Minoan Culture, Bronze Age culture that developed on the island of Crete prior to the coming of the Greeks (see Achaeans). It is one of three principal cultures of Aegean civilization; the other two are the Cycladic culture, which developed in the Cyclades, and the Mycenaean, which developed on mainland Greece in late Helladic times. Minoan culture reached its height in the 2nd millennium BC at Knossos, Phaestos, Mallia, and other flourishing centers.
Little was known about Minoan culture before the discovery (1900) of a great palace at Knossos by the British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans, who named the culture it represented Minoan, in association with Minos the legendary king. The palace at Knossos was probably damaged by an earthquake about 1700 BC, a date that marked the end of one phase of the early history of Crete. A new dynasty developed an even more brilliant culture. The palace at Knossos was rebuilt on a more elaborate scale; it rose to three or four stories and contained many extensive rooms and passages and a luxuriously decorated throne room. Conspicuous among the many paintings were scenes of bull-leaping, a sport that may have given rise to the later Greek myth of the Minotaur. Sanctuaries within the palace provided a place for the worship of a mother goddess, probably the one called Rhea by the Greeks. Associated with her worship was the double ax, pictures of which appear on some of the walls of the palace. In the ruins were also found handsome examples of sculpture and metalwork. Evidence exists that the Minoans had a complex system of weights and measures.
The kings of Knossos attained their greatest power about 1600 BC, when they controlled the entire Aegean area and traded extensively with Egypt. The destruction of Knossos and the collapse of Minoan culture coincided with the beginning of the most flourishing period of Mycenaean civilization in Greece; this coincidence suggests that the warlike Mycenaeans attacked and destroyed the Minoan civilization.
Excavations on Crete after 1900 revealed some 3000 clay tablets inscribed with two scripts, called Linear A and Linear B. The earlier of the two, employed by the Minoans, was Linear A and it was already flourishing about 1750 BC; it has not been deciphered. Minoans also added inked Linear A inscriptions to stone and terra-cotta vessels. A unique clay disk found at the site of Phaestos is often adduced as the earliest example of printingthat is, reproducing written text by using "letter" stamps; the disk was stamped on both sides, while still wet, with a series of sealstones comprising a set of 45 symbols.
Linear B tablets were found on Crete and also at Pylos and Mycenae on the Greek mainland; the majority of tablets are dated between 1400 BC and 1150 BC. In 1952 the British architect and cryptographer Michael Ventris and John Chadwick deciphered Linear B and identified the language it transcribes as an early Greek dialect (see Greek Language).
For more information on Minoan art see Aegean Civilization: Aegean Art and Architecture.
See also Crete; Knossos; Mycenae.