|Period||Bronze Age Europe|
|Dates||c. 3650 BC – c. 1450 BC|
|Major sites||Knossos, Gortyn|
|Preceded by||Cycladic culture|
|Followed by||Mycenaean Greece|
Part of a series on the
|History of Greece|
| Bronze Age|
Near East (c. 3300–1200 BC)
South Asia (c. 3000– 1200 BC)
Europe (c. 3200–600 BC)
China (c. 2000–700 BC)
The Minoan civilization was an Aegean Bronze Age civilization that arose on the island of Crete and other Aegean islands and flourished from approximately 3650 to 1400 BC. It belongs to a period of Greek history preceding both the Mycenaean civilization and Ancient Greece. It was rediscovered at the beginning of the 20th century through the work of British archaeologist Arthur Evans. Historian Will Durant dubbed the Minoans "the first link in the European chain," and their civilization has been referred to as the earliest of its kind in Europe.
The term "Minoan" refers to the mythic King Minos, and was originally given as a description to the pottery of this period. Minos was associated in Greek myth with the labyrinth and the Minotaur, which Evans identified with the site at Knossos, the largest Minoan site. The poet Homer recorded a tradition that Crete once had 90 cities.
The Minoan period saw significant contacts between Crete, the Aegean and the Mediterranean, particularly the Near East. As traders and artists, their cultural influence reached far beyond the island of Crete—throughout the Cyclades, to Egypt's Old Kingdom, to copper-bearing Cyprus, Canaan and the Levantine coasts beyond, and to Anatolia. Some of its best art is preserved in the city of Akrotiri, on the island of Santorini, destroyed during the Thera eruption.
The Minoan language and writing system (Linear A) remain undeciphered and a matter of academic dispute, but seemingly convey a language entirely different from the Greek dialects in later periods. The causes of the changes to bring about the end of the Minoan period (around 1,400 BC) are unclear, though theories include an invasion from the mainland, or the volcanic eruption of Thera.
The term "Minoan" refers to the mythic "king" Minos of Knossos. Who first coined the term is debated. It is commonly attributed to the archeologist Arthur Evans (1851–1941). Minos was associated in Greek myth with the labyrinth, which Evans identified with the site at Knossos. However, Karl Hoeck used the name Das Minoische Kreta already in 1825 for Volume II of his major work, Kreta, which would appear to be the first known use of the term Minoan to mean ancient Cretan. Likely, Arthur Evans read the book, continuing the use of the term in his own writings and findings. Evans said:
"To this early civilization of Crete as a whole I have proposed—and the suggestion has been generally adopted by the archaeologists of this and other countries—to apply the name 'Minoan'."
Evans claims to have applied it, but not to have invented it. Hoeck had in mind the Crete of mythology. He had no idea that the archaeological Crete had existed. Evans' 1931 claim that the term was "unminted" before his use of it has been tagged a "brazen suggestion" by Karadimas and Momigliano. However, Evans' statement applies to an archaeological context. Since he was the one who discovered the civilization, and the term could not have been in use to refer to it previously, he did coin that specific meaning.
Chronology and history
Rather than associate absolute calendar dates for the Minoan period, archaeologists use two systems of relative chronology. The first, created by Evans and modified by later archaeologists, is based on pottery styles and the presence of imported Egyptian artifacts, which can be correlated with the chronology of Ancient Egypt. Evans's scheme divides the Minoan period into three main eras: Early Minoan (EM), Middle Minoan (MM), and Late Minoan (LM). These eras are further subdivided, for instance into Early Minoan I, II, III (EMI, EMII, EMIII).
Another dating system, proposed by the Greek archaeologist Nicolas Platon, is based on the development of the architectural complexes known as "palaces" at Knossos, Phaistos, Malia and Kato Zakros. He divides the Minoan period into Pre-palatial, Proto-palatial, Neo-palatial and Post-palatial subperiods. The relationship between these two systems is given in the accompanying table, with approximate calendar dates drawn from Warren and Hankey (1989).
The Thera eruption occurred during a mature phase of the LM IA period. Efforts to establish the calendar date of the volcanic eruption have been extremely controversial. Radiocarbon dating has indicated a date in the late 17th century BC; those radiocarbon dates, however, conflict with the estimates of archaeologists, who synchronize the eruption with the conventional Egyptian chronology and obtain a date of around 1525–1500 BC. See the article on dating the Thera eruption for more discussion. The eruption often is identified as a natural event catastrophic for the culture, leading to its rapid collapse.
