Minoan pottery is more than a useful tool for dating the mute Minoan civilization. Its restless sequence of rapidly-maturing artistic styles reveal something of Minoan patrons' pleasure in novelty while they help archaeologists assign relative dates to the strata of their sites. Pots that contained oils and ointments, exported from 18th century BC Crete, have been found at sites through the Aegean islands and mainland Greece, on Cyprus, along the coastal Syria and in Egypt, showing the wide trading contacts of the Minoans. The extremely fine palace pottery called Kamares ware, and the Late Minoan all-over patterned "Marine style" are the high points of the Minoan pottery tradition.
The traditional chronology for dating Minoan civilization was developed by Sir Arthur Evans in the early years of the 20th century AD. His terminology and the one proposed by N. Platon are still generally in use and appear in this article.
For more details on on Minoan chronology, see Minoan chronology.
Evans classified fine pottery by the changes in its forms and styles of decoration. Platon concentrated on the episodic history of the Palace of Knossos. Currently a new method is in its infancy, fabric analysis, which features geologic analysis of coarse and mainly undecorated sherds as though they were rocks. The resulting classifications are based on composition of the sherds.
A brief introduction to the topic of Early Minoan pottery is stated below. It concentrates on some better-known styles but should not be regarded as comprehensive. A variety of forms are known. In general the period is characterized by a large number of local wares with frequent Cycladic parallels or imports, suggesting a population of checkerboard ethnicity deriving from various locations in the eastern Aegean or even wider. The evidence is certainly open to interpretation and none is decisive.
FN, EM I
Early Minoan pottery to some extent continued, and possibly evolved from, the Final Neolithic (FN) without a severe break. Many suggest that Minoan civilization evolved in situ and was not imported from the East. Its other main feature is its variety from site to site, which is suggestive of localism of Early Minoan social traditions.
Studies of the relationship between EM I and FN have been conducted mainly in East Crete. There the Final Neolithic has affinities to the Cyclades, while both FN and EM I settlements are contemporaneous, with EM I gradually replacing FN. Of the three possibilities, no immigration, total replacement of natives by immigrants, immigrants settling among natives, Hutchinson takes a compromise view:
"The Neolithic Period in Crete did not end in a catastophe; its culture developed into that of the Bronze Age under pressure from infiltration of relatively small bands of immigrants from the south and east, where copper and bronze had long been in use."
EM I types include Pyrgos Ware, also called Pattern Burnished Ware. The major form was the "chalice", or Arkalochori Chalice, in which a cup combined with a funnel-shaped stand could be set on a hard surface without spilling. (Example). As the Pyrgos site was a rock shelter used as an ossuary some hypothesize ceremonial usage. This type of pottery was black, grey or brown, burnished, with some sort of incised linear pattern. It may have imitated wood.
Another EM I type, Incised Ware, also called Scored Ware, were hand-shaped, round-bottomed, dark-burnished jugs (Example) and bulbous cups and jars ("pyxes"). Favored decor was incised line patterns, vertical, horizontal or herring-bone. (Example, pyxis). These pots are from the north and northeast of Crete and appear to be modelled after the Kampos Phase of the Grotta-Pelos Early Cycladic I culture. Some have suggested imports or immigrations. See also Hagia Photia.
Ayios Onouphrios, Lebena
Painted parallel-line decors of Ayios Onouphrios I Ware were drawn with an iron-red clay slip that would fire red under oxidizing conditions in a clean kiln but under the reducing conditions of a smoky fire would turn darker, without much control over color, which could range from red to brown. A dark-on-light painted pattern was then applied. (Examples 1, Examples 2.) From this beginning, Minoan potters already concentrated on the linear forms of designs, perfecting coherent designs and voids that would ideally suit the shape of the ware. Shapes were jugs, two-handled cups and bowls. The ware came from north and south central Crete, as did Lebena Ware of the same general types but decorated by painting white patterns over a solid red painted background (Example). The latter came from EM I tombs.
Koumasa and Fine Gray Ware
In EM IIA the geometric slip-painted designs of Koumasa Ware seem to have developed from the wares of Aghios Onouphrios. The designs are in red or black on a light background. Forms are cups, bowls, jugs and teapots. (Example: "Godess of Myrtos")
Also from EM IIA are the cylindrical and spherical pyxides called Fine Gray Ware or just Gray Ware, featuring a polished surface with incised diagonals, dots, rings and semi-circles. ( )
The EM IIA and IIB Vasilike Ware, named for the Minoan site in eastern Crete, has mottled glaze effects, early experiments with controlling color, but the elongated spouts drawn from the body and ending in semi-circular spouts show the beginnings of the tradition of Minoan elegance (Examples 1, Examples 2). The mottling was produced by uneven firing of the slip-covered pot, with the hottest areas turning dark. Considering that the mottling was controled into a pattern, touching with hot coals was probably used to produce it. The effect was paralleled in cups made of mottled stone.
EM III Pottery
Of the period Hutchinson says:
"... the most remarkable feature is the expansion of central Cretan sites ... at the expense of east Cretan sites ..."
