See Sir Arthur J. Evans, Palace of Minos (4 vol., 1921-25, repr. 1964); J. D. S. Pendlebury, Archaeology of Crete (1939, repr. 1963); S. Hood, The Minoans (1971); R. H. Simpson, Mycenaean Greece (1982); A. Harding, The Mycenaens and Europe (1984); Y. Hamilakis, ed., Labyrinth Revisited: Rethinking "Minoan" Archaeology (2002).
Any member of a non-Indo-European people who flourished (circa 3000–circa 1100 BC) on the island of Crete during the Bronze Age. The sea was the basis of their economy and power. Their sophisticated culture, based at Knossos, was named for the legendary King Minos. It represented the first high civilization in the Aegean area. The Minoans exerted great influence on the Mycenaean culture of the Greek islands and mainland. Minoan culture reached its peak circa 1600 BC and was noted for its cities and palaces, extended trade contacts, and use of writing (see Linear A and Linear B). Its art included elaborate seals, pottery, and, notably, the vibrant frescoes decorating palace walls, which depicted both religious and secular scenes, including goddesses reflective of a matriarchal religion. Palace ruins show evidence of paved streets and piped water. Familiar Minoan art motifs are the snake (symbol of the goddess) and the bull and leaping dancer, also of mystical significance.
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The Minoan civilization was a Bronze Age civilization which arose on the island of Crete. The Minoan culture flourished from approximately 2700 to 1450 BC; afterwards, Mycenaean Greek culture became dominant on Crete.
The term "Minoan" was coined by the British archeologist Sir Arthur Evans after the mythic "king" Minos. Minos was associated in Greek myth with the labyrinth, which Evans identified as the site at Knossos. What the Minoans called themselves is unknown. It has sometimes been argued that the Egyptian place name "Keftiu" (*kaftāw) and the Semitic "Kaftor" or "Caphtor" and "Kaptara" in the Mari archives apparently refer to the island of Crete. In the Odyssey which was composed centuries after the destruction of the Minoan civilization, Homer calls the natives of Crete Eteocretans ("true Cretans"); these may have been descendants of the Minoans.
Minoan palaces are the best known building types to have been excavated on the island. They are monumental buildings serving administrative purposes as evidenced by the large archives unearthed by archeologists. Each of the palaces excavated to date has its own unique features, but they also share features which set them apart from other structures. The palaces were often multi-storied, with interior and exterior staircases, light wells, massive columns, storage magazines and courtyards.
Rather than give calendar dates for the Minoan period, archaeologists use two systems of relative chronology. The first, created by Evans and modified by later archaeologists, is based on pottery styles. It divides the Minoan period into three main eras—Early Minoan (EM), Middle Minoan (MM), and Late Minoan (LM). These eras are further subdivided, e.g. Early Minoan I, II, III (EMI, EMII, EMIII). Another dating system, proposed by the Greek archaeologist Nicolas Platon, is based on the development of the architectural complexes known as "palaces" at Knossos, Phaistos, Malia, and Kato Zakros, and divides the Minoan period into Prepalatial, Protopalatial, Neopalatial, and Post-palatial periods. The relationship among these systems is given in the accompanying table, with approximate calendar dates drawn from Warren and Hankey (1989).
The Thera eruption occurred during a mature phase of the LM IA period. The calendar date of the volcanic eruption is extremely controversial; see the article on dating the Thera eruption for discussion. It often is identified as a catastrophic natural event for the culture, leading to its rapid collapse, perhaps being narrated mythically as Atlantis by Classical Greeks.
|1900-1800 BC||MMIB|| Protopalatial|
(Old Palace Period)
|1700-1640 BC||MMIIIA|| Neopalatial|
(New Palace Period)
|1425-1390 BC||LMII|| Postpalatial|
(At Knossos, Final Palace Period)
At the end of the MMII period (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. This period (the seventeenth and sixteenth centuries BC, MM III / Neopalatial) represents the apex of the Minoan civilization. The Thera eruption occurred during LMIA (and LHI).
On the Greek mainland, the Helladic period of culture was contemporary; Late Helladic (LH) IIB began during LMIB, showing independence from Minoan influence. LMIB ware has been found in Egypt under the reigns of Hatshepsut and Tuthmosis III. At the end of the LMIB period, the Minoan palace culture failed catastrophically. All palaces were destroyed, and only Knossos was immediately restored - although other palaces, such as Chania, sprang up later in LMIIIA. Either the LMIB/LMII catastrophe occurred after this time, or else it was so bad that the Egyptians then had to import LHIIB instead.
