Minoan civilization

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The Minoans were a pre-Hellenic Bronze Age civilization in Crete in the Aegean Sea, prior to Helladic or Mycenaean culture (i.e., well before what we know as Classical Greece). Their civilization flourished from approximately 2600 to 1450 BC.

One of the outstanding features of Minoan civilization was that they might have worshipped a goddess as head of their pantheon. "That a powerful goddess of nature was the chief deity of the Minoans was recognized already by Evans [the original excavator of Minoan culture] and has never been seriously questioned." [1] Their name was coined by the British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans after the mythic "king" Minos, associated with the labyrinth, which Evans identified as the site at Knossos. It is possible, though unsure, that Minos was a term for a Minoan ruler. What the Minoans called themselves is unknown, although the Egyptian place name "Keftiu" and the Semitic "Kaftor" or "Caphtor", both evidently referring to Minoan Crete, are suggestive.

The Minoans were primarily a mercantile people engaged in overseas trade. Their culture, from ca 1700 BC onwards, shows a high degree of organization. Many historians and archaeologists believe that the Minoans were involved in the Bronze Age's important tin trade: tin, alloyed with copper apparently from Cyprus, was used in the manufacture of bronze. The decline of Minoan civilization and the decline in use of bronze tools in favor of superior iron ones seem to be correlated. The Minoan trade in saffron, which originated in the Aegean basin as a natural chromosome mutation, has left fewer material remains: a fresco of saffron-gatherers at Santorini is well-known. This inherited trade pre-dated Minoan civilization: a sense of its rewards may be gained by comparing its value to frankincense, or later, to pepper. Archaeologists tend to emphasize the more durable items of trade: ceramics, copper, and tin, and dramatic luxury finds of gold and silver.

Objects of Minoan manufacture suggest there was a network of trade with mainland Greece (notably Mycenae), Cyprus, Syria, Anatolia, Egypt, Spain and Mesopotamia.

The language of the Minoans, about which little is known, is referred to as Eteocretan. It may have been written in the undeciphered Linear A script.

Although there is some debate about the claim that Minoan Crete was essentially free of armed conflict, when the extant evidence is actually examined the weight of evidence indicates that the Minoans fit the same picture as all other prehistoric early states in that they had recourse to armed conflict in times of social upheavals. (See Charles Gates, "Why Are There No Scenes of Warfare in Minoan Art?" and Keith Branigan, "The Nature of Warfare in the Southern Aegean During the third Millennium B.C.," both of which can be found in: Robert Laffineur, Ed., Polemos: Le Contexte en Egee a L'Age du Bronze, Actes de la 7e Recontre egeenne internationale, Universite de Liege, 14-17 avril 1998, Universite de Liege and University of Texas at Austin, Austin TX, 1999.).

Geography and climate

Crete is a mountainous island with natural harbors. There are signs of earthquake damage at Minoan sites.

Homer recorded a tradition that Crete had 90 cities. The site at 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 ceramic Neolithic remains that date to approximately 7000 BC.

The beginning of its Bronze Age, around 2600 BC, was 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 was a large disturbance in Crete, probably an earthquake, although an invasion from Anatolia has also been suggested. After that, population increased again, and the palaces were even larger than before but with a different basic plan.

Around 1650 BC, 1628 BC, 1500 BC, or 1450 BC (still debated), the volcanic island Thera (largest island of the volcanic archipelago Santorini), at about 70 km distance, erupted. The volcanic eruption and fallout was quite possibly larger than the Tambora eruption of 1815, the largest historical eruption on record. The eruption has been identified by ash fallout in eastern Crete, Egypt, and cores from the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean seas. The postulated sulfur dioxide and ash clouds emitted by the volcano are thought to have destroyed some settlements and resulted in volcanic winters and poor harvests for several years. The massive eruption of Thera also led to the volcano's collapse, causing massive tsunamis which destroyed naval installations and settlements near the coasts. Some archeologists believe the Minoans may have lost their religious faith in the ability of the priests to control nature, possibly leading to the fall of Minoan civilization.

