Even 8,000 years ago, something special was happening in Crete. In the Neolithic and Early Bronze Age, pottery and luxury objects proved that a very vibrant culture was alive and well in this crossroads of the Aegean.
We spent most of our day in the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion, conveniently situated next to our hotel. It is a spectacular horde of the riches of Crete, from 6,000 BC to the third century AD.
Much of what we saw came from Knossos, an early neolithic settlement and later the site of the first palace of which we have a record, the home of King Minos and the legend of the Minotaur and the Labyrinth. Imagine the skill it took to create the gold bee pendant and all the personal seals that stood in for signatures in those days. I also love the tool used by plasterers – which looks just like what is used today, only in stone.
My new discovery (aka what I would steal if I could) is a style of pottery called Kamares Ware. All the examples were spectacular, and I bet that replicas of the mugs could go on sale tomorrow at Bloomingdale’s and sell out immediately as “modern,” though they’re 4,000 years old.
Early Minoan text, though not yet understood, is represented on the Phaistos Disc, which uses pictograms in what might be a religious context. Later writing, known as Linear A and Linear B are also found here. Linear A has yet to be deciphered, but the remnants of Linear B can now be read as early Greek.
The bull motif is common, as they held a sacred place in the culture. One of the most playful and amusing sports of the young was “bull leaping” in which one would somersault over the horns of the bull and pray someone would catch you. Not much different from running with the bulls at Pamplona, right?
The snake goddess is another religious figure from Minoan rituals. Many of the finds in this museum came from cemeteries (yes, grave-robbing) and it is amazing what people were entombed with. Their arms were also beautifully crafted. Swords with gold hilts and helmets made of boar tusks were quite the thing.
We are seeing the palace of Knossos tomorrow, but first a brief word about its discovery. Sir Arthur Evans, an English archaeologist, began excavating there in 1900. He was a man of firm opinions, sometimes based on visions, who took it upon himself to define what he found and enhance it to show how it must have been. Today’s mixed reactions did not prevent the Heraklions from naming a street after him, however.
The famous frescoes from Knossos are here in this museum, shown in a way one doesn’t ordinarily find in great museums. Based on what were truly fragmentary remains of frescoes, Evans had paintings created that represented his concept of what the originals must have looked like, and fit the fragments in. Was he off-base? The results are credible – and certainly beautiful – but do lack the normal scholarship that such finds are usually subject to. You can judge for yourself – or just enjoy these amazing creations. (Look closely and you can see what parts are actual remnants of frescoes.)
The early Iron Age was also a time of flourishing trade in Crete. The alphabet was developed, the first laws were recorded, votives were left for all the gods, and the rituals around death continued to evolve. But don’t the cherubs look just like the ones on the Metropolitan Museum Christmas tree?
What an astonishing culture and what a legacy many other cultures used to build their own. Pompeii was spectacular, but look what a life the Minoans had thousands of years before!
P.S. Sara and Kosta – I left you several Greek inscriptions in case the English was too boring.
Don’s Food Corner
After yesterday’s feast, today we went simple. We got a front-row table in front of the Venetian Marble Lion fountain in the center of town at a place that is famed for snacks and sweets. We each had sandwiches. Jo had a Greek version of a chicken “club” sandwich, which featured soft Greek cheese and avocado along with the chicken on dark, seeded bread. I had what was called a “Crete sandwich.” This included slices of roast pork, dried tomatoes, some rocket and soft Greek cheese. This soft Greek cheese is like spreadable Feta.
We had room for a dessert specialty of the place. It was a filo concoction called Bougatsa, filled with vanilla cream and topped with Greek ice cream. Yum.
Then we sipped our lemonades and watched the passing scene, trying to determine if any of these people retained any Minoan DNA.