There is recent stone tool evidence that hominins may have reached the island of Crete as early as 130,000 years ago; however, the evidence for the first anatomically modern human presence dates to 10,000–12,000 years ago.
|1900–1800 BC||MMIB|| Protopalatial|
(Old Palace Period)
|1700–1640 BC||MMIIIA|| Neopalatial|
(New Palace Period)
|1425–1390 BC||LMII|| Postpalatial|
(At Knossos, Final Palace Period)
The oldest evidence of modern human inhabitants on Crete are preceramic Neolithic farming community remains that date to approximately 7000 BC. A comparative study of DNA haplogroups of modern Cretan men showed that a male founder group, from Anatolia or the Levant, is shared with the Greeks. The neolithic population dwelt in open villages. Fishermen's huts were built on the shores, while the fertile Mesara Plain was used for agriculture.
The Bronze Age began in Crete around 2700 BC. In the late 3rd millennium BC, several localities on the island developed into centers of commerce and handwork. This enabled the upper classes to continuously practice leadership activities and to expand their influence. It is likely that the original hierarchies of the local elites were replaced by monarchist power structures—a precondition for the creation of the great palaces. The Early Bronze Age (3500 BC to 2600 BC) has been described as showing 'promise of greatness', in the light of the later developments on the island. At the end of the MMII period (1700 BC), there was a large disturbance in Crete, probably an earthquake, or possibly an invasion from Anatolia. The palaces at Knossos, Phaistos, Malia, and Kato Zakros were destroyed. At the start of the Neopalatial period, population increased again, the palaces were rebuilt on a larger scale and new settlements were built all over the island. This period (the 17th and 16th centuries BC, MM III / Neopalatial) represents the apex of the Minoan civilization. There was another natural catastrophe around 1600 BC, possibly an eruption of the Thera volcano. The Minoans rebuilt the palaces, however they drastically changed.
The influence of the Minoan civilization outside Crete has been seen in the evidence of valuable Minoan handicraft items on the Greek mainland. The shaft graves of Mycenae show several Cretan imports, such as a bull's head rhyton, which suggests a prominent role for the symbolism of Minoan Crete in the ideology of rule there. After around 1700 BC, the material culture on the Greek mainland achieved a new level due to Minoan influence. Connections between Egypt and Crete are prominent. Minoan ceramics are found in Egyptian cities and the Minoans imported several items from Egypt, especially papyrus, as well as architectural and artistic ideas. The Egyptian hieroglyphs served as a model for the Minoan pictographic writing, from which the famous Linear A and Linear B writing systems later developed. Bengtson has also demonstrated Minoan influence among Canaanite artifacts.
Around 1450 BC, Minoan culture experienced a turning point due to a natural catastrophe, possibly an earthquake. Another eruption of the Thera volcano has been linked to this downfall, but its dating and implications remain controversial. Several important palaces in locations such as Mallia, Tylissos, Phaistos, Hagia Triada as well as the living quarters of Knossos were destroyed. The palace in Knossos seems to have remained largely intact. This resulted in the Dynasty in Knossos being able to spread its influence over large parts of Crete, until it was overrun by Mycenaean Greeks.
The Minoan palace sites were occupied by the Mycenaeans around 1420 BC (1375 BC according to other sources), who adapted the Linear A Minoan script to the needs of their own Mycenaean language. It was a form of Greek, which was written in Linear B. The first such archive anywhere is in the LMII-era "Room of the Chariot Tablets". The Mycenaeans generally tended to adapt, rather than destroy, Minoan culture, religion and art. They continued to operate the economic system and bureaucracy of the Minoans.
During LMIIIA:1, Amenhotep III at Kom el-Hatan took note of k-f-t-w (Kaftor) as one of the "Secret Lands of the North of Asia". Also mentioned are Cretan cities, such as Amnisos, Phaistos, Kydonia, and Knossos and some toponyms reconstructed as belonging to the Cyclades or the Greek mainland. If the values of these Egyptian names are accurate, then this Pharaoh did not privilege LMIII Knossos above the other states in the region.
After about a century of partial recovery, most Cretan cities and palaces went into decline in the 13th century BC (LHIIIB/LMIIIB). The last Linear A archives date to LMIIIA (contemporary with LHIIIA).
Knossos remained an administrative center until 1200 BC. The last of the Minoan sites was the defensive mountain site of Karfi, a refuge site which displays vestiges of Minoan civilization almost into the Iron Age.
Crete is a mountainous island with natural harbours. There are signs of earthquake damage at many Minoan sites and clear signs of both uplifting of land and submersion of coastal sites due to tectonic processes all along the coasts.
Homer recorded a tradition that Crete had 90 cities. To judge from the palace sites, the island was probably divided into at least eight political units during the height of the Minoan period. The north is thought to have been governed from Knossos, the south from Phaistos, the central eastern part from Malia, the eastern tip from Kato Zakros, and the west from Chania. Smaller palaces have been found in other places.
Some of the major Minoan archaeological sites are:
- Knossos – the largest Bronze Age archaeological site on Crete; was purchased for excavations by Evans on March 16, 1900.
