Among the most familiar motifs of Minoan art are the snake, symbol of the goddess, and the bull; the ritual of bull-leaping
Crete was inhabited by Neolithic cave dwellers around 7000 BC. Aside from their wood, stone, and bone tools, they also wore simple cloth, and their clothing was made from wood, stone, and bone. There is a good chance they came from Asia Minor, Syria, Palestine, or North Africa. Bull cults may have provided a clue to their origins in Neolithic Anatolia.
Development was almost imperceptibly slow through migrations, influences, or internal dynamics over the next three thousand years. Domestic animals and essential crops were used in elementary agriculture. In addition to better-made domestic utensils and clay figurines of humans, animals, and pregnant women, pottery (the oldest samples found beneath the Palace at Knossos) became more sophisticated. The island of Milos also supplied obsidian. As the era wore on, simple rectangular mud-brick huts were built with increasing skill and complexity, although caves remained inhabited.
“The Minoans on Bronze Age Crete are famous for their large palace-like buildings, their vibrant and colourful frescoes in these palaces, and their pottery which is often decorated with scenes of marine life.”
Knossos was a crucial Neolithic settlement, two remarkable dwellings have been discovered beneath the Central Court, and there is abundant evidence that many other sites of later habitation were utilized at this time - Malia, Festos, Ayia Triadha, Hania area – as well as most of the caves that later became religiously significant.
In the Bronze Age Crete was ruled by the Minoans. At the beginning of the twentieth century, Minoan Crete was transformed from myth to archaeological reality. The Minoans and their language are still subject to considerable controversy, even over such fundamental details as their identity. Almost everything we know is derived from physical remains, fleshed out somewhat by writings from Classical Greece almost one thousand years after Knossos was destroyed since no written historical records exist from that time. However, the theories about the Minoans can be unified into some consensus, as we shall see below. Fresh discoveries will change this viewpoint radically in the future. The Minoan Civilization flourished in the Middle Bronze Age on the island of Crete in the eastern Mediterranean from c. 2700 BC to c. 1450 BC (following the Palaeolithic and Neolithic periods). The Minoans were a trading civilization that traded throughout the Eastern Mediterranean, as far north as Britain and as far east as Mesopotamia. The Minoans imported a wide variety of raw materials and manufactured goods from other civilizations, and then they exported their own products, including olive oil, wine, pottery, furniture, perfumes, and jewellery. According to archaeological evidence, the two palaces on the island of Crete at Knossos and Phaistos are considered the largest surviving palaces from antiquity; both were built around 1900 BCE.
The Minoans were a trading civilization that influenced other cultures and people, but they also influenced others. They had a strong navy and traded throughout the Mediterranean Sea. Minoan history can be divided into three periods: Pre-Palatial, Palatial, and Post-Palatial (c. 2000–1450 BC). These people's origins are unknown but seem to be related to Anatolians. The latter settled on Crete around 2000 BC during an era known as Early Minoan I, which lasted until 1700 BC when it was followed by Late Minoan IA, which lasted until 1600 BC when it was followed by Late Minoan IB, which lasted until 1500 BC, when it was followed by Middle Minoan IA, which lasted until 1400 BC, when it was followed by Middle Minoan IB, which lasted until 1375 BC, when it was followed by Late Minoan IIA, which lasted until 1370 BC, when it ended with a period known as Mycenaean Colonization that saw mainland Greeks migrating onto Crete from where they ruled over their former colonies for 300 years before being overthrown themselves around 1100 BC. Minoan traders likely sailed to Egypt on ships called 'Keels' or 'Liners.' These ships were made from planks of wood fastened together along their length by mortise-and-tenon joints, allowing them to be dismantled for travel overland if necessary (such as by crossing a desert). The Minoans imported a wide variety of raw materials and manufactured goods from other civilizations, and then they exported their own products, including olive oil, wine, pottery, furniture, perfumes, and jewellery. You might wonder why the Minoans traded with so many different civilizations. Well, it's because they had a lot of resources and goods. They could trade their olive oil, wine, and pottery for other valuable things that were hard to produce in Crete. The Minoans were famous for their jewellery, perfumes, and furniture made of wood or ivory. They also produced bronze weapons and tools, which they exported as well as imported silver from Anatolia (modern Turkey).
