Minoan civilization  

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"Several names are used for this civilization, “Aegean” being the most inclusive. It is frequently called “Minoan,” after its most famous king and most brilliant age, though strictly speaking the term is anachronistic if used before 1500 b.c. At present there seems to be a tendency to apply “Cretan” or “Minoan” to that aspect of the civilization which definitely belongs to the island of Crete, “Helladic” to that of the mainland, and “Cycladic” to that of the islands." --Gardner's Art Through the Ages (1926) by Helen Gardner

"ONE of the important legends of the Greek peoples was that of King Minos. So important was it that, like many legends, it seems to be based on a kernel of historical truth. Before the year 1900, however, nothing had been found to substantiate the story. Already Heinrich Schliemann had proved that the Homeric tales of Troy were based on historical fact. As a child Schliemann had been told the story of the Trojan War and of the great walls that protected the ancient city; and in spite of opposition he strongly maintained his belief that those walls must still be standing. Not until middle life, however, when he had finally amassed a fortune, was he free to follow his dream. He then went to the locality which his knowledge of the Iliad led him to believe was the site of Troy, and there found nine cities built one on the remains of another. There were ancient walls and signs of a great conflagration, and Schliemann proclaimed that he had found the actual city. Subsequent excavations proved that the site was correct. He continued his excavating at Mycenae, whence sailed the proud chieftains to avenge the capture of Helen, and his success was even more startling. Massive fortress-palaces, elaborate tombs, great quantities of gold jewelry and ornaments, cups, and inlaid weapons — all revealed a pre-Hellenic civilization of high culture and wide extent that is now called Mycenaean.

But Mycenae, after all, did not prove to have been its center. Sir Arthur Evans had long considered Crete a potentially fertile field for investigation. Under Turkish rule excavation was impossible, but when in 1898 Crete was free from the Turkish regime the opportunity came, and about 1900 work began. In a short time, Evans’s faith was rewarded far beyond his expectations. His spade did not dig very deep before it uncovered the palaces of the old kings. Sea kings they were. No fortified walls protected their palaces, for the broad reaches of water around their island served in the place of walls. Their ships plied to the three continents to which their island was gateway. Of these sea kings, whose power extended over the islands of the Aegean and over parts of the mainland, the greatest was Minos." --Gardner's Art Through the Ages (1926) by Helen Gardner

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The Minoan civilization was a Bronze Age culture which was centered on the island of Crete. Known for its monumental architecture and energetic art, it is often regarded as the first civilization in Europe. The ruins of the Minoan palaces at Knossos and Phaistos are popular tourist attractions.

The Minoan civilization developed from the local Neolithic culture around 3100 BC, with complex urban settlements beginning around 2000 BC. After 1450 BC, they came under the cultural and perhaps political domination of the mainland Mycenaean Greeks, forming a hybrid culture which lasted until around 1100 BC.

Minoan art included elaborately decorated pottery, seals, figurines, and colorful frescoes. Typical subjects include nature and ritual. Minoan art is often described as having a fantastical or ecstatic quality, with figures rendered in a manner suggesting motion.

Little is known about the structure of Minoan society. Minoan art contains no unambiguous depiction of a monarch, and textual evidence suggests they may have had some other form of governance. Likewise, it is not clear whether there was ever a unified Minoan state. Religious practices included worship at peak sanctuaries and sacred caves, but nothing is certain regarding their pantheon. The Minoans constructed enormous labyrinthine buildings which their initial excavators labeled Minoan palaces. Subsequent research has shown that they served a variety of religious and economic purposes rather than being royal residences, though their exact role in Minoan society is a matter of continuing debate.

The Minoans traded extensively, exporting agricultural products and luxury crafts in exchange for raw metals which were difficult to obtain on Crete. Through traders and artisans, their cultural influence reached beyond Crete to the Aegean and eastern Mediterranean. Minoan craftsmen were employed by foreign elites, for instance to paint frescoes at Avaris in Egypt.

The Minoans developed two writing systems known as Cretan hieroglyphs and Linear A. Because neither script has been fully deciphered, the identity of the Minoan language is unknown. Based on what is known, the language is regarded as unlikely to belong to a well-attested language family such as Indo-European or Semitic. After 1450 BC, a modified version of Linear A known as Linear B was used to write Mycenaean Greek, which had become the language of administration on Crete. The Eteocretan language attested in a few post-Bronze Age inscriptions may be a descendant of the Minoan language.

Largely forgotten after the Late Bronze Age collapse, the Minoan civilization was rediscovered in the early twentieth century through archaeological excavation. The term "Minoan" was coined by Arthur Evans, who excavated at Knossos and recognized it as culturally distinct from the mainland Mycenaean culture. Soon after, Federico Halbherr and Luigi Pernier excavated the Palace of Phaistos and the nearby settlement of Hagia Triada. A major breakthrough occurred in 1952, when Michael Ventris deciphered Linear B, drawing on earlier work by Alice Kober. This decipherment unlocked a crucial source of information on the economics and social organization in the final year of the palace. Minoan sites continue to be excavated, recent discoveries including the necropolis at Armeni and the harbour town of Kommos.


Bull-Leaping Fresco, Minoan snake goddess figurines, La Parisienne (fresco), Minoan frescoes from Tell el-Daba

The 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 through decomposition, the best preserved, and so most easily learned from, surviving examples of 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 characterized by linear patterns of spirals, triangles, curved lines, crosses, fishbone motifs, and like. 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. Frescoes were the main form of art during this time of the Minoan culture.

See also

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