Minoan Civilisation – Knossos

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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).

All calendar dates given in this article are approximate, and the subject of ongoing debate.

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.

The oldest signs of inhabitants on Crete are ceramic Neolithic remains that date to approximately 7000 BC. See History of Crete for details.

The beginning of the Bronze Age in Crete, around 2600 BC, was a period of great unrest, and also marks the beginning of Crete as an important center of civilization.

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:

  1. Palaces
    • Knossos – the largest Bronze Age archaeological site on Crete; was purchased for excavations by Evans on March 16, 1900.
    • Phaistos – the second largest palatial building on the island, excavated by the Italian school shortly after Knossos
    • Malia – the subject of French excavations, a palatial centre which affords a very interesting look into the development of the palaces in the protopalatial period
    • Kato Zakros – a palatial site excavated by Greek archaeologists in the far east of the island
    • Galatas – the most recently confirmed palatial site
  2. Agia Triada – an administrative centre close to Phaistos
  3. Gournia – a town site excavated in the first quarter of the 20th Century by the American School
  4. Pyrgos – an early minoan site on the south of the island
  5. Vasiliki – an early minoan site towards the east of the island which gives its name to a distinctive ceramic ware
  6. Fournu Korfi – a site on the south of the island
  7. Pseira – island town with ritual sites
  8. Mount Juktas – the greatest of the Minoan peak sanctuaries by virtue of its association with the palace of Knossos
  9. Arkalochori – the findsite of the famous Arkalochori Axe
  10. Karfi – a refuge site from the late Minoan period, one of the last of the Minoan sites
  11. Akrotiri – settlement on the island of Santorini (Thera), near the site of the Thera Eruption

Society and culture

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.

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. 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.

Language and writing

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 great 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.


In the Early Minoan period ceramics were characterised by linear patterns of spirals, triangles, curved lines, crosses, fishbone motifs, and such. 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.


While the Egyptian painters of the time painted their wall paintings in the «dry-fresco» (fresco secco) technique, the Minoans utilized a «true» or «wet» painting method, allowing the pigments of metal and mineral oxides to bind well to the wall, while it required quick execution. The nature of this technique allowed for improvisation, spontaneity, and the element of chance. Since they had to work within the time constrains of the drying plaster, the painters had to be very skillful, and their fluid brush strokes translated into the graceful outlines that characterize minoan painting. For this reason, this method of painting was most appropriate for the fluid moments of life and nature scenes that the Minoans favored, which contrasted sharply with the strict stylization and stereotyping typical of frescoes from other Mediterranean cultures of the same time.

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.

Sculpture and Figures

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.


Through their interaction with other civilizations of the middle east, the Minoans were aware and utilized the art of metalworking Their skillful jewelry creations adorned the collections of noble palace inhabitants and were even exported around the Mediterranean.

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:

«To what extent one can and must differentiate between Minoan and Mycenaean religion is a question which has not yet found a conclusive answer»

and suggests that useful parallels will be found in the relations between Etruscan and Archaic Greek culture and religion, or between Roman and Hellenistic culture. Minoan religion has not been transmitted in its own language, and the uses literate Greeks later made of surviving Cretan mythemes, after centuries of purely oral transmission, have transformed the meager sources: consider the Athenian point-of-view of the Theseus legend. A few Cretan names are preserved in Greek mythology, but there is no way to connect a name with an existing Minoan icon, such as the familiar serpent-goddess. Retrieval of metal and clay votive figures— double axes, miniature vessels, models of artifacts, animals, human figures—has identified sites of cult: here were numerous small shrines in Minoan Crete, and mountain peaks and very numerous sacred caves—over 300 have been explored—were the centers for some cult, but temples as the Greeks developed them were unknown. Within the palace complex, no central rooms devoted to cult have been recognized, other than the center court where youths of both sexes would practice the bull-leaping ritual. It is notable that there are no Minoan frescoes that depict any deities.

Minoan sacred symbols include the bull and its horns of consecration, the labrys (double-headed axe), the pillar, the serpent, the sun-disk, and the tree.

Warfare and «The Minoan Peace»

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.

Possibility of human sacrifice

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.» (what do all these abbreviations stand for?)

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 apparently 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.

Burial and Mortuary Practice

Like much of the archaeology of the Bronze Age, burial remains constitute a substantial proportion of material and archaeological evidence for the period. By the end of the Second Palace Period Minoan burial practice is dominated by two broad forms: ‘Circular Tombs’, or Tholoi, (located in South Crete) and ‘House Tombs’, (located in the north and the east). Of course, there are many trends and patterns within Minoan mortuary practice that do not conform to this simple breakdown. Throughout this period there is a trend towards individual burials, with some distinguished exceptions. These include the much-debated Chrysolakkos complex, Mallia, consisting of a number of buildings forming a complex. This is located in the centre of Mallia’s burial area and may have been the focus for burial rituals, or the ‘crypt’ for a notable family.

