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The recovery of Minoan astronomy was an important result of the Uppsala Archaeoastronomical Project The development of astronomy and its importance for
society in ancient Greece (translation of the Swedish title). The project grew out of our research into ancient Greek texts. There are many passages
the meaning of which can be clarified or, in fact, changed if the frame of reference is expanded to include celestial phenomena (M. Blomberg 1992).
There is a long tradition that Greek astronomy was indebted to the observations and ideas passed on by much earlier inhabitants of the Mediterranean.
This tradition has its historical background in the vast amount of surviving ancient Greek literature, in which the inclusion of folklore is a
valuable source. From this we got our main hypothesis that Greek astronomy as well as Mycenaean astronomy have their roots in Minoan culture. This
probable origin in the Aegean in the Bronze Age would be supported by the recovery of Minoan astronomy through the use of archaeoastronomical methods
and additional study of Greek texts and iconography. Such a recovery would provide a new chapter to the history of ancient western astronomy.
All dates are before the Christian era, unless noted.
Authors such as Brown (1899-1900), Maunder (1901), Crommelin (1923), and Ovenden (1966) realized that the Greek poet Aratos’s Phaenomena, written in the third century, contained astronomical observations from the third millennium, made at latitude N 36º±1½º, a latitude that could apply to the Babylonians, the Egyptians, the Minoans or the Phoenicians. Arguments for the Minoan origin were made by Ovenden (1966:15), giving added reality to the tenacious tradition and placing the beginnings of Greek astronomy in the Bronze Age on Crete, in agreement with our own hypothesis. We decided to test Ovenden’s arguments by recalculating Aratos’s data with Henriksson’s computer programs (Henriksson & Blomberg 2000, Blomberg & Henriksson 1999) and, at the same time, conducting investigations of suitable archeological sites on Crete in order to discover any evidence of early astronomical observations.
Another incentive to our project was the improbability that the Minoans had not made comparable independent strides in astronomy as the Babylonians and the Egyptians. The astronomy of the Babylonians and the Egyptians was quite different for each of the two cultures and gave rise to different cosmologies and mythologies. We have considerable knowledge of this through their documents (Claggett 1995; Neugebauer and Parker 1960-1969; Hunger and Pingree 1999; Rochberg 2004). However, we do not have written records from Crete. On the other hand, we have the evidence of impressive archaeological remains, and these indicate that the Minoan culture was on the same level as their southern and eastern neighbors. There is evidence, for instance, that the Minoans had made equally advanced achievements in some sciences. The Minoan reputation in medicine is recorded in Egyptian texts (Merrillees 1998, 152; Warren 1995, 7). We have reason to believe that the Minoans had an early knowledge of navigation from their settlement of the island of Crete in the seventh millennium by groups from the mainland (Evans 1971, 1994). The use of navigation has now been demonstrated for Paleolithic people who could navigate in the eastern Mediterranean (Strasser et al 2010). This feat of navigation is witness to considerable knowledge of the motions of the celestial bodies on the part of the Minoans at that early time. (Top)
Through an investigation of Minoan archaeological excavations, we sought evidence of systematic observations of celestial phenomena. We also looked
for evidence of the influence of astronomical knowledge in the wider cultural life of the Minoans, in religion, politics, foreign relations, art and
science. No persuasive demonstration of Minoan astronomy had ever been offered. Our studies show convincing evidence of it and give its chief
characteristics (see our articles by linking to Project Publications). We also sought signs of the influence of Minoan astronomy with the Mycenaeans and the
Greeks, who followed the Minoans as inhabitants in Crete.
To place Minoan astronomy in its historical setting is not an easy task. Their written records are extremely rare, in contrast to the copious texts
remaining from their contemporaries the Babylonians and the Egyptians. It seems certain that the Minoans had an impressive written tradition,
although our evidence of it is extremely fragmentary. It exists primarily in the few remains of temporary economic notes jotted down on raw clay tablets
that were burnt in fires caused by accidents or by deliberate destructions through pillage or warfare, giving them the near indestructibility of terracotta
(Godart and Olivier 1978-1985). It is assumed that writing intended to be preserved was done on perishable materials such as parchment, leather or the
like. We have the inestimable witness of a few inscriptions on small, so-called libation vessels in stone or on other permanent materials that have
survived (Davaras 1981). Their language has been given the name Linear A and has not yet been deciphered.
