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Minoan Crete

Грачева А.Д., Евсеенков А.С.

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I. Early Minoan period. 30-21 / 20 centuries BC The development of bronze, the appearance of the potter's wheel and the institution of slavery.

II. The Middle Minoan period or the "Era of Old palaces" of the 20th and 18th centuries BC. The emergence of settlements (city-states) grouped around courtyards (Knossos, Phaistos, Kato-Zakros).

III. The Late Minoan period or "Era of New Palaces" of the 17th-12th centuries BC.

Modern map of Greece
Map of modern Crete and Crete of the Minoan civilization era

Discovery of the Minoan civilization

Until the middle of the XIX century, the history of ancient Greece was studied from the VIII century BC (from the Archaic period). The history of the earlier period was known only from the myths and legends of ancient authors, for example, Plutarch, Thucydides and Diodorus Siculus, who tell us the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur. Until the 19th century, scientists ignored these tales, despite the fact that in many places in Greece there were ruins of ancient structures, the origin of which local residents composed legends. The idea that myths might reflect real historical reality was hardly considered by scientists of that time until the 1870s. This period can be considered a turning point in the study of the history of ancient Greece. This is due to the beginning of the excavations by G. Schliemann of Troy in Asia Minor and A. Evans of the Palace of Knossos, which allowed us to prove the existence of an earlier Cretan-Mycenaean civilization (3-2 thousand BC).

It should be noted that many tablets with inscriptions were found in Crete, mostly of economic content. We are talking about the so-called linear letter A and linear letter B. The first one couldn't be decrypted until now. A linear letter B was deciphered after several unsuccessful attempts, including those made by A. Evans. The letter was deciphered in 1950-1953 by Michael Ventris with the assistance of John Chadwick.

Linear writing of A. XIX-XV centuries BC
Linear writing B. XVI-XIII centuries BC.
Custom disk. Side A and B. A unique monument of writing found in the city of Festus, the place and time of manufacture are not known for certain. Not decrypted. Archaeological Museum of Heraklion

Economic development

The oldest center of civilization in Europe was the island of Crete. At the turn of 3-2 thousand BC, the Minoan civilization appears here, which got its name from the mythical monster Minotaur. As early as the beginning of the 3rd millennium BC, copper and bronze production was established on the island. Among the reasons for the flourishing of the Minoan culture, a number of researchers call the trade in tin, necessary for obtaining high-quality bronze, the most important material of this era, which later received the name of the Bronze Age . From the Early Minoan period, the appearance of" colonies " of the Minoan culture is recorded on the Cycladic Islands, the island of Rhodes, in the area of Miletus. At the same time, changes are taking place in agriculture. It is based on multicultural agriculture or the so-called "Mediterranean triad", which implies the cultivation of cereals (mainly barley), grapes and olives. The result of this economic shift was an increase in the productivity of agricultural labor, as well as the emergence of a reserve fund of agricultural products, which provided food for people not employed in agriculture. This allowed the development of professional specialization in various branches of production. Also, at the expense of this reserve fund, the population was provided with food in lean years. Since the 3rd millennium BC, sea trade with mainland Greece, Syria, Egypt, the Cyclades Islands, and Asia Minor has been actively developing.

Mobile device

As the economy progressed, the population of the island grew in the most fertile areas (Knossos, Phaistos), and the social differentiation of Cretan society appeared. On the one hand, a stratum of the nobility is distinguished within the communities, which includes priests and tribal leaders who occupy a privileged position in relation to the bulk of the population. On the other hand, slaves, which were mostly prisoners. During this period, new forms of political relations also appear. The most powerful communities begin to subjugate neighboring, weaker communities. Larger communities are internally consolidated and have a clear political organization. As a result of these processes, "palace" states such as Knossos, Phaistos, and Kato-Zakros begin to appear. This is the era of "old" and "new" palaces, covering the 20th and 14th centuries BC. During this period, the king stood at the top of the social structure, according to modern researchers, Crete was a theocracy (a kind of monarchy in which secular and spiritual power belonged to the same person). The person of the king was considered inviolable and sacred, he could not be seen by "mere mortals", before meeting him in the throne room, he had to undergo the rite of ablution. Perhaps that is why, among the numerous works of Minoan art, we cannot say with certainty whether there is an image of the ruler. In addition to religious functions, the tsar also had administrative functions: he collected taxes and taxes, disposed of property. Next in the social hierarchy were the nobility and the tsarist administration, the middle class, i.e. merchants and artisans, free peasants who paid taxes, and slaves.

