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Aegean civilization is the general term for the prehistoric civilizations in Greece and the Aegean. It was formerly called "Mycenaean" because its existence was first brought to popular notice by Heinrich Schliemann's excavations at Mycenae starting in 1876. However, subsequent discoveries have made it clear that Mycenae was not its chief center of Aegean civilization in its earlier stages (or perhaps at any period), and accordingly it is more usual now to use the more general geographical title.
The fact that Aegean civilization is distinguished from all others, prior or contemporary, not only by its geographical area, but by leading organic characteristics, has never been in doubt, since its remains came to be studied seriously and impartially. The truth was indeed obscured for a time by persistent prejudices in favour of certain alien Mediterranean races long known to have been in relation with the Aegean area in prehistoric times, e.g. the Egyptians and especially the Phoenicians. But their claims to be the principal authors of the Aegean remains grew fainter with every fresh Aegean discovery, and every new light thrown on their own proper products; with the Cretan revelations they ceased altogether to be considered except by a few Homeric enthusiasts. Briefly, we now know that the Aegean civilization developed these distinctive features.
An indigenous writing system existed which consisted of characters with which only a very small percentage are identical, or even obviously connected, with those of any other script. This is equally true both of the pictographic and the linear Aegean systems. Its nearest affinities are with the "Asianic" scripts, preserved to us by Hittite, Cypriote and south-west Anatolian (Pamphyhan , Lycian and Carian ) inscriptions. But neither are these affinities close enough to be of any practical aid in deciphering Aegean characters, nor is it by any means certain that there is parentage. The Aegean script may be, and probably is, prior in origin to the "Asianic"; and it may equally well be owed to a remote common ancestor, or (the small number of common characters being considered) be an entirely independent evolution from representations of natural objects (see Crete).
This art consists of products which are easily distinguished from those of other periods and areas. Its obligations to other contemporary arts are many and obvious, especially in its later stages; but every borrowed form and motive undergoes an essential modification at the hands of the Aegean craftsman, and the product is stamped with a new character. The secret of this character lies evidently in a constant attempt to express an ideal in forms more and more closely approaching to realities. We detect the dawn of that spirit which afterwards animated Hellenic art. The fresco-paintings, ceramic motives, reliefs, free sculpture and toreutic handiwork of Crete have supplied the clearest proof of it, confirming the impression already created by the goldsmiths' and painters' work of the Greek mainland (Mycenae, Vaphio, Tiryns).
Architectural plans and decoration. The arrangement of Aegean palaces is of two main types. First (and perhaps earliest in time), the chambers are grouped round a central court, being engaged one with the other in a labyrinthine complexity, and the greater oblongs are entered from a long side and divided longitudinally by pillars. Second, the main chamber is of what is known as the megaron type, i.e. it stands free, isolated from the rest of the plan by corridors, is entered from a vestibule on a short side, and has a central hearth, surrounded by pillars and perhaps hypaethral; there is no central court, and other apartments form distinct blocks. For possible geographical reasons for this duality of type see Crete. In spite of many comparisons made with Egyptian, Babylonian and "Hittite" plans, both these arrangements remain incongruous with any remains of prior or contemporary structures elsewhere. Whether either plan suits the "Homeric palace" does not affect the present question.
A type of tomb, the dome or "bee-hive," of which the grandest examples known are at Mycenae. The Cretan "larnax" coffins, also, have no parallels outside the Aegean. There are other infinite singularities of detail; but the above are more than sufficient to establish the point.
History of Aegean Civilization.
History of an inferential and summary sort only can be derived from monuments in the absence of written records. The latter do, indeed, exist in the Ccse of the Cretan civilization and in great numbers; but they are undeciphered and are likely to remain so, except in the improbable event of the discovery of a long bi-lingual text, partly couched in some familiar script and language. Even in that event, the information which would be derived from the Knossian tablets would probably make but a small addition to history, since in very large part they are evidently mere inventories of tribute and stores. The engraved gems probably record divine or human names.
Origin and continuity.
