Our present knowledge of the varied expressions of public and private life at the most flourishing period of Minoan civilisation is derived from study of the excavation finds. Material remains of every kind, including building remains, anthropological remains and a wide range of artefacts that have been yielded by settlements, palaces, megara, houses, sanctuaries, caves, and tombs, form the pages of an unwritten book relating to everyday life. During these centuries the population of Crete continued unchanged from an anthropological point of view. The two centuries of the New Palace saw the full flowering of the palace system. The designations of the rooms in the palaces have been influenced by modern perceptions of the division of roles between the sexes (‘royal quarters’, with a ‘boudoir’, ‘women’s quarters’, etc.). The apartments assigned by archaeologists to the queen have the same layout as those of the king, though on a smaller scale. In fact, the finds do not indicate that any complex of rooms was mainly or exclusively used by women or men. There are many examples. The wall-paintings of the ‘dancing girl’ and the ‘dolphins’, which were attributed to the Queen’s Megaron, did not belong there according to recent research. The dolphins adorned a floor in a small shrine, and the dancing-girl depicts a female form in a ‘posture of authority’ similar to the possibly erroneous rendering of the ‘priest-prince’. The restoration of this is based on the arbitrary assembling of pieces that probably belong to three different figures in the same scene (one male in a ‘posture of authority’, the figure of a priestess or a sphinx, and a male ‘venerating figure’). Supporters of a matriarchal structure of society have used the Gortyn law code of the 5th c. BC as a basis from which to argue that Minoan society was organised according to matrilineal principles, survivals of which are found in laws of historical times.
This line of reasoning is anachronistic and hazardous. Scholars should rely rather on the evidence of the period in question. On the basis of the archaeological record, farming seems to have been practised by men, as it clear from the Harvester Rhyton from Ayia Triada. Fishing was also in the hands of men, as can be seen from the wall-painting of the Fishermen from Akrotiri on Thera. At this period, too, women were engaged in occupations relating to ritual, such as the preparation of ritual meals in the palaces. Weaving and the manufacture of sacred garments for the deity were the responsibility of women, as may be concluded from the inaccessible position of rooms devoted to this art. The textiles produced were objects of trade, but were also used in the palaces. Women’s work in weaving and the preparation of food thus had an economic and ritual aspect. The terracotta figurines of the New Palace period exhibit changes in the dress of both men and women. Female figurines now reveal differences of dress that project the individual rather than the group identity. In New Palace society, the position of the individual, whether man or woman, was set in the context of a hierarchy based on personal prestige rather than on ties clan. This also emerges from changes in the forms of worship in peak sanctuaries, which were reduced in number and brought into greater dependence on the palaces and urban centres. They thus lost their popular cults, which now became more official. Bronze male figurines are now in the majority – an expression of the official ideology, since bronze was a precious metal available only to individuals of great authority and prestige. Social differentiation is also clear from the wall-paintings at Knossos, Tylisos, Thera, and Kea. The wall-paintings at Knossos, with their lavishly dressed male and female figures, capture the atmosphere of the palace. They depict religious gatherings that formed part of official ceremonial, such as processions, offerings, and other ritual acts. Prominent in them is a female figure who wears the typical Minoan dress with an open bodice, giving prominence to the element of fertility associated with the official religion. The wall-paintings of Tylisos depict ordinary townspeople in gatherings of men and women, all rendered freely. The Miniature Frieze from Thera also contains elements of social stratification. The First Town depicts men of the countryside, the Second Town scenes from an urban settlement, while the Third Town shows socially differentiated individuals set in a palace centre. None of these scenes give prominence to the female form. The women depicted have simple garments and are occupied in various tasks, but do not wear the elaborate Minoan dress. The clan organisation of previous periods seems to have continued to be the basic social structure in the Cretan countryside. The new feature of this period is the emergence of a kind of feudal organisation of agricultural production, if we accept that the megara and country villas belonged to powerful local governors. Political authority does not seem to have been organised on a ‘theocratic’ basis. The kings and queens were priests and priestesses, who were incarnations of the deity. Other members of the royal families held similar offices. Power was wielded by men, and the theory of the ‘Minoan matriarchal system’ finds no confirmation. Women, however, played an important role in religion. Political offices were also held by men who lived in the large buildings in the environs of the palaces and megara. A complex state bureaucracy dependent on the king is attested by the texts of the tablets. Everyday life is known from objects found mainly in the palaces and the megara. Women enjoyed considerable freedom and engaged in activities outside the household, such as bull-leaping, hunting, sport and dance, on equal terms with the men. Minoan men and women lavished much attention on the beautification and adornment of their bodies. The boudoir contained vessels and instruments of every kind known today.
Collections of tweezers, spatulas, razors, mirrors and jewellery boxes have been discovered in palaces and in tombs. There was some variety in dress and hair fashions. Women’s dress consisted off an open bodice which left the breasts uncovered, elaborate sashes, aprons, and full-length skirts. All the garments were richly decorated. Men’s dress was simpler, consisting of a loincloth and codpiece. On certain occasions, such as rituals, in cult scenes, and at games, men dressed as women and vice versa. Head adornments and hairstyles were remarkable, and there was a variety of head-dresses, caps, ‘tiaras’, and poloi. Hair was adorned by diadems, beads, bands, and elaborate chains. Women wore earrings in their ears, torques at their neck, necklaces on their breast, bracelets on their arms and anklets on their ankles. Scenes in Minoan art depict many sporting events and games, such as wrestling, boxing, jumping, and racing. One prominent event of a cult character was ‘bull-leaping’, as also were the hunting and capture of the sacred bull with a net.
Minoans seem to have loved games such as chess. Drafts, knucklebones, dice, etc. In the 16th and 15th c. BC the horse-drawn chariot was introduced at the same time into mainland Greece and Crete, as is clear from artistic representations. Although the Minoans were a peaceable people, they owned both offensive and defensive weapons, such as spears, javelins, swords, arrows, bows, daggers, figure-of-eight shields, and bronze or boar’s tusk helmets with cheek pieces and crests.
Dr Andonis Vasilakis