A Cretan Clay Bull

By Prof Keith Branigan, Emeritus Professor, Department of Archaeology, The University of Sheffield, U.K.

Cretan clay bull. Image available at: https://beecathy.wordpress.com/2017/04/26/IN-WHICH-PART-2-HERAKLION (accessed 15 Nov. 2018)

My favourite ceramic is not beautiful or elegant, neither is it an outstanding example of the potter’s craft. It is a jug 20cms long and 15cms tall, made of buff clay and decorated only with two broad bands of brown paint. It is made in the form of a bull and has a small hole below the handle at the rear of the animal where liquid could be poured in, and a hole in the bull’s mouth where it could be poured out. It was found in 1906 during excavations near a village called Koumasa in southern Crete, Greece, and is more than 4,000 years old.

So why is this old jug so special to me? Three reasons. Firstly, I think its anonymous maker has managed to capture brilliantly the power of the wild Cretan bull. It has huge curved horns, a massive body, a head held high, and front legs thrust forward as if it has suddenly come to a juddering halt. 

Secondly, I think the potter had a sense of humour. Clinging for dear life to each horn is a human figure, with a third spread-eagled across the bull’s forehead. And the bull, for all his power and ferocity is disabled! He has only three legs, two forelegs and a single, central rear leg. 

Thirdly, this pot tells me, and other students of the Minoan civilisation of prehistoric Crete, that the famous bull-leaping sports depicted in frescoes and models found in the Minoan palaces around 1400BC, were already being practised in Cretan villages a thousand years earlier. 

The vase was found in a cemetery of communal tombs and was probably used to pour libations at a funeral. Could the libations have been for a bull-leaper who had misjudged his leap and paid the ultimate price?