Minoan civilization

From New World Encyclopedia

The extent of the Minoan civilization's influence across the Mediterranean Sea.

The Minoans (Greek: Μυκηναίοι; Μινωίτες) were a pre-Hellenic Bronze Age civilization in Crete in the Aegean Sea, flourishing from approximately 2700 to 1450 B.C.E. when their culture was superseded by the Mycenaean culture, which drew upon the Minoans. Based on depictions in Minoan art, Minoan culture is often characterized as a matrilineal society centered on goddess worship.

The term "Minoan" 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 indeed a term used to identify a specific Minoan ruler. It could also have been used to describe the current ruler of the Minoan civilization. What the Minoans called themselves is unknown, although the Egyptian place name "Keftiu" and the Semitic "Kaftor" or "Caphtor" and "Kaptara" in the Mari archives, both evidently referring to Minoan Crete, are suggestive. The Minoan Civilization was a flourishing culture that engaged in trade and commerce with a developed agricultural polity. Men and women appear to have enjoyed the same social status. It has even been surmised that the role of women may have contributed to the civilization's demise, attracting the animosity of others for whom women were relegated to more 'menial roles' [1] Greek civilization and myth would draw on that of the Minoans. Archeology on Crete has shed light on aspects of Homer's epic. A much debated question is what caused the demise of this ancient civilization. One possibility is that life became too comfortable, that too much was invested in luxury items, too little in what was needed to sustain society. The Minoans appear to have been a peaceful, trading people rather than warriors who aimed at conquest, so it is possible that they were defeated by the Mycenaeans. Other theories include annihilation by volcanic eruption.

Chronology and history

Rather than give calendar dates for the Minoan period, archaeologists use two systems of relative chronology. The first, created by Evans and modified by later archaeologists, is based on pottery styles. It divides the Minoan period into three main eras—Early Minoan (EM), Middle Minoan (MM), and Late Minoan (LM). These eras are further subdivided, e.g. Early Minoan I, II, III (EMI, EMII, EMIII). Another system, proposed by the Greek archaeologist Nicolas Platon, is based on the development of the architectural complexes known as "palaces" at Knossos, Phaistos, Malia, and Kato Zakros, and divides the Minoan period into Prepalatial, Protopalatial, Neopalatial and Post-palatial periods. The relationship between these systems is given in the accompanying table, with approximate calendar dates drawn from Warren and Hankey (1989).

All calendar dates given in this article are approximate, and the subject of ongoing debate.

The Thera eruption occurred during a mature phase of the LM IA period. The calendar date of the eruption is extremely controversial; see the article on Thera eruption for discussion.


  Minoan chronology
3650-3000 B.C.E. EMI Prepalatial
2900-2300 B.C.E. EMII
2300-2160 B.C.E. EMIII
2160-1900 B.C.E. MMIA
1900-1800 B.C.E. MMIB Protopalatial
(Old Palace Period)
1800-1700 B.C.E. MMII
1700-1640 B.C.E. MMIIIA Neopalatial
(New Palace Period)
1640-1600 B.C.E. MMIIIB
1600-1480 B.C.E. LMIA
1480-1425 B.C.E. LMIB
1425-1390 B.C.E. LMII Postpalatial
(At Knossos, Final Palace Period)
1390-1370 B.C.E. LMIIIA1
1370-1340 B.C.E. LMIIIA2
1340-1190 B.C.E. LMIIIB
1190-1170 B.C.E. LMIIIC
1100 B.C.E. Subminoan

The oldest signs of inhabitants on Crete are ceramic Neolithic remains that date to approximately 7000 B.C.E. See History of Crete for details.

The beginning of its Bronze Age, around 2600 B.C.E., was a period of great unrest in Crete, and also marks the beginning of Crete as an important center of civilization.

At the end of the MMII period (1700 B.C.E.) there was a large disturbance in Crete, probably an earthquake, or possibly an invasion from Anatolia. The Palaces at Knossos, Phaistos, Malia, and Kato Zakros were destroyed. But with the start of the Neopalatial period, population increased again, the palaces were rebuilt on a larger scale and new settlements were built all over the island. This period (the seventeenth and sixteenth centuries, MM III / Neopalatial) represents the apex of the Minoan civilization. The Thera eruption occurred during LMIA (and LHI).

On the Greek mainland, LHIIB began during LMIB, showing independence from Minoan influence. At the end of the LMIB period, the Minoan palace culture failed catastrophically. All palaces were destroyed, and only Knossos was immediately restored - although other palaces sprang up later in LMIIIA (like Chania).