Another impediment is the unclear relationship of the Minoans and the Mycenaeans. There is still disagreement as to when and to what extent the Mycenaeans were in control of the island (Evans 1912; Driessen and Macdonald 1997). This has serious consequences for the interpretation of buildings and sites used by both groups. For example, the throne room of the palace at Knossos as it is today was probably rebuilt by the Mycenaeans (Mirié 1979) and they probably destroyed the Central Palace Sanctuary, the most important relic we have of Minoan religion (Hallager 1987).
During the first four millennia of its habitation, seventh-fourth millennia, the island of Crete was a farming economy. The first settlement was at Knossos, on the site of the later palace (Evans 1971; 1994). By the third millennium the population had spread over most of the island (McEnroe 2010). The Minoan palatial culture flourished from Middle Minoan I to Late Minoan I (ca 2000 to 1450). The culture in this interval was on a par with that of the Babylonians and the Egyptians, but it seems to have been considerably different. We can only assume its character from the architectural structures, objects of less monumental art, and everyday objects recovered from excavations.
We are lost when it comes to describing the ruling elite, as there is no ruler iconography (Davis 1995). Yet the monumental palaces and their artistic decoration call to mind a powerful ruling class with accomplished artists and craftsmen in its service. We also have difficulty in understanding Minoan religion. There were no separate temples or shrines, except perhaps the peak sanctuaries in the mountains. Places of worship in the settlements were rooms set aside in the palaces, villas or attached houses in the villages. The “temple repositories” from the palace at Knossos witness to the religious life (Panagiotaki 1995), but the interpretation of the objects is not agreed upon. Were the small female figurines goddesses, priestesses or worshipers? There are very few religious scenes in Minoan art and their meaning is not self-evident. Also, Minoan and Mycenaean objects are not always attributed to the right culture. There was no temple architecture and no surviving large statuary. Two pairs of life-size terracotta feet have been found that may have supported large wooden statues (Marinatos and Hägg 1983). (Top)
The absence of Minoan written records of astronomical observations required investigations of other evidence of sky watching, such as the alignments
of buildings or columns to suitable positions of celestials objects, for example sunrise at the summer solstice or the heliacal risings and settings
of bright stars. The now fully developed interdisciplinary field of archaeoastronomy is the best method for investigations of such phenomena.
(Blomberg and Henriksson 2001). This field can contribute to a more complete interpretation of archaeological material. A review paper was published
by Baity (1973). Developments in the field are published in the proceedings of the conferences of the European Society for Astronomy in Culture, the
Oxford conferences on archaeoastronomy and in the journal Archaeoastronomy, published by the University of Texas Press. We are active members of the
European Society for Astronomy in Culture(SEAC). Its aim is to promote the study of astronomical practice in its cultural context, a topic of considerable
importance within the general study of human societies and their relationship to their environments.
To summarize our methods, we used an exact, radio-controlled clock and solar observations to calibrate the orientation of a so-called total station, an optical instrument that combines an electronic theodolite, an electronic distance measuring device, and software running on an internal computer. Then we measured the orientations of walls and other fast structures to positions of the sun, the moon and the stars. We also measured the profile and altitude of each relevant landscape horizon. We evaluated the measurements by appropriate statistical calculations and, using the computer programs developed by Göran Henriksson in his many years' work on ancient astronomy, we compared the results with the positions of the celestial bodies as they were in the Bronze Age, the construction period for the buildings in our project. His computer program was completed in 1985 and has since been successfully tested against all well-defined ancient observations back to 3653. The motion of the sun and the moon is based on the theory by Carl Schoch (1931) with all the formulae expressed in Universal Time (UT) used by the ancient observers, and with Henriksson's own improvements concerning modern astrophysical parameters. In this method, the slowing down of Earth’s rotation can be calibrated by direct comparison with ancient observations. The theory used in computer programs available on internet have their formulae expressed in the so-called Terrestrial Time (TT). Universal Time (UT) is directly proportional to the earth’s decreasing rotation rate and must be known for calculations of ancient celestial events. The theory by Schoch was originally calibrated by solar eclipses back to 600 and Henriksson's latest calibration includes 33 total solar eclipses dating back to 3653. The timing error around 3000 is less than 2 minutes. In fact, Henriksson's computer program is the only existing one that can test "the precession of the geodesic" in Einstein´s General Theory of Relativity (Henriksson 2009).
