The purpose of this essay is to situate the Aegean Islands in their own social, economic and cultural milieu as well as in a Near Eastern context. Links between the Aegean Islands and the ancient Near East were influenced by the ever-changing array of states and cultures that dominated the eastern Mediterranean—in Syria-Palestine, Anatolia, and Egypt. To discuss these island cultures and their relationship to Near Eastern societies, it is important to move back and forth between between historical and archaeological records, always keeping each distinct but placing one in counterpoint to the other wherever appropriate. Such an approach will facilitate our understanding of the political ties, economic relationships, and cultural associations between the major polities of the mainland Near East and the dominant island cultures of the Aegean.

By the beginning of the Early Bronze Age, about 3000 BCE, most of the Aegean Islands had been settled for the better part of a millennium, but Crete had been occupied for several millennia. Our understanding of island developments during the third millennium is based exclusively on archaeological evidence. Documentary materials do not come into play before the Middle Bronze Age (about 2000–1600). By the Late Bronze Age (about 1600–1200/1100), the developing international spirit in the Aegean and eastern Mediterranean led to much closer connections within the Mediterranean islands and between those islands and the ancient Near East. Such developments fostered a need for more detailed records of commercial transactions or political alliances and divisions.

The absolute chronology of the Aegean Early Bronze Age has improved markedly in recent years, and yet, because it is difficult to establish chronological connections among so many islands, cultural sequences still remain vague, and economic or social developments can only be assessed in the broadest of terms. By the Middle and Late Bronze Ages (about 2000–1200), more detailed cultural sequences help to characterize many of the Aegean Islands. One result is that the chronological framework and the relative chronological sequences in the Aegean and eastern Mediterranean are well known. Absolute dating, however, and the radiocarbon dating method are still much debated.

The two following reasons underlie the improved situation for dating: (1) The international contacts that developed on an unprecedented scale between about 1800 and 1100 BCE brought distinctive Aegean pottery or metal products into reasonably secure stratigraphic contexts in Egypt or western Asia, where astronomically derived dates have enhanced possibilities for closer dating; (2) the spectacular Bronze Age eruption on the Cycladic island of Thera not only buried the site of Akrotiri but also preserved crucial evidence for radiocarbon dating.

Still the chronological debate continues. The best radiocarbon-based approximation for the cataclysmic event associated with the Thera eruption is 1728 BCE a date which may correlate with other types of scientific evidence. Yet there remain considerable problems associated with laboratory error, interlaboratory comparisons, and the statistical approximation of calibrated radiocarbon-date ranges. Unlike most archaeologists elsewhere, many Aegean prehistorians do not accept radiocarbon-dating evidence. One consequence is the notable disparity of up to 150 years between their favored date for the eruption of Thera (about 1550) and the best estimate that current scientific evidence can provide. Despite the wide range of scholarly expertise and high-tech equipment brought to bear on the problem, such discrepancies persist: they are typical of archaeology the world over.

Cyclades and Crete.

Although limited in size, most Cycladic islands were colonized by the Bronze Age, not least because water and arable land were available. The role of the Cyclades in Bronze Age regional trade networks was perhaps even more important in their permanent settlement. Early mariners used islands as landmarks (or “stepping stones”) to avoid crossing open stretches of sea. The location of the Cyclades within the Aegean allowed them to serve as bridges linking mainland Greece, Crete and Anatolia.

During the Early Cycladic period (about 3000–1800 BCE), these islands were at the forefront of cultural and artistic developments in the Aegean, only to give way in the subsequent Middle and Late Cycladic periods to their increasingly influential neighbors, the Minoans and the Mycenaeans. In comparison with Crete, the Cyclades show less archaeological evidence for contact with areas beyond the Aegean. The final settlement at Thera in the late Middle Bronze Age is an exception. Links between Minoan Crete and Cyprus, the eastern Mediterranean, and the Near East (including Egypt) increased through time and reached a peak during the Late Bronze Age. Whereas the likelihood of some Near Eastern influence on Minoan Crete is still debated, recent finds of Minoan-style frescoes (Egypt) and painted-plaster floors (Israel) leave no doubt that Aegean influences traveled in the opposite direction.