A short time after the LMIB/LMII catastrophe, around 1420 BC, the palace sites were occupied by the Mycenaeans, who adapted the Linear A Minoan script to the needs of their own Mycenaean language, a form of Greek, which was written in Linear B. The first such archive anywhere is in the LMII-era "Room of the Chariot Tablets". Later Cretan archives date to LMIIIA (contemporary with LHIIIA) but no later than that.
During LMIIIA:1, Amenhotep III at Kom el-Hatan took note of k-f-t-w (Kaftor) as one of the "Secret Lands of the North of Asia". Also mentioned are Cretan cities such as i-'m-n-y-s3/i-m-ni-s3 (Amnisos), b3-y-s3-?-y (Phaistos), k3-t-w-n3-y (Kydonia) and k3-in-yw-s (Knossos) and some toponyms reconstructed as belonging to the Cyclades or the Greek mainland. If the values of these Egyptian names are accurate, then this pharaoh did not privilege LMIII Knossos above the other states in the region.
After about a century of partial recovery, most Cretan cities and palaces went into decline in the thirteenth century BC (LHIIIB/LMIIIB).
Knossos remained an administrative center until 1200 BC; the last of the Minoan sites was the defensive mountain site of Karfi a refuge site which displays vestiges of Minoan civilization almost into the Iron Age.
Crete is a mountainous island with natural harbors. There are signs of earthquake damage at many Minoan sites and clear signs of both uplifting of land and submersion of coastal sites due to tectonic processes all along the coasts.
Homer recorded a tradition that Crete had ninety cities. The island was probably divided into at least five political units during the height of the Minoan period and at different stages in the Bronze Age into more or less. The north is thought to have been governed from Knossos, the south from Phaistos, the central eastern part from Malia, and the eastern tip from Kato Zakros and the west from Chania. Smaller palaces have been found in other places.
Some of the major Minoan archaeological sites are:
Certain locations within Crete emphasise it as an 'outward looking' society. The Neopalatial site of Kato Zakro, for instance, is located within 100 metres of the modern shore-line, situated within a bay. Its large number of workshops and the richness of its site materials indicate a potential 'entrepôt' for import and export. Such activities are elaborated in artistic representations of the sea, including the 'Flotilla' fresco from room 5, in the west house at Akrotiri.
Minoan cultural influence indicates an orbit that extended not only throughout the Cyclades (so-called Minoanisation), but in locations such as Egpyt and Cyprus. Late Minoan I (LMI) stonework has been observed at Amman. Furthermore, in fifteenth century tomb paintings at Thebes a number of individuals have been distinguished as Minoan in appearance, baring gifts. Inscriptions record these people as coming from Keftiu, or the "islands in the midst of the sea", and may refer to gift bringing merchants or officials from Crete.
The Minoans were primarily a mercantile people engaged in overseas trade. Their culture, from 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 favor of iron ones seem to be correlated.
The Minoan trade in saffron, the stigma of a mutated crocus which originated in the Aegean basin as a natural chromosome mutation, has left fewer material remains: a fresco of saffron-gatherers at Santorini is well-known. This inherited trade pre-dated Minoan civilization: a sense of its rewards may be gained by comparing its value to frankincense, or later, to pepper. Archaeologists tend to emphasize the more durable items of trade: ceramics, copper, and tin, and dramatic luxury finds of gold and silver.
Minoan men wore loincloths and kilts. Women wore robes that had short sleeves and layered flounced skirts. These were open to the navel allowing their breasts to be left exposed, perhaps during ceremonial occasions. Women also had the option of wearing a strapless fitted bodice, the first fitted garments known in history. The patterns on clothes emphasized symmetrical geometric designs. It must be remembered that other forms of dress may have been worn of which we have no record.
The Minoan religion focused on female deities, with females officiating. The statues of priestesses in Minoan culture and frescoes showing men and women participating in the same sports such as bull-leaping, lead some archaeologists to believe that men and women held equal social status. Inheritance is thought to have been matrilineal. The frescos include many depictions of people, with the genders distinguished by colour: the men's skin is reddish-brown, the women's white.