LMIB ware has been found in Egypt under the reigns of Hatshepsut and Tuthmosis III. Either the LMIB/LMII catastrophe occurred after this time, or else it was so bad that the Egyptians then had to import LHIIB instead. A short time after the LMIB/LMII catastrophe, around 1420 B.C.E., the island was conquered by the Mycenaeans, who adapted Linear A Minoan script as Linear B for their Mycenaean language, a form of Greek. The first such archive anywhere is in the LMII-era "Room of the Chariot Tablets." Later Cretan archives date to LMIIIA (contemporary with LHIIIA) but no later than that.

During LMIIIA:1, Amenhotep III at Kom el-Hatan took note of k-f-t-w (Kaftor) as one of the "Secret Lands of the North of Asia." Also mentioned are Cretan cities such as i-'m-n-y-s3/i-m-ni-s3 (Amnisos), b3-y-s3-?-y (Phaistos), k3-t-w-n3-y (Kydonia) and k3-in-yw-s (Knossos) and some toponyms reconstructed as Cyclades and Greek. If the values of these Egyptian names are accurate, then this pharaoh did not privilege LMIII Knossos above the other states in the region.

After about a century of partial recovery, most Cretan cities and palaces went into decline in the thirteenth century (LHIIIB; we should not speak of an independent "LMIIIB").

Knossos remained an administrative center until 1200 B.C.E.; the last of the Minoan sites was the defensive mountain site of Karfi.


Map of Minoan Crete

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.

Some of the major Minoan archaeological sites are:

  • Palaces
    • Knossos - the largest Bronze Age archaeological site on Crete; was purchased for excavations by Evans on March 16, 1900.
    • Phaistos
    • Malia
    • Kato Zakros
    • Galatas
  • Agia Triada
  • Gournia - town
  • Pyrgos
  • Vasiliki
  • Fournu Korfi
  • Pseira - island town with ritual sites
  • Mount Juktas - the greatest of the Minoan peak sanctuaries
  • Arkalochori
  • Karfi - last of the Minoan sites

Society and culture

Minoan copper ingot

The Minoans were primarily a mercantile people engaged in overseas trade. Their culture, from c. 1700 B.C.E. 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 to make 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, Mesopotamia, and westward as far as the coast of Spain .

Minoan men wore loincloths and kilts. Women wore robes that were open to the navel and had short sleeves and layered flounced skirts. Women also had the option of wearing a strapless fitted bodice, the first fitted garments known in history. 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 color: the men's skin is reddish-brown, the women's white. Some speculate that women may have exercised leadership roles, or that their equality with men in Crete was regarded by other societies as unwelcome, as a challenge to their own subjugation of women.

Language and writing

Unknown syllabic signs on the Phaistos Disc

Knowledge of the spoken and written language of the Minoans is scant, despite the number of records found. Sometimes the Minoan language is referred to as Eteocretan, but this presents confusion between the language written in Linear A scripts and the language written in a Euboean-derived alphabet only after the Greek Dark Ages. While Eteocretan language is suspected to be a descendant of Minoan, there is no substantial evidence for this. It is also unknown whether the language written in Cretan hieroglyphs is Minoan. It is undeciphered and its phonetic values are unknown.

Approximately 3,000 tablets bearing writing have been discovered so far, many apparently being inventories of goods or resources. Because most of these inscriptions are concise economic records rather than dedicatory inscriptions, the translation of Minoan remains a challenge. The hieroglyphs came into use from MMI and were in parallel use with the emerging Linear A from the eighteenth century (MM II) and disappeared at some point during the seventeenth century (MM III).

In the Mycenean period, Linear A was replaced by Linear B, recording a very archaic version of the Greek language. Linear B was successfully deciphered by Michael Ventris in the 1950s, but the earlier scripts remain a mystery. Unless Eteocretan truly is its descendant, it is perhaps during the Greek Dark Ages, a time of economic and socio-political collapse, that the Minoan language became extinct.


A fresco found at the Minoan site of Knossos

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 allowed archaeologists to define the three phases of Minoan culture (EM, MM, LM) discussed above.

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.

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.


"Snake Goddess" (MM III).