Around 1450 BC, the palaces were again disturbed. Some time later, around 1420 BC, the island was conquered by the Mycenaeans, who adapted Minoan script for their own proto-Greek language. After this, most Cretan cities and palaces went into decline; Knossos remained an administrative center 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 staple goods were improperly valued relative to luxury goods, because accounting was undeveloped. The result could be famine and decline in population.

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.

The impact of the Thera eruption on the Minoan civilization is still controversial. Since the Thera eruption is thought to have been one of the most powerful in the past 10,000 years, archaeologists and geologists have been arguing over why there is such a big gap between the radiocarbon date of the eruption (1628 BC by bristlecone pines and 1645 BC by the Greenland ice sheets) and the date of the fall of the Minoans (c. 1450 BC). This gap has sparked the interest of experts all over the world and there are now increasing amounts of evidence and theories as to why and how the Minoan civilization of Crete collapsed.

These theories all revolve around the Theran eruption, estimated now to have reached a reading of VEI-7, which would have devastated the island of Crete only 70 miles (100km) or so away. An eruption of this magnitude is thought to have pushed tsunamis towards the island, destroying its ports and fleets. Being a trade centre Crete relied on its seafaring capabilities for the stability of its economy. The next major theory is that the volcanic ash blocking out the Sun would have resulted in a famine for a number of years. Some experts believe that in these moments of vulnerability the Mycaneans took advantage and conquered the island.


The Minoans raised cattle, sheep, pigs, goats, and grew wheat, barley, vetch, chickpeas, cultivated grapes figs, olives, and grew poppies, for poppyseed and perhaps opium. The Minoans knew domesticated bees, and adopted pomegranates and quinces from the Near East, though not lemons and oranges as is often imagined.

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 Early Minoan period in the third millenum BC (Malia). While it was formerly believed that the foundation of the first palaces was synchronous and dated to the Middle Minoan at around 2000 BC (the date of the first palace at Knossos), scholars now think that palaces were built over a longer period of time in different locations, in response to local developments. The main older palaces are Knossos, Malia and Phaistos.

The palaces fulfilled a plethora of functions: they served as centres of government, administrative offices, shrines, workshops and stores (sometimes referred to as magazines, e.g., for grain), 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, meaning a dynastic residence and seat of power and the term 'court buildings' was proposed instead. However, the original term is probably too well entrenched to be replaced. Architectural features like ashlar masonry, orthostats, columns, open courts, staircases (implying upper stories) 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 hidden fundamental functional differences. Most older palaces had only one story 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-story buildings. The west facades had sandstone ashlar masonry. Knossos is the best-known example.


The great collection of Minoan art is in the museum at Heraklion, near Knossos on the north shore of Crete. Minoan art, with other remains of material culture especially the sequence of ceramic styles, has defined the three phases of Minoan culture defined by archaeologists, each phase with its defining character.

The first, Early Minoan phase (EMI, EMII and EMIII) rose out of local Neolithic culture about 2500 BC and lasted until about 2300 BC. The Middle Minoan culture (MMI, MMII and MMIII) lasted from about 2150 BC to 1700 BC. The Late Minoan phase is also subdivided in three phases; its last phase (LMIII) is divided at ca. 1370 BC by the catastrophe that overtook the palace of Knossos. The traditional dating of the War of Troy falls in this last phase.

Since wood and textiles have vanished, the most important surviving Minoan art are Minoan pottery, the palace architecture with its frescos that include landscapes, stone carvings, and intricately carved seal stones.

Main article:Minoan pottery.

In the Early Minoan period ceramics were characterised by linear patterns of spirals, triangles, curved lines, crosses, fishbone motifs and such. In the Middle Minoan period naturalistic designs such as fish, squid, 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 a strong geometric simplification of naturalistic shapes and monochromatic paintings. Very noteworthy are the similarities between Late Minoan and Mycenaean art.


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

The statues of priestesses in Minoan culture and frescoes showing men and women participating in the same sports (usually bull-leaping) lead some archaeologists to believe that men and women held equal social status, and that inheritance might even have been matrilineal. The frescos include many depictions of people, with the sexes distinguished by colour: the men's skin is reddish-brown, the women's white. The colour serves as an identifying code in the pictures.

