Crete was home to the first large-scale civilization of the Aegean Bronze Age. The island's palaces provide evidence of a thriving, relatively peaceful culture, based on control of the sea. Knossos, site of the palace of legendary King Minos, brings to mind aspects of Greek myth. The maze of rooms and passages justifies its description as a labyrinth. Yet the name itself, labyrinthos, also means place of the double axes and thus evokes the image of those common cult objects that seem to have had special meaning or Minoans. ('-os' endings indicate a place.) Cretan frescos and pottery, as well as the architecture, indicate "an intensely dynamic and original culture." (Castledon, p. 167.)


Located at the southern edge of the Aegean, Crete is 150 miles long and 35 miles at its widest point. The island was formed by an upthrust of the African plate underlying the edge of the European plate. This is an unstable part of the Mediterranean basin. Though sea level has risen three to four feet since the Bronze Age, the west end of the island has been raised 25 feet, and the eastern end is only 1/2 foot lower. The island is quite mountainous, with peaks up to 8000 feet. There are over 1000 caves on the island; these provided early shelters, and some developed religious significance. Most areas of cultivatable ground and the best harbors are in the north, where the island slopes to the sea. The largest plain, Mesara, is in the south, running 30 miles east to west; this area also has a good harbor west of Ayia Triada. Upland valleys (especially Omalos and Lasithi) are insulated from the coasts and thus have provided good refuges. There are no navigable rivers. Crete boasts numerous gorges, especially on the south coast; the Samarian Gorge is the longest in Europe. Winters are sunny and mild, with snow only in the mountains; summers are hot and without rain. The island was heavily wooded in the Bronze Age; deforestation has occurred since (as on the mainland), due especially to Venetian use of wood and the ever-present Greek goats.


Like Mycenae, Bronze Age Crete was known largely through myth until the last 100 years. Some of the storerooms at Knossos were discovered in 1878 by Minos Kalokairinos, but the Turkish government prevented extensive excavations. After uncovering Troy and Mycenae, Heinrich Schliemann turned to Crete and sought to buy the hill under which lay the palace of Knossos. Unable to agree with the owner on the number of olive trees on the site--a basis for the price of the parcel, Schliemann abandoned the project. It was left to Arthur Evans to excavate Minos's palace. When Crete was declared an autonomous state in 1898, The political climate allowed Evans to purchase the site and begin excavations in 1900. The first phase proceeded until 1914, when work was interrupted by World War I. Excavations began again in 1922 and continued to 1932. Evans's work at Knossos has raised significant controversy about his archaeological methods. In addition to uncovering the palace, Evans also rebuilt parts of it. Debate continues over the accuracy of his reconstructions and the appropriateness of rebuilding sites.
The turn of this century marked the start of many significant investigations on Crete. The Italian School of Archaeology in Athens has excavated at Phaistos from 1900. Harriet Boyd, while searching for a Minoan settlement in Kavousi deme, was told by a peasant antiquarian about a hill with broken bits of pottery and old walls. Her resulting excavations, begun in 1901, led to the discovery of Gournia, a moderate sized Minoan town. French and Greek excavators began work at Mallia in 1921.


There is no evidence of human habitation on Crete in the Paleolithic Age. Sometime between 6500 and 6000 BCE (the start of the Neolithic Age) human beings first arrived on Crete, probably from the east. The numerous caves provided the first homes and shrines. The dead were interred in the same caves used as dwellings. This practice continued after people moved to houses; the dead were buried under the floor. The practice did not completely disappear from Greece until the late Mycenaean Age.

Knossos is the earliest site so far discovered. (Phaistos was also occupied in the late Neolithic period.) Ten layers have been uncovered at Knossos for the period from 6000 to 3000 BCE. The earliest settlers found a low knoll at the junction of two streams in a sheltered valley. New houses built over the ruins of the old led to the raising of the site. The first settlers built wooden houses and used skins, though there is no evidence of pottery use. The presence of obsidium indicates trade relations with Melos, the only location in Greece with obsidium. Beginning with the ninth level of habitation, houses were made with mud brick walls and hand-made pottery is evident. Stone and bone tools, including bows and arrows, were used. The settlers also made woven cloth. Burials often occurred in caves. The basic social unit was the clan, based on kingship and the communal use of resources. Intermarrying was forbidden; separate clans formed a tribal unit. The location appeared generally peaceful; there were no defensive walls. This environment encouraged increases in general prosperity. Surplus production from agriculture contributed to maintaining skilled craftsmen. This was an important foundation for the Bronze Age.