Concentration of wealth played a large role in the structure of society. Multiroom constructions were discovered in even the ‘poor’ areas of town, revealing a social equality and even distribution of wealth. Minoan artwork reveals that equality existed among genders as well. Evidence includes frescos that depict women participating with men in recreational sporting events. The absence of a powerful warrior class meant that women and men were placed on an even playing field.
Knowledge of the spoken and written language of the Minoans is scant, due to the small number of records found. Sometimes the Minoan language is referred to as Eteocretan, but this presents confusion between the language written in Linear A scripts and the language written in a Euboean- derived alphabet after the Greek Dark Ages. While the Eteocretan language is suspected to be a descendant of Minoan, there is not enough source material in either language to allow conclusions to be made. It also is unknown whether the language written in Cretan hieroglyphs is Minoan. As with Linear A, it is undeciphered and its phonetic values are unknown.
Approximately 3,000 tablets bearing writing have been discovered so far in Minoan contexts. The overwhelming majority are in the Linear B script, apparently being inventories of goods or resources. Others are inscriptions on religious objects associated with cult. Because most of these inscriptions are concise economic records rather than dedicatory inscriptions, the translation of Minoan remains a challenge. The hieroglyphs came into use from MMI and were in parallel use with the emerging Linear A from the eighteenth century BC (MM II) and disappeared at some point during the seventeenth century BC (MM III).
In the Mycenean period, Linear A was replaced by Linear B, recording a very archaic version of the Greek language. Linear B was successfully deciphered by Michael Ventris in 1953, 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 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 most important surviving examples of Minoan art are Minoan pottery, the palace architecture with its frescos that include landscapes, stone carvings, and intricately carved seal stones.
Because prosperity did not rely on agriculture and warfare, the Minoans had more time to dedicate to art. This led to the development of a highly visual culture that created works for pleasure rather than utility, politics, or religion. Cretan society was the first ‘leisure’ society discovered by archaologists.
The figures of Minoan frescoes are depicted in natural poses of free movement that reflect the rigors of the activity they engage with, an attitude characteristic of a seafaring culture accustomed to freedom of movement, liquidity, and vigor.
Very little sculpture from Minoan Crete has survived since most of it was not monumental, and instead consisted of small artifacts dedicated to gods or kings. One of the best known examples is the Snake Goddess fetish which exhibits many stylized conventions with the geometric division of the body and dress, while its frontal pose reminds us of Mesopotamian and Egyptian sculpture. The extended arms holding the snakes however add animation to the static pose. The statuette appears to be a goddess or high priestess, and the dress which covers the body all the way to the ground while leaving the breasts exposed was typical of Minoan female attire and is repeated in frescoes. Some of these models were conserved by re-shaping and re-painting, and underwent several modifications.
A variety of ceramic, bone, clay and stone figures have been recovered from Minoan sites, many of which have been excavated from communal tombs and peak sanctuaries. Schematic depictions of human individuals and various animals in a range of attitudes have been recorded, though due to the friable nature of baked clay many survive in fragments rather than coherent shapes. Some of these figures have been treated with layers of paint, either in a binary black and white, or shades of red. It has been demonstrated that the visual profiles of the clay figures, with their arms raised or crossed, could have represented a technique for individuals to reach an altered state of consciousness (ASC) in conjunction with sound and light stimulation.
Other common gestures observed in figures include the 'Minoan salute' (i.e., one fist raised to the forehead whilst the other remains at the side) and the 'hands-on-hips'. The latter attitude is often represented in a female figure who has been given multiple interpretations: the epiphany (appearance) of a deity, a religious official, and a worshiper. Whatever the meaning (if there is only one), it is clear that gestures and posturing were important aspects of Palatial culture and Minoan ritual.
The archaeological museums in Crete present a number of gold artifacts, along with an assortment of copper instruments that date back to 2300 BC. Copper was a much sought after commodity during this time, and it does not appear naturally in Crete. Most likely the Minoans imported copper from Cyprus.
The skill of the Minoan metal smiths was renowned in the ancient world, and many artisans worked abroad in mainland Greece and the Aegean islands. The Mycenaeans learned the art of inlaying bronze with gold from the Minoans.
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 Great 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 "Earthshaker", a male represented by the bull and the sun, who 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.
