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North Aegean Islands

The Aegean Sea - Prehistoric Era

The unifying role of the Aegean Sea seems to have begun long before the inhabitants of the region adopted the Neolithic economy of agriculture and animal husbandry.  The first use of Melian obsidian by inhabitants of the Argolid goes back to at least the 8th millennium BC, as the finds from Franchthi Cave in Ermionida attest.  So the briny deep, the hals (αλς), became a route (πόντος, pontos) and a crossing (πόρος, poros).  The role of the islands in this transformation was seminal and substantial. 

According to the archaeological evidence, the permanent settlement of the islands took place in the 5th millennium BC, so stimulating the birth of new sectors in the Aegean economy, seafaring, and trade.  The islands' limited natural resources imposed frugality on their inhabitants, making them ever more inventive.  At the same time, the continuous quest for means of subsistence and resources impelled them into adventurous voyages far away from their homeland, bringing them into contact with other societies and cultures.  The goods and ideas brought back home by these intrepid sailors and barterers were quickly adapted to their own needs.  They lost their foreign character and were fully assimilated by the island communities. 

The archaeological data are incontravertible testimony that the Aegean, with its island groups, was for millennia the crossroads where cultures of three different continents met.  The Aegean merchant and mariner was at the center of this meeting, if not its instigator.  So he had the opportunity of comparing and assessing different ideas and of forming his own opinion.  For this reason, it is no exaggeration to say that ‘rational thinking' in the Aegean had been cultivated many centuries before the Ionian philosophers appeared: because writing existed in the time of the latter, they were able to classify and record it for posterity.  On their long voyages, the Aegean islanders were exposed to the cities and minds of many men.  For these ‘old salts' the unknown became a challenge, motivating study and exploration, and the physical phenomena were evidently given a ‘logical' explanation. 

Two cultural unities developed in the island zone in the 3rd millennium BC, known as the Cycladic Culture and the Northeast Aegean Culture, respectively.  Although they had many traits in common, since both are insular, these cultures differed from each other in their social structure and organization: urbanization in the northeast Aegean developed much sooner.  The major discovery that radically altered man's life was metallurgy, the extraction and working of metals.  In the early 3rd millennium BC, metal tools began to be used in the Aegean islands, revolutionizing the existing modus vivendi. 

The new tools facilitated advances in the craft of shipbuilding, giving navigation a new impetus.  It is perhaps not fortuitous that the earliest representations of ships date to the 3rd millennium BC.  From the moment that strong vessels made swift and safe sea transport possible, the character of the economy was transformed radically, and the center of gravity shifted from the mainland to the island zone, and Aegean society passed from the primary production of the Neolithic village to middle-man and transit trade.  The large plains of Thessaly, Macedonia, and the Peloponnese, that had been to the forefront in the preceding millennia, now took a back seat.  The islands emerged as important centers, and the fact that the pace of urbanization in these moved much faster is not without significance.  Poliochni on Lemnos is an outstanding example. 

With a considerable infrastructure of empirical knowledge and a broadness of mind, formed thanks to their seafaring activities, the inhabitants of the Aegean in the 3rd millennium BC proceeded to the creation of institutions in which we can see some of the universal human values of today.  Division of labor had reached the complex level of specialization, in Durkheimian terms.  Smiths, potters, shipwrights, sculptors, painters, merchants, and seafarers are all documented in the archaeological record.  This specialization had ramifications beyond the sphere of the economy; it contributed to the organic cohesion of the society, in which the task of one complemented and supplemented that of the other.  A cohesion that was based on the logic and will of the individuals, a cohesion of secular rather than religious character. 

In the Aegean in the 3rd millennium BC, there was an overt anthropocentricism that can be seen in every piece of material evidence.  Here the human scale dominated, in contrast to the situation in the East, where god and his earthly representative, the ruler, reigned through theocratic systems of government, oppressing the individual.  In the Aegean, the cell of society was the individual not the ruler.  Reason (logos, ?????) not power was imposed on the Aegean islander, who was convinced by logical explanation and dialogue.  The anthropocentricism of Aegean civilization is apparent in its art too.  From the Neolithic period until this day, it has focused on man and his activities, his problems, and his concerns.  Even the divine was represented in human form. 

Yet another important transformation took place in the islands at the end of the 3rd millennium BC.  It was here that indigenous cultural elements first met with those of Crete and the Greek Mainland, that is all those cultural strands that were interwoven to create the fabric of Mycenaean civilization.  The most important Aegean centers in the 3rd millennium BC continued their centuries-long tradition during the Late Bronze Age too, such as Agia Irini on Kea, Grotta on Naxos, Phylakopi on Melos, and Akrotiri on Thera.  Indeed the last settlement, wonderfully preserved under layers of pumice and volcanic ash, constitutes a unique testimony of the splendor this culture had achieved by the mid-2nd millennium BC. 

Although the texts of Crete dating from before the arrival of the Mycenaeans on the island have yet to be deciphered, there are serious indications that, during the first half of the second millennium BC, Cretan society had many of the characteristics of a complex society.  The complexity of Cretan society in the so-called palatial period is reflected in the imposing building complexes with diverse functions, the so-called palaces, and is confirmed by the well-known Code of Gortyna (5th century BC), with aspects of family, religious, civil law, etc., harking back to the Minoan Age. 

The archaeological evidence and the texts, the Linear B tablets, reveal that the Mycenaean kingdoms of the 15th and 14th centuries BC were states with an army, a navy, a bureaucratic system, governmental hierarchy, division of labor, and social stratification.  It emerges from the tablets themselves that some legislative code had been drafted in the Mycenaean world, regulating certain relations between members of Mycenaean society.  It is reasonable to suppose that the above situation will have prevailed in the wider Aegean region after 1450 BC, when the Mycenaean expansion there had been completed.  The destruction of the palaces at the turn of the 13th to the 12th century BC, and the collapse of the centralized authority on the Greek mainland, brought to the fore the physiognomy and potential of smaller peripheral sites, such as those on the Aegean islands, which probably received groups of ‘refugees' from the Greek Mainland.  Indeed they experienced a particular prosperity, since maritime voyages continued for a time in conditions of relative security.

Info thanks to The Greek Ministry for the Aegean Sea (www.ypai.gr)