In the future, Greece will move from centralized and sole tsarist power to democratic governance, and small, private peasant farms will replace large agricultural holdings. The role of the lower strata of the population will increase, and the aristocracy, on the contrary, will decrease.


The central place in Crete was occupied by the cult of the female supreme deity. The name of the goddess is unknown, but in the inscriptions the goddess is called the lady. According to the works of Cretan art, it can be argued that it had several guises. We can see her in the image of the mistress of animals and huntress, the patroness of vegetation, trees were dedicated to her, and birds, most often pigeons, are also associated with her cult. Sometimes she appears to us as the queen of the underworld, holding a snake in her hands. In the Palace of Knossos, similar images were found - these are figurines made of faience or ivory, richly decorated with gold. In poor homes, the same images were found only in clay.

In the Cretan pantheon, we also see a male deity who represents the destructive forces of nature. Here it is worth noting that Crete has often experienced various disasters: earthquakes, sea storms, thunderstorms, heavy rains, dry years, famine and epidemics. These phenomena were embodied in the Minoan mind in the image of the bull-god. On some seals, he is depicted as a fantastic creature - a man with a bull's head. (This is reminiscent of the later Greek myth of the Minotaur.) On the island, the symbol of the male deity was Labris-a double axe, the image of which is often found in Cretan art.

Apparently, women played a leading role in religious ceremonies. Men rarely appear in cult scenes and only appear in the late period.

No monumental temple buildings have been found in Crete. Shrines with cult images and sacrificial tables were found in the homes of the middle class and in palaces. Apparently, there were rural sanctuaries that consisted of an altar and a group of sacred trees.

The palace in Festus. Modern look
The palace is closed. Modern look
The Palace of Knossos. Modern look

Culture and art

Now let's look at Minoan culture and art using the Palace of Knossos as an example. Knossos is located in the central part of northern Crete, known as the capital of the island and the residence of King Minos. Here, according to the myth, Theseus killed the Minotaur. In the architecture of the Palace of Knossos, you can see the characteristic features of Cretan construction: liveliness of lines, light courtyards, openness of rooms, ventilation and light openings (presumably they could be tightened with a tacan), many halls connected by corridors around the central courtyard, narrowed columns to the bottom.

During the excavations of the Palace of Knossos, begun by A. Evans in 1900, traces of the first palace were found, built around 2000 BC and collapsed in an earthquake of about 1700 BC. The second, more spacious palace, built on the ruins, was later also destroyed as a result of new tremors of about 1400 BC. After that, only some rooms were again adapted for living, but they were also completely abandoned around 1000 BC. The majestic ruins of the second palace, dating back to the apogee of Cretan civilization (17th-15th centuries BC), rise on a small hill and are the highest point of the archaeological zone. The exterior is not represented by rectilinear facades, but with depressions and projections.

You can enter the palace through a monumental door with a column in the center and go through a narrow corridor in the shape of the letter L, called the Procession corridor, through huge frescoes depicting a cortege of cupbearers, which were painted in the hall. Thus, we pass to the porticos, which in turn lead to the stairs of the upper floors. The palace was two or more storeys high. Then, following the zigzag path, you can enter the central courtyard, which surrounds the entire palace. To the west are the halls of representation, the sacred complex, and the throne room, built around 1450. It is located in the center of the city of St. Petersburg, where you can admire the ancient throne made of plaster and restored original frescoes depicting vultures located opposite each other with plant motifs. Behind them are 22 rooms intended for warehouses. A passageway in the center of the eastern part of the courtyard leads to numerous private quarters, and a descent leads to the pillared hall that served as the vestibule; from here, to the north, to the laboratory quarter and to the warehouse of large clay vessels; to the south - to the royal quarters: the hall of the Double Axe with three porticos and corresponding light shafts, the megaron of the queen with a copy of the dolphin fresco: a small toilet has been preserved nearby. The Palace of Knossos had a water supply and sewerage system. To the south of the megaron are other rooms, apparently intended for the administration of the palace: in one of them clay tablets with the linear letter B were found.