A major festive celebration was exemplified in the famous athletic Minoan bull dance, represented at large in the frescoes of Knossos and inscribed in miniature seals. In this feat that appears extremely dangerous, both male and female dancers would confront the bull and, grasping it by its sacred horns, permit themselves to be tossed, somersaulting over its back to alight behind it. Each of these sequential movements appears in Minoan representations, but the actual significance of the bull dance in Minoan cult and cultural life is lost beyond retrieval. What is clear, however, is that there is no inkling of an antagonistic confrontation and triumph of the human through the ritual death of the bull, which is the essence of the surviving bullfight of Hispanic culture; rather, there is a sense of harmonious cooperation.
Interpretation of Minoan icons can easily range too far: Walter Burkert warns:
Though the vision created by Sir Arthur Evans of a pax Minoica, a "Minoan peace", has been criticised in recent years, it is generally assumed there was little internal armed conflict in Minoan Crete itself, until the following Mycenaean period. As with much of Minoan Crete, however, it is hard to draw any obvious conclusions from the evidence. However, new excavations keep sustaining interests and documenting the impact around the Aegean.
Many argue that there is little evidence for ancient Minoan fortifications. But as S. Alexiou has pointed out (in Kretologia 8), a number of sites, especially Early and Middle Minoan sites such as Aghia Photia, are built on hilltops or are otherwise fortified. As Lucia Nixon said, "...we may have been over-influenced by the lack of what we might think of as solid fortifications to assess the archaeological evidence properly. As in so many other instances, we may not have been looking for evidence in the right places, and therefore we may not end with a correct assessment of the Minoans and their ability to avoid war.".
Chester Starr points out in "Minoan Flower Lovers" (Hagg-Marinatos eds. Minoan Thalassocracy) that Shang China and the Maya both had unfortified centers and yet still engaged in frontier struggles, so that itself cannot be enough to definitively show the Minoans were a peaceful civilization unparalleled in history.
In 1998, however, when Minoan archaeologists met in a conference in Belgium to discuss the possibility that the idea of Pax Minoica was outdated, the evidence for Minoan war proved to be scanty.
Archaeologist Jan Driessen, for example, said the Minoans frequently show 'weapons' in their art, but only in ritual contexts, and that "The construction of fortified sites is often assumed to reflect a threat of warfare, but such fortified centers were multifunctional; they were also often the embodiment or material expression of the central places of the territories at the same time as being monuments glorifying and merging leading power" (Driessen 1999, p. 16).
On the other hand, Stella Chryssoulaki's work on the small outposts or 'guard-houses' in the east of the island represent possible elements of a defensive system. Claims that they produced no weapons are erroneous; type A Minoan swords (as found in palaces of Mallia and Zarkos) were the finest in all of the Aegean (See Sanders, AJA 65, 67, Hoeckmann, JRGZM 27, or Rehak and Younger, AJA 102).
Regarding Minoan weapons, however, archaeologist Keith Branigan notes that 95% of so-called Minoan weapons possessed hafting (hilts, handles) that would have prevented their use as weapons (Branigan, 1999). However more recent experimental testing of accurate replicas has shown this to be incorrect as these weapons were capable of cutting flesh down to the bone (and scoring the bone's surface) without any damage to the weapons themselves. Archaeologist Paul Rehak maintains that Minoan figure-eight shields could not have been used for fighting or even hunting, since they were too cumbersome (Rehak, 1999). And archaeologist Jan Driessen says the Minoans frequently show 'weapons' in their art, but only in ritual contexts (Driessen 1999). Finally, archaeologist Cheryl Floyd concludes that Minoan "weapons" were merely tools used for mundane tasks such as meat-processing (Floyd, 1999). Although this interpretation must remain highly questionable as there are no parallels of one-meter-long swords and large spearheads being used as culinary devices in the historic or ethnographic record.
About Minoan warfare in general, Branigan concludes that "The quantity of weaponry, the impressive fortifications, and the aggressive looking long-boats all suggested an era of intensified hostilities. But on closer inspection there are grounds for thinking that all three key elements are bound up as much with status statements, display, and fashion as with aggression…. Warfare such as there was in the southern Aegean EBA early Bronze Age was either personalized and perhaps ritualized (in Crete) or small-scale, intermittent and essentially an economic activity (in the Cyclades and the Argolid/Attica) " (1999, p. 92). Archaeologist Krzyszkowska concurs: "The stark fact is that for the prehistoric Aegean we have no direct evidence for war and warfare per se" (Krzyszkowska, 1999).
