The Art of Classical Greece (ca. 480–323 B.C.) – The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Terracotta amphora (jar), Attributed to the Berlin Painter, Terracotta, Greek, Attic

Terracotta amphora (jar)
ca. 490 B.C.
Attributed to the Berlin Painter

“This work is a masterpiece of Greek vase-painting because it brings together many features of Athenian culture in an artistic expression of the highest quality. The shape itself is central to the effect. Through the symmetry, scale, and luminously glossy glaze on the obverse, it offers a carefully composed three-dimensional surface that endows the subject with volume. The identity of the singer is given by his instrument, the kithara, which was a type of lyre used in public performances, including recitations of epic poetry.

Terracotta amphora (jar), Attributed to the Berlin Painter, Terracotta, Greek, Attic

“The figure on the reverse is identified by his garb and wand. While the situation is probably a competition, the subject is the music itself. It transports the performer, determines his pose, and causes the cloth below the instrument to sway gently.” The Met

Terracotta pyxis (box), Attributed to the Penthesilea Painter, Terracotta, Greek, Attic

Terracotta pyxis (box)
ca. 465–460 B.C.
Attributed to the Penthesilea Painter

“During the middle of the fifth century B.C., the white-ground technique was commonly used for lekythoi, oil flasks placed on graves, and for fine vases of other shapes. As classical painters sought to achieve ever more complex effects with the limited possibilities of red-figure, the white background gave new prominence to the glaze lines and polychromy. The decoration of this pyxis reflects the delight with which an accomplished artist like the Penthesilea Painter depicted a traditional subject.” The Met

Bronze mirror with a support in the form of a draped woman, Bronze, Greek

Bronze Mirror with a Support in the form of a draped Woman – 

“The ancient Greeks used mirrors that were held in the hand or stood independently. This free-standing example of a well established type consists of a ibase, a supporting figure, and the mirror disk embellished with additional figures around its periphery. The woman, who is probably mortal, wears a woolen garment, a peplos.

“Above her fly two personifications of love, erotes; originally hounds and hares would have coursed around the disk and a sphinx or sren would have perched on top. The variety of component parts are integrated into a whole that is both balanced and dynamic.” The Met

Terracotta volute-krater (bowl for mixing wine and water), Attributed to the Painter of the Woolly Satyrs (namepiece), Terracotta, Greek, Attic

Terracotta volute-krater (bowl for mixing wine and water) ca. 450 B.C. Attributed to the Painter of the Woolly Satyrs

“On the neck, obverse, battle of centaurs and Lapiths; reverse, youths and women
Around the body, Amazonomachy (battle between Greeks and Amazons)

“The ancient Greeks almost never depicted contemporary or historical events in art. Thus, while literary works of the fifth century B.C. make clear that the Greeks understood the magnitude of their victory in the Persian Wars, there was no concern among artists to illustrate major events or personalities.

“Instead, their preference was for grand mythological battles between Greeks and eastern adversaries, notably Amazons. On the neck, obverse, battle of centaurs and Lapiths; reverse, youths and women
Around the body, Amazonomachy (battle between Greeks and Amazons)

The ancient Greeks almost never depicted contemporary or historical events in art. Thus, while literary works of the fifth century B.C. make clear that the Greeks understood the magnitude of their victory in the Persian Wars, there was no concern among artists to illustrate major events or personalities. Instead, their preference was for grand mythological battles between Greeks and eastern adversaries, notably Amazons. The Amazons were a mythical race of warrior women whose homeland lay far to the east and north. The most celebrated Amazonomachies in Athens during the first half of the fifth century were large-scale wall paintings that decorated the Theseion and the Stoa Poikile (the Painted Portico). Their influence was considerable and underlies the representation here and on the adjacent krater, 06.286.86. The most celebrated Amazonomachies in Athens during the first half of the fifth century were large-scale wall paintings that decorated the Theseion and the Stoa Poikile (the Painted Portico). Their influence was considerable and underlies the representation here and on the adjacent krater, 06.286.86.