Aegean prehistorians work in a nearly “prehistoric” context with a very limited range of documentary evidence (Linear A and Linear B) at their disposal. This factor combined with the inherent chronological imprecision for Bronze Age Crete and the Cyclades (from 50 to 200 years) makes it difficult to provide reliable narrative accounts for much of the Bronze Age. Given the nature of the evidence, the best that Aegean prehistorians can do is to outline patterns of human activity, development, or change. To reflect this situation, the chronological terms used here are based on the most obvious material development in the Aegean world: the emergence, development, and decline of palatial civilization on Middle–Late Bronze Crete.

  • The Pre-Palatial Period corresponds to the Early Bronze Age (EBA) and spans the period from 3000 to about 2000/1950 BCE.
  • The Old Palatial Period corresponds to the Middle Bronze Age (MBA), covering the period 1950–1700 BCE.
  • The New Palatial Period marks the transition from Middle to Late Bronze, about 1700–1400 BCE.
  • The Post-Palatial Period corresponds to the later phases of the Late Bronze Age (LBA), extending from 1400 to 1200 BCE.
  • The final period is the Sub- Minoan/Mycenaean, from 1200 to 1000 BCE.

During the third millennium BCE, innovations in maritime transport and the earliest cultivation of olives and vines had a striking effect on social and economic developments. Heretofore isolated from the broader Mediterranean world, Aegean islanders began to manufacture distinctive artifacts, to participate in overseas trade, and to construct the earliest towns in the Mediterranean. Most Cycladic sites (farming settlements) were no more than an acre in size, but their spread throughout the islands is a notable feature of the Early Bronze Age archaeological record. At the same time, the advent and spread of copper and silver metallurgy permitted some Aegean islanders to acquire wealth and prestige, which promoted social stratification. A multitude of harbors and the potential diversity of trading routes further promoted international contacts.

These interrelated developments represent a sharp break with earlier patterns. On Crete in the Early Bronze Age, several new, widely dispersed settlements arose. Before larger sites such as Knossos, Mallia, or Phaistos—all situated in agriculturally favorable positions and all destined to become palace centers—could be constructed and maintained (along with their dependent personnel), society had to be reoriented, and a labor force mobilized. It is still difficult to reconstruct this social reorganization from the archaeological record.

How did these developments promote long-distance trade, and how did that trade help to stabilize the new palatial regimes? The Aegean generally and Crete in particular were obvious nodes for trade and communications between the east and central Mediterranean, and between Europe and the Near East. Although Early Bronze Age trade in the Aegean was chiefly local or regional, it had an international aspect concerned with the acquisition of luxury items or basic resources. Such “prestige goods” singled out the social groups that increasingly maintained centralized control over Crete and developed the Aegean palatial system. Because the palaces not only maintained production for export but at the same time controlled imports, they played a key role in overseas trade. In the return trade, Crete offered its Near Eastern partners finished goods—textiles, metal, semiprecious stones, organic goods, and dyes.

The material evidence of contact with the ancient Near East, therefore, is clear, but the nature of this contact is a problematic issue that the archaeological record cannot resolve easily. How were goods exchanged? Who actually conducted trade? Some scholars who study the later, Minoan Linear B tablets maintain that the palaces could not have controlled overseas trade because it is never mentioned as such in the tablets.

Given the evidence for contacts between Minoan Crete and the Levant during the Old Palatial period, is it possible that Minoan palatial civilization evolved as a result of interaction between the Aegean and the Near East? Because certain functional (drainage systems), technical, and stylistic aspects (ashlar masonry, wall paintings) in the two areas are similar, some archaeologists have argued for a direct technological and artistic exchange of ideas. Several new features apparent in the Minoan palaces (pottery shapes, monumentality of the palaces, iconography, use of writing, and complexity of Minoan production and communication systems) are not random occurrences. They may reflect a close knowledge of Near Eastern ideas of kingship. The ceremonial and administrative aspects, however, appear as early on Crete as they do in the Near East, and there is little that is specifically Near Eastern about their adoption in Minoan bureaucracies. Each Minoan palace reveals unique elements, and in overall design they focus on a central court in a manner distinct from Near Eastern palaces (Mari or Alalakh), or from Egyptian urban centers (Tell el-Amarna). In other words, the form of the Minoan palaces is clearly not derived from Near Eastern prototypes.

