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Crete appears to have been first inhabited during the Neolithic period - that is from the 6th millennium BC.
The earliest inhabitants may have come from Asia Minor. Their culture was still relatively primitive, but it had reached the stage of production, involving the cultivation of the soil and the keeping of domesticated animals.
They knew how to make fine burnished pottery, frequently decorated with incised geometric motifs, and were capable of building stone houses, though they also still made use of caves for habitation.
Metals were as yet unknown and the tools and weapons they needed (hammers, axes, knives etc.) were made of a range of hard stones, and obsidian from the Cycladic Island of Milos.
The simple, relatively primitive figurines suggest that they worshipped a female fertility goddess.
The Neolithic was followed by the Bronze Age Civilization which the English archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans, who excavated the palace at Knossos, called "Minoan" after Minos, the legendary king of Crete.
This civilization lasted over 1500 years, from 2600-1100 BC, and reached the height of its prosperity in the 18th - 16th centuries.
Very little was known about Minoan Crete before the great excavations of Greek and foreign archaeologists that began about 1900, and the discovery of the palaces of Knossos and Phaestos, with their astonishing architecture and wonderful finds.
Its history had passed into the realm of legend and remained a distant memory in Greek tradition and mythology.
The ancient authors speak mainly of Minos, the king who had his capital at Knossos, and was a wise lawgiver, a fair judge (who therefore judged souls in Hades after his death, along with Rhadamanthys and Aiakos) and a great sea - dominator. Homer calls him "..companion of mighty Zeus..", and Thucydides informs us that he was the first man to hold sway over the Aegean with his fleet, and that he captured and colonized the Cyclades, driving out the Carians, and freeing the seas from piracy.
Plato speaks of the heavy tribute that the inhabitants of Attica were compelled to pay to Minos - the historical basis of the myth of Theseus can easily be recognized - and Aristotle attributes his thalassocracy to the geographical position of Crete.
This position was, in fact, particularly favorable, both for the Minoan domination of the sea, and for the growth and development of their wonderful civilization. It was the crossroads linking three continents, and the racial elements and cultural strands of Asia, Africa and Europe met and mingled here to produce a new way of life, a new philosophy of the world and an exceptionally fine art that still strikes one today with its freshness, charm, variety, and mobility.
The mixture of racial elements in Crete is demonstrated by the different skull - types discovered in the excavations there.
In general terms, however, the Minoans form part of the so - called "Mediterranean type", they were of medium height and had black curly hair and brown eyes.
Their language is not known, for the written texts have not yet been deciphered, but it appears to have belonged to a separate category of the Mediterranean languages.
After 1450 BC when the Achaeans had established themselves in Crete, a very archaic form of Greek was used as the official language and gained some dissemination. This is the language that may be read in the Linear B texts deciphered by VENTRIS. The earlier Minoan language was still spoken alongside it by the Eteocretans ("the true Cretans"); this fact is attested by Eteocretan inscriptions discovered in East Crete, dating from the 6th and 5th centuries BC
Homer was aware that the inhabitants of Crete were divided into a number of tribes, and mentions the names of five of them: the Pelasgians, the Eteocretans, the Kydonians, the Achaeans and the Dorians, adding that each spoke its own language. He also emphasizes how densely populated Crete was, with its ninety cities, and mentions some of them, such as Knossos, Phaestos, Gortys, Lyttos, Kydonia, and Rhytion.
Excavation has demonstrated the truth of Homer's comments, revealing a host of Minoan sites, four of which were "palace" centers, developing around a large palace. Those known today, apart from Knossos and Phaestos, are at Malia and Zakros.