Marble grave stele of a little girl, Marble, Parian, Greek

Marble grave stele of a little girl ca

“The gentle gravity of this child is beautifully expressed through her sweet farewell to her pet doves. Her peplos is unbelted and falls open at the side, while the folds of drapery clearly reveal her stance. Many of the most skillful stone carvers came from the Cycladic Islands, where marble was plentiful. The sculptor of this stele could have been among the artists who congregated in Athens during the third quarter of the fifth century B.C. to decorate the Parthenon.” The Met

“After the defeat of the Persians in 479 B.C., Athens dominated Greece politically, economically, and culturally. The Athenians organized a confederacy of allies to ensure the freedom of the Greek cities in the Aegean islands and on the coast of Asia Minor. Members of the so-called Delian League provided either ships or a fixed sum of money that was kept in a treasury on the island of Delos, sacred to Apollo. With control of the funds and a strong fleet, Athens gradually transformed the originally voluntary members of the League into subjects. By 454/453 B.C., when the treasury was moved from Delos to the Athenian Akropolis, the city had become a wealthy imperial power. It had also developed into the first democracy. All adult male citizens participated in the elections and meetings of the assembly, which served as both the seat of government and a court of law.”Perikles (r. ca. 461–429 B.C.), the most creative and adroit statesman of the third quarter of the fifth century B.C., transformed the Akropolis into a lasting monument to Athen’s newfound political and economic power. Dedicated to Athena, the city’s patron goddess, the Parthenon epitomizes the architectural and sculptural grandeur of Perikles’ building program. Inside the magnificent Doric temple stood the colossal gold-and-ivory statue of Athena made by the Greek sculptor Pheidias. The building itself was constructed entirely of marble and richly embellished with sculpture, some of the finest examples of the high Classical style of the mid-fifth century B.C. Its sculptural decoration has had a major impact on other works of art, from its own day to the present (27.45).”Greek artists of the fifth and fourth centuries B.C. attained a manner of representation that conveys a vitality of life as well as a sense of permanence, clarity, and harmony. Polykleitos of Argos was particularly famous for formulating a system of proportions that achieved this artistic effect and allowed others to reproduce it. His treatise, the Canon, is now lost, but one of his most important sculptural works, the Diadoumenos, survives in numerous ancient marble copies of the bronze original (32.11.2). Bronze, valued for its tensile strength and lustrous beauty, became the preferred medium for freestanding statuary, although very few bronze originals of the fifth century B.C. survive. What we know of these famous sculptures comes primarily from ancient literature and later Roman copies in marble (14.130.9).Terracotta amphora (jar), Attributed to the Berlin Painter, Terracotta, Greek, AtticThe middle of the fifth century B.C. is often referred to as the Golden Age of Greece, particularly of Athens. Significant achievements were made in Attic vase painting. Most notably, the red-figure technique superseded the black-figure technique, and with that, great strides were made in portraying the human body, clothed or naked, at rest or in motion. The work of vase painters, such as Douris, Makron, Kleophrades, and the Berlin Painter (56.171.38), exhibit exquisitely rendered details.“Although the high point of Classical expression was short-lived, it is important to note that it was forged during the Persian Wars (490–479 B.C.) and continued after the Peloponnesian War (431–404 B.C.) between Athens and a league of allied city-states led by Sparta. The conflict continued intermittently for nearly thirty years. Athens suffered irreparable damage during the war and a devastating plague that lasted over four years. Although the city lost its primacy, its artistic importance continued unabated during the fourth century B.C. The elegant, calligraphic style of late fifth-century sculpture (35.11.3) was followed by a sober grandeur in both freestanding statues (06.311) and many grave monuments (11.100.2).

“One of the far-reaching innovations in sculpture at this time, and one of the most celebrated statues of antiquity, was the nude Aphrodite of Knidos, by the Athenian sculptor Praxiteles. Praxiteles’ creation broke one of the most tenacious conventions in Greek art in which the female figure had previously been shown draped. Its slender proportions and distinctive contrapposto stance became hallmarks of fourth-century B.C. Greek sculpture. In architecture, the Corinthian—characterized by ornate, vegetal column capitals—first came into vogue. And for the first time, artistic schools were established as institutions of learning. Among the most famous was the school at Sikyon in the Peloponnesos, which emphasized a cumulative knowledge of art, the foundation of art history. Greek artists also traveled more extensively than in previous centuries. The sculptor Skopas of Paros traveled throughout the eastern Mediterranean for his commissions, among them the Mausoleum at Halicarnassos, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.

