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The Minoan Civilization of Crete: A Great Aegean Culture

The Minoan Civilization of Crete: A Great Aegean Culture


The Minoan civilization was a Bronze Age civilization that was based on the island of Crete, in the Aegean Sea. This civilization flourished from around 3000 BC to around 1100 BC. The Minoan civilization is considered to be the first high culture in the Aegean, and various achievements were reached by its people. This is reflected in the archaeological remains left in existence. The Minoans are particularly known for their engagement in long distance trade. Apart from that, the Minoan civilization produced various works of art, which have been used by modern scholars to make inferences about Minoan culture, society, and religion. The architecture and language of the Minoans have also attracted scholarly attention. The collapse of the Minoan civilization has been traditionally attributed to a massive volcanic eruption. Not everyone, however, accepts this theory, leading to debates, and other theories being suggested.

This classic Minoan civilization story shows Theseus fighting the minotaur. (matiasdelcarmine / Adobe Stock)

Minoan Civilization: Early Greek Mythology and Pottery

The name Minoan was coined in modern times, and how the Minoans referred to themselves is still unknown. It is commonly known that the term Minoan was used by the British archaeologist Arthur Evans to describe the civilization that occupied the site of Knossos on the island of Crete. Evans began excavating the site in 1900 and believed that he had found the palace of the legendary King Minos.

According to Greek mythology, Minos was the man responsible for building the labyrinth, where he kept the Minotaur, a creature that was half-man and half-bull. Incidentally, Evans was not the first person to use the term Minoan. The earliest known use of this name can be found in an 1824 work on Cretan history by the German scholar Karl Hoeck.   

According to the archaeological evidence, the island of Crete was already inhabited by human beings as early as the Neolithic period, i.e., around 7000 BC. It was, however, only several millennia later, i.e., around 3000 BC, that the Minoan civilization emerged. A system of relative chronology for this civilization was created by Evans and modified by later archaeologists. This system is based on changes in pottery styles and divides the Minoan period into three main phases: Early Minoan (3000 – 2100 BC); Middle Minoan (2100 – 1500 BC); and Late Minoan (1500 – 1100 BC). The three phases are subdivided further.

Another system, created by the Greek archaeologist Nikolaos Platon, divides the history of the Minoan civilization into four periods, according to changes in Minoan architecture, specifically the so-called palace complexes. In addition to Knossos, Minoan palaces have been excavated at sites such as PhaistosMalia, and Kato Zakros. The four periods in Platon’s system are the Prepalatial period (3000 – 1900 BC), the Protopalatial or Old Palace period (1900 – 1700 BC), the Neopalatial or New Palace period (1700 – 1400 BC), and the Postpalatial period (1400 – 1150 BC).

The archaeological evidence for the very early period of the Minoan civilization, i.e., between 3000 and 2600 BC, is, unfortunately scarce. Therefore, not much is known about this period. In any case, information regarding the first few centuries of the Minoan civilization is derived mainly from a few excavated settlement sites, and burials.

The available evidence suggests that during this period, several minor settlements along the coast were established by the Minoans. Additionally, the dead were being buried in caves around the island, as well as in tholos tombs (more about which shortly). Furthermore, evidence of gem engraving, metalworking, and pottery making are reflected in the artwork of this period.

Another viewpoint of the Knossos palace at Heraklion, Crete, which is part of the extensive Knossos Palace ruins that are full of details relating to the great Minoan civilization of the Aegean Sea. (vladimircaribb / Adobe Stock)

The Minoans Were Gifted Sea Traders Across The Region

The island of Crete became a significant center of civilization in the Aegean around 2600 BC. For instance, the Minoans were already in contact with other parts of the eastern Mediterranean during this period, including Egypt, Asia Minor, and Syria. Through trade, the Minoans obtained copper, tin, ivory, and gold from these places. This is evidenced by the artifacts unearthed at sites from this period. Through another type of archaeological remains, i.e., architectural structures, the organization of Minoan society during this period have been inferred.

According to archaeologists, the palaces of this period were centered around communities. This has been interpreted to mean that Minoan society at that time was decentralized, and that there was no central authority. Moreover, there were no powerful landlords to rule over the people. This absence of a hierarchical structure is supported by the burial practices of the time.

Tholos tombs continued to be used during this period and became important architectural structures. The archaeological remains indicate that these tombs were used by entire villages or clans for centuries. When room was needed in a tholos tomb for new burials, older ones would be moved aside. Additionally, older bones were gathered, and placed in bone chambers outside the tholos tomb.