The Bronze Age begins around 3000 BCE; this was a period of dislocation and upheaval. Immigrants arrived, probably from Anatolia (Turkey) and Egypt or Libya. Finley argues that these peoples were absorbed in a way that led to coherent development on the island. Metallurgy was probably learned from the Cyclades. Circular, above ground tombs were used for collective burials. Significant changes in pottery occurred. Bowls high on pedestals appeared, as did spouted jugs. Burnishing tools were used for decoration (Pirgos Ware.)


A. Greek Legend

Homer describes Crete as a rich and lovely land, densely populated by peoples of several races, each with its own language. According to Homer, Crete had 90 towns, with Knossos as the great city. King Minos is said to have ruled there for 9 years and to have enjoyed the friendship of Zeus. According to Cretan folklore, Minos was the son of Zeus, born of Europa, in a cave, along with his two brothers, Rhadamanthys and Sarpedon. Each brother was associated with one of the major palace sites in Crete: Minos with Knossos, Rhadamanthys with Phaistos, and Sarpedon with Mallia. Minos is said to have received from Zeus a code of laws which were the source of later Cretan codes.

According to myth, Poseidon sent King Minos a great white bull to be sacrificed, but Minos kept it instead. In revenge, Poseidon gave Queen Pasiphae an unnatural passion for the bull. Daedalus, exiled from Athens, arranged a tryst by making a wooden cow in which the queen could hide. The offspring was the minotaur, half bull and half human. In response, Minos imprisoned Daedalus in the maze or labyrinth he had built. (It is interesting to note that the minotaur exists only once in Minoan art finds.)

Minos's son sailed to Athens to participate in athletic competitions. He was killed by the jealous Athenians after he won many events. In retribution, Minos demanded a tribute of seven boys and seven girls to be sent to Crete every eight years, to be eaten by the minotaur. In the third instance, Theseus, the son of Athenian King Aegeus, was one of the boys. Ariadne, Minos's daughter, fell in love with Theseus and gave him a ball of string so that he could find his way out of the labyrinth. Theseus succeeded in killing the minotaur and escaping. Ariadne accompanied him from Knossos, but Theseus left her on Naxos--she later married Dionysus. Theseus returned to Athens but forgot to give the prearranged signal for success--a white sail instead of black. Aegeus thought Theseus had died and threw himself into the see, thus naming it forever.

Minos is generally attributed with establishing the first navy and suppressing piracy (to gain revenues). Thucydides also claims that Minos colonized and ruled the Cyclades and installed his sons as governors. Two different pictures of Minos emerge, however. On the first he is a beneficent ruler, a patron of the arts, a founder of palaces, and an overseer of a civilized society. On the second he is a tyrant and destroyer. The latter may be based in part on Athenian chauvinism, but the differences may also be a result of the name Minos being used dynastically. The first picture may apply to those rulers, perhaps beginning with an early king actually named Minos, who led Knossos in its great days. The second picture may apply to a late ruler at Knossos who used wealth and power to exact tribute from other peoples.

B. Palaces

There were 3 major palaces: Phaistos in the south, Mallia in the north east, and Knossos in the north central part of the island. In addition, a smaller palace at Zakro, on the eastern tip, has been found. There may also have been a large palace in the northwest, as well as other smaller palaces.

The main essentials of the plans are similar. There are large rectangular north-south central courts, with living quarters on the east. Processional stairs led to upper apartments. Royal apartments were in the northwest, including a hall, lustral chamber, and toilet. Shrine rooms were located off the west side of the court. Magazines were also located to the west. There were west courts and a west facade. Silos and pits were off the west court. Kitchens appear to have been located north of the central court.

The palaces generally had no foundation, though Phaistos had massive ones. The walls were rubble packed with clay. Sometimes dressed stones were used, for walls exposed to open air. Characteristic of Minoan construction was the use of posts and lintels, that is, vertical posts were used to support a horizontal lintel, for example, to form a doorway. Light wells, central shafts, were used to provide constant drafts. Timber framework was used, as were large wooden columns, up to 4 feet in diameter. These columns tapered downward. Flat roofs were used-except for domed circular tombs.

The early palaces had layouts and functions symbolic of large, closely-knit households. There was a marked emphasis on the staircase as a conspicuous feature. These palaces had a sophisticated drainage system, to deal with waste water and storm water as well as to supply fresh water. The domestic quarters were relatively small in comparison to the total area.