While Athens began to decline during the fourth century B.C., the influence of Greek cities in southern Italy and Sicily spread to indigenous cultures that readily adopted Greek styles and employed Greek artists. Depictions of Athenian drama, which flourished in the fifth century with the work of Aeschylus, Sophokles, and Euripides, was an especially popular subject for locally produced pottery (24.97.104).

During the mid-fourth century B.C., Macedonia (in northern Greece) became a formidable power under Philip II (r. 360/359–336 B.C.), and the Macedonian royal court became the leading center of Greek culture. Philip’s military and political achievements ably served the conquests of his son, Alexander the Great (r. 336–323 B.C.). Within eleven years, Alexander subdued the Persian empire of western Asia and Egypt, continuing into Central Asia as far as the Indus River Valley. During his reign, Alexander cultivated the arts as no patron had done before him. Among his retinue of artists was the court sculptor Lysippos, arguably one of the most important artists of the fourth century B.C. His works, most notably his portraits of Alexander (and the work they influenced), inaugurated many features of Hellenistic sculpture, such as the heroic ruler portrait (52.127.4). When Alexander died in 323 B.C., his successors, many of whom adopted this portrait type, divided up the vast empire into smaller kingdoms that transformed the political and cultural world during the Hellenistic period (ca. 323–31 B.C.).”

Hemingway, Colette, and Seán Hemingway. “The Art of Classical Greece (ca. 480–323 B.C.).” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (January 2008)

Niobid Painter, Niobid Krater, Attic red-figure calyx-krater, c. 460-450 B.C.E., 54 x 56 cm (Musée du Louvre)

Useful for scholars

“Pottery is virtually indestructible. Though it may break into smaller pieces (called sherds), these would have to be manually ground into dust in order to be removed from the archaeological record. As such, there is an abundance of material for study, and this is exceptionally useful for modern scholars. In addition to being an excellent tool for dating, pottery enables researchers to locate ancient sites, reconstruct the nature of a site, and point to evidence of trade between groups of people. Moreover, individual pots and their painted decoration can be studied in detail to answer questions about religion, daily life, and society.

Shapes and Themes

Diagram of Greek pot shapes (British Museum)
“Made of terracotta (fired clay), ancient Greek pots and cups, or “vases” as they are normally called, were fashioned into a variety of shapes and sizes (see above), and very often a vessel’s form correlates with its intended function. For example, the krater was used to mix water and wine during a Greek symposion (an all-male drinking party). It allows an individual to pour liquids into its wide opening, stir the contents in its deep bowl, and easily access the mixture with a separate ladle or small jug. Or, the vase known as a hydria was used for collecting, carrying, and pouring water. It features a bulbous body, a pinched spout, and three handles (two at the sides for holding and one stretched along the back for tilting and pouring).

“In order to discuss the different zones of vessels, specialists have adopted terms that relate to the parts of the body. The opening of the pot is called the mouth; the stem is referred to as the neck; the slope from the neck to the body is called the shoulder; and the base is known as the foot).

“On the exterior, Greek vases exhibit painted compositions that often reflect the style of a certain period. For example, the vessels created during the Geometric Period (c. 900-700 B.C.E.) feature geometric patterns, as seen on the famous Dipylon amphora (below), while those decorated in the Orientalizing Period (c. 700-600 B.C.E.) display animal processions and Near Eastern motifs, as is visible on this early Corinthian amphora (The British Museum).
Later, during the Archaic and Classical Periods (c. 600-323 B.C.E.), vase-paintings primarily display human and mythological activities. These figural scenes can vary widely, from daily life events (e.g., fetching water at the fountain house) to heroic deeds and Homeric tales (e.g., Theseus and the bull, Odysseus and the Sirens), from the world of the gods (e.g., Zeus abducting Ganymede) to theatrical performances and athletic competitions (for example, the Oresteia, chariot racing). While it is important to stress that such painted scenes should not be thought of as photographs that document reality, they can still aid in reconstructing the lives and beliefs of the ancient Greeks.

