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Africans in Bronze Age Crete?

The “Captain of the Blacks” fresco from Knossos

Small fragments of a fresco from Knossos were reconstructed by Arthur Evans as depicting an African warrior preceded by a figure with lighter skin designated the “Captain of the Blacks”. The reconstruction and the designation are, of course, not without their problems.

Written by Josho Brouwers on

The island of Crete occupies a strategic location between the Greek mainland in the north, Anatolia and the Levant in the east, and northern Africa in the south. We know that the Cretans travelled far and wide across the eastern Mediterranean seaboard, and were likewise visited by peoples from abroad, some of whom must have settled on the island; see also this article by Chris Adamson.

In his Defensible Settlements in Crete, c. 1200-800 BC (2000), Krzysztof Nowicki gives a few rough estimates how long it would take to reach other parts of the Mediterranean from Crete, given good weather conditions (pp. 20-21). It would take around 18 hours to sail from Knossos to Santorini, 45 hours to reach the island of Samos, and around five days to travel either westwards to Italy or across the Libyan Sea to Egypt.

In short, these distances are easily traversable and we should therefore not be surprised to find evidence of people of foreign extraction living in important Bronze Age centres like Knossos. When Arthur Evans conducted his excavations at Knossos in the early decades of the previous centuries, his workers unearthed small fresco fragments that included a figure with a darker-than-usual skin colour.

The entire image is small; a miniature freso that may have been part of a larger decoration. The fragments were unearthed in disturbed Minoan fills in the area of the “House of the Frescoes”. They are dated, based on style, to Late Minoan IB, the final ceramic phase of the Neopalatial period, when the Minoan complexes were at their zenith. The fresco is currently on display on the archaeological site of Knossos.

A “Captain of the Blacks”?

Evans referred to the fresco as the “Captain of the Blacks”. It has been heavily restored by Émile Gilliéron and his son (also called Émile), who both worked for the British archaeologist. In his The Palace of Minos, Volume 2, Part 2 (1928), Evans wrote the following, couched in the language of racism (pp. 755-756):

[The pieces] represent two sections of a painted band […]. On the larger piece, a Minoan Captain is seen leading the first of a negro troop at a run. He wears a black goat’s-skin cap with the horns attached and, below his belt, a short yellow tunic with a border striped black and white and coming to a point in front […]. A necklace and bracelet, probably of silver, and gleaming white against the ruddy skin colour, adorn his neck and wrist, and he is armed with two spears. The fragment preserved of the negro who immediately follows him shows that he wore a similar uniform, the tunic in this case having a blue ground with a border striped yellow and black. That the black troops were provided with the same head-gear appears from the fragment with the white ground, though only one spear is visible in this case.

He continues (p. 756):

The employment of negro auxiliaries by Minoan commanders, thus authenticated, is itself an historical fact of the greatest significance. […] The early intercourse between Crete and the lands beyond the Libyan Sea had brought the islanders primarily into connexion with an ethnic stock of more or less kindred Mediterranean type, akin to the modern Berber, but it must never be left out of account that the caravan-routes leading from the African interior to the coast apposite Crete are many of them of immemorial antiquity. […] The actual enlistment of black troops may be regarded as a symptom of conquest and colonial expansion on the African side, and their employment on European soil is closely paralleled by “Turcos” and Sengalese troops in more recent warfare. At Knossos, […] these black mercenaries may well have served as palace guards.

Evans then draws parallels with the ancient Egyptians, who employed Nubian troops. He says that the Minoans imitated “this Egyptian practice”, as demonstrated by the fresco. Evans believed – wrongly, to be sure – that the Minoans dominated Greece at some point, and suggests that “it seems quite possible that the Minoan commanders made use of black regiments for their final conquest of a large part of the Peloponnese and Mainland Greece” (p. 757).

Needless to say, the reconstruction and Evans’s interpretation of the fragments leave much to be desired. Interpretating skin colour is no easy thing when it comes to the ancient world, but let’s assume that the interpretation is correct and the figure was intended to be African. Considering the close connections between Crete and Africa, there must have been Africans living in Crete. Note, however, that the facial features of the black figure are entirely reconstructed, as you may deduce from the image near the top of this article.

There are other problems with the reconstruction. First of all, on what is the second black figure based, whose leg is shown on the left? As far as I can tell, this third figure is entirely an invention on the part of the Gilliérons. If there is only evidence for one figure, this casts doubt on Evans’s “negro troop”, since one man doesn’t form a troop. It’s possible that the head belonged to a different figure, but we cannot be sure. Of course, it does seem likely that the two figures attested in the fragments were accompanied by others, but what exactly can we deduce about the relationship between these two individuals?

To put it differently, on what basis did Evans identify the figure with the “ruddy skin colour” as the “Captain”? The answer, of course, is racism: to a British man of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, it would have seemed natural for a “troop” of dark-skinned individuals to be led by someone with a fairer skin. But based on the fragments we have, there is zero evidence of a hierarchical relationship between the two: Evans immediately regarded the darker figure as inferior based solely on the colour of his skin.

Evans points out that the figure with the “ruddy skin colour” also wears silver jewellery, as if this marks him as being of higher status, but almost nothing survives of the darker figure to conclude that he didn’t wear any jewellery. Indeed, Evans’s talk of a “uniform” is incredibly misleading, since the concept of a uniform almost never applies to the armies of the ancient world.

In fact, is there any merit to Evans’s military interpretation of this scene? I would argue that there isn’t. The horns that the figures are equipped with are not part of a helmet, but appear to be worn on top of their heads, and so their function may well have been different: perhaps they were channelling the spirits of animals? The figures are also equipped with short spears, and these almost invariably are used in the hunt. It thus seems more likely, to me in any case, that these figures are either hunters or engaged in some kind of ritual. Without more evidence, we cannot be sure.

Finally, Evans’s suggestion that the presence of Africans in Crete are “a symptom of conquest and colonial expansion on the African side” indicates a supremely imperialist view of the world, in which people are identified as either the conquerors or the conquered. There is no reason to presuppose that Minoan expansion into Africa was belligerent; in fact, all evidence seems to suggest the contrary.

Closing remarks

There is no doubt that the people of Bronze Age Crete had contacts far and wide across at least the eastern part of the Mediterranean. In their ships, they could easily reach the shores of the Greek mainland, Anatolia, the Levant, and North Africa. We know that they traded with various peoples along the coast, include the Egyptians. They were no doubt also visited by people from abroad, and some of them may have settled in centres such as Knossos.

The fresco fragments discussed in this article may very well feature a Black person. But there is no reason, as Evans did, to leap to various conclusions as regards his reasons for being in Crete (a “mercenary”?) or what relationship he might have with a lighter-skinned individual (a “Captain”?) without firm evidence. As it stands, it seems more likely to me that both individuals were equals and engaged in a hunt or some – preparatory? – ritual.

In the field of Minoan studies, Arthur Evans, as the original excavator of Knossos, looms large. His ideas, rightly or wrongly, continue to exert an influence on the disciple more than a century after the publication of his Palace of Minos volumes. It will take more time still to move from under his shadow, but move away we must.

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