Margaret (pling) wrote,

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The Ancient World with Bettany Hughes

Another 2 hour episode - this time about the Minoans, who lived on Crete during the Bronze age. Pretty much all I knew about them in advance was the Greek myth about the Minotaur - which is where the programme started. The first archaeologists looking in Crete were really looking to see if they could find the kernel of truth behind this myth - and so when they excavated the site at Knossos they were convinced they'd discovered the palace of King Minos from the myth, and hence the name Minoans for the people. The artifacts recovered from this site (and the other Minoan palace sites) are quite stunning, beautifully decorated, and in some ways some of it wouldn't look out of place in a more modern setting - the pottery cups with geometric designs on it. The paintings of women that almost look "modern" (well, Victorian, given that was "modern" when they were discovered). So the original archaeologists were seeing this as the "first civilisation of Europe" which all others built on (including the later Greeks & Romans). A place of gentile civility, albeit Bronze Age, prosperous and with religious rituals centered around the natural world - athletic youths leaping over bulls and so on.

But further investigation (mostly after the original expedition leader had died) started to show a different and more complex & nuanced picture. For starters one of the scripts was deciphered, once more people had a chance to look at the writings discovered. And the language turned out to be an archaic form of Greek (but not written with anything like the modern Greek alphabet) - for the last two hundred years of the Knossos site it was actually ruled by the Myceneans who had conquered (or taken advantage of the collapse of) the Minoan civilisation. And the palaces were probably temples or festival halls, there is more of an indication of many cults of female nature goddesses - not quite so dainty and refined as originally thought, there is at least some evidence of human sacrifice to these goddesses. Given the geological instability of Crete (many earthquakes) it's probably not surprising that propitiating the deities in charge of such things would be taken seriously.

The indications are that the civilisation was south & east looking - to Turkey and the Middle East, and to Egypt and other parts of Africa. Crete is well placed to be a trade centre in the Mediterranean, and there is evidence that it was an early source purple dye. Also with evidence of "farming" of the molluscs the dye is extracted from. There are representations of what are probably the Minoans in some Egyptian tombs, bringing their distinctive decorated pottery as tribute/gifts to the Egyptian nation. So not quite the "first European civilisation" but more an outpost of the thriving civilisations of the era in Africa & the Middle East (Victorian prejudices, those archaeologists had them ;) Unsurprisingly, really).

It seems to all have come tumbling down due to natural disaster first - which let the Myceneans take advantage and annexe this rich island. One of the Greek islands just north of Crete, Thera, is actually a volcano, which erupted spectacularly in ~1530BC. The resultant tsunami would have been catastrophic - there is evidence of 100 foot waves hitting some parts of Crete. And the ash cloud and resultant bad harvests made things worse. There is some evidence from around this time of cannibalism amongst the Minoans - whether for ritual purposes or because of starvation is unclear. It was a lingering death for the civilisations - with evidence of old goddesses & gods being abandoned (for failing to protect them) and new ones rising up causing religious conflict amongst followers of the old & new. At around 1450BC all the "palace" sites on Crete show signs of deliberate arson, except Knossos where the Myceneans were setting up (if it was Mycenean destruction of the others isn't known). And then 200 years later something else happened - it's not known what. But Mycenean power on mainland Greece wanes suddenly, and on Crete the (remnants of the?) population pulls back from the lowland sites like Knossos to the less fertile uplands. And doesn't come back for 100 years.

A very interesting programme - though I still don't feel like I know much about the Minoans themselves, but a good appetite whetter. And I'm definitely enjoying this series, I remember thinking when we watched the Seven Ages of Britain programme she presented (C4 programme a few years ago - not the more recent BBC one which is presented by David Dimbleby) that she was maybe a bit lightweight, there more for her pretty face than her knowledge. But these programmes make it seem more like she's interested in the ancient world rather than more modern Britain, and she's coming across as both knowledgeable & enthusiastic as well as being a pretty face.
Tags: minoan, tv

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