Dipylon Amphora, c. 750 B.C.E., ceramic, 160 cm (National Archaeological Museum, Athens)

Techniques, Painters and Inscriptions

“To produce the characteristic red and black colors found on vases, Greek craftsmen used liquid clay as paint (termed “slip”) and perfected a complicated three-stage firing process. Not only did the pots have to be stacked in the kiln in a specific manner, but the conditions inside had to be precise. First, the temperature was stoked to about 800° centigrade and vents allowed for an oxidizing environment. At this point, the entire vase turned red in color. Next, by sealing the vents and increasing temperature to around 900-950° centigrade, everything turned black and the areas painted with the slip vitrified (transformed into a glassy substance). Finally, in the last stage, the vents were reopened and oxidizing conditions returned inside the kiln. At this point, the unpainted zones of the vessel became red again while the vitrified slip (the painted areas) retained a glossy black hue. Through the introduction and removal of oxygen in the kiln and, simultaneously, the increase and decrease in temperature, the slip transformed into a glossy black color.
Briefly, ancient Greek vases display several painting techniques, and these are often period specific. During the Geometric and Orientalizing periods (900-600 B.C.E.), painters employed compasses to trace perfect circles and used silhouette and outline methods to delineate shapes and figures (below).

Frieze with mourning figures (detail), Dipylon Amphora, c. 750 B.C.E., ceramic, 160 cm (National Archaeological Museum, Athens)
“Around 625-600 B.C.E., Athens adopted the black-figure technique (i.e., dark-colored figures on a light background with incised detail). Originating in Corinth almost a century earlier, black-figure uses the silhouette manner in conjunction with added color and incision. Incision involves the removal of slip with a sharp instrument, and perhaps its most masterful application can be found on an amphora by Exekias (below). Often described as Achilles and Ajax playing a game, the seated warriors lean towards the center of the scene and are clothed in garments that feature intricate incised patterning. In addition to displaying more realistically defined figures, black-figure painters took care to differentiate gender with color: women were painted with added white, men remained black.

Exekias (potter and painter), Attic black-figure amphora (detail showing Ajax and Achilles playing a game)c. 540-530 B.C.E., 61.1 cm high, found Vulci (Gregorian Etruscan Museum, Vatican City)
“The red-figure technique was invented in Athens around 525-520 BCE and is the inverse of black-figure (below). Here light-colored figures are set against a dark background. Using added color and a brush to paint in details, red-figure painters watered down or thickened the slip in order to create different effects.
Watered down slip or “dilute glaze” has the appearance of a wash and was used for hair, fur, and anatomy, as exemplified by the sketchy coat of the hare and the youth’s musculature on the interior of this cup by Gorgos (below). When thickened, the slip was used to form so-called “relief lines” or lines raised prominently from the surface, and these were often employed to outline forms. Surprisingly similar to red-figure is the white-ground technique.

Gorgos, Attic Red-figure Kylix (interior), c. 500 B.C.E. (Agora Museum, Athens)

“Though visually quite different with its polychrome figures on a white-washed background, white-ground requires the craftsman to paint in the details of forms just like red-figure, rather than incise them (see the Kylix below).

“Alongside figures and objects, one can sometimes find inscriptions. These identify mythological figures, beautiful men or women contemporaneous with the painter (“kalos” / “kale” inscriptions), and even the painter or potter himself (“egrapsen” / “epoiesen”). Inscriptions, however, are not always helpful. Mimicking the appearance of meaningful text, “nonsense inscriptions” deceive the illiterate viewer by arranging the Greek letters in an incoherent fashion.