Evans divided the Minoan age chronologically, on the basis of the pottery, into "Early Minoan", "Middle Minoan" and "Late Minoan". Nowadays a different system of chronology has won general acceptance. It was proposed by Professor N. Platon, and is based upon the great destructions and the life of the Minoan palaces. It gives us the following periods for prehistoric Crete:Page top
Neolithic period (6000-2600 BC)
With the arrival of new racial elements in Crete, bronze was used for the first time in the fabrication of tools and weapons. Its use quickly became widespread and continued to the end of the Minoan period. Not enough is known about the pre - palace settlements, but we do know that there were strongly built houses of stone and brick which had large numbers of rooms, paved courtyards and, often, red plaster on the walls. The most typical of them were discovered at Vassiliki and Myrtos (Ierapetra).
The pottery has a variety of main styles, known today by the names of Pyrgos, Ag.Onoufrios, Levina, Koumassa and Vassiliki. They are imitations of vessels made of straw, wood or hide and have incised, motifs full of movement painted and mottled decoration.
In the field of miniature art, the gold ware is outstanding (jewellery from Mohlos and the vaulted tombs of the Messara), as are the excellent, early examples of seals tones made of ivory and steatite.
Society seems to have been organized in genos, or "clans", and farming, stock-raising, shipping and commerce were developed to a systematic level. The main forms of deity, and the most important cult symbols, had made their appearance in the sphere of religion, figurines of the Mother Goddess being typical.Page top
At the beginning, power began to be centered in the hands of kings, for some unknown reason, and the first large palace centers which had a wide cultural influence in the vital region around them, came into being. Excavation has revealed four large palaces, at Knossos, Phaestos, Malia and Zakros, but there must have been others.
Protopalatial terra-cottas are best known, however, from dedications in the Peak Sanctuaries (cult areas on the peaks of hills or mountains), which are typical of the period.
A terrible disaster, perhaps caused by earthquakes, reduced the first palace centers and the settlements of Crete to ruins, about 1700 BBPage top
During this period Minoan Civilization reached its zenith. The new palaces that were built upon the ruins of the old ones were much more magnificent, the cities around them expanded and hummed with life, large numbers of rural villas, the residences of local governors, controlled great areas in the same way as the feudal towers of the Middle Ages, the roads increased in number and quality, the harbors were organized, and swift ships carried the products of farming and of Cretan art to the whole of the then civilized world, where they were exchanged for raw materials. The new palaces were multi-storeyed and invariably very complex. They had great courtyards, imposing or picturesque porticoes, broad easy staircases, processional paths and monumental entrances. The royal living quarters had tiers of doors (Polythyra), thrones and benches, as well as bathrooms and interior light wells, and there were rows of sacred quarters and magazines, crypts, and halls for audiences, banquet and sacred ceremonies. Finally, there were ancillary areas of all kinds, including workshops, and a water-supply and drainage system based on very ingenuous principles. It is not surprising that buildings as large and complicated as this (the palace at Knossos covers 22.000 square meters and had over 1500 rooms) led the Greek imagination to create the myth of the labyrinth. The great palaces had one feature in common with the smaller ones, that were perhaps the summer residences of the kings (like those at Knossos, Archanes and Agia Triada near Phaestos): this was the wonderful fresco painting decorating the walls with fresh, lively scenes in an array of colors, or the dazzling white and veined blocks of gypsum that were used to cover the walls and floors.
The "megara", or rural villas of the local governors, at Vathypetro, Sklavokambos, Tylissos, Metropolis (Gortys), Nirou Khani, Zou, Pyrgos (Myrtos), Praessos, Apano Zakros and elsewhere, had a farming and industrial character, emerging clearly from the interesting buildings that survive.
The social system was probably feudal and theocratic, and the king of each palace center was also the supreme religious leader. There may have been a hierarchy of these priest-kings, headed by the ruler of Knossos. Thanks to this system, continuous peace - the famous PAX MINOICA - prevailed throughout the island, which facilitated the great cultural development, the charming, refined way of life, and the Cretan thalassocracy.
The art of the second palaces is naturalistic for the most part, and demonstrates the love of the Minoans for eternal, all-powerful and constantly renewed nature, as well as its internal, spiritual counterpart.
