Knossos: seeking the labyrinth

Was the Minoan palace at Knossos the inspiration for myths about the Minotaur and its labyrinth lair? Delving into the archaeology of this monument and its environs reveals a reality every bit as remarkable as the ancient legends, as Andrew Shapland told Matthew Symonds.


There have been many labyrinths. Visitors to the 13th-century cathedral at Chartres, in France, will find one inlaid in the floor of the nave. Another was fashioned from turf at Troy Farm, Oxfordshire, sometime around the 17th century. These labyrinths, like many others, are not puzzles to be solved. Far from being a maze of intersecting passages designed to bewilder with dead ends and wrong turns, they offer a single path that leads inexorably to the centre via a circuitous route, layered with disorientating twists and turns. This concept is an old one. The earliest datable appearance of this labyrinth motif stretches back to 1200 BC, when it was doodled on the back of a tablet inscribed with text known as Linear B at Pylos, Greece. Since then, the design has graced mediums as varied as Roman mosaics and the margins of medieval manuscripts. That some associated it with the most famous labyrinth of all is made plain by a Latin inscription accompanying a graffito in this style at Pompeii: ‘here lives the Minotaur’. Sure enough, the design also adorned coins minted from 425 BC at the home of the mythical Minotaur: Knossos, on the island of Crete.

Face to face with the Minotaur, in the guise of a marble statue dating to roughly AD 1-300. It originally formed part of an Athenian fountain, with water gushing from the creature’s mouth, and has been loaned for the exhibition by the National Archaeological Museum, Athens. The search for a kernel of truth in Minotaur myth has led to some extraordinary archaeological discoveries. Image: M Symonds

By the time that this money was issued, Knossos was a Greek city, and the legend of the labyrinth already belonged to a distant, heroic past. The tale of Theseus journeying to its heart with the aid of a ball of twine and slaying the monstrous Minotaur was set in the era now known as Minoan, which dates to around 3000-1000 BC. How old the story itself is remains an open question. Depictions of a hero dispatching the Minotaur can be found on Greek vases dating back to the 6th century BC, indicating that at least some familiar elements of the myth were in place by then. But could its true origins lie much further back in time? Some of the pioneering excavators of Knossos certainly thought so. The first person to dig at the site was Minos Kalokairinos, a local businessman, who unearthed a great storage magazine in the 1870s. At the time, Crete was still part of the Ottoman Empire, and Kalokairinos was dissuaded from continuing his investigations, for fear that any outstanding artefacts would be claimed by the imperial authorities. It was clear enough, though, that the site was an important one. On a sketch map drawn in 1878, Kalokairinos labelled his discovery as the palace of Minos, after the legendary ruler of Knossos at the time of the Minotaur. That same map identified a subterranean stone quarry about a kilometre distant as the labyrinth.

The twists and turns of a labyrinth are visible in the floor of the nave in the 13th-century cathedral at Chartres, France. Image: Louise Roach/Dreamstime

Although the political situation brought a premature end to Kalokairinos’ digging, he was still happy to guide visiting scholars around the site. One such individual was Arthur Evans, Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, who visited in 1894. He was immediately struck by similarities between the palace architecture exposed by Kalokairinos and the confusing nature of the Minotaur’s lair. Evans wrote in his diary that ‘I see no reason for not thinking that the mysterious complication of passages is the labyrinth’. Six years later, he had the chance to play this hunch. Evans used his family wealth to purchase the palace site and, after Crete gained independence, he began excavations at the site in 1900. To Evans’ delight, this work confirmed that the palace had a complex ground-plan, while the finds revealed a fondness for bull-themed accessories and décor. Tantalisingly, he even found a fragment of floor plaster with a painted labyrinth design on it, albeit different in style to the influential motif of a single, twisting path. Evans’ conviction that the building itself was the basis for the labyrinth deepened, with later Greek mythmakers perhaps inspired by the romantic ruins of the Minoan palace. This notion of Knossos as a place where reality and legend merge is explored in a fascinating new exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum, Labyrinth: Knossos, myth & reality, which showcases extraordinary finds from the palace and its environs, as well as the Evans archive.

An ancient silver coin that was minted in Knossos around 300-270 BC and shows the labyrinth. It was about 26mm in diameter. Image: © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

False trails

Although the roots of the Greek word labyrinthos lie in an earlier language, its precise meaning remains unclear. Evans noted that an ancient term for a double axe was labrys, and, as these were frequently represented at Knossos, he favoured ‘labyrinth’ meaning ‘the House of the Double Axes’, although this reading is now considered doubtful. What is widely accepted, though, is that if there is a kernel of truth in the Minotaur myth, it is to be sought at Knossos. The Classical Greek inhabitants of the city, who minted the coins bearing the labyrinth motif, clearly felt the same way. For many centuries, though, this connection was lost. The mislaying of the labyrinth seems to start with the Roman invasion of Crete in 69 BC, an act that was resisted by the Hellenistic inhabitants of Knossos. In punishment, the new Roman authorities snubbed Knossos and made the city of Gortyn, about 60km to the south, the new capital of Crete. As power passed to Gortyn, so too did an association with the labyrinth.

This fragment of fresco with a labyrinth design was found during excavations at Knossos. It dates to 1700-1600 BC, and is believed to have been floor decoration. Image © Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Sports, General Directorate of Antiquities and Cultural Heritage, Heraklion Archaeological Museum

‘For centuries, the problem for Knossos was that if you went and asked where the labyrinth was, it was difficult to pinpoint a precise spot,’ says Andrew Shapland, the Sir Arthur Evans Curator of Bronze Age and Classical Greece at the Ashmolean Museum, ‘because there was nothing to see there. So, when people travelled to Crete in search of the labyrinth, probably from the Roman period onwards, more often than not they were told to go to Gortyn. There is an impressive series of subterranean passages nearby, which had been quarried out to secure masonry for the new Roman capital. Visitors were still being sent there into the 19th century. As I was doing the research for this exhibition, I realised that Charles Robert Cockerell, the man who designed the façade of the Ashmolean Museum, had visited the Gortyn quarry in 1811, with a ball of thread in hand in case he got lost. This uncertainty about location is also reflected in maps of Crete. If you look at examples from the 15th and 16th centuries – the golden age of map- making – through to the 19th century, the labyrinth is shown all over the island.’

The excavations at Knossos revealed a complex structure arranged around the Central Court, as seen in this annotated ground plan, which was drawn up in around 1903. Image: © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

‘Among these dissenting views, the case for Knossos was made by someone called Robert Pashley, who visited Crete in 1834. He noted that the Greek coins linked the labyrinth to Knossos, and the location of Knossos was known. On that basis, even if the labyrinth was imaginary, its supposed site seemed clear enough. That was the state of knowledge towards the end of the 19th century, which is where Minos Kalokairinos comes in. His work came at a time when Heinrich Schliemann had recently found something that looked like the Troy of myth, and then done something similar at Mycenae. Kalokairinos was inspired by this, and, because Knossos was also an important place in myth, he decided to dig on a low hill that was unencumbered by modern buildings and see what he found. The result was the remains of an impressive building, which perhaps no one had really expected.’

While Kalokairinos discovered the site and took pains to promote it, the opportunity to expose the true scale of the palace fell to Evans. ‘By the standards of the day, this was a careful excavation,’ says Andrew. ‘Records were kept, including photographs, notebooks, and so on. Arthur Evans was not an experienced excavator, but he did employ a number of people who had dug at other important sites, notably his assistant Duncan Mackenzie. There was also a large group of Cretan workers, which included both men and women, many of whom became very experienced diggers. One of Evans’ first challenges was to work out where the palace was situated in time. An Egyptian statue gave him a clue. This shows a seated goldsmith by the name of User, and was found in a corner of the Central Court at the heart of the palace. The statue can be dated to the 2nd millennium BC, and Evans and Mackenzie then arranged the pottery from the palace into a sequence to create a sense of how the palace developed over time. Today, we know that the first palace was built around 1900 BC, with the complex ultimately destroyed in 1350 BC.’

The Statue of User was manufactured in Egypt and can be dated to 1700-1350 BC. It was found in the Central Court at Knossos and provided valuable dating evidence for the palace. Image: © Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Sports, General Directorate of Antiquities and Cultural Heritage, Heraklion Archaeological Museum

Finding the centre

As Evans’ excavations progressed, he developed theories about the role of the ranges of rooms arranged around the palace Central Court. Initial work revealed more of the pithoi encountered by Kalokairinos, which would have stored commodities such as olive oil, grain, and wine. Other early finds appeared more religious in nature. Pillars carved with double-axe symbols and a stone throne associated with a curious underground chamber, as well as frescoes of griffins and plants, prompted Evans to view the West Wing of the palace as religious in nature. Although he initially favoured the throne being intended for a queen, Evans later settled on it serving as the seat of a priest-king, who worshipped a mother goddess. Excavating two subterranean cists to the south of the throne room revealed possible evidence for just such a goddess: a woman handling snakes and dressed in exquisite Minoan fabrics. On the far side of the Central Court lay the East Wing, which Evans viewed as domestic space, with accommodation, feasting halls, and traces of industrial activity. Part of this range had been cut 8m into the hill on which Knossos lay.