The Minoans worshipped goddesses.[2] Although there is some evidence of male gods, depictions of Minoan goddesses vastly outnumber depictions of anything that could be considered a Minoan god. While some of these depictions of women are believed to be images of worshippers, as opposed to the deity herself, there still 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 have argued 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 upon 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"[3]

and suggests that useful parallels will be found in the relations between Etruscan and Archaic Greek culture and religion, or between Roman and Hellenistic culture. 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 Athenian 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—were the centers for some cult, but temples as the Greeks developed them were unknown.[4] 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. It is notable that there are no Minoan frescoes that depict any deities.

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.

Possibility of human sacrifice

Minoan symbolic labrys of gold, second millennium B.C.E.: many have been found in the Arkalochori cave.

Evidence that suggest the Minoans may have performed human sacrifice has been found at three sites: (1) Anemospilia, in a MMII building near Mount Juktas, interpreted as a temple, (2) an EMII sanctuary complex at Fournou Korifi in south central Crete, and (3) Knossos, in an LMIB building known as the "North House."

The temple at Anemospilia was destroyed by earthquake in the MMII period. The building seems to be a tripartite shrine, and terracotta feet and some carbonized wood were interpreted by the excavators as the remains of a cult statue. Four human skeletons were found in its ruins; one, belonging to a young man, was found in an unusually contracted position on a raised platform, suggesting that he had been trussed up for sacrifice, much like the bull in the sacrifice scene on the Mycenaean-era Agia Triadha sarcophagus. A bronze dagger was among his bones, and the discoloration of the bones on one side of his body suggests he died of blood loss. The bronze blade was 15 inches long and had images of a boar on each side. The bones were on a raised platform at the center of the middle room, next to a pillar with a trough at its base.

The positions of the other three skeletons suggest that an earthquake caught them by surprise—the skeleton of a 28-year old woman was spread-eagled on the ground in the same room as the sacrificed male. Next to the sacrificial platform was the skeleton of a man in his late 30s, with broken legs. His arms were raised, as if to protect himself from falling debris, which suggests that his legs were broken by the collapse of the building in the earthquake. In the front hall of the building was the fourth skeleton, too poorly preserved to allow determination of age or sex. Nearby 105 fragments of a clay vase were discovered, scattered in a pattern that suggests it had been dropped by the person in the front hall when he (or she) was struck by debris from the collapsing building. The jar had apparently contained bull's blood.

Unfortunately, the excavators of this site have not published an official excavation report; the site is mainly known through a 1981 article in National Geographic [5][6])

Not all agree that this was human sacrifice. Nanno Marinatos, says the man supposedly sacrificed actually died in the earthquake that hit at the time he died. She notes that this earthquake destroyed the building, and also killed the two Minoans who supposedly sacrificed him. She also argues that the building was not a temple and that the evidence for sacrifice “is far from … conclusive."[7] Dennis Hughes concurs, and also argues that the platform where the man lay was not necessarily an altar, and the blade was probably a spearhead that may not have placed on the young man, but could have fallen during the earthquake from shelves or an upper floor.[8]

At the sanctuary-complex of Fournou Korifi, fragments of a human skull were found in the same room as a small hearth, cooking-hole, and cooking-equipment. This skull has been interpreted as the remains of a sacrificed victim.

In the "North House" at 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."[9]

The bones, found by Peter Warren, date to Late Minoan IB (1580-1490), before the Myceneans arrived (in LM IIIA, circa 1320-1200) according to Paul Rehak and John G. Younger.[10] Dennis Hughes and Rodney Castleden argue that these bones were deposited as a 'secondary burial'.[11]. Secondary burial is the not-uncommon practice of burying the dead twice: immediately following death, and then again after the flesh is gone from the skeleton. The main weakness of this argument is that it does not explain the type of cuts and knife marks upon the bones.


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 two to three stories high. Typically the lower walls were constructed of stone and rubble, and the upper walls of mudbrick. Ceiling timbers held up the roofs.


Ruins of the palace at Knossos

The first palaces were constructed at the end of the Early Minoan period in the third millennium B.C.E. (Malia). While it was formerly believed that the foundation of the first palaces was synchronous and dated to the Middle Minoan at around 2000 B.C.E. (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 centers of government, administrative offices, shrines, workshops and storage spaces (e.g., for grain). These distinctions might have seemed artificial to Minoans.

The use of the term 'palace' for the older palaces, meaning a dynastic residence and seat of power, has recently come under criticism (see Palace), and the term 'court building' has been 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 conventions of better-known, younger palaces have been used to reconstruct older ones, but this practice may be hiding fundamental functional differences. Most older palaces had only one story and no representative facades. They were U-shaped, with a big central court, and generally smaller than later palaces. Late palaces are characterised by multi-storey buildings. The west facades had sandstone ashlar masonry. Knossos is the best-known example. See Knossos.

