The Minoan civilization flourished in the middle Bronze Age on the Mediterranean island of Crete from ca. 2000 BCE until ca. 1500 BCE and, with their unique art and architecture, the Minoans made a significant contribution to the development of Western European civilization as it is known today.
The archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans was first alerted to the possible presence of an ancient civilization on Crete by surviving carved seal stones worn as charms by native Cretans in the early 20th century CE. Excavating at Knossos from 1900 to 1905 CE, Evans discovered extensive ruins which confirmed the ancient accounts, both literary and mythological, of a sophisticated Cretan culture and possible site of the legendary labyrinth and palace of King Minos. It was Evans who coined the term Minoan in reference to this legendary Bronze Age King.
Minoan settlements, tombs and cemeteries have been found all over Crete but the four principal palace sites (in order of size) were at Knossos, Phaistos, Malia and Zakros. At each of these sites, large, complex palace structures of two or three stories and covering several thousand square metres seem to have acted as local administrative, trade, religious and possibly political centres. The relationship between the palaces and the power structure within them or over the island as a whole is not clear due to a lack of archaeological and literary evidence. It is clear, however, that the palaces exerted some kind of localised control, in particular, in the gathering and storage of materials - wine, oil, grain, precious metals and ceramics. The absence of fortifications in the settlements suggests a relatively peaceful co-existence between the different communities. However, the presence of weapons such as swords, daggers and arrow-heads and defensive equipment such as armour and helmets would also suggest that peace may not always have been enjoyed.
The palaces themselves covered two periods: The first were constructed around 2000 BC and following destructive earthquakes and fires, re-built again ca. 1700 BCE. These second palaces survived until their final destruction between 1500 BCE and 1450 BCE, once again by either earthquake, fire, or possibly invasion (or a combination of all three). The palaces were well-appointed, monumental structures with large courts, colonnades, staircases, religious crypts, light-wells, drainage systems, extensive storage magazines and even ‘theatre’ areas for public spectacles. The complexity of these palaces, the sport of bull-leaping, the worship of bulls as indicated by the presence throughout of sacred bulls’ horns and depictions of double axes (or labrys) in stone and fresco may all have combined to give birth to the legend of Theseus and the labyrinth-dwelling Minotaur so popular in classical Greek mythology.
The sophistication of the Minoan culture and its trading capacity is evidenced by the presence of writing - firstly hieroglyphic and then Linear A scripts (both, as yet, undeciphered), predominantly found on various types of administrative clay tablets. A further example of the culture’s high degree of development is the variety and quality of the art forms practised by the Minoans. Pottery finds reveal a wide range of vessels from wafer-thin cups to large storage jars (pithoi). Ceramics were initially hand-turned but then increasingly made on the potter’s wheel. In decoration, there was a progression from flowing geometric designs in Kamares ware to vibrant naturalistic depictions of flowers, plants and sea life in the later Floral and Marine styles. Magnificent frescoes from the walls and floors of the palaces also reveal the Minoans’ love of the sea and nature and give insights into religious, communal and funeral practices. Metal, stone, ivory and faience work also reveal a high degree of craftsmanship, examples range from fine alabaster jars to dynamic ivory sculpture in the round to minutely carved gold rings and seals.
The Minoans, as a sea-faring culture, were also in contact with foreign peoples throughout the Aegean, as is evidenced by the Near East and Egyptian influences in their early art but also in later export trade, notably the exchange of pottery and foodstuffs such as oil and wine in return for precious objects and materials such as copper from Cyprus and ivory from Egypt.
The reasons for the demise of the Minoan civilization continue to be debated. The rise of the Mycenaean civilization in the mid-2nd millennium BC on the Greek mainland and the evidence of their cultural influence on Minoan art and trade make them the most likely cause. However, other suggestions include earthquakes and volcanic activity with consequent tsunami. The eruption of Thera (the present day island of Santorini) may have been particularly significant, although, the exact date of this cataclysmic eruption is disputed and therefore its connection with the end of the Minoan period remains unclear.