Discovering the Minoans

Discovering the Minoans

The best example of a place society are the Minoans, in Crete. The story of the Minoans begins with a Greek myth. According to Greek myth, Minos was a powerful ruler who lived in Crete in a palace so big that it was known as the Labyrinth. The Athenians had wronged him, so every nine years they had to send seven youths and seven beautiful maidens who were devoured by the Minotaur, a fearsome beast half man half bull.

Theseus carries off Ariadne: this vase in the Geometric style is in the British Museum. In her hand, Ariadne has the magic ring-lamp with which she had illuminated their way out of the Labyrinth.

Theseus, an Athenian hero, volunteered to go as one of the seven youths, and having arrived in Crete he promptly seduced the King’s daughter Ariadne, who gave him a ball of string and helped him conceal a dagger under his clothes. Theseus tied the string to the doorpost of the palace, went in, slew the Minotaur and then following the string made his way out. He then set sail for Athens taking the besotted Ariadne with him, only to abandon her on Naxos where she took up with the local god Dionysus. Theseus went back to Athens to become the founding figure of Athenian mythology.

Archaeology has begun to fill out this story. The Minoans remained unknown until in 1894 Arthur Evans, an English archaeologist and explorer, discovered a grand palace at Knossos in Crete, six miles inland from the major city of Heraklion. The palace was huge and Evans realised he had discovered a new civilisation which he named the Minoans after King Minos of the myth. It seemed to be not unlike the palace that twenty years earlier the German explorer Schliemann had discovered at Mycenae.

Minotaut tossing acrobat

ull tossing a man with his horns: was this the origin of the Minotaur? This bronze figure is in the British Museum

At the centre was a great courtyard in which images of bulls were discovered, some of them showing scenes of bull leaping, where young men caught hold of the horns of charging bulls and were tossed over onto their backs, thus providing an explanation of the story of the Minotaur. Evans continued his exploration of the palace, finding a throne room, elaborate ritual bathrooms, and most interesting of all to the archaeologist, extensive ranges of storerooms, or magazines where olive oil was stored in huge jars. This was the clue to how the palace actually functioned: it is a prime example of the gift exchange economy.

Meanwhile other palaces were being discovered: at Phaistos, at Malia, and at Zakro at the far eastern end of Crete. Arthur Evans was a master advocate for this newly discovered civilisation and the Minoans were soon accepted as being one of the most interesting of all the great civilisations. There were also numerous clay tablets cylinders written in an unknown script; it was named Minoan Linear B, and when in 1953 it was triumphantly deciphered and revealed to be an ancient form of Greek, the Minoans increased even more in importance and have become perhaps the prototype of all the palace based civilisations. But to study them further we must start with the fascinating, but still slightly controversial figure of Sir Arthur Evans.


On to Sir Arthur Evans


8th March 2020