On the north side of the central courtyard, there is also an entrance to a long corridor leading to the great hall of Customs with two rows of columns, and next to it – the northern propylaea, where another warehouse of tablets with linear writing was discovered. On the bastion, you can see the famous row of boxes restored by A. Evans, where there is a copy of the fresco depicting a goring bull, which became a symbol of Minoan power. According to the found monuments of architecture and art, we can see what an extraordinary cultural level the inhabitants of this palace have reached. The majority of the population of Crete lived in small settlements in the vicinity of palaces, for example, Gurnia. These villages, with their small, mud-brick houses packed tightly together, contrasted strongly with the multi-storied and richly decorated palaces.

Knossos. Plan of the Grand Palace
Plan of the Palace of Knossos. Excavations. Top view
Gurnia settlement. Modern look

The Minoan civilization had a special style of painting called Kamares (got its name from the village of Kamares, where a large number of vessels were found). This style is distinguished by strict forms, colorful coloring, and stylized plants are depicted on the vessels. Since the 18th century BC, Cretan art has become more realistic. Men were depicted with a narrow waist, excessively developed muscles and lean. Another distinctive feature is the image of the eyes en face (translated from the French "in the face", "opposite"), while the face itself is written in profile. The male body was depicted in brown, and the female body in white. Similar images can be seen on the frescoes that are painted on the preserved walls. Most famous images: the earliest "Saffron Collector" (17th-16th centuries). BC), fresco with dolphins, "Ladies in blue", "Parisian Woman", " Acrobats with a bull.". All of the above examples of wall paintings are found in the Palace of Knossos. The main theme of the images is scenes of peaceful life, festive rites, processions, scenes of catching and taming bulls.

Clothing and hairstyles

The fabrics were mostly linen and wool, and in more rare cases, tanned leather was also used to make clothing. The color scheme of clothing was very diverse: often products were painted in red, blue, yellow, brown, green, black, as well as their shades. On clothes there is often a plant ornament, ornaments made of feathers. The images of women that we find on frescoes, seals, dishes and ornaments show us on the one hand images of amazing refined beauty. They are dressed in clothing that varies depending on both the historical era and the context of the scenes depicted.

Also noteworthy are the "serpent goddesses" — several figurines found in Knossos. These earthenware figurines date back to about 1600 BC. e. Along with them, half-decayed remains of clothing and belts were found in one cache. There are also several similar iconographic figurines made of clay, bronze and ivory.

Goddess with snakes, statuette. Archaeological Museum in Heraklion. Around 1600 BC.
A girl worshipping a deity. Bronze. 1600-1500 BC
Cretan-Minoan figurine. Mid-2nd millennium BC

It should be noted that most Minoan images of women are very close to the modern ideal of beauty: long hair, large eyes, a thin waist, rounded hips and full breasts. This is radically different from the closest states of that time, for example, Egypt. The situation is similar with clothing - it is very different from the simple, loose, figure-hugging outfits made of pleated white linen, which we see among the inhabitants of the Nile Valley.

Heads of terracotta figurines, Archaeological Museum of Heraklion. Circa 1650 BC.
Cretan-Minoan women's hairstyles

Minoan women wore clothes with a rather complex cut: bell-shaped skirts with many horizontal frills, capes, like fitted sweatshirts, aprons, one-piece dresses. This fashion is typologically closer to the Sumerian-Akkadian and Babylonian models known to science from images of approximately the same historical period, for example, Inanna (Ishtar) quite often appears in similar multi-tiered folded robes.

Most likely, the version of female attire recorded on the figurines of the image of "Goddesses with snakes" refers to a slightly older Minoan period, or purely ritual, since more often we find images of skirts with transverse stripes of several wedges extending downwards, as in the frescoes from Akrotiri.

Cretan-Minoan woman. Mid-2nd millennium BC
Cretan-Minoan woman. Mid-2nd millennium BC
Cretan-Minoan woman. Mid-2nd millennium BC

The image of men strongly contrasts with women. They are much smaller in number, the skin is depicted darker than women's, the amount of clothing is much smaller, and its color palette is scanty. The figures of men are slender, elongated, with broad shoulders and a thin waist. Long hair falls to the shoulders, and beards and even stubble on the face are absent. Loincloths vaguely resemble the Egyptian shenti. Sometimes the loincloth is shorter in front and falls in a wedge shape at the back, but the frescoes from Knossos also show models like skirts with an elongated front edge. And in the fresco "Prince of Lilies", the young man's left leg is naked, and the right one is covered in the upper part of the hip structure.

