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Europe's first known civilization: The Minoan

July 24, 2017

 

Everybody who visits Crete has heard, or will hear, of the Minoan civilization which
flourished in the middle Bronze Age on the Mediterranean island of Crete from ca. 2000 BCE
until ca. 1500 BCE. 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 meters seem to have acted as local administrative, trade, religious and
possibly political centers. 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 localized
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 armor
and helmets would also suggest that peace may not always have been enjoyed.

 

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 practiced 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.

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