Around 6000 BCE, settlers from Asia Minor (modern Turkey) migrated to the island of Crete in the Aegean Sea; by 2500 BCE, a prosperous and technologically advanced Bronze Age culture had arisen. Almost completely unknown until the discovery (in 1900) of a great palace at Knossos by Sir Arthur Evans, the British archaeologist who coined the term ‘Minoan’ (after the legend of King Minos and the Minotaur), this culture is widely considered to be the first European civilisation. Minoan Crete is regarded as one of the three founding cultures of ancient Greece, the others being the Cycladic (so named for the Cyclades, where it developed) and the Mycenaean (which developed on the mainland during the later Helladic Period). Of these three, Minoan Crete rose to prominence first and, perhaps, most spectacularly; individual aspects of Minoan culture (such as art, architecture, religion and language) will be covered in greater detail later.

The chronology of the rise and fall of Minoan fortunes is traditionally categorised into three main phases:

  • Early Minoan (EM), 3000-2000 BCE
  • Middle Minoan (MM), 2000-1550 BCE
  • Late Minoan (LM), 1550-1050 BCE

  • Evans added a greater degree of detail by creating three subdivisions within each primary category, denoted by Roman numerals (EMI-III, MMI-III and LMI-III). Beyond this, still finer classifications exist which utilise letters and Arabic numerals. Another scheme, suggested by Nicholas Platon, tracks the architectural record of Minoan Crete:
  • Pre-Palatial (EMI-III)
  • Proto-Palatial (MMI-II)
  • Palatial (MMIII-LMIIIA1)
  • Post-Palatial (LMIIIA2-IIIC)
  • The palace at the administrative centre of Knossos was damaged (probably by an earthquake) about 1700 BCE. A new dynasty emerged which developed an even more brilliant culture, leading to great cultural and societal advancement ensued. These rebuilt palaces were destroyed c. 1450 BCE (pursuant to the eruption of Thera, the precise date of which is subject to speculation), after which only the palace at Knossos was rebuilt. By this time, the strength of the Minoan kings had waned beyond their capacity to restore it and the Mycenaean culture seized control of Crete. Shortly thereafter, c. 1400 BCE, Knossos was burnt down and never rebuilt, symbolically destroying the last vestige of that ancient civilization.

    Minoan Society

    Little is known about the nature of the civil and religious leadership, although it is plainly evident that there were clearly-denoted kings and clergy and that these groups enjoyed a high status. In broad terms, then, Minoan Crete could be said to have been a palace-based redistributive economy. This means that food products, raw materials and manufactured goods were gathered together at administrative centres and distributed to the populace. The kings of Knossos were at the height of their power around 1600 BCE, by which time they had asserted their control over the entire Aegean area (including the foundation of numerous colonies and naval bases) and developed trading links throughout the Eastern Mediterranean (most notably with Egypt).

    It is notable that the Minoans did not construct any defensive walls or other fortifications on the island; indeed, there were few defensive mechanisms of any description as it is believed that the mighty Minoan fleet provided ample protection. Neither is there any evidence of military consideration in the construction of mundane buildings, nor of a warlike disposition in the abundant paintings and artistic artifacts that have been discovered (most of which feature naturalistic scenes). This evidence, in conjunction with the fact that Minoan Crete’s prosperity was largely reliant on trade with other nations, suggests that their regional eminence was due largely to economic hegemony rather than military prowess.

    Cretan soils are generally fairly poor. As such, corresponding to the ascendency of Minoan civilisation (c. 1600 BCE), widespread land clearing began on the island to make way for olive plantations - the most lucrative cash crop in the ancient Mediterranean world. Other than these and staple grains, aquatic life provided the greatest component of the Minoan diet (as evinced by faunal motifs on pottery and the famous ‘fisherman fresco’). Livestock were not kept in abundance in order to conserve productive land and as such meat from domesticated animals either comprised a miniscule proportion of their diet or it was acquired by trade - the former is considered more likely. Foodstuffs and wine were stored in huge ceramic pots which were retained in holes in the ground (so as to prevent spoilage).

    Religion and custom:
    The most prominent figure revered by the Minoans is commonly described simply as the ‘Mother Goddess,’ perhaps the one known as Rhea by the Hellenic Greeks. Portrayed variously as a chthonic snake goddess (holding two snakes aloft), a mistress of animals (accompanied by lions and chamois) and in a heavenly incarnation (along with birds and stars), it is evident that Minoan culture placed a strong emphasis on naturalism and fertility; indeed, a male incarnation of fertility (in the form of a bull) was worshiped alongside her. Alongside these deities were a host of otherworldly beings, seen to serve them and to provide a communicative link between humankind and divinity.

