Tracking Textile History: The Minoans

Okay, you know the Minoans, right?

Those bull-leaping snake-handling fresco-painting labyrinth-building people?

Bull leaping, fresco from the Great Palace at Knossos, Crete, Heraklion Archaeological Museum.jpg

Apparently this was never a real sport. But those people sure knew how to design a border!

Bull leaping, fresco from the Great Palace at Knossos, Crete, Heraklion Archaeological Museum” by George Groutas – originally posted to Flickr as Bull-leaping, fresco from the Great Palace at Knossos, Crete, Heraklion Archaeological Museum. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.


Große Schlangengöttin 01.jpg

Snake goddess.

Große Schlangengöttin 01” by Olaf TauschOwn work. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

The Minoans are possibly best known for the story in which Theseus has to face the Minotaur in the Labyrinth, and it all looks hopeless until King Minos’s daughter, Ariadne, gives him a ball of thread that he can unwind as he goes in, and follow back out.

These past few months I’ve been following some threads deep into the labyrinth of history.

Last year, Trophos at The Dancing Professor alerted me to this whole wonderful Ancient Textiles series. I have read two of these scholarly tomes, and since I don’t have much familiarity with ancient history, I have had to re-read them a few times. And that has led me to a whole string of other books to fill holes in my background knowledge.  At this point, I think I understand enough to share some of the fascinating information I’ve learned, so I’m planning a series of textile history posts.  (I can’t find the actual post in which she showed these books, so I’ll link to her post that mentions Penelope’s weaving in the Odyssey. )

From Minos to Midas : ancient cloth production in the Aegean and in Anatolia

This is Brendan Burke’s book, From Minos to Midas: Ancient Cloth Production in the Aegean and in Anatolia. Burke’s premise is that following craft activity through a society should help us discover facets of the society’s structure, politics, and economy.

Since the Minoans are credited with creating the first civilization in Europe, they are a good place to start.

They lived on Crete, which is about halfway between Greece and Egypt in the Mediterranean Sea.

Mediterranean Relief.jpg
Mediterranean Relief“. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The Cretan settlement Knossos , the oldest European city, was first settled about 7000 BC, still in the Stone Age.  About 1000 people lived in an area near the sea, with fresh water and fertile land, crops like wheat and legumes, and domesticated sheep, goats, pigs, dogs, and small cattle.

Sadly, textiles don’t usually last through the millennia, so to know what cloth and production were like, we have to depend on tools, texts, and pictures. The earliest textile equipment found in Knossos (clay spindle whorls and loom weights) are dated to about 3750 BC.*  These early remains are found scattered throughout the site, suggesting that all the steps to make cloth were done in individual households.  But by the Late Neolithic, textile tools are showing up in only certain areas, revealing that a shift towards specialization.

From 3100-2200 BC, the Cretans were living in scattered farm houses.  Then about 1930 BC, suddenly the earlier settlements were leveled, and a new building form, the palace, appeared.  Pottery styles became more specialized, more metals were imported, and figurines of women and sheep started appearing in mountain shrines (suggesting the importance of a wool-based economy).  By 1700 BC, 100,000 people lived near Knossos, and at some point the palace had 1300 rooms and took up 6 acres. What was it that spurred this “emerging complexity”?

I was always taught that it was food surpluses – that farmers who had successful crops found ways to exchange them for different foods.  In Crete, “lower and flatter land was suited to cereals while mountainous terrain with thinner soil cover was used for cultivating olives and vines.” (e-book Location 561 of 5490)  In 1972, a researcher named Colin Renfrew published The Emergence of Civilisation, with the influential theory that successful agriculture led to “redistributive chiefs” who coordinated exchanges of surplus crops, putting themselves in the position of “controlling elites” and making the farmers dependent on them.  (Do you see why I had to re-read this stuff?)

Other researchers theorized that the controlling elites popped up first, and coerced the farmers into growing specialized crops. Or that groups made mutually beneficial plans to gather their surpluses in regional centers in case of future shortages.

But Burke states, “It is unlikely that Early Bronze Age farmers would willingly have taken the risk of specializing in one crop with the expectation that trade with their neighbors would supply other essentials.” (Location 577)  In other words, are you going to be the first guy to bring your extra olives down to someone on the plain, and hope they’ve produced some extra wheat to trade you?

Burke points out that people with less-productive land might divert their skills to craft work, and accumulate goods that they could trade.  I like how he says with scholarly reserve, “It can be argued that the emphasis on agriculture in terms of the origins of complexity is misplaced and that the production and exchange of prestige goods, such as finely crafted and dyed textiles and valuable metal items, first allowed such centers and their elites to develop.”  (Location 598)

This makes sense to me, especially in earthquake-prone Crete.  Textiles don’t need containers, they don’t break, and they don’t go bad.  In a good year, you could weave an extra cloak, and then trade it whenever you got the chance.

I think that’s an interesting idea – that skilled craft work rather than food surpluses might have been the spark to start trade within communities.

That leads to wondering how the import/export trade started.  What did Crete have to offer the outside world to get the resources it wanted?

Minoan seal stone from 1700 - 1450 BC.

© The Trustees of the British Museum – Minoan seal stone from 1700 – 1450 BC.

image source

Burke says, “Crete is relatively poor in natural resources: there are no major deposits of metals on the island, which is remarkable considering that the people of Crete became famous for their crafting skills… The earliest settlers, who tinkered with a wide variety of materials such as copper, lead, silver, gold, and ivory, were working exclusively with imported materials…” (Location 540 of 5490) They were importing luxury items like hippopotamus tusks and Egyptian vessels – what were they giving in return?

The answer could be luxury textiles. Burke says that murex snails were used for purple dye at about five sites in Crete, in the 20th – 18th century BC, earlier than anywhere else in the Mediterranean by (as far as the evidence we have) 200 to 500 years. “Woolen textiles, the most valuable of which would have been purple-dyed, were probably among the first goods exchanged by Minoans to the Near East and Egypt.” (Location 936)

So, possibly textiles spurred civilization on!  Next time, we will look at textiles and early forms of writing.

*…if I understand it right – the actual phrase in the book is “the first quarter of the fourth millennium BC.”  You figure out the backwards dating.  Is the first quarter farther back from our time?  Or closer to the year 1?