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).

Agriculture and Subsistence

The Minoans raised cattle, sheep, pigs, and goats, and grew wheat, barley, vetch, and chickpeas, they also cultivated grapes, figs, and olives, and grew poppies, for poppyseed and perhaps, opium. The Minoans domesticated bees, and adopted pomegranates and quinces from the Near East, although not lemons and oranges as is often imagined. They developed Mediterranean polyculture, the practice of growing more than one crop at a time, and as a result of their more varied and healthy diet, the population increased. This method of farming would theoretically maintain the fertility of the soil, as well as offering protection against low yields in any single crop. Furthermore, Linear B tablets indicate the importance of orchard farming (i.e., figs, olives and grapes) in processing crops for «secondary products». The process of fermenting wine from grapes is likely to have been a concern of the «Palace» economies, whereby such prestige goods would have been both important trade commodities as well as culturally meaningful items of consumption. Equally, it is likely that the consumption of exotic or expensive products would have played a role in the presentation and articulation of political and economic power.

Farmers used wooden plows, bound by leather to wooden handles, and pulled by pairs of donkeys or oxen.

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.

Minoan Demise Theories

The Minoan eruption on the island of Thera (present day Santorini about 100 km distant from Crete) is estimated to have occurred sometime between 1630 and 1550 BCE. 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 5 millimeters (0.2 in) 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.


Knossos (alternative spellings Knossus, Cnossus, Gnossus, Greek Κνωσός pronounced [kno̞ˈso̞s]), also known as the Knossos Palace is the largest Bronze Age archaeological site on Crete and probably the ceremonial and political center of the Minoan civilization and culture. It is also a tourist destination today, as it is near the main city of Heraklion and has been substantially, if imaginatively «restored», making the site more comprehensible to the visitor than a field of unmarked ruins.

The city of Knossos remained important through the Classical and Roman periods, but its population shifted to the new town of Handaq (modern Heraklion) during the 9th century AD. By the 13th century, it was called Makryteikhos ‘Long Wall’; the bishops of Gortyn continued to call themselves Bishops of Knossos until the 19th century. Today, the name is used only for the archaeological site situated in the suburbs of Heraklion.

Discovery and excavation

The ruins at Knossos were discovered in 1878 by Minos Kalokairinos, a Cretan merchant and antiquarian. He conducted the first excavations at Kephala Hill, which brought to light part of the storage magazines in the west wing and a section of the west façade. After Kalokairinos, several people attempted to continue the excavations, but it was not until March 16, 1900 that archeologist Arthur Evans, an English gentleman of independent means, was able to purchase the entire site and conduct massive excavations. The excavation and restoration of Knossos, and the discovery of the culture he labelled Minoan, is inseparable from the individual Evans. Nowadays archeology is a field of academic teamwork and scientific rigour, but a century ago a project could be driven by one wealthy and self-taught person. Assisted by Dr. Duncan Mackenzie, who had already distinguished himself by his excavations on the island of Melos, and Mr. Fyfe, the British School at Athens architect, Evans employed a large staff of local labourers as excavators and within a few months had uncovered a substantial portion of what he named the Palace of Minos. The term ‘palace’ may be misleading: in modern English, it usually refers to an elegant building used to house a head of state or similar. Knossos was a complex collection of over 1000 interlocking rooms, some of which served as artisans’ workrooms and food processing centres (e.g. wine presses). It served as a central storage point, and a religious and administrative centre.

The site has had a very long history of human habitation, beginning with the founding of the first Neolithic settlement circa 7000 BC. Over time and during several different phases that had their own social dynamic, Knossos grew until, by the 19th to 16th centuries BC (during the ‘Old Palace’ and the succeeding ‘Neo-palatial’ periods), the settlement possessed not only a monumental administrative and religious center (i.e., the Palace), but also a surrounding population of 5000-8000 people.


The palace is about 130 meters on a side and since the Roman period has been suggested as the source of the myth of the Labyrinth, an elaborate mazelike structure constructed for King Minos of Crete and designed by the legendary artificer Daedalus to hold the Minotaur, a creature that was half man and half bull and was eventually killed by the Athenian hero Theseus.

Labyrinth comes from the word labrys, referring to a double, or two-bladed, axe. Its representation had a religious and probably magical significance. It was used throughout the Mycenaean world as an apotropaic symbol; that is, the presence of the symbol on an object would prevent it from being «killed.» Axe motifs were scratched on many of the stones of the palace. It appears in pottery decoration and is a theme of the Shrine of the Double Axes at the palace, as well as of many shrines throughout Crete and the Aegean. The etymology of the name is not known; it is probably not Greek. The form labyr-inthos uses a suffix generally considered to be pre-Greek.