A Minoan civilization fresco that reveals how artistic and evolved the Minoans were. (Matrioshka / Adobe Stock)

The Peak of Minoan Civilization: Stunning Fresco Paintings

The Minoan civilization continued to flourish during the Middle Minoan period. Archaeological investigations at Minoan palace sites suggest that around 1700 BC, these structures were destroyed by some unknown catastrophic event. It has been speculated that a powerful earthquake, or an invasion from foreign enemies, caused this destruction.

This, however, was not the end of the Minoan civilization, as it soon recovered, and reached its peak around a century later. Incidentally, whilst 1700 BC is considered as part of the Middle Minoan period by Evans, it marks the end of the Protopalatial period, and the beginning of the Neopalatial period by Platon. The latter system, therefore, highlights the significance of this year in the history of the Minoan civilization.

Indeed, the palaces from this period indicate that they were not only rebuilt shortly after their destruction, but that they were also enlarged. Moreover, many new settlements were established, and smaller palaces were built all over the island. The Minoan palace complexes can be identified based on their arrangement around a central court, and their sophisticated masonry. Interestingly, these structures did not have defensive walls.

The walls and floors of these palaces were often painted with frescoes, which include scenes of ritual activity, and nature. These frescoes are considered today as works of art. An example of Minoan frescoes can be seen at the famous Palace of Knossos. At the southern entranceway of the palace, for instance, visitors would need to pass through a narrow corridor, which is decorated with a fresco depicting a procession.

The famous  Bull-Leaping Fresco was also discovered in this palace. In the so-called “throne room,” there is a chair, referred to as a throne by Evans. This throne chair is flanked by frescoes depicting griffins (which have the body, tail, and back legs of a lion, and the head and wings of an eagle). It should be mentioned that these frescoes were reconstructed.

Likewise, the fresco depicting blue dolphins above a doorway of the so-called queen’s megaron is also a modern reconstruction. A megaron is a rectangular hall, surrounded by four columns, that was fronted by an open, two-columned portico, which had a central, open hearth that vented though an oculus (a circular opening in the center of a dome, roof, or wall) in the roof.

This stone tablet, with modern language overlays, is said to be a calculator designed by the Minoan civilization, inscribed in their distinctive Cretan hieroglyphs and Linear A script. (gorelovs / Adobe Stock)

Minoan Palaces: Trade Storehouses That Necessitated Writing

Whilst it is not certain if the Minoans had a royal dynasty (hence casting doubt on the idea that the palaces were the residences of king and/or queens), we do know that they served a variety of functions. For instance, it was found that large areas of the palaces were used as storage facilities. Therefore, one interpretation states that the palaces functioned partly as centers for the collection and redistribution of raw materials.

Apart from that, the palaces may have been used also for the performance of rituals, the organization of festivals for the public, and the place where justice was meted out.

It has been proposed that due to the role of the palaces as economic centers, the Minoans developed a writing system, so that they could keep a record of what was going in and going out of the palaces. The Minoans developed two script types: a hieroglyphic script (Cretan hieroglyphs), and a linear script (Linear A). The former may have been inspired by the hieroglyphs of the ancient Egyptians, whereas the latter may have been based on the cuneiform script of ancient Mesopotamia. This may be another indication, in addition to trade goods, of the Minoans’ contact with other civilizations in the eastern Mediterranean.            

Both Cretan hieroglyphs and Linear A have yet to be deciphered. The relationship between these two scripts is uncertain. Of the two ancient scripts, Linear A is the better-known. This script was used by the Minoans during the 2nd millennium BC, around 1850 to 1400 BC. The phonetic value of most of the syllabic signs is known, based on Linear B, which was adapted by the Mycenaeans from the Minoans.

Nevertheless, the language written in this script is still unknown. This is the reason why Linear A is still undeciphered. Should Linear A (and Cretan hieroglyphs) be deciphered one day, it may shed more light on Minoan society, especially its economy. Many tablets with these scripts have been found, and it is speculated that they are concise economic records.

Though the fall of the Minoan civilization is not yet fully understood, the next Greek culture to rise to the fore was the Mycenaean culture, located primarily on the eastern side of the Peloponnesus peninsula north of Crete on the mainland of ancient Greece. This image shows the famous Lions Gate at the entry to a Mycenaean complex, linked to the armies of Troy. (Susan Vineyard / Adobe Stock)

The Fall of the Minoans and the Rise of the Mycenaeans

The Minoan civilization experienced a second destructive event during the Middle Minoan period. Archaeologists found that around the middle of the 15th century BC, most of the palaces were destroyed. Knossos itself was destroyed during the 14th century BC.

According to Platon’s system, this marked the beginning of the Postpalatial period. Unlike the first time the palaces were destroyed, the Minoan civilization did not fully recover from this second destructive event. During this period, Knossos and Phaistos continued to exert some influence over the island. Nevertheless, the Minoans were no longer the dominant power on Crete. Changes in Minoan society during this time suggest that Crete was now under the control of the Mycenaean civilization.

