Minoan Bull Leaper (made around 3,500 years ago). Bronze statue of bull and acrobat, found in Crete.

"Taking the bull by the horns" ... it's a terrifying metaphor. It's how politicians are meant to tackle crises. It's what we're all meant to do with the big moral problems of life. Though most of us, I suspect, hope to avoid doing anything of the sort. But about four thousand years ago, we have serious archaeological evidence of a whole civilisation that seems to have been collectively fascinated by the idea of confronting the bull.

"I have seen many paintings of people leaping or cutting the bulls. There always has been a kind of game between men and bulls ... always." (Sergio Delgado)

It's one of the many mysteries of a society at the crossroads of Africa, Asia and Europe, that played a key role in shaping what we now call the Middle East.

"Out in the middle of the wine-dark sea, there is a land called Crete, a rich and lovely land washed by the sea on every side; and in it are many peoples and 90 cities. There, one language mingles with another ... Among the cities is Knossos, a great city; and there Minos was nine years king, the boon companion of mighty Zeus."

That was Homer, singing the praises of Crete, prosperous and cosmopolitan, and of its great king Minos. Now in Greek myth, Minos had a very complex relationship with bulls. He was the son of Zeus, king of the gods, but in order to father him, Zeus had turned himself into a bull. Minos's wife in turn had conceived an unnatural passion for a very beautiful bull and the fruit of that obsession was the Minotaur, half-man, half-bull. Minos was so ashamed of his monstrous stepson that he had him imprisoned in the labyrinth, and there the Minotaur devoured a regular supply of maidens and youths sent every year by Athens - until, that is, the Greek hero Theseus succeeded in killing him. The story of Theseus and the Minotaur, of man facing down his monstrous demons, has been told and re-told for centuries - by Ovid, Plutarch, Virgil and others - and it's part of the high canon of Greek myth, of Freudian psychology and of European art.

Archaeologists were captivated by these tales and, just over a hundred years ago, when Arthur Evans explored the island and decided to dig at Knossos, the bulls and monsters, palaces and labyrinths of Crete, familiar from Greek myth, were still very much in his mind. So although we have no idea what the people of this rich civilisation around 1700 BC actually called themselves, Evans, believing he was uncovering the world of Minos, called them quite simply Minoans, and Minoans they've remained ever since. In his extensive excavations, Evans uncovered the remains of a vast building complex; finding pottery and jewellery, carved stone seals, ivory, gold and bronze, and colourful frescoes, often depicting bulls. Evans was eager to reconstruct the role that the animals might have played in the island's economic and ceremonial life, so he was particularly interested in a discovery - made somewhere else on the island - of a small bronze sculpture of a bull with a figure leaping over it. It's now one of the highlights of the British Museum's Minoan collection.

The bull and the leaper are both made of bronze, and together they're about six inches (or 150mm) long and four or five inches (or 100 - 130mm) high. The bull is in full gallop - legs outstretched and head raised - and the figure is leaping over it in a great arching somersault. It's probably a young man. He's seized the bull's horns and thrown his body right over, so that we see him at the point where his body has completely flipped. The two arching figures echo each other - the outward curve of the boy's body being answered by the inward curve of the bull's spine. It's the most dynamic and beautiful piece of sculpture, and it carries us at once into the reality - but also the myth - of the history of Crete.

It's thought to have come from Rethymnon, a town on the north coast of the island, and it was probably originally deposited as an offering in a mountain shrine or in a cave sanctuary. Objects like this are often found in these holy places of Crete, suggesting that cattle had an important role in religious ritual. Many scholars since Evans have tried to explain why these images were so important. They've asked what bull-leaping was for, and even if it was ever possible. Evans thought it was part of a festival in honour of a mother goddess. Others disagree, but bull-leaping has often been seen as a religious performance, possibly involving the sacrifice of the animal, and even the accidental death of the leaper. Certainly, in this sculpture, both bull and human are engaged in a highly dangerous exercise. Being able to vault the animals would have taken months of training. We can say this with some confidence, because the sport in fact still survives today in parts of France and Spain. We talked to Sergio Delgado, a leading modern-day bull leaper - or to use the proper Spanish term 'recortador':

"There always has been a kind of game between men and bulls, always. There is not a proper school for 'recortadores'. You just learn how to understand the animal and how he will react to the arena. You only get this knowledge with experience. There are three main techniques we had to learn: first the 'recorte de riñón' (the kidney cut); second it's the 'quiebro' (the break or the swing); the third one is the 'salto' (or leap), which is mainly jumping right over the bull in a different variety of styles.

