The mystery of what happened to the Minoan civilization has tormented archaeologists for over a century, and the tale has now taken a new twist. Nothing happened to them, say archaeologists who have been excavating the island of Crete for over thirty years.

This extraordinary people, who produced palatial architecture unparalleled in the Aegean region at the time, were not immolated by the volcanic eruption of Thera as once thought, crushed by earthquake, or squashed by Mycenean Greece as more recently supposed. Rather, the Minoans,- who had for centuries wielded influence throughout the Aegean, did experience earthquakes that rattled them, were indeed badly weakened by the volcanic blast from Thera on the nearby island of Santorini, and did experience the unamiable attentions of the mainland Hellenes.

But although the two cultures appear to have struggled, over time the elite elements of both became virtually indistinguishable, after 1450 B.C.E., if not earlier. Minoan influence as such would recede and the by-then-Mycenaeanised islanders would soldier on until the great collapse of civilization around the Mediterranean Basin, around 1,200 B.C.E.

It bears adding that archaeologists had once thought the Minoans must have "come from somewhere else" because of their advancement compared with the surroundings. But genetic analyses in 2017 concluded that both the Minoans and Mycenaeans descended from the stone-age farmers of western Anatolia and the Aegean, plus smidgens of heritage from the Caucasus and Iran. The two were very closely related.

Yet the destruction layers found in the main Minoan city of Knossos weren’t the result of Theran ash raining down 3,600 years ago but may be debris from Minoan resistance to Mycenaean incursions, or possibly from local rebellions between 1470 to 1450 B.C.E., sums up Colin Macdonald, an archaeologist with the British School in Athens.

The island of Santorini was evacuated and buried under meters of pumice. The shores of Crete would have been hit by tsunamis, which also wrecked the Knossos port on that island. Though much of the ash-fall blew in other directions, the eruption apparently did trigger decline on the island, the east part of which became quite depopulated. However: “Thera’s eruption did not directly affect Knossos – no volcanic-induced earthquake or tsunami struck the palace which, in any case, is 100 meters above sea level,” Macdonald points out. Archaeologists have found evidence of widespread destruction in the settlements of ancient Crete a generation or two after Thera’s eruption. How the devastation was caused has yet to be demonstrated.

Absent specific indicators, the cause could have been earthquake, famine, attacks from mainland centers of ancient Greece, like Mycenae, or some combination of the above, though a wholescale invasion of marauding Mycenaean mainlanders as the central factor seems less likely.

It is also theoretically possible that Knossos, not having been much physically affected by the eruption, tried to flex its muscle and attacked other centers of civilization on its own home island, Crete. Or, there could have been local unrest: class struggles, with the country people rising up against the elites.

What can be said is that some decades after the destruction in Crete in about 1450 B,C.E., a different style of burial custom appeared at Knossos and the administration adopted a new language and writing system.

It is the change in writing system that indicates top-down change at Knossos. The earliest writing in Crete dates to the early Bronze Age and was hieroglyphic. That was followed by a syllabic writing system called Linear A, one of the oldest known in the world, which remains undeciphered to this day. But starting around 1450 B.C.E., the very time of the destruction layers in Crete, the tablets archaeologists find in Knossos were written in Linear B, which was the Greek and Mycenaean writing system at the time. Possibly, the Minoan administrative apparatus at Knossos was taken over by Greeks from the mainland; or Knossos came under outright control of Greek mainland centers, perhaps even Mycenae.

Another change after 1450 B.C.E. is that the practice by stonemasons of leaving marks on their work, disappeared from Knossos. (This was a practice throughout the region, not a local invention.)
The bottom line is that by the 14th century B.C.E., the Mycenaeans seem to have overrun Minoan interests in the eastern Mediterranean. Mycenaean material culture became ubiquitous in the south Aegean Sea, where once Minoan influence had been strong.

It was quite the reversal of fate.In the centuries before the eruption, Cretan culture had exercised notable influence on the Greek mainland. But even though the blast didn’t necessarily affect Knossos too much directly, it plausibly weakened Cretan civilizations, opening the door to Mycenaean influences, as reflected in changes in administration and burial practices.

With the administration, perhaps even religious authority collapsed. “This could well have manifested itself in local uprisings and the burning of administrative and elite buildings,” Macdonald speculates. If the eruption did not break the backbone of Minoan civilization, it may have fractured its economy, and Mycenae - the powerhouse of mainland Greece – exploited that.

This theory is supported by the fact that the eruption destroyed the Theran port that had been aligned with Crete and Knossos, plausibly enabling the Mycenaeans to develop their own trading hubs, such as the other largest site in the Cyclades, namely Phylakopi, on Milos. There is no doubt that Phylakopi was instrumental in promoting the Mycenaean Greek language and writing, Linear B, as the lingua franca of Aegean economy after the eruption.

According to historians, Knossos was Europe’s oldest proper city, established between 2000 to 1900 B.C.E.. Its palace had features considered very advanced for the time, for instance monumental architecture, stone-built storm drains and sewers, and lavatories. And although the Minoans did suffer from earthquakes, studies of the architectural remains at the palace of Knossos have shown that the basic plan remained the same over 500 years, with some major renovations, repairs and additional buildings that added to the palace’s grandeur.

“Earthquakes were not ‘game changers’, but often spurred the authorities to try something new,” says Macdonald adding, “The earthquakes were important in terms of architectural change but not of cultural discontinuity.”

The palace storerooms and advanced drainage systems, built around 2000 B.C.E., remained in use until the final destruction of the palace in the 14th century B.C.E.  The palace was destroyed sometime in the 14th century B.C.E., perhaps towards its end, by a conflagration that baked the Linear B clay tablets and seal impressions. In the 13th century B.C.E., there are scattered signs of reoccupation in the badly damaged palace buildings. But by this time the Minoans, with or without the “Mycenaean veneer”, had largely disappeared from the world stage of history.