The ancient civilisations of the Minoans and the Mycenaeans both participated in creating monumental architecture, most of which are now referred to as Minoan and Mycenaean palaces. There are many comparisons to be made when discussing these two cultures and their palaces. This essay will begin with an examination of the unique features of the Minoan palaces, followed by a discussion regarding their possible functions as communal gathering centres and a brief look at the potential meaning of the palaces in relation to frescoes and symbolic aspects of the buildings.
Following this will be the introduction of Mycenaean palaces and their distinctive architectural styles such as the megaron contrasted against the large courts of the Minoan palaces, and the noticeable differences in design of each Mycenaean palace. Finally, there will be a discussion on the significant placement of both the Mycenaean and Minoan palaces, and the history of fortification of the Mycenaean buildings. The most striking feature of the Minoan palaces are their mazelike complexity. The largest Minoan palace on Crete at Knossos went through multiple stages of construction over time.
The site on which it was built, Khephala, shows evidence of being inhabited from back to the Neolithic period, and due to destructions and rebuilding, the currently existing palace at Knossos it the result of complex reconstructions both back in ancient times and the early twentieth century. The palaces’ difficult history of destruction and the need to be recreated multiple times could have contributed to the resulting palaces’ complex nature. There are numerous theories behind the complexity of the Minoan palaces, especially the large and labyrinthine building at Knossos.
However, first the whole structural nature of the building needs to be examined. The major Minoan palatial complexes on Crete emphasise centralisation, containing large, open courts that act as the heart of the structure. They also contained multiple entrances and exits along with their mazelike corridors. Hitchcock writes that a feature unique to the Minoan palaces were the hallways that utilised pier and door partitions, allowing the ability to make rooms larger or smaller when necessary. This brings in to question what situations demand a building with such a unique structure and functionalities.
One explanation is that, although termed “palaces”, these monumental Minoan buildings were likely large communal centres, not buildings that existed to simply house powerful political figures. Hitchcock states that a significant feature of the palaces was multiple storage rooms to the north and south of the buildings, and that up to a third of the building was existed to store goods. This provides possible evidence that the buildings were communal and that they stored goods for the local people to use and trade, as it is unlikely if they were truly palaces that they would need to contain such extensive storage space.
If these buildings were owned by a local community of people, they could have been used for a myriad of purposes. Possessing the ability to change the structure of a room to suit multiple purposes through the pier and door partitions would have acted as a motivation behind this particular uniqueness in the design of the building. Furthermore, in Early Bronze Age Crete, domestic buildings were constructed surrounding a central main room that allowed a flow through the building.
This central room seems to reflect the later central halls of the Minoan palaces, as despite their functional differences, they act as the heart of the structure and centralise the building. This hints at a development in style, and as it is possibly influenced by these early domestic buildings, this would affirm the fact that these larger complexes were expanded and existed to serve a community, more akin to a familial community than to a king or queen’s private domicile. Other aspects of the Minoan palaces remain difficult to interpret, including the reoccurring lustral basins, which are low ndentations in the floors of the buildings. Little is known of their function or significance due to the lack of evidence found within them, but it is likely that they were used ritually, especially in light of evidence found on the island of Thera that connects the basins to a puberty ceremony involving young girls. Whatever their purpose, they remain a unique aspect of the Minoan palaces that only further adds to the complexity of the design as a whole, which also reflects the Minoan civilisations’ innovative and unique cultural identity.
The exceptional frescoes that lined the walls of the palaces also likely held great cultural significance within the context of the building, but now remain only in fragments. An example of these frescoes is the Grandstand fresco found at Knossos, an image containing a shrine donned with symbolic horns, surrounded on the sides by women and above and below by numerous male faces. The large density of people depicted in the image not only denotes a sense of a religious community, but connects this idea to the palace itself, reflecting its both its possible religious meaning and communal functions.
The Mycenaean palatial complexes are easily contrasted with the earlier constructed Minoan palaces in style. This opposes the Minoan’s unique and seemingly untraceable style of building to other cultures, despite their expansive trade routes with the Near East. The Mycenaeans were originally located in mainland Greece, unlike the island civilisation of the Minoans on Crete. It is possible that the Mycenaean’s connection to nearby land masses influenced their culture and architectural styles, whereas the mostly isolated people of Crete felt they belonged to their own distinct cultural identity, separated from the rest of the observable world.
