanna, who became Ishtar, Astarte, Aphrodite, Venus. This raises the question as to whether the snakes being tamed have the same sexual connotation as does the snake in the Biblical garden of Eden story. The "Master of Animals" controls wild beasts, while the Mistress controls him?