The existence of a sophisticated, flourishing society on ancient Crete was discovered by the British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans, from 1900-1905, when he organized the excavations at Knossos. The labyrinth-like maze of rooms called to mind the myth of King Minos and the Minotaur, and Evans named this very old society "Minoan."
The Minoan Civilization, situated mainly on the island of Crete, was the first such Bronze Age civilization in Europe (though Stonehenge, the Bronze Age solstice monument in Wiltshire, England, has been dated back to an almost similar time.) Its sophisticated urban civilization, built on an extensive network of trade across much of the Mediterranean and the Near East, constructed great palace complexes which incorporated water control and plumbing systems. Minoan palaces were often four storeys high-incredible feats of early engineering. The capital was at Knossos, "Europe's oldest city," on the north coast of Crete, close to the modern city of Heraklion, and other important population centers were Phaistos, Malia, Zakros, and Akrotiri-on the fateful island of Thera (today's Santorini).
The Minoan influence reached as far as Egypt, and Cyprus, in the eastern Mediterranean, from where the Minoans acquired their copper for metalworking. Recent evidence has begun to emerge that 5,000 years ago the region was a little cooler, and wetter.
They cultivated fruit orchards and extensive olive groves, whilst also domesticating bees for honey. Their crops ranged from barley and wheat, figs, and grapes. Both wine and honey were a staple part of their trading produce. Their animal husbandry included cattle-bulls were greatly prized, and even revered, but mainly goats, sheep and pigs.
Minoan culture held physical sports in high esteem and their wall frescoes and decorated pottery depicted running, wrestling and bull-leaping competitions-a particularly Minoan preoccupation.
At some point between 1600-1400 BC the Minoan culture was sent into terminal decline by a stupendous natural disaster event on Thera, the southern-most island of the Cyclades, just 90 miles from Crete. The catastrophic volcanic eruption is thought to be almost the largest in human history, and almost four times the tremendous size of the well-known Krakatoa explosion of 1883.
Preceded by weeks of earthquakes and warning signs, vulcanologists have now calculated that the Thera Eruption had four stages across several days, with the final, cataclysmic phase resulting in the collapse of the enormous undersea magma chamber. This last seizmic explosion triggered colossal megatsunamis throughout the Mediterranean, but which hit the north coast of Crete square on. The settlement of Akrotiri, actually on the island of Thera, had already been destroyed, and the great waves deluged all the Minoan cities on the north coast of Crete. The gigantic plumes and final explosion sent out over 14 cubic miles of tephra-dense rock, lava bombs, pumice, cinders and ash-into the upper atmosphere, blotting out the sun across the entire region for months. For the Mediterranean region, it was apocalypse. On land, crops for many miles around were submerged under the fallout of dozens of feet of rock and ash, and the resulting volcanic winter significantly affected the climate. A widespread famine ensued. Archaeological evidence of the global reach of the Thera explosion has been found in Iceland and documented in China. There are visual records of it on ancient Egyptian pottery.
There is much speculation that the build-up to the awesome and deeply frightening stages of the Eruption, the volcanic lightning, the columns of the enormous ash plume stretching up to the heavens, the earthquakes-that all these features down the years became the root source for the central Greek myth of the Titanomachy-the Titans' Battle. It's also thought that the megatsunamis were the events behind the creation of the long-standing myth of Atlantis.