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Representational image depicting the use of star paths by Minoan civilization. Source: Alessandro Berio / CC BY 4.0

Star Paths Likely Guided Minoan Culture

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Minoan civilization may have been heavily dependent on celestial star paths up above to help them navigate their way throughout the Mediterranean. A study has found that Minoan palaces were even positioned to face the rising or setting of certain prominent stars, acting as their guide to commercial hubs.

Given its location, open-sea navigation and interregional trade were essential to the success of the Minoan civilization. Alessandro Berio, a skyscape archaeologist, published the study in the journal Mediterranean Archaeology and Archaeometry , suggesting that, like Polynesian and Micronesian cultures, the Minoans may have used star routes to navigate the open seas and reach the Mediterranean cities with which they had trading links.

Ruins of the Kato Zakro palace in Crete. (tella0303 / Adobe Stock)

Ruins of the Kato Zakro palace in Crete. ( tella0303 / Adobe Stock)

Minoan Civilization: Mythology and Fact

The Minoan civilization gets its name from the infamous King Minos of Knossos of Greek mythology, who sent Athenian youth into the labyrinth built by Daedalus to feed the Minotaur until Athenian hero Theseus killed the monster.

The term Minoan is, however, of purely modern 19th-century origin. It is generally attributed to British archaeologist Arthur Evans who is credited with rediscovering the ancient Cretan civilization in the modern era. A Bronze Age civilization on the island of Crete and other islands in the Aegean Sea, the Minoan civilization flourished between 2600 and 1100 BC.

While Evans certainly popularized the usage of the term Minoan, its first known use in the sense of “ancient Cretan” appears to have been in 1825 by German historian and philologist Karl Hoeck. Hoeck, however, used it in the mythological rather than archaeological context, having no idea that ancient Crete, which was rediscovered only in the 20th century, actually existed.

Recreation of a Minoan stern aiming at Castor setting while following the rhumb line from Kato Zakro to Pelusium. The actual Minoan constellations are unknown. (Alessandro Berio / CC BY 4.0)

Recreation of a Minoan stern aiming at Castor setting while following the rhumb line from Kato Zakro to Pelusium. The actual Minoan constellations are unknown. (Alessandro Berio / CC BY 4.0 )

The Celestial Alignment of Minoan Palaces

As reported by Heritage Daily , Alessandro Berio examined the Minoan palaces' orientation, specifically along navigational directions. These palaces are characterized by their imposing rectangular central courts, typically situated north-south along their longer axis. Berio's study revealed that the axes of these palaces were aligned with the rising or setting of prominent navigational stars.

This alignment may have played a critical role in guiding Minoan sailors to critical trading destinations in Egypt and the Levant. Imagine the thrill of these ancient mariners as they set sail under the guidance of the twinkling stars above, navigating the vast seas to reach their destinations.

In fact, the orienting of different palaces toward specific star paths and sea lanes may have symbolized the special relationship between these palaces and distinct foreign commercial hubs. Further, they might have legitimized the power of the ruling elite who controlled the knowledge and technology of maritime navigation and, through this, specific sea routes.

The study found that Minoan sailors may have made use of star paths or linear constellations to direct them to cities in the Mediterranean, where Minoan artifacts and frescoes bear evidence of trade links between them.

Diagram showing the way Minoan palaces were positioned to face the rising or setting of certain prominent stars. (Alessandro Berio / CC BY 4.0)

Diagram showing the way Minoan palaces were positioned to face the rising or setting of certain prominent stars. (Alessandro Berio / CC BY 4.0 )

Exploring Celestial Connections: Minoan Palaces and Advanced Navigation

The largest Minoan palace in Knossos was aligned with Spica, the brightest star in the constellation of Virgo, to connect with Sidon, a thriving trading center in present-day Lebanon. Interestingly, Sidon holds significance in the Minoan civilization's origin myth as it was where Zeus, disguised as a bull, abducted the Tyrian princess Europa. The pair then crossed the Mediterranean to Crete where Europa gave birth to Minos and the Minoan civilization began.

Similarly, the central court at Kato Zakro was oriented toward the ancient city of Pelesium (Tell Farama in Egypt) via Castor in the constellation of Gemini, while also being perfectly oriented with the Etesian winds. These findings challenge the belief that the Minoan central courts were largely oriented to sacred mountains or caves and shed light on the advanced navigational skills of the Minoans.

The study demonstrates that open-sea navigation and mathematics were more developed in Bronze Age civilizations than previously believed and interregional trade was conducted at a far greater scale. It is possible they were using star compasses similar to those found in the Caroline islands, north of New Guinea.

Trade and seafaring were crucial to the growth of the Minoan civilization and it's possible that celestial navigation played a significant role in their success and rise to power. Berio's study suggests that the central courts of Minoan palaces, the economic and astronautical core of Minoan culture, were oriented towards specific foreign trading centers using star paths, rather than towards any religiously significant locations.

Top image: Representational image depicting the use of star paths by Minoan civilization. Source: Alessandro Berio / CC BY 4.0

By Sahir Pandey

References

Berio, A. 2022. “Minoan Star Sailors: Linking Palace Orientations with Maritime Trade Routes and Celestial Navigation” in Mediterranean Archaeology and Archaeometry , Vol. 22, No. 3, pp. 149-177. Available at: http://maajournal.com/Issues/2022/Vol22-3/9_Berio_22(3).pdf

Heritage Daily. March 2023. “Minoan Civilisation May Have Used Celestial “Star Path” Navigation Techniques” in Heritage Daily . Available at: https://www.heritagedaily.com/2023/03/minoan-civilisation-may-have-used-celestial-star-path-navigation-techniques/146340

 

Comments

Pete Wagner's picture

One of the many bad habits of the field of Archaeology is promoting dubious theories without any consideration of simple, common-sense counter-arguments, or alternative theories.  

So here, the theory is "These palaces are characterized by their imposing rectangular central courts, typically situated north-south along their longer axis. Berio's study revealed that the axes of these palaces were aligned with the rising or setting of prominent navigational stars."

Well, we know that the stars move around through the sky during the year.  Read this on that:  https://www.astronomy.ohio-state.edu/pogge.1/Ast161/Unit2/motions.html  And we also know that stars are not always visible due to weather.  And there are a lot of them up there, and it could get confusing.  What is simple, and does not move, and is weather-dependent, are the cardinal directions; and from the quote above, we know that the ancients had a very good understanding of the cardinal directions, and almost certainly had a magnetic compass of some type to determine North at any time.  And back to the question – what would be the simplest, most reliable way to navigate the Med, when land is out of sight? 

I’d guess they used a compass to set their direction during daylight hours, then maybe locked on to a star pattern in the night sky to hold that course through the night, and continued like that.  They wouldn’t need to have a star chart or even know one star from the next.

Nobody gets paid to tell the truth.

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