The location of the labyrinth of legend has long been a question for Minoan studies. It might have been the name of the palace or of some portion of the palace. Throughout most of the 20th century the intimations of human sacrifice in the myth puzzled Bronze Age scholars, because evidence for human sacrifice on Crete had never been discovered and so it was vigorously denied. The practice was finally verified archaeologically (see under Minoan civilization). It is possible that the palace was a great sacrificial center and could have been named the Labyrinth. Its layout certainly is labyrinthine, in the sense of intricate and confusing.

Many other possibilities have been suggested. The modern meaning of labyrinth as a twisting maze is based on the myth.

Several out-of-epoch advances in the construction of the palace is thought to have originated the myth of Atlantis

Description of Palace

The great palace was built gradually between 1700 and 1400 BC, with periodic rebuildings after destruction. Structures preceded it on Kephala hill. The features currently most visible date mainly to the last period of habitation, which Evans termed Late Minoan. The palace has an interesting layout – the original plan can no longer be seen because of the subsequent modifications. Also, there are not several main hallways. Instead, 1300 rooms are connected with corridors of varying sizes and direction. The six acres of the palace included a theatre, a main entrance on each of its four cardinal faces, and extensive storerooms (also called magazines). The storerooms contained pithoi (large clay vases) that held oil, grains, dried fish, beans, and olives. Many of the items were created at the palace itself, which had grain mills, oil presses, and wine presses. Beneath the pithoi were stone holes used to store more valuable objects, such as gold. The palace used advanced architectural techniques; for example, part of it was built up to five stories high.

Liquid management

The palace had at least three separate liquid management systems, one for supply, one for drainage of runoff, and one for drainage of waste water.

Aqueducts brought fresh water to Kephala hill from springs at Archanes, about 10 km away. Springs there are the source of the Kairatos river, in the valley of which Kephala is located. The aqueduct branched to the palace and to the town. Water was distributed at the palace by gravity feed through terra cotta pipes to fountains and spigots. The pipes were tapered at one end to make a pressure fit, with rope for sealing. The water supply system would have been manifestly easy to attack. No hidden springs have been discovered as at Mycenae.

Sanitation drainage was through a closed system leading to a sewer apart from the hill. The Queen’s Megaron contained an example of the first water flushing system toilet adjoining the bathroom. This toilet was a seat over drain flushed by pouring water from a jug. The bathtub located in the adjoining bathroom similarly had to be filled by someone heating, carrying, and pouring water, and must have been drained by overturning into a floor drain or by bailing. This toilet and bathtub were exceptional structures within the 1300-room complex.

As the hill was periodically drenched by torrential rains, a runoff system was a necessity. It began with channels in the flat surfaces, which were zig-zag and contained catchment basins to control the water velocity. Probably the upper system was open. Manholes provided access to parts that were covered.


Due to its placement on the hill, the palace received sea breezes during the summer. It had porticoes and airshafts.

Lighting and heating

The palace was designed to take best advantage of natural lighting during the long days of the summer season. The suites of rooms were arranged around courtyards to provide more window openings, the doors were polythyra («multiple-door») to provide more door opening area, stairs wound around the periphery of light wells, and corridors were open porticos wherever possible. One cannot imagine that the palace shut down at night for lack of light, however. Minoan Crete had a long tradition of ceramic lamps, which consisted of a reservoir of olive oil surrounded by niches for one or more wicks. The better lamps multiplied the niches and wicks to provide more candle-power.

Winter must have presented the Palace of Minos with as much of a heating problem as its architecture solved the lighting problem. The wind would have swept through the open palace, increasing the chill factor, unless the openings were blocked. The door openings must have been provided with doors of wood or bronze, as in later Classical times. The Town Mosaic, a depiction of houses on faience found at Knossos, shows windows with cross-members and four panes, suggesting that some translucent substance was used to block the openings. There is no sign of glass panes.

No central heating is in evidence. The rooms must have been heated individually. Fixed hearths were used to some degree but there is long tradition of portable ceramic hearths as well. The Minoans never made the transition from a portable hearth to a closed metal stove, which would have been technologically within their grasp and are much more efficient radiators.

Fires within the palace were for the most part of charcoal, probably lit with olive oil, in hearths or braziers. The tall drafty rooms, probably with smoke openings at the top (the roofs did not survive), were designed to keep the smoke away from the humans and evacuate it as quickly as possible. The palace undoubtedly reeked of smoke within and gave a pillar of it without. Odor issues would have been mitigated with incense and perfumed unguents kept in pyxes.

