Minoans - Bronze Age Civilization in the Mediterranean Sea

What Caused the Rise and Fall of the Early Bronze Age Minoans?

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

The Minoans are what archaeologists call 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.

The island of Crete is located in the center of the Mediterranean Sea, about 160 kilometers (99 miles) south of the Greek mainland.

It has a distinctive climate and culture different from that of other Bronze Age Mediterranean communities that arose both before and after.

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.

Problems with 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 BC (Pre-Palatial); Knossos was founded about 1900 BC (Proto-Palatial), Santorini erupted about 1500 BC (Neo-Palatial); and Knossos fell in 1375 BC.

Recent investigations suggest that Santorini may have erupted about 1600 BC, 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 BC
  • Late Minoan II through Late Minoan IIIA/B 1450-1200 BC (Kydonia) (sites: Kommos, Vathypetro)
  • Neo-Palatial (LM IA-LM IB) 1600-1450 BC (Vathypetro, Kommos, Palaikastro)
  • Neo-Palatial (MMIIIB) 1700-1600 BC (Ayia Triadha, Tylissos, Kommos, Akrotiri)
  • Proto-Palatial (MM IIA-MM IIIA) 1900-1700 BC (Knossos, Phaistos, Malia)
  • Pre-Palatial (EM III/MM IA) 2300-1900 BC (Vasilike, Myrtos, Debla, Mochlos)
  • Early Minoan IIB 2550-2300 BC
  • Early Minoan IIA 2900-2550 BC
  • Early Minoan I 3300-2900 BC

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 BC.

By the Proto-Palatial period, most of the people lived in larger coastal settlements which may been set up as 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 BC; 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 BC, 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.

Papadatos et al. argue that it was that technology that 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 BC, 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

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 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, figurines of females holding their arms upward were made by the Minoans; other images of such goddesses are found on sealstones and rings. Decorations of the tiaras of these goddesses vary, with birds, snakes, disks, oval palettes, horns and poppies. 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). Gaignerot-Dreiss (2003) describes the varying interpretations of the meaning of symbols with respect to cultural and political changes on Crete and adds her own.

The Double Axe. In a 2010 article, Haysom provides a variety of explanations for the significance of the Double Axe, a pervasive symbol in Neopalational Minoan times, appearing as a motif on pottery and sealstones, in all scripts and scratched into ashlar blocks for palaces.

Mold-made bronze axes were also a common tool, and Haysom argues that they were 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

Between about 1600 and 1627 BC, the volcano on Santorini erupted, destroying the island and the Minoan occupation there. Giant tsunamis destroyed the coastal cities such as Palaikastro, which was completely inundated. Knossos itself was destroyed by another earthquake in 1375 BC. Around that time, a clear cultural shift began on Crete, with architecture, writing styles and other cultic objects similar to the Mycenaean mainland replacing much of the Minoan styles.

It's a fact: Santorini erupted and it was devastating. Because of this, for a very long time it was believed that what ended the Minoan culture was a combination of earthquakes and conflict wars with the Mycenaeans from mainland Greece, and/or Egypt, over the extensive trade that had developed in the Mediterranean at the time. No doubt, the Theran eruption had an effect on Crete, as an economy based on maritime trade which used Thera as a major port.

Evidence for the takeover by Mycenaeans includes the presence of Linear B, an ancient written form of Greek, 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 were born and lived their lives on Crete, suggesting that the shift to a Mycenaean-like society may have not included a Mycenaean invasion.

The Invasion of Mycenaean Culture

More recently, archaeologists have come to believe that at least a substantial portion of the reason for the downfall of the Minoans was internal political conflict.

For some 600 years, the Bronze Age Minoan civilization thrived on the island of Crete. But in the latter part of the 15th century, the end came rapidly, with the destruction of several of the palaces including Knossos, and the replacement of Minoan buildings, domestic artifacts, rituals and written language by History of the Aegean.

The Minoan Insurrection Hypothesis

Support for the Cretan insurrection hypothesis has been growing among Aegean scholars for the past decade. Argyro Nafplioti of the American School in Athens reports in the August 2008 issue of the Journal of Archaeological Science that strontium isotope ratios of skeletal material recovered from "Mycenaean type" graves on Crete are of persons born and raised on Crete, not from the Mycenaean mainland.

Nafplioti sampled 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.

Importance of the Study

Minoan scholar Yannis Hamilakis of the University of Southampton comments "This important study, based on doctoral research carried out at the University of Southampton, provides further supporting evidence to a hypothesis that many of us had found quite plausible for some time: that the so-called Mycenaean phase in the Late Bronze Age of Crete is more to do with the cultural adoption of certain material identity signifiers by local elites, rather than with an invasion of groups from mainland Greece.

Moreover, this study sheds indirect light onto the nature of social and political structure in Late Bronze Age Crete. If external factors such as invasions or colonisations from the mainland cannot account for the extensive (but selective) destructions seen during the so-called "neopalatial" period, then internal social causes gain further currency. I argued in 2002 that factionalism and factional competition seems to be more consistent with the nature of the evidence at hand, and these selective destructions may have to do with episodes of social unrest as part of this unstable social and political landscape. The conclusions of this study provide some further support to this scenario".

A. Bernard Knapp, Mediterranean prehistorian at the University of Glasgow, comments "'Mycenaean' invaders, colonists and traders have long animated archaeological narratives that seek to explain seemingly abrupt changes in the material culture of several Late Bronze Aegean or eastern Mediterranean societies.

Nafplioti's strontium isotope ratio analyses of human dental enamel and bone offers a compelling corrective to those who still see post-LMIB Knossos as the domain of 'Mycenaean' elites controlling the social, political, ideological and material cultural traditions of the island of Crete."

Sources

This article is a part of the About.com guide to the History of Humans on Planet Earth, and the Dictionary of Archaeology. For an excellent comprehensive discussion of Minoan culture, I highly recommend University of Dartmouth's History of the Aegean.

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