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The Minoans

The Minoans

Written for the KidsKnowIt Network by: Debora Dyess

Arthur Evans had no idea what he was about to discover. The archeologist received permission to dig on the Greek island of Crete, expecting to find normal remains of ancient Greek or Roman cultures. Instead, he found something much older: a culture that pre-dated Classical Greece by hundreds of years. Evans named the civilization €˜Minoans’ in honor of a fictional city, Minos, in The Odyssey.

Minoan building ruins

The Minoans lived on the island of Crete a very long time ago. Their culture spanned 2600 years, from about 3650 BC to 1100 BC. While we do not know the name they called themselves, archeologists have discovered much about their culture. To make it easier to understand, it has been divided into periods. Each period of time covers several hundred years and begins with an important change in their society. Although the word €˜palace’ is part of the vocabulary when talking about Minoans, the structures were not our idea of palaces. They were large complexes with areas designed to serve different purposes and a special place for rulers to live.

Minoan Palace

The Prepalatial Period (or the period before palaces) lasted for about 1500 years, from 3650 BC to 1900 BC. The culture, just beginning to form from small tribes into larger cities and communities, had no upper or lower class. The people did not have a central government, and yet peace seemed to be the order of the day.

The mild weather and fertile soil of Crete encouraged farming, and the people developed a strong agricultural system that let them prosper. For many centuries, the Minoans developed their culture and ideas apart from mainland Greece or any other influences.

Although they were not €˜tainted’ by other cultures, Minoans did interact with them. Minos had naval supremacy during most of this time. Unchallenged in the seas, trade became a regular part of the Minoan economy. Trade with other nations grew during this time. Trading crops for precious gems and metals, the Minoans began to climb in the ranks of the Mediterranean nations.

A fresco in the Minoan ruins

But even with all the good parts of Minoan culture, social unrest began in about 1900 BC. This started the Protopalatial Period. No one knows for sure what happened to create a new era in the life of the Minoan people, but even after disruption that changed the whole governmental system, things calmed down quickly. A new political structure was introduced, one governed by a single ruler €“ a King. Palaces were built in major Minoan cities and were the center of community life.

In 1700 BC, every Minoan palace was destroyed. No one knows why or how, but the palaces were quickly rebuilt, beginning the Neopalacial Period. These new palaces were grander. Concrete roads, previously limited to linking only a few cities, multiplied, crisscrossing the landscape. Smaller palaces, which archeologists dubbed €˜villas’, sprang up in the rural areas. These, like the grander palaces of the cities, appear to be the home of power. It is likely that landowners lived in them, which means that classes among Minoan people began during this time.

Women took an active and important role in their society. Their culture began to influence other nations around them. While Minoan traders brought home the arts and cultural ideas of other nations, it is apparent that Minos was the strongest influence in the region during this time. It was, indeed, the Golden Age of Minos.

A large clay vessel that was found among the Minoan ruins.

In spite of abundant trading, naval power was lost during the Neopalacial Period. They were challenged by Mycenaeans, who took the role of €˜best at sea’. For the first time, weapons began to appear in the tombs of kings and important citizens. The threat of invasion for the great nation was growing.

No one knows for sure how Minos came to an end, but its destruction was sudden. All palaces and villas were destroyed in about 1500 BC. Minos’ last major city, Knossos, was lost in 1375. Archeologists point to likely invasion or to the eruption of the Thera volcano as the most probable cause of the loss of the Minoans.

Finally, in about 1100 BC, the culture that had thrived for thousands of years, gave way to more powerful forces. The Mycenaeans took control of Crete until all we have left is artifacts and curiosity.

Close-up of a gold Minoan bracelet

The Phaistos disc is a mysterious artifact found in the Minoan ruins. Archeologists are not sure what its purpose was.