The rebuilt palaces were more impressive than the first. Zakro occupied 7-8000 square meters; Mallia, 9000; Phaistos, at about half the size of Knossos, was about 10,000. Knossos itself covered 22,000 square meters. It had 3 stories on the west side and 4 or 5 on the east. There were over 1500 rooms, including workshops, storerooms, living quarters, and reception rooms. For the Greeks, it was remembered as a labyrinth. There is a sense of centrifugal movement away from the central court, which served as the gravitational focus. The west wing was largely for cult purposes. The sanctuary was regarded as a separate entity. The throne room, off the central court, was probably a later addition (during the period of mainland influence.) Off the central court a double peaked mountain can be seen--as at Phaistos. Massive storage areas are evident, indicating that Knossos served as a collection center for commodities traded to other cultures.

The walls and floors were often painted. Red was the primary color. Simple geometric designs were used. There is no evidence of pictures before the later palaces (around 1700). Religious scenes were common, but secular ones also appear. The glorification of great persons or historic events was not depicted. Figures are shown sideways, on one plane, with no perspective--reminiscent of Egyptian styles. Landscapes are portrayed to some extent as if seen from the air--a stark contrast to Egyptian style.

In general, there were no defensive walls. The palaces were not situated for protection. Mallia (of MM I) may provide an exception as it appears to have a wall. But there is debate about whether this is a defensive or a retaining wall. In general, there appears to have been peaceful development on Crete until the final destruction of the palaces by war, probably by outside conquerors. Knossos seems to have held out longer than the other palaces and may have been used by the conquerors rebelling against Cretan dominion--perhaps as represented by that second picture of Minos as a tyrant and destroyer.

C. Social Organization

Cretan society is described as a thalassocracy, that is, the economy and government were based on control of the seas. This had an obvious geographical basis, but there was also a technological basis in terms of the shipbuilding skills of the Minoans. During the early palace period, vessels were rounded, with one mast and a single square sail. There were up to 15 oars per side, for ships about 75 feet long. Such vessels could span long, open-sea routes. The Minoans also possessed larger ships to launch against their neighbors, if necessary. Some ships were probably 100 feet long. From about 1600, the Minoans possessed warships with rams. Crete may have been protected by a string of coastal bases (e.g., Khamaizi and Ayia Photiou.) It is likely the Minoans had to defend themselves against neighbors, though Cretan society itself may have been peaceful, based on economic ties and religious attitudes and control.

The society was probably organized along theocratic lines. In religion, the mother goddess (ritual queen) dominated. In general, women were more respected and honored than in later Greece. Priestesses were the main religious figures early on; no kingly figure presides over ceremonial scenes in Cretan art. With the weakening of religious influences, the domination of the priestesses waned from LM 1 (1500)- perhaps due to natural disasters. Still, they retained partial influence through the final fall of Knossos. Throughout the period, male hierarchies probably coexisted, with males likely dominant in government offices.

Knossos probably had some primacy on Crete, but it is likely there were a number of separate states. The social hierarchy probably included the following levels:

Kings/Queens (and perhaps councils)
Landed estates (perhaps nobles and territorial magnates)
Free citizens (with various economic statuses)
Slaves (but few great slave enterprises, though slaves were
used in the construction of the palaces).

The palaces exerted control over their surrounding areas. Crete was sprinkled with thousands of villages whose likely size was probably between 150 and 200 people. These villages would have engaged in both farming and industrial activities (including extracting clay and stone, manufacturing pottery, tools, building materials, as well as figurines and sealstones.)

D. Religion

The chief deity was a goddess of fertility, associated with snakes. Sacred snakes appear as guardian spirits of Cretan houses. This mother goddess had a composite presence, incorporating all aspects of nature. Key aspects involved (1) vegetation, (2) animals, and (3) household. Taylor notes that the separation of these aspects on the mainland began with the Mycenaeans, and eventually led to the emergence of three separate goddesses: Demeter, Artemis, and Athena. For the Minoans the separation was not as clear. "We may eventually come to think in terms of a Minoan Universal Spirit, which manifested itself in many different transformations, each with a different name, character, and function, and which yet somehow was regarded as a single deity." (Castledon, p. 129.)

Male gods appeared as son and husband (closely associated with the bull.) For the Minoans, the male son, associated with vegetation, endured death and resurrection. On Crete this was later applied to Zeus--a development that was repugnant to mainland Greeks. Over time, Cretan religion itself showed the change from female to male cult.

Festival and myth emphasize fertility and focus on initiation and marriage rituals. Animals and birds appear as cult figures; the bull is especially important, as evidenced by the ritual bull-leaping games or ceremonies and the common decorative and cult use of the horns of consecration, which are generally considered to represent bull's horns. A second common cult article is the double axe, found in various sizes and on numerous sites. Minoans developed a sacred conception of trees and plants; this was connected with axes, stones, and pillars. Minoans also developed the idea of Elysion, the Isle of the Blessed--as opposed to the mainland conception of Hades. One Cretan legacy may be a belief in the afterlife.

