5.Minoan civilization

                     It is important to know about Arthur Evans before going into Minoan civilization. Sir Arthur John Evans (1851 – 1941) was a British archaeologist most famous for unearthing the palace of Knossos on the Greek island of Crete. Evans was born in England and attended Harrow School, and, Oxford. Evans had been deciphering script on seal stones on Crete in 1894, when the island was declared an independent state in 1900; he purchased the site and began his excavations of the palace ruins. Arthur Evans found 3,000 clay tablets during excavations and worked to transcribe them. From the transcriptions it was clear that the tablets bore traces of more than one script. Evans dated the “Linear-A tablets at Knossos as immediately prior to the catastrophic Minoan civilization collapse around the year 1500BC. (Wikipedia)

                          On the basis of the ceramic evidence and stratigraphy, Evans concluded that there was a civilization on Crete before the civilizations recently brought to light by the adventurer-archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann at Mycenae and Tiryns. The huge ruin of Knossos spanned five acres and had a maze-like quality to it that reminded Evans of the labyrinth described in Greek mythology as having been built by King Minos to hide his monstrous child. Thus, Evans dubbed the civilization once inhabiting this great palace as that of the Minoans. By 1903, most of the palace was excavated, bringing to light an advanced city containing with artwork and many examples of writing. Painted on the walls of the palace were numerous scenes depicting bulls, leading Evans to conclude that the Minoans did indeed worship the bull. 

Source of Minoan alphabet
                     Evans in his 1901 work “Scripta Minoa” claimed that most of the symbols for the Phoenician alphabets are almost identical to the many centuries older, Ca 1900 BC, Cretan hieroglyphs. Modern scholars now see it as a continuation of the Proto-Canaanite alphabet from ca. 1400 BC, adapted to writing a Canaanite (Northwest Semitic) language. The Phoenician alphabet seamlessly continues the Proto-Canaanite alphabet, by convention called Phoenician from the mid 11th century, where it is first attested on inscribed bronze arrowheads. (Wikipedia)

                       The term Minoans refers to the people of Crete in the Aegean. Ceramic items created during the Neolithic period in Crete date to 7000 BC and the height of the Minoan culture flourished approximately from 3000 to 1500 BC when their culture was superseded by the Mycenaean culture. The Minoans were one of the civilizations that flourished in and around the Mediterranean Sea during the Bronze Age of Greece. These civilizations had much contact with each other, sometimes making it difficult to judge the extent to which the Minoans influenced, or were influenced by, their neighbours. Based on depictions in Minoan art, Minoan culture is often characterized as a matrilineal society centred on goddess worship. Minoan Palaces, such as the one at Knossos, were technologically advanced; expanded drainage systems, irrigation, aqueducts, and deep wells that provided fresh water to the inhabitants. The palaces were multi-storied and contained interior and exterior staircases, light wells, massive columns, storage magazines, and courtyards.
Chronology and history


Name of the Period



Pre palace period

7000 BC – 3000 BC


Peak of Minoan culture

3000 BC – 1500 BC


Neo palatial period (New Palace period) (Belonging to Bronze Age)

1700 BC- 1600 BC


Santorini volcanic Eruption

1600 BC


Island captured by Mycenaeans Greeks



Final decline

ca 1200 BC


Minoan chronology
The oldest signs of inhabitants on Crete are ceramic artefacts left by Neolithic people that date to approximately 7000 BC. The beginning of its Bronze Age, around 3000 BC, was a period of great unrest in Crete, and also marks the beginning of Crete as an important centre of civilization. At the end of Ca 1700 BC, there was a large disturbance in Crete, probably an earthquake, or possibly an invasion from Anatolia. The Palaces at Knossos, Phaistos, Malia, and Kato Zakros were destroyed. But with the start of the Neopalatial period, population increased again, the palaces were rebuilt on a larger scale and new settlements were built all over the island.

The Neopalatial period represents the apex of the Minoan civilization. A short time after the catastrophe of Santorini volcanic eruption, around 1500 BC, the island was conquered by the Mycenaeans. These people adapted Linear-A Minoan script as Linear-B for their Mycenaean language, a form of Greek. After about a century of partial recovery, most Cretan cities and palaces went into decline in Ca 1300 BC. Knossos remained an administrative centre until 1200 BC.