- Phaistos – the second largest palatial building on the island, excavated by the Italian school shortly after Knossos
- Malia – the subject of French excavations, a palatial centre which affords a look into the development of the palaces in the protopalatial period
- Kato Zakros – a palatial site excavated by Greek archaeologists in the far east of the island. This is also referred to as "Zakro" in archaeological literature.
- Galatas – the most recently (in the early 1990s) confirmed palatial site
- Agia Triada – an administrative centre close to Phaistos
- Gournia – a town site excavated in the first quarter of the 20th century by the American School
- Pyrgos – an early Minoan site on the south of the island
- Vasiliki – an early Minoan site towards the east of the island which gives its name to a distinctive ceramic ware
- Fournou Korfi – a site on the south of the island
- Pseira – island town with ritual sites
- Mount Juktas – the greatest of the Minoan peak sanctuaries because of its association with the palace of Knossos
- Arkalochori – the find site of the famous Arkalochori Axe
- Karfi – a refuge site from the late Minoan period, one of the last of the Minoan sites
- Akrotiri – settlement on the island of Santorini (Thera), near the site of the Thera Eruption
- Zominthos – a mountainous city in the northern foothills of Mount Ida
Settlements of the Minoan civilization
These are the estimated populations of hamlets, villages, and towns of the Minoan civilization over time. Note that there are several problems with estimating the sizes of individual settlements, and the highest estimates for a given settlements, in a given period, may be several times the lowest.
|City||2500 BC||2300 BC||2000 BC||1800 BC||1600 BC||1360 BC||1200 BC|
Minoans beyond Crete
Minoans were traders, and their cultural contacts reached far beyond the island of Crete—to Egypt's Old Kingdom, to copper-bearing Cyprus, Canaan, and the Levantine coasts beyond, and to Anatolia. In late 2009, Minoan-style frescoes and other Minoan-style artifacts were discovered during excavations of the Canaanite palace at Tel Kabri, Israel, leading archaeologists to conclude that the Minoan influence was the strongest foreign influence on that Canaanite city state. These are the only Minoan remains ever found in Israel.
Minoan techniques and styles in ceramics also provided models, of fluctuating influence, for Helladic Greece. Along with the familiar example of Thera, Minoan "colonies" can be found first at Kastri on Cythera, an island close to the Greek mainland that came under Minoan influence in the mid-third millennium (EMII) and remained Minoan in culture for a thousand years, until Mycenaean occupation in the 13th century. The use of the term "colony", however, like "thalassocracy", has been criticized in recent years. The Minoan strata there replace a mainland-derived culture in the Early Bronze Age, the earliest Minoan settlement outside Crete.
The Cyclades were in the Minoan cultural orbit, and, closer to Crete, the islands of Karpathos, Saria and Kasos, also contained Minoan colonies, or settlements of Minoan traders, from the Middle Bronze Age (MMI-II). Most of them were abandoned in LMI, but Minoan Karpathos recovered and continued with a Minoan culture until the end of the Bronze Age. Other supposed Minoan colonies, such as that hypothesised by Adolf Furtwängler for Aegina, were later dismissed by scholars. There was a Minoan colony at Ialysos on Rhodes.
Minoan cultural influence indicates an orbit that extended not only throughout the Cyclades (so-called Minoanisation), but in locations such as Egypt and Cyprus. Paintings from the 15th century BC in Thebes, Egypt depict a number of individuals, who are Minoan in appearance, bearing gifts. Inscriptions record these people as coming from Keftiu, or the "islands in the midst of the sea", and may refer to gift-bringing merchants or officials from Crete.
Certain locations within Crete emphasize it as an "outward looking" society. The Neopalatial site of Kato Zakros, for instance, is located within 100 metres of the modern shore-line, situated within a bay. Its large number of workshops and the richness of its site materials indicate a potential 'entrepôt' for import and export. Such activities are elaborated in artistic representations of the sea, including the 'Flotilla' fresco from room 5, in the west house at Akrotiri.
Agriculture and subsistence
The Minoans raised cattle, sheep, pigs, and goats, and grew wheat, barley, vetch, and chickpeas; they also cultivated grapes, figs, and olives, and grew poppies, for poppyseed and, perhaps, opium. The Minoans also domesticated bees.
Crops including lettuce, celery, asparagus and carrots grow wild in Crete. Pear, quince, and olive trees were also native. The people imported date palm trees, and cats (used for hunting purposes) from Egypt. They adopted pomegranates from the Near East, although not lemons and oranges, as is often thought.