The Cretans used various locations for cult activities, including open air sanctuaries, caves, and constructed shrines.

Many open air sanctuaries were located on top of hills; these are described as peak sanctuaries (which appear around 2200.) They are found primarily in rural sites, on lower and more accessible mountaintops. They are dramatically located, often bare and windswept: "Solitary, raised to the skies, exposed to the wind, silent but for the sounds of birds and wild goats, the peaks must have seemed like places that were propitious for meetings with the gods." (Castledon, p. 54.) Numerous artifacts have been discovered at these sites. Among them are clay figurines (mostly of women), standing erect, with fist placed on the forehead--perhaps in a gesture of supplication.

Cave sanctuaries were important throughout the period--though less than 40 of the 1000 caves on the island held religious significance. Animal sacrifices occurred both inside and outside the caves; agricultural goods were also left as offerings. Five caves are of special interest:

1) Kamares cave, located on the south slope of Mt Ida: A holy place for the first palace at Phaistos, it was not used after the fall of the early palace. Kamares ware pottery was found here.
2) Idean cave, on the east slopes of Mt Ida: the principle site for the worship of Zeus, it was in use through the 6th century BCE.
3) Arkalochori cave, 12 miles south of Knossos: this cave was used as a sanctuary from 2000-1450 BCE. An earthquake collapsed the roof, but offerings continued until 1100 BCE. The cave was probably associated with Zeus or Athena (a warlike deity.)
4) Psychro cave, 10 miles east of Arkalochori, also known as the Dictyean cave: considered to be the birthplace of Zeus, this cave has an upper grotto with an altar and a lower grotto where many bronze objects have been found. The cave came into use around 1700 BCE (when Kamares cave was deserted) and continued to be used to the 6th century BCE.
5) Amnisos cave, at the harbor of Knossos: this was a sanctuary for the goddess of childbirth.

The simplest constructed shrines were a single room with a bench for offerings. Idols and altars have been found. More complex shrines involved buildings with several rooms. Palaces include areas that served as shrines. Castledon notes that cult activities increasingly centered on the palaces, which he describes as temples. The Tripartite Shrine at Knossos, with its three cellae, are interpreted by Castledon to represent the three realms of the cosmos: the underworld, the earth, and the heavens. (Castledon, p. 133.)

Mt Juktas, which served Knossos, combines aspects of all three types of sanctuary. Located on a peak, a temple was built at an entrance to a sacred cave. The temple is a long, narrow building with an alter and pyre. (Many double axes have been discovered here.) The sanctuary is protected by a 740 meter temenos wall, 3 meters wide and 4 high (built about 2100.) According to Cretan folklore, Mt Juktas is the burial place of Zeus. Given the mainland belief in the immortality of Zeus, this story gained for the Cretans the reputation as liars.

There is evidence of a single human sacrifice on Crete--such sacrifices seem to be extremely unusual. At a temple site in north central Crete, 4 miles south of Knossos, a human sacrifice seems to have been used in an attempt to ward of an earthquake. This appears to have taken place around 1700, the time of the destruction of the old palaces.

E. Arts, Crafts, Writing

Minoan artifacts demonstrate both their practical and artistic skills. Numerous materials were used. Stone vases were produced as well as pottery versions. Minoans also did much work with metal, faience, and ivory. Large wooden sculptures may have been produced, as were many engraving seals (from EM II, about 2500.) Minoans excelled in miniature works of art.

Minoans produced a wide variety of pottery. Various areas of Crete often developed their own distinctive styles, as summarized by Castledon:

PIRGOS WARE: burnish on red, grey or light brown surface; used on goblets (named after site northeast of Knossos, from 2700)

AGIOS ONOUFRIOS WARE: simple linear designs (black, brown or red) on yellow background (found on site near Phaistos, 2500)

ANIMAL SHAPES: vases shaped like birds or animals (2500)

VASILIKI WARE: mottled texture produced with reddish-brown wash (applied unevenly)--end of pattern burnish; shapes include spouted teapots and jugs (eastern Crete, 2500)

About 2000, at roughly the start of the old palace period, the use of fast wheels and kilns led to refinements in pottery (refined shapes, thinner walls, more consistent firing.) Decorated pottery exhibited a black lustrous surface with spiral patterns (white, purple, orange, red.)

KAMARES WARE: thin walled vessels (imitating metal vessels); polychrome decorations--height of Minoan pottery making (produced only briefly, ca 1900, in the first palace period.)

