Ancient Tablets May Reveal What Destroyed Minoan Civilization

The Minoans and their capital Knossos weren’t incinerated by volcanic blast from Thera or flattened by quake as thought, but tellingly: their writing system changed.

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Knossos palace, Crete: The hub of Minoan civilization
Knossos palace, Crete: The hub of Minoan civilizationCredit: Timofeev Vladimir / Shutterstock
Philippe Bohstrom
Philippe Bohstrom
Philippe Bohstrom
Philippe Bohstrom

The mystery of what happened to the Minoan civilization has tormented archaeologists for over a century, and the tale has now taken a new twist. Nothing happened to them, say archaeologists who have been excavating the island of Crete for over thirty years.

This extraordinary people, who produced palatial architecture unparalleled in the Aegean region at the time, were not immolated by the volcanic eruption of Thera as once thought, crushed by earthquake, or squashed by Mycenaean Greece as more recently supposed. Rather, the Minoans, who had for centuries wielded influence throughout the Aegean, did experience earthquakes that rattled them, were indeed badly weakened by the volcanic blast from Thera on the nearby island of Santorini, and did experience the unamiable attentions of the mainland Greeks.

But although the two cultures appear to have struggled, over time the elite elements of both became virtually indistinguishable, after 1450 B.C.E., if not earlier. Minoan influence as such would recede and the by-then-Mycenaeanised islanders would soldier on until the great collapse of civilization around the Mediterranean Basin, around 1,200 B.C.E.

Queens’s bathroom and bath with spiral fresco from the royal apartments at the palace of KnossosCredit: Iannis Papadakis for Colin Macdo

It bears adding that archaeologists had once thought the Minoans must have "come from somewhere else" because of their advancement compared with the surroundings. But genetic analyses in 2017 concluded that both the Minoans and Mycenaeans descended from the stone-age farmers of western Anatolia and the Aegean, plus smidgens of heritage from the Caucasus and Iran. The two were very closely related.

Yet the destruction layers found in the main Minoan city of Knossos weren’t the result of Theran ash raining down 3,600 years ago but may be debris from Minoan resistance to Mycenaean incursions, or possibly from local rebellions between 1470 to 1450 B.C.E., sums up Colin Macdonald, an archaeologist with the British School in Athens.

By the way, the Minoans they didn’t call themselves “Minoans”. That is a latter-day name awarded to the prehistoric island residents deriving from their legendary king Minos.

Collapse of the volcano theory

The theory that the volcano Thera put paid to the Minoans has long been put to rest.

The volcano on Santorini did not destroy life in Knosses,Credit: Haaretz

Yes, there had been an eruption in the 16th century B.C.E. and it had been a big one, rivaled in modern times only by the eruption of Krakatoa.

Elaborately decorated Minoan pithos (clay jar) found in the west wing of the palace, KnossosCredit: Iannis Papadakis for Colin Macdonald

The island of Santorini was evacuated and buried under meters of pumice. The shores of Crete would have been hit by tsunamis, which also wrecked the Knossos port on that island. Though much of the ash-fall blew in other directions, the eruption apparently did trigger decline on the island, the east part of which became quite depopulated. 

However: “Thera’s eruption did not directly affect Knossos – no volcanic-induced earthquake or tsunami struck the palace which, in any case, is 100 meters above sea level,” Macdonald points out.

Star-shaped stonemason's mark: These too changed after 1450 B.C.E.: after that date, no stonemason marks were made. Credit: Iannis Papadakis for Colin Macdonald

However, archaeologists have found evidence of widespread destruction in the settlements of ancient Crete a generation or two after Thera’s eruption. How the devastation was caused has yet to be demonstrated.

Absent specific indicators, the cause could have been earthquake, famine, attacks from mainland centers of ancient Greece, like Mycenae, or some combination of the above, though a wholescale invasion of marauding Mycenaean mainlanders as the central factor seems less likely.

It is also theoretically possible that Knossos, not having been much physically affected by the eruption, tried to flex its muscle and attacked other centers of civilization on its own home island, Crete. Or, there could have been local unrest: class struggles, with the country people rising up against the elites.

What can be said is that some decades after the destruction in Crete in about 1450 B,C.E., a different style of burial custom appeared at Knossos and the administration adopted a new language and writing system.

Restored pithos (storage jars) from the West magazines at the palace of Knossos. The palace was both a royal residence and “a great store”Credit: Iannis Papadakis for Colin Macdonald

Say it in Linear B

It is the change in writing system that indicates top-down change at Knossos.

The earliest writing in Crete dates to the early Bronze Age and was hieroglyphic. That was followed by a syllabic writing system called Linear A, one of the oldest known in the world, which remains undeciphered to this day.

But starting around 1450 B.C.E., the very time of the destruction layers in Crete, the tablets archaeologists find in Knossos were written in Linear B, which was the Greek and Mycenaean writing system at the time.

Possibly, the Minoan administrative apparatus at Knossos was taken over by Greeks from the mainland; or Knossos came under outright control of Greek mainland centers, perhaps even Mycenae.

Minoan tablet about oil offerings to deities, dated 1450-1375 B.C.E., found at Knossos - and written in Linear BCredit: Ann Wuyts

New discoveries by the Greek Archaeological Service at the turn of the 21st century, at the west Cretan site of Chania, included a cemetery with Mycenaean-style burials. Linear B writing also appears in Chania, though in the 13th century B.C.E., apparently later than at Knossos.