    One curious tradition (which is the subject of numerous sculptures and frescoes) is that of Bull-Leaping. If the aforementioned mediums are to be considered reliable sources, the practice was to run toward a charging bull and to somersault over its head, placing the hands on its back. The meaning of this ceremonial act is somewhat ambiguous, but it may represent the ascendency of humanity over nature (as represented by the bull, which was often the subject of ritual sacrifice). The idea that this act ever occurred has recently been discredited, however, as the sheer size of the wild Mediterranean bulls the Minoans would have encountered would have made this act virtually impossible unless the participants were heroically athletic. The plethora of artwork relating to Bull-Leaping is, therefore, considered to be a collective fantasy. Interestingly, the numerous references to bulls (in addition to the mazelike structure of some Minoan palaces) also allude to the Greek legend of the Minotaur.

    The height of the Minoan artistic tradition was arguably between 2200 and 1450 BCE. The richest source of surviving Minoan artworks is the site of Knossos, from which many works of art (including pottery, frescoes and sculpture) have been retrieved. There are two dominant themes in Minoan paintings: nature scenes and palace life. The former consisted of landscapes as well as both terrestrial and marine life, painted in an impressionistic style. The latter included religious festivals, processions and court ceremonies. It is important to note that there are no known artworks which are devoted to military triumphs, although many artefacts have been irreparably damaged or lost. Another interesting feature is the manner in which hair is represented; upon close inspection, the scalps of depicted figures can be clearly seen to be blue. It is believed that this represents a close-shaven scalp. Interestingly, there appears to be hairstyle segregation based on age or social status.

    Early-Middle Minoan pottery (c. 3100-1725 BCE) was highly regarded (and therefore widely exported) for its bright decorative designs. Three styles were introduced during this period; Floral, Pattern and Marine. The Floral Style subject matter included lilies, palm trees, tulips, and reeds. Pattern Style designs used curvilinear abstract and geometric patterns consisting of thick lines and spirals joined by tangents. Marine Style utilized sea-life such as fish, dolphins, octopi, seaweed, and corals. Middle-Late Minoan pottery (c. 1725-1380 BCE) introduced a new, toned-down style of vase painting called the Palace Style. Designs of this kind were primarily black and white, with colour (yellow or red) used only sparingly. Late Minoan pottery (c. 1380-1000 BCE) continued with little distinction and as Mycenaean pottery (heavily influenced by their Minoan counterparts) became progressively more marketable, Minoan pottery encountered a shrinking market. Post-Minoan (Mycenaean) pottery found on Crete generally portrays narrative scenes, often corresponding to the use of the vessel.

    The centrality of the palace to Minoan leadership was reflected in both the size and opulence of these edifices; no other civilisation of the time, save for the Egyptians, possessed the sense of grandeur that dominated the Minoan architectural mindset. The greatest period of construction followed the destruction by earthquake (and/or fire) of the old palaces around 1700 BCE (which stimulated a resurgence in artistic innovation) as new palaces were constructed at Knossos, Mallia, Gournia and Haghia Triada.

    Designed for a society without vehicles, most streets were narrow (to permit passage only on foot with few pack animals). Some have suggested that the erratic streets and general shortage of open spaces were contrived to mitigate the effects of high winds and heavy rain. Building materials were usually native stone and clay, often with timber used for reinforcement. Use of curvatures and tapering columns distinguished Minoan architecture, as well as the aforementioned lack of consideration for fortification. Much is left to speculation, however, as only small fractions of most sites have been excavated. Perhaps the most remarkable and distinguishing feat of architectural skill, however, is the fact that the Minoans were the first civilisation to harness subterranean clay pipes for sanitation and water supply - 1500 years before the Romans.

    Excavations carried out since 1900 have revealed some 3000 clay tablets, containing two scripts called Linear A and Linear B. The former, a pictographic script, has not been deciphered. It is, however, known that it was in widespread use by 1750 BCE. This script was often inked onto stone and terracotta vessels; the discovery of a clay disk at the site of Phaestos have revealed what is thought to be the first example of printing - the disk was stamped (while still wet) with a series of 45 symbols and is thought to have had sacred ritual purposes. Linear B tablets, found on Crete as well as Pylos and Mycenae (both of the latter on the Greek mainland) are generally dated to between 1400 and 1150 BCE. In 1952 the architect Michael Ventris and cryptographer John Chadwick deciphered the script and identified the language as an early mainland Greek dialect - ergo, by the time that Linear B came into use, the Mycenaeans were in power in Crete.

    The Downfall of Minoan Civilisation

    The island of Thera was colonized by the Minoans c. 2000 BCE. No later than 1700 BCE, the town of Akrotiri was established; the link to Minoan civilisation was provided by the fact that art, architecture and pottery found on Thera match that found on Crete in both style and choice of subject matter. It was a prosperous port city (and, perhaps, naval base). Akrotiri thrived and the affluence that sea trade brought them allowed them to afford to build elaborate buildings. Consequently, it has further been suggested that Thera functioned as a holiday destination for the wealthy. Whatever the nature of the relationship between Crete and Thera during the height of Minoan prosperity, the spectacular and cataclysmic eruption of Thera some time during the mid-2nd millennium BCE was undoubtedly the reason for the downfall of Minoan civilisation.

