Homer says in the Odyssey, there is a land in the midst of the wine-dark sea, a fair and rich land called Crete, washed by waves on ever side, densely populated and boasting 90 cities, one site in this north-central coast near the modern city of Iraklion and this is a place called Knossos. Crete was home to a great Bronze Age civilization which we known as Civilization.

Before we start reading about this site itself and about the history that surrounds it we’re going to do a little bit of something with a couple of interpretive models.

Peer Polity Model

It was devised by an archaeologist named Collin Renfrew, and then developed and sophisticated by other archaeologists and scholars.

Competition and Rivalry

A group of communities that are structured along in the same lines were engage in competition and rivalry.

“Symbolic Entertainment”- Shared Symbols and Ideology

They can also share many things in common, and this is what’s called symbolic entrainment, it’s a scholarly way of saying that they share certain images and ideals, perhaps divinities.

Exchange of Goods

They also engage in economic exchange Exports and Imports of goods. This is called  a peer polity which means that they are in an even level that there is no centralized government. Even though as we’ll call this Minoan civilization there was nothing like a capital at Knossos.

This place was dug by a British archeologist named Sir Arthur Evans. 

Born in 1851, he was the son of a wealthy businessman. He benefited from an outstanding education at the best, one of the best private school, Harrow in England and at Oxford University.

He had a sort of a varied career after that, which included serving for a time as keeper, he were director, of the Ashmolian Museum at Oxford. But then, in around 1900, he went to Creed, bought a large section of land, and began to excavate there. And this is what was called Knossos.

It’s a massive complex palace. There is a great central courtyard surrounded by a variety of rooms and other buildings,  and there are storage areas out on the outer edges as well. 

In Greek mythology, this Place Knossos was associated with King Minos. The Greek historian Thucydides, says that Minos was the first who was known to us to have established a navy. Now, Thucydides was writing at a time when navies were very important, especially in his home city of Athens.

But Evans, taking his cue from mythology, called this society Minoan, after King Minos. The legend was that Minos, the ancient king, had built a trackless maze called the Labyrinth, in which he imprisoned the bestial, the bull headed, man bodied son of his wife Pasiphae. Minotaur is eventually, as he’s called, is eventually killed by the Athenian king Theseus. Some people thought that maybe, this vast palace with, it’s jumble of rooms might have been somehow connected with the idea of a Labyrinth.

Linguists have shown though, that Labyrinth is actually based on the root of the word labrys, Which means a doublebladed axe. This appears both as artifact and as decorative motif in this palace. Functionally, these are beautifully made by gold, ceremonial double-bladed axes. And Evan said about constructing or reconstructing or reconstituting as he put it this extraordinary place.

As we read earlier Minos was the first who was known to us to have established a navy. That’s clearly a fiction, but what is equally clear is that the Cretans were great sailors. 

A wonderful fresco from the site called Akrotiri, not on Crete itself but from, dating from about the same time. Showing a fancifully decorated ship, while around it swim wonderful dolphins, and dolphins, too, are part of the decorative motif in the palace at Knossos this famous dolphin fresco.

Nonetheless, Minoan civilization was clearly, deeply involved with sea travel and with overseas trade. And it supported, a fairly lavish lifestyle. But again, we have to be careful. These are all reconstitutions. Evans had his architects, his builders, his workmen rebuild these, put these columns back up, paint them so beautifully. There are wall paintings as well of decorative shields.

The construction of the palace at Knossos was very sophisticated, with light wells and excellent plumbing, and a general kind of openness, and a sort of elegance.  The bull was very, very important in the society.

It’s important in the myth. It seems to have been important at the time. And the Minoans supported a high degree of craftsmanship and technology.

The whole picture of life in Knossos at least as Evans depicted Minoan civilization was one of a peaceful, harmonious perhaps even slightly self indulgent society.

Here you have another famous painting The Prince of the Lilies sometimes called The Priest King. Almost all of it was painted later. It was also if you look at it very closely, it’s anatomically a little bit odd. The head and the torso don’t go quite in the same direction. It’s still a wonderful picture, but one has to be careful. 

Likewise, the famous Three Ladies, as they’re called. With their bust revealing dresses, their elaborate hairstyles, their wonderful little smiles are almost all later reconstitution or confection. When the great English writer Evelyn Waugh went to Knossos in the 1930s. He said of the ladies like this that they would be completely at home on the cover of Vogue magazine, and indeed they would.

Redistributive Economy – The palace at Knossos had huge storage magazines like this one.

Which contained these great jars called “Pithoid.” Some of them as big as a human being. These are big jars which would have been used to store the produce that was brought in by the people who lived outside the palace, who grew the olives and the grain and the grapes.
They brought it into the palace, where it was stored and then redistributed by the people, the elite, who lived there.

The advantage to the growers was that presumably the members of the elite provided some kind of protection for them and for the people in the palace it gave them food stuff and also gave them something that they could trade. They could engage in the kind of economy, a border economy with other communities, especially those nearest by.


The people at Knossos were literate. They had two kinds of scripts. An earlier called Linear-A, not much of which survives and which still hasn’t been deciphered and then later called Linear-B which was  deciphered in the 1950s by some English scholars.

This is a clay tablet, a linear B tablet that was found in Knossos. And when these tablets were deciphered, and this was very exciting and very important, was that they’re a kind of proto-Greek. They’re a syllabary. Each one of these little signs stands for a syllable.

What we know is that the palace culture, now called Minoan, thrived from roughly 1700 to about 1400. It was period, those 300 years, it was the time of the art works, the technology, the trade, the high point, so to speak, of Minoan society

Then, at around 1500 or 1450, it collapses. There is widespread evidence of destruction at all of those sites around the island, at almost the same time.

Theories around as to why this occurred. Was a natural catastrophe? This is a very seismically active  earthquake-prone zone.
Was it some kind of revolution, the people who were living outside the palaces finally decided they had enough of the redistributive economy and decided to redistribute it to themselves? Or, it seems most likely, was it invasion?

What is Minoan?

Before Arthur Evans there was no such thing as Minoan civilization. One great modern historian of the ancient world has said That Minoan civilization is the only great civilization created in the 20th century. Evans had a powerful vision of a peaceful maritime monarchy with friendly relations on its own island. So peaceful, in fact, Evans claimed, that it didn’t need fortification. But archaeologists have found, long since, evidence of fortification, of defensive walls. It’s also Evans who planted, around the site at Knossos, these trees. There by setting it off as a kind of shrine from its natural surroundings, from the farms and the vineyards and the olive groves that must’ve supported it.

Categorized in: