History of Greece/Minoan Civilization

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Greek History -- Introduction -- Contributors -- Bibliography
01. Minoans · 02. Mycenaeans · 03. Dark Ages · 04. Classical Greece
05. Hellenistic Greece · 06. Roman Greece · 07. Byzantine Empire
08. Ottoman Greece · 09. Independent Greece 10. Modern Greece

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The location of the island of Crete within modern Greece.

The Minoan culture was a Bronze Age civilization that existed on the Greek Aegean island of Crete from around 3000 to 1100 BCE. By around 1450, however, the Minoans had been replaced by the Mycenaeans as the dominant culture of the area. The name "Minoan" itself comes from the famous British archeologist Sir Arthur Evans, who from 1900 to 1906 excavated the palace at Knossos, which he believed to be the capital of the empire of the mythical King Minos.


Greek archeologist Nikolaos Platon devised a loose chronology of the civilization based on excavations of Minoan palaces. He divides the civilization into the following eras:

Prepalatial period (3000-1900)[edit]

Archeological evidence shows that Crete may have been inhabited as early as the seventh millennium BCE. New settlers skilled in metallurgy arrived by the end of the fourth millennium BCE, and replaced the earlier Neolithic peoples.

Protopalatial period (1900-1700)[edit]

The semi-restored ruins of the palace of Knossos.

The first large palaces (most notably at Knossos and Phaistos) were built during the Protopalatial period, leading to more urbanized life and centralized political authority. Around 1700, the major palaces were all destroyed (perhaps due to natural causes, such as an earthquake, or perhaps an invasion from Anatolia).

Neopalatial period (1700-1450)[edit]

After their destruction, the palaces soon were rebuilt, giving rise to the Neopalatial period. This period represents the apex of Minoan civilization. Population increased, new settlements were built, and impressive art, architecture, and technologies (such as plumbing) were developed. Despite these many advances, the Minoans suffered some sort of catastrophe around 1450.

Final Palace period (1450-1380 BCE)[edit]

Many theories have been put forth to the cause of this sudden and rapid decline. Theories include a massive volcanic eruption of Mt. Thera on the nearby island of Santorini, internal strife, or an invasion from the Mycenean culture of mainland Greece. A combination of these factors is likely the true culprit. Regardless of the reason, the Minoan culture was effectively replaced by the Myceneans by 1420. Excavations reveal that pottery and writings from Crete after 1450 resemble those of mainland Greece more so than those of pre-1450 Crete. Knossos then served as the administrative center of Mycenean Crete, until it was destroyed by fire in 1380.

Postpalatial period (1380-1100 BCE)[edit]

After the destruction of Knossos, economic and political influence shifted to the town of Khaniá. Despite this, Cretan civilization began to further decline, and many Minoan sites were abandoned. Khondros is one of few new sites to be settled during this period. The last Minoan site to fall was the isolated mountain town of Karfi, which was able to resist assimilation into the Mycenean culture until the early Iron Age. The widespread use of iron tools (brought by the Myceneans) rather than bronze ones (used by Minoans) is one of the main indications archeologists used to determine the date of the final Minoan collapse.


Bull-leaping, featured in this famous fresco from Knossos, was a religious ritual.

The Minoans had a culture very different from that of the later "ancient" Greeks. It featured a very distinctive religion, art style, and language. The Minoans were also pioneers in naval exploration, establishing several colonies on the Greek mainland and other Aegean islands, such as Akrotiri on Thera. Minoan cultural influence spread throughout the region, including over the Mycenean culture.


Much of what is known about the Minoan religion is based on oral tradition that was not written down until long after the Myceneans had replaced their civilization. From these records, as well as what archeologists have been able to piece together, historians have generally agreed that the Minoan religion seems to have been based on the religion of the Neolithic peoples they conquered in moving to Crete. It centered on the goddess Potnia, but was polytheistic. Bulls were sacred to the Minoans, and bull-leaping (depicted in a famous fresco unearthed in Knossos) was a religious ritual. The famous labyrinth at Knossos is the best-known example of a Minoan temple. Religious symbols include the serpent, bull, labrys (a double-headed axe, for which the labyrinth is named), sun, and tree. There has also been evidence that the Minoans engaged in human sacrifice, though this is inconclusive at best.


An example of pottery from Knossos.

The Minoans are particularly well-known for their artistic developments. Excavations have revealed frescoes, statues, and pottery. Pottery was the dominant art form of the Minoans from their arrival on Crete up until the Neopalatial period, when pottery-making technology allowed for a standardization of design. Fresco-painting soon rose in prominence, and focused heavily on religious and naturalistic themes. Bulls and snakes, both religious symbols, featured prominently in many works of art, as do other non-religious animals. Perhaps the most famous of the Minoan frescoes is one depicting the religious ritual of bull-leaping, which was found in the palace of Minos. Interestingly, no frescoes depict any of the many gods.


Minoans also pioneered many architectural methods. Cities featured roads paved with stone, sewers, and plumbing. The most-recognized type of Minoan architecture is the palace. The construction of the first palaces (the famous palace at Knossos was one of the first) ended the Prepalatial period. Palaces were centers of government, allowing the dozens of individual communities to come under centralized political authority. Palaces also were used to store crop surpluses, and house shrines to goddesses.


The Minoan economy was very diverse. Several crops were cultivated, such as wheat, barley, grapes, olives, and figs. They raised several animals, including cattle, goats, and pigs. Also, bees were domesticated for honey production, as were donkeys and oxen for plowing purposes. The Minoans also had a healthy shipping industry, as evidenced by the many colonies they established throughout the eastern Mediterranean. They were involved in the tin trade. As bronze tools and weapons (bronze is made from tin and copper) were replaced by superior iron ones, the tin trade (and therefore the Minoan economy) suffered. Their trade network extended from Mesopotamia and Egypt all the way to Spain.


A tablet with Minoan script.

Minoan civilization featured several written languages. During the Prepalatial period, a primitive hieroglyphic script was used, but fell out of use by 1700. A writing system called Linear A developed during the Protopalatial period, and continued to be used through the Neopalatial period. Linear A featured many symbols, each of which represented a syllable, word, or number. Linear A was used for record-keeping, and some religious functions. Linear B was the script used for government records. After the Mycenean conquest, Linear A was replaced by Linear B, which would eventually evolve into what is now the modern Greek language. Linear B was deciphered in the 1950s, but Linear A and the hieroglyphic texts have yet to have been completely translated.

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