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Minoan Civilization: Funerary Beliefs, Practices & Tombs

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

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

The Minoans built a complex civilization on the Greek island of Crete. In this lesson, we're going to look at the funerary practices of this civilization, and see what they tell us about Minoan life.

Death in Ancient Crete

Benjamin Franklin once said ''In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.''

Of the two, archeologists tend to look at traditions of death when digging up the past. Even in societies whose written languages are lost to us, the universality of death provides us with some fascinating clues about their lives.

One great example of this is ancient Crete, home of the Minoan civilization, a Bronze Age society who thrived from the 4th to 2nd millennia BCE. While there's much about Minoan life that we don't know, these ancient peoples did leave behind substantial evidence of their burial practices. Ironically, it's from their deaths that we know so much about their lives.

Minoan Funerals

Practices

Let's start with the meaning of death in Minoan civilization. The Minoans had a complex religion, one which seems to have included an afterlife. To transition the deceased from the world of the living to that of the dead, bodies were inhumed or buried, not cremated.

Grave goods were placed alongside the body that included items from their daily life as well as special ceremonial funerary vases. These grave goods suggest to us that the Minoans saw death as a continuation of life, in which the person's soul would still need the same tools it had while living.

Attitudes

As for the funeral itself, Minoan burials may have been more like communal parties than the solemn events we expect. Judging by scenes in Minoan artwork, seems that the deceased was offered gifts by people at an elaborate meal inside or near the tomb. It was a feast with the dead. Considering that most Minoan burials were in communal, family-based chambers and not individual plots, this would have almost been like a family reunion spanning generations.

Body Itself

Finally, let's talk about the treatment of the body. While there were a few different burial practices found across Crete in this time, the most common seems to have been the larnax, a chest-sized coffin, in which the remains of the dead were ultimately inhumed.

Minoan larnakes were made of terracotta (baked clay), but their structure resembles a wooden chest. Archeologists have suggested that the Minoans, successful maritime traders, adapted the burial practice from the wooden chests being used in Egypt at this time. Minoan larnakes were decorated, often with wavy patterns that some scholars think represent the sea, and the important role it played in Minoan life.

A Minoan larnax.
larnax

Minoan Tombs

So, we know that the Minoans had elaborate burial rituals and mostly buried their dead in clay chests. But where did they put them? There are three main types of tombs in Minoan civilization, each of which was popular in different parts of the island. Again, it seems like nearly all were communal, serving to house the remains of an entire family or clan over several generations.

Chamber Tombs

The oldest tombs in Crete are chamber tombs, which are tombs cut directly into solid rock in hills, and featuring a dromos or entryway into the chamber. Most of the chamber tombs that have been found contained numerous bodies and vast collections of grave goods, added continuously over time. Common architectural features include benches along the walls, and staircases leading into the main chamber.

House Tombs

Later, another type of tomb became very common, known as the house tomb. Basically, these were literal houses for the dead. This was a rectangular tomb, roughly the size of a Minoan house, containing various square rooms inside. The largest and most impressive of these tombs is roughly 39 x 30 meters in size.

We can see just how seriously the Minoans took the whole life-after-death concept here. While some house tombs used a cliff face as the back wall, others were completely free standing. Archeologists believe that they originally had flat roofs, similar to other Minoan houses, although this is hard to prove as the roofs have collapsed over time. House tombs are most common in northern and eastern Crete.

Minoan models of their homes may give us an idea as to what the house tombs were trying to imitate
Minoan model home

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