Tracking Textile History: The Minoans, Part Two

Before we get into more of Minoan textiles, we need to take a short look at how this culture was brought back from three thousand years of oblivion.

The riddle of the labyrinth : the quest to crack an ancient code

There is a fast-paced, readable account in the book The Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code by Margalit Fox.   I am going to draw from it to summarize, but I highly recommend reading the book – there is so much more information there, and Fox is expert at weaving the many different threads of this story into a clear picture.

In the early 1870s, archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann* astounded the world with the re-discovery of the lost city of Troy, and in 1876, he was excavating another fabled city, Mycenae, on the mainland of Greece.  An English scholar, Arthur Evans, was fascinated with the finds, but wondered why no signs of a writing system were found.  He believed these cities were too complex to get by without record-keeping in some form.

In 1883, Evans and his wife visited Greece for 5 months and even met with Schliemann.  Evans’ interest in the Greek Bronze Age grew, and when he visited Athens again, 10 years later, he began buying up small stones carved with symbols.

Seal stone.  That looks like a vertical loom on the left.

Minoan seal stone of jasper, 1800-1650 BC. That looks like a vertical loom on the left, if you ask me. © The Trustees of the British Museum

image source

Antique dealers told him the stones had come from Crete.  Convinced that they were proof of a “system of picture-writing in the Greek lands”, Evans starting visiting Crete with an eye to finding a likely place to excavate.  Eventually he found a property in Kephala where some interesting things had been uncovered in 1878.  Fox writes, “Needing digging rights, Evans did what any self-assured Victorian of means would do: He simply bought the property.”  (e-book Locate 465 of 4818)  Evans bought it in 1894, but local fighting kept him from digging until 1900.

As soon as he did start excavating though, he found incredible things.   He quickly uncovered a huge palace that had had staircases, drainage pipes, and frescoed walls, but layers of rubble and burned timbers showed that it had been destroyed and rebuilt several times.  Best of all, his workers found whole store rooms full of small clay tablets,  marked with incised lines.  Fires that had swept through the palace had baked the tablets and preserved them.  Evans had proof of a system of writing that was seven hundred years earlier than any known Greek writing.

But that writing would not get figured out for another 52 years.  (And I will be returning to that in another post, because I am fascinated!)

So thank you, Ms. Fox, on to some other resources –

Besides being an archaeologist, Evans was keeper of the Ashmolean museum at Oxford University, so they have an archive of his papers.  Many of them are accessible online here.

Evans did things that are questionable by today’s standards – his excavation methods might have missed a lot of evidence, and when he reconstructed the palace at Knossos, he may have allowed artists to build their own vision rather than an accurate replica.   But his findings at Knossos revealed a previously unknown civilization to us, one that influenced our own.

Since Evans’ time, research has been done continually, and a better picture of Minoan life is coming into focus.  A thorough look at its fascinating artifacts is provided in this 2005 online book, The Archaeological Museum at Heraklion (John S. Laksis Public Benefit Foundation) – it has over 400 pages of high-resolution images of jewelry, figurines, pottery, ceremonial weapons, and more.

The records for textile production are still spotty during this era of Minoan Palaces, from about 2000 – 1450 BC.  I’m going to draw information from the chapter “Textile Industry and Minoan Palaces”,  by Pietro Militello in the first book of the Ancient Textiles series.

Ancient textiles : production, craft and society : proceedings of the First International Conference on Ancient Textiles, held at Lund, Sweden, and Copenhagen, Denmark, on March 19-23, 2003

After analyzing finds of loom weights and clay tablets in various excavations and eras, Militello concludes that in the First Palace Period, 2000- 1700 BC, there were weaving workshops in the Palace centers themselves – in just one example, at Knossos, 400 loom weights were found together, and that signifies about 20 looms, with 40 to 60 weavers.


This is a vertical loom, the kind used on Crete. The loom weights at the bottom give stability and tension to groups of warp threads, making them easier to work with.

WarpWeightedLoomCTMLodzPoland” by ArtProfOwn work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.


In the Second Palace Period, 1700- 1450 BC, a new type of country house called “Villa” appears, and though these houses may be surrounded by a small village, they are often far from the centers of power.  Loom weights are found in great numbers in some of them, but not all of them, so it appears that there were weaving workshops, and some people didn’t weave at home at all.   And interestingly, in the Necropolis, or City of the Dead, there are enough loom weights for two looms, making us wonder what exactly was being woven there and for whom!  At this point, within the Palaces themselves, evidence for weaving is scarce, but records of textiles are more numerous than they were before.

Militello’s conclusion is that the Minoan Palaces were focused on textile consumption, rather than production.  Textiles were important in the power centers for religious offerings, diplomatic gifts, and exchange.  Initially workshops might have been set up in the palace complexes themselves, creating enough specialized textiles just for the elite, and later textile production was outsourced to workshops in the periphery.  The textiles might have been paid in as a required tribute, or tax.

He has one story that really sticks with me.

In south-central Crete is a settlement that was excavated about the same time as Knossos.  It is called Ayia Triada, and one of the buildings, the Royal Villa, was built around 1550 BC, and destroyed in 1450 BC.  There is a long narrow room like a hallway (Room 9) with a large square room connected to it (Room 27).  At the time of destruction, a group of loom weights was in Room 27, and 45 little tokens called noduli were found on the window sill connecting to Room 9.  A tablet marked with the signs for the equivalent of 45 units of wool was found in the same area.

Militello says, ” At the time of the Villa’s destruction, the administration of Ayia Triada was distributing or receiving 135 kg [45 units] of wool and giving receipts in exchange while a scribe was entering data on his tablet.  The looms stored inside Room 27 could be somehow related to this activity: perhaps they were to be used in the processing of the wool on the tablet.”  (e-book Location 1362 of 9882)

Can’t you just see it?  A wool-worker comes in to meet his required quota for the year, drops off the wool, starts to pick up the tokens that will prove he paid up – or a weaver comes in with tokens to pay for the wool she needs for her work – and then, sudden disaster!  Earthquake, fire, invasion – no one knows for sure what happened on that day.

But about that same time, the Mycenaeans took over on Crete, and then the textile world got really interesting.

*And do you know where Schliemann got the money to fund his excavations?  He had gotten rich from starting a bank in Sacramento during the California Gold Rush, and cornering the indigo market in Europe!  I’m telling you, it all goes back to textiles in one way or another.

And also a disclaimer – I am not a historian or expert, just an interested hobbyist.  I might be making hugely inaccurate statements here.  If you are a historian, you are welcome to point out any mistakes.  If you are here for homework help, you might want to look for more authoritative sources!