Attributed to the Villa Giulia Painter, Attic white ground kylix (drinking cup), c. 470 B.C.E., terra-cotta, red figure, white ground, 6.2 x 16.2 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)
Vases and Reception
The overall attractive quality of Greek vases, their relatively small size, and—at one point in time—their easily obtainable nature, led them to be highly coveted collector’s items during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Since the later part of the nineteenth century, however, the study of vases became a scholarly pursuit and their decoration was the obsession of connoisseurs gifted with the ability to recognize and attribute the hands of individual painters.
The most well-known vase connoisseur of the twentieth century, a researcher concerned with attribution, typology, and chronology, was Sir John Davidson Beazley. Interested in Athenian black-, red-figure, and white-ground techniques, Beazley did not favor beautifully painted specimens; he was impartial and studied pieces of varying quality with equal attention. From his tedious and exhaustive examinations, he compiled well-over 1000 painters and groups, and he attributed over 30,000 vases. Although some researchers since Beazley’s death continue to attribute and examine the style of specific painters or groups, vase scholars today also question the technical production of vessels, their archaeological contexts, their local and foreign distribution, and their iconography.”

Gondek, Renee. “Greek Vase Painting: An Introduction.” Khan Academy. Accessed 5 Sept. 2022.

Bull-leaping fresco from the east wing of the palace of Knossos (reconstructed), c. 1400 B.C.E., fresco, 78 cm high (Archaeological Museum of Heraklion, photo: Jebulon, CC0)

Taking the bull by the horns

“Bull sports—including leaping over them, fighting them, running from them, or riding them—have been practiced all around the globe for millennia. Perhaps the best-loved ancient illustration of this, called the bull-leaping or Toreador fresco, comes from the site of Knossos on the island of Crete. The wall painting, as it is now reconstructed, shows three people leaping over a bull: one person at its front, another over its back, and a third at its rear.

“The Court of the Stone Spout, where the pieces of the fresco were found, from Sir Arthur Evans, The Palace of Minos (London, 1930), p. 270 (Universitäts-Bibliothek Heidelberg)
The Court of the Stone Spout, where the pieces of the fresco were found, from Sir Arthur Evans, The Palace of Minos (London, 1930), p. 270 (Universitäts-Bibliothek Heidelberg)

The image is a composite of at least seven panels, each .78 meters (about 2.5 feet) high. Fragments of this extensive wall painting were found very badly damaged in the

fill above the walls in the Court of the Stone Spout, on the east side of the Central Court at Knossos. The fact that the paintings were found in fill indicates that this wall painting was destroyed as part of a renovation. The pottery which was found together with the fragments gives us its date, likely LM II  (around 1400 B.C.E.).


Reconstructed but still incomplete

“When Sir Arthur Evans, the first archaeologist to work at Knossos, found the fragments, he recognized them as illustrating an early example of bull sports, and he was eager to create a complete image that he could share with the world. He hired a well-known archaeological restorer, Émile Gilliéron, to create the image we know today from the largest bits of the seven panels. Unfortunately, it is impossible to reconstruct all of the original panels and to get a sense of the painting at all, we are left with Gilliéron’s reconstruction.

Bull-leaping fresco from the east wing of the palace of Knossos (reconstructed), c. 1400 B.C.E., fresco, 78 cm high (Archaeological Museum of Heraklion, photo: Andy Montgomery, CC BY-SA 2.0)

Visual gymnastics

“What we see is a freeze-frame of a very fast moving scene. The central image of the fresco as reconstructed is a bull charging with such force that its front and back legs are in midair. In front of the bull is a person grasping its horns, seemingly about to vault over it. The next person is in mid-vault, upside down, over the back of the bull, and the final person is facing the rear of the animal, arms out, apparently just having dismounted—“sticking the landing,” as they say in gymnastics.

Bull-leaping fresco (detail) from the east wing of the palace of Knossos (reconstructed), c. 1400 B.C.E., fresco, 78 cm high (Archaeological Museum of Heraklion, photo: Carole Raddato, CC BY-SA 2.0)
“The people on either side of the bull, as reconstructed, bear markers of both male and female gender: they are painted white, which indicates a female figure according to ancient Egyptian gender-color conventions, which we know the Minoans also used. But both characters wear merely a loincloth, which is male dress. The hairstyle (curls at the top with locks falling down the back) is not uncommon in representations of both youthful males and females. Many interpretations of this gender crossing are possible, but there is little evidence to support one over another, unfortunately. At the very least, we can say that the representation of gender in the Late Aegean Bronze Age was fluid.