    It is this very island that hints at an element of truth in Plato’s Atlantis legend, particularly with reference to the passage which tells how the Atlanteans launched aggressive campaigns against their rivals (or, depending upon interpretation, the entire world) and were defeated by the Athenians, after which the island of Atlantis sank into the sea amidst a cacophony of earthquakes and floods. Plato suggested that Atlantis, however, resided beyond the Pillars of Hercules (which lie at the entrance to the Mediterranean) and as such there remains no firm link between archaeological records and Plato’s (ultimately fanciful and didactic) tale.

    Tracing the Eruption:
    Initially, discoveries of pottery hidden within tephra layers was ignored, but eventually the island attracted the attention of the archaeological community and great progress toward understand Minoan civilisation was made when the Greek Professor Spyridon Marinatos began excavations of buildings at Akrotiri in 1967. Even before then, archaeologists had been searching the island for indications of ancient civilization, and it would be impossible to conclusively state who was responsible for the re-discovery of Thera. At any rate, there is no question that the eruption of Thera was an event of pivotal importance in the Aegean region. Cultures as far from the Mediterranean as Mexico and China record phenomena (most notably climate change) concurrent with an explosion of enormous magnitude; it is said that Thera erupted with around 5-6 times the force of the more recent Krakatoa eruption.

    The trouble in decisively determining a date is that there are numerous methods for tracing seismic activity and that each appears to reach a different conclusion. Methods ranging from typology (of pottery), examination of ice cores (particularly from Greenland, where evidence of some 400 eruptions in the past 7000 years exists), dendrochronology, carbon-14 dating, geology and stratigraphy place the eruption as having occurred somewhere between 1645-1450 BCE. It is possible that there were, in actuality, one or more relatively minor eruptions which predated the one which erupted some 30 cubic Kilometres of rhyodacite magma into the air. The absence of bodies and dearth of metal artefacts or other portable objects of obvious material value in the ruins of Akrotiri indicate that the inhabitants had ample warning of the volcanic eruption which buried the island in ash and other volcanic debris to the extent that it became uninhabitable for as much as a century or two (although there is evidence to suggest that some residents returned, demolished now-useless buildings and attempted to re-found the town).

    At Akrotiri, the lowest stratum of this volcanic debris consists of a layer of pumice pellets some 3 cm thick, the top of which was slightly oxidised. It is thought that this layer was exposed to the atmosphere for anywhere between two and twenty-four months before itself being sealed by a subsequent pumice fall. The commonly drawn conclusion is that an initial (and much smaller) eruption probably induced the people of Akrotiri to flee - hence the minimal loss of life. A second stratum of markedly larger pumice (0.5-1.00 m. thick at Akrotiri, deeper elsewhere on the island) then fell. The final deposition of tephra (volcanic ash) attributable to this eruptional sequence is over five meters thick at Akrotiri but up to fifty meters thick elsewhere on Thera. There is no archaeological evidence for how long the full series of eruptions lasted, but vulcanologists have reached a consensus that the process was a fairly rapid, hence short-lived one; the absence of any clear signs of erosion at the preserved tops of the ruins of Akrotiri supports the notion that complete burial of these ruins followed close upon the heels of the events which saw the site deserted.

    Prevailing winds and ocean currents suggest that volcanic matter would have almost entirely avoided significant contact with the Greek mainland and western Crete. Eastern Crete, however, would have been covered by up to 10cm of fine pumice. It is uncertain whether or not this would have had an adverse or beneficial effect (although in the long term the latter is likely). The tsunami which followed the eruption, however, would have caused enormous damage, particularly to coastal settlements and low-lying inland areas (as theorized by Marinatos in 1939). The scale of the wave is questioned, however, and many suggest that the wave – if such there was – predated the eruption by several years. If a tidal wave did indeed strike Crete, it would have totalled the fleets upon which the Minoans relied for protection from potential invaders. The most popular theory is that Minoan Crete survived the immediate volcanic onslaught (although it was fatally weakened in the process), only to fall to a Mycenaean invasion (based on copious evidence of fire damage to buildings in Crete and its colonies), although this does not account for the site at Zakros remaining unsullied.

    We may never construct a completely convincing chronology of events, although it is inarguable that a solid foundation of research exists. In contemporary times, the emphasis has moved somewhat away from ascertaining the precise order of events which led to the destruction of this powerful and vigorous culture, and toward comprehending those vestiges of their civilisation that remain.



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