Study challenges views on what drove major changes in ancient Greek society on Crete

An analysis of tools on the island of Crete is challenging the long-held beliefs about what drove major changes in ancient Greek society, according to a paper published in the journal PLOS One by Tristan Carter and Vassilis Kilikoglou.

3,500 years ago, the island underwent a period of significant cultural transformations, namely the adoption of a new language and economic system, and major changes in burial customs and attire.

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Around the same time, many important sites across the island were destroyed and warriors’ graves appeared at the famed palace of Knossos, leading scholars to long believe that these seismic changes had been the result of a Mycenaean invasion.

“Our findings suggest a more complex picture than previously believed,” explains Tristan Carter, a lead author of the study and professor in the Department of Anthropology at McMaster University.

“Rather than wholescale cultural change, our study has found evidence of significant continuity after the alleged invasion. While new practices can be initiated through external forces such as invasion, migration, colonialism, or cross-cultural intermarriage, we also know of examples where locals choose to adopt foreign habits to distinguish themselves within their own society,” says Carter.

Rather than looking at things like burial, art, or dress, practices that tend to shift with fashion, archaeologists have begun to look more closely at more mundane, everyday practices as a better insight to a culture’s true character, he explains.

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For the study, the researchers analysed a sample of tools the Bronze Age Cretans fashioned from obsidian, a black volcanic glass. Using a nuclear reactor to determine the origin of the raw materials, they found that the obsidian tools originated from the Cycladic Island of Melos.

When these results were considered, along with the manufacturing method used for making the tools, it was clear that the community had lived the same way that their predecessors had for the past thousand years, which continued to be distinct from life on the Greek mainland.

“Our analysis suggests the population had largely remained local, of Minoan descent. This is not to say an invasion of Crete didn’t occur, but that the political situation across the rest of the island at this time was more complex than previously believed, with significant demographic continuity in many areas,” said Carter.

The researchers believe, that while local elites were strategically aligned with Mycenaean powers, as evidenced by their conspicuous adoption of mainland styles of dress, drinking, and burial, but most people also continued to live their lives in much the same way as before.

McMaster University

Header Image Credit : Deanna Aubert


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Mark Milligan
Mark Milligan
Mark Milligan is multi-award-winning journalist and the Managing Editor at HeritageDaily. His background is in archaeology and computer science, having written over 7,500 articles across several online publications. Mark is a member of the Association of British Science Writers (ABSW), the World Federation of Science Journalists, and in 2023 was the recipient of the British Citizen Award for Education, the BCA Medal of Honour, and the UK Prime Minister's Points of Light Award.

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