British Archaeologist Uncovers Martial Traditions of Minoan Civilization

Dr Barry Molloy, an archaeologist at the University of Sheffield, the United Kingdom, has discovered that the Minoan civilization had strong martial traditions, contradicting the commonly held view of Minoans – the Bronze Age people of Crete – as a peace-loving people.

Minoan Palace of Knossos in Crete (Bernard Gagnon / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Dr Molloy explained: “their world was uncovered just over a century ago, and was deemed to be a largely peaceful society. In time, many took this to be a paradigm of a society that was devoid of war, where warriors and violence were shunned and played no significant role.”

“That utopian view has not survived into modern scholarship, but it remains in the background unchallenged and still crops up in modern texts and popular culture with surprising frequency.”

“Having worked on excavation and other projects in Crete for many years, it triggered my curiosity about how such a complex society, controlling resources and trading with mighty powers like Egypt, could evolve in an egalitarian or cooperative context. Can we really be that positive about human nature? As I looked for evidence for violence, warriors or war, it quickly became obvious that it could be found in a surprisingly wide range of places.”

Dr Molloy’s study, published in the Annual of the British School at Athens, reveals that war was in fact a defining characteristic of the Minoan society, and that warrior identity was one of the dominant expressions of male identity.

“The study shows that the activities of warriors included such diverse things as public displays of bull-leaping, boxing contests, wrestling, hunting, sparring and dueling. Ideologies of war are shown to have permeated religion, art, industry, politics and trade, and the social practices surrounding martial traditions were demonstrably a structural part of how this society evolved and how they saw themselves,” the archaeologist said.

Even the famous Mycenaeans, heroes of the Greek Trojan War, took up the Minoan way of war – adopting its weaponry, practices and ideologies.

“In fact, it is to Crete we must look for the origin of those weapons that were to dominate Europe until the Middle Ages, namely swords, metal battle-axes, shields, spears and probably armor also.”

Dr Molloy found a staggering amount of violence in the symbolic grammar and material remains from prehistoric Crete. Weapons and warrior culture were materialized variously in sanctuaries, graves, domestic units and hoards. It could also be found in portable media intended for use during social interactions, for example, administration, feasting, or personal adornment.

Sealings from Knossos. Top left: marching warriors with figure-of-eight shields and spear held vertically with arm extended horizontally. Top right: swordsman striking at the neck of an opponent bearing a shield and spear. Bottom left: warrior bearing a sword, and a hound, pursuing an opponent. Bottom right: a warrior holding spear and accompanied by lion (Ella Hassett / via Barry P.C. Molloy, 2012)

“There were few spheres of interaction in Crete that did not have a martial component, right down to the symbols used in their written scripts,” Dr Molloy said.

“The social and institutional components of war impacted on settlement patterns, landscape exploitation, technological and trade networks, religious practices, art, administration and more, so that war was indirectly a constant factor in shaping the daily lives of people in prehistoric Crete. Understanding the social aspects of war ‘beyond the battle’ is essential if we are to better understand how elites manipulated economics, religion and violence in controlling their worlds. By identifying the material results of warrior lifeways in all of their disparity and disorder, we gain insights into what war meant in ancient Crete.”

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Bibliographic information: Barry P.C. Molloy. 2012. Martial Minoans? War as social process, practice and event in Bronze Age Crete. The Annual of the British School at Athens, 107, pp. 87-142; doi: 10.1017/S0068245412000044