The demise of the Minoans during the 15 th century BC is an issue that has long intrigued archaeologists. The most common theory that has been used to explain this civilization’s demise is the one involving a catastrophic volcanic eruption (known as the Thera or Minoan eruption). This theory states that a volcanic eruption occurred at Thera, the largest island of Santorini, about 100 kilometers (62 miles) to the north of Crete.

It has been argued that the eruption caused the volcano’s collapse into a submarine caldera, which in turn generated tsunamis that wiped out most human activity on the coast of Crete. It has also been argued that the ash from the eruption choked plant life to death, resulting in a shortage of food and starvation for the Minoans.

This theory, however, is still being debated, as there are several problems with it that have not been resolved entirely. One of these, for instance, is the dating of the volcanic eruption, which is disputed. Radiocarbon dating, for example, indicates that the eruption took place during the late 17th century BC. On the other hand, when the eruption is synchronized with conventional Egyptian chronology, a date of about 1500 BC is obtained, which is closer to the demise of the Minoan civilization. Another problem is that there seems to be little evidence of damage from the eruption on Crete, which suggests that the catastrophe did not affect the lives of the Minoans as drastically as was thought. Yet another problem is the layer on ash that actually fell on Crete, which was found to be very thin, i.e., less than 5 mm, as opposed to the alleged 7-11 cm in some places.

Consequently, other theories have been suggested in an attempt to explain the demise of the Minoan civilization. Several of these theories make a connection between the civilization’s demise and the disruption of trade. After all, the Minoans relied heavily on trade. For example, the collapse of trade networks may have negatively impacted the grain supply of the Minoans, which is thought to have been imported from the shores of the Black Sea. This resulted is widespread famine across the island.

Alternatively, it has been suggested that as iron tools became more commonly used, the bronze trade went into decline. This may have led to a decline in Minoan trade, and resulted in famine. Another theory suggests that an invasion from the Mycenaeans caused the downfall of the Minoans.

The Minoans Were Great and This Greatness Has Endured

To conclude, the Minoans were a significant civilization in the Aegean during the Bronze Age. This civilization flourished for several centuries before its demise in the 15th century BC. Still, the Minoans exerted an influence on Western civilization even after its destruction. The Mycenaean script, Linear B, for instance, was adapted from the Minoan Linear A. Additionally, Greek civilization and mythology drew inspiration from the Minoans. The mythical Minos, for instance, was considered by the ancient Greeks to have been a king of Crete, and Plato’s myth of Atlantis is believed by some to be based on the destruction of the Minoan civilization by the Thera eruption.

Top image: The north entrance of the legendary Minoan civilization palace in Knossos on Crete, Greece, showing part of the spectacular "raging red" charging bull fresco. Source: gatsi / Adobe Stock

By Wu Mingren                                                                                                     

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It is also worth mentioning that many Greek societies worshipped different gods and pantheons were shifted around depending on where you lived, Athena (or a god identified with her) being the head god in certain areas, for example. So it's likely that Minos "demi god son of Zues" was actually Minos "demi god son of *insert name of unknown God/goddess here". Later writers such as Homer would attempt to canonize and retcon these early religions through syncretism

The people of ancient Crete (of the Linear A Script) were NOT part of Greece & were culturally very different from the mainland peoples of the time. It gets a little tiresome when writers like John Black continue to stamp the historically matrifocal ancient Crete with the palimpsest of Greek patriarchal myths. Current evidence has them more closely related to ancient Anatolians than any Greek tribes. Knossos is more likely a temple than a "palace" especially with all the female-centered religious reliquary & statuary found within it & around the island. There is also scant evidence of kingship but more evidence of dual-queenship or priestesshood with murals of two white ladies atop their city seeing off their navy & metalwork showing two high-ranking females parading through the streets in a chariot. Sir Arthur Evans was so desperately looking for evidence of 'King Minos' that he defaced a mural turning a highly decorated woman into a "prince." Bottom line, ancient "Minoan" Crete of the Linear A script should be exposed as the misnomer it really is.

I'd like to put your attention to another complex in Crete.
Actually t h i s might be the real labyrinth of the Minotaurus.
It was explored several times and at last by some Suiss guys.
It might be worth a look:

Sincerely yours

please link me to an article that states that the Minoan script has been deciphered. Only Linear B has been deciphered, and that was found to be Mycenean Greek, not the language of the Minoans, as evidenced by both Linear A and even older Cretan hieroglyphics. simple wikipedia search would tell you this.

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Wu Mingren (‘Dhwty’) has a Bachelor of Arts in Ancient History and Archaeology. Although his primary interest is in the ancient civilizations of the Near East, he is also interested in other geographical regions, as well as other time periods.... Read More

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