|Period||Bronze Age Europe|
|Dates||c. 2600 BC – c. 1100 BC|
|Major sites||Knossos, Gortyn|
|Preceded by||Cycladic culture|
|Followed by||Mycenaean Greece|
Near East (c. 3300–1200 BC)
South Asia (c. 3000–1200 BC)
Europe (c. 3200–600 BC)
China (c. 2000–700 BC)
The Minoan civilization was an Aegean Bronze Age civilization on the island of Crete and other Aegean islands which flourished from about 2600 to 1100 BC. It preceded the Mycenaean civilization of Ancient Greece. The civilization was rediscovered at the beginning of the 20th century through the work of British archaeologist Arthur Evans. It has been described as the earliest of its kind in Europe, with historian Will Durant calling the Minoans "the first link in the European chain".
The term "Minoan", which refers to the mythical King Minos, originally described the pottery of the period. Minos was associated in Greek mythology with the labyrinth and the Minotaur, which Evans identified with the site at Knossos (the largest Minoan site). According to Homer, Crete once had 90 cities.
The Minoan period saw trade between Crete and Aegean and Mediterranean settlements, particularly the Near East. Traders and artists, the Minoan cultural influence reached beyond Crete to the Cyclades, Egypt's Old Kingdom, copper-bearing Cyprus, Canaan and the Levantine coast, and Anatolia. Some of its best art is preserved in the city of Akrotiri on the island of Santorini, which was destroyed by the Thera eruption.
Although the Minoan language and writing systems (Linear A) remain undecipherable and are subjects of academic dispute, they apparently conveyed a language entirely different from the later Greek. The reason for the end of the Minoan period (around 1,400 BC) is unclear; theories include Mycenaean invasions from mainland Greece and a volcanic eruption of Thera.
The term "Minoan" refers to the mythical King Minos of Knossos. Its origin is debated, but it is commonly attributed to archeologist Arthur Evans (1851–1941). Minos was associated in Greek mythology with the labyrinth, which Evans identified with the site at Knossos. However, Karl Hoeck had already used the title Das Minoische Kreta in 1825 for volume two of his Kreta; this appears to be the first known use of the word "Minoan" to mean "ancient Cretan". Evans probably read Hoeck's book, and continued using the term in his writings and findings: "To this early civilization of Crete as a whole I have proposed—and the suggestion has been generally adopted by the archaeologists of this and other countries—to apply the name 'Minoan'." Evans said that he applied it, not invented it. Hoeck, with no idea that the archaeological Crete had existed, had in mind the Crete of mythology. Although Evans' 1931 claim that the term was "unminted" before he used it was called a "brazen suggestion" by Karadimas and Momigliano, he coined its archaeological meaning.
Chronology and historyEdit
(Old Palace Period)
(New Palace Period)
Final Palace Period)
Instead of dating 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 and imported Egyptian artifacts (which can be correlated with the chronology of Ancient Egypt). Evans' system divides the Minoan period into three major eras: early (EM), middle (MM) and late (LM). These eras are subdivided—for example, Early Minoan I, II and III (EMI, EMII, EMIII).
Another dating system, proposed by Greek archaeologist Nicolas Platon, is based on the development of architectural complexes known as "palaces" at Knossos, Phaistos, Malia and Kato Zakros. Platon divides the Minoan period into pre-, proto-, neo- and post-palatial sub-periods. The relationship between the systems in the table includes approximate calendar dates from Warren and Hankey (1989).
The Thera eruption occurred during a mature phase of the LM IA period. Efforts to establish the volcanic eruption's date have been controversial. Radiocarbon dating has indicated a date in the late 17th century BC; this conflicts with estimates by archaeologists, who synchronize the eruption with conventional Egyptian chronology for a date of 1525–1500 BC. The eruption is identified as a natural event catastrophic for the culture, leading to its rapid collapse.
Although stone-tool evidence exists that hominins may have reached Crete as early as 130,000 years ago, evidence for the first anatomically-modern human presence dates to 10,000–12,000 YBP. The oldest evidence of modern human habitation on Crete are pre-ceramic Neolithic farming-community remains which date to about 7000 BC. A comparative study of DNA haplogroups of modern Cretan men showed that a male founder group, from Anatolia or the Levant, is shared with the Greeks. The Neolithic population lived in open villages. Fishermen's huts were found on the shores, and the fertile Mesara Plain was used for agriculture.
