Minaon Civilization: Maritime Empire
Artist Depiction of Minoan Palace Life
Initially discovered by Sir Arthur Evans in 1900, he unearthed the largest Minoan palace at Knossos and ever since, the culture remains one of the hardest puzzles in archaeological study to unravel.
Minoan Dialect: Undecipherable Language
Little is known about Minoan civilization beyond archaeological finds and the Minoan language persistently remains inaccessible by scientists.
Eteocretan is believed to be a descendant of the Minoan language, but it can not be definitively linked to Minoan; not enough source material exists between either language to draw any concrete connections. The linear A script of the Minoans and the Cretan hieroglyphs, also remain undecipherable, even with over 3000 clay tablets collected thus far, the language is enigmatic and defies interpretation.
The famous Phaistos disc, a fired clay tablet discovered at the Minoan palace of Phaistos by Italian archaeologist Luigi Pernier in 1908, is believed to be an early form of pictograms reminiscent of Egyptian hieroglyphics. With over 100 hundred years of study, no definitive translations from the tablet have been made.
With no written records to rely upon, the Minoan civilization today remains one of the least understood ancient civilizations of antiquity.
Archaeologists have attempted to study the culture through a system of chronological periods, or phases going from 3650BC to 1100BC: Prepalatial, Protopalatial, Neopalatial, and Postpalatial. Despite experiencing several natural catastrophes, the civilization rose to be a prosperous maritime trading empire, sitting at the crossroads of the ancient world between mainland Mycenean Greece, the middle east, and Egypt.
Ancient Maritime Empire of the Aegean
With access to the greatest source of ancient copper ore from colonies on the island of Cyprus, Minoan culture became the dominant supplier of bronze and tin in bronze age antiquity for over two millenia. Historians draw a strong correlation between the distribution of copper, and the sudden rise in wealth of the Minoans across the Mediterranean.
Minoans Endure Catastrophe after Catastrophe
In 1644 BC, evidence for a large natural disaster that destroyed many coastal cities is seen. The consensus on the nature of the disaster remains controversial, but many geologists attribute the destruction to the eruption of the Thera Volcano, which many scientists believe caused the eventual downfall of the civilization. However, despite the damage, remains show that the Minoans quickly rebuilt in Crete. Only about 5 mm of ash was thought to reach Crete, and the widespread effects of the eruption may have played a much less significant role in the demise of the Minoans as archaeologists posit. Archaeological layers at the palaces of Knossos, Phaistos, Zakros, and Malia indicate sudden drops in population, which quickly rebounded with further rebuilding efforts in the Neopalatial phase.
Knossos Visual Reconstruction
During this phase, the palace of Knossos grew to be the largest and most influential in Crete. Arthur Evans originally named the Minoans after the legendary King of Knossos, King Minos, who was said to control a mythical minotaur beast beneath the palace in an elaborate maze complex. The maze and minotaur are both connected to the myth of Theseus in later mainland Greek mythology.
The Minoans may have appeared an almost mythic invulnerable civilization to the later Greeks, much like the Atlantis of Plato's descriptions. Yet another disaster rocked Knossos and the Minoans around 1450BC. Additional layers of destruction are labeled by archaeologists at the palaces of Knossos, Malia, and Phaistos. The Minoans continued to thrive though, proving themselves to be a tough and if anything, adaptable people.
Knossos Palace Aerial View
Far reaching cultural Influence of the Minoans
Perhaps the most striking characteristics of the Minoans though is the intricate artworks the culture produced. Large amounts of cross cultural pollination occurred in the maritime centers of the Minoans with other cultures trading on the Mediterranean. Strong artistic influences of Egypt are seen in the fresco motifs on Minoan walls as seen below. Most likely, the Minoans influenced the Egyptian culture, though an exchange also might be probable.
Colonies existed all across the shores of the Mediterranean. Minoan frescos and pottery were found abundantly at the Canannite palace of Tel Kabri, Isreal, leading some to suggest that it may have been a colony at one time. Many islands of the Aegean also came to be populated by the Minoans, including Cythera, Kasos, Saros, Karpathos, and the more well known Thera. Due to the "entombment" of the city of Akrotiri by the thick layer of pumice that spewed out from the volcano's eruption, preservation of the culture at Thera is more pristine than any other site.
Minoan Crete: Egalitarian Society
Although the Minoans are recognized as a distinctly mercantile society, the distribution of wealth appears surprisingly even among the inhabitants, painting a picture of a markedly Utopian people. Multiroom houses in even the poor areas of town, reveal a level of social equality enjoyed by most strata of the society.
Instead, the rule of a group of elite palatial statesmen, and kings, appears a matter of organizational necessity for distributing foods and goods rather than a tyrannical system of oppression, as is more apparent in places like Pharaonic Egypt, or Sumer in Mesapotamia, where Kings were worshiped and deified as gods.
Women of Minoan Crete
Gender Equality for both Genders in the Ancient World
One of the reasons for this may be linked to the establishment of a rare form of equality experienced between both men and women, something we find also at the amazingly egalitarian city of Catal Huyuk. Evidence shows at the sites that women often participated alongside men in the bull leaping sport, and held high honors in offices of priesthood. Many statuettes of snake goddesses exist at Minoan sites, while male gods are few.
Sex and romantic affairs appear much less dry and overly ceremonial, as is commonly seen in most western societies with strict rituals of courtship. Frescos depict Minoan women in many daily activities wearing short sleeved robes opened to the navel, exposing the breasts for men to see. Other garments included strapless bodices, revealing the bare shoulders.
The Minoan Peace
It is no surprise then that hardly any evidence of war exists on any of the islands the Minoans lived upon. No extensive defensive fortifications are seen, with little weapons, which were thought more ceremonial than practical. It seems clear that inequality was minimal between both men and women or the elite and the commoners.
Matters of gender and class may be two inseparable paradigms, as social stratification that is seen in the rise of urban centers is usually associated with a burgeoning hierarchy of competitive men seeking the domination and protection of elite and submissive females.
What could have destabilized such a perfectly egalitarian society?
Two theories that are the most likely, are proposed for the Minoan's decline.
Around 1420BC, the mainland Greeks, the Myceneans, invaded Crete and occupied most of the Minoan palaces. The foreign influences of the more warlike and violent Myceneans took precedence over the culture's evolution there after.
Tablets containing a newly adapted Linear B script, combined with Greek logographic symbols, easily deciphered with well known Greek comparisons, provide evidence for the occupation by the mainland Greeks.
Since the land loving Myceneans proved to be poor administrators of sea faring trade, the well established and frequently patrolled routes of the Minoan trading empire quickly atrophied.
Along with the introduction of iron metal working and smithing into the ancient world, the valuable bronze and copper resources which the Minoan's monopolized in the Aegean became an antiquated good, replaced by the superior properties of iron ore and steel alloys.
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