The Palace of Knossos, on a low hill near the modern city of Heraklion, is the most renowned tourist attraction in the island of Crete, a World Heritage Site, and the second most-visited archaeological site in Greece after the Parthenon. As the world woke up and tourism recovered after the pandemic, visitors queued for hours for admission last summer – a record 8,000 on one day – entranced by the legends of King Minos and his happy world of beautiful youths processing among flowering plants and butterflies, dancers soaring in daring leaps over the backs of mighty bulls, and gorgeously costumed bare-breasted goddesses fearlessly holding snakes.
The major exhibition about Knossos and the Minoan world opening at the Ashmolean in Oxford in February (Labyrinth: Knossos, myth and reality) is surprisingly the museum’s first, even though it holds the most important collection outside Greece, and its own history is intimately connected with the archaeology of the site. Sir Arthur Evans, the museum’s keeper in 1884-1908, led the transformation of the Ashmolean from natural history to the art and archaeology museum in an imposing building it is today. He was also the scholar and archaeologist who helped create the modern fame of Knossos, a Bronze Age palace complex wreathed in later Greek legends telling of the labyrinth created by Daedalus to house the Minotaur, the monstrous offspring of a queen and a bull, the sacrificial offerings of Athenian youths to said creature, and the rescue of the Athenian hero Theseus by the beautiful – and later abandoned – Princess Ariadne, with the aid of the ball of thread.
These legends fascinated centuries of travellers who were shown a stone quarry with its myriad tunnels and dead ends as the site of the mythical labyrinth. Their power endures, and the exhibition includes 20th-century images of the Minotaur by Pablo Picasso and Michael Ayrton, and the labyrinths created for London tube stations by Turner Prize-winning artist Mark Wallinger.
In the early 20th century, it was the beauty of artefacts more than 3,500 years old, excavated from March 1900 by Evans and his team, that astonished and enthralled the world. They included spectacular jewellery; eggshell-thin ceramics; elegantly stylised carved or painted images of humans, animals, and sea creatures on gemstones, cups, and vases; and the vivid frescoes, which seemed so contemporary that one woman with kohl-lined eyes, reddened lips, and whitened skin, hair tumbling in ringlets around her neck, was dubbed ‘la Parisienne’. Thousands flocked to exhibitions at the Royal Academy, replica artefacts were sent on world tours, and Evans’ own three-volume account of his work became a bestseller.
Since childhood, Evans had very poor distance sight, but at close range could see intricate details in sharp relief, such as the beautiful carvings on seal stones from Knossos and other Minoan sites on Crete. Most are so small, packed into a space no bigger than a fingernail, that the images are barely visible to the naked eye. In the late 19th century, when he looked at the first tiny carvings to arrive at the Ashmolean, Evans saw a whole new world in the flowers, fish, bulls, and graceful human figures – a great and brilliant civilisation older than Classical Greece. Soon he would set out to visit the island for himself – this was 1894 – collecting antiquities from village shops wherever he travelled. Evans, independently wealthy as the son of the gentleman scholar and businessman Sir John Evans, would eventually buy – for the equivalent of £60,000 today – excavate and restore the site of Knossos, creating its fame and lasting controversy.
Largely thanks to his work, and despite mistakes in interpretation still being unpicked by scholars, Knossos became one of the most renowned archaeological sites in the world. Annual excavations are still uncovering more of the Minoan civilisation which flourished for millennia rather than centuries, its palaces and palatial buildings decorated with beautiful frescoes, wonderful ceramics – and sophisticated plumbing. A 3D-printed model has been specially created for the exhibition to attempt to make Knossos slightly easier to understand. It may have been a palatial complex rather than a true palace, but it was certainly labyrinthine, built and rebuilt over millennia with up to a thousand rooms stacked four storeys deep.
