The first European—well, sort of European—civilization
Although Crete has been inhabited since the Stone Age, the earliest period in its history to attract much historical and archaeological interest was dominated from about 2000 to 1450 BCE by the Bronze Age culture of the people we call the Minoans. It has been assumed that they arrived on the island having already acquired Bronze-Age technology, but a recent (2013) study of DNA taken from the remains of Cretans known to have died about 3700 years ago, during the Minoan period, found no evidence that their ancestors were newcomers to Crete. The authors believe that Minoan civilization developed on the island among descendants of the Stone Age settlers—perhaps, I suppose, inspired at least partially by foreign exemplars.

We also have no idea what the Minoans called themselves, because, although they have left some writing behind, no one has ever succeeded in deciphering it, at least in a way that convinced anyone else. So we don’t know what sort of language they spoke. Many Americans have heard the story of how, after World War II, an English cryptanalyst named Michael Ventris deciphered a Cretan script known as Linear B and proved that it was an archaic form of Greek. Linear B was written on tablets or other objects that are all dated from a time when the Minoan period was pretty well over. But as the name suggests, there is also a Linear A, archaeologically much older, which has been found in Minoan ruins. It must be written in the Minoan language, and it would obviously tell us something about the people who left it, if only we could figure out what it says. But so far we haven’t been able to do that.
Linear A on the Phaistos Disk
Sir Arthur Evans, the archaeologist who excavated the palace at Knossós, discovered and named Linear A and Linear B. He also found an even earlier script whose characters were more pictographic than Linear A, but were probably related to it. He named this script 'Cretan hieroglyphic,' and spent many years trying without success to decipher any of the three. The picture shows one side of the Phaistos Disk, named for the palace where it was found. The inscription on both sides is the best known sample of the hieroglyphic script.
The Minotaur, attributed to Myron, 5th c. BCE
19th-century scholars came up with the name Minoan based on Greek myths about a mighty King of Knossós whose name was Mínos. According to the myths, he employed the master artisan Dedalos to build for him (among other wondrous things) an impossibly complex structure called the Labyrinth. In it Minos confined the monstrous Minotaur, part human and part bull, who—until the mythical King Theseus of Athens personally put an end to the custom, and to the Minotaur as well—devoured a tribute of seven youths and seven maidens that Minos compelled the Athenians to send him every year (or every ninth year, in a different version). The bust in the picture (from the golden age of Athens) has obviously seen a few hard knocks, but it gives you the general idea.

Scholars have suggested that this obviously mythical story may incorporate a few shreds of actual historical information, as mythology often does. For instance, there may have been a king named Mínos in Knossós, and he may not have been especially nice to the Athenians. And the palace of Knossós was indeed a complex structure, as you can see in the hypothesized picture below—no doubt more so than anything seen in mainland Greece during its formative years. Moreover, the Greeks preserved the word
lábrys for the double-bladed axe that was—based on the archaeological evidence—a powerful and nearly ubiquitous symbol in Minoan culture, as was the bull (the part of the Minotaur monster that wasn’t human—in most accounts and pictures his head and tail). Lábrys is a word not found in any other members of the large Indo-European family, to which Greek belongs, and that makes it reasonable to suppose that the Greeks may have learned it from the Minoans themselves. The ending of the word Labrynth makes it a place-name, ‘place of the double axe.’