Language and writing

The Minoans had their own language now referred to as Eteocretan, though little is known about it. It was written in a number of different scripts over the centuries. Approximately 3,000 tablets bearing writing have been discovered so far, many apparently being inventories of goods or resources. Between around 1900-1700 BC, hieroglyphics were used by the Minoans; this was succeeded by the Linear A script (1700-1450 BC), and Linear B (1450-1400 BC). The latter was a very archaic version of the Greek language and was successfully deciphered by Michael Ventris in the 1950s, but the earlier scripts still remain a mystery.


In Minoan art, women vastly outnumber men (see archaeologists Goodison and Morris, 1998, p. 115). Women are shown seated on thrones, and in commanding positions. Women are often saluted by people and/or animals. Whereas depictions exist of men showing deference to women, not one shows women deferring to men. Unlike their contemporaries, who possessed obvious “strong-man” male rulers, the Minoans show almost no trace of male rule at all.

"In Minoan imagery ... female figures seem preeminent. Males, to be sure, appear on frescoed walls, engraved sealstones, and gold rings and in small-scale statuary, but by and large these are not the bearded kings and warriors of Egypt and the ancient Near East. They are youths, who often, though not always, attend a dominant female..." (Kenneth Lapatin, 2002, p. 65).

Archaeologist Jacquetta Hawkes says “The absence of … manifestations of the all-powerful male ruler that are so widespread at this time and in this stage of cultural development as to be almost universal, is one of the reasons for supposing that the occupants of Minoan thrones may have been queens” (p. 76). “In the scenes from the seal stones, not only is the Goddess always the central figure, being served and honored in a variety of ways; she is sometimes shown seated on a throne. Supposing that a king did rule as consort of the Goddess, one would expect at the very least that at the royal court, which elsewhere, in Egypt and the Orient, was seen as the human reflection of the divine order, there would have been a throne for the queen as the counterpart of the Goddess. Yet in the sacred room at Knossos, and apparently also in the state apartment in the residential quarter, the throne stood single and alone.” (Hawkes, 1968, P. 154.)

Like Egyptian rulers, Minoan queens may have had divine status:

“… [I]t is not impossible that Minoan Crete was run by women…. [I]n the so-called Camp Stool Fresco from Knossos, which depicts women sitting on stools and toasting each other, the principal figure (known as La Parisienne since the days of Evans) is painted twice the size of the others – a clear sign of importance and probably of divinity, to judge from Egyptian art, where the divine pharaoh is regularly shown in this way” (Cadogan 1992: 37).

“The predominance of female forms [in Minoan art] is striking,” say archaeologists Goodison and Morris (Goddison and Morris p. 115)…. “Is there … perhaps a hint of modern sexual asymmetry in interpretations which now admit males to the world of [Minoan] divine power, but still exclude females from temporal power, distancing them in the realm of the transcendent as goddesses or priestesses?” (p. 130).

In short, more evidence exists supporting Minoan rule by women than rule by men.


The Minoans worshipped goddesses, (see Rodney Castleden, Minoans, 1994; Goodison and Morris, Ancient Goddesses, 1998; Nanno Marinatos, Minoan Religion, 1993; etc.). Although there is some indication of male gods, depictions of Minoan goddesses vastly outnumber depictions of anything that could be considered a Minoan god. There seem to be several goddesses including a Mother Goddess of fertility, a Mistress of the Animals, a protectress of cities, the household, the harvest, and the underworld, and more. Some would argue that these are all aspects of a single goddess. They are often represented by serpents, birds, poppies, and a somewhat vague shape of an animal on the head. Some suggest the goddess was linked to the "Earthshaker", a male represented by the bull and the sun, who would die each autumn and be reborn each spring. Though the notorious bull-headed Minotaur is a purely Greek depiction, seals and seal-impressions reveal bird-headed or masked deities.

