Technological transfers of luxury craftsmanship between Crete and the Orient during the Bronze Age

This paper was presented at the International Conference entitled Crossroads II – or There and Back Again, held at Charles University, Prague, September 15-18, 2014.

Fig. 1: Paper on goldwork and stone vessel industries in the Bronze Age Eastern Mediterranean (© Prévalet&Morero).

Fig. 1 : Paper on goldwork and stone vessel industries in the Bronze Age Eastern Mediterranean (© Prévalet&Morero).

The second millennium BC is characterised by the emergence of the palatial system and the development of luxury craft production in the Eastern Mediterranean (Aegean, Egypt, Levant). Goldworking, the stone vase industry and the production of faience objects flourished, mostly in Minoan Crete, Egypt and the Levant. The growth of trade and contacts between the Aegean and the Orient during the second and first millennia BC supported the spread of ideas and finished objects. People, especially craftsmen, also travelled from one centre to another, bringing with them their tools and knowledge.

For several decades, historical studies considered some of the luxury goods in Crete  exotic imports, and attributed to transfer from the Orient most of the technologies, styles, iconographies, and ideas. Using case studies on goldwork and stone vessel production, we demonstrate that technical processes in Crete were not only the result of transfer. In fact, ancient techniques also developed a range of local innovations, craftsmanship stimulation through networking and reciprocal ‘exchange’.

A multidisciplinary approach

Gold and stone vessel craftsmanship were recently reconsidered through multidisciplinary approaches. A direct microscopic investigation was performed on the objects and a database of the manufacturing traces and their morphology, which form the signature of the use of a particular tool, process and technique, was developed. In the case of stone vessel production, a more accurate microscopic observation and precise measurements of the technological micro-traces were required (polishing process). Tribological analyses were therefore performed in collaboration with the LTDS – Ecole Centrale de Lyon. However, at present no tool has been discovered that can be indisputably linked to these industries. Therefore, a series of hypotheses concerning the possible tool-kits and know-how used by ancient craftsmen were formulated based on ethnographic studies of traditional workshops (in Africa, India, Egypt, and Iran), and tested experimentally. The database of diagnostic traces of techniques and tools resulting from these experiments was then compared with the database of traces on the archaeological objects to identify  the materials or tools used that left these marks, to identify the specific skills of the craftsmen, and finally to characterise their productions.

The stone vessel industry

The main centres of stone vessel production in the Eastern Mediterranean were Egypt, the Aegean, Cyprus and the Levant. Among these, stone vase production particularly flourished in Egypt, but also in Crete, during the 2nd millennium B.C., alongside the development of palatial elites. Vases were exported throughout the Eastern Mediterranean, sometimes as diplomatic gifts. Because of the strong influence of Egypt over the whole region, it has often been suggested that techniques were following the same path: from Egypt to Crete. But the reconstruction of the ancient processes developed in these centres reveals a more complex exchange networks. The identification of the technological repertoires employed in these various centres indicates that the commonly held view that there was a technological koine in the Eastern Mediterranean needs revision. For example clear particularities and variations of types of drills can be demonstrated. At the same time centres of production also shared certain techniques, indicating that transfers were taking place. Even if the Minoan stone vessel industry was a local innovation (starting in the 3rd millennium B.C.), technological transfer, such as the spread of the tubular drill from Egypt, occurred during this early period,. However, technology also seems to have travelled in the opposite direction, as suggested by the possible adoption by Egyptian workshops of the Minoan wooden figure-of-eight shaped borers.

The complete technological repertoire of one region was never entirely adopted by another one. On the contrary, specific tools and techniques were selectively introduced. In Minoan Crete, new and imported techniques were very rapidly integrated for the production of local forms and styles. This system of selection and adaptation is well attested in the Protopalatial period (first half of the 2nd millennium BC), which was a period of maturation and diffusion of new technologies in Crete itself.

During the Neopalatial period (mid-2nd millennium BC) Crete also transmitted new processes (especially tubular drilling) to the Cyclades and Mainland Greece.

Even if the presence of Minoan craftsmen is attested at that time in the Levant (Woolley 1955, p. 195, 294; Morero 2013) and Egypt (Bietak 1991, p. 46; 2000; Seeber 2000), as well as that of Egyptian workers in Crete (Morero, forthcoming), the technical repertoire of the Aegean island seems to be predominantly local. These data support the conclusion that there existed a strong technical tradition and skilled craftsmen sometimes inspired by Egyptian forms or iconography (adapted to Minoan taste) but using Minoan technology.

Fig. 2 :  Stone vessel distribution during the Bronze Age (©Prévalet&Morero).

Fig. 2 : Stone vessel distribution during the Bronze Age (©Prévalet&Morero). 