In an era of increasing internationalism, cultural interconnections between the Near East and the Aegean are not especially remarkable. It is likely, therefore, that the intensification of long-distance trade during the twentieth- seventeenth centuries BCE (including gift exchanges between palace centers in both regions) may have led Crete's rulers to emulate what they learned about Near Eastern royal institutions, particularly those aspects that may have helped to consolidate their own rule. Acquiring “prestige goods” from abroad helped to confer higher status on Minoan elites, which in turn led to further social inequalities. In sum, exposure to the ideas and institutions of the ancient Near East did not lead directly to the rise of the Minoan palaces, although it may have initiated some level of competition among elites in neighboring Minoan polities and thereby led to intensified production, as well as social and organizational change.

Crete's Neo-Palatial Period.

About 1700 BCE, an earthquake or series of quakes destroyed Crete's first palaces. In the elaborate reconstructions that followed, the magnificent frescoes widely recognized as an important hallmark of Minoan civilization were applied to the new palace walls. Unprecedented wealth is further indicated by fine painted pottery, jewelry, engraved gems, bronze items, and ivory figurines. Self-supporting in food and most other basic resources except metals, the inhabitants of Minoan Crete intensified their agricultural and textile production. Combined with the extensive trade contacts that funneled luxury items and other goods into the economy, these factors brought Crete to the apex of prosperity by about 1600.

Even if land and agriculture-pastoralism formed the economic basis of the palatial system, centralized control over foreign trade provided much of the extraordinary wealth and prestige items that helped to solidify political and economic power. Merchants or mariners, moreover, would have indulged in other forms of (private) trade and barter. Through such mechanisms, Minoan goods began to appear in increasing numbers throughout the Aegean and western Anatolia, and in Cyprus, the Levant, and Egypt. Documentary and pictorial evidence related to Keftiu/Kaptaru (Crete, or the Aegean world generally) suggests that this trade was much more extensive than the archaeological evidence alone would imply. The “cultural imperialism” suggested by the presence of Minoan goods overseas, however, does not mean that the Minoans also exercised political or even economic dominion.

Toward the end of what Aegean prehistorians term the Late Minoan (LM) IB period, when “marine-style” pottery flourished on Crete, there is evidence of damage, desertion, or destruction at several Minoan sites with the possible exception of Knossos. The immediate and extensive rebuilding that followed was almost as elaborate as that of the palatial period, but Minoan settlement overall contracted during the LM II period. Knossos, extensively remodeled at the same time, remained the only functioning palatial center. Mycenaean (i.e., Greek mainland) influence became more evident on Crete at the same time. Sometime within the post-palatial period (the date is disputed) Knossos's grand palace was destroyed by fire. Afterward, although Minoan culture flourished at sites such as Khania in the west and Kommos on the south coast, palatial life on Crete along with Minoan power and influence in the Aegean ceased to exist.

The political and economic collapse of Minoan Crete came at a time when Minoan power, in archaeological terms, seemed to be at its peak. Over recent decades the LM IB destructions and the Minoan collapse have been attributed exclusively to such factors as the cataclysmic eruption of a volcano on Thera, earthquakes and fires, a Mycenaean invasion, or an internal revolution. Yet we know that the collapse of dominant early states at the peak of their power is not uncommon—witness Mesopotamia during the Old Babylonian or Neo-Assyrian periods or Egypt during its New Kingdom. It is much more likely that Crete's political and economic preeminence was disrupted by several interrelated factors, among them the Theran eruption, the later LM IB earthquakes, and Mycenaean incursions. External factors such as increased Mycenaean power and Hittite expansion in Anatolia and north Syria may also have upset the balance of Minoan power, and disrupted long-standing Minoan links with those areas. Once Minoan power was shattered, an internal revolution may have temporarily concentrated power at Knossos. Crete never regained its position of dominance, and like all other states in the eastern Mediterranean, it suffered further economic stress at the end of the Late Bronze Age.

