The Chieftain Cup

Another fascinating object from Agia Triada

The Chieftain Cup, currently in the archaeological museum of Iraklion, depicts a scene on one side that features a commanding figure, probably a leader of some sort.

Written by Josho Brouwers on

From Agia Triada, an important administrative centre in Crete, come a number of important objects that shine a light on Minoan society. From the cemetery comes a painted sarcophagus with scenes depicting sacrifice and ritual offerings. I’ve also written about the so-called Harvester Vase. A similar vessel, also made of black steatite and once covered in gold-leaf, is a cup currently in the archaeological museum of Iraklion.

It is referred to as the “Chieftain Cup” due to the presence of a commanding figure in the scene depicted on one side of the vessel. It is dated to around the same time as the Harvester Vase, ca. 1500-1450 BC according to the museum; archaeologists date it to Late Minoan IA. Because both vessels are so similar, not just as far as materials and date are concerned, but also stylistically, it seems probable that they were both created by the same artist.

One side of the vessel depicts two male figures, with the figure on the right assuming what is generally interpreted as a commanding position, staff or sceptre thrust out in front of him. This latter figure, with his arm- and wristbands, elaborate collar or necklace, and more ornate hair style is the “chieftain” after whom the cup is named. The object on the ground directly behind the figure with the sword has been interpreted as a body-shield. This is a detail from the descriptive plaque in the museum.

The museum describes the scenes on the vessel as follows:

On the main side are two male figures in a an attitude of dialogue or making a military-type report. The older man is holding a spear or sceptre, while the younger has a sword and a whip-like object. On the back of the cup are three men carrying ox hides. These may be scenes from young men’s rites of passage, with the young man receiving weapons from the leading officer, while the displaying of hides indicates the performance of sacrifices in honour of the event.

Sadly, the scene with the ox-hides isn’t visible in the museum. In the other scene, the male figure to the right stands in front of a stack of what looks like bricks of some sort. Some commentators therefore suggests he is standing in front of a structure. Reynold Higgins went so far as to say that this figure “is without doubt a ruler standing in front of his palace, or (more probably) in the Central Court in front of the State Apartments. […] Whoever he is, he is giving orders to an official dressed much like himself” (1981, p. 155).

There are important differences between the two figures. While they both wear the typical male dress – a simple loincloth with cod piece – the figure on the right wears more jewellery in the form of arm bands and wrist bands, as well as a collar or necklace. Both figures wear boots, but the ones worn by the figure on the right feature details that are missing on the boots worn by his companion. The hair style of the figure on the right is also more intricate than the one on the left. Finally, he holds a spear or staff in front of him in a characteristic pose referred to as the “commanding position” or “commanding gesture”.

Based on appearance, the figure on the right indeed seems to be some kind of leader, but whether he can be identified as a “ruler”, as Higgins suggested, rather than simply someone who’s in charge, is unclear. The sword carried by the other figure certainly suggests that he, too, must have been a figure of some importance, and perhaps there is some validity in interpreting the scene as one military official reporting back to another or receiving orders of some sort. But the precise meaning of this scene, and its connection to the scene with the ox-hides (to make shields?), is not entirely clear.

The commanding gesture of the “chieftain”, with a staff (skeptron) held out in front of the bearer’s body, is encountered frequently in Minoan art, as an inventory of specimens collected by John G. Younger makes clear (i.e. Younger 1995, pp. 156-162). Thomas G. Palaima suggests that the staff or spear, as a symbol of power, was eventually adopted by the Mycenaeans from the Minoans (1995, pp. 136-137):

This is the Minoan staff of which I speak. This is what I think the Mycenaeans later called skeptron or even doru. This is what the Mycenaeans brought into their remarkably anonymous and non-represented ritual of kingship. This is where I would propose the Greek tradition seen in Homer and Hesiod ultimately derived the idea of the scepter and of its association with the supreme figures in Mycenaean and Minoan society: Minos, the wanax, and later the basileus.

The Chieftain Cup is actually remarkable for depicting what seems to be, at first blush, a mortal adopting the commanding gesture. In Aegean iconography there are few certain depictions of rulers or kings. There is, in the words of Maria Shaw, “only one image that comes close to embodying this concept, as many have pointed out, and this is the so-called ‘chieftain’, or, as Evans named him, the ‘Young Prince’, who is one of two figures carved on the stone vase from Ayia Triada” (2004, p. 73).

The presence of the figure with the sword, along with perhaps the sturdy boots worn by both men, suggest some kind of military connection. The Minoans are generally considered to have been fairly peaceful, following Arthur Evans’s original study of the Minoans (Schoep 2018, p. 23), but this may largely be a mirage that scholarship has only recently, and seemingly with some relunctance, started to question (e.g. Driessen 1999; Molloy 2012; Whittaker 2015).

If this is primarily a military scene, as seems likely, perhaps the “chieftain” occupies a position similar to what has been postulated for the Mycenaean lawagetas, who, on etymological grounds, has been suggested to have served as a leader of the army. Perhaps, on analogy with the contemporaneous Hittites in Anatolia, this commander was the crown prince (in Hittite: tuhkanti), whose “extensive military training had equipped him to command a division of the army under his father’s general command, or even to take the field as the army’s commander-in-chief” (Bryce 2002, p. 21).

But we’ve ventured further into the speculative than I had intended for this article. The long and the short of it is that the Chieftain Cup is a fascinating object from Agia Triada that appears to provide us with yet another glimpse into everyday life among the Minoans.

Further reading

Suggestions for further reading are listed below:

  • Trevor Bryce, Life and Society in the Hittite World (2002).
  • 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.
  • Reynold Higgins, Minoan and Mycenaean Art (1981 [1967]).
  • Berenice R. Jones, Ariadne’s Threads: The Construction and Significance of Clothes in the Aegean Bronze Age (2019).
  • Thomas G. Palaima, “The nature of the Mycenaean wanax: non-Indo-European origins and priestly functions”, in: Rehak 1995, pp. 119-139.
  • Paul Rehak (ed.), The Role of the Ruler in the Prehistoric Aegean: Proceedings of a Panel Discussion Presented at the Annual Meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America, New Orleans, Louisiana, 28 December 1992, with Additions (1995).
  • Ilse Schoep, “Building the Labyrinth: Arthur Evans and the construction of Minoan civilization”, American Journal of Archaeology 122, pp. 5-32.
  • Maria C. Shaw, “The ‘Priest-King’ fresco from Knossos”, Hesperia Supplements 33 (2004), pp. 65-84.
  • 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.
  • John G. Younger, “The iconography of rulership: a conspectus”, in: Rehak 1995, pp. 151-211.

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