Cretan-Minoan male. Mid-2nd millennium BC
Young man among the lilies, "Priest-King". Relief painted in fresco technique, height 2.2 m. Knossos, 1600 BC
Cretan-Minoan men. Mid-2nd millennium BC


Currently, the reconstruction of the Cretan-Minoan civilization is difficult, due to un-preserved tissue finds, as well as traditionally open breasts in women's sets. It is also assumed that in reality the skin tones of women and men were not very different, and the image of men with darker skin was artistic and symbolic.

Cretan-Minoan woman. Reconstruction
Cretan-Minoan woman. Reconstruction

Related topics

Ancient Greece, Achaean states in the second millennium BC.


1. History of Ancient Greece/ Edited by V. I. Kuzishchin.Moscow: Vyssh. shk., 2003, 399 p. (in Russian)

2. Sergeev V. S. Istoriya Drevnoi Greksii [History of Ancient Greece] St. Petersburg: Poligon Publ., 2002, 801 p .


"Saffron Collector" XVII-XVI centuries BC Archaeological Museum of Heraklion
"Ladies in blue" XVI century BC Archaeological Museum of Heraklion
"Parisian woman" of the XVI-XV centuries BC Archaeological Museum of Heraklion
"Acrobats with a bull" XVI century BC Archaeological Museum of Heraklion
Camares style vase with octopus of the 14th century BC Found in Mycenae. National Archaeological Museum of Athens
Vases in the style of Kamares XX-XVII centuries BC Archaeological Museum of Heraklion
Cretan-Minoan woman. Mid-2nd millennium BC
Cretan-Minoan woman. Mid-2nd millennium BC
Cretan-Minoan woman. Mid-2nd millennium BC

Fresco with dolphins of the 16th century BC Archaeological Museum of Heraklion

Cretan-Minoan women. Mid-2nd millennium BC
Riton in the form of a bull's head. Chlorite. Kato Zagros. Around 1450 BC.
Cretan-Minoan woman. Mid-2nd millennium BC
Rhyton made of rock crystal. Kato Palace Is Closed. Around 1700-1450 BC.
Steatite vessel from Agia Triad. Around 1550-1500 BC.
The Cretan-Minoan civilization. Mid-2nd millennium BC
Cretan-Minoan male. Mid-2nd millennium BC
Cretan-Minoan male fisherman. Mid-2nd millennium BC
The Cretan-Minoan civilization. Mid-2nd millennium BC
Cretan-Minoan woman with men. Mid-2nd millennium BC
"Ladies in blue", partially restored drawing. Archaeological Museum of Heraklion. 16th century BC
Gold cup made of Wafio. 15th century BC
The vessel "Kamares". Festus Palace, 1850-1700 BC
Labris — votive golden axe from the Arkalochori cave. 1650-1600 BC
Cretan-Minoan women. Mid-2nd millennium BC
Cretan-Minoan woman. Mid-2nd millennium BC
Cretan-Minoan women and a monkey. Mid-2nd millennium BC
Cretan-Minoan woman. Mid-2nd millennium BC
Statue of a Cretan-Minoan woman on a swing. Mid-2nd millennium BC
Cretan-Minoan women. Mid-2nd millennium BC
Cretan-Minoan male. Mid-2nd millennium BC
Cretan-Minoan male. Mid-2nd millennium BC
Statuettes of Cretan-Minoan women. Mid-2nd millennium BC
Cretan-Minoan decoration. Mid-2nd millennium BC
The Cretan-Minoan civilization. Mid-2nd millennium BC
The Cretan-Minoan civilization. Mid-2nd millennium BC
The Cretan-Minoan civilization. Mid-2nd millennium BC
The Cretan-Minoan civilization. Mid-2nd millennium BC
The Cretan-Minoan civilization. Mid-2nd millennium BC
The Cretan-Minoan civilization. Mid-2nd millennium BC
Cretan-Minoan decoration. Gold. Mid-2nd millennium BC
The Cretan-Minoan civilization. Mid-2nd millennium BC
Statuettes of Cretan-Minoan women. Mid-2nd millennium BC
The Cretan-Minoan civilization. Mid-2nd millennium BC