Furthermore, no evidence exists for a Minoan army, or for Minoan domination of peoples outside Crete. Few signs of warfare appear in Minoan art. "Although a few archaeologists see war scenes in a few pieces of Minoan art, others interpret even these scenes as festivals, sacred dance, or sports events" (Studebaker, 2004, p. 27). Although armed warriors are depicted being stabbed in the throat with swords, violence may occur in the context of ritual or blood sport.
Although on the Mainland of Greece at the time of the Shaft Graves at Mycenae, there is little evidence for major fortifications among the Mycenaeans there (the famous citadels post-date the destruction of almost all Neopalatial Cretan sites), the constant warmongering of other contemporaries of the ancient Minoans – the Egyptians and Hittites, for example – is well documented.
Evidence that suggest the Minoans may have performed human sacrifice has been found at three sites: (1) Anemospilia, in a MMII building near Mt. Juktas, interpreted as a temple, (2) an EMII sanctuary complex at Fournou Korifi in south central Crete, and (3) Knossos, in an LMIB building known as the "North House." (explanation of abbreviations)
The temple at Anemospilia was destroyed by earthquake in the MMII period. The building seems to be a tripartite shrine, and terracotta feet and some carbonized wood were interpreted by the excavators as the remains of a cult statue. Four human skeletons were found in its ruins; one, belonging to a young man, was found in an unusually contracted position on a raised platform, suggesting that he had been trussed up for sacrifice, much like the bull in the sacrifice scene on the Mycenaean-era Agia Triadha sarcophagus. A bronze dagger was among his bones, and the discoloration of the bones on one side of his body suggests he died of blood loss. The bronze blade was fifteen inches long and had images of a boar on each side. The bones were on a raised platform at the center of the middle room, next to a pillar with a trough at its base.
The positions of the other three skeletons suggest that an earthquake caught them by surprise—the skeleton of a twenty-eight year old woman was spread-eagled on the ground in the same room as the sacrificed male. Next to the sacrificial platform was the skeleton of a man in his late thirties, with broken legs. His arms were raised, as if to protect himself from falling debris, which suggests that his legs were broken by the collapse of the building in the earthquake. In the front hall of the building was the fourth skeleton, too poorly preserved to allow determination of age or gender. Nearby 105 fragments of a clay vase were discovered, scattered in a pattern that suggests it had been dropped by the person in the front hall when he was struck by debris from the collapsing building. The jar had appears to have contained bull's blood.
Unfortunately, the excavators of this site have not published an official excavation report; the site is mainly known through a 1981 article in National Geographic (Sakellarakis and Sapouna-Sakellerakis 1981, see also Rutter).
Not all agree that this was human sacrifice. Nanno Marinatos says the man supposedly sacrificed actually died in the earthquake that hit at the time he died. She notes that this earthquake destroyed the building, and also killed the two Minoans who supposedly sacrificed him. She also argues that the building was not a temple and that the evidence for sacrifice "is far from … conclusive. Dennis Hughes concurs and also argues that the platform where the man lay was not necessarily an altar, and the blade was probably a spearhead that may not have been placed on the young man, but could have fallen during the earthquake from shelves or an upper floor.
At the sanctuary-complex of Fournou Korifi, fragments of a human skull were found in the same room as a small hearth, cooking-hole, and cooking-equipment. This skull has been interpreted as the remains of a sacrificed victim.
In the "North House" at Knossos, the bones of at least four children (who had been in good health) were found which bore signs that "they were butchered in the same way the Minoans slaughtered their sheep and goats, suggesting that they had been sacrificed and eaten. The senior Cretan archaeologist Nicolas Platon was so horrified at this suggestion that he insisted the bones must be those of apes, not humans.
The bones, found by Peter Warren, date to Late Minoan IB (1580-1490), before the Myceneans arrived (in LM IIIA, circa 1320-1200) according to Paul Rehak and John G. Younger. Dennis Hughes and Rodney Castleden argue that these bones were deposited as a 'secondary burial'. Secondary burial is the not-uncommon practice of burying the dead twice: immediately following death, and then again after the flesh is gone from the skeleton. The main weakness of this argument is that it does not explain the type of cuts and knife marks upon the bones.
