Crete is an island where the human species arrived well before the dawn of history and carried out experiments in civilization that still provoke wonder in the eyes and minds of visitors from all over the world. It is a place where human beings developed complex languages and scripts. It is a place where the people built new styles of buildings to reflect their complex views of the world around them. It is a place where beautiful art was inspired by the landscape and their everyday lives. It is a place where people wrote fantastic stories about the nature of the human spirit and its relationship with the natural and metaphysical world. I have always wanted to go to Crete, particularly to visit Knossos! We did so on our first morning on the island after having a stroll around the amazing port area of Heraklion.
The number 1 attraction for visiting Crete is the ‘palace’ of Knossos, discovered at the end of the 19th century. It was the gem in the crown of the Minoan civilization that developed on Crete from around 2000BCE. But humanity, (as well as unusual dwarf elephants), discovered Crete well before this date. The Minoans were the descendants of Neolithic people who had arrived on the Island around four thousand years before the Minoans. However, in 2002 fossil Hominin footprints dating back 5600000 years were found on Crete. Humans have been here for a long time!
Crete has been a significant place in assisting our understanding of the ancient world. It also played a role in the developing science that is archaeology as the early discoveries there involved two of the fathers of modern archaeology, Heinrich Schliemann and Sir Arthur Evans, who were developing their careers and reputations in Crete in the late 19th century. Both were interested in the historicity of the ancient Greek myths. The question was whether the myths that all Victorian school children read, not only spoke of the grand stories of encounters between Gods and humanity, but gave real clues as to the location and characters of these stories. The site of Knossos was discovered in 1878 and gave evidence to the growing world-wide community of archaeologists that it could be a major site. Heinrich Schliemann, the discoverer of the site of Troy, sought permission to dig there but it was the Englishman, Sir Arthur Evans (due to his wealth and networks) who was able to buy the site and then spend the next 35 years excavating it.
It is unclear whether Evans was looking for evidence of bulls or labyrinths when he started to excavate the site at Knossos but it wasn’t long before he began to find links with the Minotaur story. The main link he would have been hoping to find would be of course some trace of a labyrinth where the Bull Monster could have been stored. He didn’t find a labyrinth in the gardening sense or an underground complex of tunnels but he did find the remains of what he called a huge labyrinthine palace consisting of around 1300 rooms. One theory goes that innocents from Athens 1000 years before its golden age would have found such a palace amazing, confusing and confronting.
In the middle of the palace was a large terrace that was ample enough to hold crowded events. One of the clues that was uncovered at Knossos as to what occurred here were the mosaics and the trinkets illustrating what appeared to be athletic events that involved large bulls and acrobats engaged in death defying sports. The link with the minotaur seemed to be too close to ignore. Images below show some of these ‘Bull’ links.
1. The famous restored bull-leaping mural from the Museum at Knossos;
2. The charging bull fresco on a rebuilt section of the north entrance to the ‘palace’;
3. What Arthur Evans called the ‘Horns of Consecration’ are reconstructed at the east entrance to the palace. Evans noted that they were found regularly in other Minoan sites, making him conclude that the bull was sacred in Minoan culture and this was its symbol.
4. A figurine found at Knossos that appears to be from a bull-leaping figurine; .
Unlike any other ‘palace’ that had been uncovered from that ancient time-period (1650-1450 BCE), Evans discovered that it wasn’t a fortress and he was struggling to figure out how this huge palace fitted in with the theory that it was the home of the famous King Minos. Determining who Minos was is difficult, one version suggests that he created a navy for Crete which was to be feared at least 3 generations before the sack of Troy. Evans decided that the purpose of the building was as an administrative and/or religious centre. He was convinced that some sort of king lived in the Knossos palace when he discovered the ‘Throne Room’, containing a ‘throne’, a round lustral basin in front of it as well as a connected bathing area.
