Cycladic figurine, female, canonical type. Marble, h. 50 cm. Keros, 2800 – 2300 BC. Archaeological Museum of Naxos. (Photo by By Zde – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=33736985)
The Bronze Age in the Aegean is characterized by a few civilizations. Two of whom, the Minoans and Mycenaean controlled trade during their respective high points. In many ways, these civilizations were precursors to the ancient Greek civilization, but there were also glaring differences. The art of these cultures has much in common with that of the Near East and Egypt, but the figures are a bit more fluid.
The Cycladic civilization, named for the Cylades, a group of islands in the Aegean roughly circular in shape, is known for human figures made in marble. There are more female figures, such as the one above, than male, and the male figures are often shown playing instruments. Most of these were found in graves. These may be related to the Neolithic goddess figures from sites like Çatalhöyük, but with more of an overt chthonic, or death-related function. Perhaps, with the small breasts and only slight swelling of the abdomen, they may related to a conception of rebirth.
The island of Crete was home to the Bronze Age Minoan civilization from c. 3000-1100 BCE. This was also the mythical home of King Minos and the Minotaur, a myth possibly inspired by the design of the Palace at Knossos, which is labyrinthine and meandering in form. This civilization also had an as yet undeciphered writing system called Linear A by archaeologists. The palace, one of many found on the island, leading to the supposition that this was not a unified society, had a number of rooms and colonnades, and many colorful murals. The number of bulls in images at the palace show their importance in ritual life. There are also many images of sea life in the frescoes and ceramic paintings of the Minoan period, testifying to the importance of the sea in Minoan life.
Looking at the reconstruction by the original archaeologist, Arthur Evans, and bearing in mind that many contemporary archaeologists debate the veracity of this reconstruction, it is easy to see how the Minoan construction techniques took into account the number of earthquakes in this region of the Aegean.
The Queen’s Megaron, Knossos, (Photo By Jebulon (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons)
Other markers of Minoan religion are double axes and bare-chested women holding snakes, often with cats on their heads, which may be other continuations of the previously seen mother or fertility goddess figures from the Neolithic period in this area. The Minoan artists also followed the Egyptian and Near Eastern conventions of showing women with lighter skin, and giving the faces of their figures, in frescoes at least, frontal eyes within profile heads.
The site of Akrotiri on the island of Thera, better known today as Santorini, gives the best sense of life in Minoan society, as the city was destroyed in a volcanic eruption in the 17th century BCE. The inhabitants abandoned the city, leaving many of their possessions, etc. The frescoes found at the site give a good sense of the Minoan view of the world, and their place within it, as well as ritual activities.
Akrotiri archaeological site, (photo by By F. Eveleens – Own work, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2062912)
At some point around 1200 BCE, the Mycenaean civilization conquered Crete, along with much of the rest of mainland Greece. Much like the Minoans, this was not a unified civilization, but a group of city-states with trading contacts throughout the Mediterranean region. Mycenaean architecture is known for its cyclopean walls, made up of large pieces of stone fit together, and in-filled with smaller pieces of limestone. Much of the palace architecture of Mycenaean cities resembles, on a smaller level, that of the Minoans, and the Linear B script of the Mycenaeans has been translated, possibly because of its resemblance to proto-Greek letters.
The Lion Gate at Mycenae, (photo by By Carole Raddato from FRANKFURT, Germany (The Lion Gate, Mycenae) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)
The lion relief on the famous Lion Gate is another possible reference to a goddess, with the lions around a central column. The cyclopean architecture on either side slowly corbels toward the center, another feature of Mycenaean architecture. The tholos tombs, such as the so-called Treasury of Atreus, also feature corbelling, this time forming beehive-shaped vaults. These were tombs for the elite, possibly postdating the grave circles also found inside the walls that contained shaft tomb burials of other elites, with burial objects that included the famous repoussé gold masks, such as the so-called Mask of Agamemnon.
Mask of Agamemnon, Mycenae, Grave Circle A, 16th century BCE (photo by https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/d9/Gold_death-mask%2C_known_as_the_%27mask_of_Agamemnon%27%2C_from_Mycenae%2C_grave_Circle_A%2C_16th_century_BC%2C_Athens_Archaeological_Museum%2C_Greece_%2822669073522%29.jpg)
After the fall of Mycenaean societies in the 12th century BCE for still-disputed reasons, Greek entered a so-called Dark Ages, where there seems to have been a lack of a unifying group of cultural characteristics and possibly a decline in writing.