A stunning civilization arose in Crete between 1950 BCE and 1200 BCE, only to collapse for reasons that are as yet not clearly understood. What caused this civilization to flourish, and then mysteriously disappear? What were its links to events on the mainland of Greece? Since the early 1900s, archaeologists have uncovered monumental buildings and evidence suggesting that Crete presents a clear case of early state formation. What remains unclear is who the people were and what language they spoke. Also found were three prealphabetic writing systems, two of which remain to be deciphered. The third writing system, Linear B, is derived from the first two and proved to be early Greek; it was deciphered during the 1950s by the English architect Michael Ventris. The information received from the Linear B clay tablets forced scholars to rewrite the history of early Greek civilization. The other two represent an unknown language: If deciphered, what would they tell us?
Crete was a mysterious place for the ancient Greeks as well: It was believed to be the birthplace of their god Zeus. Minos, the legendary king of Crete, was the son of Zeus and Europa, a princess kidnapped from Asia Minor. Minos later became a judge in the underworld. According to Athenian legend, the Minotaur, a bulllike creature, lived in the labyrinth and demanded human sacrifice: Seven maidens and seven young men had to be sent on a yearly basis. Finally, the cycle was interrupted by the hero Theseus, who seduced Minos’s daughter Ariadne into helping him out of the maze. Crete was also the dwelling place of Daedalus, the clever artist and the first man to fly: Unfortunately, his son Icarus came too close to the sun and fell into the sea en route to Sicily.
Geography and History
Crete is a mountainous island in the eastern Mediterranean, extending along an east-west axis. It is approximately 160 miles long and 40 miles wide in the middle, narrowing toward both ends. A number of valleys crisscross the island, facilitating communication from the earliest times. The highest mountain is Mount Ida, at approximately 8,000 feet.
Crete was first occupied during the Neolithic (ca. 7000 BCE), as archeological finds have shown.
The first inhabitants are believed to have come from Anatolia; they brought agriculture and sheep and goats. For the first three millennia, settlements remained quite small, no more than 50 individuals, and relied on agriculture; between 4500 BCE and 3500 BCE, there were population increases, possibly due to immigration from the Cyclades, a group of islands to the north, which were slowly being populated for the first time. The number of inhabitants at Knossos, a settlement located in the center of the north coast, could have been as high as 1500. Burials in circular graves (tholoi), which were often used for centuries, indicate an egalitarian lifestyle.
During the early Bronze Age, between approximately 3000 BCE and 1900 BCE, a complex civilization began to develop simultaneously at several sites. This period is commonly referred to as the “Prepalatial era.” Settlements at Knossos and Phaestos, a community located to the southwest of Knossos near the southern coast, and several smaller ones grew in size and importance.
A second period, the “Protopalatial,” lasted from approximately 1900 BCE until 1700 BCE, when the palaces were destroyed, possibly by earthquakes. Generally, the palaces consist of many rooms around several paved courtyards. The palaces had large storage facilities for agricultural surpluses. Clay tablets have been found in one of the earliest hieroglyphic scripts (still not deciphered), which are assumed to be inventory lists. Numerous seals to secure storage rooms have also been found, some bearing the same script. Burials of the Protopalatial period show social stratification, perhaps under the influence of increased contacts and trade with the civilizations of the eastern Mediterranean.
Trade with the surrounding areas intensified during this period, establishing Crete as one of the first thalassocracies, a term first used by the 5th-century BCE Greek historian Thucydides (ca. 460-400 BCE) to indicate absolute power over the seas. The historian Strabo (63 BCE-24 CE) uses the term directly to explain the early supremacy of Crete. Metals were imported from the Greek mainland, Anatolia, and Syria; gold, ivory, and precious stones came from Egypt; and one mention is found in the palace at Mari on the Euphrates about goods expected from a place called Kaptara: cloths, a fine inlaid sword, and a pair of shoes for the King of Mari to give to Hammurabi of Babylon. According to the tablets of Mari, a Cretan tin buyer also seems to have been living in Ugarit, which was an important transit station for the tin trade.
Craft production, such as weaving and goldsmithing, also seems to have been located at the palaces. Cretan Kamares (bright polychrome) pottery has been found in Egypt, near Elephantine and in Byblos. Minoan pottery was also found at Ugarit, Beirut, Qatna, Hazor, and Cyprus. It is also thought that wood, grain, wine, oil, and textiles may have been exported on Cretan ships, but no traces of those perishable products remain. The influence of Cretan pictorial art has been found in Egypt and in the Near East; Egyptian influence can also be seen in the frescoes on Crete.
