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).
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.
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