With the immense expansion of the evidence, due to the Cretan excavations, a question has arisen how far the Aegean civilization, whose total duration covers at least three thousand years, can be regarded as one and continuous. Thanks to the exploration of Knossos, we now know that Aegean civilization had its roots in a primitive Neolithic period, of uncertain but very long duration, represented by a stratum which (on that site in particular) is in places nearly 20 ft thick, and contains stone implements and shards of handmade and hand-polished vessels, showing a progressive development in technique from bottom to top. This Minoan stratum seems to be throughout earlier than the lowest layer at Hissarlik . It closes with the introduction of incised, white-filled decoration on pottery, whose motives are presently found reproduced in monochrome pigment. We are now in the beginning of the Bronze Age, and the first of the Minoan periods (see Crete). Thereafter, by exact observation of stratification, eight more periods have been distinguished by the explorer of Knossos, each marked by some important development in the universal and necessary products of the potter's art, the least destructible and therefore most generally used archaeological criterion. These periods fill the whole Bronze Age, with whose close, by the introduction of the superior metal, iron, the Aegean Age is conventionally held to end. Iron came into general Aegean use about 1000 B.C., and possibly was the means by which a body of northern invaders established their power on the ruins of the earlier dominion. The important point is this, that throughout the nine Knossian periods, following the Neolithic Age, there is evidence of a perfectly orderly and continuous evolution in, at any rate, ceramic art. From one stage to another, fabrics, forms and motives of decoration develop gradually; so that, at the close of a span of more than two thousand years, at the least, the influences of the beginning can still be clearly seen and no trace of violent artistic intrusion can be detected. This fact, by itself, would go far to prove that the civilization continued fundamentally and essentially the same throughout. It is, moreover, supported by less abundant remains of other arts. That of painting in fresco, for instance, shows the same orderly development from at any rate Period Ii. 2 to the end. About institutions we have less certain knowledge, there being but little evidence for the earlier periods; but in the documents relating to religion, the most significant of all, it can at least be said that there is no trace of sharp change. We see evidence of a uniform nature worship passing through all the normal stages down to the anthropism in the latest period. There is no appearance of intrusive deities or cult-ideas. We may take it then (and the fact is not disputed even by those who, believe in one thorough racial change, at least, during the Bronze Age) that the Aegean civilization was indigenous, firmly rooted and strong enough to persist essentially unchanged and dominant in its own geographical area throughout the Neolithic and Bronze Ages. This conclusion can hardly entail less than a belief that, at any rate, the mass of those who possessed this civilization continued racially the same.
There are, however, in certain respects at certain periods, evidences of such changes as might be due to the intrusion of small conquering castes, which adopted the superior civilization of the conquered people and became assimilated to the latter. The earliest palace at Cnossus was built probably in Period Ii. 1 or 2. It was of the type mentioned first in the description of palace-plans above. Before Period IiI. 1 it was largely rebuilt, and arguments have been brought forward by Dorpfeld to show that features of the second type were then introduced. A similar rebuilding took place at the same epoch at Phaestus, and possibly at Hagia Triada. Now the second type, the "megaron" arrangement, characterizes peculiarly the palaces discovered in the north of the Aegean area, at Mycenae, Tiryns and Hissarllk, where up to the present no signs of the first type, so characteristic of Crete, have been observed. These northern "megara" are all of late date, none being prior to Minoan IiI. 1. At Phylakope, a "megaron" appears only in the uppermost Aegean stratum, the underlying structures being more in conformity with the earlier Cretan. At the same epoch a notable change took place in the Aegean script. The pictographic characters, found on seals and discs of Period Ii. in Crete, had given way entirely to a linear system by Period IiI. That system thenceforward prevailed exclusively, suffering a slight modification again in IiI. 2 and 3. These and other less well marked changes, say some critics, are signs of a racial convulsion not long after 2000 B.C. An old race was conquered by a new, even if, in matters of civilization, the former capta victorem cepit. For these races respectively Dorpfeld suggests the names "Lycian" and "Carian," the latter coming in from the north Aegean, where Greek tradition remembered its former dominance. These names do not greatly help us. If we are to accept and profit by Dorpfeld's nomenclature, we must be satisfied that, in their later historic habitats, both Lycians and Carians showed unmistakable signs of having formerly possessed the civilizations attributed to them in prehistoric times--signs which research has hitherto wholly failed to find. The most that can be said to be capable of proof is the infiltration of some northern