Minoan Pottery

The people who lived on the island of Crete during the Bronze Age are known today as Minoans, after the legendary king Minos of Crete. Minoan Bronze Age history is broken down into Early, Middle, and Late Minoan (abbreviated EM, MM, LM); the generally accepted dates for the major subdivisions of Minoan art are 3000-2000 bce for EM, 2000-1550 for MM, and 1550-1100 for LM (1). For a chart showing the chronology of Minoan pottery, click here.

Early Minoan (c. 3000-2000 BCE)

One of the first Early Minoan types is known as Incised Ware, characterized by incised decoration of parallel lines creating patterns on the surface of the clay. Contemporary with Incised Ware is Aghios Onouphrios Ware, a type simply painted with dark (red or black) diagonal lines forming both series of parallel lines and criss-crosses on a light surface; these designs typically appear on jugs and bowls (2). Vasilike Ware, with a mottled surface achieved by novel means of firing, was probably meant to approximate more substantial and expensive stone vessels. A reddish coat of paint increased the stone-like appearance. Vessels carved of such variegated and colorful stone as serpentine and alabaster are indeed known from this period (3).

Middle Minoan (c. 2000-1550 BCE)

Middle Minoan pottery was transformed by the introduction of the fast pottery wheel, an innovation that led to finer wares, which, in turn, led to finer decoration. Kamares Ware is decorated with abstract designs, often in complex patterns. The decoration is light-on-dark polychrome and sometimes includes animal or figural representations rather than abstract pattern. The same types of patterns are found on a much thinner type of pot known as eggshell ware because of its extreme delicacy and fineness (4). An incredible variety of designs populated the vases of the Middle Minoan era; eventually the energy of the earlier Kamares Ware calmed a bit, becoming more formal with the introduction of repeated vegetal motifs and other nature-inspired designs (5).

Late Minoan (c. 1550-1100 BCE)

The Late Minoan period brought the famous fresco paintings of the great palaces, such as the well-known scene of acrobats or athletes leaping over a bull, dating from c. 1550-1450 BCE. Not surprisingly, some of the most decorative ceramic types also come from the Late Minoan period. During the later period of Minoan history, dark-on-light pottery predominated, replacing the earlier polychrome, light-on-dark ware. Floral Style was one early result of this shift, featuring vases covered in repeated, decorative floral motifs. A similar style occurring at the same period was Pattern Style, which covered the vessels in geometric designs rather than florals. The patterns may have been inspired by the borders around the fresco paintings in the great palaces (6). Slightly later came the delightful Marine Style, with its sinuous octopi, realistic fish, dolphins, and nautiluses, and jagged, spiky seaweed and rocks.

Following the Marine Style in the middle of the LM period was the so-called Palace Style, in which the earlier decorative motifs of plants, flowers, and sea life are arranged symmetrically and greatly stylized (7). This change from the exuberant Marine and Floral Styles to the more formalized and symmetrical Palace Style is often seen as evidence that the mainland Greeks (Mycenaeans) occupied Crete and imposed their stylistic sensibilities on the native art (8). Soon after this confusing period of Minoan art came the destruction of the Minoan palaces and the Dark Ages, after which the mainland would become the center of artistic production in Greece.

Author: Summer Trentin


(1). Dates from John G. Pedley, Greek Art and Archaeology (Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall 1993): 29.

(2). Jeremy B. Rutter,   Prehistoric Archaeology of the Aegean ( http://projectsx.dartmouth.edu/history/bronze_age/index.html , updated 18 March 2000, accessed 13 March 2005); Pedley, Greek Art and Archaeology , 30, fig. 1.8.

(3). On Vasilike Ware, see Philip P. Betancourt, Vasilike Ware: An Early Bronze Age Pottery Style in Crete (Göteborg: Paul Åströms Forlag 1979); See also Pedley, Greek Art and Archaeology , 32-3, fig. 1.6.

(4). Rutter, Prehistoric Archaeology of the Aegean .

(5). Pedley, Greek Art and Archaeology , 52-5.

(6). Pedley, Greek Art and Archaeology , 76.

(7). For pottery of the Late Minoan period see William R. Biers, The Archaeology of Greece (Cornell University Press 1980): 50-52.

(8). Pedley, Greek Art and Archaeology , 78.