Knossos is hardly an unsung site. Indeed, this archaeological gem comes with a mythology that almost rivals that of Troy. It is no coincidence that Heinrich Schliemann, the maverick investigator of Troy, had designs on Knossos, before being famously pipped to the post by Arthur Evans. This was an era when discoveries won from the soil of a Turkish hillock suggested that archaeology could breathe life into the Mediterranean world’s rich mythology. While Schliemann was mesmerised by the promise of finding the real-world backdrop to an epic confrontation featuring gods, men, a legendary beauty, and a wooden horse, the Iliad was just the tip of the mythological iceberg. Another haunting narrative featured the valiant Theseus, who took the place of one of the 14 Athenian youths sent to Crete as tribute to King Minos. Legend has it that these youths were sent into a labyrinth designed by Daedalus to contain the monstrous son of Minos. Once within the maze, the hapless youngsters were devoured by the half-man, half-bull Minotaur. Theseus overcame this monster, after receiving help from Minos’ daughter Ariadne, who furnished our hero with a clew – a ball of thread – to navigate the creature’s lair. While the ingredients of the tale are familiar, a pressing question as the 19th century drew to a close was, if Troy could be found in Turkey, did Minos’ palace await discovery on Crete?
The Minos touch
Thanks to the pioneering work of the Cretan antiquarian Minos Kalokairinos in 1878, a strong candidate for an important Bronze Age complex already existed. At Kephala, about three miles from the coast, a gentle hill rising over an area of fertile farmland had been a source of finds that included baked-clay tablets with writing impressed into their surface. Sufficiently intrigued, Evans purchased the site and commenced excavations in 1900. In the years that followed, a massive complex of rooms arranged around a central courtyard was unearthed. Within lay more tablets – annotated in two different writing systems – as well as fragments of glorious frescoes depicting the inhabitants of a lost civilisation. If Evans was hoping also to discover a mind-bending maze of rooms and corridors with a mythological bull at its heart, he can hardly have been disappointed. Indeed, reading the legend of Theseus and the Minotaur now that we know the details of the Knossos complex, the story could almost be seen as satire. But if mythology had fuelled Evans’ quest for Minos’ palace, so too one of the results of his work was a wealth of new stories woven into the fabric of Knossos – physically so, in the case of his controversial reconstructions. Subtler legacies include the name that was coined for the people of the lost civilisation brought to light by Evans’ search for Minos: the Minoans.
Today, Knossos is a popular destination for tourists looking to squeeze a little culture into a Mediterranean beach holiday, and the site is easily accessible as a short hop on the bus from Heraklion. When I arrived, I was struck by the sheer scale of the ruins, which cover six acres and may have stood up to five storeys in height. Referring to the complex as a palace has been criticised, as thinking of it as simply a royal residence hardly does justice to the range of activities under way on site, but the more neutral-sounding ‘court-centred building’ also seems vague, so Evans’ term will be used here. Even discussing Knossos in these terms can sell its true importance to Bronze Age Crete short. Knossos did not stand in splendid isolation. Instead, a sprawling settlement that may have covered 100ha at its peak lay beyond the palace. Just as occupation was not compressed onto the hill, so too Kephala attracted interest long before the heyday of the Bronze Age palace. Excavations have uncovered traces of Neolithic activity at Knossos, while the magnificent ruins that tourists explore are just the latest in a sequence of structures. There may be fewer traces of these earlier centres for visitors to enjoy today, but they are a crucial part of the story of the rise of Knossos. At the dawn of the fad for palace-building on Crete in around 1900 BC, Knossos was just one of many comparable complexes. When it finally fell c.1375 BC, Knossos was the only palace site still standing.
Despite these different trajectories, one feature that was common to the various Cretan palaces was a huge central courtyard. It seems very likely that these spaces hosted important public ceremonies. Clues to their form can probably be found in the frescoes and other finds from Knossos, as well as the Minotaur legend. To reach the central court, the modern tourist must navigate the corridors and rooms that lead through the palace. While the different ranges of palace rooms were carefully and intelligently organised, it is easy to imagine how, when the walls stood to their full height, ancient visitors without Ariadne’s clew to guide them could have been disorientated. That they, too, would have had bulls on the mind seems certain from the palace décor, which includes liberal use of the ‘horns of consecration’ motif – a stylised bull’s horns – and a fresco of a nimble youth flipping over a muscular bull. Assuming such scenes were not purely symbolic, it is likely that displays of bull leaping were staged in the central court. Rather than viewing this athleticism as a gratuitously risky sport, we should see it as a manifestation of Minoan religious beliefs. By this reading, those participating would have to travel through a complex space before meeting and overcoming the bull at its heart, just like Theseus. The belief underpinning such spectacles remains obscure, but one intriguing suggestion is that it refers to the way that the constellation of Perseus seemingly jumps over that of Taurus to reach Andromeda in the night sky.
Following a clew
The throngs of tourists ambling across the central court today are a little anticlimactic compared to the feats of daring once undertaken there, but Evans had been determined to give visitors a sense of the splendour of the original architecture. While the confusion experienced by ancient visitors to this ‘labyrinth’ is easily matched by anyone seeking to work out where the reconstructions end and the Bronze Age begins, there is no doubt that these mock-ups convey a striking sense of colour. Many of the subjects captured in the frescoes – such as the cavorting dolphins, the ‘Minoan Lady’, or the ‘Prince in the Lilies’ have become iconic, but even here everything may not be as it seems. The heavy restoration necessary to transform many of the surviving fragments into intelligible scenes gave the artists involved plenty of licence to showcase their talents. It has even been suggested that the fabulous headdress sported by the Prince in the Lilies was originally worn by someone – or something – else entirely.
What does seem certain is that these supposedly quintessentially Minoan frescoes belong to the era when the palace was under the thumb of Mycenaean Greece. By then, the undeciphered scribblings of script named Linear A had been supplanted by Linear B. This new form of writing has proven to be Greek, and is found at important Bronze Age sites on the mainland. Numerous other clues suggest that Crete had succumbed to Mycenaean influence by this period. Ironically, if so, it could also be the high-water mark of the importance of Knossos on Crete. Most of the other palaces were destroyed c.1450 BC, while Knossos stands out for continuing as an administrative centre following the introduction of Linear B and down to c.1375 BC.
No trip to Knossos is really complete without a visit to the Heraklion Archaeological Museum, which is simple to reach, as a bus stop lies right outside the museum. Inside, the Minoan artefacts ranged from pottery, carved stones, and sculptures to metal objects, jewellery, and wall paintings. One object that immediately caught my eye was the figurine of a Minoan Snake Goddess. Two of these were found at Knossos, and they may well represent an earth goddess or a priestess. I was certainly enthralled by the Snake Goddess, who left me wondering whether this is what Minoan women or priestesses wore, or how they believed their gods looked. I was also taken aback by the veritable herd of objects featuring bulls. Perhaps the finest was an ivory figurine of a leaper left elegantly floating on air by the loss of the underlying bull. It is a fitting metaphor for how the achievements of the Minoans still shine through, even after being shorn of mythologies both ancient and modern.
ALL Images: R Glaves.