British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans named the Cretan Bronze Age ‘Minoan’ after the legendary King Minos, whose palace he excavated at Knossos.
The earliest traces of settlement on Crete date from the Neolithic period at the end of the 7th millennium. By the mid-3rd millennium BC, new settlers had begun to arrive on the island, bringing the arts of bronze-working and stone-cutting; prosperity developed and around 1950-1900 BC, the first centres of power evolved at Knossos, Phaestos, Mallia and Kato Zakros. These palaces - surrounded by urban settlements - were hubs of agricultural administration, pottery manufacture, metal and stone-working, and religious cult. Suddenly, around 1700 BC, all the sites were destroyed – the palace at Knossos for the third time - probably by earthquake.
The palaces of Crete were rebuilt in even more splendid form. The arts of fresco painting, pottery-making and gem and sealstone carving reached their height. Smaller palaces or country villa complexes were built, and town sites such as those at Gournia, Palaikastro and Zakros began to expand. Society was hierarchical and probably feudalistic. Women, conspicuous in frescoes and in small statuary, appear to have played a prominent role in cult and everyday life. Minoan trading stations on the islands and coast of Asia Minor, and contacts with Egypt, seem to attest to the fabled Minoan sea power. Then – suddenly - disaster struck again.
Perhaps it began with a series of earthquakes. At some time during the Late Minoan IA period on Crete – the actual date is still disputed - the volcano on the island of Thera (Santorini) about 75 miles to the north, erupted in all its fury. The winds prevailing at the time are believed to have carried most of the tons of volcanic ash ejected away to the east of Crete, but even so, the collapse of the volcano into the Theran caldera would have been cataclysmic. There are signs of great tsunami damage on the northern coast at the Minoan harbour town of Amnisos. The sky must have darkened for many days and the atmosphere would have been thick with dust. Perhaps the superstitious Minoans thought that their gods had turned away from them. Some attempts were made to repair buildings at a stricken Knossos, but then catastrophe struck yet again, and this time the destruction is total at all the sites.
From then onwards, Mycenaeans from the mainland seem to have ruled at Knossos, the only place where habitation continued. Their culture was overtly militaristic, and overseas contacts were interrupted. They kept records of provisions in the great magazines (storerooms) on clay tablets in the Linear B script, deciphered and identified as an early form of Greek by Michael Ventris in the 1950s.
Around 1380-1350 BC disaster struck yet again, whether more earthquakes, internal unrest, or conflict with the Myceneans on the mainland. Knossos was razed and the centre of power seems to have shifted westwards to Kydonia (modern Chania). During the 12th century BC, lowland sites were progressively abandoned. New folk elements appeared on Crete, bringing new burial customs and the use of iron. They settled in fortified, citadel-like locations on hilltops, easily defendable. The stricken native population had to submit to these ‘Dorian’ invaders, and a Dark Age began for Crete.