They developed Mediterranean polyculture, the practice of growing more than one crop at a time. Their more varied and healthy diet resulted in the growth of population. Theoretically this method of farming would maintain the fertility of the soil, as well as offer protection against low yields in any single crop. Linear B tablets indicate the importance of orchard farming (i.e., figs, olives and grapes) in processing crops for "secondary products". Olive oil in the Cretan diet (or more widely, the Mediterranean diet) is comparable to butter in the Northern diet. The process of fermenting wine from grapes is likely to have been a concern of the "Palace" economies, whereby such prestige goods would have been both important trade commodities as well as culturally meaningful items of consumption. Equally, it is likely that the consumption of exotic or expensive products would have played a role in the presentation and articulation of political and economic power.
Marine resources were also important in the Cretan diet. The prevalence of edible molluscs in site material, and artistic representations of marine fish and animals, including the distinctive "Octopus" stirrup jar (LM IIIC), indicate an appreciation and occasional use of fish within the economy. But scholars believe these resources were not as significant in relation to grain, olives and animal produce. The intensification of agricultural activity is indicated by the construction of terraces and dams at Pseira in the Late Minoan period.
Not all plants and flora would have a purely functional or economic utility. Artistic depictions often show scenes of lily gathering and performances within 'green' spaces. The fresco known as the Sacred Grove at Knossos, for instance, depicts a number of female figures facing towards the left-hand-side of the scene, flanked by a copse of trees. Some scholars have suggested that these depictions represent the performance of 'harvest festivals' or ceremonies, as a means to honour the continued fertility of the soil. Artistic depictions of farming scenes also appear on the Second Palace Period "Harvester Vase" (an egg-shaped rhyton, or pouring vessel), where 27 male figures, led by another, each carry hoes. This suggests the importance of farming as an artistic motif.
The discovery of storage magazines within the palace compounds has prompted much debate. At the second 'palace' at Phaistos, for instance, a range of rooms in the western side of the structure have been identified as a magazine block. Within these storage areas, numerous jars, jugs and vessels have been recovered, indicating the role of the complex as a potential re-distribution centre of agricultural produce. Several possibilities may be suggested, including a model where all economic and agricultural produce was controlled by the Palace and re-distributed by it. At sites such as Knossos, where the town had developed to a considerable size, there is evidence of craft specialisation, indicating workshops. The Palace of Kato Zakro, for instance, indicates workshops that were integrated into the structure of the palace. Such evidence contributes to the theory that the Minoan palatial system developed through economic intensification, where greater agricultural surplus could support a population of administrators, craftsmen and religious practitioners. The number of domestic, or sleeping, chambers at the Palaces indicate that they could have supported a large population of individuals who were removed from manual labour.
Evolution of agricultural tools in Minoan Crete
Originally the tools were made of wood or bone, and bound to the handle with leather straps. During the Bronze Age, the tools were upgraded to bronze, with wooden handles. Due to its circular hole, the tool head would spin around on the handle. The Minoans developed oval- shaped holes in their tools to fit oval-shaped handles. This stopped the spinning.
Society and culture
The Minoans were primarily a mercantile people engaged in overseas trade. Their culture, from 1700 BC onward, shows a high degree of organization.
The Minoan trade in saffron, the stigma of a mutated crocus which originated in the Aegean basin as a natural chromosome mutation, has left fewer material remains: a fresco of saffron-gatherers at Santorini is well known. This inherited trade pre-dated Minoan civilization: a sense of its rewards may be gained by comparing its value to frankincense, or later, to pepper. Archaeologists tend to emphasize the more durable items of trade: ceramics, copper, and tin, and dramatic luxury finds of gold and silver.
Minoan men wore loincloths and kilts. Women wore robes that had short sleeves and layered flounced skirts. The robes were open to the navel, allowing their breasts to be left exposed. Women also had the option of wearing a strapless fitted bodice. The patterns on clothes emphasized symmetrical geometric designs. Given the fragility of organic materials, other forms of dress may have been worn of which no archeological evidence exists.
The Minoan religion focused on female deities, with females officiating. The frescos include many depictions of people, with the genders distinguished by colour: the men's skin is reddish-brown, the women's white.
Language and writing
Knowledge of the spoken and written language of the Minoans is scant, due to the small number of records found. Clay tablets dating to around 3000 BC were found with the various Cretan scripts. Clay tablets seem to have been in use from around 3000 BC or earlier. Two clay cups from Knossos have been found to have remnants of ink, and inkwells similar to the animal-shaped inkstands from Mesopotamia have also been found.
Sometimes the Minoan language is referred to as Eteocretan, but this confuses the language written in Linear A scripts and the language written in a Euboean-derived alphabet after the Greek Dark Ages. While the Eteocretan language is believed to be a descendant of Minoan, there is not enough source material in either language to allow conclusions to be made.