We compared our results with the positions of the celestial bodies as they were in the Bronze Age. The visibility of bright stars close to the horizon at dawn and twilight was calculated using a computer program by Henriksson with parameters from Bemporad (1904), Sidentopf (1941), Ljunghall (1949), and Schmidt (1865). It is important to use Schmidt’s visibility calibrations for Athens from ca. 1850 CE, as his observations were made before modern air pollution. In the beginning, to be secure in our results, we measured the same walls more than once, after an interval of a year, three times in the case of the structure on Petsophas, the first that we studied. We then calculated the margin of error with the least-square method. We compared the orientations with Henriksson’s computer model of the sky, which has been shown to be correct to within two minutes as far back as 3000. We documented by exactly-timed video recordings two important events, sunrise at the autumn equinox in the Central Palace Sanctuary at Knossos and sunrise at the summer solstice behind Kali Limni, the highest peak on Karpathos, opposite Petsophas.
These methods can reveal the celestial objects of observation and, since the positions of the objects change over time due to precession, except in the case of the sun at the equinoxes, which occurs at either of the two points on the celestial equator where it intersects the ecliptic, the study of orientations can also reveal the history of ancient sky watching. The change in the orientation of the Central Court at Phaistos, when the new palace was built (see below) was probably a result of the sensational new appearance of the bright star Canopus in the south, due to precession.
The results from our measurements are placed as far as possible in their larger cultural context and interpreted in connection with available sources of other kinds. We use the chronology argued for by Manning (1999, summarized in his Fig. 62), as we were persuaded by his research and arguments. The variation in the conflicting chronologies is about 100 years and our results do not help to confirm the correctness of them, as the change in the positions of the celestial bodies is due to precession, the slow rotation of the earth’s axis that completes one revolution in about 26,000 years. The monuments we have measured have walls that are not so well-preserved to give orientations close enough to be of help in this respect. More discoveries of phenomena like the reorientation of the Central Court at Phaistos could be of help. (Top)
We chose 24 buildings from the typical types on the island, located at 15 sites (Fig. 1). In the beginning we did not distinguish between Minoan and
Mycenaean structures, not being aware at the time that some could be Mycenaean. We were later able to determine that 19 were Minoan, dating from
Middle Minoan I to Late Minoan I (ca. 2000-1450) and five were Mycenaean, dating after 1450. The comprehensive Aerial atlas of ancient Crete (Myres
et al 1992) has 29 Minoan sites with Middle Minoan and Late Minoan I foundations. Many of these also have settlements after Minoan I and these could
have been built by Mycenaeans. Peak sanctuaries are not included in the Atlas.
The Minoan buildings were peak sanctuaries, palaces, villas, and attached houses. The florescence of Minoan culture was Late Minoan I (ca. 1650-1450) and by that time Minoan astronomy, being centuries old, would have reached it apogee. We chose all excavated peak sanctuaries that have remaining foundation walls: Petsophas, Modi (2 structures), Traostalos, Juktas, Pyrgos, and Philioremos. The palaces were Knossos, Malia, Phaistos, and Zakros. For the villas we chose Agia Triada, the South-East house at Knossos, Tylissos A and C, and Vathypetro. Two attached houses were chosen at Gournia. We also chose the unique oval house at Chamaizi.
The Mycenaean buildings were four individual shrines and an attached house from Gournia. The shrines were the oblique building at Malia, the tripartite shrine at Vathypetro, the small megaron (building H) and, possibly, the large megaron at Agia Triada.
Our investigations of these sites have been published in separate reports, which can be accessed by clicking on their titles in the link to Project Publications.
