1 of 4

The missing Minoans: 20th - 15th century BC

It is astonishing that history should lose all track of a civilization which lasts for six centuries, makes superb ceramics and metalwork, trades extensively over a wide region, and houses its rulers in palaces elaborately decorated with superb fresco paintings. Yet this has been the case with the Minoans in Crete, until the excavation of Knossos.

We still know little more about them than is suggested by Minoan art and artefacts. It is typical that the name they have been given derives from a figure of myth rather than history - Minos, the legendary king of Crete whose pet creature is the Minotaur, a monster with the body of a man and the head of a bull which feeds on young human flesh.

Three very similar palaces have been excavated in Crete from the Minoan period - at Knossos, Mallia and Phaistos. Built from around 2000 BC, each is constructed round a large public courtyard; each has provision for the storage of large quantities of grain; each is believed to be the administrative centre for a large local population. The number at Knossos has been variably estimated as between 15,000 and 50,000 people.

Administrative records and accounts are kept on clay tablets in a script as yet undeciphered (it is known as Linear A). Archaeological discoveries reveal that trade is carried on round the entire Mediterranean coast from Sicily in the west to Egypt in the southeast.