Category Archives: Minoan Incense Burners

Experimental Archaeology (Minoan Incense Burners)

It has been sometime since two of our dear friends Gracia and Pete came to spend a holiday with us, not only to visit but to track down and photograph the Rock Rose of Crete in its natural habitat.The Rock Rose produces Labdanum,an aromatic substance sometimes used in incense and perfume.

Gracia and Pete trade in incense resins sometimes travelling to far off countries to obtain many of these exotic items such as frank’ incense and gods smile. They took their wonderful aroma’s and sold them at the Re-enactors markets where we met them many years ago, We were then trading as Apicius Sauces made from original roman recipes.

While Gracia and Pete were holidaying with us in 2006 they visited the Agios Nikolaos museum in Crete where to their amazement they observed more incense burners than they had ever seen in a single exhibition.They were intrigued by the fact  there were some very unusual burners they had not come across before. We suggested that they bring this to the attention of Thomas Brogan,the Director at Instap Study Center where we work.The reason for our suggesstion was because during sorting of pottery we occasionally come across  sherds with holes in them. We thought maybe these sherds could be from one of the incense burners such as those  Gragia and Pete had observed in the museum. Our director advised them to have some replica burners made,and then simply try them out. He also recommended that when they return to Crete they liaise with achaeochemist,Andrew Koh and put together an experimental archaeology project. Jim Newboult another of our re-enactor friends specializes in making replica’s of historic and prehistoric pottery, produced replica’s of three designs using both a hand turned slow wheel to shape a clay type matched to the original artifacts.

Jim Newboult makes a replica of a Minoan incense burner.

Gracia and Pete returned to Crete a few weeks later to meet Andrew,bringing with them examples of some resins they believed would have been available in Bronze age Crete delighting Tom and  us all at the centre with amazing aromas of natural incense. This brought back many memories for John and I when on our reenactment stalls, the intoxicating smells from Pete and Gracia’s incense spread throughout the camp.


Firstly,the type A burner is a curious shape consisting of a saucer with a dome in the middle.Sometimes this dome is perforated. The replica was based on a Late Minoan lB artifacts from the Agios Nikolas Museum.The obvious method of usage was to put lighted charcoal into the cavity, unfortunately this was a failure,as not enough heat could be generated to vaporize anything, even with the use of bellows! When the bowl was filled to the rim with burning charcoal,however,the charcoal remained hot enough to vaporize frerana resin for about two hours. 

Replica of the Type A. Fig 2 incense burner

Replica of a type A. Fig 3 incense burner filled with burning charcoal.

Furthur airflow increased the temperature of the coals considerably, and as a result windy conditions instantly ignited the resin. It was found there was no need to use bellows,as the perforated inner dome appeared to amplify the air flow to the charcoal but the base of the burner became to hot to hold,and managed in windy conditions to scorch the wooden surface on which it was resting. It was decided there must be a way to carry the lit burner and it was soon found  that a small basket of willow proved to be the ideal solution and a burner was filled with hot charcoal and placed in the basket.

Replica type A. Fig 4 incense burner filled with burning charcoal placed in a basket.

The team soon noticed that they could hold the basket quite comfortably,and when indoors,the willow was only slightly scorched. Interestingly,this combination of basket and burner resembles the incense burner held by the “Young Priestess” in a wall painting in the West House at Akrortiri,Thera.

 Fig 5 Detail of the “Young Priestess fresco Akrotiri,Thera

The type B burner bears a close resemblance to a modern burner and as a result,it was natural to conclude that it was an incense burner. Gracia and Pete’s replica is based both on a Late Minoan lll artifact from Sitia and on the illustrations in Georgio’s 1979 article “Late Minoan Incense Burners” In all, five were made but they were left undecorated in order to avoid unnecessary contamination. To test the effectiveness of the burners,the replica’s were filled with ordinary lumpwood  charcoal. An incense resin was then added. The results were amazing,as the charcoal in the burners retained enough heat to burn for up to six hours unattended

Replica of Type B. Fig 6. incense burner.

Apparently, the perforated lid slows down the airflow to the charcoal.Although the base certainly becomes very hot,the unit was very easily moved around by the handle.This characteristic of the burner led to the belief that it could have been used for another purpose, therefor it was thought that given the precious and sacred nature of fire in the Bronze Age these recepticles could have been designed to retain fire while it was carried from room to room or from house to house. If used for this purpose,the lid would have acted as a guard or “cur-few” (literally ‘cover fire’), thus preventing materials from falling into the vessel and catching fire.

This question could be answered by residue analysis of deposits on the inside of the lids. Initial tests were carried out on a single burner. In order to replicate residue deposits the remaining four burners were employed.Each was filled with charcoal,and over a period of two hours,a different type of incense was burned in each burner.

Fig 7 Testing the Type B burners.

The main two resins used for all the experiments were types which would have been readily available to the Minoans; Labdanum(Citus species),which grows on Crete,and Mastic(Pistacia lentcus) a plant which now comes from Chios but is known to have grown on Santorini(Friedrich 1978, 109-128. Both vaporize at a relatively low temperature. Mastic is similar, if not identical, to the” terebinth” found on the  Uluburun ship wreck and identfied at Tel Amana in Egypt (Serpico and White 2000a and b). Furthemore, Andrew Koh has already discovered traces of labdanum on some Minoan artifacts.

The other two incenses used for this experience were black storax and Coptic Frankincense.Black storax is a mixture of the charcoaled bark and resin from Liquidamber orientalis which comes from the Levant(nowadays mainly modern Turkey). The potential use of Copice Frankincense(Boswellia frerana) during the Bronze Age is debatable. Although Gracia and Pete believe it comes from Somalia, and that the potential trade routes to the eastern coasts of Africa would have been easier than those needed to obtain the Arabian Frankincense (B.sacra).

The replica Fig 8 burner was based on a late Minoan lB artifact from the  Makryialos Minoan villa(the same provenance as type A This burner was the item that had originally caught Gracia and Pete’ attention,and as they initially predicted,burning charcoal in the lower cavity failed to achieve anything more than a melted resin (Fig 9). Even so, one extraordinary result was obtained. If one fills the top bowl with burning charcoal,enough heat radiates downwards to release the aromas from resins placed in the lower cavity (Fig l0). However once again residue analysis would be needed to give a better understanding of how this item was employed.

Fig 8  Replica of a Type C incense burner.

Fig 9 Burning charcoal is placed in the lower cavity

of the replica of a Type C incense burner.

Fig 10 The top bowl of the Type C replica is filled with burning charcoal.


 Bringing these ancient artifacts back to life was a fascinating challenge for Gracia and Pete least of all an exciting experience for us all at Instap Study Centre. Hopefully these experiments will help to build a working hypothesis on the functionality of Minoan incense burners. At this point all the replicas have now been given to the Study Center for further analysis and comparison.If we have used these replicas in the correct manner then our own burners should posess residue deposits which would correspond with those on the original artifacts.But if this does not occur then further experiments will need to be tried. With this last comment Gracia and Pete bid us all farewell promising to visit us again soon.


Posted by on May 7, 2012 in Minoan Incense Burners

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