Geography Crete is a mountainous island with natural harbours. There are signs of earthquake damage at Minoan sites. Homer recorded a tradition that Crete had ninety cities. The site at Knossos was the most important one. Archaeologists have found palaces in Phaistos and Malia as well. The island was probably divided into four political units, the north being governed from Knossos, the south from Phaistos, the central eastern part from Malia, and the eastern tip from Kato Zakros. Smaller palaces have been found in other places.

Society and culture
The Minoans were primarily a mercantile people engaged in overseas trade. Their culture, from ca 1700 BC onward, shows a high degree of organization. Many historians and archaeologists believe that the Minoans were involved in the Bronze Age's important tin trade; tin, alloyed with copper apparently from Cyprus, was used to make bronze. The decline of Minoan civilization and the decline in use of bronze tools in favour of superior iron ones seem to be correlated. The Minoan trade in saffron, which originated in the Aegean Sea littoral area, has left few material remains. A fresco of saffron-gatherers at Santorini is only reminder of this saffron trade. This inherited trade pre-dated Minoan civilization. The profitability of this trade was equal to the profits of the later day trade in frankincense, or still later, to pepper trade with India. Archaeologists tend to emphasize the more durable items of trade; ceramics, copper, and tin, and dramatic luxury finds of gold and silver.

Objects of Minoan manufacture suggest there was a network of trade with mainland Greece (notably Mycenae), Cyprus, Syria, Anatolia, Egypt, Mesopotamia, and westward as far as the coast of Spain. Minoan men wore loincloths and kilts. There is a picture of three Women standing side by side in the Knossos palace, these women are depicted wearing an upper garment that were open to the navel, leaving their breasts exposed, and had short sleeves and layered flounced skirts. Based on this picture Arthur concluded that exposed breasts were the style of Minoan women of that time.

This description of dress of women exposing their breast is highly misleading. Wunderlich [1]says it was a mourning practice, exposing the breasts to show their grievance. This explanation of Wunderlich seems to be correct because similar practice existed in South Indian Dravidian population also. In some communities the widowed women don’t wear the blouse but cover the upper body with part of the white saree. Widowed women wear white sari, discarding coloured saree as a mark of widow hood. It is a vanishing practice and gradually being abandoned now. Beating the breast as a sign of grievance is a common practice all over South India. Further, all widowed women will join together and cry, beating their breasts at the house of mourning on daily basis for 40 days. Some time professional women mourners consisting of widows will be employed for this purpose. The professional women will lead the mourning lamentations and other female relatives of the deceased person will join the mourning. All these customs are vanishing and after some time, no trace of these customs will be left out. (Note that mourning period is equivalent to mummification period of 40 days.)

The statues of priestesses in Minoan culture and frescoes showing men and women participating in the same sports such as bull, lead some archaeologists to believe that men and women held equal social status. Inheritance is thought to have been matrilineal. Minoan religion was goddess worship and women are represented as those officiating at religious ceremonies. The frescos include many depictions of people, with the genders distinguished by colour: the men's skin is reddish-brown, the women's white. Bull leaping has become controversial subject matter, some experts say it was an extreme acrobatic act, and some professional bull fighters say such act leaping over bull is not possible at all, and such an act will lead to death in the horns of bull. After careful consideration Wunderlich concludes that it was a religious ritual in which young men and women were allowed to be gored by the bull. Another possibility is that it was something like funeral games as being mentioned by Homer in Ulysses. Funeral games of Homer period are not bull fighting, but it could have been the funeral game of the Knossos.

Influence of this ancient game could be seen even now. Bull fighting and matadors are still popular in Spain and was once popular throughout Mediterranean areas for long time. A remnant of this sport is still popular in Tamil Nadu state, and is still surviving with lot of cultural support and enthusiasm in this state. It is possible that during height of Indus culture period , the bull fighting must have been the popular funeral game of Indus people, and only remnants of this cultural event is surviving in Tamil Nadu. Wunderlich portrays a picture that as if the young men and women were gored to death as an act of sacrifice. But in Tamil Nadu it is being represented as an act of bravery and entertainment.