Because the Minoan civilization was so advanced, they had many trading partners around the Mediterranean region, including Egypt, Mesopotamia (modern Iraq), Anatolia (modern Turkey), Hittite Empire (modern Turkey), and Assyrian Empire (modern Iraq). The two palaces on the island of Crete at Knossos and Phaistos are considered the largest surviving palaces from antiquity. Knossos has been excavated since 1900 by Arthur Evans, while Phaistos was discovered in 1908 by the Italian archaeologist Luigi Pernier. Phaistos is a lesser-known site than its famous counterpart at Knossos, but it still offers some of the best-preserved Minoan architecture and actual examples of frescoes and pottery. The palace complex at Phaistos consists of buildings ranging in date between 1900 BCE through 1700 BCE (the late Bronze Age). The Minoan civilization was centred around the Palace at Knossos on the island of Crete. It reached its height during the Bronze Age and is famous for its Labyrinth, where the mythical creature Minotaur was said to live; it contained over 1,400 rooms and was four stories high in some places. Knossos was destroyed twice, once by an earthquake and then again by a volcanic eruption which led to its abandonment in 1450 BC/BCE. The palace was rebuilt because of King Minos' efforts but would not last long before being buried under volcanic ash following another natural disaster: Mt Thera erupted violently between 1600-1500 BCE (Bronze Age), causing widespread flooding throughout Europe & Asia Minor; this affected ancient Egyptian civilization which relied heavily on trade routes through nearby lands like those found along Nile River Valley.
After an earthquake destroyed Knossos sometime between 1700 - 1650 BCE, it was rebuilt on an even grander scale by King Minos. The Minoan civilization was destroyed by a catastrophic earthquake and volcanic eruption on the island of Santorini around 1613 BCE. Knossos was rebuilt on an even grander scale by King Minos, who became obsessed with the idea of building a city that would be the envy of all who saw it. Phaistos was an inland town with a palace; it had one of the largest populations on Crete at this time, with around 10,000 people living within its walls at its peak. Phaistos was built around 1900 BC and would have had cultural influences from Egypt and Syria as well as from Crete itself, where there were Minoan settlements nearby. The buildings contained clay tablets written in Linear B script that was used in accounting or for inventory records. The Minoans were also known for their elaborate palace complexes, which included large bathtubs with running water as well as plumbing systems that used clay pipes connected to a central reservoir that supplied all parts of the palace complex; this means they had extensive knowledge of hydraulic engineering technology needed to construct these elegant buildings.
Shortly before 1900 B.C., the ﬁrst of the palaces were built at Knossos, Festos, Malia, and Zakros. They represent another significant and apparently abrupt change: a shift of power back to the island's center and the emergence of a much more hierarchical, ordered society. The sites of these palaces were also no accident: Festos and Malia both dominate fertile plains, while Zakros had a superbly sited harbor for trade with the east. Knossos, occupying a strategic position above another plain to the south and west of Iraklion, was perhaps originally as much a religious center as a base of secular power. Indeed, religion took on new importance at this time with the widespread use of mountain-top peak sanctuaries and caves as cult centers. At the same time, much larger towns were growing, especially around the palaces, and substantial "villas" appeared in the countryside.
The palaces themselves are proof of the island's great prosperity during this period, and the artifacts found within offer further evidence. Advances were made in almost every ﬁeld of artistic and craft endeavor. From the First Palace era came the famous Kamares ware pottery – two distinct styles, one eggshell - thin and delicate, the other sturdier with bold-colored designs. The true potter's wheel (as against the turntable) was introduced for the ﬁrst time, along with a simple form of hieroglyphic writing. Elaborate jewelry, seals, and bronze work were also being produced.