The Early Bronze Age (3500 to 2600 BC) has been described as indicating a "promise of greatness" in light of later developments on the island. The Bronze Age began on Crete around 2700 BC. In the late third millennium BC, several locations on the island developed into centers of commerce and handiwork; this enabled the upper classes to exercise leadership and expand their influence. It is likely that the original hierarchies of the local elites were replaced by monarchies, a precondition for the palaces.
At the end of the MMII period (1700 BC) there was a large disturbance on Crete—probably an earthquake, but possibly an invasion from Anatolia. The palaces at Knossos, Phaistos, Malia and Kato Zakros were destroyed.
At the beginning of the neopalatial period the population increased again, the palaces were rebuilt on a larger scale and new settlements were built across the island. This period (the 17th and 16th centuries BC, MM III-Neopalatial) was the apex of Minoan civilization. After around 1700 BC, material culture on the Greek mainland reached a new high due to Minoan influence.
Around 1450 BC, Minoan culture reached a turning point due to a natural catastrophe (possibly an earthquake). Although another eruption of the Thera volcano has been linked to this downfall, its dating and implications are disputed. Several important palaces, in locations such as Mallia, Tylissos, Phaistos and Hagia Triada, and the living quarters of Knossos were destroyed. The palace in Knossos seems to have remained largely intact, resulting in its dynasty's ability to spread its influence over large parts of Crete until it was overrun by the Mycenaean Greeks.
The influence of Minoan civilization is seen in Minoan handicrafts on the Greek mainland. The shaft graves of Mycenae had several Cretan imports (such as a bull's-head rhyton), which suggests a prominent role for Minoan symbolism. Connections between Egypt and Crete are prominent; Minoan ceramics are found in Egyptian cities, and the Minoans imported items (particularly papyrus) and architectural and artistic ideas from Egypt. Egyptian hieroglyphs were models for Minoan pictographic writing, from which the Linear A and Linear B writing systems developed. Archaeologist Hermann Bengtson has also found a Minoan influence in Canaanite artifacts.
Minoan palace sites were occupied by the Mycenaeans (who adapted Linear A Minoan script for their own language) around 1420–1375 BC. Their language, a form of Greek, was written in Linear B. The Mycenaeans tended to adapt (rather than supplant) Minoan culture, religion and art, continuing the Minoan economic system and bureaucracy.
During LMIIIA (1400–1300 BC), Amenhotep III noted k-f-t-w (Kaftor) as one of the "Secret Lands of the North of Asia" at Kom el-Hatan. Also mentioned are Cretan cities (such as Amnisos, Phaistos, Kydonia and Knossos) and toponyms reconstructed as in the Cyclades or the Greek mainland. If the values of these Egyptian names are accurate, the pharaoh did not value LMIII Knossos more than other states in the region.
After about a century of partial recovery, most Cretan cities and palaces declined during the 13th century BC (LHIIIB-LMIIIB). The last Linear A archives date to LMIIIA, contemporary with LHIIIA.
Knossos remained an administrative center until 1200 BC. The last Minoan site was the defensive mountain site of Karfi, a refuge which had vestiges of Minoan civilization nearly 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 land uplifting and submersion of coastal sites due to tectonic processes along its coast.
According to Homer, Crete had 90 cities. Judging by the palace sites, the island was probably divided into at least eight political units at the height of the Minoan period. The north is thought to have been governed from Knossos, the south from Phaistos, the central-eastern region from Malia, the eastern tip from Kato Zakros and the west from Chania. Smaller palaces have been found elsewhere on the island.
Major Minoan archaeological sites include:
- 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 center which provides a look into the proto-palatial period
- Kato Zakros – palatial site excavated by Greek archaeologists in the far east of the island, also known as "Zakro" in archaeological literature
- Galatas – confirmed as a palatial site during the early 1990s
- Agia Triada – administrative center near Phaistos
- Gournia – town site excavated in the first quarter of the 20th century
- Pyrgos – early Minoan site in southern Crete
- Vasiliki – early eastern Minoan site which gives its name to distinctive ceramic ware
- Fournou Korfi – southern site
- Pseira – island town with ritual sites
- Mount Juktas – the greatest Minoan peak sanctuaries, associated with the palace of Knossos
- Arkalochori – site of the Arkalochori Axe
- Karfi – refuge site, one of the last Minoan sites
- Akrotiri – settlement on the island of Santorini (Thera), near the site of the Thera Eruption
- Zominthos – mountainous city in the northern foothills of Mount Ida
The Minoans were traders, and their cultural contacts reached Egypt's Old Kingdom, copper-containing Cyprus, Canaan and the Levantine coast and Anatolia. In late 2009 Minoan-style frescoes and other artifacts were discovered during excavations of the Canaanite palace at Tel Kabri, Israel, leading archaeologists to conclude that the Minoan influence was the strongest on the Canaanite city-state. These are the only Minoan artifacts which have been found in Israel.
