A groundbreaking study may change our understanding of how maritime navigation may have connected Bronze Age cultures in the Mediterranean. The research has uncovered evidence that the ancient Minoan civilization, which flourished on Crete from 2600 – 1100 BCE, may have used celestial navigation techniques similar to those employed by Polynesian and Micronesian cultures.
Minoan Crete, famous for its legends of the minotaur and for having the world’s first navy, developed significant nautical technologies that aided them in their international sea trade of crops and other cargo, a central aspect of Minoan culture, which lied at a crossroads of sea routes between different regions
The link between Minoan wealth and the sea was highlighted by the study’s findings. Analysis showed that the axis of the Minoan palaces were oriented toward the rising or setting of important navigational stars, which may have helped sailors to navigate to the bustling commercial destinations in the Levant and Egypt. The orientation of these palaces symbolized Crete’s special relationship with foreign trading hubs and the control that local elites wielded over specific sea lanes.
Using a combination of traditional fieldwork and innovative virtual analysis, the study developed a new methodology for examining the orientations of the palaces along navigational directions. Further studies on the orientations of ancient buildings toward navigational stars using a similar methodology may provide new discoveries as well. The results suggest that the Minoans used “star paths”, or linear constellations (known in traditional Polynesian star sailing as kaveinga) to reach cities in the Mediterranean area, many of which have evidence of Minoan artifacts and frescos.
One such star path is Spica in the constellation of Virgo with its direct route connecting Knossos – the largest Minoan palace – to the important trading hub of Sidon (in modern Lebanon). According to legend, Sidon is the location where Europa, mother of the mythological founder of Knossos, was abducted by the god Zeus and taken to Crete.
Furthermore, Spica’s classical name, originates from the Latin for “spike, ear of wheat” and is associated with the goddess “Šala, the ear of grain” in Babylonian mythology. The study points to the fact that the Linear A word KU-NI-SU has been speculated to mean “a type of grain or wheat,” and be the etymological root for the toponym “Knossos”. This translation would coincide with the alignment of Knossos toward Spica, and may provide further clues about the undeciphered Linear A.
This exciting discovery shows us the sophisticated navigational abilities of the Minoans, which may have included the use of a star compass similar to those found in the Caroline islands, north of New Guinea. It also challenges the commonly-held belief about the limitations of open-sea navigation, mathematics and interregional trade in the Bronze Age.
Further research is needed to fully understand the link between specific Minoan palaces and partner cities, as well as the celestial navigation techniques used by the civilization. However, this study provides a fascinating glimpse into the economic and maritime heart of Minoan culture, and the powerful role celestial navigation played in the rise of this ancient civilization – the first in Europe. Other avenues of research are also being explored, including a documentary recreating the sea journey from Knossos to Sidon using a boat similar to the ones used by the Minoans while using traditional Polynesian star navigation techniques.
The study was published in the Mediterranean Archaeology and Archaeometry journal, and was conducted by skyscape archaeologist Alessandro Berio, associated with the University of Wales Trinity St. David.
The study concludes that the central courts of the palaces were primarily aligned toward important star paths aimed at distant coastal emporia such as Byblos and Sidon. This research has the potential to shed light on the trade networks and cultural exchanges that occurred in the ancient world and indicate the celestial navigation was being utilized a thousand years before the first historical mentions in Homer’s Odyssey.