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Hagia Triada sarcophagus

Does the Hagia Triada Sarcophagus Hold the Key to Discovering the Secrets of the Minoan History?


The sophisticated decoration of the 3,500-year-old sarcophagus of Hagia Triada has provoked huge discussions and debates among researchers, as it seems to provide evidence for a mysterious relationship between the Minoans and ancient Egyptians. Moreover, the artifact may have been a significant milestone in decoding the origins of the lost civilization of Crete.

The mysterious Minoan civilization remains one of the most mind-blowing secrets of the ancient Hellenistic world. Hagia Triada, also known as Agia Triada, is the archaeological site of an ancient Minoan settlement located on the western end of a prominent coastal ridge on the island of Crete. The ancient site, and the surrounding area, remains one of the most remarkable in the entire Mediterranean area. It has yielded the most impressive collections of Minoan artifacts that has been found to date, including the historically significant Hagia Triada sarcophagus, which was unearthed in 1903.

Archaeological site of Agia Triada

Archaeological site of Agia Triada (CC BY 3.0)

Egyptian-like Paintings

The sarcophagus, which is now exhibited in the Heraklion Archeological Museum, was found during the early stages of excavations at Hagia Triada. It wouldn't have been considered such a fascinating artifact if it weren’t for one very important element – the iconography of the pre-Homeric ceremony called thysiastikis.

This painted scene meant that the sarcophagus became an important key to unlocking the secrets of the Minoan history. The decoding of the paintings brought important information about burial traditions during Mycenaean rule. Apart from the symbolism related to burial traditions, the sarcophagus contains one of the oldest depictions of the lyre in the Mediterranean area. The painting shows two women wearing crowns and carrying vessels in the company of a man who is playing a seven-string lyre. Another important detail is a woman who is emptying a vessel, believed to contain the blood of a bull, as an offering to the gods. On the right side are three men, two of whom are holding animals. In addition, there is a boat carrying a deceased male. It is a depiction of the mythical boat that makes a journey to the afterlife, a concept that was embedded in the ancient Egyptian civilization, as was the cult of the bull.

Long side of the artwork, depicting a bull and a woman possibly making an offering of its blood.

Long side of the artwork, depicting a bull and a woman possibly making an offering of its blood. (CC BY 3.0)

The sarcophagus had been made in the same time period as the 18 th Dynasty of ancient Egypt, when powerful and famous pharaohs like Akhenaten, Hatshepsut and Tutankhamun ruled over Egypt.

Egyptian Footsteps in Crete?

The iconography that is featured in the decoration of the sarcophagus remains one of the most fascinating depictions on a Minoan artifact till this day. The scenes seem to have surprising links to ancient Egyptian culture. Moreover, they had been made in a style previously unknown to the Minoan culture.

Paula Lynne Martino, in her dissertation, tried to explain these characteristics, which may also be the key to the long-lasting mystery related to the connections among these two civilizations. She wrote:

'Knossos, the source of political power and of artistic ideas for so much of Minoan history, was in decline while other sites like Hagia Triada and Kommos were on the rise. In the wake of the decline of Knossos, it would not be unrealistic to assume that artisans who were trained and had worked at Knossos, a place where evidence of interconnections with Egypt appear earlier, would have migrated to new centers of power to work for an emerging elite class seeking new ways to express their social identity. There is also evidence from the earlier LM IA-IB period (1700-1490 BC) where proof of direct contact between Crete and Egypt is found on the Minoan-style wall paintings at Tell el-Dab’a that mark both the end of Hyksos rule and the beginning of the Eighteenth Dynasty, and when, later in the period, wall paintings of Keftiu emissaries appear in Theban tombs. But the evidence for interconnections between Crete and Egypt, no matter how slight, goes back as far as the Middle Kingdom and the MM IB period and is demonstrated by the early presence of Egyptian stone vessels, faience, and Egyptian blue pigment on Crete as well as the Kamares-ware vessels190 found in Egyptian tombs. Not only do these exchanges indicate the trade of goods, but they acknowledge the exchange of ideas that could only be accomplished by traveling groups like artisans, craftsmen, emissaries, ambassadors and, perhaps, even the rulers191 themselves. The observations made and the ideas gathered by these groups are not commodities that can be exchanged in the normal sense, but the absence of observations and ideas in the archaeological record should not rule out the possibility that they existed nevertheless. For many of the Egyptian elements found on the Hagia Triada sarcophagus are best accounted for by the idea of the exchange of ideas.

Sarcophagus from Aghia Triada, north side, Crete, Greece. Painted plaster on limestone.

Sarcophagus from Aghia Triada, north side, Crete, Greece. Painted plaster on limestone. Length: 1.37 m. (Public Domain)

It’s not the first time that a researcher has suggested a connection between Minoans and Egyptians. Some of hypothesized connections are based on similarities relating to the cult of the bull. However, there are also some voices that negate these ideas. Nevertheless, with the growing number of discoveries and analyses of the artifacts, like the Hagia Triada sarcophagus, voices of opposition to this idea are becoming quieter.

The Mystery Continues

Although there are many pieces of evidence for the connection between the Minoans and Egyptians, it is still hard to draw conclusions about the exact nature of their association. According to some theories, the Minoans could even have roots in countries near the Nile River. Other researchers suggest that the close distance between these two ‘kingdoms’ allowed for advanced trade contacts.

Invasions, destructions and possible population movements during the collapse of the Bronze Age, ca. 1200 BC.  

Invasions, destructions and possible population movements during the collapse of the Bronze Age, ca. 1200 BC. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Top image: Hagia Triada sarcophagus (CC0)

By Natalia Klimczak


The Hagia Triada Sarcophagus An Iconographical Study By Jean Porter Nauert, available At:

The Hagia Triada Sarcophagus: Interconnections Between Crete And Egypt In The Late Bronze Age By Paula Lynne Martino, available at:

Hagia Triada sarcophagus, available at:

Agia Triada Arch. Site. Archaeological Site in Messara, S-W Iraklion, available at:



Natalia Klimczak is an historian, journalist and writer and is currently a Ph.D. Candidate at the Faculty of Languages, University of Gdansk. Natalia does research in Narratology, Historiography, History of Galicia (Spain) and Ancient History of Egypt, Rome and Celts. She... Read More

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