The Minoan civilization has its roots on the island of Crete in the Mediterranean Sea during the Neolithic Period (7000–3000 b.c.e.). The original inhabitants most likely emigrated from Asia Minor, which had already developed cities and conducted trade by 2000 b.c.e.
The Greek poet Homer refers to the Minoan population as "Eteo-Cretans" in book 9 of the Odyssey. This early culture used hieroglyphics similar to that of the Egyptians, which they eventually developed into a linear script for keeping records.
Most of what is known about this civilization was discovered during the excavations of Sir Arthur Evans during the early 1900s. Despite a strong naval influence, Minoan culture has no evidence of any warlike activity or organization.
The most important center of Minoan civilization was the palace city of Knossos. Located inland on the island of Crete, Knossos was built at the confluence of the Vlihia stream and the Keratos River, with good lands for vineyards and olive groves. The main palace was constructed on Kefala Hill in the early second millennium b.c.e.
The Minoans also built a sophisticated system of drains, roads, and warehouses to promote trade. The structures at Knossos show evidence of compartmentalized homes with working doors and partitions, with no difference between the homes of the wealthy and the workers.
This suggests that wealth may have been more evenly shared as the Minoan trade routes prospered. The palace and larger buildings may have even had functioning toilets. Many of the ruins at Knossos have colorful frescos or intricately designed pottery, which display a unique form of art in the ancient world.
Nearly all of the artwork uncovered displays Minoan daily life, showing fishing, sailors trading goods, young men and women participating in sporting games or rituals, wildlife, and religious figures. The Minoans developed art for art’s sake, a revolutionary concept in the ancient world. Through the Mycenaeans they passed this love of art on to mainland Greece.
The religious beliefs of the early Minoan culture were polytheistic and matriarchal, a goddess religion. The serpent goddess played a prominent role in the homes of Minoans, perhaps a foreshadowing of the strong female deities in the Greek religion. Minoan influence in the Mediterranean spread through trade.
The Cretans and their Aegean relatives developed what was one of the most advanced mercantile navies in history. There is evidence of trade with diverse areas such as Turkey, Cyprus, Egypt, Afghanistan, and Scandinavia. Goods traded with Knossos included copper, ivory, amethyst, lapis lazuli, carnelian, gold, and amber.
Clay tablets have been found at Knossos with both Linear A and B writing styles that contain records of goods traded and stored. Evidence of this vast trading network can also be found in the palace city of Akrotiri, located on the southwestern tip of Santorini island.
This city had only been rediscovered in the mid-1900s, having been buried by a volcanic eruption. Excavations revealed an elaborate drainage system built under sophisticated, multi-tiered buildings.
The building interiors were decorated with magnificent frescos, furniture, and vessels. The absence of skeletal remains or any valuables hints that the population may have been warned of the eruption and evacuated.
The most important Minoan artifact is the Law Code of Gortyn, which dates to 450 b.c.e. It is inscribed in marble at the Odeion using Dorian Greek in the boustrophedon style (one line is read right to left, then the next left to right).
Most of the laws pertain to property rights, marriage, divorce, and inheritance relating to free men and women and slaves. The content of the code corroborates the concept that men and women were given equal status in Minoan society.
Scholars cannot agree on what exactly brought about the end of the Minoan civilization. It was, perhaps, a combination of calamities over a short period of time. Crete is susceptible to seismic events. It is believed that the volcanic eruption at Thíra (Thera) may have caused a tsunami that decimated the civilization.
Other theories point to the adoption of Linear B writing as proof that the Mycenaeans conquered Crete and treated it as its colony. All that is known for certain is that Minoan culture declined as the Mycenaeans prospered.