Thera.

Nowhere is the extent of Minoan cultural contacts overseas more apparent than at the site of Akrotiri in Thera. Excavations at Akrotiri (a Bronze Age Pompeii in the Aegean) have uncovered hundreds of examples of Minoan pottery, as well as “Minoanizing” features and iconography in pottery, frescoes, spindle whorls, lamps, and other items. When the Minoans emerged as a major economic force in the Aegean during the early second millennium BCE, other islands like Thera may have accrued prestige or power simply by possessing Minoan products.

In the final two phases of its occupation, the inhabitants of Akrotiri had rebuilt their town in a manner reminiscent of the dominant Minoan centers on Crete. Throughout the island there are signs of dispersed settlement—farmsteads, villages, perhaps “country houses”—similar to that of contemporary Minoan Crete. Akrotiri's multistoried architecture, however, is unique, and its pottery and other fine arts represent a high Cycladic standard.

The site of Akrotiri would have been an important bureaucratic center with a maritime location ideally situated for inter-Aegean communications. Sailing ships, which are depicted on Thera's “Miniature Fresco,” would have helped to regularize intra-Aegean trade, and to facilitate an increased movement of local, surplus, and luxury goods. As in Crete, the incentive may have come from the elite desire to acquire prestige goods (on Thera, often of Minoan origin or style) in order to concentrate and legitimize power and from the ability of that elite to control a labor force that produced finished goods for trade.

The cataclysmic destruction suffered by the town of Akrotiri toward the end of LM IA buried it in more than 30 m (98 ft.) of volcanic ash and debris. The entire island of Thera was devastated. Throughout the Aegean area, ash fallout, if not tidal waves, wreaked further havoc. Shipping and trading within the Aegean must have been curtailed as a result, and some scholars argue that this hypothetical series of related events must have broken Minoan control over Aegean seas. Even if earthquakes connected with the eruption caused localized destructions on Crete, the series of catastrophes on Crete, which served to undermine its preeminence within the Aegean, occurred during the LM IB (not the LM IA) pottery phase. In other words, however disruptive the Theran eruption may have been to Aegean society and commerce, it did not cause the demise of Minoan cultural and political dominion.

Rhodes.

Throughout the Dodecanese group of islands, which includes Rhodes, archaeological evidence for the Early and Middle Bronze Ages is still limited. The heaviest concentration of sites on Rhodes is found along the fertile northwest coastal plain, where two key Late Bronze Age sites—Trianda and Ialysos—were situated. The earliest middle Bronze Age settlement at Trianda reveals a local character peppered with northwest Anatolian influence. A subsequent Late Minoan IA town covered more than 12 ha (29.6 acres) and revealed so much evidence of Minoan contact that LM IA Trianda is widely regarded as a Minoan colony. This classification masks the fact that the inhabitants of Trianda like those of contemporary Akrotiri and of many Minoan settlements had greatly expanded and elaborated their towns during the LM IA period.

After what appears to be earthquake damage, Trianda underwent some renovations, which were disrupted and left unfinished. Perhaps this was yet another outcome of the massive volcanic eruption on Thera (tephra from several places in northwest Rhodes has been analyzed as Theran in origin). Trianda was partially reconstructed in LM IB, but the new town was reduced in size and more limited in habitation. The LM IB and Late Cypriot I pottery found in this stratum indicates that overseas links remained open, and the increasing occurrence of Mycenaean pottery (Late Helladic II–IIIA2) in the upper layers may indicate changing economic orientations. Evidence for Late Bronze Age settlements on Rhodes ends with the apparent abandonment of the site of Trianda during the fourteenth century BCE.

