One morning in the summer of 2015, an excavation team worked under the hot Cretan sun excavating a 3500 year old Minoan settlement known as Palaikastro. Suddenly, a burst of excited shouts and exclamations was heard across the site. Everyone rushed in the direction of the noise and tried to crowd around the new discovery – but it was not easy to see. At the base of a wall was a miniature ceramic vessel, finely made, despite its minute size. Located below any floor surface, the vessel would hardly have been left accidentally by the building’s ancient inhabitants, and its upright position, found tucked into the foundation almost as if the building had been constructed on top of it, suggest that the object was intentionally placed in this unusual position. But what was the meaning of such an action? What was the significance of the miniature vessel, and what was its relationship to the building and its occupants?
The Minoans, the Bronze Age inhabitants of Crete, the largest of the Greek islands, left behind a beautiful and complex material culture; yet with essentially no written texts to aid modern interpretations, scholars are often left with intriguingly enigmatic objects and contexts. Interestingly, much of this material was made at a small scale; from intricately-carved gold signet rings, gems, and seals, to small, crude figurines, to miniaturized ceramic vessels, Minoan material culture is filled with reduced-scale objects. Some of these were simply small objects incorporated into everyday life, but others seem to have been important features of ritual activity.
Practically easy to carry and transport, small miniatures were particularly useful for the religious rituals that took place at the mountain-top “peak sanctuaries” of Minoan religion. But beyond their practicality, the unique affordances of small-scale objects render them particularly suitable forms of material scaffolding on which the human mind can better understand the ineffable characteristics of spirituality. Inherently personal and individual, miniatures can be intimate personal possessions, held close to the body and demanding of scrutiny. This physical closeness creates a bond between the giver and the receiver, a characteristic which may have been consciously employed in spiritual environments. Physically compressed and unencumbered by complicated details, they are not mere representations of religious beliefs, but tools in the creation of those beliefs, material aids through which spiritual life can be explored and created.
Whether we wish to thank a deity, commune with nature, mediate with the supernatural, or organize our resources, perhaps art at a scale much smaller than the wide world in which we live provides us humans with a means to make sense of it all. As Mark Morris eloquently writes, “the small conjures up infinity more easily than the large;” perhaps the Minoans saw the beauty in this as well, and looked to the small in the midst of their large Aegean world.