However, an aspect that certainly distinguishes the two palatial styles from each other are the apparent simplistic design of the Mycenaean complexes compared to the maze-like Minoan palaces. The most noticeable aspect of the Mycenaean palaces is the megaron, consisting of a main hall and another preceding hall with a rectangular porch and two supporting columns. Whilst this Mycenaean concept of a megaron does mirror the centralised focus of the Minoan palaces, their structures are unique and fairly different in comparison to the Minoan’s large, open courts.
Furthermore, out of the known mainland palatial complexes in Greece, many have their own specific features differing with each separate construction. For example, at Tiryns they had two courtyards outside of the megaron that are linked together along with the megaron by Hshaped gateways, and the palace at Mycenae had a monumental stairway consisting of two flights of stairs allowing access to a terrace. The individualised features of the Mycenaean palaces present the most significant difference with the Minoan palaces, which, while all unique to each other, used many more recurring architectural themes and basic functional designs.
Nonetheless, it should be noted that especially the palace at Mycenae with its grand staircase and decorations shows an influence from the Minoan palace at Knossos. This demonstrates how it is problematic to differentiate the similarities and differences between Minoan and Mycenaean palatial architecture, since there are many intersecting aspects in their architecture. Further individualised aspects of the Mycenaean palaces appear in the Palace of Nestor at Pylos. The original building construction is dated at approximately 1300 BCE, and was thought to be destroyed somewhere between 1230 to 1200 BCE.
These dates show that this, like much of Mycenaean architecture, existed hundreds of years after the Minoan civilisation flourished, and almost 700 years after the palace at Knossos was completed. This should be considered as it can both explain differences and similarities in Mycenaean architecture, considering when the two civilisations were constructing their monumental “palaces” they were not existing alongside one another. Rather, the Mycenaeans were looking back to the old structures of a civilisation which they now believed they were more powerful and greater than due to their control over Crete gained in approximately 1400 BCE.
This otentially explains the Minoan influences in Mycenaean palatial architecture not as a homage to their grand past works, but a display of their power and control over the Minoans, exhibited by the appropriation of Minoan ideas to further promote their own grandeur. The placing of both the Minoan and Mycenaean palaces are significant, but in different ways for each. Firstly, the Minoans executed strategic placing of their west courts, with the north to south orientation of their central courts mirroring the orientation of sacred peak or cave sanctuaries. This denotes possible religious significance of the palatial buildings for the Minoans.
As for the meaning of the labyrinthine structure inside the palaces, there are many possibilities. However, due to what was previously discussed in this essay, one explanation is that they functioned as a means to give privacy in a building that might have contained many people at once partaking in multiple activities of anything from a religious to administrative nature. The Mycenaean palaces’ positions are more significant in that often they were atop hills. The palace at Pylos was built atop the hill Ano Englianos, and such a positioning allows a wide view over the nearby land and ocean.
The reason behind this placement is likely a precaution against oncoming attacks, the wide view over the area allowing whoever was in the palace time for preparation in advance. Contrasting with the Minoan palaces’ apparent function as a communal space for gatherings, this idea portrays the Mycenaean palaces in a more militaristic or at least cautious manner in terms of their purpose. Mycenaean palaces also showed evidence of being fortified, which Minoan palaces overall did not, and the palace at Pylos, although not fortified later on, was fortified in the Late Minoan IIIB period.
This does not necessarily mean that the Mycenaeans were naturally more militaristic people compared to the Minoans. It does, however, show the possibility that the Mycenaeans were more aware of the threats that were their neighbouring lands, and that it is reflected in their palatial architecture. Whilst both the ancient Minoan and Mycenaean palaces remain difficult to interpret based on our current evidence, it is apparent that many reasonable conclusions may be made for each of the buildings’ meanings and functions.
Where it appears that the Minoan palaces acted primarily as communal gathering spaces used for trade, ritual and religiously significant activities, the Mycenaean palaces appeared to serve in promoting their past victories over the Minoans by incorporating their building techniques and styles whilst still reflecting their own individuality and culture. In both cases, these so-called ‘palaces’ of the prehistoric Aegean deeply reflect some of the concerns and ideals of both the Mycenaean and Minoans’ cultures.