Who were the Minoans?
In 1900 Arthur Evans began digging at Knossos, on Crete. He was immediately successful and over the next five years he uncovered a major palace, a palace which dominated the island of Crete. It was similar in a way to the palace that his German friend Heinrich Schliemann had excavated thirty years before at Mycenae on mainland Greece, which clearly belonged to a civilisation that preceded classical Greece and surely belonged in the stories told in Homer of the Siege of Troy. But Knossos was bigger and grander and older than Mycenae, and though similar, was nevertheless very different. He had stumbled across an unknown civilisation. But what should he call it?
In the Greek myths there is a story of King Minos the ruler of Crete, to whom the Athenians were forced to send seven youths and seven maidens as an offering every nine years . On arrival, the youths entered a labyrinth and were destroyed by the Minotaur, half man, half bull. Eventually however Theseus went as one of the youths, seduced the King’s daughter Ariadne, who gave him a ball of string so he could find his way through the labyrinth; he then destroyed The Minotaur, carried off Ariadne only to abandon her on Naxos. The palace that Evans had discovered was so elaborate that it seemed quite reasonably to be the origin of the Labyrinth, so Evans named his newly discovered civilisation the Minoans, and thus created one of the most fascinating of all the Bronze Age empires of the Mediterranean.
The new name stuck. Evans was a master advocate and he promoted the Minoans vigorously: he divided the site and particularly the pottery styles into Early, Middle and Late, and these names still provided form the basis on which pottery is classified. It soon became clear that Knossos was not the only palace: three more have since been recognised, Phaistos in the south, Malia and Zakros. But what makes the Minoans particularly interesting to study is that it is essentially a palace-based empire: there are no great temples such as those that dominate the architecture of Mesopotamia and Egypt, and few rich burials are known until the late period. It is the palaces that form the central role in the study of the Minoan empire
The other major breakthrough has been the decipherment of the Minoan language – or at least the later version of it. Many clay tablets have been discovered which Evans divided up into two scripts, Minoan Linear A and Minoan Linear B and although Linear A remains unknown, Linear B was triumphantly deciphered by Michael Ventris in the 1950s and shown to be a primitive form of Greek. But what makes it particularly useful is that the tablets are not great literature but financial accounts which show how the Empire really worked
The Minoans are indeed to my mind the most interesting of the great Bronze Age Palace Empires. But to study them we must begin with the powerful but still controversial figure of the excavator of Knossos, Sir Arthur Evans.
The header shows a gold pendant now in the British Museum featuring the Master of Animals. This comes from the Aegina Treasure, which was found in mysterious circumstances on the island of Aegina. But the workmanship – and the dress – is clearly Minoan
On to Sir Arthur Evans