Early marine reliefs appear about 1600 (during the new palace period) though the Marine Style pottery truly emerges only late:

MARINE STYLE: stylized natural designs of marine animals, e.g., octopi, depicted to fill the surface space of the jar (1500)

FLORAL STYLE: similar to marine style, with reeds and plants portrayed (1500).

With the final destruction of most new palaces and the rebuilding and supremacy of Knossos (probably under mainland control), new pottery styles emerged:

PALACE STYLE: more formal and symmetrical: "restrained, disciplined formality that seems foreign to the Minoan spirit" (Castledon, p. 106.) (1450)

Decorations became more schematic through the 14th century; decorations grew minimal through the 13th century--the periods of Mycenaean influence. With the decline of Mycenaean civilization, further changes are evident:

GRANARY STYLE: meager decorations in horizontal bands (1100)

CLOSE STYLE: designs constrained by multiple borders (1100)

Stone vases reached their height after 1700. Various materials were used, including alabaster, gypsum, marble, and porphyry. There was also a large metal-working industry, producing copper and bronze vessels.

Sealstones were devised for security; the varied designs provided a personal identifying stamp. Elaborate scenes were depicted; there is evidence of the use of magnifying glasses for carving. A variety of materials were used, including ivory and bone. After 1600, the stones were replaced for the wealthy by metal signet rings.

Minoan frescos were produced in various sizes and forms. Some are true frescos, i.e., painted on wet plaster; others were painted on dry plaster. Colors included red, black, blue, and yellow. Natural scenes were emphasized, as were processional scenes and depictions of daily and ceremonial activities. The frescos have a naturalistic style. Castledon notes, however, that this is somewhat misleading. In many cases, what is depicted is not a scene from nature. Plants are not always accurately portrayed--some are unidentifiable, and mythic animals are also evident. "In this sense, much of the art work is as abstract, generalized and impersonal as that of the ancient Egyptians. What gives it the illusion of immediacy and modernity is the sense of movement and vitality, and the spontaneity of the individual craft workers." (Castledon, pp. 108-109.)
The earliest example of writing is dated to EM I (at Knossos). It is a pictographic or hieroglyphic script. There are resemblances to earliest Egyptian script as well as some similarities to Hittite and Cypriot scripts. But on the whole, the Cretan script may have been home-grown.

Linear A, the early linear script, appeared during the early New Palace period (MM 3). The hieroglyphic script continued alongside the new linear script, which probably was developed at the end of the Old Palace period. Linear A perhaps developed as a stylized and simplified version of the hieroglyphic signs. It was used over a wide area on Crete--though examples of Linear A outside Crete are rare. Though there were some local variations, there were great resemblances.

Linear B was a later script, used at Knossos in its last period (1450-1375), just before its final destruction. It is also found on the mainland. This was not a development of Linear A but a separate language. Many signs are different, and fractions are handled differently, based on a system from Mesopotamia as opposed to one from Egypt. The evolution of Linear B at Knossos may be evidence of the mainland Greece influence there, after the major palace destructions of around 1450. Linear B may have been developed by Minoans for the mainland (Mycenaean) language. Linear B, however, is clearly a form of Greek, and may have originated on the mainland.

F. Life in Minoan Crete

Minoans were of slight build, on average about 5' 6" tall. They had dark hair and eyes and sallow complexions. The basic male dress was a loin cloth (perhaps with a codpiece.) Women's skirts were often flounced--perhaps an influence from Mesopotamia. Wool was the staple for cloth. An important industry was making purple dye (from crushing murex shells) for woolens. People walked barefoot in houses and for ceremonies. Boots and sandals were worn otherwise. Gold and silver jewelry was evident, with gold perhaps the more plentiful.

The Cretan diet was varied, including wheat, barley, perhaps millet; cattle, sheep, goats, and domestic pigs; wild meat such as deer and boar; grapes, pears, figs, and quinces; fish and octopus. Fishing methods included hook and line, nets, baskets, and spears. Fig, olive trees and date palms were considered sacred. Dogs were used in hunting. Indigenous, wild cats were evident on Crete; domestic cats as well as monkeys may have come from Egypt.

Houses were generally one story, but sometimes two. Windows were more frequent on top. Oiled parchment probably served in place of glass. Houses included light wells, small open wells to provide light and air. Lavatories were set against the outside walls. Large houses, like palaces, had a dining hall above the kitchen and food stores.