Figure 1. Archaeological sites on Crete in the Uppsala Archaeoastronomical Project. Latitude for Knossos: 35°17'53" N.
A major discovery from our investigations was that structures built for Mycenaeans could be distinguished by their
orientations, which were always to a significant celestial event in the west, whereas those built for Minoans always had an orientation to a
significant event in the east (Blomberg & Henriksson 2001b; Henriksson & Blomberg 2012). A few of the Minoan buildings also had orientations to
the west, for example, sunsets at the equinoxes and heliacal settings of certain stars, but they all had eastern orientations as well. Significant
celestial events are those that we have found to be important for calendar making and navigation: sunrise and sunset at the equinoxes, solstices,
and first days of the twelve solar months of the Minoan calendar, the heliacal risings and settings of bright stars. Risings and settings of the
moon at the standstills may have also been important but the evidence is not as frequent as it is for the sun and the bright stars.
These discoveries alone prove the hypothesis of long term, systematic observation of the celestial bodies, but we also discovered ways in which the Minoans were using their astronomical knowledge to establish lunar and solar calendars and for navigation. The Greek calendars have many similarities, and this strengthens our hypothesis that Minoan astronomy is the root of Aegean astronomy.
We hope that other researchers will continue with a larger selection of Bronze-Age sites and buildings. For example, the differences that we found between monuments built after LM I and those built before should be corroborated with more examples. (Top)
The custom of systematic astronomical observations of the positions of the stars in the Eastern Mediterranean and Near East was probably as old as
the Neolithic period. Navigation was in use before that time both in the South Pacific and the Mediterranean (Strasser et al 2010). The Minoans must
have used it to settle in Crete in the seventh millennium. The notion of island-hopping as a means of finding the way from Crete in a boat is simply
not feasible, as we have tried to show (Blomberg & Henriksson 1999). The use of the horizontal risings and settings of the stars and constellations
is of great help in agriculture, and star calendars could have existed as early as the Neolithic. The widespread trade of luxury goods and the
evidence of work by Minoan artisans in Babylonia and Egypt in the Middle Bronze Age are other witnesses to an early use of the stars for navigation
(Bietak 2005; Niemeier & Niemeier 2000). We have concrete evidence of orientations of Minoans buildings to calendar positions of the sun, the moon
and the stars in Crete from the beginning of the Middle Bronze Age (ca 2000). This custom must build upon a long tradition of astronomical
We think it probable that the peak sanctuaries were places for studying the motions of the celestial bodies and that many of the small objects found at these places fit our hypothesis that they were used as symbols of the moon and of constellations (P. Blomberg 2006). The peak sanctuaries would have made excellent observation places, built as they were on the mountain tops near Minoan settlements. The term sanctuary has come into use because of vague similarities to later Greek cults, but the role of peak sanctuaries as vantage points for sky watching could have made them sacred places for the Minoans. There may be some indication of this on the inscription in Linear A on a small libation bowl found at Petsophas that may have the name of a goddess derived from mena, the Indo-European root for moon (Furumark 1988). There are small female figurines found there that also suggest the moon (Blomberg & Henriksson 1996, 35). The peak sanctuaries all look out over the sea, and the many small, roughly made terracotta figurines found in and around them remind us of Aratos’s descriptions of the constellations as they became visible during their risings and settings (Kidd 1997). His account of the positions of a number of the stars was valid for the Minoan period and is believed to belong to a tradition dating back to that time (Henriksson & Blomberg 2000). It is probable that the peaks were used as observatories by Minoan astronomers, and that the figurines were used as teaching aids in the construction of a mental map of the sky (P. Blomberg 2007a).