The mortuary evidence for the following centuries is overwhelmingly based on the massive cemetery site at nearby Ialysos. The presence in the Ialysos tombs of a variety of metal artifacts, amber, glass ornaments, beads of semiprecious stones, and rock crystal, and even the odd seal and Egyptian scarab, attests to far-flung economic relations. Like Trianda before it, Ialysos would have been an ideal point for transshipping cargo from eastern Mediterranean bottoms onto local craft and may therefore have controlled much of the eastern trade coming into the Aegean. The current archaeological record of Late Bronze Age Rhodes suggests that a group of Minoan or Mycenaean merchants ensconced at Trianda or Ialysos may have managed the transshipment of goods to and from the eastern Mediterranean. In this scenario, Rhodian elites would have emulated and sought to acquire certain prestige goods from the Aegean core area.

The Aegean World and the Ancient Near East.

Cuneiform, hieroglyphic, and hieratic documents dated primarily to the second millennium BCE refer only sporadically to the Aegean Islands. Even then, the geographic identifications proposed—Aḫḫijawa=Achaean; Keftiu/Kaphtor=Crete or the Aegean—are not universally accepted. These texts are not only limited in number, they are also uneven in nature and concerned with idiosyncratic matters that often have little relevance for historical reconstruction. Many have little bearing on the archaeological record of the Bronze Age Aegean world.

Cultural associations between the Aegean Islands and the ancient Near East are best demonstrated by archaeological materials, which show particularly close contacts on the part of Minoan Crete during the Middle and Late Bronze Ages. The documentary evidence associated with the terms Aḫḫijawa, Keftiu, and Kaptaru provides insight into certain types of island-mainland contacts, usually economic or geopolitical in nature. What we can learn from textual evidence about relations between Aḫḫijawa and Hittite Anatolia, for example, is decidedly geopolitical or military in outlook. Yet we also know that the people of Aḫḫijawa were able to ply the eastern Mediterranean Sea to their economic advantage. By contrast, documentary materials that refer to Keftiu/Kaptaru are decidedly economic in nature. Yet we also learn that Keftiu was ranked politically with powerful states such as Babylon, Ḫatti, Aššur, Ugarit, and Cyprus.

Our understanding of the relationships between the Bronze Age Aegean and Egypt or the Levant has been colored by nineteenth- century preconceptions that discounted the notion of Semitic cultural impact upon the Bronze Age precursors of classical Greek civilization. These views have now altered dramatically, not least because of Martin Bernal's controversial study Black Athena (1987). Bernal believes that Egypto-Levantine cultural and linguistic influences on the Aegean world began as early as 2000 BCE and played a central role in the formation of Greek civilization. The present study has suggested, quite to the contrary, that some rulers of Minoan Crete, as an adjunct to commercial trade, came to emulate various aspects of Near Eastern ideology in order to enhance their own political roles.

The Keftiu evidence makes it clear that Aegean traders visited Egypt during the mid-second millennium, while the evidence of the Tell ed-Dab'a frescos indicates that contacts between Egypt and the Aegean went beyond the purely commercial. The Egyptians chose to describe their own relationship with the Keftiu as tributary—and thus politically motivated. Although a statue base of Amenophis III may well have recorded a fourteenth-century Egyptian ambassadorial visit to the Aegean, it cannot be interpreted (following Bernal) as indicating Egyptian suzerainty over the Aegean. In sum, whereas Bernal's challenge to the orthodoxy about the nature of second millennium Aegean-Near Eastern relations may force scholars to reevaluate earlier colonial and racist notions, his concept of Egyptian or Levantine colonizations in the Aegean is ill founded and confuses the nature of economic and ideological processes at work in the Bronze Age eastern Mediterranean.

The Keftiu/Kaptaru documents show that the Aegean world had a recognized political status among contemporary Near Eastern states and enjoyed economic relations with Egypt, Mari, and Ugarit. Crete's active involvement in this trade enriched its own culture, vitalized the palatial economy, and expanded its horizons far beyond the Aegean area. If the Aḫḫijawa-Achaiwa equation is accepted, the geopolitical status of the Aegean world indicated by the Keftiu/Kaptaru records finds further substantiation. Mycenaean trading ventures correspond closely in time and space to the economic and political activities of the Aḫḫijawa. The Aḫḫijawa-Achaiwa correspondence seems eminently defensible. It hints at Aegean military and political maneuvers in western Anatolia, reveals that diplomatic relations existed between the two areas, and makes it feasible to reconsider the quasi-historical aspects of the Trojan war.

