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Minoan civilization

The Minoans were an ancient civilization on what is now Crete (in the Mediterranean), during the Bronze Age, prior to classical Greek culture. The Minoans were primarily a mercantilist people engaged in overseas trade. Many historians and archaeologists believe that the Minoans were highly involved in the Bronze Age's important tin trade (tin being used for manufacture of bronze). The decline of Minoan civilization and the decline in use of bronze tools seem to be correlated.

Map of Crete (19th C.)
Map of Crete (19th C.)

Archaeological History

The civilization is named after King Minos, who in Greek mythology was said to be the King of Crete. Some believe that Minos either figuratively represents the civilization or is a dynastic name. Major cities of Minoan culture were Knossos, Phaistos, and Malia. The Cretan myths and the discoveries of Heinrich Schliemann encouraged the excavations carried out in 1900, when Sir Arthur Evans started excavations on the palace in Knossos. His methods caused some controversy, because he not only excavated, but attempted to reconstruct the buildings.

Much of our knowledge of Minoan culture comes from 3000 clay tablets dating from two different time periods. The older tablets (written in Linear A) from around 1750 BC have not yet been deciphered. The newer tablets span a period from 1400 BC to 1150 BC and were deciphered in 1952 by Michael Ventris and John Chadwick , who identified the language, Linear B, as an early Greek dialect. As these tablets provide our only written accounts, much of what we surmise about Minoan civilization is based on the elaborate wall paintings and floor mosaics that survived. These provide much of our assumptions about Minoan social relationships and religion.

Geography and Climate

Crete is a mountainous island in the Mediterranean with natural harbors. During the ancient period the island was wracked by earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and winter storm s.

According to Homer, Crete had 90 cities, of which Knossos was the most important one. Archeologists have found palaces in Phaistos and Malia as well. The island was probably divided into four political units, the north being governed from Knossos, the south from Phaistos, the central eastern part from Malia and the eastern tip from Kato Zakros. Smaller palaces have been found in other places. It is remarkable that none of the Minoan cities had city walls, and few weapons were found.

Periods of Minoan history:

Chronological History

The oldest signs of inhabitants on Crete are aceramic Neolithic remains that date to ca. 7000 BC cal. See History of Crete for details.

The beginning of the Bronze Age around 3100 BC is a period of great unrest in Crete, but it also marks the beginning of Crete as an important center of civilization.

Around 1700 BC there is a large disturbance in Crete, probably by an earthquake, although an invasion from Turkey has also been suggested. After that the population increased again, and the palaces were again, even larger than before and with a different basic plan.

Around 1650 BC, the eruption of the volcanic island Thera caused tsunami which destroyed installations near the coasts. The sulphur dioxide emitted by the volcano also caused a decline in temperature, which resulted in poor harvests for several years. Some archeologists think that the Minoans lost their religious faith in the ability of the priests to control nature.

Around 1450, the palaces were again disturbed. Some time later, around 1420 BC, the island was conquered by the Mycenaeans. After this, most Cretan cities and palaces went into decline; Knossos remained until 1200 BC.

Theories of Failure

There is evidence that the trade networks collapsed, and that Minoan cities perished by famine. The Minoans' grain supply is believed to have come from farms on the shore of the Black Sea.

Many scholars believe that ancient trading empires were in constant danger from uneconomic trade, that is, food and staples were improperly valued relative to luxuries, because accounting was undeveloped. The result could be famine and negative population growth.

One theory of Minoan collapse is that increasing use of iron tools impoverished the Minoan traders. When the trade networks ceased, regional famines could no longer be mitigated by trade.

Another theory is that Minoan naval capabilities were damaged in some fashion by the explosion of Thera. This may have led to a conquest by the Myceneans. The Myceneans probably lacked the skills to manage a large trading empire.

Also, it is theorized that a volcano on the island of Thera (also called Santorini), north of Crete, erupted and caused massive tidal waves and falling ash.

Some suggest that a Mycenaean invasion occurred after the erruption and that this caused the fall of the civilisation.

This eruption may have inspired the legend of Atlantis.


The Minoans raised cattle, sheep, pigs, goats, and grew wheat, barley, vetch, chickpeas, figs, olives, and grapes.