Arthur Evans commissioned replicas of some of the most important finds from Knossos. These include two representations of apparent Snake Goddesses – note the fine textiles they are wearing. Image: © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

‘No one really knows exactly what the palace was,’ says Andrew. ‘It was a very complex building. But it would have been a gathering place and centre for this society. As the exhibition shows, there is a lot of marine imagery from the palace. I would say that the importance of this is that it expresses control of the sea. There may be an economic dimension here, because purple dye made from seashells – later famously used for the clothes of Roman emperors – was invented in Minoan Crete. I think the way this society became wealthy was perhaps through trading textiles.’

‘There is evidence for textiles being made in the palace, while Linear B tablets show that, when the palace was destroyed in 1350 BC, it was in control of 100,000 sheep roaming the island of Crete. And the reason these sheep and this dye were so important is because they created the major export product from Bronze Age Crete. You can see Egyptian tomb paintings with what appear to be Cretan textiles. As well as wealth, Crete perhaps also imported some ideas – such as writing – from the societies of the eastern Mediterranean. Knossos seems to be in control of cattle, too. The Minoan sport of people leaping over bulls is shown in frescoes from the palace, and I think this is similar to the American rodeo. After all, you need a way to round up cattle, and they weren’t riding horses in this period, so they would have to grab these animals by hand. Bull-leaping would be a display of the skills they needed for this.’

The decoration on the Poros Ewer features swimming argonauts and presents one of the finest examples of Minoan marine imagery. It dates to 1500-1450 BC and was found in a tomb. Image: © Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Sports, General Directorate of Antiquities and Cultural Heritage, Heraklion Archaeological Museum

‘We don’t know for certain whether people lived in the palace. If they did, the commodities stored in the pithoi perhaps kept them fed and watered. The key question here is whether there was really a ruling family present, because there is very little evidence for one. If not, would that leave the palace as a religious centre? Well, it’s very difficult to disentangle religious and secular activities in the Bronze Age, so all we can say for certain – with the evidence for gatherings, storage, industry, and religious activity – is that this was a multifunctional space. Arthur Evans saw the East Wing as the domestic quarter, with defined male and female spaces, but ultimately these are just names. We can’t prove either way whether people actually lived there. One thing Evans did find, though, which captured people’s imagination at the time, was the world’s first flushing toilet. This was created because the scale of the building meant that the Minoans had to solve the problem of draining rainwater, which would have been a particular problem where they had cut into the hillside. So they devised a plumbing system, and they also connected it to a little cubicle with a seat, which acted as a toilet.’

This gold finger-ring is said to have been found at Archanes and can be dated to 1450-1375 BC. It is just 2.5cm long, and shows a figure leaping over a bull. Such athletic feats could have been a way to showcase the skills needed to round up cattle. Image: © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

‘When it comes to who was in charge at Knossos, there has always been debate about whether it was a male- or female-dominated place. We can’t say for sure, but there are a lot of representations of women from the palace, and I do wonder if the figures of goddesses with snakes reflect some of the important people in Minoan society. It could well be that female textile workers were in charge of this major industry, and so played a leading role at Knossos.’

This watercolour reconstruction of fresco fragments found at Knossos shows three women wearing fine embroidered jackets, which were dyed yellow and blue. Image: © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Beyond the palace

While Evans was primarily interested in understanding the Minoan era, it was clear from his first excavations that human activity at the site stretched back far earlier. Indeed, the hill on which the palace perched proved to be an artificial mound created by thousands of years of superimposed settlement and activity. The earliest lay 7m below the level of the palace and, following work by John Evans (no relation) in the 1950s, can now be radiocarbon dated to 9,000 years ago. Finds of carbonised grain and the bones of domestic animals make this the earliest agricultural settlement currently known in Europe. Those first inhabitants settled by the banks of a river and grew wheat, barley, emmer, and lentils, while their livestock was dominated by sheep. It is likely that 30 or so inhabitants established a hamlet, consisting of buildings made from mud-brick and stone. Over time, the growing settlement mound became the focus for a much larger community. Indeed, while the population at Knossos would wax and wane over the millennia, there is no sign that it was ever fully abandoned, making it a contender for Europe’s oldest continually occupied settlement. If so, this might also help us to understand how the stories about the site were originally transmitted. ‘It is certainly possible that this is where a lot of the Cretan myths come from,’ Andrew says. ‘We can imagine stories about Knossos being passed down from person to person over generations.’