Cretan bronze was used throughout the Mediterranean, and its production and distribution depended on a wide-ranging maritime economy. For though Crete may have produced some copper at this time, it never yielded tin, the nearest signiﬁcant sources of which were as distant as modern Iran to the east, central Europe in the north, Italy, Spain, Brittany, and even Britain in the west. While some claim that Minoan ships sailed as far aﬁeld as the Atlantic, it seems more likely that the more exotic goods were obtained through intermediaries. Nevertheless, Crete controlled the trade routes in the Mediterranean, importing tin, copper, ivory, gold, silver, and precious stones of every kind, exporting timber from its rich cypress forests, olive oil, wine, bronze goods, and its ﬁne pottery, especially to Egypt. Minoan colonies or trading posts were established on many Cycladic islands, and the island of Kithira off the Peloponnese, Rhodes, and the coast of Asia Minor; a ﬂeet of merchant's vessels maintained regular trade links between these centers and, above all, with Egypt and the east.
Around 1700 BC, the palaces were destroyed for the ﬁrst time, probably by an earthquake, although raiders from the early Mycenaean Greek mainland may also have seized this opportunity to raid the island while it was temporarily defenseless; this may well account for the wealth of gold and other treasure – much of it obviously Cretan – found in the later royal shaft graves at Mycenae.
Period of the New Palace: 1700-1450 BC
After the destruction of the palaces, Minoan culture continued to flourish, and the society entered its golden age after the palaces were reconstructed on a grander scale. The new palaces provide the most detailed picture of Minoan life, and the great sites - Knossos, Festos, Malia, Zakros - are primarily devoted to them. There was an unprecedented level of sophistication in the architecture of the new palaces, which were multistory, complex structures that utilized space and light as lavishly as the materials used in their construction. Aside from grand stairways, colonnaded porticos and courtyards, brightly frescoed walls, elaborate plumbing and drainage, great magazines to store the society's wealth accumulation, workshops for technicians and artisans, and sacred areas, all played a significant role.
Only the elite could enjoy such comforts, but conditions for ordinary people around Minos' palaces and at sites like Gournia and Palekastro also improved. In fact, there is little doubt that Minos was the title of a dynasty of priests/kings, a word not unlike "pharaoh." (Arthur Evans named Minoan society after the legendary King Minos.) We know very little about the organization of the society, whether it was one entity ruled by Knossos or simply several city-states with a similar cultural heritage. Aristotle implied, however, that a caste system existed in Minos' time when he referred to Crete in his Politics. Religion was clearly an essential part of this society. In addition to secular leaders, there were religious leaders as well. At Knossos, the famous Corridor of the Procession depicts a yearly tribute delivery to a Mother Goddess; bull-leaping had religious significance, too; and in all palaces, substantial chambers were set aside for ritual use.
A very open society was evident in Minoan society as well. There was little difference between the lot of a Minoan peasant and that of a Cretan villager as recently as fifty years ago in terms of internal dissent on the island. No Minoan site has an internal or external defense, and it appears that the rulers felt no threat from within or without, which has led scholars to emphasize sea power as the principal military strength. As a result of their sea power, the Minoans felt safe, while the network of colonies or close allies throughout the Cycladic islands further reduced the threat of attack or piracy. Thira is the most famous, but there are others on Milos, Naxos, Paros, Mikonos, anthros, and Dilos, as well as on Rhodes, Cyprus, Syria, and North Africa. However, this appears to have been more of a trading empire than a military one.
As the apex of Minoan power, the New Palace period also marked the peak of arts and crafts on the island: most of the objects on display in the museum date from this period. There is no doubt that the frescoes - startling in their freshness and vitality - are the most famous and unmistakable demonstration of this fluorescence. However, the apparent tip of an artistic iceberg was just the beginning. Above all else, the Minoans excelled at intricate, small-scale work. The Iraklion Archeological Museum houses several naturalistic sculpted figures of people and animals, including the magnificent ivory bull-leaper, the leopard-head axe, and the snake goddesses. Gold jewelry of this era is exquisitely delicate due to the carvings on seal stones. Ayia Triadha's three black vases and a bull's head rhyton are two examples of stone vessels in the museum. With the help of nature and marine life, pottery took on many new shapes and design motifs.
