When driving around the island of Crete, one often comes across sheep or goats grazing.
One can’t help wondering what food they find on the rocky slopes of the island’s mountains.
When not grazing rocks, they may use the road as if it belongs to them, which is probably true, as they’ve been on the island long before any car.
An ancient snapshot
A 4-thousand year bowl shows a shepherd with his flock, meticulously assembled in its interior. Apparently, the scene was not unfamiliar to the potter who made it; the bowl was an offering to the gods residing at the site of Palaikastro, probably accompanying prayers for protection.
What’s amazing is not that scenes like this one can still be seen in Crete today, but that when this bowl was made, shepherding was already an ancient tradition on the island.
It’s estimated that animal husbandry appeared in Crete in Neolithic times (7th millennium BCE), as evidenced by bones in excavations.
By the Bronze Age (which for Crete begins at 3,200 BCE) these bones belong mostly to mature animals, which indicates that they were not kept for their meat, but for their wool and milk.
Later (about 1.900 – 1.700 BCE), animal figurines were dedicated at sanctuaries, probably offered by shepherds, whose livelihood depended on the well-being of their flocks. The sheer numbers of these figurines underline the importance of domesticated animals for the island’s people.
The palace records
But these are not the only testaments to the animals’ importance. Bureaucracy apparently took stock of these animals and taxes (or something similar) were levied. Records from 1700-1450, written in the still mysterious Linear A script, contain symbols representing sheep and goats which were among the resources under the control of the palace complexes.
Later, during the time when the only palace centre on the island was that of Knossos (1450 – 1300 BCE; another possible centre may have been Kydonia, present-day Chania) we have more information, in the form of yet more tablets. These are in another script, Linear B, which has been deciphered. From them it becomes obvious that Knossos exercised its authority over much of central and western Crete and, during the time, the management of sheep and goats was highly organized and specialized.
Of the 3,000 clay tablets found in the palace of Knossos, a full 800 deal with animal husbandry, especially of sheep. One tablet mentions no fewer than 10,000 animals.
The tablets detail not only the numbers of animals, but also their sex, age, ownership status, even their shepherds.
From these texts we deduce that the Lord of Knossos and his bureaucracy had, at the time, about 100,000 sheep under their control, which produced up to 52 tons of wool, a vital resource.
The palaces and their lords may be long gone, but the sheep still dominate the Cretan landscape. Their wool is less precious than in antiquity; what matters more nowadays is milk, which goes into the making of the island’s famous cheeses.