The Minoan honeybees

The honeybees pendant was discovered in the Necropolis of the Minoan Palace of Malia on the island of Crete, and is thought to date to c.1800 BC. The site of the ancient cemetery is named Chryssolakkos, or “pit of gold”, because of the many precious objects that were found there. The scale of the palace and the plethora of treasures found in this adjoining burial ground, certainly suggest that those buried here were significantly wealthy and of high standing in the local community.

Malia honeybees pendant

Malia honeybees pendant

The Palace of Malia, which is located about 3km east of the town, is the third largest of the Minoan Palaces, covering an area of around 7,500 square metres and, according to myth was ruled by Sarpedon, son of Zeus and Europa and brother of the famous King Minos. The Palace was originally constructed in c. 1900 BC but was destroyed by an earthquake c 1700. It was rebuilt soon after and most of what we can see at the archaeological site today dates to this second phase of construction, termed the Neopalatial complex. However, the Necropolis, where the pendant was found, dates to the first phase of construction.

The pendant itself is made from gold and comprises two bees, their bodies curved towards each other and their wings outstretched, clasping a honeycomb into which they are placing a small drop of honey. The piece is striking not only because of its unusual composition and intricate rendering, but also because of the significance of its subject-matter.

In the cultures of the Ancient Near East and Aegean, the bee was believed to be a sacred insect, especially associated with connecting the natural world to the underworld, which helps to explain why a pendant with such a design was placed in the tomb with the deceased. Often, the bee appears in tomb decoration and, in Mycenae, so-called tholos tombs were sometimes even shaped as beehives.

ariel view of a model of the Nekropolis, located in the Minoan palace Malia.

Ariel view of a model of the Nekropolis, located in the Minoan palace Malia.

The bee also played a central role in Minoan and Mycenaean daily life; beekeping was a Minoan craft, which produced the fermented honey drink mead, older even than wine. The bee was also the symbol of the Minoan-Mycenaean goddess Potnia, meaning “mistress”, who was also referred to as “The Pure Mother  Bee”. Her priestesses, too, were given the name Melissa, meaning “bee”, and some of our extant literary sources, such as Pindar, indicate that this practice carried on long after, with worshippers of Demeter and Artemis also being referred to as bees, as well as the Pythia at Apollo’s oracle in Delphi.

Malia honeybees pendant.

Malia honeybees pendant.

The pendant provides us with evidence for the advanced standard of workmanship in metal that was obviously being practised in this area at the time, since the artist has expertly wrought the honeycomb and certain details on the bees’ bodies using the difficult process of granulation. During this process, tiny beads of gold were applied to the surface of the jewellery using a compound of glue and copper salt, which, when heated, fused together the required components. As well as indicating the sophisticated technological knowledge of the Minoans, such obvious care and attention to detail perhaps also reflects the significance of the bee and confirms its important role within this ancient civilisation.

Author: Alexandra Hamburger

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4 Responses to The Minoan honeybees

  1. Joan Hopper says:

    We saw this amazing piece at the museum in Hermione on Crete. We were told that after 3 years of study, it was finally determined that there were 2300 tiny beads on the combination and they are still trying to figure out how this process of granulation was was achieved with the tools that they had at the time.
    I was so fascinated that I bought a replica so I could retell this incredible story.

  2. Sarah Lawson says:

    I have worn this pendant for thirty years and still as fascinated with it. I return to Crete every year and spend time in the small village next door Sissi.

  3. Pingback: The Beautiful Island of Crete | Deb Chambers

  4. NJD says:

    Excellent article, this is a more interesting artefact that may be appreciated at first. There are 29 dots on the moon disc, a month. There are 3 months shown, the season of Portia Theron (Artemis), this is confirmed as the royal jelly to make a new queen is locked away.

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