Ancient Minoan Civilization – The Minoan Inhabitants of Crete

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Minoan Civilization - Palace of Knossos

The ancient Minoan civilization of Crete bears the same paradisiacal mystique as Atlantis though the Minoans left an indelible but undecipherable mark.

The ancient Minoan civilization began around 5000 BC on the island of Crete, marking the beginning of European Civilization. Located between Asia Minor and Greece, Crete – a mountainous expanse with natural harbors, is one of the largest islands in the Mediterranean Sea. Uniquely, the Minoan culture was based not on a military state but on commerce. Their success was likely due to the isolation of the island, a luxury the war-faring mainland didn’t share.

Little information is available about the Minoans before 2600 BC. Minor settlements were uncovered near the coast. Circular subterranean tombs were found scattered over the island, used for centuries by entire villages. Older corpses were moved to outer bone chambers to make room for newer burials.

Prepalatial Minoan 2600-1900 BC

Major settlements were at Myrtos and Mochlos. There appears to have been no centralized authority or hierarchical structure. Small palaces located near communities and the tombs were the major architectural accomplishments.

Around 2000 BC a new political system established a monarch or king as a central authority figure.

The Minoans traded with Egypt, Asia Minor and Syria for tin, copper, ivory, and gold. Gold artifacts and copper instruments dating back to 2300 BC have been found. Copper, much sought after at the time, was probably imported from Cyprus. The tin used in the production of bronze alloys was imported – the nearest known mines were as distant as Spain, Britain, and Iran.

Minoans built the first major navy in the world though its purpose was mercantile. Oaks, firs and cypresses were used in ship production. Pirates were a constant threat and the Minoans later redesigned their ships – a design used in the warships of the Mediterranean for the next 3000 years until the age of gunpowder.

Protopalatial Minoan 1900-1700 BC

In early 1900 BC larger palaces were founded, acting as community centers, and a hierarchy developed dividing the people into nobles, peasants, and possibly slaves. Women played important roles and held the same positions as men.

Paved roads were constructed to connect the major cultural centers, and settlements were established outside the palaces and eventually on nearby islands, spreading Minoan culture, religion and government throughout the Aegean. It was a prosperous time for the Minoans.

Neopalatial Minoan 1700-1400 BC

In 1700 BC the Minoan palaces were destroyed by unknown forces speculated to be a powerful earthquake or outside invaders. Despite this, Minoan civilization continued to flourish. Palaces were rebuilt on a larger scale and new settlements developed throughout the island.

Around 1600 BC another natural disaster struck, the palaces were again rebuilt and made even greater than before; often multi-storied, with interior and exterior staircases, light wells, and courtyards. Smaller residencies (villas) appeared, modeled after the larger palaces.

Artifacts portray an affluent upper class. The wealth was spread liberally and even the “poor” lived in four to six room houses.

Trade flourished and Minoans were well known to the ancient Egyptians, even appearing in Egyptian art. Timber was a natural exported resource. Wine, food, currants, olive oil, wool, cloth, herbs, purple dye and saffron were also exports. Spinning and weaving were well established industries and clay spindle whorls and loom weights are frequently found at Minoan sites. (In addition to exportation of cloth, sails for the ships also had to be woven.) The Minoans were expert metalworkers and goldsmiths and their jewelry spread across the Mediterranean. The Mycenaeans (ancient mainland Greeks) learned the art of inlaying bronze with gold from the Minoans.

While the population enjoyed the wealth, commerce was rigidly controlled from the palace. A large administration of scribes regulated production and distribution, keeping detailed records. The vast wealth acquired funded architectural and technological development.

Minoan Technology

Minoans were the first to incorporate indoor plumbing systems (technology forgotten when Minoan society collapsed). They developed aqueducts, cisterns, distribution and sewage systems. Many homes had flush toilets, bathtubs, and hot and cold running water from hydrothermal vents.

Wooden plows were used, and the most common tool had a wooden handle with an axe head on one side and an adze edge on the other. Flint chips attached to bone or wood were used as sickles later formed of bronze. They knew the mechanics of hydraulics.

The Minoans experimented with the healing properties of plants and were familiar with drugs; hieroglyphic seals found at Zakros refer to drugs such as strychnine.

Minoan Tragedy

In 1450 BC, the Minoans suffered a blow from which they wouldn’t recover – the destruction of most of the palaces and villas of the countryside. Evidence of a violent fire and destruction is clear. What remains elusive is the cause.

The explosive eruption of Thera was suggested but in 1987 scientists dated frozen ash from the eruption at the Greenland ice cap concluding the Thera eruption occurred in 1645 BC, putting it closer to the 1600 BC natural catastrophe of Crete. In 2006, Walter Friedrich of Denmark and his colleagues analyzed an olive branch trapped inside a volcanic rock face. Convinced the plant was alive when smothered, researchers used the tree’s growth rings and carbon dating to show the tree died between 1627 and 1600 BC. Therefore it’s been suggested a second eruption of Thera caused the final damage to the island. Others believe it was invasion; the Minoans were undoubtedly resourceful and resilient, overcoming two prior natural disasters, but did their lack of military cause their demise?

Postpalatial Minoan1400-1150 BC

Power in the Aegean begins shifting to Mycenae. Greek names such as Zeus appear, new pottery styles develop, vaulted tombs appear, and the Mycenaean Linear B script begins replacing the still undecipherable Minoan Linear A. The Minoan culture’s fusion with mainland Greece had melded into the Mycenaean civilization, which in turn had challenged the Minoan supremacy at a time when unknown events had already proved challenging.

In 1375 BC the palace at Knossos was destroyed, some say by a Minoan revolt against the Mycenaeans, some say between the Mycenaeans themselves.

References:

  1. Hooker, Richard 1996 “Bureaucrats & Barbarians-The Minoans”
  2. Ancient Greece.org “History of Minoan Crete”
  3. Connor, Steve-The Independent Science “Olive Branch Clue”