Walter Burkert warns "To what extent one can and must differentiate between Minoan and Mycenaean religion is a question which has not yet found a conclusive answer." (Burkert 1985 p 21) and suggests that useful parallels will prove to be found in the relations between Etruscan and Archaic Greek culture and religion, or Roman and Hellenistic. Minoan religion has not been transmitted in its own language, and the uses literate Greeks later made of surviving Cretan mythemes, after centuries of purely oral transmission, have transformed the meager sources: consider the point-of-view of the Theseus legend. A few Cretan names are preserved in Greek mythology, but there is no way to connect a name with an existing Minoan icon, such as the familiar serpent-goddess. Retrieval of metal and clay votive figures— double axes, miniature vessels, models of artifacts, animals, human figures—has identified sites of cult: here were numerous small shrines in Minoan Crete, and mountain peaks and very numerous sacred caves— over 300 have been explored (Kerenyi 1976 p 18; Burkert 1985 p 24f)— were the centers for some cult, but temples as the Greeks developed them were unknown (Burkert 1985). Within the palace complex, no central rooms devoted to cult have been recognized, other than the center court where youths of both sexes would practice the bull-leaping ritual.

Minoan sacred symbols include the bull and its horns of consecration, the labrys (double-headed axe), the pillar, the serpent, the sun-disk, and the tree. It was assumed for many years that the Minoans were a non-violent and peaceful people. Recently, however, archaeologists have uncovered evidence which raises doubts about many of the long held conceptions of Minoan Crete. Recent finds, for example, uncovered at a temple structure near one of the palaces suggest to some that the Minoans might have engaged in human sacrifice. Although not all agree that this was human sacrifice. The highly esteemed archaeologist Nanno Marinatos, for example, says the man supposedly sacrificed actually died in the earthquake that hit at the time he died. She notes that this earthquake decimated the building he was found in, and also killed the two Minoans who supposedly sacrificed him.[2] This is not a widely held interpretation, as the young man was trussed up much like the bull in the sacrifice scene on the Agia Triadha sarcophagus. Additionally, a dagger was found among his bones and the discoloration of the bones on one side of his body suggests he died of blood loss. It is not the only evidence suggestive of human sacrifice. As Geraldine Gesell notes in "The Place of The Goddess In Minoan Society", fragments of a human skull were found in the same room as a small hearth, cooking-hole and cooking-equipment in the sactuary-complex of Fournou Korifi. In Knossos, the bones of at least four children (who had been in good health) were found which bore signs that "they were butchered in the same way the Minoans slaughtered their sheep and goats, suggesting that they had been sacrificed and eaten. The senior Cretan archaeologist Nicolas Platon was so horrified at this suggestion that he insisted the bones must be those of apes, not humans." (Joseph Alexander MacGillivray, "Minotaur: Sir Arthur Evans and the Archaeology of the Minoan Myth" 2000)....

Warfare and "The Minoan Peace"

It is generally assumed there was little internal armed conflict on Minoan Crete. In the past, this condition was known as "Pax Minoica," or "The Minoan Peace." As with much of Minoan Crete, however, it is hard to draw any obvious conclusions from the evidence. One sometimes feels that the civilization is much like a Rorschach inkblot, in that intepretations often reflect more of the intepreter than the civilization itself.

Many argue that there is little evidence for ancient Minoan fortifications. But as S. Alexiou has pointed out (in Kretologia 8), a number of sites, especially Early and Middle Minoan sites such as Aghia Photia, are built on hilltops or are otherwise fortified. As Lucia Nixon said, "...we may have been over-influenced by the lack of what we might think of as solid fortifications to assess the archaeological evidence properly. As in so many other instances, we may not have been looking for evidence in the right places, and therefore we may not end with a correct assessment of the Minoans and their ability to avoid war." (“Changing Views of Minoan Society,” in Minoan Society ed L. Nixon).

Chester Starr points out in "Minoan Flower Lovers" (Hagg-Marinatos eds. Minoan Thalassocracy) that Shang China and the Mayas both had unfortified centers and yet still engaged in frontier struggles, so that itself cannot be enough to definitively show the Minoans were a peaceful civilization unparalleled in history.

In 1998, however, when Minoan archaeologists met in a conference in Belgium to discuss the possibility that the idea of Pax Minoica was outdated, the evidence for Minoan war proved to be scanty.

Archaeologist Jan Driessen, for example, said the Minoans frequently show ‘weapons’ in their art, but only in ritual contexts, and that “The construction of fortified sites is often assumed to reflect a threat of warfare, but such fortified centers were multifunctional; they were also often the embodiment or material expression of the central places of the territories at the same time as being monuments glorifying an merging leading power” (Driessen 1999, p. 16).