Gold craftsmanship

Minoan gold craftsmanship demonstrates the development of local styles and skilled know-how as early as the mid-3rd millennium BC. This is especially visible at Mochlos where jewellery, including bands, diadems, pins, and pendants, was manufactured in huge quantities, mostly using the gold hammering technique. Although filigree and granulation – both decoration techniques that use wire and tiny granule arrangements soldered to the surface of the jewel – are usually considered to have been used earlier in the Near East, these processes are also in use during the same periods in Anatolia and in the North Eastern Aegean (Prévalet, forthcoming). Furthermore, their anteriority in the Levant and Egypt cannot be well established. For instance, filigree is attested in Platanos, Khalatiana, and Mochlos in Crete during the second part of the 3rd millennium BC whereas it does not exist in the Levant. The granulation technique simultaneously appears in Crete, the Levant, and Egypt at the very beginning of the 2nd millennium BC. As for stone industries, gold technology transfer implies direct contact and interaction between craftsmen. But the results of technological studies show that technical processes and choices in Crete at the beginning of the 2nd millennium BC are not entirely similar to those in the Orient, even if they compare with Levantine or Egyptian techniques. Indeed, the morphology of wires and granules and their arrangement on the jewellery pieces of Kalathiana and Koumasa, for example, required different manufacturing processes and technical choices from those in use in Byblos. Nevertheless, common inspiration and affinities with the Eastern Mediterranean did exist throughout the second millennium BC (Prévalet 2013).

Our technological studies have highlighted that direct contacts and interaction between craftsmen were necessary to operate the diffusion-transmission of techniques which are attested by textual and archaeological evidence (Zaccagnini 1983). Indeed, while the form or decoration of an artefact can be imitated through a simple observation of the finished product, reproduction of the techniques requires direct contact with craftsmen and apprenticeship. It was also demonstrated that exchange and transmission were multidirectional and reciprocal among regional centres.

Fig. 3 : Gold jewellery distribution during the Bronze Age (©Prévalet&Morero)

Fig. 3 : Gold jewellery distribution during the Bronze Age (©Prévalet&Morero)

To conclude, we have brought to light a complex interaction network diffusion system that allowed for the adaptation of technical processes rather than the mere transfer of a single technique. If goldworking partly followed the path of the stone vessels industry, its development might also be regarded as a phenomenon linked to external stimuli and mutual exchange that motivated the development of local know-how and local creativity.


Bietak M. 2000. Minoan Paintings in Avaris Egypt, in Sherratt S. (dir.), The Wall Paintings of Thera, Vol. I., Athens, Thera Foundation, 33-42.

Bietak M. 1999. Une citadelle royale à Avaris de la première moitié de la XVIIIe dynastie et ses liens avec le monde minoen, in Caubet A. (dir.), L’acrobate au taureau : Les découvertes de Tell el-Dab’a (Égypte) et l’archéologie de la Méditerranée orientale (1800-1400 av. J.-C.), La Documentation Française, Paris, 29-81.

Morero E. (forthcoming). Les vases de pierre, in Darcque P. (dir.), Fouilles exécutées à Malia. Les abords nord- est du Palais, (Études Crétoises), Paris.

Morero E. 2013. Transferts techniques en Méditerranée orientale. L’exemple de la fabrication des vases de pierre à l’Age du Bronze, Syria 88, 207-224.

Prévalet R. (forthcoming). Étude technique d’une perle en or de Tell Banat (Syrie) et réflexion sur la diffusion des savoirs au IIIe millénaire av. J.-C., Syria 91.

Prévalet R. 2013. La décoration des pièces d’or fèvrerie-bijouterie en Méditerranée orientale à l’âge du Bronze : techniques, productions, transmissions, Thèse de l’Université, Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne.

Seeber R. 2000. The Technique of Plaster Preparation for the Minoan Wall Paintings at Tell el Dab’a, Egypt – Preliminary Results, in Sherratt S. (dir.), The Wall Paintings of Thera, Vol. I., Athens, Thera Foundation, 91-102.

Woolley C. L. 1955. Alalakh, London, The Society of Antiquaries.

Zaccagnini C. 1983. Patterns of Mobility Among Ancient Near Eastern Craftsmen, Journal of Near Eastern Studies 42 (4), 245-264.

Les auteurs :

Elise Morero is a post-doc researcher at the Khalili Research Centre (KRC) for the Art and Material Culture of the Middle East (University of Oxford), and associated member of ArScAn – UMR7041 (Protohistoire Egéenne). She specialises in the study of ancient techniques, especially lapidary craftsmanship and the production of stone vessels.

Romain Prévalet is a guest researcher (2013-2014) at the Department of Medals, Coins, and Antics of the Bibliothèque nationale de France (Cabinet des médailles), and associated member at Arscan – UMR7041. He is an alumnus of the Institut Français du Proche-Orient (IFPO Damascus, Syria) where he completed his PhD, and has participated in numerous cultural and scientific projects in the Middle East. He is a specialist of ancient gold and silver technology and mainly works on Mediterranean jewellery collections from the Bronze Age to Antique periods.

Pour citer ce billet : Prévalet R. et Morero E. 2015. Technological transfers of luxury craftsmanship between Crete and the Orient during the Bronze Age, ArchéOrient – Le Blog (, 6 février 2015. [En ligne]

Vous aimerez aussi...

1 réponse

  1. 7 février 2015

    […] This paper was presented at the International Conference entitled Crossroads II – or There and Back Again, held at Charles University, Prague, September 15-18, 2014. Fig.  […]

Laisser un commentaire

Votre adresse de messagerie ne sera pas publiée. Les champs obligatoires sont indiqués avec *

Ce site utilise Akismet pour réduire les indésirables. En savoir plus sur comment les données de vos commentaires sont utilisées.