The Minoan Civilization

The Rise and Fall of the First Greek Culture on Crete

Reconstructed Minoan Palace Room at Knossos, Crete
Reconstructed Minoan Palace Room at Knossos, Crete. Sean Gallup / Getty Images News / Getty Images Europe

The Minoan civilization is what archaeologists have named the people who lived on the island of Crete during the early part of the prehistoric Bronze Age of Greece. We don't know what the Minoans called themselves: they were named "Minoan" by archaeologist Arthur Evans after the legendary Cretan King Minos.

Bronze Age Greek civilizations are split by tradition into the Greek mainland (or Helladic), and the Greek islands (the Cycladic).

The Minoans were the first and earliest of what scholars recognize as Greeks, and the Minoans have a reputation of having had a philosophy that harmonized with the natural world.

The Minoans were based on Crete, located in the center of the Mediterranean Sea, about 160 kilometers (99 miles) south of the Greek mainland. It has a climate and culture different from that of other Bronze Age Mediterranean communities that arose both before and after.

Bronze Age Minoan Chronology

There are two sets of Minoan chronology, one which reflects stratigraphic levels in archaeological sites, and one which attempts to plot societal changes arising from events, particularly the size and complexity of Minoan palaces. Traditionally, Minoan culture is divided into a series of events. The simplified, event-driven chronology is first elements identified by archaeologists as Minoan appeared about 3000 B.C.E. (Pre-Palatial); Knossos was founded about 1900 B.C.E.

(Proto-Palatial), Santorini erupted about 1500 B.C.E. (Neo-Palatial), and Knossos fell in 1375 B.C.E.

Recent investigations suggest that Santorini may have erupted about 1600 B.C.E., making event-driven categories less than secure, but clearly, these absolute dates will continue to be controversial for some time to come.

The best result is to combine the two. The following timeline is from Yannis Hamilakis' 2002 book, Labyrinth Revisited: Rethinking 'Minoan' Archaeology, and most scholars use it, or something like it, today.

Minoan Timeline

  • Late Minoan IIIC 1200-1150 B.C.E.
  • Late Minoan II through Late Minoan IIIA/B 1450-1200 B.C.E. (Kydonia) (sites: Kommos, Vathypetro)
  • Neo-Palatial (LM IA-LM IB) 1600-1450 B.C.E. (Vathypetro, Kommos, Palaikastro)
  • Neo-Palatial (MMIIIB) 1700-1600 B.C.E. (Ayia Triadha, Tylissos, Kommos, Akrotiri)
  • Proto-Palatial (MM IIA-MM IIIA) 1900-1700 B.C.E. (Knossos, Phaistos, Malia)
  • Pre-Palatial (EM III/MM IA) 2300-1900 B.C.E. (Vasilike, Myrtos, Debla, Mochlos)
  • Early Minoan IIB 2550-2300 B.C.E.
  • Early Minoan IIA 2900-2550 B.C.E.
  • Early Minoan I 3300-2900 B.C.E.

During the Pre-Palatial period, sites on Crete consisted of single farmsteads and dispersed farming hamlets with nearby cemeteries. The farming hamlets were fairly self-sufficient, creating their own pottery and agricultural goods as necessary. Many of the graves in the cemeteries contained grave goods, including white marble figurines of women, hinting at the future cultic assemblages. Cultic sites located on local mountain tops called peak sanctuaries came into use by 2000 B.C.E.

By the Proto-Palatial period, most of the people lived in larger coastal settlements which may have been centers for maritime trading, such as Chalandriani on Syros, Ayia Irini on Kea, and Dhaskaleio-Kavos on Keros. Administrative functions involving the marking of shipped goods using stamp seals were in place at this time. Out of these larger settlements grew the Palatial civilizations on Crete. The capital was at Knossos, founded about 1900 B.C.E.; three other major palaces were located at Phaistos, Mallia, and Zacros.

Minoan Economy

Pottery technology and various artifacts of the first Neolithic (pre-Minoan) settlers on Crete suggest their possible origin from Asia Minor rather than mainland Greece. About 3000 B.C.E., Crete saw an influx of new settlers, probably again from Asia Minor. Long-distance trading emerged in the Mediterranean as early as EB I, propelled by the invention of the longboat (probably at the end of the Neolithic period), and the desire across the Mediterranean for metals, pottery forms, obsidian and other goods that were not readily available locally.

It has been suggested that technology drove the Cretan economy to blossom, transforming the Neolithic society into a Bronze Age existence and development.

The Cretan shipping empire eventually dominated the Mediterranean Sea, including mainland Greece and Greek Islands and eastward to the Black Sea. Among the major agricultural goods traded were olives, figs, grains, wine, and saffron. The main written language of the Minoans was the script called Linear A, which has yet to be deciphered but may represent a form of early Greek. It was used for religious and accounting purposes from about 1800–1450 B.C.E., when it abruptly disappeared to be replaced by Linear B, a tool of the Mycenaeans, and one that we can read today.