Bull-leaping fresco (detail) from the east wing of the palace of Knossos (reconstructed), c. 1400 B.C.E., fresco, 78 cm high (Archaeological Museum of Heraklion, photo: Carole Raddato, CC BY-SA 2.0)
“The center of the action, vaulting over the bull’s back, is painted brown, which indicates male gender according to ancient Egyptian gender-color conventions, and this makes sense considering his loincloth. It is interesting to note that the muscles of all three of the bull leapers, at their thighs and chests, have been very delicately articulated, accentuating their athletic build.

Bull-leaping fresco (detail) from the east wing of the palace of Knossos (reconstructed), c. 1400 B.C.E., fresco, 78 cm high (Archaeological Museum of Heraklion, photo: Carole Raddato, CC BY-SA 2.0)
“The background of the scene is blue, white, or yellow monochrome, and indicate no architectural context for the activity. Moreover, the seven panels and Gilliéron’s composite reconstruction all show a border of painted richly variegated stones overlapping in patches. So, it seems we are meant to see these scenes as abstracted action within frames, not part of a wider visual field or narrative.

Bull-leaping fresco (detail) from the east wing of the palace of Knossos (reconstructed), c. 1400 B.C.E., fresco, 78 cm high (Archaeological Museum of Heraklion, photo: Jebulon, CC0)

A rite of passage?

“The most interesting question about the bull leaping paintings from Knossos is what they might mean. We cannot understand the whole bull-leaping cycle in detail as it is so fragmentary, but we know that it covered a lot of wall space and a considerable amount of resources must have been expended to create it.

“As mentioned above, many cultures across space and time have engaged in bull sports, and they all have a few things in common. First, these sports are life-threatening. To race, dance with, leap over, or kill a bull might very well get you killed. Second, these activities are usually performed before a crowd: they are a civic event, publicly presented and recorded in memory. Third, those who participate in these bull activities are often youths at an age when they are passing from childhood into adulthood and the achievement of the bull sport contributes to that passage. Anthropologists refer this sort of activity as a “rite of passage,” which, when witnessed by one’s community, establishes the participant as an adult.

“Therefore, we might surmise that the bull leaping scenes from Knossos refer to such a rite of passage ceremony. Many have identified the Central Court (Theatral area) just beyond the west façade of the palace at Knossos as locations where bull-leaping ceremonies might have taken place. We may never know the exact meaning of these paintings, but they continue to resonate with us today—not only because of their beauty and dynamism, but because they represent an activity that is still an important part of many cultures around the world.”

German, Senta . “Bull-leaping Fresco From the Palace of Knossos.” Khan Academy, Accessed 5 Sept. 2022.

“The Bronze Age culture of Crete, called Minoan, after King Minos of Crete from Greek mythology, is one of the most vibrant and admired in all of European prehistory.

Coastline of Crete in 2017 (photo: belpo, CC BY-NC 2.0)
“The island itself is no doubt part of the story; at the watery intersection of Asia, Europe, and Africa, including snow covered mountain tops, lush agricultural plains, sandy beaches and dramatic gorges, Crete is exceptional for its natural richness and variety.

The archaeological site at Knossos, with restored rooms in the background, Crete

“The Bronze Age history of the island is one of development, increasing influence, and eventual destruction of a culture centered around sites that have traditionally been called palaces (the most famous and largest one of which was Knossos). Therefore, the historical periods of Bronze Age Crete are called the Pre-palatial, Old Palace (or Protopalatial), New Palace (or Neopalatial) and Post-palatial. Within these historical periods there are more specific designations, largely deriving from pottery studies, which use the terms Early, Middle, and Late Minoan. These then divided again into I, II and III and then into A, B and C.

