A Votive Cretan Cave

On Crete a long interval is thought to separate the last period of the Minoan civilization from the late Geometric period in art and history, which belong in the eighth century; six hundred years of Dark Age if Evans is right that the Minoan civilization came to its end in -1400, and four hundred years if Leonard Palmer is right in claiming that it endured to almost -1200. But if, as we maintain, the Minoan civilization continued until the eighth century or even until the later part of it, then, of course, the Minoan ware in its latest style must be found contemporary with the geometric ware and the same perplexing relations would be discovered on Crete as were discovered in continental Greece.

The Dictaean Cave on Crete supplied the Cretan Collection in Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum with many objects; the cave was a votive place in the Late Minoan III age and an abundance of bronze figures was stored there. J. Boardman published a study of the Cretan Collection and tried to classify the finds by their style and affiliation.1

Of bronze figurines of men from the votive cave he wrote: “These Cretan figures have been dated, apparently by style, to Late Minoan III. they must be related in some way to the well-known Geometric type of mainland Greece which exhibits the same characteristics.”2

Of the bronze figures of women from the same cave, the author says: “Although no such figures of women have been recovered from Late Minoan III deposits [elsewhere], it is likely that the cruder specimens from the cave are of this date, although Pendlebury3 thought some might be Geometric.”4

The bronze male and female figurines divided the experts, with the Minoan and the Geometric ages contesting for them. Would the animal figures from the same assemblage make the decision easier?

“Again there is as yet no reason to believe that bronze animal votives were being made uninterruptedly from Minoan to Geometric times. It should then be possible to distinguish the early from the late, but it is not easy.”5

Next came knives with human heads at the end of the handles. “The style of the head is exceptionally fine. . . . Its superficial resemblance to a group of Cretan Geometric bronzes is noteworthy, and although the shape of the blade and solid handle point to the latest Bronze Age, there is much in the style to be explained.” The layers in which it was found “suggest a Middle Minoan III-Late Minoan I context” and this “considerably complicates the problem to which no solution is offered here.”6

A “cut-out plaque from the cave . . . is of a woman with a full skirt. The dress and pose, with elbows high, seem Minoan, but the decoration of the small bosses is more Geometric in spirit.”7

Thus bronze figurines, rings and plaques perplex the art expert when he tries to determine the period from which they date, and the difference frequently amounts to more than half a millennium. Will not then the pottery—vases and dishes, the hallmark of their age—throw some light on the problem?

For the storage jars with reliefs, (pithoi) from the Dictaean Cave, two authorities8 “imply a Geometric date.” But two other authorities9 “have them Minoan.”10

Then what is the verdict of the fifth expert, familiar with the opinions of the other four?

“It is tempting to see in these pieces the immediate predecessors of the finely moulded and impressed pithoi of seventh-century Crete, but for these the independent inspiration of mainland Greece or the islands can be adduced, and the cave fragments are best regarded as purely Minoan in date.”11

The very same features tend to confuse the experts. Some Cretan vases have a very characteristic decoration on them and it could be expected that this would help solve the problem of the age, but it does not.

There are several Cretan examples of heads or masks being used to decorate the necks of vases. . . . The example from Knossos was published by Evans as Minoan, and the signs on the cheeks thought to be signs in a linear script. The technique and the decoration tell against this. The patterns are purely Geometric. . . . The outline of the features is common in Cretan Geometric.12

In other cases the confusion is still greater when a decision is to be made between the Minoan (or Mycenaean) of the second millennium, the Geometric of the eighth century and the Archaic (of the seventh-sixth centuries).

The case of the votive Dictaean Cave and its contents was selected here to illustrate how the problem stands on Crete. The verdict drawn by the art expert quoted on these pages did not clarify the issue by its recourse to our ignorance of what transpired during the Dark Age:

After the collapse or overthrow of the major Bronze Age civilizations of the Aegean world in the twelfth century B.C. Crete, with the rest of Greece, entered upon a Dark Age which the still inadequate archaeological record can illuminate but little and the literary record not at all.13


  1. The Cretan Collection in Oxford (Oxford University Press, 1961).

  2. Ibid., p. 7.

  3. J. D. S. Pendlebury, The Archaeology of Ancient Crete: An Introduction (London, 1939) p. 332.

  4. Boardman, The Cretan Collection, p. 8.

  5. Ibid., p. 9.

  6. Ibid., p. 20.

  7. Ibid., p. 43.

  8. F. Courby, Les Vases grecques a relief (Paris, 1922) pp. 42f. and Pendlebury, The Archaeology of Crete, p. 334.

  9. J. Schaefer, 2 Studien zu den griechischen Reliefpithoi des 8.-6. Jahrhunderts v. Chr. aus Kreta, Rhodos, Tenos und Boiotien (1957); Mustili, Annuario della R. Scuola Archeologica di Atene XV-XVI (1932-33) p. 144, n.5.

  10. Boardman, The Cretan Collection, p. 57.

  11. Ibid., loc. cit.

  12. Ibid., p. 103.

  13. Ibid., p. 129.