The Minoans

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  • 0:53 Sir Arthur Evans
  • 2:02 The Palace System
  • 3:01 Minoan Trade
  • 4:01 Minoan Writing: Linear A
  • 5:02 Minoan Art
  • 7:34 The Collapse of Minoan…
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Max Pfingsten
This lesson explores Minoan civilization. Beginning with Arthur Evans' discoveries at Knossos, we move on to explore the mysteries of Minoan art and writing, as well as their mysterious decline in the 15th century BCE.

The Myth of Theseus and the Minotaur

The ancient Athenians tell a story about a hero named Theseus. In this story, the city of Athens was required to send young men and maidens to the land of Minos, to the King of Crete. There, the unfortunate youngsters would be cast into the Labyrinth, an underground maze inhabited by a horrible monster, half man, half bull, named the Minotaur. According to the myth, Theseus killed the Minotaur and freed Athens from the cruel tribute of King Minos.

Much like the story of Troy, most people in the modern age considered this tale a complete fabrication. Yet one fellow, an explorer and archaeologist named Sir Arthur Evans, was not so certain.

Sir Arthur Evans

In 1900, Sir Arthur Evans began digging on the island of Crete, in a place known as Knossos. In the course of his dig, Evans uncovered a huge complex of interlinking rooms, much like a maze, or a labyrinth. The palace was adorned all around with symbolic bull horns, known as Horns of Consecration. Digging deeper, Evans uncovered a throne room and wall paintings of bulls and bull jumpers.

Sir Arthur Evans discovered a labyrinth-like palace in Knossos.

Evans' imagination immediately leapt to the myth of Theseus. Everything was there! The interlinking rooms must be the Labyrinth. The bull horns and paintings must be where the Athenians got the idea of the Minotaur. The throne room must belong to a king! Evans concluded that this must be the palace of King Minos. He named the people he had discovered Minoans, after this mythical king.

As Evans continued to dig, he found other things, including axe heads and records written on clay tablets. Let us examine Evans' many discoveries one by one and see what they can tell us about Minoan civilization.

The Palace System

Let's begin with the palace itself. Knossos is but one of about half a dozen such palaces on the island of Crete. The term 'palace' may be something of a misnomer. A palace implies a private residence for a lord or king. However, the king's quarters make up only a small portion of the whole complex at Knossos, which seems to have been dedicated almost entirely to storage. Analysis of pottery shards has revealed that these Minoan palaces were, in fact, massive storehouses, where raw food was brought to be processed and stored. In this light, the palace at Knossos seems more like an overgrown silo than a residence for kings.

So, what were the Minoans collecting all this food for? There are two obvious answers: they might have been collecting the food and other goods to store in case of disaster or invasion. They also may have been collecting it for trade.

Minoan Trade

There is good evidence that the Minoans were first and foremost a trading people. Minoan culture really seems to have taken off in the early Bronze Age, around 2700 BCE, and quickly spread across the Mediterranean. Archaeologists have discovered Minoan wares all along the Mediterranean coast, from Egypt to Spain. Their most important trade goods seem to have been saffron, a yellow spice still much treasured today, and tin, which, when mixed with copper, creates bronze. This may help us to understand why the Minoan civilization thrived during the Bronze Age and fell from glory during the Iron Age, when bronze, and therefore tin, was no longer needed in such quantities.

The most important trade goods for the Minoans seem to have been saffron and tin.
Minoan Trade Goods

The Minoans seem to have built something of a trading empire; they set up outposts on islands across the Mediterranean, including the islands of Thera and Rhodes and the Cyclades. They also established outposts on mainland Greece.

Minoan Writing: Linear A

Running a trade empire requires a lot of things - first and foremost is organization. Such organization is impossible without writing. The Minoans went through a couple writing systems before getting the process down. They seem to have started with a form of hieroglyphs borrowed from the Egyptians. They later picked up a form of the Phoenician alphabet, which Evans named Linear A. Linear A would later give rise to Linear B, the first writing system found among the Greeks.

Since we know the Greek language very well, scholars were able to translate Linear B soon after its discovery. Yet they have had much more trouble with Linear A. Assuming the characters in the Greek Linear B represent the same sounds in Minoan Linear A, we actually have a vague idea of what the Minoan language sounded like. Unfortunately, no one has been able to make much sense of the Minoan language thus far. Linear A remains one of the enduring mysteries of the classical world.

Minoan Art

Since we cannot read Minoan records, we have to depend on Minoan art to tell us about their culture. Yet without written records, art can only tell us so much. Historians have offered a wide variety of interpretations of Minoan art, and few of them agree on much of anything. I will therefore show you characteristic examples of Minoan art and leave the interpretation up to you.

Four Minoan murals
Four Minoan Murals

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