  • Pre-palatial period: Early Minoan I – Middle Minoan IA (begins c. 3000 B.C.E.)
  • Old Palace or Protopalatial period: Middle Minoan IB – Middle Minoan IIB (begins c. 1900 B.C.E.)
  • New Palace or Neopalatial period: Middle Minoan IIIA – Late Minoan IB (begins after 1730 B.C.E.)
  • Post-palatial period: Late Minoan IIIA-C (begins after 1450 B.C.E.)

Bull-leaping fresco, c. 1600 – 1450 B.C.E.. Knossos, Crete

Pre-palatial period

The early Bronze Age history of Crete, the pre-palatial era, began around 3000 B.C.E. This period is marked by large towns, evidence of foreign contacts through trade, as well as very elaborate burial practices: large above-ground multi-use tombs which seems to indicate the existence of elite families. During this period, the skill of Minoan goldsmiths and potters becomes well established, producing finely detailed jewelry and beautiful pottery.

Old Palace or Protopalatial period

Plan of Phaistos, Protopalatial period, showing typical characteristics of this period (open central court, storage spaces, and elite domestic spaces)
Plan of Phaistos, Protopalatial period, showing typical characteristics of this period (open central court, storage spaces, and elite domestic spaces)
By around 1900 B.C.E., at the beginning of the Old Palace or Protopalatial period, the Minoan palaces were established, first at Knossos followed by Phaistos, Mallia, and Chania. Archaeologists have also discovered other smaller palaces at Petras, Galatas, and Monastiraki, although presently these sites are less well excavated and understood. These early palaces are extraordinary not only for the complexity of their construction but their striking similarity to one another, certainly a sign of a central administration of some kind. Built with large cut limestone ashlar blocks, Minoan palaces of the Old Palace period include a large open central court oriented north-south, storage spaces in the west of the structure, and a complex of decorated domestic rooms to the east which often feature elite details such as wall painting and indoor plumbing.

Kamares ware jug from Phaistos, c. 2000-1900 B.C.E., 27 cm (Archaeological Museum of Heraklion, photo: Wolfgang Sauber, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Minoan pottery of this period, Kamares ware, much of it produced in palace workshops, was widely traded and has been found in Kahun and Harageh in Egypt, Ras Shamra in Syria, and several sites on the island Cyprus.

New Palace or Neopalatial period

The ruins at Palaikastro (photo: Panegyrics of Granovetter, CC BY-SA 2.0)
The Old Palace or Protopalatial period of Minoan history ends in a dramatic event, an earthquake, around 1730 B.C.E., which was so severe that the palaces had to be rebuilt, which they were, in an even more grand manner (and a new palace is built at Zakros). This era is referred to as the New Palace or Neopalatial period. Lots of big settlement sites thrive during this era as well, such as Palaikastro, Gournia and Kommos, with close connections to nearby palaces. It is from this period that written documents survive. Clay tablets (marked in a script called Linear A) were used to keep administrative records at the palaces, recorded in a language which has yet to be fully deciphered. Pottery changes at this time as well, to feature marine animals, which perhaps reflects the sea power (thalassocracy) of the Minoans.

Octopus vase from Palaikastro, c. 1500 B.C.E., 27 cm high (Archaeological Museum of Heraklion, photo: Wolfgang Sauber, CC BY-SA 3.0)
Dating to this period are some of the most remarkable figural frescos of the Aegean Bronze Age, including those from Santorini, an island, very much under Minoan influence. During this era, the Minoans were players in the international politics of the Eastern Mediterranean as recorded in Egyptian tomb paintings of the 18th Dynasty in Thebes, which show Minoans bearing gifts for the Pharaoh.

“Spring fresco,” Building Complex Delta, room delta 2, west wall from Akrotiri, Thera (Santorini), Greece, 16th century B.C.E. (National Archaeological Museum, Athens; photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

“The New Palace or Neopalatial era flourishes for two centuries. Then, beginning around 1500 B.C.E., Crete saw increasing influence from the Mycenaean culture of mainland Greece. Around 1450 B.C.E., over a period of approximately 50 years, nearly all sites on the island are burned and/or abandoned, including all of the palaces. This dramatic end to such a prominent and dynamic culture is remarkable and still essentially mysterious; was it natural disaster, social upheaval, extended draught, or some combination?

