History of Crete – The Neolithic and Minoan Periods

Crete ….. never did the name of an island conjure up more of a sense of history and drama than that of Crete. Her recorded history stretches back, literally, thousands of years.

She lies, long and skinny, in the Mediterranean sea, between the 34th and 35th degrees of latitude. One of the largest islands in the Med. she is almost 260 kms long, about 15 at her narrowest and 60 kms at her widest, with a rugged coastline full of interest. Her history is full of mystery, drama and pain. Once dominant, then oppressed, she has finally arrived in the 21st century as a Greek island with proudly independent people.

A fresco found at the Minoan site of Knossos, indicating a sport or ritual of "bull leaping", the dark skinned figure is a man and the two light skinned figures are women
A fresco found at the Minoan site of Knossos, indicating a sport or ritual of “bull leaping”, the dark skinned figure is a man and the two light skinned figures are women

Her known history began over 4000 years ago, as the Minoan Empire blossomed, although evidence has been found of earlier colonisation by neolithic settlers. It’s hard to believe that Minoan history was known only through myth and legend until the middle of the 19thC. Around that time archaeological discoveries indicated that reality could lie behind the legend. In the early 20thC Phaestos was being excavated by Halbherr and Pernier and then, at around the same time, the dramatic discoveries of Arthur Evans, at Knossos, catapulted Crete to the serious attention of ancient historians and confirmed that belief. Today, after extensive excavations, a clear and exciting picture of Europe’s first sophisticated civilisation can be seen; evidence of her art, architecture, religion and day to day activities are all to be seen.

By 2000BC craftsmen and artisans were skilled in their arts and ready for the next step in their cultural development. The first palaces were built ……….. on commanding sites they occupied vast areas and were a labyrinth of hundreds of rooms. Archaeological discoveries indicate that there may have been a central power base in Knossos and the growing influence of these rulers created conditions in which the island became of major importance both politcally and economically in the Aegean. This seems to have led to a time of relative peace in which the arts and trade flourished. Inscribed tablets from this era have been discovered but, as yet, they remain undeciphered. Then, disaster struck!

Goddess clay figurine. Neolithic, 5300–3000 BC. Pano Chorio, Ierapetra region, Crete. Archaeological Museum of Heraklion
Goddess clay figurine. Neolithic, 5300–3000 BC. Pano Chorio, Ierapetra region, Crete. Archaeological Museum of Heraklion

Around 1700BC all the places were suddenly and inexplicably destroyed; all, seemingly, at the same time. It’s not possible for anyone to say with certainty what caused the disaster but it’s generally believed that a natural disaster overwhelmed them; quite probably a violent earthquake. Invasion was considered as a possibility but discounted, by most, on the grounds that the palaces, including those of Knossos, Phaestos and Malia, were swiftly rebuilt and development of the Minoan culture continued with hardly a hiccup.

Around the new palaces large and flourishing townships grew up, reflecting the general prosperity of the age. In the countryside there was an abundance of olives and grapes and the attendant harsh regime of the agricultural workers shackled to the hard toil of making a living from the land. Excavations of these areas reveal a simpler lifestyle without the ornamentation found in the more culturally developed towns.

Religious worship centred on the propitiation of gods who would bless or blight the annual cycle of nature; of death, and re-birth in spring.

Splendid religious ceremonies, athletic sports, dance, music, art and a love of life and pleasure characterise the Minoan civilisation …….. did the inhabitants of the island think that there way of life was assured? That it would last forever? No. Catastrophe struck once again. In about 1450 BC the palaces were razed to the ground with many destroyed by fire; society as they knew itcollapsed. Again …….. many hypotheses but no certainties to explain the destruction. Natural disaster, an uprising by a disaffected section of society, or an invasion ……….. all of these reasons have been given careful consideration but there are still no certain answers. It might be that it was none of the foregoing but a succession of minor troubles that, together, amounted to disaster. Whatever the reasons the results were the same ……… it was the beginning of the end for the Minoan civilisation as Crete stepped forward into the Mycenaean era.