From our investigations we recognized a number of features as characteristic for Minoan astronomy:
|Site||Orientation||Foresight||Agia Triada, villa||sunset equinoxes|
|Chamaizi, peak sanctuary?||sunrise winter solstice
Arctutus' heliacal setting
|Gournia, Minoan shrines||sunrise one month before and after equinoxes|
|Juktas, peak sanctuary||sunrise equinoxes||natural|
|Malia, palace||sunrise one month before and after equinoxes||natural|
|Modi, peak sanctuary (2)||sunrise two months before and after equinoxes|
|Petsophas, peak sanctuary||sunrise summer solstice
Arcturus' heliacal rising
Arcturus' heliacal setting
|Phaistos, palace||sunrise equinoxes
Canopus' heliacal rising and setting
|Philioremos, peak sanctuary||sunrise summer solstice||natural||Pyrgos, peak sanctuary||sunrise summer solstice
Arcturus' heliacal setting
|Traostalos, peak sanctuary||Arcturus' heliacal rising
Arcturus' heliacal setting
|Tylissos, villa A
Tylissos, villa C
|sunrise summer solstice
sunrise one month before and after solstices
sunrise one month before and after equinoxes
|Vathypetro, villa||sunrise equinoxes
sunrise one month before and after equinoxes
sunrise winter solstice
|Zakros, palace||moon southern major standstill||natural|
|Petsophas, Phaistos, Knossos (2), Juktas, Vathypetro, Agia Triada||first (autumn equinox)|
|Chamaizi, Vathypetro||fourth (winter solstice)|
|Petsophas, Phaistos, Knossos (2), Juktas, Vathypetro, Agia Triada||seventh (spring equinox)|
|Gournia (2), Tylissos Villas A and C||eighth|
|Tylissos Villa A||ninth|
|Philioremos, Petsophas, Pyrgos, Tylissos Villa A||tenth (summer solstice)|
|Tylissos Villa A||eleventh|
|Gournia (2), Tylissos Villas A and C||twelfth|
As we completed our work at site after site, we discovered the importance for the Minoans of relating their buildings
to the sun, the moon or bright stars. Not only were the buildings aligned to an important calendar event such as sunrise and sunset at the solstices
and equinoxes, the heliacal risings and settings of the brightest stars, moonrise and moonset at the major standstills, but they were placed so that
the orientations were emphasized by a impressive natural feature such as a prominent mountain peak or an artificial marker such as a column. The
relationships are always clear. Three of the four palaces (Malia, Phaistos and Zakros) and six of the seven peak sanctuaries (Gonies, Juktas,
Petsophas, Philioremos, Pyrgos, Traostalos) have natural foresights. Six of the remaining buildings (Chamaizi, Knossos palace, Southeast house,
Tylissos A and C, and Vathypetro) had manmade foresights, i.e., 15 of the 19 Minoan buildings had a foresight to reinforce their orientations to
celestials bodies. Some manmade foresights, of course, may not have survived. The Minoans only rarely focused on sunsets and, when they did so, it
seems to have been for a special reason. We have found three examples, sunset at the equinoxes at Agia Triada (Henriksson & Blomberg 2013),
Petsophas (Henriksson & Blomberg 1996) and Phaistos (Blomberg & Henriksson 2007a). At these places the eastern horizon is distant or obscured by
mountains. A focus on sunset at the equinoxes would have improved the chances that these two important days in the Minoan calendar would have been
observed occurring behind a prominent natural marker or foresight, for symbolical as well as for practical reasons. We have argued elsewhere that
the Minoan calendar was lunisolar and that the New Year began at the appearance of the new crescent moon following the autumn equinox (Henriksson &
Blomberg 1996; 2011b).
It must be stressed that the relationships to the celestial bodies that we have discovered in Crete were the result of long-term systematic observations on the part of the Minoans. The alignments to these bodies were very important, and this is perhaps most clearly demonstrated by the change in the orientation of the west side of the central court at Phaistos when the old palace was replaced by the new palace ca 1750. The new orientation was to the highest peak of the mountain in the south behind which the bright star Canopus became visible in the southern sky as a result of the phenomenon of precession, the slow rotation of the earth’s axis that completes one revolution in about 26,000 years (Blomberg & Henriksson 2007a). The heliacal rising of the star was three days before the autumn equinox following its long period of invisibility during the summer months. It would have been an excellent harbinger of the autumn equinox and the new year. The retention at Knossos of the orientation of the earlier EM III “palace” for the Old Palace when it was built in MM IB (Catling 1973-1974, 34) also shows the importance of alignments in the case of the autumn equinox, which does not change due to precession.