influence into Crete at the end of Minoan Period Ii.; but it probably brought about no change of dynasty and certainly no change in the prevailing race. A good deal of anthropometric investigation has been devoted to human remains of the Aegean epoch, especially to skulls and bones found in Crete in tombs of Period Ii. The result of this, however, has not so far established more than the fact that the Aegean races, as a whole, belonged to the dark, long-headed Homo Mediterraneus, whose probable origin lay in mid-eastern Africa -- a fact only valuable in the present connection in so far as it tends to discredit an Asiatic source for Aegean civilization. Not enough evidence has been collected to affect the question of racial change during the Aegean period. From the skullforms studied, it would appear, as we should expect, that the Aegean race was by no means pure even in the earlier Minoan periods. It only remains to be added that there is some ground for supposing that the language spoken in Crete before the later Doric was non-Hellenic, but Indo-European. This inference rests on three inscriptions in Greek characters but non-Greek language found in E. Crete. The language has some apparent affinities with Phrygian. The inscriptions are post-Aegean by many centuries, but they occur in the part of the island known to Homer as that inhabited by the Eteo-Cretans, or aborigines. Their language may prove to be that of the Linear tablets.
The earliest chronological datum that we possess is inferred from a close similarity between certain Cretao hand-made and polished vases of Minoan Period I. 1 and others discovered by Petrie at Abydos in Egypt and referred by him to the Ist Dynasty. He goes so far as to pronounce the latter to be Cretan importations, their fabric and forms being unlike anything Nilotic. If that be so, the period at which stone implements were beginning to be superseded by bronze in Crete must be dated before 4000 BC But it will be remembered that below all Evans's "Minoan" strata lies the immensely thick Neolithic deposit. To date the beginning of this earliest record of human production is impossible at present. The Neolithic stratum varies very much in depth, ranging from nearly 20 to 3 ft, but is deepest on the highest part of the hillock. Its variations may be due equally to natural denudation of a stratum once of uniform depth, or to the artificial heaping up of a mound by later builders. Even were certainty as to these alternatives attained, we could only guess at the average rate of accumulation, which experience shows to proceeb very differently on different sites and under different social and climatic conditions. In later periods at Knossos accumulation seems to have proceeded at a rate of roughly 3 ft per thousand years. Reckoning by that standard we might push the earliest Neolithic remains back beyond 10,000 B.C., but the calculation would be worthy of little credence.
Passing by certain fragments of stone vessels found at Knossus and coincident with forms characteristic of the Fourth Pharaonic Dynasty, we reach another fairly certain date in the synchronism of remains belonging to the 12th Dynasty (c. 2500 B.C. according to Petrie, but later according to the Berlin School) with products of Minoan Period Ii. 2. Characteristic Cretan pottery of this period was found by Petrie in the Fayum in conjunction with 12th Dynasty remains, and various Cretan products of the period show striking similarities to 12th Dynasty styles, especially in their adoption of spiraliform ornament. The spiral, however, occurs so often in natural objects (e.g. horns, climbing plants, shavings of wood or metal) that too much stress must not be laid on the mutual parentage of spiraliform ornament in different civilizations. A diorite statuette, referable by its style and inscription to the 13th Dynasty, was discovered in deposit of Period Ii. 3 in the Central Court, and a cartouche of the "Shepherd King," Khyan, was also found at Knossos. He is usually dated about 1900 B.C. This brings us to the next and most certain synchronism, that of Minoan Periods IiI. 1, 2, with the 18th Dynasty (ca. 1600-1400 B.C.). This coincidence has been observed not only at Knossos, but previously, in connection with discoveries of scarabs and other Egyptian objects made at Mycenae, Ialysus, Vaphio, and others. In Egypt itself, Refti tributaries, bearing vases of Aegean form, and themselves similar in fashion of dress and arrangement of hair to figures on Cretan frescoes and gems of Period IiI., are depicted under this and the succeeding Dynasties (e.g. Rekhmara tomb at Thebes). Actual vases of late Minoan style have been found with remains of the 18th Dynasty, especially in the town of Amenhotep IV, also known as Akhenaton, at el-Amarna; while in the Aegean area itself we have abundant evidence of a great wave of Egyptian influence beginning with this same Dynasty. To this wave were owed in all probability the Nilotic scenes depicted on the Mycenae daggers, on frescoes of Hagia Triada and Knossos, on pottery of Zakro, on the shell-relief of Phaestus, etc.; and also many forrus and fabrics, such as certain Cretan coffins, and the faience industry of Knossos. These serve to date, beyond all reasonable question, Periods IiI. 1-2 in Crete, the shaft-graves in the Mycenae circle, the Vaphio tomb, etc., to the 16th and 15th centuries B.C., and Period IiI. 3 with the lower town at Mycenae, the majority of the sixth stratum at Hissarlik, the Ialysus burials, the upper stratum at Phylakope, etc., to the century immediately succeeding.