Wheeled vehicles were used on Crete from about 2000, though charioteers were an important part of the Minoan military only very late, after 1450. Minoan chariots were similar to Mycenaean versions, with lightweight bodies and drawn by two horses. (It is possible, therefore, that it was Mycenaeans who introduced chariotry to Crete.)

Crete was generally self-sufficient. It imported some copper and needed to import tin. Otherwise, luxuries materials were imported, e.g., gold, silver, emery, fine stones, and ivory. Many such items may have been imported as raw material for use by local craftsmen.

There was extensive trade across the Aegean and to Egypt. This was controlled by the palaces, but private merchants were heavily involved. The importance of trading led to an increase in the numbers and influence of the merchant class. Probably by the new palace period, a rudimentary form of money was used: copper ingots for weighing against other commodities. "The tablets reveal the Minoans as lovers of minutely recorded detail; their labyrinthine architecture reveals a love of complexity and puzzles. It may be that the Minoans enjoyed the social and diplomatic aspects of long-drawn-out negotiations over the price of a cargo with Egyptian, Cypriot, or Trojan merchants. That love of haggling is still there in the Mediterranean economy, and maybe it began with the Minoan traders." (Castledon, p. 122.)


Through EM I, the start of the Bronze Age, burial was through inhumation in caves or rock shelters; cremation was infrequent before the Bronze Age. In the Early Bronze Age, burials occurred in collective tombs, for a clan or extended family, over a number of generations. Generally there were no grave goods, and this custom continued in some areas until the end of the 15th century. In the Mesara plain and a few other locations, domed, circular structures containing hundreds of burials have been found. These tribal tombs eventually gave way to smaller tombs.

In the Middle Minoan period (the Middle Bronze Age,) bodies were trussed, knees to chin, and squeezed into a storage jar. Clay coffins appeared at Knossos at the end of the period, as did tombs carved out of soft limestone. Caves continued to be used in some areas.

After the mid 15th century, burial was often in small tombs, of 3 or 4 or even 1 or 2. More lavish burials emerged. At Knossos after 1450, thalos tombs with a circular chamber deep in the ground appeared--possibly a mainland influence.


The situation in Crete was unsettled at the end of the Bronze Age. This was a period of disturbance and of intermingling of peoples. Evidence of the instability can be found in cities of refuge, built on commanded hills, that were founded in the 12th century. (After 800, these cities were developed into city-states or, if they were inaccessible, abandoned.)

In the early 1200s, large numbers of immigrants arrived from the mainland; mainland characteristics appear on LM 3 pottery. Around 1150, a second wave arrived form the mainland; original Cretans moved to the high hills. There is speculation that some moved to Palestine. A final wave from the mainland, probably the Dorians, followed. Eventually all of Crete came under Dorian control; Minoan pockets remained primarily on the far east of Crete. Thus the ultimate result of events at the end of the Bronze Age was the dominance of Greek speakers.


A. The Palaces

1. KNOSSOS--Link to "Quick Tour" of Knossos

The legendary palace of Minos, which was described as a labyrinth by ancient Greeks, is the largest of the Minoan palaces. Like the other sites, the first palace at Knossos was destroyed around 1700, probably by earthquakes or other natural disaster. A new palace, whose remains are visible today, was built on the same site. Architects at Knossos began with the central court and built around it, out and up, as needed. Evidence for upper stories is gleaned from those areas with reinforced (wider and deeper) foundations. Areas off the central court include:

East: A staircase led down to the Hall of Double Axes, the queen's hall, bath and toilets.
West: The pillar crypt was located off the central court: these were dark rooms, with evidence of ancient sacrifices; they were connect with storerooms on the west side (perhaps evidence that the ruler was a priest(ess)/king (queen).) Also off the west side was a throne room--though this dates to the Mycenaean period. (Linear B tablets were found here; there are no thrones in other palaces).

The propylon held frescos with bullring scenes--this may have been a guardroom. A staircase led to the central court; the tripartite columnar shrine was located south of the staircase. A grand staircase led up to the piano nobile--this probably held the royal audience hall of the early palaces. On the west court, orthostats show marks of fire--perhaps a trace of the first palace in the west wall.

The west magazines could hold 400 pithoi (about 16,000 gallons.) There is evidence
that trade extended to Sparta. Near the entrance of the palace are three large pits. These are associated with the first palace, but their use is unknown. (They were covered over during the period of the later palace.) They may have been used for grain storage.

While other Minoan palaces were destroyed around 1450, Knossos continued, perhaps under Mycenaean control, until about 1375, when it too was destroyed.


