One of the most powerful myths handed down by the ancient Greeks tells of the fabled King Minos, who ordered the construction of a vast, mazelike building called the labyrinth. Within this structure, he imprisoned the monster known as the Minotaur, a creature with the head of a bull and the body of a man that was fed on human sacrifice.
For centuries this tale remained no more than legend. And then in the 1890s an archaeologist named Arthur Evans began uncovering, on the island of Crete, the remains of a civilization that flourished between 2500 and 1350 BC. To Evans's surprise, he found the ruins of a great palace with hundreds of interconnected rooms and hallways -- a building so complex that it could easily have impressed visitors as having been as bewildering as a maze. Not only that, the sacred animal of the people who lived there was a bull!
Evans called these people "Minoans," after the legendary monarch, and today, thanks to the studies of Evans and others, we know a great deal about them.
For centuries, the Minoans had a thriving maritime trade as their ships controlled the sea lanes between Greece, Syria, and Egypt. Their crafts workers were experts in pottery, ivory, metal, and gemstones, their artists painted colorful frescoes and their architects built great palaces, such as the one discovered by Evans at Knossos.
The Minoan civilization disappeared rather suddenly for reasons that are still unclear. Some experts believe they may have been the victims of a gigantic tidal wave that was unleashed by the explosion of a volcano on an island nearby.