For a variety of reasons, we have found ourselves in recent weeks thinking more about the Minoans. Some might say these mysterious folk who created such a rich and influential civilisation here in Crete over four thousand years ago, are a regular feature in our Blogs. This is true simply because for all sorts of reasons, many of our visitors want to see the sites, famous and otherwise and then often go on to visit the archaeological museum in Heraklion and of course we take the obligatory photos and then dutifully write up the details of their stays, each time we compose the next Post.
However, on this occasion there are other reasons for considering the achievements of the Minoans. One night last week, we were walking back from the taverna after an evening with Chris and Pauline and fuelled no doubt by a small (?) quantity of excellent wine made personally by Yiorgos, we were looking at the stars. It was a cloudless night and as anyone who has been here will know, the sky was simply filled with twinkling stars of all sizes, together with bright planets, none of which we knew the names of.
We climbed onto the roof and marvelled at the cosmos and were reminded both of a failure to spend time using the telescope and of a fundamental lack of knowledge of what was laid out above us. The Minoans and indeed our own Bronze Age ancestors in the UK were not so ignorant as we now know.
On Monday evening we attended a public lecture entitled ‘The Minoans in Time and Space’ in the Conference Centre attached to the Bishop’s Palace in Ierapetra, which formed part of an international conference of astrophyicists who for reasons best known to themselves had chosen our corner of Crete to consider ‘Polarised Emission from Astrophysical Jet’. As light relief presumably, Dr Alex MacGillivray, an archaeologist from the British School in Athens, had been asked to enlighten the attendees on Minoan astral navigation.
Interestingly, we have recently both read a book by Alan Butler which in part deals with similar issues. Butler is an engineer and mathematician who has an interest in both astronomy and archaeology and brings an approach to these subjects which is based on his specialisms. As a result, it seems that he is not popular with mainstream archaeologists but his theories are nevertheless quite interesting to the layman and struck something of a chord with what we were told at the lecture.
Dr MacGillivray’s thesis was that the Minoans who of course were great traders and therefore needed to be good at getting from A to B, based their navigation on the stars which they saw above them in the generally clear Mediterranean skies. Indeed, he believes that they adopted Egyptian methodology in this respect and spent much of his lecture taking us through the thirty-six stars (the decans) on which their calendar system was based. Initially the decans were stars that could be observed to rise at 10-day intervals. The Egyptian calendar had 360 days marked by decan stars rising at 10-day intervals, plus five inter-calculated days. It was an easy step to use the decans for navigational purposes as they moved, one by one, across the heavens.
As you can imagine, much of this was way above our heads (so to speak) but we got the gist and what was really amazing about it was when towards the end he showed an overhead of a diagram of the relevant stars as they appear in the sky for a latitude of between 40 and 50 degrees N. This is it.
Not hugely interesting you might think. However, then up came a copy of the bull-leaping fresco from Knossos. Notice any similarities?
it is hard not to agree with him that the Minoans used the star diagram as the basis for the mural – a rather neat conjunction of art and cosmology!
However, Alan Butler believes that the Minoans adopted a somewhat different approach to navigation based on a calendar of 366 days which was common across much of Bronze Age Europe. He bases his argument on his analysis of the so-called Phaistos Disc.
Whether in the round, it makes much difference whether the Minoans used a calendar of 360 or 366 days, we are of course not in a position to judge but what is clear is that navigation was done by the stars and for whatever reason, the ancients used the same or similar stars to determine where they were. Further, amazing though it may seem, the ancients whether in Crete, Egypt or Bronze Age Britain not only knew that the Earth was round but had worked out its circumference and as a result were able to divide the distance into manageable units.
In Bronze Age Britain, these units were used to measure out the plans for building stone circles like Stonehenge and all such circles have the same basic measurements. Whilst the ‘megalithic yard’ is different to the Minoan foot, this is only because the Minoans chose a different way to divide the circumference of the Earth, according to Butler.
So, now it’s time to have a good look at some of these stars.