On the other hand, Stella Chryssoulaki's work on the small outposts or 'guard-houses' in the east of the island represent possible elements of a defensive system. Claims that they produced no weapons are erroneous; type A Minoan swords (as found in palaces of Mallia and Zarkos) were the finest in all of the Aegean (See Sanders, AJA 65, 67, Hoeckmann, JRGZM 27, or Rehak and Younger, AJA 102).

Regarding Minoan weapons, however, archaeologist Keith Branigan notes that 95% of so-called Minoan weapons possessed hafting (hilts, handles) that would have prevented their use as weapons (Branigan, 1999). However more recent experimental testing of accurate replicas has shown this to be incorrect as these weapons were capable of cutting flesh down to the bone (and scoring the bone's surface) without any damage to the weapons themselves. Archaeologist Paul Rehak maintains that Minoan figure-eight shields could not have been used for fighting or even hunting, since they were too cumbersome (Rehak, 1999). And archaeologist Jan Driessen says the Minoans frequently show ‘weapons’ in their art, but only in ritual contexts (Driessen 1999). Finally, archaeologist Cheryl Floyd concludes that Minoan “weapons” were merely tools used for mundane tasks such as meat-processing (Floyd, 1999). Although this interpretation must remain highly questionable as there are no parallels of 1 meter long swords and large spearheads being used as culinary devices in the historic or ethnographic record.

About Minoan warfare in general, Branigan concludes that “[T]he quantity of weaponry, the impressive fortifications, and the aggressive looking long-boats all suggested an era of intensified hostilities. But on closer inspection there are grounds for thinking that all three key elements are bound up as much with status statements, display, and fashion as with aggression…. Warfare such as there was in the southern Aegean EBA [early Bronze Age] was either personalized and perhaps ritualized (in Crete) or small-scale, intermittent and essentially an economic activity (in the Cyclades and the Argolid/Attica)” (1999, p. 92). Archaeologist Krzyszkowska concurs: “The stark fact is that for the prehistoric Aegean we have no [sic] direct evidence for war and warfare per se [sic]” (Krzyszkowska, 1999).

Furthermore, no evidence exists for a Minoan army, or for Minoan domination of peoples outside Crete. Few signs of warfare appear in Minoan art. “Although a few archaeologists see war scenes in a few pieces of Minoan art, others interpret even these scenes as festivals, sacred dance, or sports events” (Studebaker, 2004, p. 27). Although warriors armed with spears and shields being stabbed in the throat with swords may not entriely fit this festive interpretation.

Although on the Mainland of Greece at the time of the Shaft Graves at Mycenae, there is little evidence for major fortifications among the Mycenaeans there (the famous citadels post-date the destruction of almost all Neopalatial Cretan sites), the constant warmongering of other contemporaries of the ancient Minoans – the Egyptians and Hittites, for example – is well documented.

This Victorian picture of Arthur Evans has willingly been adopted by interested groups with little critical understanding of the material record that they are dealing with, and this prejudicial agenda continues to silence an important aspect of a powerful civilisation through basic self-interest. It is unfortunate as this vision of Minoan peace is exploited in the modern world for modern purposes, which essentially denies the Minoan civilisation the right to dynamic investigation, and perpetuates antiquated modes of thinking to the detriment of seeing the human reality of this great civilisation. In complex civilisations there are ambiguities, contradictions and anomalies and we should therefore be cautious about dogmatically denying any aspect of their world, and therefore the arguments for the role of warfare or peace in Minoan society should not be seen as mutually contradictory.


The Minoan cities were connected with stone-paved 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.

Archeological Sites

Some of the major Minoan archaeological sites are:

See also


  1. 1 Nanno Marinatos, Minoan Religion, University of South Carolina Press, Columbia, SC, 1993, p. 147
  2. 2 ibid, p. 114.
  3. 3 Robert Laffineur, Ed., Polemos: Le Contexte en Egee a L'Age du Bronze, Actes de la 7e Recontre egeenne internationale, Universite de Liege, 14-17 avril 1998, Universite de Liege and University of Texas at Austin, Austin TX, 1999.
  4. 4 Keith Branigan, "The Nature of Warfare in the Southern Aegean During the Third Millennium B.C., " in Polemos (above), p. 92.

External links

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