A variety of pottery styles developed: the marine style, with its lively motifs derived from the varied and striking world of the deep (octopuses, tritons, star fishes, sea-snails, rocks, seaweed etc.), the floral style, with its fresh plants and open flowers, the decorated style, the basic motif of which is the spiral in a variety of complicated arrangements, though it also has sacred symbols and weapons, and, during the final phase of the period, the "palace" style, with its tectonic forms and decoration arranged in bands.
The fresco - a particular feature of the period - was used on a much greater scale than previously to decorate the palaces and wealthy houses. Landscapes were now depicted (royal gardens with exotic animals, such as monkeys, thickets of dense vegetation, birds, wild cats and deer), and there are scenes from cult and from social life: scenes of festival occasions in the palaces and sanctuaries (the miniature frescoes from Knossos), of contests such as bull-leaping, held in honor of the deity, and of ritual, such as the "holy Communion" with the Parisienne. The relief fresco was used to portray majestic figures of princes and high priests (Prince with the Lilies) and sacred or imaginary animals (bulls, sphinxes, griffins etc.).
In the field of plastic art, the figures were more natural and complete, like the figurines with the beautiful hairstyles from Piskokefalo (Sitia), and the plastic rhytons in the shapes of bulls or wild cats. The stone vases and vessels were made of fine veined, colored stone or of rare, hard stones, alabaster, marble, rock crystal, obsidian, porphyry and basalt. They often take the form of sacred animals or animal heads, like the superb bulls heads from Knossos and Zakros, or they may be decorated with masterful relief scenes like the ones from Agia Triada (harvesters rhyton, rhyton of the sacred games, cup of the report) and the rhyton with the peak sanctuary, from Zakros.
Faience was used for the working of rare, luxury items such as plastic rhytons (Zakros), decorative or votive plaques (the "town mosaic", and votive reliefs from Knossos), and unique figurines like the snake goddesses. There are works of a similar technical perfection in gold and ivory, such as the chrysselephantine bull leaper from Knossos, royal gaming boards, gold rings engraved with miniature scenes of ritual, that afford so much information about Minoan religion, a wide range of jewellery, and vessels either made of gold or silver, or gilded. The handles of the long swords or elegant daggers of this period often have a gold covering and gold nails.
In addition to bronze weapons and tools of all kinds, many of which are like those of the present day, there are some very fine bronze vessels with carefully worked and graceful repoussee decoration.
The seal stones of the second palace period are made of precious and semiprecious stones, and represent wonderfully natural scenes from the animal world and from the religious cycle. They are usually lentoid or almond-shaped.
The main deity is always the Mother Goddess, who is portrayed in her different forms. She is the chthonic "goddess with the snakes" the "Ministress of the Animals" with lions and chamois, and the goddess of the heavens, with birds and stars. The powerful god of fertility was worshipped together with her,apparently in the form of a bull, as were the young couple, boy and girl, who died or were lost in the autumn and came back to the light and life in the spring, thus representing the cycle of nature. Alongside them there existed a whole exotic world of monstrous demons to serve them, and facilitate communications between man and the divinity.
The deities were worshipped in sanctuaries in the palaces, houses or countryside, in the peak sanctuaries and in sacred caves. Many of the features of Minoan religion passed into the cycle of Greek mystery religions. Most of the tombs were cut into the soft rock and had a square burial chamber and a sloping dromos. Some were still vaulted tombs with a circular or rectangular chamber.
The south royal tomb-sanctuary at Knossos consists of a complete building complex, with a small portico, a crypt with a sacred Pillar, a chamber cut into the rock, and an upper floor for the cult of the dead. It is very reminiscent of the "tomb of Minos" in Sicily described by Diodoros.