Rebuilding took place during the “Neopalatial” period, 1700 BCE to 1450 BCE. The walls of these new palaces were handsomely decorated with paintings of everyday scenes and religious events. The famous “bull-leaping” frescoes date from this era, in which youth (it is unknown whether male or female) are shown to be somersaulting over the backs of bulls, either grabbing the horns of an oncoming bull or leaping between the horns to land on the back and vault off. It is not known whether this formed part of initiation rites or was a sport or part of a cult. Bull leapers also appeared on seals, on boxes, on gold rings, and on pottery; one bronze statue depicting a youth on the back of a bull is at the British Museum. Bull-leaping scenes are also found on the Greek mainland; the last ones most likely were created during the decline of Mycenae. During the Neopalatial period, villalike buildings started to appear in the countryside, suggesting that the control of the palaces may have weakened somewhat. The Linear A script was now used everywhere on the island for administrative purposes. A second era of destruction followed, perhaps again caused by earthquakes combined with foreign invasions.
The final and “Postpalatial” period lasted from 1450 BCE until ca. 1200 BCE, the end of the Late Bronze Age. The original inhabitants appear to have sought refuge in the mountain areas, which leads archeologists to believe that foreign invaders (most likely mainland Mycenaeans) are to be blamed.
Others suggest internal conflict may have caused the destruction of all inhabited sites: In fact, Knossos remained undamaged for about a century after the other centers were destroyed. Whatever may have been the causes, many inhabited areas were abandoned, and the population seems to have crashed. The writing systems fell into disuse, not only on Crete but also on the Greek mainland (Pylos), where tablets with the same Linear B script were found by the archeologist Carl Blegen in 1939. The entire area was plunged into a Dark Age, which lasted until 800 BCE.
Dating of Events and Periods
Scholars continue to adjust the dating of events in Crete, a difficult task, because a difference of several decades can change the presumed causes of the mysterious destructions of the palaces and Minoan culture. For instance, archeologists believe that the cataclysmic volcanic eruption that destroyed the flowering civilization of Thera (present-day Santorini), the southernmost island of the Cyclades, just 60 miles north of Crete, took place around 1520. They assume that the explosion was also responsible for the decline of agriculture on Crete and augured the subsequent collapse of the Neopalatial period. Scientists, however, put the date for the cataclysm at around 1628, too soon to explain the destruction of the palaces. Absolute dating has also been attempted by comparisons with Egypt (Crete is mentioned in some Egyptian records), by the sorting of local pottery and pottery styles, Mycenaean events, C14, and tree ring analysis, as well as the chronology of developments on the nearby Cycladic islands, whose inhabitants may have migrated to Crete on occasion.
Religion and Cult Sites
Mountaintops and caves were important cult sites from the beginnings of Cretan civilization, and numerous terracotta statues (mostly representing slim-waisted goddesses in long skirts), typical double axes, horns of consecration, and other offerings have been found in those locations. Many frescoes in the palaces show depictions of human figures, who may or may not have represented gods and goddesses, in peaceful nature settings, surrounded by animals and flowers. The palaces are thought to have been important cult sites or to have contained shrines and rooms where rituals were carried out. Other sites offer some evidence of human sacrifice: The crushed bodies of a victim, a priest, a female attendant, and one other person were found at Anemospilia, near Knossos. They were apparently surprised inside the building when it collapsed during an earthquake, the same one that may have caused extensive damage around 1700 BCE.
The cave on Mount Ida where Zeus was believed to have hidden from the murderous intent of his father Kronos was an especially sacred place; religious tourists visited the site at least until the Roman era.
The civilization of Crete was called “Minoan” by Sir Arthur Evans, the first excavator of the city of Knossos, after the mythological king Minos. His aim was to distinguish Cretan civilization from the one discovered by Heinrich Schliemann on the Greek Peleponnese, which was called “Mycenaean” after the city of Mycenae, the stronghold of (the mythical) King Agamemnon. Evans chose this name to emphasize his belief that Cretan civilization was non-Greek and non-Mycenaean: He believed that the palaces, the storage rooms, and the necessary quest for copper and tin (required to make bronze) indicated that Cretan civilization must have been more closely related to the countries of the Middle East than the Greek mainland. Evans turned out to be only partially right: The tablets found at Pylos on the Peloponnese show that the Mycenaeans had close contact with the inhabitants of Crete during the Postpalatial period, even though their civilizations show differences. At the same time, their records written in Linear B showed that the Mycenaeans were Greeks, as were the people that inhabited the Cretan palaces during the last phase of Minoan civilization. Until the discovery and the decipherment of the Linear B tablets, it was commonly believed that the Mycenaeans were non-Greek.
- Dickinson, O. (1994). The Aegean Bronze Age. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Fitton, J. L. (2002). Peoples of the past: Minoans. London: British Museum Press.
- Marinatos, N. (1993). Minoan religion: Ritual, image, and symbol. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press.
- Robinson, A. (2002). The man who deciphered Linear B: The story of Michael Ventris. London: Thames & Hudson.