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What is Minoan Pottery?

By Soo Owens
Updated May 23, 2024
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Minoan pottery refers to the pottery found around the Aegean Sea that is attributed to the ancient Minoan civilization. The pottery is dated as far back as 3500 BCE and continues until 1070 BCE, the end of Minoan civilization. The earliest pottery from the Minoan civilization is rudimentary, concerned more with practicality and functionality. Later examples show a refined and sophisticated artistry that relies on more advanced formation techniques, along with colors, elaborate and complex designs, and polychromatic elements.

As the Minoans recorded very few events in writing, little is known of their civilization with absolute certainty. Archaeologists use the remnants of Minoan creations, like pottery, to gather information about life in Minoan Crete. The pottery is dated according to a number of factors, including the pottery's style, form, and corresponding geological data. This data is gathered by evaluating the stratum, or soil layer, from which the artifact was uncovered.

The three phases of Minoan pottery are Early, 3650-2160 BCE, Middle, 2160-1600 BCE, and Late, 1600-1070 BCE. Each phase coincides with a major cultural shift within the Minoan civilization. Some phases build on previously established styles, and others discontinue former trends in favor of new ones. As the Minoans continued to update their craft, pottery techniques became more refined, and they began to produce elaborate works of art for decorative purposes.

Early phase Minoan pottery is characteristic of a newly established society, in which artisans have yet to establish any definitive techniques. This phase of Minoan pottery includes Pyrgos Ware, which is characterized by a chalice design. The chalice is comprised of a cup that is fixed to a cone-shaped base to prevent spilling, a design associated with the Early Minoan civilization.

Agyios Onouphrios Ware, from the Early Minoan phase, consists of two-handled drinking wares and larger containers such as jugs and bowls. The Minoans began using clays enhanced with iron to turn the pottery red, and in Agyios Onouphrios Ware, they perfected the linear patterns that were commonly applied to the pottery's surface. Vasiliki Ware reflects their continued work on color balance. These wares are distinguished by long neck spouts, which are also present in future Minoan pottery.

Middle Minoan witnessed the birth of the palace society and the rise of urban centers in Cretan society. The Kamares Ware, from the Middle Minoan phase, is considered the virtuoso work of Minoan pottery. These pieces are polychromatic, constructed from very fine clay, and usually designed with symmetrical floral motifs. Vibrant reds and whites are painted against a dark background, usually black.

The palace culture of the Middle Minoan period most likely led to the distribution of Minoan goods across the Mediterranean, and significant Minoan influence had spread along the Aegean coastline by the Late Minoan period. The pottery from this period is ornate and reflects the Minoan's experiments with a few new formation techniques. The Minoans typically attempted new designs, such as forming a vase into the shape of a bull's head. The Marine Style is thought to best characterize this era. Its pottery is marked by elaborate designs of various marine life that cover the entire surface of a piece.

The Minoan civilization was annihilated around 1450 BCE, and the Mycenaean Greeks from the mainland arrived to occupy Crete until about 1070 BCE. Minoan pottery was not eradicated, as the Mycenaeans combined their design elements with Minoan motifs. This style of pottery is known as the Palace Style, and has only been discovered in Knossos, Crete. Eventually, designs from Greece and Egypt, such as the geometric and lotus motifs, would become more prominent on Minoan pottery, all but eliminating much of the Minoan influence.

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