Archaeology Odyssey 7:2, March/April 2004
The Minoans of Crete: Europe’s Oldest Civilization


To think of the Minoans, the Bronze Age inhabitants of Crete, is to think of snake-goddess figurines, sculpted and painted bulls, frescoes depicting athletes, and tablets inscribed with strange—and sometimes indecipherable—writing. We imagine palaces with broad staircases, paved courtyards and painted walls commanding splendid views of the surrounding terrain.

As the Booker Prize-winning British novelist Barry Unsworth notes in “Imagining the Minoans,” the first of three articles in this issue on ancient Crete, the legacy of our ancient European ancestors continues to inflame the imagination. Not surprisingly, Crete is also interesting to archaeologists, who have subjected the Minoans to the lens of science (and pseudo-science). In “Excavating Minoan Sites,” James D. Muhly, the former director of the American School of Classical Studies in Athens, narrates Crete’s colorful, if frustrating, excavation history, detailing the controversies that continue to invite fervent debate.

The first, and most famous, of Crete’s excavators was Sir Arthur Evans, who began digging at Knossos in 1900. It was Evans who coined the name “Minoan,” after King Minos, the ruler of Crete in Greek myth. (According to legend, Minos commissioned the Athenian architect Daedalus to construct the labyrinth; in its disorienting maze of corridors lived the Minotaur, a creature with a man’s body and a bull’s head that devoured all it encountered, until the hero Theseus managed to kill it.)

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