Symbols and Cults

A considerable amount of scholarly research has focused on the Minoan religion and the impact of the social and cultural changes that occurred during the period. Much of the recent scholarship has focused on the interpretation of some of the symbols associated with Minoan culture.

Women with Upraised Arms. Among the symbols associated with Minoans is the wheel-thrown terracotta female figurine with upraised arms, including the famous faience "snake goddess" found at Knossos. Beginning in late Middle Minoan times, Minoan potters made figurines of females holding their arms upward; other images of such goddesses are found on seal stones and rings. Decorations of the tiaras of these goddesses vary, but birds, snakes, disks, oval palettes, horns, and poppies are among the symbols used.

Some of the goddesses have snakes coiling around their arms. The figurines fell out of use by the Late Minoan III A-B (Final Palatial), but appear again in LM IIIB-C (Post-Palatial).

The Double Axe. The Double Axe is a pervasive symbol by Neopalational Minoan times, appearing as a motif on pottery and seal stones, found written in scripts and scratched into ashlar blocks for palaces. Mold-made bronze axes were also a common tool, and they may have been associated with a group or class of people connected with leadership in agriculture.

Important Minoan Sites

Myrtos, Mochlos, Knossos, Phaistos, Malia, Kommos, Vathypetro, Akrotiri. Palaikastro

End of the Minoans

For some 600 years, the Bronze Age Minoan civilization thrived on the island of Crete. But in the latter part of the 15th century B.C.E., the end came rapidly, with the destruction of several of the palaces, including Knossos. Other Minoan buildings were torn down and replaced, and domestic artifacts, rituals, and even the written language changed.

All of these changes are distinctly Mycenaean, suggesting a population shift on Crete, perhaps an influx of people from the mainland bringing their own architecture, writing styles and other cultic objects with them.

What caused this great shift? Although scholars are not in agreement, there are in fact three major plausible theories for the collapse.

Theory 1: Santorini Eruption

Between about 1600 and 1627 B.C.E., the volcano on Santorini island erupted, destroying the port city of Thera and decimating the Minoan occupation there.

Giant tsunamis destroyed other coastal cities such as Palaikastro, which was completely inundated. Knossos itself was destroyed by another earthquake in 1375 B.C.E.

There is no doubt that Santorini erupted, and it was devastating. The loss of the port on Thera was exceptionally painful: the economy of the Minoans was based on maritime trade and Thera was its most important port. But the volcano didn't kill everyone on Crete and there is some evidence that the Minoan culture didn't immediately collapse.

Theory 2: Mycenaean Invasion

Another possible theory is an ongoing conflict with the Mycenaeans mainland in Greece and/or New Kingdom Egypt, over control of the extensive trade network that had developed in the Mediterranean at the time.

Evidence for the takeover by Mycenaeans includes the presence of scripts written in the ancient written form of Greek known as Linear B, and Mycenaean funerary architecture and burial practices such as the Mycenaean-type "warrior graves".

Recent strontium analysis shows that the people buried in "warrior graves" are not from the mainland, but rather were born and lived their lives on Crete, suggesting that the shift to a Mycenaean-like society may not have included a large Mycenaean invasion.

Theory 3: Minoan Insurrection?

Archaeologists have come to believe that at least a substantial portion of the reason for the downfall of the Minoans may have been internal political conflict.

The strontium analysis research looked at the dental enamel and cortical thighbone from 30 individuals previously excavated from tombs in cemeteries within two miles of the Minoan capital of Knossos. Samples were taken from contexts both before and after the destruction of Knossos in 1470/1490, and 87Sr/86Sr ratios were compared to archaeological and modern animal tissues on Crete and Mycenae in the Argolid mainland. Analysis of these materials revealed that all of the strontium values of individuals buried near Knossos, whether before or after the destruction of the palace, were born and raised on Crete. None could have been born or raised on the Argolid mainland.

A Collection End

What archaeologists are considering, overall, is that the eruption on Santorini destroying the ports likely caused an immediate interruption in the shipping networks, but did not in itself cause collapse. The collapse came later, perhaps as escalating costs involved with replacing the port and replacing the ships created more pressure on the people on Crete to pay for rebuilding and maintaining the network.

The Late Post-Palatial period saw the addition to the ancient shrines on Crete of large wheel-thrown pottery goddess figures with their arms stretched upward. Is it possible, as Florence Gaignerot-Driessen has supposed, that these are not goddesses per se, but votaries representing a new religion replacing the old?

For an excellent comprehensive discussion of Minoan culture, see the University of Dartmouth's History of the Aegean.

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Hirst, K. Kris. "The Minoan Civilization." ThoughtCo, Feb. 11, 2018, thoughtco.com/minoans-bronze-age-civilization-171840. Hirst, K. Kris. (2018, February 11). The Minoan Civilization. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/minoans-bronze-age-civilization-171840 Hirst, K. Kris. "The Minoan Civilization." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/minoans-bronze-age-civilization-171840 (accessed June 19, 2018).