Even in the mythological story of Theseus and Minotaur, it is not portrayed as hopeless event. Father of Theseus, king of Athens eagerly awaits the return of his son. That shows the possibility of some person returning alive after participating in the bull fight with Minotaur. King of Athens gives prior direction to his son and captain of the ship that the sail should be changed to white, while returning home, if his son Theseus was alive after the encounter with Minotaur. Because of fate, Theseus forgets about the instruction of his father and returns back with black sails. In an act of absolute sorrow the king commits suicide without knowing the facts, even before the ship could reach the shore. It looks like that Theseus was sailing to Crete with black sail as a sign of grievance to attend some funeral ceremony and bull fighting seems to be part of funeral ceremony. It looks like that the funeral ceremonies and marriage ceremonies acted as important events which bonded the people together in ancient societies.
Language and writing

Knowledge of the spoken and written language of the Minoans is scant, despite the number of records found. Sometimes the Minoan language is referred to as Eteocretan, but this presents confusion between the language written in Linear-A and the language written in a Euboean-derived alphabet after the Greek invasion. While Eteocretan language is suspected to be a descendant of Minoan, there is no substantial evidence for this. It also is unknown whether the language written in Cretan hieroglyphs is Minoan. It is undeciphered and its phonetic values are unknown.
Approximately 3,000 tablets bearing writing have been discovered so far, many apparently being inventories of goods or resources and others inscriptions on religious objects associated with cult. Archaeologists concluded that most of these inscriptions on tablets are concise economic records rather than dedicatory inscriptions; the translation of Minoan language remains a challenge. But Wunderlich gives a contradictory explanation to these tablets. He says that majority of these tablets describe about number of ewes and rams sacrificed in memory of the dead person or offered to the mortuary temple as an act of offering to the God of death. The token with the details of sacrifices made to god is kept along with the mummified body as an evidence to show his devotion to gods. This token was supposed to help the dead person’s soul to traverse through the underworld and to be presented before the gods at the time of judgement in the underworld. This explanation of Wunderlich seems to be more logical than that of the explanation that in was an accountancy record of a sheep herd giving details of number of ewes and rams.
In the Mycenaean period, Linear-A was replaced by Linear-B, recording a very archaic version of the Greek. Linear-B was successfully deciphered by Michael Ventris in the 1950s, but the earlier scripts remain a mystery. Unless Eteocretan truly is its descendant, it is perhaps during the Greek Dark Ages, a time of economic and socio-political collapse, that the Minoan language became extinct.


The Minoans worshiped goddesses. Although there is some evidence of male gods, depictions of Minoan goddesses vastly outnumber depictions of anything that could be considered a Minoan god. While some of these depictions of women are believed to be images of worshipers and priestesses officiating at religious ceremonies, as opposed to the deity herself, there still seem to be several goddesses including a Mother Goddess of fertility, a Mistress of the Animals, a protectress of cities, the household, the harvest, and the underworld, and more. Some have argued that these are all aspects of a single goddess. They are often represented by serpents, birds, poppies, and a somewhat vague shape of an animal upon the head. Some suggest the goddess was linked to the "Earth shaker", a male god represented by the bull and the sun. The male god would die each autumn and be reborn each spring. Though the notorious bull-headed Minotaur is a purely Greek depiction, seals and seal impressions reveal bird-headed or masked deities.
Architecture The Minoan cities were connected with stone-paved roads, formed from blocks cut with bronze saws. Streets were drained and water and sewer facilities were available to the upper class, through clay pipes. Minoan buildings often had flat tiled roofs; plaster, wood, or flagstone floors, and stood two to three stories high. Typically the lower walls were constructed of stone and rubble, and the upper walls of mud brick. Ceiling timbers held up the roofs. The first palaces were constructed at the end of the Early Minoan period in the third millennium BC (Malia). While it was formerly believed that the foundation of the first palaces was synchronous and dated to the Middle Minoan at around 2000 BC (the date of the first palace at Knossos), scholars now think that palaces were built over a longer period of time in different locations, in response to local developments. The main older palaces are Knossos, Malia, and Phaistos. The palaces fulfilled a plethora of functions; they served as centres of government, administrative offices, shrines, workshops, and storage spaces (e.g., for grain). These distinctions might have seemed artificial to Minoans.