One of the problems facing Sir Arthur Evans during his time as the archaeologist at Knossos was how to preserve the site once he cleared the top layers of the building contained within the hill. The associated dilemma is how you present the discoveries you make if the damage caused by weather and earthquakes means that as regularly as you reveal discoveries, they are ruined or destroyed by local environmental causes (Floods, Earthquakes!). As a result, later archaeologists have criticised Evans for his creative flair in some aspects of his restorations. One example of these restoration decisions is illustrated by the image below which is another version of an overview of the whole site. One of the main architectural features of the Knossos Pace are the pillars that hold up to five levels of this multi-storied building. When it was built, they were made from huge tree trunks, stripped of their limbs, turned upside down so they wouldn’t resprout and then painted. Evans knew that ‘a like for like’ replacement wouldn’t survive so he recreated parts of the palace using cement versions of these pillars as well as many stair wells and floors. What does he do…remain faithful to the original materials or replace them with modern resistant materials that will see off the nasty weather and enable visitors to see what the original probably looked like?
Possibly the more important issue for an archaeologist such as Sir Arthur Evans is how to recreate/restore the fabulous frescoes that are such a hall mark of the Minoan Palace at Knossos. So far in this article we have seen images of bulls and columns but below we can now move on to the extraordinary images of Palace ladies and priestesses. The images and the descriptions are taken from the Heraklion Museum. These famous frescoes were not revealed in the digging as we see them today; the walls and the paints used had suffered three and a half thousand years of depredation. What was left of them had to be carefully collected from the rubble of the palace. The Museum images do not hide what is original and what has been creatively restored; the surviving pieces have been bound to the image and the artist hired by Evans beautifully connected the dots! Luckily figures of the dancing priestesses, occasionally bearing snakes, were also uncovered as figurines amongst the remains of the palace.
The “Camp stool Fresco” (above) renders scenes of ceremonial banqueting. It probably mirrored actual banquets held in the upper hall of the West Wing of the palace of Knossos, where the fresco was actually found. The panel shows standing and seated figures on camp stools raising cups and kylikes. A female figure with Mediterranean features and vivid make-up, named “La Parisienne” by A.Evans, was also part of the composition. Her larger size and the “sacral knot” bunched up behind indicate that she was probably a leading priestess. Knossos, Palace, Final Palatial Period (1450-1350/1300 BC).
Notes from wall plaque in Heraklion Museum.
The “Ladies in Blue” are part of a composition of richly dressed and lavishly bejeweled female figures depicted against a blue background. Their coiffure adornment was restored based on a similar fresco fragment. Despite its fragmentary condition, the wall painting transmits the sense of opulence and prosperity of the royal court while reflecting coquetry of the ladies, who gesture with their hands displaying the richness of their jewelery. Knossos, Palace, Neopalatial Period (1600-1450 BC).
Notes from wall plaque in Heraklion Museum.
We had only devoted a half a day to our wandering around the excavated place of Knossos and it was a pretty hot day. In those circumstances a more insightful traveller might have added a day to the itinerary, cut short the first day and come back for a second visit loaded down with water and plenty of questions. However hindsight is never available in the heat of the day so we headed back to our welcoming Heraklion hotel. One of the questions I could have spent more time on was how such a large palace population was fed. The answer seemed to be simple given the amount of large clay jars (pithoi) that still remained behind on the bottom floors of the palace, largely unaffected by weather or passing time.
There were two other questions that I didn’t get answered on the day we visited Knossos. One revolved around what language(s) did the Minoans write and speak. When Evans bought the property at Knossos, he already had been collecting artifacts from elsewhere with an unknown script on them and he was suspicious they came from Crete. I’ll leave this topic until we get to Phaistos later in our tour of Crete.
The other question that we didn’t get a satisfactory answer to was how and why did the Minoan civilization apparently come to an abrupt end? The main answer that was doing the rounds was by Earthquake. There doesn’t seem any arguments around other major settlements on Crete being destroyed around 1700BCE but the evidence of Earthquake at Knossos doesn’t support this timing. What scientists do know is that the island of Santorini (approximately 200kms north of Heraklion) represents the top of a once very active volcano that blew up around 1600BCE. It destroyed the caldera of Thera exploding and covering Minoan villages on this Island. On the right is a fresco entitled ‘The Saffron Gather’ from Akrotiri on Santorini island (one remnant of the Island of Thera) that would look at home in the Palace of Knossos. Whilst there is identified volcanic residue on Crete, there is not enough to be supporting a theory based on an event similar to that which destroyed Pompeii in 79CE, occurred also at Knossos. Perhaps it was just envious neighbours from the mainland (the Myceneans, not the Athenians) that brought an end to the Minoans.