Erich Lessing

From the labyrinthine palace at Knossos (shown here), on the island of Crete, Minoans ruled the Aegean during the first half of the second millennium B.C.E. Culturally sophisticated (the Minoans invented a script, called Linear A, to record their as-yet undeciphered language), this prosperous people traded with the Cyclades islands, Cyprus, Egypt and the Levant. The palace at Knossos was destroyed in 1700 B.C.E., probably by an earthquake, but was then rebuilt on an even larger scale, with many of its 1,000 rooms decorated with frescoes of dolphins, flying fish and scenes of palace life. The British archaeologist Arthur Evans, who began excavating Knossos in 1900 and who performed a hasty reconstruction of the palace, estimated that Knossos once had a population of 80,000.

Around 1500 B.C.E. Mycenaeans from the Greek mainland conquered and occupied Crete, taking over the Knossos palace. The invading Mycenaeans also took over many aspects of Minoan culture—like their penchant for writing—much as the Romans, a thousand years later, would absorb aspects of Greek culture. By the 13th century B.C.E., however, most traces of Bronze Age civilization on Crete had disappeared; writing was lost, for example, and was not recovered until the Greeks adapted the Phoenician alphabet hundreds of years later.