Sacrificial bull’s head from Minoan cemetery reveals ancient elite society


A sacrificial bull’s head found in a Minoan cemetery associated with the palace of Petras in eastern Crete is further evidence of an elite society with complex death rituals, said Minoan civilization archaeologist Metaxia Tsipopoulou to Eleni Markou of the Athens-Macedonian News Agency.

This discovery of the sacrifice of a bull, she adds, “perhaps the oldest ritual (found) in a Minoan tomb that relates to this exceptionally important animal”.

The unlooted cemetery was used from 2800 BC to around 1750 BC and is associated with elite burials. The Petras site was the life’s work of Tsipopoulou, who began digging there in the 1980s.

At her premises, she and her team excavated 26 funerary buildings used as bone dumps rather than primary burials. The bull’s head was found in burial building 9 (1920 BC – 1750 BC), and area 8 in particular. These buildings could contain up to 14 rooms each. The bull’s head was resting on the earthen floor.
“There were no other bones of the animal apart from the skull. Obviously the sacrifice took place in another section of the cemetery,” Tsipopoulou told ANA-MPA. The skull was accompanied by six receptacles and two triton shells: a cup, three wide-spout jugs (prochooi), a censer and a lamp. Triton shells, “which are very important in the Minoan religion (…) are something sacred, just like bulls”, notes the archaeologist. Vessels and shells were spread throughout Area 8. Since the area was open to the sky, the lamp indicates that it would have been used either to light the censor or to illuminate the space if the ritual had taken place at night. .

She says that Minoan inhabitants, like those in other parts of the world, would not mix death object rituals with everyday objects. “Vessels would stay in the (ritual) area, because like in other societies, anything related to death never came back to the residential compound to be used, but they used to break it and leave it in the graveyard areas.”

The style and date of the pottery warrant sacrificial placement around 1850 BC. “We don’t know what prompted this elite family to sacrifice an extremely precious animal,” says Tsipopoulou, “but maybe it followed a strong earthquake or a pandemic or a dangerous and deadly natural phenomenon like a tsunami”. Bulls are associated with the sea in mythology, she notes.

Its removal was meticulous and took two months before being shipped to a laboratory at Oxford University for examination. The results showed that the deposition took place after the animal had been eaten, since its tongue, which was considered a delicacy, she said, had been removed and in the process its lower jaw fell. was broken. It is believed that the animal may have been domesticated and around 5 years old.

Tsipopoulou says no human burials have been found in Area 8. At Petras Minoan cemetery, almost all burials are secondary. In other words, the body remained in one area until the flesh dissolved and the bones were transferred, together with the precious accompanying objects – cylinder seals, stone pottery, gold beads or silver sewn onto clothes – to burial buildings, she noted.

“Petras never ceases to amaze us,” says Tsipopoulou.


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