Another change after 1450 B.C.E. is that the practice by stonemasons of leaving marks on their work, disappeared from Knossos. (This was a practice throughout the region, not a local invention.)

The bottom line is that by the 14th century B.C.E., the Mycenaeans seem to have overrun Minoan interests in the eastern Mediterranean. Mycenaean material culture became ubiquitous in the south Aegean Sea, where once Minoan influence had been strong.

It was quite the reversal of fate.In the centuries before the eruption, Cretan culture had exercised notable influence on the Greek mainland. But even though the blast didn’t necessarily affect Knossos too much directly, it plausibly weakened Cretan civilizations, opening the door to Mycenaean influences, as reflected in changes in administration and burial practices.

With the administration, perhaps even religious authority collapsed. “This could well have manifested itself in local uprisings and the burning of administrative and elite buildings,” Macdonald speculates. If the eruption did not break the backbone of Minoan civilization, it may have fractured its economy, and Mycenae - the powerhouse of mainland Greece – exploited that.

Elaborate pithoi (storage jars) in KnossosCredit: Iannis Papadakis for Colin Macdonald

This theory is supported by the fact that the eruption destroyed the Theran port that had been aligned with Crete and Knossos, plausibly enabling the Mycenaeans to develop their own trading hubs, such as the other largest site in the Cyclades, namely Phylakopi, on Milos. There is no doubt that Phylakopi was instrumental in promoting the Mycenaean Greek language and writing, Linear B, as the lingua franca of Aegean economy after the eruption.

Human sacrifice and King Minos the Terrible

By the time of the classical authors of Greece and Rome (700 B.C.E. -100 C.E.), there was little concrete memory of the Minoans, it seems, and what little they thought they knew seems negative. Epimenides, a Knossian philosopher and soothsayer of the 7th century B.C.E., apparently wrote that “all Cretans are liars” - immortalized years later in Saint Paul’s letter to Titus (1:12-13).

Even so, the ancient Greek myths refer to Crete time and again - perhaps because of their common origin.

One myth tells of Europa, a beautiful Phoenician princess whom Zeus seduced in the guise of a bull. When Europa came to pat the beautiful animal and even dared to sit on its back, the “bull” rushed away over land and sea to Crete, were he resumed his godly guise and poured out his declarations of love. Europa later became the mother of Knossos’ King Minos — according to Greek lore, the first king of Crete.

North East entrance of the palace of Knossos: Gorgeous art made past scholars think the Minoans came from "somewhere else"Credit: Iannis Papadakis for Colin Macdo

Minos, according to another legend, ordered the construction of a labyrinth, in which the fabled half-bull half-man Minotaur resided. Our word “labyrinth” may be related to labrys, a double-headed ax carved onto dressed stones throughout the palace at Knossos. Myth has it that after losing a war with Crete, the people of Athens were compelled every nine years to send seven boys and seven girls as sacrifices to the Minotaur. These youths were released into the labyrinth, where they would wander and the Minotaur would eat them.

While the Minotaur was legend, archaeology has found evidence for human sacrifice in ancient Greek circles, including at Knossos and at the sacred site of Anemospilia, a few kilometers to the south. In Knossos itself, the remains of children, dismembered and defleshed using obsidian blades, were discovered in a religious or cult context associated with to the period following the eruption of Thera. Human sacrifice was also found at Anemospilia, dating about two centuries earlier.

During their heyday from about 1750 to 1450 B.C.E. the Minoans were first and foremost a sea power, as evident in palace frescos in Knossos and Theram at Akrotiri. Wall art from Akrotiri displays Minoan ships entering the port. More than a thousand years later, the Greeks remained impressed by the Cretan achievement:

“Minos... was the first person to organize a navy. He controlled the greater part of what is now called the Aegean Sea; he ruled over the Cyclades, in most of which he founded colonies” - Thucydides 1.4.

In the golden age of the Minoan civilization, they traded with Egypt, the Levant, the Aegean, Asia Minor and less so beyond Italy and Sicily, and possibly as far as Spain and up the Atlantic coast. But all things come to an end. 

According to historians, Knossos was Europe’s oldest proper city, established between 2000 to 1900 B.C.E.. Its palace had features considered very advanced for the time, for instance monumental architecture, stone-built storm drains and sewers, and lavatories. And although the Minoans did suffer from earthquakes, studies of the architectural remains at the palace of Knossos have shown that the basic plan remained the same over 500 years, with some major renovations, repairs and additional buildings that added to the palace’s grandeur.

2nd millennium BCE fresco from the palace of Akrotiri, on the island of Thera. The style is similar pf those discovered on the Minoan palaces on Crete. Credit: Iannis Papadakis for Colin Macdo

“Earthquakes were not ‘game changers’, but often spurred the authorities to try something new,” says Macdonald adding, “The earthquakes were important in terms of architectural change but not of cultural discontinuity.”

The palace storerooms and advanced drainage systems, built around 2000 B.C.E., remained in use until the final destruction of the palace in the 14th century B.C.E. 

The palace was destroyed sometime in the 14th century B.C.E., perhaps towards its end, by a conflagration that baked the Linear B clay tablets and seal impressions.

In the 13th century B.C.E., there are scattered signs of reoccupation in the badly damaged palace buildings. But by this time the Minoans, with or without the “Mycenaean veneer”, had largely disappeared from the world stage of history.

Knossos palace, Crete: The hub of Minoan civilization Credit: Iannis Papadakis for Colin Macdonald