The elaborate commercial networks of the Bronze Age Mediterranean involved a multitude of trade mechanisms and a variety of trading partners. Together they defined the nature and intensity of Mediterranean contacts with the ancient Near East. Although some have argued for a state-controlled Minoan thalassocracy, there are good reasons to think that localized trade predominated in the Cycladic and Dodecanese islands. In either case, centralized control over some aspects of trade does not preclude private initiative in others. The ethnicity of the merchants and mariners who conducted Mediterranean trade has been deduced from archaeological evidence or presumed on the basis of personal names found in documentary records. Together they indicate that Semites, Hurrians, Anatolians, Egyptians, Minoans, Cypriotes, and probably Mycenaean Greeks were involved. Yet there is no final way to determine who controlled or directed trade. A Canaanite thalassocracy is no more plausible than a Minoan one. The picture that emerges from the foregoing suggests that ruling elites, royal merchants, itinerant tinkers, and private individuals were all involved in the long-term political and economic interconnections between the Aegean Islands and the ancient Near East.

[See also Crete; Minoans.]

Bibliography

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  • Bietak, Manfred, et al. Pharaonen und Fremde: Dynastien im Dunkel. Vienna, 1994.
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  • Manning, Sturt. “The Emergence of Divergence: Bronze Age Crete and the Cyclades.” In Development and Decline in the Bronze Age Mediterranean, edited by Clay Mathers and Simon Stoddart, pp. 221–270. Sheffield, 1994. Comprehensive and up-to-date discussion of a vast range of Aegean Bronze Age sites and materials within a sophisticated theoretical (social) framework.
  • Manning, Sturt. The Absolute Chronology of the Aegean Early Bronze Age. Monographs in Mediterranean Archaeology, vol. 1. Sheffield, 1995. Comprehensive study, updated just before publication, establishing an accurate chronological framework for the Aegean during the Early Bronze Age. Replaces Warren and Hankey and contains an appendix treating the higher Aegean chronology.
  • Mee, Christopher. Rhodes in the Bronze Age. Warminster, 1982. Still the only book in English that deals with Bronze Age Rhodes in detail, heavily weighted toward description and study of the Mycenaean pottery from the tombs at Ialysos.
  • Renfrew, Colin. The Emergence of Civilisation: The Cyclades and the Aegean in the Third Millennium B.C. London, 1972. Still the most comprehensive archaeological study of the Cycladic islands during the Bronze Age, and unlikely to be superseded in the immediate future.
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  • Vercoutter, Jean. L'Egypte et le monde égéen préhellènique. Bibliothèque des Études, vol. 22. Cairo, 1956. Still the most comprehensive study of all Egyptian material, especially of Kaphtor/Keftiu, related to the Bronze Age Aegean.
  • Wachsmann, Shelley. Aegeans in the Theban Tombs. Orientalia Lovaniensia Analecta, vol. 20. Louvain, 1987. Comprehensive, up-to-date, descriptive study of all Theban tomb paintings thought to depict Bronze Age Aegean peoples, including a discussion of Keftiu-related issues.
  • Warren, Peter M., and Vronwy Hankey. Aegean Bronze Age Chronology. Bristol, 1989. The most detailed recent publication of the traditional (lower) chronology in the Aegean, which rejects the updating necessitated by the radiocarbon dates from Thera. See Manning (1988).
  • Watrous, L. Vance. “The Role of the Near East in the Rise of the Cretan Palaces.” In The Function of the Minoan Palaces, edited by Robin Hägg and Nanno Marinatos, pp. 65–70. Skrifter Utgivna av Svenska Institutet i Athen, vol. 35. Stockholm, 1987. Comprehensive, traditional archaeological discussion of possible Near Eastern influences on the art and architecture of the Minoan palaces.

A. Bernard Knapp