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Blades from Malia

Status symbols of the Minoan elite?

Finds from the Minoan settlement at Malia include a number of beautiful swords and daggers, now in the Archaeological Museum of Iraklion.

Written by Josho Brouwers on

Even after more than a century since his original discoveries at Knossos, Arhur Evans continues to exert a profound influence on how we interpret the Minoan culture on Crete (see Schoep 2018). One example of this influence is how the Minoan Cretans are regarded as generally peaceful. In several of his volumes on Knossos, Evans claims that the high culture on Crete during the Middle Bronze Age was due to a Pax Minoica (“Minoan Peace”), a term that consciously sought to recall the Pax Romana that the first Roman Emperor, Augustus (r. 27 BC-AD 14), established at the start of his reign.

If the Minoans were peaceful, the Mycenaeans were thought to have been the opposite: a warlike, bloodthirsty people who even managed to conquer the supposedly peaceful Minoans in the fifteenth century BC. As usual, of course, the reality is much more complex. Leaving aside the thorny issue of whether or not the “Minoans” and “Mycenaeans” actually regarded themselves as different “peoples”, archaeologist Oliver Dickinson (2014) has conclusively shown that the “Mycenaeans” don’t seem to have been any more or less warlike than other cultures in the ancient Mediterranean.

Similarly, there is no evidence that the “Minoans” were remarkable more peaceful, as I mentioned in my discussion of the Chieftain Cup (which itself is an object that likely has a martial connotation). Indeed, Minoan art amply demonstrates the cultural significance of martial imagery. Many gems and seals that have been unearthed feature warriors and armed conflict. A general interest in violence is all but explicit even in such scenes like the famous bull-leaping fresco from Knossos. Furthermore, weapons and other objects associated with warfare were also dedicated at Minoan sacred sites, such as the Psychro Cave (Whitaker 2015, pp. 6-7).

Blades from the palace at Malia

When it comes to weapons, swords occupy a special place. Unlike all other ancient weapons, like the spear or the bow, the sword wasn’t originally developed to hunt animals or, like the axe, to function as a tool for chopping wood. The sword is the first dedicated weapon, an object whose sole purpose, if we reduce the object strictly to its function, is to injure and kill other human beings (see also Molloy 2010, p. 414).

Of course, the sword didn’t spring into being from nothing. Swords are essentially longer daggers – though exactly how one distinguishes between a long dagger and a short sword is a matter largely of individual preference; blades that are rather too big to pass as daggers, but too short to be called swords are often referred to as dirks, which are strictly stabbing weapons.

The earliest swords in Crete are relatively long and referred to as Type A swords (for a convenient overview of the history of Aegean sword types, see Molloy 2010, pp. 403-409). The earliest are dated to the nineteenth century BC, which falls in what we refer to as the Middle Bronze Age, the heyday of Minoan civilization. While some have suggested that swords may have developed in Crete independently from the Near East, Fortenberry has pointed out in her PhD thesis that the Cretan sword is influenced by blades from the Near East (Fortenberry 1990, p. 145-146).

A closeup of the hilts of two swords and a dagger found in Malia, as also depicted in this article’s featured image (lacking one dagger). The Type A sword at left features an ivory hilt still partially covered in gold plate, with a rock crystal pommel. It was probably a ceremonial weapon. The dagger in the centre was found in the same room as the aforementioned sword in the palace’s West Wing. The sword at right features a large ivory pommel and was found in the North Wing palace itself. Photo: Josho Brouwers.

A beautiful collection of Minoan swords and daggers from Malia are on display on the ground floor of the Archaeological Museum at Iraklion. They date to the period between ca. 1800 and 1600 BC; the swords from Malia are among the earliest known swords in the Aegean (Fortenberry 1990, pp. 146-147). The collection includes two swords that were found in the North Wing of the palace.

The featured image at the top of this article features one of these, namely a sword with a large pommel made of elephant ivory. The ivory must have been imported from Egypt. It was found in the North Wing of the palace. Below and to the left of this sword is a dagger with with perforated gold plate, possibly “Egyptianizing” (Schoep 2010, p. 119). This dagger was retrieved not from the palace, but from what the excavators called Quartier Mu, an area that featured two large, multi-purpose buildings.

From a room in the West Wing of the palace come the remaining dagger and sword shown in the featured image. The dagger has a hilt that is secured to the blade using gold rivets: this was a common method of attaching hilts to blades originally, but it was fairly weak and prone to breakage. The sword has a stone hilt; parts of the original gold leaf that once covered the ivory hilt remain in place. The rivets that fix the hilt to the blade are small and therefore rather delicate, which makes it unlikely that this sword was ever intended to be used in combat. Rather, it was more likely a ceremonial weapon (Fortenberry 1990, 147).

A stone sceptre handle, shaped like an axe at one end and like a feline at the other, from a room in the West Wing of the palace at Malia. Currently in the Archaeological Museum of Iraklion. Photo: Josho Brouwers.

The same room also contained a stone sceptre handle, shaped like an axe at one end and like a feline at the other. The museum states that the sceptre, the swords, and the daggers “were status insignia, emblems of rank, office and authority for members of the palace hierarchy (1800-1600 BC)”. But they are more than mere insignia or symbols: such objects don’t just symbolize status, they are the physical embodiment of status. Carrying around a sword with a gold hilt not only marks you as important, it makes you important.

Bronze was expensive and nothing expresses wealth – and by extension power and influence – like having a large and heavy slab of expensive metal dangling at your side. The use of other luxurious materials, such as gold, rock crystal, and imported ivory only enhances the weapon and, by extension, the owner. Even if the blade in question was mostly for ceremonial display rather than actual use, by virtue of its shape it still carried with it the connotation of combat and bloodshed, and the ability to inflict violence on others, the ultimate expression of power.

There’s little doubt that in Minoan Crete, like in other parts of the ancient world, the potential to inflict violence went hand in hand with wealth and political power. As we still see far too often, might makes right.

Further reading

Suggestions for further reading are listed below:

  • Eric H. Cline (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of the Bronze Age Aegean (2010).
  • Oliver Dickinson, “How warlike were the Mycenaeans, in reality?”, in: Y. Galanakis, T. Wilkinson and J. Bennet (eds.), AΘYPMATA. Critical Essays on the Archaeology of the Eastern Mediterranean in Honour of E. Susan Sherratt (2014), pp. 67-72.
  • Jan Driesen, “The archaeology of Aegean warfare”, in: Robert Laffineur (ed.), Polemos: Le Contexte Guerrier en Égée à L’Âge du Bronze (1999), pp. 11-19.
  • Cheryl Diane Fortenberry, Elements of Mycenaean Warfare (unpublished PhD thesis, 1990).
  • Barry Molloy, “Swords and swordmanship in the Aegean Bronze Age”, American Journal of Archaeology 1114.3 (2010), pp. 403-428.
  • Ilse Schoep, “Crete”, in: Cline 2010, pp. 113-125.
  • Ilse Schoep, “Building the Labyrinth: Arthur Evans and the construction of Minoan civilization”, American Journal of Archaeology 122 (2018), pp. 5-32.
  • Helène Whittaker, “Symbolic aspects of warfare in Minoan Crete”, in: Geoff Lee, Helène Whittaker, and Graham Wrightson (eds), Ancient Warfare: Introducing Current Research, vol. 1 (2015), pp. 1-13.

Think we needed to include something else in this list? Let us know.