Fresco from the "Palace of Minos," Knossos, Crete
Storage jars in Knossos


One of the most notable contributions of Minoans to architecture is their unique column, which was wider at the top than the bottom. It is called an 'inverted' column because most Greek columns are wider at the bottom, creating an illusion of greater height. The columns were also made of wood as opposed to stone, and were generally painted red. They were mounted on a simple stone base and were topped with a pillow-like, round piece.[12][13]


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 domesticated bees, and adopted pomegranates and quinces from the Near East, though not lemons or oranges as is often imagined. They developed Mediterranean polyculture, the practice of growing more than one crop at a time, and as a result of their more varied and healthier diet, the population increased.

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

Theories of Minoan demise

Thera eruption

Thera is the largest island of Santorini, a little archipelago of volcanic fragments about 100 km distant from Crete. The Thera eruption (estimated to have had a Volcanic Explosivity Index of 6) has been identified by ash fallout in eastern Crete, and in cores from the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean seas. The massive eruption of Thera led to the volcano's collapse into a submarine caldera, causing tsunamis which destroyed naval installations and settlements near the coasts. The impact of the Thera eruption on the Minoan civilization is debated.

Claims were made that the ash falling on the eastern half of Crete may have choked off plant life, causing starvation. It was alleged that 7-11 cm of ash fell on Kato Zakro, while 0.5 cm fell on Knossos. However, when field examinations were carried out, this theory was dropped, as no more than five mm had fallen anywhere in Crete. (Callender, 1999) Earlier historians and archaeologists appear to have been deceived by the depth of pumice found on the sea floor, however it has been established this oozed from a lateral crack in the volcano below sea level (Pichler & Friedrich, 1980)

(The calendar date of the eruption is much disputed. Many archaeologists believe that synchronisms with Egypt require a date around 1500 B.C.E.; radiocarbon however, puts the date in the late seventeenth century B.C.E. See Thera eruption for details.)

Occasionally the eruption is tied to the legend of Atlantis, with either Thera or Minoan as the fabled place. See Atlantis.


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 destroyed the bronze trade and impoverished the Minoan traders. When the trade networks ceased, regional famines could no longer be mitigated by trade.

Another possibility lies Northwest on the mainland where the Mycenaean civilization was flourishing. Many historians believe they conquered the Minoans in a relatively easy fashion since there were no walls protecting the people of Crete because they believed their fleet could protect them. If the Mycenaeans managed to land ashore then they would have faced little resistance.


  1. "Minoan Culture" Minoan Culture Retrieved August 15, 2007. The myth of the Amazons may derive from Crete although Crete could also have been Atlantis, the 'peaceful culture … that was swallowed up by the sea."
  2. Rodney Castleden, World History. (1994); Lucy Goodison and Christine Morris. “Beyond the Great Mother: The Sacred World of the Minoans,” in Goodison, Lucy, and Christine Morris, eds., Ancient Goddesses: The Myths and the Evidence. (London: British Museum Press, 1998), 113-132; Nanno Marinatos. Minoan Religion: Ritual, Image, and Symbol. (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1993).
  3. Walter Burkert, Greek Religion, translated by J. Raffan, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985), 21.
  4. Karl Kerenyi Goddesses of Sun and Moon, translated by Murray Stein, (Dunquin Series 1976), 18; Burkert, 1985, 24ff.
  5. Y. Sakellarakis and E. Sapouna-Sakellerakis. "Drama of Death in a Minoan Temple." National Geographic 159(2) (1981), 205-222.
  6. "Lesson 15," The Prehistoric Archaeology of the Aegean, Dartmouth College Lesson 15 Retrieved August 14, 2007
  7. Nanno Marinatos. Minoan Religion: Ritual, Image, and Symbol. (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1993), 114.
  8. Dennis D. Hughes. Human Sacrifice in Ancient Greece (London, UK: Routledge, 1991. ISBN 9780415034838)
  9. J. A. MacGillivray, Minotaur: Sir Arthur Evans and the Archaeology of the Minoan Myth. (NY: Hill and Wang, 2000. ISBN 9780809030354)
  10. "Review of Aegean Prehistory VII: Neopalatial, Final Palatial, and Postpalatial Crete," American Journal of Archaeology 102 (1998), 91-173.
  11. Hughes 1991; Castleden 1991
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External links

All links retrieved November 9, 2022.


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