According to myth, Phaistos was founded by Rhadamanthys, one of the three sons of Zeus and Europa--Minoa and Sarpedon were the others. Rhadamanthys is said to have visited the cave of Zeus every nine years, and to have brought back new laws to be enforced throughout his kingdom. The Gortyn code supposedly originated with him.

Phaistos is in the south central part of the island. The area was settled in the Neolithic period, and there is evidence of pre-Minoan palaces. The first Minoan palace was originally ravaged by fire and earthquake and was rebuilt. It was then almost entirely destroyed by earthquake and fire about 1700. The second Minoan palace was built over the ruins of the first. This second palace was destroyed about 1450.


According to myth, this was the palace of Sarpedon, one of three sons of Zeus and Europa. Its site is a strange location for a palace: the area is hot and uncomfortable in the summer; there are no sources of water other than springs. It is also close to the sea--perhaps indicating again a lack of fear of attack. The palace is as large as Phaistos (9,000 sq meters), but the architecture, building materials, and decorations do not compare with Phaistos or Knossos. The palace is constructed of simple materials; no gypsum is used. It is orderly, but not opulent.

Its history parallels Knossos: The original palace was built around 1900; this was destroyed around 1700; it was rebuilt immediately. This second palace was destroyed around 1450. Here there is a difference with Knossos; Mallia was not re occupied; there is no evidence of Mycenaean occupation.

Around the palace there are several housing blocks and roads. There is evidence of an extensive city extending to the sea. To the northwest of the palace, there are buildings and storehouses. Such buildings here may imply the existence of an agora and prytaneion. Perhaps the seeds of the Greek polis are here.

B. Minoan Villages


The site was inhabited as early as 3000, but there were no settlements of importance until around 1650; it was a significant Minoan town by 1600. Located in the northeast (between Kato Zakro and Knossos), it lies on the narrowest part of the island and may have prospered (like Corinth) by lying at crossroads.

Gournia is a medium sized Minoan town, not really a palace site. Numerous objects for everyday use have been uncovered, including molds for bronzes, loom weights, and carpenters' kits. This was an industrial town, with inhabitants occupied in fishing, weaving, bronze casting, and terracotta production.

Gournia was a peaceful town; there are no fortifications. Roads are paved with cobblestones. Most roads radiate from the center, though there are a few ring roads. There are over 70 tightly packed houses. Lower courses were made of rubble, upper of mud brick. Houses often had 2 stories, with flat roofs and plaster walls. The area was ruled by a governor; there is a miniature version of a palace (1/10 the size of Knossos.)

The town was destroyed about 1500, but was rebuilt by Mycenaeans--there is a house with a megaron evident. The site was ultimately abandoned about 1200.


Located about 3 km from Phaistos, on the road between Phaistos and the sea, Ayia Triada's relation to Phaistos is unclear. There was an elaborate and beautiful structure here, sometimes called a palace but more like a weekend or summer villa. It was built in the first half of the 16th century--the period of the second palace at Phaistos. It was furnished with superb art works. The villa was destroyed at the end of the 15th century.

There are a number of buildings around the villa, on the north and west quarters- later than the villa. There is a necropolis of circular tombs, which included a marble sarcophagus from about 1400. There are also ruins of a settlement with an agora, dating from 1375 to 1100.

A Minoan temple has been found on the southeast edge of the village. It may date from 1700 and included superb frescos.

C. A City Colony?

AKROTIRI (on Santorini)

The first evidence of settlements on the volcanic island of Santorini (the southernmost island in the Cyclades) comes from between 3200 and 3000. Bronze was used on these sites--there is no evidence of Neolithic settlements. Most remains from the Bronze Age date from 1600-1500--just before the eruption which sent much of the island falling into the sea. No palaces have been excavated on the island.

The large Bronze Age city of Akrotiri retains signs of the earlier Cycladic culture but with strong Minoan influences. The extent of the site is unclear. Test trenches on the outskirts indicate an area of about 200,000 square meters, with a population of between 4000 and 5000.

Earthquake destroyed the town prior to the eruption, but people returned and rebuilt. The city was very prosperous during this period. The area exported grains, wine, and grapes. People had time to leave before the final eruption--though there is evidence that some squatters may still have been inhabiting the site.
The city was divided into blocks and then houses. The irregular shapes of buildings is similar to Minoan architecture. Further similarities include the use of pier and door construction, angled stairways, and large windows open to the street. One lustral basin has been found. On the other hand, only one example of the horns of consecration and no double axes have been found.

Building materials were rubble and clay, mud brick reinforced with straw, timber, stucco (inside and out). Each house made its own bread and had its own drainage system--water was pumped under paved streets. Almost every house had a loom.

