From the Land of the Labyrinth

Minoan Crete, 3000-1100 BC

March 13-September 13, 2008

Photo by Joe Coscia Jr.

"The magnificent painted pots, carved stone vessels, bronze weapons, ancient Linear A tablets, colorful frescoes and gold jewelry in “From the Land of the Labyrinth: Minoan Crete, 3000-1100 B.C. are dazzling."

                                                   - Wendy Moonan, The New York Times

"The first solely Minoan exhibition in the United States, From the Land of the Labyrinth is a great overview of the civilization and its achievements."

                                                       - Mark Rose, Archaeology Magazine

"The Minoan painters worked with a freedom and spontaneity that make their pots stand out."

                                                       - Sylvia Hochfield, ARTnews

From the Land of the Labyrinth: Minoan Crete, 3000-1100 BC presents more than 280 artifacts and works of art from the ancient land of Crete, most of which have never been shown outside Greece. These fascinating objects seen together bring to life the story of Crete's luminous Minoan culture, the first palatial civilization to establish itself on European soil. 

The exhibition brings to light aspects of Minoan daily life during the second and third millennia BC, including social structure, communications, bureaucratic organization, religion, and technology. 

In eleven thematic sections, the exhibition maps chronologically the establishment and great achievements of Minoan culture. Here the viewer can explore the historical and cultural context of this celebrated society and gain insight into its mysteries, such as the legends surrounding the reign of King Minos of Knossos, who commissioned the fabled Labyrinth of Greek mythology. 

Information gathered from the study of the Early, Middle, and Late Minoan periods-also known as the Prepalatial, Protopalatial, Neopalatial, and Postpalatial periods-is largely based on objects excavated from the island's burial grounds and settlements. The exhibition pieces together the culture's past by focusing on such objects as gold jewelry deposited in the rich tombs of the elite, inscribed clay tablets that reveal the basic elements of the Minoan economy, ceremonial vessels found in both palaces and tombs, and votive figures of clay, symbolic offerings to protective deities. All of these intriguing objects are on loan from the archaeological museums in Crete, in collaboration with the Hellenic Ministry of Culture. 

The island of Crete is equidistant from the three continents of Africa, Asia, and the European mainland. As a result of this advantageous location, the Minoans experienced a period of active trade with the other civilizations around the Mediterranean basin and maintained control over the sea routes. They exported timber, foodstuffs, cloth, and olive oil and in turn imported tin, copper, silver, emery, precious stones, and some manufactured objects. For their basic needs, however, the Minoans were entirely self-sufficient. 

Archaeological evidence from the Prepalatial period reveals the great changes that took place in the social structure of Early Minoan society. The rise of local elite populations, for instance, led them to commission and display different types of objects in order to convey and celebrate their social identity and rank. This kind of social differentiation gradually led to the formation of a palatial society during the Middle Minoan or Protopalatial period about 1900 B.C. Urbanization and increasing economic wealth brought about bureaucratic change, including the rise of powerful social classes and ruling groups. Major palaces were built at Knossos and Malia in northern Crete, at Phaistos in the south, and at Zakros in the east. These palaces were large building complexes that served as centers of religious, economic, and social life for their inhabitants. The architecture and the layout of the palaces communicated a dynastic message, enhanced by prestigious objects and symbolic expressions of the rulers’ power. 

With the palaces came the development of writing, probably as a result of record-keeping demands of the palace economy. The Minoans used a hieroglyphic script most likely derived from Egypt and a linear script, Linear A, which may have evolved from the language of the eastern Mediterranean and has yet to be deciphered. In the section of the exhibition entitled Scripts and Weights, examples of this mysterious script will be displayed, exemplified by the Linear A Tablet shown here. This sun-dried clay slab dates from the end of the Late Minoan I period and exemplifies the administrative records that listed products, goods, and people. Inscriptions have also been found on various important objects, such as double-sided axes, pottery, seals, and stone vessels. The exhibition includes as well tablets in Linear B script, which was deciphered in the 1950s by M. Ventris and J. Chadwick. The symbols of this script reflect an early form of the Greek language that was spoken by the Myceneans, who had arrived in Crete by the second half of the fifteenth century BC. 

The Religion and Ritual section of the exhibition reveals one of the most important and fascinating aspects of the Minoan culture. The figure of a female goddess, the protector of nature and fertility, occupies the predominant place in the hierarchy of deities. Common sacred symbols of Minoan religion include the bull, such as the chlorite Bull’s-Head Rhyton found at Zakros and double axes made of bronze, silver, or gold placed in areas of worship, such as this Votive Double Axe found in the Arkalochori cave. Numerous figurines depict worshipers, whereas animal figurines were symbolic offerings to deities. 

In the section devoted to the Colorful World of Murals, we see another form of communication that the Minoan developed-the art of large-scale wall paintings. Minoan painters covered the walls of palaces and urban mansions with images of Cretan life and special ceremonies. Using the fresco technique-by which Minoan painters applied earthy colors to wet surfaces that even today retain their vivid quality-figurative murals such as the Partridge Fresco illustrate their world. 

Workshops specialized in the production of palatial or personal items and luxurious objects, such as jewelry, seals, miniature works of art, and inlays for implements and furniture. Significant advances were made in techniques for jewelry making, seal engraving, and pottery production. As shown in the Pots and Potters, Seal Engraving: Great Art in Miniature, and Jewels for Life and Death, artistic works of this period reveal the highly refined techniques perfected in workshops by specialized artisans. Exquisite filigree, granulated jewelry, and carved seal stones convey their sensitivity to materials, which included clay, gold, stone, ivory, and bronze. A related section, Masterpieces in Stone, demonstrates the Minoans' achievements in stone work, which resulted in the production of high-quality artifacts of great beauty. Labor-intensive objects, such as sophisticated saucers, bowls, and bottles, were constructed with innovative devices, including drills and polishing tools. Even everyday objects, such as the Beekeeping Vessel displayed in the section Alimentation and Aromatics, brings another dimension to this exhibition as it draws the viewer into the everyday activities of the ancient Minoan citizen. 

In the Final Palatial or Late Minoan III A-B period, the arrival of the Mycenaeans gave rise to a new central power. The establishment of the Mycenaean bureaucracy represents yet another period of change in Minoan civilization. The exhibition shows how the serious changes brought about by this power shift are evident in new pottery shapes, individually vaulted tombs, and the appearance of Linear B script. Lavishly decorated swords and a rare Boar’s-Tusk Helmet, such as those displayed in the Warriors and Weaponry section, along with other precious metals and jewelry, are evidence that a proud and ostentatious military class developed in Crete from about 1450 to 1300 BC, after the coming of the Mycenaeans. 

From the Land of the Labyrinth: Minoan Crete, 3000-1100 BC was organized by Maria Andreadaki-Vlazaki, Vili Apostolakou, Christos Boulotis, Nota Dimopoulou-Rethemiotaki, Lefteris Platon, and Giorgos, Rethemiotakis. The Onassis Cultural Center collaborated with the Hellenic Cultural Ministry in arranging loans from the Archaeological Museums of Herakleion, Khania, Rethymnon, Haghios Nikolaos, Hierapetra, Siteia, and Kissamos in Crete. The exhibition was accompanied by a catalogue, a related lecture series, guided tours, and an international conference that closed the exhibition on September 13, 2008.