The first occupation at Knossos represents the earliest agricultural settlement currently known in Europe. All of the following items are from the BSA Stratigraphical Museum. The image above shows burnt wheat grains and a hammerstone, which were found beneath the Central Court and date to 6700-6500 BC. The quern comes from beneath the West Court at Knossos, and belongs to 5000-4750 BC. Image: M Symonds
Europe’s oldest spoon. It was found below the Central Court, is made of bone, and dates back to 6700-6500 BC. Image: M Symonds

When we think about the palace, then, we need to imagine it as part of a much larger settlement. Since 2005, survey work by the Knossos Urban Landscape Project has recovered more than 400,000 artefacts from fieldwalking in the Knossos valley. This is allowing the growth and contraction of settlement at Knossos to be reconstructed over time. During the heyday of the palace, it lay within a huge settlement that was about 1km square in size, and perhaps home to 20,000-25,000 inhabitants. Tombs belonging to this era have been found 5km away, one of which even produced a gold ring showing a woman standing in front of an impressive building that bears more than a passing resemblance to the Minoan palace.

The wider environs of the palace were dotted with temples and shrines. One sanctuary lay on Mount Juktas, which dominates the landscape and was aligned on the Central Court at Knossos. Thousands of offerings – including the double axes so closely associated with the palace – were found associated with terraces built on the mountain. An even more dramatic display of religious devotion was found near the foot of Mount Juktas. There, a Minoan temple was destroyed during an earthquake, freezing in time the extraordinary – and chilling – episode apparently playing out within. Three people seem to have been struck down as the building collapsed, one of whom was carrying a distinctive pottery bucket decorated with a bull. A fourth individual lay bent and possibly bound on a low altar, beside a bronze blade. It is believed that this person is the victim of a human sacrifice that was under way when the earthquake struck, presumably in an attempt to ward off that very disaster, which is likely to have been foreshadowed by lesser tremors.

This gold ring dates to 1600-1450 BC and measures just 1.2cm by 1.9cm. It shows a woman in front of a ‘Sacred Mansion’: could this be an ancient representation of the palace? Image: © Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Sports, General Directorate of Antiquities and Cultural Heritage, Heraklion Archaeological Museum

What lay behind the catastrophe that ultimately consumed the palace is less clear. ‘It was destroyed by fire,’ says Andrew, ‘but we don’t know who started it or whether it was an accident. The trading system with the eastern Mediterranean was probably always fairly fragile. Any interruptions to it are likely to have made the palace economy unsustainable pretty quickly. It was clearly extracting a lot of resources from the countryside, and once it was destroyed those living nearby could have gone back to a subsistence way of life without being taxed by the palace, so perhaps they would not have been too upset about that.’

This bucket vase is decorated with a relief image of a bull and stands 50cm tall. It was apparently being carried by a man who was killed when a Minoan temple collapsed during the earthquake. It seems that a human sacrifice was under way as the earthquake struck, with this bucket perhaps intended to receive the victim’s blood. Image: © Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Sports, General Directorate of Antiquities and Cultural Heritage, Heraklion Archaeological Museum

Another twist in the path

Seeking the reality behind a myth has, then, shone vivid light on an extraordinary civilisation. But what of the labyrinth? Was Evans right? Is its true form to be found among the confusion of passages in the palace? Not according to Linear B tablets that were written at Knossos before the palace was destroyed. Some refer to a goddess or religious activity at a location known as da-pu- ri-to, a name that specialists judge closely related to the later Greek word labyrinthos. As other tablets refer to Knossos as ko-no-so, this seems to suggest that it and the labyrinth were two different places. The hunt continues.

The engrossing Labyrinth: Knossos, myth & reality exhibition will run at the Ashmolean Museum until 30 July 2023. You can find more information and book tickets here: knossos-myth-reality.

A fascinating volume has been produced to accompany the exhibition: A Shapland (ed.) (2023) Labyrinth: Knossos, myth & reality (Ashmolean Museum Publishing, ISBN 978- 1910807552, £25).