We were told by our guide, George Papadopoulos, that Greek place-names ending in -inth (like Corinth, for example) are not part of the Greek language’s Indo-European inheritance, and have presumably survived—like Indian place-names in the US—from a language spoken before Greek came to Greece. It’s reasonable to speculate that Labyrinth might have been the name that the Minoans themselves used for the most elaborate of their palaces.
Bull's-head rhyton from Knossós (much restored)
Besides the lábrys, the most common religious object you see everywhere in Minoan art is the bull. There are frescos of bulls, carvings of bulls, and sculpted bull's heads like the impressive example in this picture. It's a vessel (called in Greek a rhyton), that was most likely used for pouring libations to the gods. If anyone drank out of it, they probably did so as part of religious ceremony. The head is carved from black soapstone, the horns are gilded, the eyes are of painted rock crystal, and the muzzle is outlined in mother of pearl. it isn't something you'd casually take to a party. This is one of Sir Arthur Evans's finds from Knossós, and has been substantially restored: only about two thirds is original, and that doesn't include those graceful horns. On the Internet I found an academic paper pointing out that, of more than 20 bull-head rhyta that have been found, all have been broken, and the fact that none of their missing pieces has ever been found (unusual for broken vessels) leads the author to believe that these valuable objects were ritually smashed as a symbolic echo of the ritual slaying of a real live bull that took place at the same time. He speculates that the broken pieces may have been distributed to guests to commemorate the sacrifice.
Bull-leaping in a fresco from Knossós
In this restored fresco from Knossos, you can see Minoan athletes participating in an activity that may have been ritual, sport, or more likely a combination of the two. It's interesting that two of the three athletes are female. Minoan painters seem to have been quite consistent in representing men with coppery red skin and women with white skin (perhaps because they stayed out of the sun).

When I first added this picture to the site, I described the contents this way: “The athlete would run up, facing the bull, and grab his horns; when the bull tossed his head, those massive neck muscles would propel the athlete into a somersault over his back, culminating, if all went well, in a graceful dismount behind the animal.” This is a pretty common interpretation. But as the Wikipedia article on bull leaping points out, the picture couldn’t be a condensed version of a single feat. The fresco (which according to Sir Arthur Evans was one of several more or less identical panels decorating the area surrounding a bull ring) probably represents three separate kinds of bull-feat that might have been enacted there—but not all at once with the same bull.
Wherever they came from, the Minoans began to settle in Crete at around 2600 BCE. They brought bronze-making technology with them, and over the next five or six centuries they developed the earliest true civilization on territory that can be classified as European (never mind that you need a boat or a plane to get to it from any other part of Europe). At the peak of their power, these early Cretans had a fleet of seagoing ships, technically advanced for their time, in which they carried on trade with other civilized nations around their end of the Mediterranean—for instance the Egyptians and the Hittites. Their fleet also seems to have been their primary defense: their cities and palaces (for the most part, though one or two exceptions have been found) were built without fortifying walls. Nor does archaeological research suggest that weapons were a major item of manufacture.
How Knossós might have looked
It was about 2000 BCE, six centuries after they arrived in Crete, that the Minoans began building the large palaces and cities that point to the development of a complex and hierarchically structured society. The great palaces at Knossós, Mália, and Phaistós (but not Káto Zákros) were first built during this period. This drawing, based on the excavations' floor plan, is an artist's attempt to envision Knossós at the height of its glory.

Three centuries later, in about 1700 BCE, an earthquake destroyed all the palaces, but they were soon rebuilt, richer and more elaborate than before. Káto Zákros was apparently new-built at this time. Besides the four palaces, archaeologists have discovered the ruins of a large villa at Agía Triáda and big towns at Gourniá and Palékastro.
But this apparently golden age lasted barely a century, probably less. Sometime around 1625 BCE (give or take 30 years), the nearby island of Thera, about 80 miles north of Crete, suffered a volcanic explosion four times the strength of the one that destroyed Krakatoa in 1883. (What’s left of Thera today is named Santorini.) Winds carried most of the ash eastward, away from Crete, but a series of 50- to 100-foot tsunamis would have devastated its northern coast, inundating port cities and probably destroying most of the Minoans’ ships.

This blow wasn’t sufficient to wipe out the Minoan civilization, although for most of the 20th century scholars did think that was what happened. More recent studies, based mostly on carbon dating, have shown that the eruption occurred as much as 150 years before the final destruction of the palaces in 1450 BCE. We can speculate, however, that the Minoans were a long time recovering from the damage the tsunamis had done to their economy and, more important perhaps, their self-confidence.