The Secret of Minoan Palaces
The details given in the earlier paragraphs are the descriptions about the Minoan palaces by traditional archaeologists lead by Sir Arthur Evans. Whereas the author of the book “Secret of the Crete” H.G. Wunderlich gives a completely different view and theorizes that it was not a living palace but a funery complex. He further postulates that the dead were buried in a homely environment, with all facilities like a living house. That was the character of the cult of the dead. Modern day archaeologists have mistakenly identified them as palaces for the living. The Wrong notion created by Evans has not been corrected even after many decades. Similar is the case of Indus valley civilisation sites, these sites contained mortuary temples, funeral palaces and funery houses, which had been wrongly identified as metropolis. To bring out the similarities between these two necropolis cultures, this chapter on Minoan culture has been discussed in elaborate way in this book.

Funeral Jars or storage jars?
During the course of digging at Minoan palace Evans found many Pithoi, which he said were used for storing olive oil and food grains, whereas Wunderlich says that they were funeral jars, in which the dead bodies were kept, for preservation. Later, in the following years the descendents of the dead person used to visit the mortuary temples and pay their respect; simultaneously they used to consult their ancestors for kinds of advices through oracles [2]before taking any major decisions. Here the role of priests was that of a medium to consult the dead people’s spirit and translate the same to the living persons. It could have provided a good reasonable means of living to those priests. Present day priests have transformed themselves from consultant of the ‘dead’ to communicator of ‘living God’. Because of this total transformation of the religion, we are not able to understand the old way of living. The relevance of this Minoan cult to the present discussion in this book is that in Indus Valley Culture also similar cult might have existed. It is likely that the present day building remains at Mohenjo Daro and Harappa are remnants of funeral complexes and funeral houses.
Decent into the under world
The consultation with dead was wide spread practice at Homeric time and even before that, they were called as oracles in later day classical Greece. This cult of consulting dead reminds of similar events as recorded by Homer in the epic of Odyssey. Ulysses enters under world to consult his dead mother; the narration given by Homer describes in a lively fashion the religious ritual of consulting the dead. Similarly, Hercules also descends into underworld to bring back his friend Iolaus into the living world and succeeds in his efforts. All these stories of heroes visit to underworld bring forth to the mind the nature of religion and custom of the ancient time.

Theories of Minoan demise

Santorini is a small island located about 100 km north of island of Crete. The Santorini eruption occurred around 1600BC and estimated to have had a Volcanic Explosivity Index of 6. This massive volcanic eruption has been identified by ash fallout in eastern Crete and other islands and nearby littoral areas of Aegean Sea and Eastern Mediterranean sea. The massive eruption of Santorini led to the volcano's collapse into a submarine caldera, causing tsunamis which destroyed naval installations and settlements all along the coast of Mediterranean sea. The eruption caused significant climatic changes in the eastern Mediterranean region, Aegean Sea and much of the Northern Hemisphere. There is also evidence that the eruption caused failure of crops in China, inspired certain Greek myths, contributed to turmoil in Egypt, and influenced many of the biblical Exodus stories. It is being theorized that the Santorini eruption and the destruction of the city at Akrotiri provided the basis for or otherwise inspired Plato's story of Atlantis.

Significant amount of Minoan remains have been found above the Santorini ash layer, implying that the Santorini eruption did not cause the immediate downfall of the Minoans. As the Minoans were a sea power and depended on their naval and merchant ships for their livelihood, the Santorini eruption likely caused destruction of merchant ships in large scale because of tsunami, resulting in significant economic hardship to the Minoans and probable loss of empire in the long run. Whether these effects were enough to trigger the downfall of the Minoan civilization is under intense debate. The Mycenaean conquest of the Minoans occurred in Late Minoan period, not many years after the eruption, and many archaeologists speculate that the eruption induced a crisis in Minoan civilization, which allowed the Mycenaeans to conquer them easily.

[1] Wunderlich was geology professor in German University, and during his visit to Knossos, he got doubt about the entire “palace theory” of Arthur Evans. Wunderlich has proposed a theory that Knossos was a burial place, and not a living palace and his observations are published in the Book “The secret of Crete”.

[2] Oracle: A shrine consecrated to the worship and consultation of a prophetic deity, as that of Apollo at Delphi(or).A person, such as a priestess, through whom a deity is held to respond when consulted.(or)The response given through such a medium, often in the form of an enigmatic statement or allegory. In modern days, the Mediums are operating like olden days oracles, and claim that they are able to communicate with ghosts of ancestors and get advice from the ghosts for the benefit of the customer.