The earliest dated writing found on Crete is the Cretan hieroglyphs. It is not known whether this language is Minoan or not and its origin is still a topic of debate. These hieroglyphs are often associated with the Egyptians, but they also show relation to several other writings from the region of Mesopotamia. The hieroglyphs came into use from MMI; they were used at the same time as the emerging Linear A from the 18th century BC (MM II). The hieroglyphs disappeared at some point during the 17th century BC (MM III).
In the Mycenean period, Linear A was replaced by Linear B, recording a very archaic version of the Greek language. Linear B was successfully deciphered by Michael Ventris in 1952, but the earlier scripts remain a mystery. The overwhelming majority of tablets are written in the Linear B script, apparently being inventories of goods or resources. Others are inscriptions on religious objects associated with a cult. Because most of these inscriptions are concise economic records rather than dedicatory inscriptions, the translation of Minoan remains a challenge.
The Minoans seem to have worshipped primarily goddesses, and their culture has been described as being based on a "matriarchal religion." Professor Nanno Marinatos stated: "The hierarchy and relationship of gods within the pantheon is difficult to decode from the images alone." She denies earlier descriptions of Minoan religion as primitive, saying that it "was the religion of a sophisticated and urbanized palatial culture with a complex social hierarchy. It was not dominated by fertility any more than any religion of the past or present has been, and it addressed gender identity, rites of passage, and death. It is reasonable to assume that both the organization and the rituals, even the mythology, resembled the religions of Near Eastern palatial civilizations." Although there is some evidence of male gods, depictions of Minoan goddesses vastly outnumber depictions of anything that could be considered a Minoan god. While some of these depictions of women may be images of worshippers and priestesses officiating at religious ceremonies, as opposed to deities, several goddesses appear to be portrayed. These include a Mother Goddess of fertility, a Mistress of the Animals, a protectress of cities, the household, the harvest, and the underworld, and more. They are often represented by serpents, birds, poppies, and a somewhat vague shape of an animal upon the head.
A major festive celebration was exemplified in the famous athletic Minoan bull dance, represented at large in the frescoes of Knossos and inscribed in miniature seals.
The Minoan horn-topped altars, conventionally called "Horns of Consecration" ever since Evans coined the term, are represented in seal impressions, and survive in examples as far afield as Cyprus. Minoan sacred symbols include the bull and its horns of consecration, the labrys (double-headed axe), the pillar, the serpent, the sun-disk, and the tree.
Haralampos V. Harissis and Anastasios V. Harissis have suggested a completely different interpretation of these symbols. They argue that they were based on apiculture rather than religion.
Possible evidence of human sacrifice by the Minoans has been found at three sites: (1) Anemospilia, in a MMII building near Mt. Juktas, interpreted as a temple, (2) an EMII sanctuary complex at Fournou Korifi in south central Crete, and (3) Knossos, in an LMIB building known as the "North House." (explanation of abbreviations)
Similar to archaeological finds of the Bronze Age, burial remains constitute much of the material and archaeological evidence for the period. By the end of the Second Palace Period, Minoan burial practice was dominated by two broad forms: 'Circular Tombs', or Tholoi, (located in South Crete) and 'House Tombs', (located in the north and the east). Many trends and patterns within Minoan mortuary practice do not conform to this simple breakdown. Overall, inhumation was the most popular form of burial; cremation does not seem to have been as popular. Throughout this period the trend was towards individual burials, with some distinguished exceptions. These include the much-debated Chrysolakkos complex, Mallia, consisting of a number of buildings forming a complex. This is located in the centre of Mallia's burial area and may have been the focus for burial rituals, or the 'crypt' for a notable family.
The Minoan cities were connected with stone-paved roads, formed from blocks cut with bronze saws. Streets were drained and water and sewer facilities were available to the upper class, through clay pipes.
Minoan buildings often had flat tiled roofs; plaster, wood, or flagstone floors, and stood two to three stories high. Typically the lower walls were constructed of stone and rubble, and the upper walls of mudbrick. Ceiling timbers held up the roofs.
The materials used in constructing the villas and palaces varied, and could include sandstone, gypsum, or limestone. Equally, building techniques could also vary between different constructions; some palaces used ashlar masonry while others used roughly hewn megalithic blocks.
Palaces (anaktora) are the best-known Minoan building types excavated on Crete. They are monumental buildings serving administrative purposes, as evidenced by the large archives unearthed by archaeologists. Each of the palaces excavated to date has its own unique features, but they also share features that set them apart from other structures. The palaces are often multi-story, with interior and exterior staircases, light wells, massive columns, storage magazines, and courtyards.
The first palaces were constructed at the end of the Early Minoan period in the third millennium BC (Malia). While it was formerly believed that the foundation of the first palaces was synchronous and dated to the Middle Minoan at around 2000 BC (the date of the first palace at Knossos), scholars now think that palaces were built over a longer period in different locations, in response to local developments. The main older palaces are Knossos, Malia, and Phaistos. Some of the elements recorded in the Middle Minoan 'palaces' (Knossos, Phaistos and Mallia, for example) have precedents in earlier styles of construction in the Early Minoan period. These include the indented western court, and the special treatment given to the western façade. An example of this is seen at the "House on the Hill" at Vasiliki, dated to the Early Minoan II period.