The emphasis of palace civilizations in colder climes on home production of textiles is understandable. The open vests of the women and the loin cloths of the nearly nude men could only have been summer attire. No frescos of snow-clad mountains and frosty plains are in evidence, such as appear in Crete in the winter. Over such a length of time, no perishables, such as boots or winter robes, have survived, but the frescos cannot depict year-round ordinary life in Crete.

Minoan Columns

The palace also includes the Minoan Column, a structure notably different from other Greek columns. Unlike the stone columns characteristic of other Greek architecture, the Minoan column was constructed from the trunk of a cypress tree, common to the Mediterranean. While most Greek columns are smaller at the top and wider at the bottom to create the illusion of greater height, the Minoan columns are smaller at the bottom and wider at the top, a result of inverting the cypress trunk to prevent sprouting once in place. The columns at the Palace of Minos were painted red and mounted on stone bases with round, pillow-like capitals.


Frescoes decorated the walls. As the remains were only fragments, fresco reconstruction and placement by the artist Piet de Jong is not without controversy. These sophisticated, colorful paintings portray a society which, in comparison to the roughly contemporaneous art of Middle and New Kingdom Egypt, was either conspicuously non-militaristic or did not choose to portray military themes anywhere in their art.  One remarkable feature of their art is the colour-coding of the sexes: the men are depicted with ruddy skin, the women as milky white. Almost all their pictures are of young or ageless adults, with few children or elders depicted. In addition to scenes of men and women linked to activities such as fishing and flower gathering, the murals also portray athletic feats. The most notable of these is bull-leaping, in which an athlete grasps the bull’s horns and vaults over the animal’s back. The question remains as to whether this activity was a religious ritual, possibly a sacrificial activity, or a sport, perhaps a form of bullfighting. Many people have questioned if this activity is even possible; the fresco might represent a mythological dance with the Great Bull. The most famous example is the Toreador Fresco, painted around 1550-1450 BC, in which a young man, flanked by two women, apparently leaps onto and over a charging bull’s back. It is now located in the Archaeological Museum of Herakleion in Crete.

Throne Room

The centerpiece of the «Mycenaean» palace was the so-called Throne Room or Little Throne Room, dated to LM II. This chamber has an alabaster seat identified by Evans as a «throne» built into the north wall. On three sides of the room are gypsum benches. A sort of tub area is opposite the throne, behind the benches, termed a lustral basin, meaning that Evans and his team saw it as a place for ceremonial purification.

The room was accessed from an anteroom through two double doors. The anteroom in turn connected to the central court, which was four broad steps up through four doors. The anteroom had gypsum benches also, with carbonized remains between two of them thought to be a possible wooden throne. Both rooms are located in the ceremonial complex on the west of the central court.

The throne is flanked by the Griffin Fresco, with two griffins couchant (lying down) facing the throne, one on either side. Griffins were important mythological creatures, also appearing on seal rings, which were used to stamp the identity of the bearer into pliable material, such as clay or wax.

The actual use of the room and the throne is unclear. The two main theories are:

1. The seat of a priest-king or his consort, the queen. This is the older theory, originating with Evans. In that regard Matz speaks of the «heraldic arrangement» of the griffins, meaning that they are more formal and monumental than previous Minoan decorative styles. In this theory, the Mycenaean Greeks would have held court in this room, as they came to power in Knossos at about 1450. The «lustral basin» and the location of the room in a sanctuary complex cannot be ignored; hence, «priest-king.»
2. A room reserved for the epiphany of a goddess, who would have sat in the throne, either in effigy, or in the person of a priestess, or in imagination only. In that case the griffins would have been purely a symbol of divinity rather than a heraldic motif.

The lustral basin was originally thought to have had a ritual washing use, but the lack of drainage has more recently brought some scholars to doubt this theory. It is now speculated that the tank was used as an aquarium.


A long-standing debate between archaeologists concerns the main function of the palace, whether it acted primarily as an administrative center, a religious center — or both, in a theocratic manner. Other important debates consider the role of Knossos in the administration of Bronze Age Crete, and whether Knossos acted as the primary center, or was on equal footing with the several other contemporary palaces that have been discovered on Crete. Many of these palaces were destroyed and abandoned in the early part of the 15th century BC, possibly by the Mycenaeans, although Knossos remained in use until destroyed by fire about one hundred years later. It is worth noting that Knossos showed no signs of being a military site — no fortifications or stores of weapons, for example. Minoan civilization was a remarkably unmilitaristic society. Likewise, the position of Minoan women was unusual compared to any other contemporary society in the aspect that it was matriarchal.

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