The Ashmolean holds all of Evans’ now fragile excavation notes and drawings, as well as hundreds of objects he collected, including the duplicate and less important objects he was allowed to bring back to England and the replicas he commissioned of the most precious artefacts, which could not be exported. The exhibition is speeding up the digitisation of the archive, and many newly conserved objects and documents are being brought out of the Oxford stores to be united with loans from the museum in Heraklion that have never left Crete before. In some cases, the real objects will be seen with Evans’ drawings for the first time since they were excavated, including one of the beautiful bull’s head rhytons – containers for ritual libations or offerings.
Evans’ work was controversial in his time and since. Many major sites would now be backfilled to protect the original fabric after excavation, but much of what visitors see today at Knossos is a recreation of what Evans was convinced had been there: he termed his interventions ‘reconstitution’. While excavation continued, his workmen rebuilt entire rooms, among them the brilliantly coloured, frescoed Throne Room dating from the 15th century BC, giving full-height columns, walls, and ceilings to spaces shown in excavation photographs as roofless outlines full of rubble from collapsed upper storeys. Major restoration work has recently been needed on reconstructions now over a century old, with concrete walls and ceilings originally believed indestructible but actually decaying because of corroding iron reinforcing-rods.
‘This exhibition will raise the questions – but we are certainly not seeking to knock Evans down,’ said Andrew Shapland, Sir Arthur Evans Curator of Bronze Age and Classical Greece at the Ashmolean, who has curated the exhibition and been involved in excavations and surveys at Knossos and other Cretan sites since 2005. ‘He was a man of his time, but what he did at Knossos was remarkable – and, in some cases, essential to preserve the site, as when the Great Staircase collapsed after excavation. The choice was to leave a heap of rubble, or restore to preserve the impression of what they had actually found.’
Many aspects of Evans’ interpretation of what he found have since been challenged, or proved wrong. Linear B, the script preserved on clay documents and seal carvings, was not as he believed a Minoan written language, but a form of ancient Greek. After his death aged 90 in 1941, it was finally deciphered by the self-taught scholar Michael Ventris, who was inspired by attending an Evans lecture as a 14-year-old. The inscriptions were not, as Evans had hoped, prayers, poems, and stories older than Homer – but prosaic records of jars of olive oil, flocks of sheep, and lengths of cloth, which were, however, crucial to understanding the economy and source of power of Knossos.
Evans underestimated the importance of the centuries he regarded as the decadence of the palaces after their greatest flowering, which later archaeology, including ground-penetrating radar surveys of the unexcavated part of the site, is revealing as a time of flourishing commerce and culture. He called the Bronze Age period on Crete, between 3100 and 1100 BC, ‘Minoan’ after the legendary King Minos, and believed it reached its peak as one of the greatest civilisations of the ancient world between 2000 and 1500 BC, before being destroyed by invasion and catastrophic fire. There were many fires and rebuilds at Knossos, but scholars now dispute the invasion theory, and believe the site shows much greater continuity of use and power, inhabited well into the Roman period.
Evans was also not very interested in the earliest Neolithic levels, but the exhibition reveals the results of work using techniques unavailable in his day, such as analysis of grain and animal remains. The more-recent research suggests that the site has an important and far longer history than he imagined, with evidence of developed agriculture from 7000 BC.
He was wrong in his interpretation of many fresco fragments and in the recreations made for him, many of which were then hung at the site. They are persuasively beautiful, but where Evans saw single noble humans, later research suggests some were composites of different figures or even animals such as monkeys.
Scholars are still arguing about the importance he attributed to the ‘snake goddesses’, which delighted Evans and his contemporaries. These ceramic figures are too precious to leave Crete, though the excellent replicas he commissioned will be displayed along with other goddess-figurines. The women are represented as glamorous as Edwardian music-hall stars: tiny waists in corset tops, embroidered aprons over bell-shaped skirts in layers of elaborate flounces, breasts proudly bared, and arms entwined in snakes. Evans saw them, together with the images of beautiful women in the frescoes, as evidence of a matriarchal society, which was centred on priest-king devotees of a mother goddess and in which women had immense power and influence. The Throne room, he wrote, ‘teems with religious suggestion’. It was reconstructed for him as actually incorporating a religious ritual interrupted by a disastrous fire. His interpretation of these figures and the religious beliefs of the Minoans has been challenged. Some biographers have even suggested that his vision of an all-powerful mother goddess was shaped by his sense of loss over the early death of his own mother.