The palaces fulfilled a plethora of functions: they served as centres of government, administrative offices, shrines, workshops, and storage spaces (e.g., for grain). These distinctions might have seemed artificial to Minoans.
The use of the term 'palace' for the older palaces, meaning a dynastic residence and seat of power, has recently come under criticism (see Palace), and the term 'court building' has been proposed instead. However, the original term is probably too well entrenched to be replaced. Architectural features such as ashlar masonry, orthostats, columns, open courts, staircases (implying upper stories), and the presence of diverse basins have been used to define palatial architecture.
Often the conventions of the better-known, younger palaces have been used to reconstruct older ones, but this practice may be obscuring fundamental functional differences. Most older palaces had only one story and no representative facades. They were U-shaped, with a big central court, and generally were smaller than later palaces.
Late palaces are characterised by multi-story buildings. The west facades had sandstone ashlar masonry. Knossos is the best-known example. Further building conventions could include storage magazines, a north-south orientation, a pillar room, a Minoan Hall system, a western court, and pier-and-door entrance ways. Palatial architecture in the First Palace Period is identified by its 'square within a square' style, whilst later, Second Palace Period constructions incorporated more internal divisions and corridors.
A common architectural standard among the Middle Minoan 'palaces' was that they are aligned with their surrounding topography. The MM palatial structure of Phaistos appears to align with Mount Ida, whilst Knossos is aligned with Juktas. These are oriented along a north-south axis. Scholars suggest the alignment was related to the sacred or ritual significance of the mountain, where a number of Peak Sanctuaries (spaces for public ritual) have been excavated (e.g., Petsophas). The material record for these sites show clusters of clay figurines and evidence of animal sacrifice.
Philosopher of history Oswald Spengler felt all culture was a people's attempt to overcome the fear of death, and held the provocative thesis that the palaces were temples for a cult of the dead, with corpses sitting in its chairs.
One of the most notable contributions of Minoans to architecture is their unique column, which was wider at the top than the bottom. It is called an 'inverted' column because most Greek columns are wider at the bottom, creating an illusion of greater height. The columns were also made of wood as opposed to stone, and were generally painted red. They were mounted on a simple stone base and were topped with a pillow-like, round piece as a capital.
A number of compounds interpreted as 'Villas' have been excavated in Crete. These structures share many features with the central Palaces (i.e., a conspicuous western facade, storage facilities, and a 'Minoan Hall') of the Neopalatial era. These features may indicate either that they performed a similar role, or that the structures were artistic imitations, suggesting that their occupants were familiar with palatial culture. These villas are often richly decorated (see the frescos of Haghia Triadha Villa A).
The greatest collection of Minoan art is in the museum at Heraklion, near Knossos on the north shore of Crete. Minoan art, with other remains of material culture, especially the sequence of ceramic styles, has been used by archaeologists to define the three phases of Minoan culture (EM, MM, LM) discussed above.
Since wood and textiles have vanished through decomposition, the best preserved, and so most easily learned from, surviving examples of Minoan art are its pottery, the palace architecture with frescos that include landscapes, stone carvings, and intricately carved seal stones. Frescoes were the main form of art during these times of the Minoan culture.
In the Early Minoan period ceramics were characterised by linear patterns of spirals, triangles, curved lines, crosses, fish bone motifs, and such. In the Middle Minoan period, naturalistic designs such as fish, squid, birds, and lilies were common. In the Late Minoan period, flowers and animals were still the most characteristic, but the variability had increased. Vasiliki ware and Kamares ware are notable examples of Minoan pottery.
This jug on the left is dated from the Late Minoan IB, or sixteenth century B.C.E. On Crete, the Minoans led an apparently peaceful and prosperous existence that thrived on their sea-girt island. Contacts between the island inhabitants and their neighbors in the Eastern Mediterranean were widespread; this is attested by the fact that this jug was found in Egypt. The four large creatures on this spouted pitcher are argonauts which jauntily wave their tentacles in a rhythmic if unrealistic fashion. Corals, algae, and other sea life fill every space in an underwater composition bursting with vitality.
The 'palace style' of the region around Knossos is characterised by a strong geometric simplification of naturalistic shapes and monochromatic paintings. Notable are the similarities between Late Minoan and Mycenaean art. Minoan knowledge of the sea was continued by the Mycenaeans in their frequent use of marine forms among the many natural motifs employed in the decoration of beautifully designed utilitarian and decorative objects.