These tombs often evidence group burial, where more than one body is deposited. These may represent the burial crypts for generations of a kin group, or of a particular settlement where the individuals are not closely related and shared in the construction of the tomb. The 'house tomb' at Gournia is a typical example, where the construction consisted of a clay and reed roof, topping a mud-brick and stone base. At Ayia Photia certain rock-cut chamber tombs may have been used solely for the burial of children, indicating complex burial patterns that differed from region to region. Mortuary furniture and grave goods varied widely, but could include storage jars, bronze articles such as tools and weapons, and beauty articles such as pendants. Little is known about mortuary rituals, or the stages through which the deceased passed before final burial, but it has been indicated that 'toasting rituals' may have formed a part of this, suggested by the prevalence of drinking vessels found at some tombs.
In later periods (EM III) a trend towards singular burials, usually in clay Pithoi (large storage vessels), is observed throughout Crete, replacing the practice of built tombs. Equally, the introduction of Larnake or Larnax burials emerges, where the body was deposited in a clay or wooden sacrophagus. These coffins were often richly decorated with motifs and scenes similar to those of the earlier fresco and vase painting tradition. However, rock-cut tombs and Tholoi remained in use even by the LM III period, including the site of Phylaki.
The distribution of burial sites varies in time and space. Some functional demands may have influenced the decision to locate a cemetery: the Late Minoan rock-cut tombs at Armeni utilise the geography of the area for structural support, where chambers are dug deep into the rock. Generally, cemeteries tend to cluster in regions close to settled areas. The Mochlos cemetery, for example, would have served the inhabitants of that island who settled in the south of the area. The cemetery itself has been interpreted to indicate a visible hierarchy, perhaps indicating social differentiation within the local population; larger, monumental tombs for the 'èlite', and smaller tombs, including some early Pithoi burials, for the larger part of the population.
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 mudbrick. Ceiling timbers held up the roofs.
The materials used in constructing the villas and palaces varied, and could include sandstone, gypsum, or limestone. Equally, building techniques could also vary between different constructions; some palaces employed the use of ashlar masonry whilst others used roughly hewn megalithic blocks.
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. Some of the elements recorded in the Middle Minoan 'palaces' (Knossos, Phaistos and Mallia, for example) have precedents in earlier styles of construction in the Early Minoan period. These include the indented western court, and the special treatment given to the western façade. An example of this is seen at the "House on the Hill" at Vasiliki, dated to the Early Minoan II period.
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 use of the term 'palace' for the older palaces, meaning a dynastic residence and seat of power, has recently come under criticism (see Palace), and the term 'court building' has been proposed instead. However, the original term is probably too well entrenched to be replaced. Architectural features such as ashlar masonry, orthostats, columns, open courts, staircases (implying upper stories), and the presence of diverse basins have been used to define palatial architecture.
Often the conventions of better-known, younger palaces have been used to reconstruct older ones, but this practice may be obscuring fundamental functional differences. Most older palaces had only one story and no representative facades. They were U-shaped, with a big central court, and generally were smaller than later palaces. Late palaces are characterised by multi-story buildings. The west facades had sandstone ashlar masonry. Knossos is the best-known example. See Knossos. Further building conventions could include storage magazines, a north-south orientation, a pillar room, a Minoan Hall system, a western court, and pier-and-door entrance ways. Palatial architecture in the First Palace Period is identified by its 'square within a square' style, whilst later, Second Palace Period constructions incorporated more internal divisions and corridors.
It is a common architectural standard among the Middle Minoan 'palaces' that they are aligned with their surrounding topography. The MM palatial structure of Phaistos appears to align with Mount Ida, whilst Knossos is aligned with Juktas. These are orientated along a north-south axis. One suggested reason for this is the ritual significance of the mountain, where a number of Peak Sanctuaries (spaces for public ritual) have been excavated (i.e., Petsophas). The material record for these sites show clusters of clay figurines and evidence of animal sacrifice.
One of the most notable contributions of Minoans to architecture is their unique column, which was wider at the top than the bottom. It is called an 'inverted' column because most Greek columns are wider at the bottom, creating an illusion of greater height. The columns were also made of wood as opposed to stone, and were generally painted red. They were mounted on a simple stone base and were topped with a pillow-like, round piece as a capital.