Minoan techniques and ceramic styles had varying degrees of influence on Helladic Greece. Along with Santorini, Minoan settlements are found at Kastri on Cythera, an island near the Greek mainland influenced by the Minoans from the mid-third millennium BC (EMII) to its Mycenaean occupation in the 13th century. Minoan strata replaced a mainland-derived early Bronze Age culture, the earliest Minoan settlement outside Crete.
The Cyclades were in the Minoan cultural orbit, and (closer to Crete) the islands of Karpathos, Saria and Kasos also contained middle-Bronze Age (MMI-II) Minoan colonies or settlements of Minoan traders. Most were abandoned in LMI, but Karpathos recovered and continued its Minoan culture until the end of the Bronze Age. Other supposed Minoan colonies, such as that hypothesized by Adolf Furtwängler on Aegina, were later dismissed by scholars. However, there was a Minoan colony at Ialysos on Rhodes.
Minoan cultural influence indicates an orbit extending through the Cyclades to Egypt and Cyprus. Fifteenth-century BC paintings in Thebes, Egypt depict Minoan-appearing individuals bearing gifts. Inscriptions describing them as coming from keftiu ("islands in the middle of the sea") may refer to gift-bringing merchants or officials from Crete.
Some locations on Crete indicate that the Minoans were an "outward-looking" society. The neo-palatial site of Kato Zakros is located within 100 meters of the modern shoreline in a bay. Its large number of workshops and wealth of site materials indicate a possible entrepôt for trade. Such activities are seen in artistic representations of the sea, including the "Flotilla" fresco in room five of the West House at Akrotiri.
Agriculture and cuisineEdit
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 seed and (perhaps) opium. The Minoans also domesticated bees.
Crops, including lettuce, celery, asparagus and carrots, grew wild on Crete. Pear, quince, and olive trees were also native. Date palm trees and cats (for hunting) were imported from Egypt. The Minoans adopted pomegranates from the Near East, but not lemons and oranges.
They may have practiced polyculture, and their varied, healthy diet resulted in a population increase. Polyculture theoretically maintains soil fertility and protects against losses due to crop failure. Linear B tablets indicate the importance of orchards (figs, olives and grapes) in processing crops for "secondary products". Olive oil in Cretan (or Mediterranean) cuisine is comparable to butter in northern European cuisine. The process of fermenting wine from grapes was probably a factor of the "Palace" economies; wine would have been a trade commodity and an item of domestic consumption. Farmers used wooden plows, bound with leather to wooden handles and pulled by pairs of donkeys or oxen.
Seafood was also important in Cretan cuisine. The prevalence of edible molluscs in site material and artistic representations of marine fish and animals (including the distinctive LM IIIC "Octopus" stirrup jar), indicate appreciation (and occasional use) of fish by the economy. However, scholars believe that these resources were not as significant as grain, olives and animal produce. An intensification of agricultural activity is indicated by the construction of terraces and dams at Pseira in the Late Minoan period.
Cretan cuisine included wild game; Cretans ate wild deer and boar and meat from livestock. Wild game is now extinct on Crete.
Not all plants and flora were purely functional, and arts depict scenes of lily-gathering in green spaces. The fresco known as the Sacred Grove at Knossos depicts women facing left, flanked by trees. Some scholars have suggested that it is a harvest festival, or ceremony, to honor the fertility of the soil. Artistic depictions of farming scenes also appear on the Second Palace Period "Harvester Vase" (an egg-shaped rhyton), on which 27 men led by another carry hoes. This demonstrates the importance of farming as an artistic motif.