Evans interpreted the images of slender young men in elaborately embroidered and folded loin cloths and the fabulously dressed women as evidence of a priestly ruling class. However, Shapland believes it is no coincidence that many figures look like fashion plates – they may literally have been just that. Many scholars now believe the wealth and power of the Minoans was founded not on military might, magic, or terrifying monsters, but on cloth. Wonderfully woven and ornamented textiles, dyed with vivid colours from seashells and plants, were made for an elite market and exported throughout the Mediterranean world. The deciphered Linear B texts revealed the vast flocks of sheep controlled by Knossos, reared by agents who then brought the wool to the palace, where it was sent on to skilled teams of weavers, dyers, and embroiderers. Meticulous checks were kept of the volumes of wool and of fabric obtained from it, and of supplies issued to workers.
Some of the loans from Crete illustrate a darker world than Evans found: for example, a Roman burial of a man still wearing a leg shackle, suggesting that he was enslaved. The darkest finds, including a ritual knife, come from Anemospilia. The site, on a hillside facing Knossos from about 7km away, was excavated in 1979 by the Greek archaeologist Yannis Sakellarakis, who uncovered a three-room building with masses of offerings and bones from animal sacrifices. The skeleton of a man, apparently killed by falling stones while running from the building holding a vase, was found in the corridor. Three further sets of human remains were discovered in one chamber – a woman, a man wearing high-status jewellery including an iron-and-silver ring and a beautifully carved seal, and, on a platform, a young man lying on his side, whose tightly folded legs had evidently been tied. An ornate knife or spearhead, incised with animal forms, was found with the young man’s remains. The older man and woman had crushed bones, and are believed to have died as the roof collapsed in an earthquake. Although his theory is not universally accepted by scholars, Sakellarakis interpreted the scene as a human sacrifice of the young man with the ritual knife, being carried out by the older couple when it was actually interrupted by the earthquake it was intended to prevent. Earthquakes are still common on Crete, and the excavators have pointed out that while it would be too late to organise such a rare and fearsome sacrifice to avert disaster when a major earthquake was already in motion, they are usually preceded by a series of warning tremors.
Evans’ name is forever linked with Knossos, but he did not discover it. When he bought the site, he knew of it through the work of Minos Kalokairinos, a Cretan businessman and amateur archaeologist, the first to excavate there until ordered to stop by the authorities. Kalokairinos’ own collection of finds was later destroyed by a fire at his home. The two men were initially friendly, but fell out – understandably – as Evans published and claimed the astonishing discoveries in the excavations between 1900 and 1904, including the frescoes, the room that he called the oldest throne room in the world, the ceramic images of snake goddesses, and the crystal-eyed bull’s head.
Kalokairinos has been given overdue recognition at the site in the recent installation of a portrait bust facing that of Evans; the exhibition catalogue portrays both men as heroes.
The catalogue describes Knossos as ‘a place where myth, archaeology, and reinforced concrete come together to attract hundreds of thousands of visitors every year’, and Xa Sturgis, Director of the Ashmolean, hopes the exhibition will build a lasting working relationship between the site, the Heraklion Museum, and the Ashmolean.
‘Even today you will meet people wandering around the site who have only heard of Knossos because of Evans’ work,’ Shapland said. ‘There is no sense in which we want to undo his work. Some people hate what he did there, some people love it, but Knossos is an amazing place, completely unique among Minoan sites, where you can walk into a building thousands of years old, and be astonished by its atmosphere. And that is thanks to Evans.’
Labyrinth: Knossos, myth and reality runs at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, from 10 February to 30 July 2023. Visit https://ashmolean.org for more information. A catalogue accompanying the exhibition, published by the Ashmolean, is also available.