The Minoans are what archaeologists have named the people who lived during the early part of the prehistoric Bronze Age of Greece. Bronze Age Greek civilizations are split by tradition into the Greek mainland (or Helladic culture), and the Greek islands (the Cycladic). Named by Arthur Evans after the legendary King Minos, the Minoans were based on the island of Crete, located in the center of the Mediterranean Sea, with a distinctive climate and culture different from that of the other Mediterranean communities.
One of the hot topics in Minoan archaeology is chronology. There are two sets of Minoan chronology, one which reflects stratigraphic levels in archaeological sites, and one which attempts to plot cultural changes, with an emphasis on the Minoan palaces, since that's the defining characteristic. Traditionally, Minoan culture is divided into events. The chronology starts about 3000 BC; Knossos was founded about 1900 BC, Santorini erupted ca 1500 BC; and Knossos fell in 1375 BC.
However, recent investigations indicate that Santorini may have erupted about 1600 BC, although there is still some question about that; clearly, these absolute dates will continue to be controversial for some time to come. The following chronology is from Yannis Hamilakis' 2002 book, Labyrinth Revisited: Rethinking 'Minoan' Archaeology.
- Early Minoan I 3300-2900 BC
- Early Minoan IIA 2900-2550 BC
- Early Minoan IIB 2550-2300 BC
- Pre-Palatial (EM III/MM IA) 2300-1900 BC (Vasilike, Myrtos, Debla, Mochlos)
- Proto-Palatial (MM IIA-MM IIIA) 1900-1700 BC (Knossos, Phaistos, Malia)
- Neo-Palatial (MMIIIB) 1700-1600 BC (Ayia Triadha, Tylissos, Kommos, Akrotiri)
- Neo-Palatial (LM IA-LM IB) 1600-1450 BC (Vathypetro, Kommos, Palaikastro)
- Late Minoan II through Late Minoan IIIA/B 1450-1200 BC (Kydonia) (Kommos, Vathypetro)
- Late Minoan IIIC 1200-1150 BC
Rise of the Minoans
During the pre-palatial period, sites on Crete consisted of single farmsteads and dispersed farming hamlets with nearby cemeteries. The farming hamlets were fairly self-sufficient, creating their own pottery and agricultural goods as necessary. Many of the graves in the cemeteries contained grave goods, including white marble figurines of women, hinting at the future cultic assemblages. Cultic sites located on local mountain tops called peak sanctuaries come into use by 2000 BC.
By the proto-palatial period, however, most of the people lived in larger coastal settlements which may been set up as centers for maritime trading, such as Chalandriani on Syros, Ayia Irini on Kea, and Dhaskaleio-Kavos on Keros. Administrative functions involving the marking of shipped goods using stamp seals were in place at this time. Out of these larger settlements grew the palatial civilizations on Crete.
The capital was Knossos, founded about 1900 BC.
Minoans and their Writing Systems
The main written language of the Minoans was Linear A, a language which has yet to be deciphered but may represent a form of early Greek. It was used for religious and accounting purposes from about 1800-1450 BC, when it abruptly disappeared to be replaced by Linear B, a tool of the Mycenaeans.
End of the Minoans
Between about 1600 and 1627 BC, the volcano on Santorini erupted, destroying the island and the Minoan occupation there. Giant tsunamis destroyed the coastal cities such as Palaikastro, which was completely inundated. Knossos itself was destroyed by another earthquake in 1375 BC. A clear cultural shift began on Crete, with architecture, writing styles and other cultic objects similar to the Mycenaean mainland replacing much of the Minoan styles. Because of this, it was believed that what ended the Minoan culture was a combination of earthquakes and conflict wars with the Mycenaeans from mainland Greece, and/or Egypt, over the extensive trade that had developed in the Mediterranean at the time.
However, more recently, archaeologists have come to believe that at least a substantial portion of the reason for the downfall of the Minoans was internal political conflict. Evidence for the takeover by Mycenaeans includes Mycenaean-type tombs called "tholos" or "warrior graves". Recent strontium analysis shows that the people buried in "warrior graves" are not from the mainland, but were born and lived their lives on Crete, suggesting that the shift to a Mycenaean-like society may have not included a Mycenaean invasion.