The discovery of storage areas in the palace compounds has prompted debate. At the second "palace" at Phaistos, rooms on the west side of the structure have been identified as a storage area. Jars, jugs and vessels have been recovered in the area, indicating the complex's possible role as a re-distribution center for agricultural produce. At larger sites such as Knossos, there is evidence of craft specialization (workshops). The palace at Kato Zakro indicates that workshops were integrated into palace structure. The Minoan palatial system may have developed through economic intensification, where an agricultural surplus could support a population of administrators, craftsmen and religious practitioners. The number of sleeping rooms in the palaces indicates that they could have supported a sizable population which was removed from manual labor.
Tools, originally made of wood or bone, were bound to handles with leather straps. During the Bronze Age, they were made of bronze with wooden handles. Due to its round hole, the tool head would spin on the handle. The Minoans developed oval-shaped holes in their tools to fit oval-shaped handles, which prevented spinning. Tools included double adzes, double- and single-bladed axes, axe-adzes, sickles and chisels.
Society and cultureEdit
The Minoans were primarily a mercantile people who engaged in overseas trade. After 1700 BC, their culture indicates a high degree of organization. Minoan-manufactured goods suggest a network of trade with mainland Greece (notably Mycenae), Cyprus, Syria, Anatolia, Egypt, Mesopotamia and westward as far as the coast of Spain. Minoan religion apparently focused on female deities, with women officiants.
A fresco of saffron-gatherers at Santorini is well-known. The Minoan trade in saffron, the stigma of a naturally-mutated crocus which originated in the Aegean basin, has left few material remains. According to Evans, the saffron (a sizable Minoan industry) was used for dye. Other archaeologists emphasize durable trade items: ceramics, copper, tin, gold and silver. The saffron may have had a religious significance. The saffron trade, which predated Minoan civilization, was comparable in value to that of frankincense or black pepper.
Minoan men wore loincloths and kilts. Women wore robes with short sleeves and layered, flounced skirts. The robes were open to the navel, exposing their breasts. Women could also wear a strapless, fitted bodice, and clothing patterns had symmetrical, geometric designs.
Language and writingEdit
Knowledge of the spoken and written language of the Minoans is scant due to the small number of records found. Clay tablets, dating to around 3000 BC, were found with Aegean scripts. Clay tablets were apparently in use around 3000 BC or earlier. Two clay cups from Knossos had remnants of ink, and inkwells similar to animal-shaped Mesopotamian inkstands have been found. The Eteocretan language, written with a Euboean-derived alphabet after the Greek Dark Ages, is believed to be a descendant of Minoan; however, there is not enough source material in either language to allow a firm conclusion.
The earliest dated writings found on Crete are Cretan hieroglyphs. It is unknown whether the language is Minoan, and its origin is debated. Although the hieroglyphs are often associated with the Egyptians, they also indicate a relationship to Mesopotamian writings. They came into use during MMI, and were used at the same time as Linear A (18th century BC; MM II). The hieroglyphs disappeared during the 17th century BC (MM III).
Linear A was replaced by Linear B, recording a very archaic version of the Greek language. Although Linear B was deciphered by Michael Ventris in 1952, the earlier scripts remain a mystery. Nearly all the tablets, written in the Linear B script, seem to be inventories of goods or resources. Others are inscriptions on religious objects associated with a cult. Because most of the inscriptions are economic records rather than dedicatory inscriptions, the translation of Minoan remains a challenge. Unless Eteocretan is its descendant, the Minoan language may have become extinct during the Greek Dark Ages (a period of economic and sociopolitical collapse).
The Minoans seem to have primarily worshiped goddesses, and their religion has been described as matriarchal. Some evidence of male gods exists, but depictions of Minoan goddesses vastly outnumber those of gods. Although some depictions of women may be images of worshipers and priestesses officiating at religious ceremonies (as opposed to deities), goddesses seem to include a mother goddess of fertility, a goddess of animals and female protectors of cities, the household, the harvest and the underworld. They are often represented by serpents, birds, poppies or an animal on the head.
According to Nanno Marinatos, "The hierarchy and relationship of gods within the pantheon is difficult to decode from the images alone." Marinatos disagrees with earlier descriptions of Minoan religion as primitive, saying that it "was the religion of a sophisticated and urbanized palatial culture with a complex social hierarchy. It was not dominated by fertility any more than any religion of the past or present has been, and it addressed gender identity, rites of passage, and death. It is reasonable to assume that both the organization and the rituals, even the mythology, resembled the religions of Near Eastern palatial civilizations."
