Aegean civilization

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Aegean civilization

Aegean civilization (ējēˈən), term for the Bronze Age cultures of pre-Hellenic Greece. The complexity of those early civilizations was not suspected before the excavations of archaeologists in the late 19th cent. The most remarkable of the cultures was perhaps that of Crete, which was flourishing by the beginning of the 3d millennium B.C.; this was the Minoan civilization. On the mainland of Greece excavations have uncovered the remains of Mycenaean civilization. The exploration of the ruins of Troy provided knowledge of another culture, and ruins in the Cyclades have demonstrated remarkable early development there. The exact relationships of these different centers are not yet known, and there are many subjects of conjecture, such as the role of the Achaeans and the causes of the decline of Crete before 1100 B.C.


See V. R. d'Arba Desborough, The Greek Dark Ages (1972); C. Renfrew, The Emergence of Civilisation (1972).

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Aegean Civilization


the general name of the Bronze Age civilization (third and second millennia B.C.) on the Aegean Islands, Crete, and the Greek mainland and in Asia Minor (Anatolia).

The first centers of the Aegean civilization were discovered by H. Schliemann in Mycenae (in 1876) and A. Evans on Crete (from 1899). (SeeMYCENAE.) Several hundred monuments and cultural remains have been studied since the 19th century, including burial grounds, settlements, and large cities, such as Poliochni on the island of Lemnos, with a 5-m high stone wall, and Phylakopi on the island of Melos, as well as a number of royal residences—in Troy and on Crete (Cnossus, Mallia, and Phaestos)—and the acropolis in Mycenae (seeTROY; CNOSSUS; MALLIA; and PHAESTOS). The development of the Aegean civilization proceeded unevenly, -and its centers underwent periods of decline and prosperity. Cities with public buildings and temples and fortified by walls with towers and bastions appeared in western Anatolia in the third millennium B.C., and fortified settlements appeared on mainland Greece in the late third millennium. Fortresses were unknown on Crete as late as the second millennium B.C.

Several local archaeological cultures or civilizations are distinguished within the Aegean civilization—Thessalian, Macedonian, Western Anatolian, Helladic, Cycladic, and Minoan (seeCYCLADIC CULTURE and MINOAN CULTURE). Chronologically, it is conventional to divide these cultures into three main periods—early, middle, and late—and each period into three subperiods—I, II, and III—for example, Early Minoan I or Middle Thessalian III.

The formation of the Aegean civilization was complex and lengthy. The cultures of western Anatolia and central Greece evolved from local Neolithic cultures. Trojan culture dominated the islands of the eastern Aegean Sea, while the western Anatolian influence was strong on other islands.

Circa 2300 B.C., the Peloponnesus and northwestern Anatolia were invaded, judging from the evidence of fires and destruction in the settlements. By the early second millennium B.C., under the influence of invaders who were probably of Indo-European origin, the material culture of mainland Greece, Troy, and several islands had changed. On Crete, which escaped invasion, the Minoan culture continued to develop; hieroglyphic scripts appeared in the early second millennium B.C., and the Linear Script A in 1600 B.C. The Middle Bronze Age (first half of the second millennium B.C.) was the period of the greatest consolidation of the Aegean civilization, which is attested to by the absolute unity of the material culture, including the pottery and metalware. Circa 1600 B.C., the invasion of mainland Greece by new tribes, probably the Achaeans, who used battle chariots, prepared the way for the development of a number of small states of what is now referred to as the Mycenaean period around other cities—Mycenae, Tiryns, and Orchomenos (seeTIRYNS and ORCHOMENOS). Circa 1470 B.C., several centers of the Aegean civilization, especially Crete, were destroyed by an eruption of the Santorin volcano. An Achaean (Mycenaean) population appeared on Crete, bringing a new culture and the Linear Script B. Beginning in the late 13th century B.C., the Aegean civilization underwent a profound internal crisis, accompanied by an invasion of the Dorians and the Peoples of the Sea, which led to its downfall.


Art. Throughout the history of the development of Aegean art, the leading center of artistic culture often shifted from one part of the Aegean world to another. Aegean art is characterized by the development of regional styles and shows influences of ancient Egyptian, Syrian, and Phoenician art. In comparison with the art of the ancient East, it is more secular. Among the remains from the third millennium B.C., of particular interest are the funerary sculptures of the Cyclades—the Cycladic idols—marble statuettes or heads (fragments of statues) of geometricized, austere, monumental form with clearly expressed architectonics (”violin-shaped” figures, nude female statuettes).

Circa the 23rd century B.C., Crete became the leading center of artistic culture, reaching its zenith in the first half of the second millennium B.C. The influence of Cretan art spread to the Cyclades and mainland Greece. The highest achievements of the Cretan architects are the palaces in Cnossus, Phaestos, Mallia, and Kato Zakro, in which the combination of wide horizontal spaces (courts), blocks of two- and three-story chambers, light wells, ramps, and stairways creates the effect of picturesque boundless space and an emotionally rich artistic image permeated with endlessly changing impressions. A unique type of column, one that widens toward the top, was created on Crete. In Cretan fine and decorative applied arts, the ornamental-decorative style of the 20th to 18th centuries B.C., which attained perfection in the painted Kamares ware, was replaced in the 17th and 16th centuries B.C. by a more detailed and straightforward depiction of plants, animals, and people (the frescoes in the palace at Cnossus, vases with representations of sea creatures, and small figurines, toreutic works, and glyptic art). By the late 15th century B.C., probably in connection with the Achaean conquest, conventionality and stylization became more pronounced (the throne room frescoes and the painted stucco relief of a priest-king in the Cnossus Palace and the “palace-style” vase painting).

The art of Achaean Greece reached its zenith in the 17th to 13th centuries B.C. Fortress cities, such as Mycenae and Tiryns, were contructed on hills, with thick walls built in the Cyclopean style from blocks of stone weighing up to 12 tons; such cities had two levels—a lower city, sheltering the surrounding population, and an acropolis, where the ruler’s palace stood. In Achaean residential architecture, palaces and dwellings were built on stone socles of mud brick with wooden trusses, as on Crete; a type of porticoed rectangular building was developed—the megaron—the prototype of the ancient Greek temples in antis. The palace in Pylos (seePYLOS) was excavated more thoroughly than other sites. Of particular interest are the round domed tholos tombs, with a false arch and dromos, including the Treasury of Atreus near Mycenae (14th or 13th century B.C.).

The fine and decorative applied arts of Achaean Greece were strongly influenced by the art of Crete, especially in the 17th and 16th centuries B.C., judging from the gold and silver articles found in the shaft graves in Mycenae. The regional style is characterized by generalized and austere forms (the reliefs on the superjacent stelae of the shaft graves, the funerary masks, and several vessels found in the graves, including Nestor’s Cup). Achaean art of the 15th to 13th centuries B.C., like Cretan art, devoted considerable attention to man and nature (the frescoes in the palaces in Thebes, Tiryns, Mycenae, and Pylos; vase painting and sculpture), but gravitated toward stable symmetrical forms and generalization (the heraldic composition with the figures of two lions on the relief on the Lion Gate in Mycenae).



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