The orientations to important calendar points that existed for all Minoan buildings that we investigated reveal that the construction of calendars was a primary goal of Minoan astronomy. This presupposes a longstanding tradition of sky watching and recording with respect to the sun, the moon and the bright stars that began probably not later than the fourth millennium. The orientations to Arcturus at four sites reveal also the Minoan use of this important calendar star for the agricultural year, as it was later used by the Greeks. We have not investigated Minoan interest in the planets.
By the end of the third millennium, the Minoan astronomers had acquired a deep understanding of the motions of the sun and the moon and were able to construct both a lunar and a solar calendar that could be kept accurate through time by simple methods. There are the archaeological remnants of a calendar regulator that had once functioned—and still functions—in the most sacred part of the old palace at Knossos (Henriksson & Blomberg 2011). It consisted of an alabaster bowl embedded in the floor in the darkest part of the Central Palace Sanctuary (Fig. 2).
Fig. 2. The alabaster bowl in the Central Palace Sanctuary at Knossos
The bowl was placed such that sunrise on the morning of the equinoxes shone through the northern side of the door, and the rays struck it. Eleven days after the autumn equinox the sun’s rays reached the bowl for the last time until 11 days before the spring equinox. There are the natural foresight of the Ailias Ridge and the artificial foresights of the north and south door frames (Fig 3).
Fig. 3. Sunrise at the autumn equinox and 11 days later at Knossos
On the morning of the equinoxes a reflection in the liquid-filled bowl is cast for about seven minutes on the west wall of the Sanctuary, and for
somewhat less time for each of the 11 days following the autumn equinox and preceding the spring equinox. The reflection becomes lenticular in shape
as the sun rises higher and it reaches its largest size after about four to five minutes. There is a somewhat worn lenticular depression of similar
size in the wall exactly at the site of the reflection. It was probably incised to indicate its place following future refurbishing of the stucco,
which was the usual covering of Minoan walls (see video). The stone bowl is now much worn, as the Sanctuary in which it was placed was altered by
the Mycenaeans when they took over the palace (ca 1450), and a corridor was built in the area of the stone leading through a newly-cut door into the
storage magazines to the west (Hallager 1987).
The reflection at sunrise on the morning of the equinoxes is cast in a cycle of 365 days for three consecutive years, but not until the 366th day in the fourth year. The Minoans must have realized that an intercalary day should be added every fourth year to maintain a calendar that always started at the autumn equinox. The reflection differs in size from year to year due to the varying distance of the sun from the true equinox—the point on the celestial equator where it intersects the ecliptic—and is larger the closer the sun is to the true equinox (Fig 4). The sun can be from as much as 6 hours away from the true equinox at sunrise. This is a calendar regulator for both a lunar and a solar calendar and is located in what was probably the most sacred room in Minoan Crete. The phase of the moon on the 11th day before or after an equinox was a method for knowing when a moon month should be added to the lunar calendar (Henriksson & Blomberg 2011). The autumn equinox, rather than the spring equinox, is indicated not only at Knossos but also at Petsophas and at Juktas (Blomberg, Henriksson & Papathanassiou 2002). The South east house at Knossos shows some similarities to the arrangement at the Palace, but it is not so well preserved.
Fig. 4. The size of the reflection at sunrise on four consecutive autumn equinoxes in a cycle of 365 days in three years and 366 days in the fourth year
Our constellation of Orion dominated the eastern sky opposite the Sanctuary at the autumn equinox in the Middle Bronze Age, and it is probable that its brightest stars together with Sirius formed the constellation of the double axe, the most important Minoan symbol (Fig. 5).
Fig. 5. The hypothesized Minoan double axe on 21 September 2000 BCE, at 23.23 local mean solar time, at Knossos when Sirius became visible above the Ailias ridge. The center of the door of the Central Palace Sanctuary is at azimuth 100°.
Fig. 6. The bright star of the hypothesized Minoan double axe, Betelgeuze, became visible above the Ailias ridge on 21 Septenber 2000 BCE, 21.19 local mean solar time, at Knossos. It appeared in the middle of the doorway of the Central Palace Sanctuary as seen from the alabaster bowl.
