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Colonizing Cretans Volume 57 Number 3, May/June 2004
by David Keys

Locally produced Minoan pottery and frescoes found at the site of Miletus in Turkey is evidence that a Cretan colony flourished there 3,700 years ago. (Deutsches Archaeologisches Institut Athen)

Europe's oldest civilization, the Minoans of ancient Crete, were also the continent's first colonialists, according to investigations in Turkey and elsewhere. While archaeologists have long been aware of Minoan trading activity along the Anatolian coast, excavations at Miletus in southwest Turkey are revealing how 3,700 years ago they expanded to the Asian mainland to set up at least one permanent colony. The discoveries lend credence to an ancient Greek myth of a Minoan colony there.

The excavations have been unearthing the central part of a Minoan settlement laid out around a Cretan-style cult area. At least three major storage and probable cult buildings were arranged around a courtyard complete with a sequence of four mud-brick altars. Hundreds of fresco fragments found so far suggest that the walls were covered with spectacular paintings of exotic landscapes featuring papyrus flowers, reeds, lilies, and mythical creatures such as griffins.

Further evidence that the Minoans were based there is that 95 percent of the thousands of pottery sherds from this period found at the site were either made nearby in the Minoan style or imported from Crete itself. Seven inscriptions in Linear A, the undeciphered language of the Minoans, have also been found, inscribed on locally made pottery.

It is possible the Minoans established their colony in Anatolia to help channel mineral wealth, mainly copper, gold, and silver, back to Crete. Miletus is located at the mouth of the Maeander River and was ideally situated for trade with the mineral-rich interior.

"The new discoveries show that Minoan Crete wasn't a self-contained, peaceful, nonexpansionist entity, as some people have thought," says excavation director Wolf-Dietrich Niemeier of the German Archaeological Institute in Athens, "but was an international power that must have had considerable military and naval strength."

With Miletus recognized as a Minoan colony, preparations are now being made by an Anglo-Italian expedition to reinvestigate Iasos, another site in Turkey where substantial quantities of Minoan material has been found. A German expedition from Tübingen University has unearthed the remains of a Minoan fresco inside a seventeenth-century Minoan palace at Qatna, Syria, the fourth such fresco to be discovered in mainland Asia and Africa in recent years. Back in the early 1990s, a fortified palace at Tel el Dab'a in the Nile Delta yielded a Minoan fresco complete with a Cretan religious "bull leaping" scene, while in Tel Kabri, Israel, archaeologists found frescoes of a Cretan religious nature in a great ceremonial hall.

The discoveries at Miletus also have extraordinary implications for academic attitudes toward ancient Greek mythology, or at least some aspects of it. Greek myth maintained that the Cretans, led by none other than the brother of King Minos, of Minotaur fame, had established a Minoan colony at Miletus. In light of the recent finds, says Niemeier, "It must now be accepted that there is some historical truth behind this myth."

Revealing the secrets of seventeenth-century B.C. Miletus has taken the German investigators much of the past decade. This summer the excavators will probe even older levels in a search for the origins of Minoan influence in Anatolia--believed to date back to the nineteenth century B.C.

© 2004 by the Archaeological Institute of America