Exploring the ancient world is always an exercise in groping in the dark. Even in relatively well-documented cultures like those of Egypt or Rome there is much we do not know about all aspects of their society, history and appearance. At the extreme of that scale is the Minoan civilisation of Crete, which the world had long forgotten entirely until major excavations at the start of the 20th century revealed them for the first time in over 3,000 years. Unfortunately their language, Linear-A, has yet to be deciphered, so they remain very much one of the least-known cultures of the ancient world. We do not even know what they called themselves (‘Minoan’ is a 20th century invention), so we must make the most of the evidence that we have, which is the remains of their structures, occasional possible references to them in other cultures, and the many fragmentary frescos, pottery and other objects which allow us to glimpse their world.
The dates on the box tell us that this set is aimed at the ‘late Minoan period’, between 1600 and 1450 BCE. It is thought that this was a period of gradual decline, with much speculation as to the reasons for this. Earthquakes and volcanic eruptions are favourite candidates, as too is outside intervention, but it seems clear that somewhere around 1450 BCE the Minoans were overrun by the Mycenaeans. Despite these difficulties, there is remarkably little evidence of military activity during the period. It is not known if the Minoans were a single political body or multiple city states, but the lack of fortifications on Crete suggest they had little to fear either from each other or outsiders. Some have speculated that they were a very pacific people, which seems very optimistic, but even if they had no army as such, they would certainly have needed warriors. The figures in this set are a sampling of their culture rather than representing a unit or body, and the box very helpfully labels each figure for us, so as they are all quite distinct we will consider each in turn.
Row 1 begins with two figures labelled as ‘Heavy Dendra Warrior’. Dendra is a location in modern Greece where a complete set of bronze body armour was found, and is being worn by both these figures. Although this is not Minoan there is good reason to suppose the Minoans may have used the same armour, either imported or locally made. It is nicely done here, as are the two different styles of helmet, which again may well be common to both Greek and Minoan warriors. The first warrior, with sword raised, is supplementing his protection with a full figure-of-eight body shield, while the second has a smaller shield with cut-outs on either side – both seem to have been common forms. Both men are basically standing still, so probably being defensive, but good poses, and we liked the idea of the man resting some of the weight of his spear on his shield.
The third figure is described as an ‘Achean Warrior from Argolis’. This spearman is much lighter in that he wears no body armour, but just a simple kilt with a decorative fringe. He does wear a helmet however, which like his comrades appears to be covered in boars’ tusks and decorated in a manner that could easily have been seen on Crete as well as the mainland. He also carries a classic tower shield, or rather has this slung on his back as he grips his spear. While this must have been quite cumbersome to use, we know that such shields certainly were used by the Minoans, so again no problems with accuracy. The last figure is ‘Akrotiri Warrior’. He too wears just a simple kilt, a helmet of boar-tusks, and carries a large tower shield. This figure, like many here, is based on a fresco, in this case from Akrotiri, and in our view is likely to have been much more common than the first two figures, whose panoply would have been both heavy and very expensive.
Row 2 starts with ‘Mercenary Warrior’, which covers lots of possibilities. He wears a solid bronze cuirass over a tunic, a solid crested helmet with horn decoration, and greaves on the legs. These all match later Achaean images of warriors, and since mercenaries, if used, would most likely have come from the mainland, this makes sense. He carries a double-headed axe that is also pictured at the time, although not as a weapon of war, so it would probably be more accurate to cut back one of the heads. Beside him is a warrior from Arkalochori, who wears a linen corselet much like one found at Arkalochori, as well as under garments again based on fresco images, and a crested tusk helmet once more. He carries a cut-away small shield and a double-headed axe (for which the same doubts about authenticity apply), and again is probably not specific for that one area. His pose is one of the more aggressive to be found here.
Figure three in the second row is a light warrior ‘from Akrotiri’, armed with a number of javelins and carrying a sword. He wears a kilt, and a conical helmet with several horizontal bands, which is a much earlier form of helmet than the one using the tusks, and was probably made of leather or padded fabric, but would have been cheap and reasonably effective, so perfectly possible on such light troops in this period. The archer beside him is lighter still; he wears nothing at all, and is armed with a bow and a (strategically placed) sword. Bows were weapons used since the Neolithic period, and still common in this period, though we could find no evidence for how the arrows were carried.
Row 3 leaves the warriors behind and looks at some civilian aspects of Minoan civilisation. The first figure is a servant, based on a fresco found at Knossos. He wears a kilt extending down at the front, and carries a jar, exactly matching the fresco. His hair, as with many men and women, is shown as long. Next to him is a ‘saffron-gatherer’. Saffron was used in medicines and perfumes, and is depicted being gathered on yet another Knossos fresco (although in this case by blue monkeys!). This woman wears a short-sleeved top and a long bell-like dress, which is commonly pictured, as is the bare breasts, which seem to have been common custom. Next to her is a more high-status woman who we are told is a ‘noblewoman’, again with the open-breasted costume. However we would query why she is lugging around a heavy jug on her shoulder when she must surely have had servants to do that sort of thing. The detail of the costume on both the women is excellent, and reflects the paintings of these elaborate costumes very well. Lastly we have a Priest-King, named ‘Prince of Lilies’. This is one of the most famous of the Knossos frescos, although in fact only some parts were actually recovered, and the much-reconstructed image, as featured on the box, is subject to much debate as to its authenticity. We do not even know if the Minoans had kings, so this is a very vague area, but this figure is a close copy of the reconstructed image (actually a stucco), and of course no one knows if that image is accurate or not, nor whether it depicts what the archaeologists think it might depict. He wears a kilt (more modest than the original image), wide belt and a very elaborate headdress, but we can only guess as to who he really is.
If authenticity and meaning are debateable, then we are on firmer ground with the quality of production on these figures. The sculpting is very good, with good musculature, plenty of detail and a good realism to the clothes, particularly those of the women. The hair too is nicely done, and proportions are very good. Since these are representative poses, the designer has stuck to ones that can fairly easily be created without problems of excess plastic, but there is still a fairly large amount of flash on more or less all the seams. Spear points seem to be a perennial problem as here they are not well done, and the arrow head is missing entirely (this seems not to be the case on the picture on the box, so may be a variable moulding problem).
The Minoan civilisation, best known as the supposed home of the myth of the Minotaur and the Labyrinth until recent times, is still very little known to us today. With so little evidence to go on, we have to say that (more than usual) the set is accurate based on what is known rather than with any certainty. However given those difficulties we would say this set is as accurate as anyone could reasonably have made it, and assumptions about mixing Minoan and Achaean elements all seem plausible too. The poses are fine and the sculpting really good, although it will take a long time to remove all the flash. Perhaps the biggest issue is that this covers a lot of ground in a few figures, including several civilians. Modern ignorance of Minoan military operations means this was always going to be a hard set to include in any sort of a wargame, so the appeal is mainly in the pleasing appearance of these figures, and as a snapshot of Minoan civilisation this set works well.