The double axe is engraved in the southern wall of the Sanctuary, and the shadow on the wall at sunrise at the equinoxes touches its upper point (Fig. 7). This makes it probable that the Sanctuary was not only devoted to the mechanical regulator of the calendars, but also was important in celebrating some aspect of Minoan religion.
Fig. 7. The double axe on the southern wall of the Sanctuary.
The orientation of the ceremonial rooms of the palace at Zakros to moonrise at the major southern standstill may reveal that the Minoans understood
the importance of the 19-year cycle of the moon, when the moon will recur with the same phase on the same day of the solar year marking a nearly
even cycle of 19 solar years and 235 synodic months.
Minoan astronomy, as revealed from the investigation of the relationships of their buildings to celestial bodies, had achieved a
level comparable to that of the astronomy of the Egyptians and the Babylonians. The important recovery of Minoan economic clay documents found at
Agia Triada shows that the Minoans kept detailed accounts of farm produce (Godart and Olivier 1976-1985), and thus it is probable that their
astronomers kept careful records of their observations of the motions of the celestial bodies. Our lack of such texts deprives us of specific
knowledge, but we can infer its scope from contemporary neighboring societies and from customs in the later history of the island that are
echoed in Mycenaean and Greek myths and rituals. At some time in the third millennium Minoan astronomers had constructed both a lunar and a
solar calendar that could be regulated precisely. They probably also had a stellar calendar that could be used for agriculture and navigation.
This was an important feature of the Greek calendars. The precise orientation of Minoan buildings to positions of the sun marking the beginning
of each solar month (Table 2 above) implies that the celestial sphere had important symbolic meaning in Minoan traditions and religion.
Each place may have had its responsibility in celebrating some of the significant events of human life at the right time, for example
celebrations for a god or goddess, rituals for the rulers or priests, times for sowing, harvesting and sailing, and other local and national
religious celebrations. Each settlement would have had its part to play in the wider context of Minoan cosmology by being a link in the chain
of months recording terrestrial time and its dependence on the motions of the celestial sphere.
The influence of astronomy on the development of a culture is incalculable. The motions of the celestial bodies are ruled by exact mathematical laws and it is natural that this challenged the intellect of humans at an early stage. It seems that systematic observations of the sky became an essential part of human activity no later than the Neolithic period. Astronomical observations were the first steps towards the scientific conquest of nature. Our insights into Minoan astronomy will open the door to that culture in a way that was not available before, since its script has not yet been deciphered. The discovery of lunar and solar calendars created order in the timing of daily events. Calendars were not only temporal markers of these events, but had the higher religious function of connecting the earthly with the heavenly and incorporating the two in Minoan cosmology. The knowledge of navigation increased security on the seas and fostered foreign contacts that had long lasting influence in many areas of Aegean culture.
Our archaeoastronomical studies have influenced Minoan archaeologists to measure the orientations of buildings to important calendric, agricultural and similar positions of the celestial bodies, and thus the future looks bright for the deepening of our knowledge of Minoan, as well as Mycenaean, astronomy.
The mindset in a culture that is conscious of its intellectual achievements is positively molded by its environment and becomes part of the endowment of those who are heirs to that culture. We ourselves are the heirs of the Minoans in our debt to Greek culture. The interval between our culture and that of the Greeks is shorter than the interval separating their culture from that of the Minoans. (Top)
We would like to express our gratitude to all those who made our research possible. We received financial support beginning in 1995. The main
contributor was the Swedish Council for Research in the Humanities and Social Sciences, now the Swedish Research Council. Further support for
travel and equipment was received from the Gunvor and Josef Anér Foundation, the Axel and Margaret Axelsson Johnson Foundation, the
Magnus Bergvall Foundation, and the Helge Axelsson Johnson Foundation. We were granted permission to study the sites in Crete that we chose
for our investigation by the Greek Archaeological Service and were given practical assistance in many ways by the regional ephors and the
Swedish Institute at Athens. We are very grateful to Mikia Blomberg for helping us with this website.
Baity, E.C. 1973. Archaeoastronomy and ethnoastronomy so far, Current Anthropology 14, 389-449.
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