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Minoan Civilization: Sacrificial bull’s head found at Petras

A sacrificial bull’s head found at a Minoan cemetery associated with the palace of Petras in eastern Crete is further evidence of an elite society with complex rituals of death, Minoan civilization archaeologist Metaxia Tsipopoulou said in an interview with state-run news agency amna.

This finding of a bull’s sacrifice, she adds, “may possibly be the oldest ritual (found) in a Minoan tomb that relates to this animal of outstanding importance.”

The unlooted cemetery was in use from 2800 BC to approximately 1750 BC, and is associated with burials of the elite.

The website of Petras has been the life’s work of Tsipopoulou, who began digging there in the 1980s.

Within its premises, she and her team excavated 26 funerary buildings used as bone depositories rather than primary burials.

The bull’s head was found in Funerary 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 placed on the earth floor.

“There were no other bones of the animal besides the cranium. Obviously the sacrifice took place at another cemetery section,” Tsipopoulou said.

The cranium was accompanied by six vessels and two triton shells: a cup, three wide-spout pitchers (prochooi), a censor, and a lamp. The triton shells, “which are very important in Minoan religion (…) are something sacred, as are bulls,” the archaeologist notes. The vessels and shells were spread over the entire Area 8. Since the area was open to the sky, the lamp indicates it would either have been used to light the censor or to light the space if the ritual was held at night.

She said that Minoan residents, as those in other regions of the world, would not mix rituals of death objects with daily objects.

“The vessels would remain in the area (of the ritual), because, as in other societies, whatever was connected to death never returned to the residence complex to be used, but they used to break it and leave it in the cemetery areas.”

The style and date of the pottery secures the sacrificial placement to around 1850 BC.

“We don’t know what prompted this elite family to sacrifice an extremely valuable animal,” Tsipopoulou said, “but perhaps it followed a strong earthquake or a pandemic or a dangerous and fatal natural phenomenon like a tsunami.”

Bulls are associated with the sea in mythology, she noted.

Its removal was meticulous and took two months before it was shipped to an Oxford University laboratory for examination. The results showed that the deposit took place after the animal was eaten, since its tongue, which was considered a treat, she said, had been removed and in the process its lower jaw broke. It is believed the animal was possibly domesticated and around 5 years of age.

Tsipopoulou says that no human burial was found in Area 8. At the 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, along with valuable accompanying objects – cylinder seals, stone pottery pottery, gold or silver beads sewn onto garments – to the funerary buildings, she noted.

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