The world’s greatest museum of Minoan art exhibits many of the finds from the Palace of Knossos and other monuments of the Minoan civilization that thrived in Crete some 4,000 years ago. A stroll through the museum, a mandatory first stop on a tour of Crete’s many Minoan sites, brings to light the remarkable accomplishments of this sophisticated culture. Huge round “seal” stones, inscribed with an early form of Greek known as Linear B script, have revealed a wealth of information about the Minoans. However, one of the most elaborately inscribed stones, known as the Phaestos Disk, for the palace near the southern coast where it was unearthed, remains a mystery: The large circular stone is elaborately inscribed in LinearA, a script predating Linear B that has yet to be deciphered.

Taking in the art of these ancient peoples provides glimpses into a long-vanished civilization remarkable for its nearly photographic and exuberant depictions of life: Lovely frescoes portray proceedings at a Minoan court; The Prince of the Lilies depicts an athletic priest-king, wearing a crown with peacock feathers and a necklace decorated with lilies, leading an unseen animal to slaughter; other works show muscular men and trim women leaping over bulls—either an athletic contest or a religious rite. A whimsical fresco of court ladies in skirts, in the Palace of Knossos, earned the nickname Les Parisiennes for its subjects’ resemblance to women on the grand boulevards of the French capital.

As early as 2000 b.c., Minoan craftsmen were crating pottery known as Kamares ware. Other decorative pieces are made of  ivory, stone and a kind of glass paste known as faience. Many pieces illustrate life in Minoan palaces and towns. One vase depicts a boxing match, another a harvest ceremony. A bare-breasted faience goddess handles writhing snakes, perhaps part of a religious ritual. Rythons, vases for pouring libations, are carved in the shape of bulls’ heads and other elaborate designs—even more evidence that this long-vanished culture had a sophisticated flair for living.