The terminus ad quem is less certain -- iron does not begin to be used for weapons in the Aegean untill after Period IiI. 3, and then not exclusively. If we fix its introduction to about 1000 B.C., and make it coincident with the incursion of northern tribes remembered by the classical Greeks as the Dorian Invasion, we must allow that this incursion did not altogether stamp out Aegean civilization, at least in the southern part of its area. But it finally destroyed the palace at Knossos and initiated the "Geometric" Age, with which, for convenience, we may close the history of Aegean civilization proper.
From these and other data, the outlines of primitive history in the Aegean may be sketched.
A people, agreeing in its prevailing skull-forms with the Mediterranean race of North Africa, was settled in the Aegean area from a remote Neolithic antiquity, but, except in Crete, where insular security was combined with great natural fertility, remained in a savage and unproductive condition until far into the 4th millennium B.C.. In Crete, however, it had long been developing a certain civilization, and at a period more or less contemporary with Egyptian Dynasties 11 and 12. (2500 B.C.?) the scattered communities of the center of the island coalesced into a strong monarchical state, the Minoan civilization, whose capital was at Knossos. There the king, probably also high priest of the prevailing nature-cult, built a great stone palace, and received the tribute of feudatories, likely of whom the prince of Phaestus, who commanded the Messara plain, was chief. The Minoan monarch had maritime relations with Egypt, and presently sent his wares all over the south Aegean (e.g. to Melos in the earlier Second City Period of Phylakope) and to Cyprus, receiving in return such commodities as Melian obsidian knives. A system of pictographic writing came into use early in this Minoan period, but only a few documents made of durable material have survived. Pictorial art of a purely indigenous character, whether on ceramic material or plaster, made great strides, and from ceramic forms we may legitimately infer also a high skill in metallurgy.
The absence of fortifications both at Knossos and Phaestus suggest that at this time Crete was internally peaceful and externally secure. Small settlements, in very close relation with the capital, were founded in the east of the island to command fertile districts and assist maritime commerce. Gournia and Palaikastro fulfilled both these ends: Zakro must have had mainly a commercial purpose, as the starting-point for the African coast. The acme of this dominion was reached about the end of the 3rd millennium B.C., and thereafter there ensued a certain, though not very serious, decline.
Meanwhile, at other favourable spots in the Aegean, but chiefly on sites in easy relation to maritime commerce, e.g. Tiryns and Hissarlik, other communities of the early race began to arrive at civilization, but were naturally influenced by the more advanced culture of Crete in proportion to their nearness or vicinity. Early Hissarlik shows less Cretan influence and more external (i.e. Asiatic) than early Melos. The inner Greek mainland remained still in a backward state.
Five hundred years later -- about 1600 B.C. -- we observe that certain striking changes have taken place. The Aegean remains have become astonishingly uniform over the whole area; the local ceramic developments have almost ceased and been replaced by ware of one general type both of fabric and decoration. The Cretans have avoided their previous decadence and are once more possessors of a progressive civilization. They have developed a more convenient and expressive written language by stages, which is best represented by the tablets of Hagia Triada. The art of the entire area gives evidence of one spirit and common models. In religious representations it shows the same anthropomorphic personification and the same ritual furniture. Objects produced in one locality are found in others. The area of Aegean intercourse has widened and become more busy. Commerce with Egypt, for example, has increased in a marked degree, and Aegean objects or imitations of them are found to have begun to penetrate into Syria, inland Asia Minor, and the central and western Mediterranean lands, e.g. Sicily, Sardinia and Spain. There can be little doubt that a strong power was now fixed in one Aegean center, and that all the area had come under its political, social and artistic influence.
