The Minoans: How They Lived, and How They Died

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The Other Side of History: Daily Life in the Ancient World

By Robert Garland, Ph.D., Colgate University

Although many great civilizations were built around rivers, some picked the sea and controlled it to build theirs. The Minoans were one of the sea-based civilizations; in fact, the first thalassocracy. However, their human sacrifices did not satisfy nature, and a Pompeii-story happened on their island.

Knossos palace at Crete, Greece.
The Minoans were a civilized nation that lost their glory, perhaps to the volcano on Santorini. (Image: Timofeev Vladimir/Shutterstock)

In 3000 B.C., the Mediterranean Sea hosted one of the biggest civilizations of that time, and perhaps the first thalassocracy – an empire based on control of the sea. These people were called the Minoans. There were around 1500 Greek settlements all over the Mediterranean and the coasts of the Black Sea. Plato likened them to “frogs around a pond.” Minoans, however, did not see themselves as frogs.

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Who Were the Minoans?

Minoans were a sea-based nation with Crete as their capital. Their name came from the legendary king Minos of Crete. The civilization lasted about 2000 years from around 3000 B.C. to 1100 B.C., but the highlight was the first half of the second millennium B.C.

The Greek historian Thucydides credited them as the first thalassocracy, which means they were using ships in a new way to create their highly organized form of piracy. In the early 1900s, the British archeologist Sir Arthur Evans excavated Knossos – the palace on Crete’s northern shore.

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How Did the Minoans Live?

There was a small island called Santorini, in a group of islands called the Cyclades, 60 miles north of Crete. Santorini was placed were Akrotiri is today. Minoans here had two to four-story-high buildings, built of fine squared masonry. The round clay pipes connect to the streets, creating the sewage system. People knew earthquakes as a common threat, so walls were reinforced with wooden joists.

Heraklion. Knossos murals.
Minoans had rituals, lived in multi-story houses with plumbing, and decorated their walls with paintings. (Image: matrioshka/Shutterstock)

Santorini hosted one of the most prosperous Minoan populations. Akrotiri has a well-protected harbor, keeping it safe from piracy and creating perfect conditions for export-import. The island also has much cultivatable land, making agriculture common.

The frescos – the wall-paintings in Minoan houses – show the everyday life and the landscape of Santorini 1500 B.C: antelopes and boxing children, fishers holding up their catch, the aftermath to a sea battle with floating dead bodies and victorious islanders, and herdsmen herding their cattle are all depicted in the frescos. What about the mindset?

This is a transcript from the video series The Other Side of History: Daily Life in the Ancient World. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Minoan Mindset

The first important point is that most probably, Minoans practiced human sacrifice and were maybe even cannibals. The evidence is the bones of at least four healthy children at the palace of Knossos, slaughtered the same way the sheep and goats were butchered. A British archeologist called Sandy MacGillivray discovered this and explained that the children were probably eaten after the sacrifice. In March of 2010, the human sacrifice was proved. The bones of a young girl were discovered near Chania in Crete, sacrificed on an altar.

Another Minoan feature is that public female nudity was not embarrassing, at least in some rituals. The frescos commonly show women exposing their breasts in public. What happened to the civilization that had rituals and even sewage systems?

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The Sad Tale of Santorini

Santorini blesses people with many gifts. However, all the dangers that a volcano brings along also existed. Around 1650 to 1500 B.C., the catastrophe happened to the town.

People living in Santorini had no idea that the smell of sulfur in the air and local dry springs meant an eruption was close. Hence, they kept their normal life until they were surprised by the mighty roar of the volcano and began to run away. As they had almost no time to escape, they collected very little from their homes – some valuables, a bit of food, and their family.

Murals in the Palace of Knossos, Minoan civilization (20th century BC), archaeological zone, Crete, Greece
The frescos on the walls show some daily routines and important events of the time. (Image: YuriiT/Shutterstock)

Nevertheless, the ash and dust in the air traveled faster than people, blinding their sight and thickening the air. People were even struggling to breathe, but still trying to find their way to the harbor in the darkness and smoke.

Archeological evidence shows that the island was evacuated just in time, as no skeleton has been found in the site. However, it does not mean that everyone survived. The escaping people of Santorini might have drowned in the water, been suffocated by the ash, swept away by a hail of pumice, or, very unlikely, arrived at Crete. It is not clear what happened to the people who made their way to the harbor, but the town itself was buried in volcanic ash, preserving the everyday life of Minoans.

It is not clear how the Minoans’ reign ended, but it is clear that they were a big civilization before the natural calamities and whatever that took them down.

Common Questions about the Minoans

Q: What are the Minoans known for?

Minoans were a civilized people whose nation flourished around 3000 B.C. and lasted for 2000 years until they vanished in 1100 B.C. They built the first thalassocracy, which is an empire based on control of the sea.

Q: What race were Minoans?

Minoans had Eastern Mediterranean origins and settled the island of Crete. They were not necessarily Greek, but their island was close to Greek lands.

Q: Are Minoans Greek?

The Minoans were close to Greek islands and lands, but the writings left of them is not the same as the Greeks. Minoan writing is known as Linear A, while Greek’s is known as Linear B.

Q: What happened to the Minoans?

Minoans were most probably wiped out by a massive volcano eruption and the earthquake that happened some years before it.

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