The writing was another significant advance. At the end of the First Palace period, a new script, Linear A, had appeared, but its use became widespread with the new palaces. Linear A is still undeciphered, and the original Minoan language must be recorded: it was used primarily for administrative records, such as stock lists, transactions, and tax payments. It would be understood even if it were. The language is likely to reveal tiny, therefore. In fires that destroyed the palaces, the clay tablets used to construct the records were baked solid, leaving the surviving pieces intact. There is a possibility that a more formal record, an abstract of the annual accounts, was kept on more valuable but more perishable material such as imported papyrus (the Minoans traded heavily with Egypt) or even native date palm paper. Evidence of the use of ink can be found in the Iraklion Museum.
There was again minor earthquake damage on the island around 1600 BC, but this was quickly repaired. The palaces of Knossos were destroyed in about 1450 BC, and smaller settlements across the island were destroyed on a calamitous scale.
As one of the most controversial Minoan riddles, the cause of this disaster remains unsolved, but the most convincing theory has been that it was caused by the eruption of the volcano of Thira in about 1500 BC - a blast that may have been five times as powerful as Krakatoa. Black ash clouds and a giant wave were thrown up by the explosion. A wave might have directly smashed coastal settlements and burned them further by overturning lamps that had been lighted unnaturally dark days due to the ash clouds. The wreckage was likely caused by blasts, panic, and earth tremors. Under the poisonous blanket created by the falling ash, nothing could grow for as long as fifty years under the center and east of the island.
In recent surveys by vulcanologists, ash from the blast has been found as far away as Greenland, the Black Sea, and Egypt, suggesting the blast caused a "nuclear winter" across much of Europe. Knossos was the only place where there was absolute continuity of habitation, and here it was under the control of the Mycenaean Greeks, who introduced new styles of art, more weapons, and, above all, the use of Linear B, a modified version of Linear A used in early Greek dialects, to keep records. It is unclear whether Knossos was burned by rebellious Cretans, a new wave of Mycenaeans, or perhaps by another natural disaster.
The theory goes something like this, at least. It does, however, have its drawbacks. Why was Festos burned when it was safe from waves and blasts on the island's south side? There are signs that some areas of Crete experienced comparative prosperity after the eruption that vulcanologists dated to 1500 BC. Considering the ongoing debate, it can be said that the volcano theory fits the available evidence better than most of its rivals. Scholars still claim that human destruction is more likely than natural causes. There is some evidence that Linear B was in use at Knossos before 1450 BC, according to the central counter-theory that assumes an invasion by the Mycenaeans. Nevertheless, the Mycenaeans would have gained nothing by destroying the society already flourishing on Crete, nor would they have left the former population centers deserted after conquering.
Thirdly, an internal revolt by the populace against its rulers (possibly after the chaos caused by the Thira eruption) might explain these inconsistencies. This theory fits evidence from sites such as Mirtos Pirgos on the south coast, where a villa dominating the site was burned down while the surrounding settlement remained untouched. In any case, this theory does not appeal to those who see Minoan civilization as a place of tranquil splendor, but it does fit with the later Greek tradition of a tyrannical Minos oppressing his own people abroad. Danish vulcanologists discovered an olive tree branch within a rock face due to volcanic debris in 2005, and their confusion dramatically increased. Despite the cataclysmic eruption, the researchers believe the tree was alive. Using radiocarbon dating, the researchers could date the tree's death between 1627 and 1600 BC. According to this dating, the eruption occurred at least one hundred years earlier. As a result, the Ancient Aegean chronology needs clarification. Minoan dates are typically set using Egyptian chronology (with its long history, king lists, and 365-day year). According to accepted thinking, the Minoan civilization was contemporaneous with the Egyptian New Kingdom (ca. 1550–1050 BC). The vulcanologists' new dating shows that the Minoan civilization effectively collapsed around 1600 BC. According to one Cretan archeologist, "we are in absolute chaos when it comes to assigning years to events, and I believe it will be the Egyptian dates that are currently two centuries off."