How was this brought about, and what was the imperial center? Some change seems to have come from the north; and there are those who go so far as to say that the center henceforward was the Argolid, and especially "golden" Mycenae, whose lords imposed a new type of palace and a modification of Aegean art on all other Aegean lands. Others again cite the old established power and productivity of Crete; the immense advantage it derived from insularity, natural fertility and geographical relation to the wider area of east Mediterranean civilizations; and the absence of evidence elsewhere for the gradual growth of a culture powerful enough to dominate the Aegean. They point to the fact that, even in the new period, the palm for wealth and variety of civilized production still remained with Crete. There alone we have proof that the art of writing was commonly practised, and tribute tallies suggest an imperial organization; there the arts of painting and sculpture in stone were most highly developed; there the royal residences, which had never been violently destroyed, though remodelled, continued unfortified; whereas on the Greek mainland they required strong protective works. The golden treasure of Mycenae graves, these critics urge, is not more splendid than would have been found at Knossos had royal burials been spared by plunderers, or been happened upon intact by modern explorers. It is not impossible to combine these views, and place the seat of power still in Crete, but ascribe the renascence there to an influx of new blood from the north, large enough to instil fresh vigour, but too small to change the civilization in its essential character.
If this dominance was Cretan, it was short-lived. The security of the island was apparently violated not long after 1500 BC, when the palace at Knossos was sacked and burned, and Cretan art suffered an irreparable blow. As the comparatively lifeless character which it possesses in the succeeding period (IiI. 3) is coincident with a similar decadence all over the Aegean area, we can hardly escape from the conclusion that it was due to the invasion of all the Aegean lands (or at least the Greek mainland and isles) by some less civilized conquerors, who remained politically dominant, but, like their forerunners, having no culture of their own, adopted, while they spoiled, that which they found. Who these invaders were we cannot say, but the probability is that they too came from the north and were precursors of the later "Hellenes." Under their rule peace was re-established, and art production, though of inferior quality, became abundant again among the subject population. The northern part of the palace at Knossos was re-occupied by chieftains who have left numerous rich graves, and general commercial intercourse must have been resumed because the uniformity of the decadent Aegean products and their wide distribution become more marked than ever.
About 1000 BC a final catastrophe took place. The palace at Knossos was once more destroyed, never to be rebuilt or re-inhabited. Iron took the place of bronze, and Aegean art ceased on the Greek mainland and in the Aegean isles, including Crete, together with Aegean writing. In Cyprus and perhaps on the south-west Anatolian coasts, there is some reason to think that the cataclysm was less complete, and Aegean art continued to languish, cut off from its fountain-head. Such artistic faculty that survived elsewhere was made in the lifeless geometric style that is reminiscent of the later Aegean, but wholly unworthy of it. Also, cremation took the place of burial of the dead.
This great disaster, which cleared the ground for a new growth of local art, was probably due to yet another incursion of northern tribes, more barbarous than their predecessors, but possessed of superior iron weapons -- those tribes which later Greek tradition and Homer knew as the Dorians. They crushed a civilization already hard hit, and it took two or three centuries for the Aegean artistic spirit, probably preserved in suspended animation by the survival of Aegean racial elements, to blossom anew. On this conquest seems to have ensued a long period of unrest and popular movements, known to Greek tradition as the Ionian Migration and the Aeolic and Dorian "colonizations". When once more we see the Aegean area clearly, it is dominated by the Hellenes, though it has not lost all memory of its earlier culture.
- History of discovery and distribution of the remains of Aegean civilization
- Minoan civilization
- Mycenaean Greece
- Aegean Sea
- Jeremy B. Rutter, "The Prehistoric Archaeology of the Aegean": chronology, history, bibliography
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