The Minoans created elaborate metal work with imported gold and copper. The use of bead necklaces, bracelets and hair ornaments is shown in the frescoes; and museums are filled with labrys pins. They seemed to have achieved mastery in the process of faience or granulation, as shown by the gold bee pendant. This often used example shows the Minoan skill included intense but precise temperature, such that one could bond the gold to itself without it burning.
Warfare and the "Minoan Peace"
Though the vision created by Arthur Evans of a Pax Minoica, a "Minoan peace", has been criticised in recent years, it is generally assumed there was little internal armed conflict in Minoan Crete itself, until the following Mycenaean period. As with much of Minoan Crete, however, it is hard to draw any obvious conclusions from the evidence. New excavations sustain scholarly interest and document the culture's influence around the Aegean.
Despite having found ruined watchtowers and fortification walls, Evans argued that there was little evidence for ancient Minoan fortifications. But as S. Alexiou has pointed out (in Kretologia 8), a number of sites, especially Early and Middle Minoan sites such as Aghia Photia, are built on hilltops or are otherwise fortified. As Lucia Nixon said, "...we may have been over-influenced by the lack of what we might think of as solid fortifications to assess the archaeological evidence properly. As in so many other instances, we may not have been looking for evidence in the right places, and therefore we may not end with a correct assessment of the Minoans and their ability to avoid war."
Chester Starr points out in "Minoan Flower Lovers" (Hagg-Marinatos eds. Minoan Thalassocracy) that Shang China and the Maya both had unfortified centers and yet engaged in frontier struggles, so the lack of fortifications alone cannot be enough to conclude that the Minoans were a peaceful civilization unparalleled in history.
In 1998, however, when Minoan archaeologists met in a conference in Belgium to discuss the possibility that the idea of Pax Minoica was outdated, the evidence for Minoan war still proved to be scanty. Archaeologist Jan Driessen, for example, said the Minoans frequently show 'weapons' in their art, but only in ritual contexts. He said,
"The construction of fortified sites is often assumed to reflect a threat of warfare, but such fortified centres were multifunctional; they were also often the embodiment or material expression of the central places of the territories at the same time as being monuments glorifying and merging leading power" (Driessen 1999, p. 16).
On the other hand, Stella Chryssoulaki's work on the small outposts or 'guard-houses' in the east of the island represent possible elements of a defensive system. Claims that they produced no weapons are erroneous; type A Minoan swords (as found in palaces of Mallia and Zarkos) were the finest in all of the Aegean (See Sanders, AJA 65, 67, Hoeckmann, JRGZM 27, or Rehak and Younger, AJA 102).
Keith Branigan claimed that 95% of so-called Minoan weapons possessed hafting (hilts, handles) that would have prevented their use as weapons (Branigan, 1999). But, recent experimental testing of accurate replicas has shown this to be incorrect; these weapons were capable of cutting flesh down to the bone (and scoring the bone's surface) without any damage to the weapons themselves. Archaeologist Paul Rehak maintains that Minoan figure-eight shields could not have been used for fighting or hunting, since they were too cumbersome (Rehak, 1999). And archaeologist Jan Driessen says the Minoans frequently show 'weapons' in their art, but only in ritual contexts (Driessen 1999). Finally, archaeologist Cheryl Floyd concludes that Minoan "weapons" were tools used for mundane tasks such as meat-processing (Floyd, 1999). But, this theory is questionable given the evidence of "rapiers nearly three feet in length" dated to the Middle Minoan period.
About Minoan warfare, Branigan concludes that "The quantity of weaponry, the impressive fortifications, and the aggressive looking long-boats all suggested an era of intensified hostilities. But on closer inspection there are grounds for thinking that all three key elements are bound up as much with status statements, display, and fashion as with aggression.... Warfare such as there was in the southern Aegean early Bronze Age was either personalized and perhaps ritualized (in Crete) or small-scale, intermittent and essentially an economic activity (in the Cyclades and the Argolid/Attica) " (1999, p. 92). Archaeologist Krzyszkowska concurs: "The stark fact is that for the prehistoric Aegean we have no direct evidence for war and warfare per se" (Krzyszkowska, 1999).
No evidence has been found of a Minoan army, or for Minoan domination of peoples outside Crete. Few signs of warfare appear in Minoan art. "Although a few archaeologists see war scenes in a few pieces of Minoan art, others interpret even these scenes as festivals, sacred dance, or sports events" (Studebaker, 2004, p. 27). Although armed warriors are depicted being stabbed in the throat with swords, violence may occur in the context of ritual or blood sport.
On the Mainland of Greece at the time of the Shaft Graves at Mycenae, there is little evidence for major fortifications among the Mycenaeans there. (The famous citadels post-date the destruction of almost all Neopalatial Cretan sites.) The constant warmongering of other contemporaries of the ancient Minoans – the Egyptians and Hittites, for example – is well documented.