"Remember that the bulls are not injured before the match like in the bullfighting. The bull never dies in the arena. We are risking our lives here, we get butted and gored as frequently as bullfighters. The bull is unpredictable. He is the one in charge ... We never lost a respect for the bull."

I think what Sergio Delgado says is quite fascinating, because it confirms scholars' suggestions that bull-leaping on Crete at the time of this little statue would probably have had a religious significance. Even the bronze it's made of suggests an offering to the gods.

It was made around 1700 BC in the middle of what archaeologists call the Bronze Age, when huge advances in making metals transformed the way humans could shape the world. Bronze, an alloy of copper and tin, is much harder and cuts much better than copper or gold, and once discovered, it was widely used to make tools and weapons for over a thousand years. But it also makes very beautiful sculpture, and so it was quickly used, as you can see from this bull leaper, to make precious, probably devotional objects.

The British Museum bull sculpture was cast using the lost-wax technique. The artist firstly models his vision in wax, then he moulds clay around it. And this is then put into the fire, which hardens the clay and melts the wax. The wax is then drained off and, in its place, a bronze alloy is poured into the mould, so that it takes on the exact form the wax had occupied. When it cools, the mould is broken to reveal the bronze which can then be finished - polished, inscribed or filed, to produce the final sculpture. The bull leaper is quite badly corroded. It's now degraded to a greenish-brown colour. It would never of course have been as sparkling as gold but, originally, it would have had a powerful, seductive gleam.

It's the bronze that makes sculptures like this one gleam, and it's the bronze that lets our bull move from myth into history. At first sight, it's surprising that it's made of bronze at all, considering that neither copper nor tin - both of which are needed - are found on Crete. Both came from much further afield, with copper coming from Cyprus - the very name means the 'copper island' - or from the eastern Mediterranean coast. But tin had an even longer journey to make, travelling along trade routes from eastern Turkey, and sometimes even from Afghanistan. It was often in short supply, because those trade routes were frequently interrupted, on occasion by pirates.

Here with the sculpture itself, you can actually see something of that struggle to secure the tin supplies. There hasn't been quite enough in the alloy, which explains why the surface is rather pock-marked, and also why the structure has been weak, so that the hind legs of the bull have broken off over time.

But even if the proportions of the alloy were less than ideal, the very existence of the tin and copper - both from outside Crete - tells us that the Minoans were moving around and trading by sea. Indeed, Crete was a major player in the vast network of trade and diplomacy that covered the eastern Mediterranean - often focused on the exchange of metals, and all linked by maritime travel. We asked the maritime archaeologist, Dr Lucy Blue of Southampton University, to tell us more:

"The small bronze statuette from Minoan Crete, unique as it is, is also a very good indicator of this key commodity, bronze, that was sought after throughout the eastern Mediterranean. Unfortunately, we have only a limited number of shipwrecks to substantiate these trading activities, but one of the shipwrecks that we have is that of the 'Uluburun'. This was a vessel that was found off the Turkish coast. The 'Uluburun' was carrying 15 tons of cargo, 9 tons of which was copper, copper in the form of ingots. In addition, the 'Uluburun' was carrying a very rich cargo - amber from the Baltic, pomegranates, pistachio nuts ... there were also a wealth of manufactured goods, including bronze and gold statuettes, beads of different materials, large numbers of tools and weapons that were being carried on board. There's a wooden diptych, or essentially the first form of filofax, that would have been carried on board with wax inside, where they would have kept a note of the different cargoes that were being exchanged."

Despite the filofax, there are still many unanswered questions about Minoan civilisation. The word 'palace', which Evans used to describe the large buildings he excavated, suggests royalty, but in fact these buildings seem to have been religious, political and economic centres. They were architecturally complex places, housing a great variety of activities, one of them the administration of trade and produce, organising the large population of skilled artisans who wove cloth and worked the imported gold, ivory and bronze.

Frescoes in the palace at Knossos show large gatherings of people, suggesting that these were also ceremonial and religious centres. Despite over a century of excavation, the Minoans remain enticingly enigmatic. Objects like this little bronze statue of the Bull Leaper tell us a lot about Crete's key historic role in the mastery of metals which, in a few centuries, transformed the world. And it also asserts the enduring fascination of mythical Crete as the perpetual site where we confront the most disturbing links between man and beast in ourselves. When Picasso in the 1920s and 30s wanted to explore the bestial elements that were shaping European politics, he turned instinctively to the palace of Minoan Crete, to that encounter between man and bull that still haunts us all ... the Minotaur.