Here’s a beautiful ancient Minoan fresco of a woman gathering saffron on a rocky hillside.
Saffron is a spice derived from the crocus flower, and since each flower produces only a tiny amount of the spice, gathering it on any scale is a labor-intensive process. With her large earrings and the many colorful, decorated layers of her clothing, this lady seems a little overdressed for such hard work. There may be various explanations. Perhaps this fresco represents a ceremonial harvest, not unlike the use of a golden shovel to dig the first scoop of dirt on a building project, or possibly a small harvest for religious use. It might also be simply an artistic depiction suitable for an elite home and not intended to represent the actual attire of an agrarian worker.
Whatever the case, it’s a beautiful work of art.
Image: Detail of saffron-gathering fresco, photograph by Yann Forget via Wikimedia (Akrotiri; c. 1700 BCE; fresco)
Out There is an occasional feature highlighting intriguing art, spaces, places, phenomena, flora, and fauna.
Imagining the mundane details of daily life in past cultures can be difficult. Everyday things like houses, clothing, and daily routines tend not to be well-represented in textual or archaeological sources because they were so ordinary that no one thought to write about them or take care to preserve them. Yet these are exactly the sorts of everyday details that can be most useful when looking to the past for inspiration for worldbuilding. To try to understand what daily life looked like in the past, we often rely on chance finds and careful reading of sources that weren’t intended as guides to the mundane.
For example, we have only a limited idea of what an ancient Minoan house may have looked like. The Minoan civilization flourished on Crete and some of the southern islands of the Aegean Sea in the first half of the second millennium BCE, at its height between roughly 2100 and 1400 BCE. Minoan palaces have been thoroughly excavated at sites such as Knossos and Phaistos, but what about the homes of ordinary people?
We have a few valuable sources of evidence. One is this pottery house model found at Archanes, on Crete. This model shows many features that must have been part of everyday Minoan architecture: solid lower-story walls and a breezy columned upper story, windows barred with slats, a projecting balcony, and perhaps a small walled garden. (The entry door is on the other side of the model; the upper story is modern reconstruction.)
To get a sense of how houses like this fit together to make up a village, we can look to the site of Akrotiri, a Minoan settlement on the island of Thera (now called Santorini) that was buried in a volcanic eruption sometime around the late 1600s BCE. Despite the destructive effects of the eruption, excavation at the site has found a tightly-built settlement of multi-story houses connected by streets and drainage channels.
More evidence comes from a fresco that was preserved on the wall of a house at Akrotiri, depicting a panoramic view of the island. This segment shows the town. While the image is a little hard to interpret, we can clearly see a densely-built settlement with houses made of regularly cut stone sitting on many levels. These houses display many of the same features as the Archanes house: low doorways, porticoed porches, windows covered by slats, and people looking out from balconies or rooftops.
Akrotiri fresco, photograph by Dirk Herdemerten via Wikimedia (Akrotiri; c. 1700 BCE; fresco)
When we put all these different sources together, we can begin to imagine everyday life in a Minoan house: the shady lower floor and the breezy upper floor, the slivers of sunlight coming in through the window grilles, the gurgle of water running by in the drain channel right outside, and the endless chatter of the neighbors on their overhanging balcony. For creating any sort of pre-modern culture in a warm, dry setting like the Mediterranean, it’s not a bad start.
History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writershere.