Post-palatial period

The era following this turmoil on Crete is called the Post-palatial period, which has a distinctively Mycenaean flavor. Knossos and Chania are the only palace sites which are rebuilt although with new Mycenaean architectural forms; this is the period to which the famous throne room at Knossos dates, which looks a lot like the throne rooms at Mycenae, Pylos, and Tiryns on Mainland Greece.

Contemporary view of Knossos looking Southwest from the Monumental North Entrance, photo: Theofanis Ampatzidis (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Most importantly in post-palatial Crete, a new script and language is used for administration, Linear B, which records an early form of the Classical Greek language, the same language and script which was used at Mycenaean sites on the mainland of GreeceWhat the texts describe is a theocratic society with a king (Wanax) and several high officials, priests, and priestesses who oversee religious ceremonies as well as the production of a massive and complex textile industry. This work employed over 700 shepherds harvesting between 50–75 tons of raw wool, woven by nearly 1,000 workers, men, women, and children, who produced some 20,000 individual textile pieces. New to Crete during this period is a warrior grave tradition. We find chamber tombs and shaft graves that include bronze vessels, swords, and daggers with the deceased interred on biers or in wooden coffins.

Tablet with Linear B script, c. 1375 B.C.E., Late Minoan IIIA, Knossos, Crete (The British Museum, photo: Trustees of the British Museum, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) The British Museum translated the script as follows: “In the month of Lapatos: To *47-ku-to 1.6 litres oil, to Pipituna 1.6 litres, to Aurimos 6.4 litres oil, to all the gods 9.6 litres, to the augur 9.6 litres, to the priestess of the winds 28.8 litres oil, Itanos to the priestess of the winds 14.4 litres.”

“This Mycenaean-influenced period of Crete comes to an end over a period of perhaps 100 years, during which sites are either burned or abandoned. By 1200 B.C.E., the island appears to be radically depopulated with only a very few small and simple settlements high in the mountains with no evidence of writing or even the use othe potter’s wheel.”

Smart History. “Minoan Art, an Introduction.” Khan Academy, Accessed 5 Sept. 2022.
Kamares wares in the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion (photo: Bernard Gagnon, CC BY-SA 3.0)
Kamares wares in the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion (photo: Bernard Gagnon, CC BY-SA 3.0)
“The pottery we see in this photograph is called Kamares Ware, and it was the first fine, mass-produced and widely-traded pottery produced on Minoan Crete, dating to the Middle Minoan era (1900-1700 B.C.E.). It was Sir Arthur Evans, the archaeologist who first uncovered the Minoan palace at Knossos, who divided Minoan chronology into different periods and it was Evans who was also responsible for using the name “Minoan” to refer to the Bronze Age culture of Crete (after the legendary King Minos). Minoan culture flourished between c. 2600 and c. 1600 B.C.E. The Kamares cave, discovered in 1864, is the location of a Minoan archaeological site on Crete, and some of the best examples of Middle Minoan pottery have been found there—hence the name Kamares ware.

Sir Arthur Evans
“Kamares ware is characterized by light-on-dark abstract and floral patterns and elegant shapes. The crafting of these shapes was executed on a fast-spinning potter’s wheel, a new invention during the Middle Minoan era, and its painted decoration is particularly labor intensive, requiring a dark background color, usually black, on which white and sometimes red and orange colors were added. This was a departure from earlier Early Minoan pottery which merely added dark abstract designs to the buff background color of the clay. Perhaps the most remarkable type of Kamares ware is referred to as eggshell ware, named for the extreme thinness of the vessel walls. The overall effect of Kamares ware is not just a pretty pot but an object which is a wonder to behold—at once inventive, delicate, and full of movement and charm. German, Senta . “Kamares Ware Jug.” Khan Academy, Accessed 5 Sept. 2022.
Works Cited
German, Senta . “Kamares Ware Jug.” Khan Academy, Accessed 5 Sept. 2022.
Smart History. “Minoan Art, an Introduction.” Khan Academy, Accessed 5 Sept. 2022.