A number of compounds interpreted as 'Villas' have been excavated in Crete. These structures share many features with the central Palaces (i.e., a conspicuous western facade, storage facilities, and a 'Minoan Hall') of the Neopalatial era, and may indicate either that they performed a similar rôle, or that they were artistic imitations, suggesting that their occupants were familiar with palatial culture. These villas are often richly decorated (see the frescos of Haghia Triadha Villa A).
The importance of marine resources in the Cretan diet is equally important to consider: the prevalence of edible molluscs in site material, and the artistic representations of marine fish and animals, including the distinctive "Octopus" stirrup jar (LM IIIC), indicate an appreciation and occasional use of fish within the economy. However, doubt remains over the functional significance of these resources in the wider Cretan diet, especially in relation to grain, olives and animal produce. Indeed, the intensification of agricultural activity is indicated by the construction of terraces and dams at Pseira in the Late Minoan period.
Not all plants and flora would have a purely functional or economic utility. Artistic depictions often show scenes of Lily gathering and performances within 'green' spaces. The fresco known as the "Sacred Grove" at Knossos, for instance, depicts a number of female figures facing towards the left-hand-side of the scene, flanked by a copse of trees. Some scholars have suggested that these depictions represent the performance of 'harvest festivals' or ceremonies, as a means to honour the continued fertility of the soil. Further artistic depictions of farming scenes are observed on the Second Palace Period "Harvester Vase" (an egg-shaped rhyton, or pouring vessel), where 27 male figures, led by another, each carry hoes. This suggests the importance of farming as an artistic motif.
Much debate has been animated by the discovery of storage magazines within the palace compounds. At the second 'palace' at Phaistos, for instance, a range of rooms in the western side of the structure have been identified as a magazine block. Within these storage areas have been recovered numerous jars, jugs and vessels, indicating the role of the complex as a potential re-distribution centre of agricultural produce. Several possibilities may be suggested, including a model where all economic and agricultural produce was controlled by the Palace and re-distributed by it. At sites such as Knossos, where the town had developed to a considerable size (75 ha), there is evidence of craft specialisation, indicating workshops. The Palace of Kato Zakro, for instance, indicates workshops that were integrated into the structure of the palace. Such evidence contributes to the idea that the Minoan palatial system developed through economic intensification, where greater agricultural surplus could support a population of administrators, craftsmen and religious practitioners. The number of domestic, or sleeping, chambers at the Palaces indicate that they could have supported a large population of individuals who were removed from manual labour.
The Minoan eruption on the island of Thera (present day Santorini about 100 km distant from Crete) occurred during the LM IA period. This eruption was among the largest volcanic explosions in the history of civilization, ejecting approximately 60 km3 of material and rating a 6 on the Volcanic Explosivity Index. The eruption devastated the nearby Minoan settlement at Akrotiri on Santorini, which was entombed in a layer of pumice.
It is further believed that the eruption severely affected the Minoan culture on Crete, although the extent of the impact has been debated. Early theories proposed that ashfall from Thera on the eastern half of Crete choked off plant life, causing starvation of the local population. However, after more thorough field examinations, this theory has lost credibility, as it has been determined that no more than of ash fell anywhere on Crete. Recent studies indicate, based on archeological evidence found on Crete, that a massive tsunami, generated by the Theran eruption, devastated the coastal areas of Crete and destroyed many Minoan coastal settlements.. The LM IIIA (Late Minoan) period is marked by its affluence (i.e., wealthy tombs, burials and art) and the ubiquity of Knossian ceramic styles. However, by LM IIIB the importance of Knossos as a regional centre, and its material 'wealth', seem to have declined.
Significant Minoan remains have been found above the Late Minoan I era Thera ash layer, implying that the Thera 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 Thera eruption caused significant economic hardship to the Minoans. 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 II 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.
The Minoan eruption provides for an important marking in chronically prehistoric archaeological sites. However, precise dating of the eruption is still disputed. Radiocarbon dating has suggested a date of about 1630 BC. These radiocarbon dates, however, conflict with the estimates of other archaeologists who synchronize the eruption with unearthed Egyptian artifacts and the Conventional Egyptian chronology arrive at a later date of around 1550 BC.
Several authors have noted evidence for exceedence of carrying capacity by the Minoan civilization. For example archaeological recovery at Knossos provides clear proof of deforestation of this part of Crete near late stages of Minoan development.
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