Minoan horn-topped altars, which Arthur Evans called Horns of Consecration, are represented in seal impressions and have been found as far afield as Cyprus. Minoan sacred symbols include the bull (and its horns of consecration), the labrys (double-headed axe), the pillar, the serpent, the sun-disc and the tree.
Haralampos V. Harissis and Anastasios V. Harissis posit a different interpretation of these symbols, saying that they were based on apiculture rather than religion. A major festival was exemplified in bull-leaping, represented in the frescoes of Knossos and inscribed in miniature seals.
Similar to other Bronze Age archaeological finds, burial remains constitute much of the material and archaeological evidence for the period. By the end of the Second Palace Period, Minoan burial was dominated by two forms: circular tombs (tholoi) in southern Crete and house tombs in the north and the east. However, much Minoan mortuary practice does not conform to this pattern. Burial was more popular than cremation. Individual burial was the rule, except for the Chrysolakkos complex in Mallia. Here, a number of buildings form a complex in the center of Mallia's burial area and may have been the focus for burial rituals or a crypt for a notable family. Evidence of possible human sacrifice by the Minoans has been found at three sites: at Anemospilia, in a MMII building near Mt. Juktas considered a temple; an EMII sanctuary complex at Fournou Korifi in south-central Crete, and in an LMIB building known as the North House in Knossos (explanation of abbreviations).
Minoan buildings often had flat, tiled roofs; plaster, wood or flagstone floors, and stood two to three stories high. Lower walls were typically constructed of stone and rubble, and the upper walls of mudbrick. Ceiling timbers held up the roofs.
Construction materials for villas and palaces varied, and included sandstone, gypsum and limestone. Building techniques also varied, with some palaces using ashlar masonry and others roughly-hewn, megalithic blocks.
Palaces (anaktora) are the best-known Minoan building types excavated on Crete. They are monumental buildings with administrative purposes, as evidenced by large archives unearthed by archaeologists. Each palace excavated to date has unique features, but they also share aspects which set them apart from other structures. Palaces are often multi-story, with interior and exterior staircases, lightwells, massive columns, storage areas and courtyards.
The first palaces were constructed at the end of the Early Minoan period in the third millennium BC at Malia. Although it was formerly believed that the foundation of the first palaces was synchronous and dated to the Middle Minoan period (around 2000 BC, the date of the first palace at Knossos), scholars now think that the palaces were built over a longer period in response to local developments. The main older palaces are Knossos, Malia and Phaistos. Elements of the Middle Minoan palaces (at Knossos, Phaistos and Malia, for example) have precedents in Early Minoan construction styles. These include an indented western court and special treatment of the western façade. One example is the House on the Hill at Vasiliki, dated to the Early Minoan II period.
The palaces were centers of government, administrative offices, shrines, workshops and storage spaces (e.g. for grain). These distinctions might have seemed artificial to Minoans. According to historian and philosopher of history Oswald Spengler, culture was an attempt to overcome the fear of death; Spengler believed that the palaces were temples for a cult of the dead, with corpses sitting in its chairs. Architectural features such as orthostats have defined palatial architecture.
The Middle Minoan palaces are characteristically aligned with their surrounding topography. The MM palace of Phaistos appears to align with Mount Ida and Knossos is aligned with Mount Juktas, both on a north-south axis. Scholars suggest that the alignment was related to the mountains' ritual significance; a number of peak sanctuaries (spaces for public ritual) have been excavated, including one at Petsofas. These sites have yielded clusters of clay figurines and evidence of animal sacrifice.
Late palaces are characterized by multi-story buildings with west facades of sandstone ashlar masonry; Knossos is the best-known example. Other building conventions included storage areas, north-south orientation, a pillar room and a western court. Architecture during the First Palace Period is identified by a square-within-a-square style; Second Palace Period construction has more internal divisions and corridors.
One of the most notable Minoan contributions to architecture is their inverted column, wider at the top than the base (unlike most Greek columns, which are wider at the bottom to give an impression of height). The columns were made of wood (not stone) and were generally painted red. Mounted on a simple stone base, they were topped with a pillow-like, round capital.