In the latest brief transition (EM III), wares in eastern Crete begin to be covered in dark slip with light slip-painted decor of lines and spirals; the first checkered motifs appear; the first petallike loops and leafy bands appear, at Gournia (Walberg 1986). Rosettes appear and spiral links sometimes joined into bands. These motifs are similar to those found on seals. In north central Crete, where Knossos was to emerge, there is little similarity: dark on light linear banding prevails; footed goblets make their appearance (Example).
Of the palace at Knossos and smaller ones like it at Phaestos, Mallia and elsewhere, Willetts says:
"These large palaces were central features of sizable cities... Apparently they were also administrative and religious centres of self-supporting regions of the island."
The rise of the palace culture, of the "old palaces" of Knossos and Phaistos and their new type of urbanized, centralized society with redistribution centers required more storage vessels and ones more specifically suited to a range of functions. In palace workshops, standardization suggests more supervised operations and the rise of elite wares, emphasizing refinements and novelty, so that palace and provincial pottery become differentiated.
The forms of the best wares were designed for table and service. In the palace workshops, the introduction from the Levant of the potter's wheel in MMIB enabled perfectly symmetrical bodies to be thrown from swiftly-revolving clay. The well-controlled iron-red slip that was added to the color repertory during MMI could be achieved only in insulated closed kilns that were free of oxygen or smoke.
Jar from Knossos
Any population center requires facilities in support of human needs and that is true of the palaces as well. Knosses had an extensive sanitation and water supply system, which is evidence that it was not a ceremonial labyrinth or large tomb. Liquid and granular necessities were stored in Pithoi located in magazines, or storage rooms, and elsewhere. Pithoi make their earliest appearance just before MMI begins and continue into Late Minoan, becoming very rare by LMIII. (Examples 1, Examples 2)
About 400 pithoi were found at the palace of Knossos. An average pithos held about 1100 pounds of fluid. Perhaps because of the weight, pithoi were not stored on the upper floors.
New styles emerge at this time: an Incised Style, the tactile Barbotine ware, studded with knobs and cones of applied clay in bands, waves and ridges, sometimes reminiscent of sand-dollar tests and barnacle growth (Example), and the earliest stages of Kamares ware. Spirals and whorls are the favorite motifs of Minoan pottery from EM III onwards (Walberg). A new shape is the straight-sided cylindrical cup.
MMIA wares and local pottery imitating them are found at coastal sites in the eastern Peloponnese, though not more widely in the Aegean until MMIB; their influence on local pottery in the nearby Cyclades has been studied by Angelia G. Papagiannopoulou (1991). Shards of MMIIA pottery have been recovered in Egypt and at Ugarit.
This new style was very popular and the decoration was very popular.
Kamares, Eggshell Ware
Minoan Pottery from Phaistos in the Kamares Style , c. 1800 BC.
Kamares Ware was named for finds in the cave santuary at Kamares on Mt. Ida in 1890. It is the first of the virtuoso polychrome wares of Minoan civilization, though the first expressions of recognizably proto-Kamares decor predate the introduction of the potter's wheel.
Finer clay, thrown on the wheel, permitted more precisely fashioned forms, which were covered with a dark-firing slip and exhuberantly painted with slips in white, reds and browns in fluent floral designs, of rosettes or conjoined coiling and uncoiling spirals. Designs are repetitive or sometimes free-floating, but always symmetrically composed. Themes from nature begin here with octopuses, shellfish, lilies, crocuses and palm-trees, all highly stylized. The entire surface of the pot is densely covered, but sometimes the space is partitioned by bands. One variety features extravagantly thin bodies and is called Eggshell Ware (Example 1, Example 2).
Four stages of Kamares ware were identified by Gisela Walberg (1976), with a "Classic Kamares" palace style sited in MMII, especially in the palace complex of Phaistos. New shapes were introduced, with whirling and radiating motifs.(Examples 1, Examples 2, Examples 3, Examples 4, Examples 5, Examples 6, Examples 7, Examples 8, Examples 9, Examples 10).
Age of Efflorescence
In MMIIB the increasing use of motifs drawn from nature heralded the decline and end of the Kamares style. The Kamares featured whole-field floral designs with all elements linked together (Matz). In MMIII patterned vegetative designs, the Patterned Style, began to appear (Example). This phase was replaced by individual vegetative scenes, which marks the start of the Floral Style. Matz refers to the "Age of Efflorescence", which reached an apogee in LM IA. (Some would include Kamares Ware under the Floral Style.)
The floral style depicts palms and papyrus, with various kinds of lilies and elaborate leaves. It appears in both pottery and frescoes. One tradition of art criticism calls this the "natural style" or "naturalism" but another points out that the stylized forms and colors are far from natural. Green, the natural color of vegetation, appears rarely. Depth is represented by position around the main scene. (Examples 1, Examples 2)
LMI marks the highwater of Minoan influence throughout the southern Aegean (Peloponnese, Cyclades, Dodecanese, southwestern Anatolia). Late Minoan pottery was being widely exported; it has turned up in Cyprus, the Cylades, Egypt and Mycenae.
Fluent movemented designs drawn from flower and leaf forms, painted in reds and black on white grounds predominate, in steady development from Middle Minoan. In LMIB there is a typical all-over leafy decoration, for which first workshop painters begin to be identifiable through their characteristic motifs; as with all Minoan art, no name ever appears.