The term “deep state” was coined in the 1990s to refer to bureaucratic resistance to government strongmen (eg. Tayyip Recep Erdogan). Yet, it characterises a traditional concept in political science, the career bureaucracy of civil servants working in various governmental institutions at different times and places.

The term has been used more recently by conspiracy theorists and right-wingers to pejoratively characterize career civil servants as a self-interested, devious, and secret cabal pursuing an agenda to manipulate the lives of individuals to some nefarious end. This end is speculatively associated with secret societies such as the Illuminati, Freemasons, or “New World Order.”
However, deep states and secret societies are neither deep nor mysterious. As Anthropologist Brian Hayden observed, they are well-known across cultures, and they are not necessarily nefarious or benevolent.

Using Neopalatial Minoan Crete (ca. 1700-1450 BCE) as an example, my recent research is examining evidence for a deep state in Minoan civilization based on three categories of evidence: bureaucratic activity as indicated by administrative records, portrayal of elites as anonymous figures, and architectural evidence. In doing so, I aim to arrive at a more nuanced understanding of the Minoans as an early state society.

After earthquake activity damaged or destroyed the first Minoan “palaces” (ca. 1700 BCE), the island experienced a renaissance. This included a proliferation of monumental buildings, elaborate pictorial art on seals as well as on wall paintings, new ceramic styles imitating nature, and an increase in writing for administrative and religious purposes in the form of the still undeciphered Linear A script written on stone offering tables, now disintegrated parchments, and famously on clay tablets.

Sealings impressed on clay from seals made from precious gems, ivory and gold (materials imported from Egypt) in the form of rings were used to seal parchments, storage jars, and even doorways.

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Storage jar at Knossos. Photo: Pixabay

They served as tokens of bureaucratic control of resources through storage, trade, and other forms of distribution. Linear A archives preserved on clay tablets are known from just two sites: the palace at Kato Zakro in east Crete and from a gypsum chest in the villa at Hagia Triada in southern Crete. The small number of items preserving writing is an accident of preservation. As the tablets recorded administrative transactions, they were kept temporarily and regularly discarded.

After all, most of us don’t keep our shopping lists unless we are hoarders! The architectural context of the archives is interesting. They are placed in small rooms adjacent to spacious, well-appointed halls, with the one at Hagia Triada including enough bench space to accommodate 17 persons. Meeting halls with and without benches are a constant feature in elite Minoan buildings. They indicate a space that might be used for ceremonies, reception of visiting elites and traders, and bureaucratic meetings.

The iconography found on seals and sealings provides an abundance of information on how the Minoans constructed their elite and religious identities. The degree of detail and naturalism in the rendering of many of the figures indicates the incredible artistic skill of the Minoans. Yet, there is often an absence of individuality in the rendering of facial features on many of these items whereby their heads are depicted as indeterminate or as blobs. Archaeologist Christine Morris argued that the purpose of these depictions was to indicate a transition to an ecstatic state beyond the experience of ordinary people in the mundane world. Elite identity on the seals is indicated by elaborate clothing, certain gestures, and surrounding symbols, but as a faceless corporate group constituting a deep state. We might consider the possibility that the religious and bureaucratic roles were combined in order to establish their political control through the formation of one or more secret societies as argued by Hayden. Such groups manipulated their natural, architectural, and spiritual environment for their own benefit through their claims of special knowledge. Wearing seals as tokens would further mark out the wearers as privileged persons with special access to power, secret technical knowledge, and to the divine realm.

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The bureaucrats and spiritual actors among the Minoan elite, thus cloaked their activities in religion, faceless transgenerational anonymity, and specialised knowledge in order to maintain their power and status. In doing so, they used their knowledge (a secretive writing system and other technologies such as craftsmanship), orchestration of public rituals, dominance of the landscape, monumental architecture, and initiatory ordeals such as boxing, dancing, or bull jumping to control access to imported prestige goods and practical items such as metal tools. They met in the restricted confines of palatial architecture to administer resources to their benefit, while advertising their position through the wearing of seal tokens and through the manipulation of public ritual intended to inspire awe in the populace.

Louise Hitchcock is a Professor Classics and Archaeology, University of Melbourne. She is an expert in Minoan and Bronze Age Civilisations. She was a Parsons Fellow at the American School of Classical Studies in Athens, and a senior Fulbright Fellow at the Cyprus American Archaeological Research Institute in Cyprus.