The hieroglyphic script of the preceding period now developed into Linear A. The surviving texts - there are about two hundred are written in the unknown Minoan language on clay "tablets", and appear to contain information relating to accounts. They come from the archives of palaces or villas (Knossos, Archanes, Tylissos, Agia Triada, Phaestos, Zakros, Hania). The "Phaestos Disk", with its unique hieroglyphic text, belongs to the first phase of the second palace period. The hieroglyphic script seems to have survived from earlier times and to have been used by the priests to write religious texts.
About 1450, all the centers of the second palace period were destroyed by the terrible volcanic eruption of Santorini. Life was resumed only in the palace at Knossos, which was reconstructed and served as the residence of a new Achaean dynasty. The presence of this dynasty is attested both by the very archaic Greek language written in Linear B and by the appearance of the "Palace Style" pottery. Many changes were made in the arrangement of the palaces, and it is to this period that the "throne room" belongs, as does the final form and decoration (with frescoes) of the "Corridor of the Procession", and most of the other surviving frescoes.Page top
After the final destruction of about 1380, none of the Minoan palaces was re-inhabited. The Achaeans built their simple Mycenaean megara on other sites, as yet unknown, remains of these have survived only over the ruins of earlier royal villas (as Agia Triada), and farms or houses (as Tylissos). Not even the palace of Idomeneus, the king of Knossos who took part in the Trojan War with his friend Meriones and 80 ships, has been discovered. A great number of Mycenaean centers are known, however, these now spread throughout the whole of Crete, and most of them existed down into Greek times (Kydonia, Polyrrhenia, Kissamos, Knossos, Cortys, Phaestos, Lyktos, Arcadia, Rhytion etc.)
The basis of the new civilization was Minoan, but its spirit was archaic Greek, and it showed a tendency towards an architectural structure and uniformity. The labyrinthine buildings were replaced by the austere Mycenaean megaron, the predominant pottery style was the so-called "Mycenaean koine", in which the same shapes were continually repeated, with simple decoration and the frescoes lost their former freedom and vigor. In the sphere of plastic clay art, there were large, impressive clay figurines, but even these were schematic and rigid (Metropolis (Gortys), Gournia, Gazi).
There was no substantial change in religion or cult. The tombs were mainly chamber tombs with a long dromos, as before, but the grave foods are poorer, and most of the jewels accompanying the dead were made of colored glass paste.
The last phase of this period was a time of decline and disorder caused by the movement of the "Seat Peoples" in the East Mediterranean. The forerunners of the Dorians seem to have begun to arrive in Crete, for a number of new cultural features make their appearance in sporadic fashion: cremation of the dead, for example, iron weapons and tools, brooches - which attest a new style of dress and geometric decorative motifs.Page top
Crete entered upon the purely Greek period of its history with the arrival of massive waves of Dorians, about 1100 BC. The Protogeometric period that followed (1100-900 BC) unfolded alongside the Sub-Minoan, for the earlier Cretan cultural tradition continued to offer resistance in certain areas, particularly the mountain centers of the Eteocretans in central and eastern Crete (Karfi (Lassithi), Vrokastro (Merambello), Praessos and other places near Sitia), and to exercise some influence on the uncouth conquerors. No one today doubts the contribution made by the Minoan and Mycenaean civilizations to the creation of the Greek miracle.
The use of iron, and cremation of the dead became general, and the urns for the ashes are amongst the most characteristic vessels of the period. The finest examples of them come from Fortetsa, near Knossos, and some of them reveal the influence of Athens on the protogeometric art of Crete.
| MINOAN CIVILIZATION | MINOAN PALACES | Sir ARTH EVANS |
| KNOSSOS | PHAESTOS | GOURNIA | IRAKLION MUSEUM |
ARIADNE | EUROPA and ZEUS | THESEUS |
| DIKTI CAVE | LABYRINTH | MINOS |
The information on this page is taken from books published by D&I Mathioulakis, Athens, Greece. Check the list of books published on Greece. You can order them on line, and claim your free map of Crete
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