Objects of Cretan manufacture have been found all over the Mediterranean, as well as Britain and Scandinavia (amber from the Baltic did indeed make its way to Crete). The Greeks controlled most of Crete by the mid-14th century B.C., reoccupying some of its earlier sites. These sites included Gournia, Aysa Triadha, Tlissos, and Palekastro. While reestablishing habitability on the island, the Mycenaeans gradually expanded their influence further afield from Knossos. Almost entirely, early Minoan scholars ignored this period and wrote it off. Recent excavations, however, have revealed that the island was still productive, even if its role was peripheral to the mainland.
Western Crete was most affected by the volcano and came into its own. There was considerable international trade, art, and architecture in Kydonia, still in the Minoan style. The Kydonian region lies beneath Hania but has never been adequately excavated (nor will it ever be), which explains why so little is known about it compared to its predecessors. A retreat from the coast was the main change in central Crete, a sign that international affairs and trade were declining and perhaps piracy was on the rise. Despite the presence of new influences, much of the art here is recognizable as Minoan. During this final Minoan era, many of the most famous larnakes (sarcophagi) were constructed of clay or stone.
During the Trojan War, Homer mentions a Cretan contingent taking part under King Idomeneus (according to him, the grandson of Minos) as evidence of its survival. During the war and its aftermath, Crete also underwent widespread changes. People from the Balkans, particularly the Dorians, overran the Mycenaeans in the north of Greece. Many sites were abandoned and burned around 1200 BC, disrupting the relative peace once again. As refugees arrived on the island, Mycenaean influence spread. At this time, some of the island's original inhabitants, later referred to as Eteo-Cretans (true Cretans), left the island for mountain fastnesses at Presos and Karf, where, along with Minoan components, they survived for another millennium. The Minoan culture was in terminal decline by the end of the twelfth century B.C., and most of the Greek world was engulfed in confusion.
The Dorians dominated the central lowlands over the succeeding centuries, establishing substantial new cities such as Lato near modern Yios Nikólaos. The Dorians dominated most of the island by the end of the 12th century. There may have been an invasion, but it seems more likely that the process was gradual by settlement. There was no unified society in Dorian Crete: its cities fought with each other, and there may have been other cultural groups in the west, including Kydonia and Falasarna and Polyrnia. Nevertheless, the island experienced another minor renaissance in art, with styles now primarily shared with the rest of the Greek world; iron gradually replaced bronze in making tools and weapons.
However, the famous law code from Górtys is the most essential survival from this period. The code dates to around 450 BC, but it reflects laws already in place for several hundred years: the society described is strictly hierarchical, divided into a ruling class, free men, serfs, and enslaved people. There was a harsh, militaristic regime like Sparta for the rulers - the original population, presumably, had been reduced to serfs.
Crete made little progress as mainland Greece approached the Classical Age. Despite the island's populous status, it was a battleground for power among many small cities. Many towns during this period were built with heavy defenses, and most were governed by authoritarian oligarchical or aristocratic regimes. In Greek affairs, Crete played a minor role, becoming a haven for pirates and a valuable source of mercenaries. Yet the island retained influence, as the Classical Athenians regarded it as the source of many of their cultural traditions and admired its strict institutions. The caves associated with the birth and early life of Zeus (especially the Dhiktean and Idean caves) were important pilgrimage sites from Minoan through Roman times.
The Confederation of Oreoi, formed around 300 BC between six towns in today's barely populated southwest, shows the multitude of small, independent city-states. Cyrenaica and Górtys (in North Africa) later joined the Confederation. In the meantime, Roman power was growing in the Mediterranean, and Crete was inevitably drawn into the conflict by its strategic position and turbulent reputation.