A number of compounds known as "villas" have been excavated on Crete. These structures share features of neopalatial palaces: a conspicuous western facade, storage facilities and a three-part Minoan Hall. These features may indicate a similar role or that the structures were artistic imitations, suggesting that their occupants were familiar with palatial culture. The villas were often richly decorated, as evidenced by the frescos of Haghia Triadha Villa A.
The largest collection of Minoan art is in the museum at Heraklion, near Knossos, on the northern coast of Crete. Minoan art and other remnamts of material culture, especially the sequence of ceramic styles, have been used by archaeologists to define the three phases of Minoan culture (EM, MM, LM).
Since wood and textiles have decomposed, the best-preserved (and most instructive) surviving examples of Minoan art are its pottery, palace architecture (with frescos which include landscapes), stone carvings and intricately-carved seal stones.
Frescoes were the primary art form of Minoan culture. They include many depictions of people, with sexes distinguished by color; the men's skin is reddish-brown, and the women's white. Several frescoes at Knossos and Santorini survive. Arthur Evans hired Swiss artist Emile Gilliéron and his son, Emile, as the chief fresco restorers at Knossos.
Early Minoan ceramics were characterized by patterns of spirals, triangles, curved lines, crosses and fish bones. During 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 characteristic but more variety existed. Vasiliki and Kamares ware are examples of Minoan pottery.
The palace style of the region around Knossos is characterized by geometric simplicity and monochromatic painting. Late Minoan art resembles that of Mycenae. Minoan knowledge of the sea was continued by the Mycenaeans in their frequent use of marine forms as artistic motifs.
The Minoans created elaborate metalwork with imported gold and copper. Bead necklaces, bracelets and hair ornaments appear in the frescoes, and many labrys pins survive. The Minoans apparently mastered faience and granulation, as indicated by a gold bee pendant. Minoan metalworking included intense, precise temperature, to bond gold to itself without burning it.
Hammered metal vessels were probably produced in Crete from at least as early as Early Minoan II in the Prepalatial period  and continued to be made until the end of the Knossos Final Palace period. Bronze vessel types included cauldrons, pans, jugs, bowls, hydrias, basins and cups. Vessels made from precious metals seem to have been limited to cups.
Warfare and the "Minoan Peace"Edit
According to Arthur Evans, a "Minoan peace" (Pax Minoica) existed; there was little internal armed conflict in Minoan Crete until the Mycenaean period. However, it is difficult to draw hard-and-fast conclusions from the evidence and Evans' idealistic view has been questioned.
No evidence has been found of a Minoan army or the Minoan domination of peoples beyond Crete, and 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 as stabbed in the throat with swords, the violence may be part of a ritual or blood sport.
On mainland Greece during the shaft-grave era at Mycenae, there is little evidence for major Mycenaean fortifications; the citadels follow the destruction of narly all neopalatial Cretan sites. Warfare by other contemporaries of the ancient Minoans, such as the Egyptians and the Hittites, is well-documented.
Skepticism and weaponryEdit
Despite finding ruined watchtowers and fortification walls, Evans said that there was little evidence of ancient Minoan fortifications. According to S. Alexiou (in Kretologia 8), a number of sites (especially early and middle Minoan sites such as Aghia Photia) are built on hilltops or otherwise fortified.[full citation needed] Lucia Nixon wrote, "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 said in "Minoan Flower Lovers" (Hagg-Marinatos, eds. Minoan Thalassocracy) that since Shang China and the Maya had unfortified centers and engaged in frontier struggles, a lack of fortifications alone does not prove that the Minoans were a peaceful civilization unparalleled in history.[full citation needed] In 1998, when Minoan archaeologists met in a Belgian conference to discuss the possibility that the Pax Minoica was outdated, evidence of Minoan war was still scanty. According to Jan Driessen, the Minoans frequently depicted "weapons" in their art in a ritual context:
The construction of fortified sites is often assumed to reflect a threat of warfare, but such fortified centres 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.
