An introduction to Minoan Pottery.
by Andrea Mulder-Slater
The very first flowering of civilization in Greek lands took place in Crete.
An island lying to the south east of the Greek mainland, Crete measures some 150 miles East to West and a mere 20 miles North to South. Considering its small size, isolated location and somewhat unsettled history, the civilizations of the island of Crete made some truly remarkable contributions to both Greek and Western European civilizations.
From the years 2600 BC to 1500 BC, the island of Crete was the center of a wondrous civilization. “Minoan” (after the legendary King Minos) was the name given by Sir Arthur Evans (an excavator early this century of the island of Crete) to the specifically Cretan culture that would otherwise be classified as Copper and Bronze Age.
Today, Minoan art and artifacts are widely known. Especially the ceramic ware created in a dazzling variety of forms, techniques and patterns.
The creating and building of pots is an art form first developed in Neolithic times. The need for pots arose when the food gathering peoples became food producing peoples. The cultivation of cereal crops meant that the produce had to be stored for future use, in baskets or pots.
Perhaps it was an accidental discovery that led to the making and firing of clay pots. If a clay lined basket had been accidentally burned, the people would have seen that clay – when fired – became hard and could be refired without harm being done to it. Thus, the possibilities of cooking would have been enormously extended. Eventually, pottery would become and art form in itself as knowledge of building and decorating increased.
The Minoans were one such society whose knowledge of simple pottery blossomed into magnificent art forms. Harriet Boyd Hawes (an early excavator of Crete) gives an overview of Minoan pottery, the Minoan potter and the inspiration for both:
“The Cretan potter’s first appreciation of nature was subjective, not distinguishing clearly between himself and the world in which he moved… The line left on the sand be receding waves, the ripple on water as the wind crossed it, the mysterious inner markings of a shell, the thousand varieties of spirals in shells and in tendrils, the shadow cast on his path be interlocking twigs, the stir of leaves and the bending of branches, the flight of petals and seed vessels and the whirl, which is at the basis of so many forms of motion, gathering particles to one focus and flinging them forth again – these attracted him. His aim however was not to imitate what he saw, but to rather record an impression.At the height of his power, the Minoan potter went directly to nature for his inspirations. His designs are full of grace and exuberance Reeds, grasses and flowers adorn his vases: the life of the sea is represented with astonishing fidelity.”
In early times, all Minoan pottery was handmade, for the true potters wheel did not come until the period of the early Palaces. These early pots were rather clumsy, round bottomed jugs and bulbous jars decorated with simple linear patterns on a red or brown semi-lustrous paint. This style was an early form of the so-called black glaze of Classical Greek pottery. In all actuality, a glaze was not used for decorating, rather an iron red clay slip which oxidizing conditions (clean fire) would fire red but under reducing conditions (smoky fire) would turn black. Absolute control over color was not achieved for a long time.
Eventually, Minoan pottery – as well as growing in artistic merit – grew more fanciful in shape and much less dull in pattern. The always experimenting artists created elaborate and exciting shapes. The potter created jugs with spouts somewhat reminiscent of toucan’s beaks as well as knobby, spined “barbitone” pots. This last style seems to have started with the sticking of shells into wet clay.
Then there came beauty. Vasiliki ware was decorated in a variety of colors … red, orange, yellow and white were often used. The paint was applied over the entire surface of the vessel and a mottled effect was achieved by holding burning twigs against the vase while it was still hot from the firing process. Vasiliki ware was the forerunner to the noted Kamares ware.
Art, being closely related to religion, found its way into the shrines of the Minoans. The Minoan people lifted their eyes to the hills and chose (as did many other cultures) to believe that their protective divinity resided in the caves of the mountains. They carved votive offerings in great abundance … the indestructible part of which was in the form of pottery. The cave of Kamares is one such cave (mountain shrine) and the richness of discovery that it afforded the archaeologists caused them to give the name to an entire style of pottery – Kamares ware. Unlike earlier Cretan Pottery, Kamares ware was thrown on the wheel and the shapes were more delicate – sometimes eggshell thin. The crudity of barbitone knobbiness, or of toucan like spouts had gone and the Minoans were now displaying an exuberance that was sophisticated, self confident and controlled. The decoration was an elaboration of the white on black style of Vasiliki pottery, the patterns drawn in white, red, orange and yellow against a black ground.
- The pottery found in the 2nd Palace Period, after the earthquake of 1700 BC, started as a development of the Kamares ware. The vivacity of Kamares ware was replaced with a more monumental treatment of nature.
- Around 1600 BC, experiments were being made with dark on light decorations. Kamares type ware had floral additions attached on the surface of the vessels. This would serve as a transitional stage between the Kamares and the Floral and Marine pottery styles.
- Between 1550 and 1500 BC, the favored patterns on pottery were spirals and leaf shapes – imitating plants and flowers. Thus, this stage in pottery was named, the Floral Style.
- By 1500 BC, the Marine Style had evolved. This was one of the finest Minoan pottery styles. During this stage, the entire surface of a pot was covered with images of sea creatures – octopus, fish and dolphins against a background of rocks, seaweed and sponges. The Marine style was the last “purely Minoan” style to develop before the Mycenean invasion of 1450 BC.
- The last pottery style in use at the Palace of Knossos was introduced by the Mycenean conquerors who moved in and repaired the stricken palace. In this new style (Palace Style), earlier motifs were stiffened in rigidity and spontaneity was replaced by grandeur.
Minoan potters were restless and inventive craftsmen who were never content to stick with one style of pottery for very long. In fact, various archaeological digs have shown us that the Minoan artist was constantly changing the shapes and styles of his creations. These changes in pottery decoration help to tell archaeologists and art historians something about the feelings of the ancients who created these functional artworks.
In addition to telling a great deal about the people and their feelings, pottery can be an invaluable dating tool. Potsherds occur in large quantities on any archaeological site. Virtually indestructible, these potsherds act as a guide for dating. Naturally, the potsherds found in the lower levels of a site are the earliest in date and the next levels are later and so on. Things made of wood, leather, skins or cloth may rot or perish, but pots remain.
Pottery can also show archaeologists the contacts between prehistoric cultures or, in later times, the extent of a civilization’s trade routes. Pots (or pithoi) containing oils and ointments, exported from 18th century BC Crete have been found on the mainland of Greece, on Cyprus, the Age an Isles, along the Syrian Coast and in Egypt, showing the wide trading contacts of the Minoan peoples.
The Minoan artist was both a realist and a sentimentalist. He was inspired by the life of the seashore. He collected shells, he peered down from his fishing boat through the clear water at the writhing octopus and he delighted to see the grace of the dolphin and the flying fish. With this free and naturalistic way of thinking and living, the creative Minoan was unlike most of his contemporaries in the Bronze Age world. He liked to portray vital nature and natural vitality.
With a true instinct for beauty, the Minoan potter created wondrous works of art.