Ashlar masonry was used in fine buildings and is often found at the corners of ordinary buildings (perhaps for support). Frescos have been found in the upper stories of every house. Landscapes, animals and people were depicted. Jars and pithoi with spiral motif, in the Cycladic style, are evident.

D. Classical Sites


Gortyn was populated during the Minoan Age and was under the rule of Phaistos. Much later, with the arrival of the Dorians, the city rose in importance. It conquered Phaistos and Matala in the 3rd century. It became the capitol of Crete under the Romans, from 67 AD to 395. St. Paul visited Crete in 59. His companion Titus (as the first bishop of the island) built a church at Gortyn, and the site became the center of Christian Crete. After the Arab invasion of 824, the city was abandoned. A new settlement was later founded outside the old.

The law code dates from the 5th century BCE (between 480 and 460). It was originally dated earlier (6th century) because the script was more conservative than 5th century Attic. The alphabet has only 18 letters; it includes F (digamma) but lacks 6 others. The form of some letters is archaic. In addition, the content of the code may reflect earlier legislation.

The code was inscribed on the bouleuterion of the agora. The Romans built an odeon over the ruins of the bouleuterion, about 100 BCE. The north wall of the old building, with the tablets, was preserved. (The corridor was reused as a mill sluice in the 19th century.) The code covers 42 blocks, with 12 law texts. It was written in a Dorian-Cretan dialect, "as the cow goes," that is, back and forth. The inscriptions provided the complete code of laws for the city.

Examples from the Gortyn Code:
Fines for rape:
against free woman: 100 staters
against non-citizen: 10 staters
against virgin house slave: 2 staters
against non-virgin slave: 1-2 obols
by slave against citizen: 200 staters
Fines for adultery:
with free woman (at home) 100 staters
with free woman (at another house): 50 staters
with non-citizen's wife: 10 staters
by slave, with free woman (at home): 200 staters
by slave, with free woman (another house): 100 staters

THERA (Classical City on Santorini)

The island was uninhabited for centuries after the earthquake that reduced the circular island of Santorini to a small semi-circular rim. In the 11th century, the Dorians inhabited the island and founded the ancient city of Thera. This city founded a colony at Cyrene (on the northern coast of Africa) around 630. The classical city was a member of Athens's League. Most of the ruins date from the Hellenistic and Byzantine eras.

During the Hellenistic period, the site served as a naval base for the Ptolemies. The island ultimately became part of the Roman province of Asia. In the Middle Ages, it was ruled by Venice, in the Duchy of Naxos. It was named Santorini by the Venetians, after the island's patron saint, Irene. The island was captured by the Turks in 1537.

Compiled from:
Primary Sources:

Castleden, Rodney, Minoans: Life in Bronze Age Crete (NY: Routledge, 1990).

Cole, Dan, Course Notes for Ancient Greece, spring 1989.

Finley, M. I., Early Greece: The Bronze and Archaic Ages (NY: W. W. Norton, 1970).

Hood, Sinclair, The Minoans (NY: Praeger Pubs., 1971).

Michailidou, Anna, Knossos (Athens, GR: Ekdotike Athenon S.A., 1989).

Secondary Sources:

Amos, H. D. and A. G. P. Lang, These Were the Greeks (Chester Springs, PA: Dufour Editions, Inc., 1982).

Andronicos, Manolis, Herakleion Museum (Athens, GR: Ekdotike Athenon S.A., 1985).

Burn, A.R., The Pelican History of Greece (Baltimore, MD: Penguin Books, 1966)

Geldard, Richard G., The Traveler's Key to Ancient Greece (New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1989).

Hafner, German, Art of Crete, Mycenae, and Greece (NY: Harry N. Abrams, 1968).

Higgins, Reynold, Minoan and Mycenaean Art (NY: Oxford Univ. Press, 1981).

Hopper, R. J., The Early Greeks (NY: Barnes and Noble, 1976).

Kitto, H.D.F., The Greeks (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 1957)

Murray, Gilbert, Five Stages of Greek Religion (Garden City, NY: Doubleday Anchor, 1951).

Nilsson, Martin, A History of Greek Religion (New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Co., 1964).

Payne, Robert, The Splendour of Greece (London, ENG: Pan Books, Ltd., 1960).

Phaidon Cultural Guide, Greece (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1985).

Vermeule, Emily, Greece in the Bronze Age (Chicago, IL: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1972).

Willetts, R. F., The Civilization of Ancient Crete (Berkeley: U. of California Press, 1977).

Woodford, Susan, Introduction to the History of Art: Greece and Rome (NY: Cambridge University Press, 1982).