Minoan demise theories
Between 1935 and 1939, the Greek archaeologist Spyridon Marinatos came up with the theory of the Minoan Eruption. The Minoan eruption on the island of Thera (present-day Santorini about 100 km distant from Crete) occurred during the LM IA period. This eruption was among the largest volcanic explosions in the history of civilization, ejecting approximately 60 km3 of material and rating a 7 on the Volcanic Explosivity Index. The eruption devastated the nearby Minoan settlement at Akrotiri on Santorini, which was entombed in a layer of pumice. The eruption is believed to have severely affected the Minoan culture on Crete, although the extent of the effects has been debated. Early theories proposed that ashfall from Thera on the eastern half of Crete choked off plant life, causing starvation of the local population. More thorough field examinations have determined that no more than 5 millimetres (0.20 in) of ash fell anywhere on Crete. Based on archaeological evidence found on Crete, 21st century studies indicate that a massive tsunami, generated by the Theran eruption, devastated the coastal areas of Crete and destroyed many Minoan settlements.
The LM IIIA (Late Minoan) period is marked by its affluence (i.e., wealthy tombs, burials and art) and the ubiquity of Knossian ceramic styles. But, by LM IIIB the importance of Knossos as a regional centre, and its material 'wealth', seem to have declined.
Significant Minoan remains have been found above the Late Minoan I era Thera ash layer, implying that the Thera eruption did not cause the immediate downfall of the Minoans. As the Minoans were a sea power and depended on naval and merchant ships for their livelihood, the Thera eruption likely caused significant economic hardship to the Minoans. Whether these effects were enough to trigger the downfall of the civilization is intensely debated. The Mycenaean conquest of the Minoans occurred in Late Minoan II period. The Mycenaeans were a military civilization. Using their functional navy and a well-equipped army they were capable of an invasion. Mycenaean weaponry has been found in burials on Crete. This demonstrates Mycenaean military influence not many years after the eruption. Many archaeologists speculate that the eruption caused a crisis in Minoan civilization, making them vulnerable to conquest by the Mycenaeans.
Sinclair Hood writes that the destruction of the Minoans was most likely due to an invading force. Although the demise of the flourishing civilization was aided by the erupting volcano on Thera, the ultimate end came from outside conquerors. Archaeological evidence suggests that the destruction of the island was due to fire damage. Hood notes that the palace at Knossos appears to have experienced less damage than other sites along the island of Crete. As natural disasters do not choose targets, the uneven destruction was likely caused by invaders. They would have seen the usefulness of preserving a palace center like Knossos for their own use.
Several authors have noted evidence that the Minoan civilization had exceeded the environmental carrying capacity. For example, archaeological recovery at Knossos shows deforestation of this part of Crete near the late stages of Minoan development.
Population genetics studies
A 2013 mtDNA study was conducted by a research team that analyzed some DNA from ancient Minoan skeletons that were sealed in a cave in Crete's Lassithi Plateau between 3,700 and 4,400 years ago, as well as other Greek, Anatolian, western and northern European samples, and North African and Egyptian samples.
They then compared the skeletal mitochondrial DNA, which is passed on through the maternal line, with that found in a sample of 135 modern and ancient populations from around Europe and Africa. The researchers found that the Minoan skeletons were genetically very similar to modern-day Europeans — and especially close to modern-day Cretans, particularly those from the Lassithi Plateau. They were also genetically similar to Neolithic Europeans, but distinct from Egyptian or Libyan populations. According to the authors, these results are consistent with the hypothesis of an indigenous development of the Minoan civilization from the descendants of the first Neolithic settlers to the island (who arrived from Anatolia, present-day Turkey and Iraq, approximately 9,000 years ago), as opposed to a North African or Egyptian origin, as originally hypothesized by Evans. "We now know that the founders of the first advanced European civilization were European," said study co-author George Stamatoyannopoulos, a human geneticist at the University of Washington. "They were very similar to Neolithic Europeans and very similar to present day-Cretans."
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- Linear A
- Linear B
- Peak sanctuaries
- Sacred caves
- Phaistos Disc
- Herakleion Archaeological Museum
- Cretan diet
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- Willetts, R. F., 1976 (1995 edition). The Civilization of Ancient Crete. New York: Barnes & Noble Books. ISBN 1-84212-746-2
- Yule, Paul. Early Cretan Seals: A Study of Chronology. Marburger Studien zur Vor- und Frühgeschichte 4, Mainz 1980 ISBN 3-8053-0490-0
- Donald A. MacKenzie, Myths of Crete & Pre-Hellenic Europe, 1917, etext at sacred-texts.com. This is a very thorough text, but given its age and so on, much of its analysis and many of its statements need to be taken with a grain of salt.