Stella Chryssoulaki's work on small outposts (or guardhouses) in eastern Crete indicates a possible defensive system; type A (high-quality) Minoan swords were found in the palaces of Mallia and Zarkos (see Sanders, AJA 65, 67, Hoeckmann, JRGZM 27, or Rehak and Younger, AJA 102).[full citation needed] Keith Branigan estimated that 95 percent of Minoan "weapons" had hafting (hilts or handles) which would have prevented their use as such. However, tests of replicas indicated that the weapons could cut flesh down to the bone (and score the bone's surface) without damaging the weapons themselves. According to Paul Rehak, Minoan figure-eight shields could not have been used for fighting or hunting, since they were too cumbersome. Although Cheryl Floyd concluded that Minoan "weapons" were tools used for mundane tasks such as meat processing, Middle Minoan "rapiers nearly three feet in length" have been found.
About Minoan warfare, Branigan concluded: "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 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)." Archaeologist Olga Krzyszkowska agreed: "The stark fact is that for the prehistoric Aegean we have no direct evidence for war and warfare per se."
Between 1935 and 1939, Greek archaeologist Spyridon Marinatos posited the Minoan eruption theory. An eruption on the island of Thera (present-day Santorini), about 100 km from Crete, occurred during the LM IA period. One of the largest volcanic explosions in recorded history, it ejected about 60,000 cubic metres (78,000 cu yd) of material and was measured at 7 on the Volcanic Explosivity Index. The eruption devastated the nearby Minoan settlement at Akrotiri on Santorini, which was entombed in a layer of pumice. Although it is believed to have severely affected the Minoan culture of Crete, the extent of its effects has been debated. Early theories proposed that volcanic ash from Thera choked off plant life on the eastern half of Crete, starving the local population; however, more-thorough field examinations have determined that no more than 5 millimetres (0.20 in) of ash fell anywhere on Crete. Based on archaeological evidence, studies indicate that a massive tsunami generated by the Thera eruption devastated the coast of Crete and destroyed many Minoan settlements. Although the LM IIIA (late Minoan) period is characterized by affluence (wealthy tombs, burials and art) and ubiquitous Knossian ceramic styles, by LM IIIB Knossos' wealth and importance as a regional center apparently declined.
Significant remains have been found above the late Minoan I-era Thera ash layer, implying that the Thera eruption did not cause the immediate collapse of Minoan civilization. The Minoans were a sea power, however, and the Thera eruption probably caused significant economic hardship. Whether this was enough to trigger a Minoan downfall is debated. Mycenaean Greece conquered the Minoans during the late Minoan II period, and Mycenaean weaponry has been found in burials on Crete soon after the eruption.
Many archaeologists believe that the eruption triggered a crisis, making the Minoans vulnerable to conquest by the Mycenaeans. According to Sinclair Hood, the Minoans were most likely conquered by an invading force. Although the civilization's collapse was aided by the Thera eruption, its ultimate end came from conquest. Archaeological evidence suggests that the island was destroyed by fire, with the palace at Knossos receiving less damage than other sites on Crete. Since natural disasters are not selective, the uneven destruction was probably caused by invaders who would have seen the usefulness of preserving a palace like Knossos for their own use. Several authors have noted evidence that Minoan civilization had exceeded its environmental carrying capacity, with archaeological recovery at Knossos indicating deforestation in the region near the civilization's later stages.
For a 2013 mtDNA study, researchers analyzed DNA from Minoan skeletons sealed in a cave on Crete's Lasithi Plateau between 3,700 and 4,400 years ago; other Greek, Anatolian, western and northern European samples, and North African and Egyptian samples. They compared the skeletal mitochondrial DNA (which is passed on in the maternal line) with a sample of 135 modern and ancient populations from Europe and Africa. The researchers found that the Minoan skeletons were genetically very similar to modern-day Europeans and especially close to modern-day Cretans, particularly those from the Lasithi Plateau. Genetically similar to Neolithic Europeans, the Minoan skeletons were distinct from Egyptian or Libyan populations. "We now know that the founders of the first advanced European civilization were European," said study co-author George Stamatoyannopoulos, a human geneticist at the University of Washington. "They were very similar to Neolithic Europeans and very similar to present day-Cretans."
However, the findings by Stamatoyannopoulos' team are contradicted by several other previous and subsequent genetic studies, which found that ancient Minoans had largely Middle-Eastern maternal genetic lineages (from populations in contemporary Iraq, Syria and Turkey) and "the female [Minoan genetic] component is heavily influenced by Asia and the Middle East as opposed to Europe." Stamatoyannopoulos's team did not analyze paternal DNA, acknowledging that previous research found Middle Eastern genetic roots for the ancient Minoans' paternal and maternal lines.
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