Minoan Civilization: Crafts, Industry & Technology

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The Minoans developed the first major settled civilization in Europe. Along with this, they got pretty crafty too. In this lesson, we'll explore Minoan crafts and technologies and see what this tells us about their industrious society.

The Industrial Minoans

Here's European history 101: As the Mesopotamians and Egyptians developed settled cultures, Europeans preferred to maintain more nomadic societies. Then the Minoans showed up and invented civilization. Admittedly, that may be a bit of an oversimplification, but you get the idea. On the Greek island of Crete, a bronze age culture we call the Minoans appeared almost out of nowhere, establishing the first major settled civilization of Europe. They quickly started filling their world with arts and crafts and technologies the continent had never seen before and innovating at a rate unlike any the world had ever known.

Minoan Technologies

The Minoans were an inventive culture, taking the technologies they learned from Mesopotamians, Persians, and Egyptians, improving them, and then creating their own. We can best appreciate their efforts through three aspects of their society: architecture, water management, and arts & crafts.

First, let's look at the Minoan palaces. The Minoans developed the first large-scale architecture in Europe, building palaces so complex that they may have inspired the legend of the impenetrable Labyrinth. Nobody in Europe had learned to make such large buildings before, and the Minoans did it by combining a bunch of materials. The entrances are some of the earliest examples in Europe of ashlar masonry, high-quality stone construction made of consistently shaped stone blocks. Sandstone and limestone were used for the main walls, while lighter timber crossbeams made up the roof. However, the foundation and walls of Minoan palaces were also full of rubble. Why? The main theory: to absorb seismic energy. Yes, Minoan palaces were earthquake-resistant.

The second component of Minoan civilization that shows off their technological prowess is water. Crete, with abundant natural springs and a Mediterranean climate, is not short on fresh water, but the Minoans learned to manage it better than nearly anyone else in the ancient world. Their palaces had sophisticated drainage systems using underground pipes and curved tiles. Wells, cisterns, and even aqueducts were developed to ensure that growing cities had enough potable water not only for agriculture and drinking, but for bathing as well. As a result, Minoan civilization was extraordinarily hygienic for its time.

Crafts

The third place that we find evidence of Minoan resourcefulness is in their crafts, which they spent a lot of time perfecting. This was a bronze-age civilization, but archaeological evidence suggests that Minoans continued to utilize stone tools in agriculture and daily life, perhaps because they had gotten pretty good at working with the material. We can see evidence of this in several craft items. Vases made from stone, most famously the so-called Harvest Rython, were carved with detailed reliefs of daily life (in this case the olive harvest). The Minoans also showed their attention to detail in stone jewelry and seal stones, gems carved with tiny images in relief that could have been stamped into clay or wax. As the average seal stone is only an inch or so long, we can appreciate the talent this took to create. Scenes of Minoan deities or festivals are common, with one of the most ubiquitous being the bull-leaping ritual (an event in which people acrobatically leapt over a charging bull).

Minoan seal stones
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From stonework we can move into pottery, made possible on a large scale by the introduction of the potter's wheel between 1900 and 1700 BCE. This technology is a perfect illustration of Minoan attitudes: it let them create high-quality products more quickly and on a greater scale. Minoan vases tend to be thin, symmetrical, and curvy, and were painted with bold lines and patterns.

Besides vases, Minoan ceramics also included decorative items like this sculpture of a person on a swing
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Of course, let's not forget about the importance of metalwork to this bronze-age culture. The Minoans never learned to truly smelt metals from natural ore (which is sparse on Crete) but imported materials like gold and copper from Syria and Egypt. However, they did learn to work it with the same precision as their seal stones. Metal jewelry was finely detailed and set with precious gems. Even non-metal items were gilded, or covered in thinly hammered gold leaf. Overall, the Minoans had to invent many metalworking techniques like lost-wax, nielo, and granulation in order to achieve the diverse range of items they produced. Later Greeks would use these same techniques to create the first monumental bronze sculptures in Western history.

Minoan jewelry was very detailed
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