Farmers used wooden plows, bound by leather to wooden handles, and pulled by pairs of donkeys or oxen.


The first palaces were constructed at the end of the end of the EM III (Malia). While it was formerly thought that the foundation of the first palaces was synchronous and dated to the MBIB, the date of the palace at Knossos, scholars now think that palaces were built over a wider period of time in different locations, in response to local developments. The main older Palaces are known from Knossos, Malia and Phaistos.

The palaces fulfilled a plethora of functions, they served as centres of government, administrative offices, shrines, workshops and stores, although it should be kept in mind that these distinction would probably have seemed entirely artificial to the Minoans.

The use of the term 'palace' for the older Palaces has recently come under criticism, as it implies a Royal dynastic residence, and the term 'court buildings' proposed instead, but it is probably too well entrenched to be replaced. Architectural features like ashlar masonry, orthostats , columns, open courts, staircases implying upper storeys and the presence of diverse basins have been used to define palatial architecture. Often the better known younger palaces have been used to reconstruct the older ones, but this may have hid fundamental functional differences. Most older palaces had only one storey and no representative facades. They were generally smaller than the later palaces, but with a big central court. The plan was U-shaped.

The late palaces are characterised by multi-storey buildings. The West-facades had sandstone ashlar masonry. Knossos is the best-known example.


The most important Minoan art is in their ceramics, but they are also known for their frescos, landscapes, and stone carvings. In the early Minoan period Minoan ceramics were characterised by linear patterns of spirals, triangles, curved lines, crosses, fishbone motifs and such. In the middle Minoan period naturalistic designs such fish, squids, birds and lilies were common. In the late Minoan period, flowers and animals were still the most characteristic, but the variability had increased. The 'palace style' of the region around Knossos is characterised by strong geometric simplification of naturalistic shapes and monochromatic painting.


Minoan men wore loincloths and kilts. Women wore robes that were slit to the navel and had short sleeves and flounced skirts. The patterns on clothes emphasized symmetrical geometric designs.


Minoan temples were generally L-shaped and housed priestesses, families, storerooms, and craftsmen. The Temple of Knossos was built of cedar and covered 24,000 square yards (20,067 square meters) and was 4 stories tall. It had 60+ rooms, including the center court where men would jump over bulls.

Minoan sacred symbols include the Bull, Bull's Horns of Consecration , Double Axe, Pillar, Snakes, Sun, and Tree.

Minoan art suggests that the Minoans may have worshipped a Mother Goddess who was the Goddess of Fertility, Animals, Cities, Households, Harvests, and the Underworld. She was often represented by snakes. The Goddess was linked to the Earthshaker, a male represented by the bull and the sun, who would die each fall and be reborn each spring. Other illustrations have led to some theories that the Minoans also believed in animal-headed demons.

Although long thought to be a peaceful people, recent evidence uncovered at a temple structure near one of the palaces shows that the Minoans engaged in human sacrifice. To date, however, only one such archaeological find has been made.

Minoans buried their dead in pottery jars.

The Minoans had a strong influence on Mycenaean culture and this influence would have spread to the Philistines who appear in the Bible. The Philistines were settlers who arrived in Philistia prior to 1150 B.C.E. as one of the "[[[Sea Peoples]]" alluded to in Jewish and Egyptian writings. Their knowledge of bronze workings made them formidable enemies to the Canaanites and Israelites settled in Israel.


The Minoan cities were connected with stone roads, formed from blocks cut with bronze saws. Streets were drained and water and sewage facilities were available to the upper-class, through clay pipes.

Minoan buildings often had flat tiled roofs; plaster, wood, or flagstone floors, and stood 2-3 stories high. They would construct the lower walls of stone and rubble and use mudbrick for higher elevations. Ceiling timbers would hold up the roofs.


The Minoans traded with Greece, Syria, Egypt, Spain, and Mesopotamia. And the most important Cretan (re)exports were grain, oil, wine, ceramics, copper, tin, gold and silver.

See also


  • I. Schoep, Assessing the role of architecture in conspicuous consumption in the Middle Minoan I-II Periods. Oxford Journal of Archaeology 23/3, 2004, 243-269-

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Last updated: 10-24-2004 05:10:45