Labyrinth: Knossos, Myth and Reality

Ancient myths meet archaeological treasures in this new blockbuster at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. Carly Hilts went along to learn more about the great palace at Knossos, legendary location of the Minotaur-haunted labyrinth, and real-life repository of Minoan culture.

Knossos, on Crete, has evidence for occupation spanning the Neolithic to the Byzantine periods, but it is best known as the legendary location of King Minos’ labyrinth, home to the monstrous Minotaur. A new exhibition running at the Ashmolean Museum explores both aspects of the site’s story, tracing the evolution of its mythological status, and showcasing the equally remarkable real-life insights that archaeological investigations have revealed over the last 145 years.

Knossos on Crete is renowned as the legendary home of the labyrinth-dwelling Minotaur – a heritage that its later inhabitants clearly prized, as this coin with a maze motif from c.300-270 BC attests. Image: © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

The Oxford-based museum is a fitting home for an exhibition on this theme: Knossos’ most famous excavator, Arthur Evans, carried out his 1900-1905 works during his tenure as Keeper (essentially, Director) of the Ashmolean, and these investigations still dominate interpretations of the site today. At the time, Cretan law required the majority of Evans’ finds to remain in Greece, but the Ashmolean retained his excavation archive. In Labyrinth: Knossos, Myth and Reality, these illuminating bodies of evidence have now been reunited for the duration of the exhibition: of the more than 200 items on display, more than half are loans from Athens and Crete.

The first portion of the displays, contained in an atmospherically lit red-and-black space, explores the myth of the Minotaur. Almost as soon as you pass through the gallery doors, you are confronted by the eponymous monster, carved from marble and no less menacing for having lost its horns and limbs long ago. The sculpture had once adorned a fountain in Roman Athens, and was probably a copy of an earlier Greek bronze. Close-by, a short animation silently summarises the best-known version of the Minotaur story, dating to the 1st century BC – but the tale has much earlier origins, as attested by a selection of decorative 6th-century BC vases displayed opposite. Within the same space, an even earlier fragment of painted plaster – once part of a floor within Knossos’ Great Palace – preserves a winding ‘labyrinth’ design 1,000 years older than any written form of the legend, indicating how long such imagery has been associated with the site. Demonstrating the myth’s longevity in the other direction, its neighbour is another maze-like motif that was created by Mark Wallinger in 2013 for display within the labyrinthine tunnels of the London Underground network.

Within this section of the exhibition, visitors also learn about how the myth evolved through time and different tellers. High up on the walls, snippets from Classical writers including Catullus, Virgil, and Diodorus Siculus encircle the space, adding to the sense of layer upon layer of shifting interpretations. In the display cases below, meanwhile, you see how Knossos’ Greek and Roman inhabitants proudly embraced their legendary heritage, minting coins with labyrinth designs; how the famous maze was adopted as a medieval Christian symbol; and a host of colourful historic maps reflecting early attempts to relocate the site.

While excavations at Knossos are yet to yield evidence of a Minotaur, bull imagery proliferated across the site. This is a rhyton or drinking vessel dating to 1450-1375 BC. Image: © Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Sports, General Directorate of Antiquities and Cultural Heritage, Heraklion Archaeological Museum; Ephorate of Antiquities of Heraklion

Legends in a material world

Leaving behind mythical narratives to explore the material record, the next part of the exhibition concerns the advent of archaeological investigations at Knossos, particularly the site’s rediscovery in 1878 by a local businessman, the fittingly named Minos Kalokairinos. Kalokairinos’ search had been inspired by Heinrich Schliemann’s discoveries at Troy

(1870-1890) and Mycenae (1876), and he too made spectacular finds, uncovering the remains of what would become known as the Great Palace at Knossos – although local authorities put a hasty halt to his investigations, fearing that finds would be spirited away by the Austro-Hungarian Empire, under whose control the island still partly lay. Today he is often overshadowed by Arthur Evans, but the Ashmolean sets out to redress the balance with an array of photographs, documents, and a towering pithos storage vessel highlighting Kalokairinos’ achievements.

From this scene-setting space, visitors then move into a much brighter, airier room where, beneath soaring ceilings, sky-blue joins the palette of red and black, and painted scarlet columns give the feel of being inside the palace itself. You are initially met with relics of Evans’ excavations – notebooks, photographs, intricate plans of the hundreds of rooms that were uncovered, section drawings – and then turn a corner into a large room showcasing some of his discoveries, immersing you in Minoan culture. As well as watercolour reconstructions of some of the palace’s famous frescoes, highlights include beautiful pottery decorated with patterns of repeated rosettes, or strikingly detailed octopuses; Linear B tablets and intriguing examples of yet-to-be deciphered Minoan hieroglyphs; religious items; jewellery; and a drinking vessel perfectly replicating a triton shell in marble. Other themes include the role of women within the palace, and the significance of the bull and marine-life imagery that was found throughout the site.

The exhibition is not an uncritical celebration of Evans’ work, however: some of the displays address his occasionally imaginative approach to ‘filling in the gaps’ when reconstructing fragmentary remains – none more so than a watercolour of a damaged fresco that was thought to preserve the lower body of a young boy collecting saffron. The child’s top half was duly filled in – but subsequent discoveries have revealed the flower-gatherer to be a monkey. Also acknowledged is the impact of some of Evans’ ‘interventions’ on the site. In some cases these were intended to help protect fragile frescos or preserve crumbling architecture, but there is no doubt that Evans’ enthusiasm for reinforced concrete (then a cutting-edge material) means his vision of how the palace would have looked remains literally set in stone.

This dagger inlaid with an image of a griffin was found during excavations in the 1970s. It dates to 1450-1375 BC and is decorated with bronze, ivory, gold, and silver. Image: © Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Sports, General Directorate of Antiquities and Cultural Heritage, Heraklion Archaeological Museum; Ephorate of Antiquities of Heraklion

Work at Knossos did not stop with Evans, of course, and in a cool, calm, white room at the end of the exhibition you can see finds from much more recent excavations. Some reflect the investigations in the 1950s and 1960s, which shed more light on the site’s Neolithic occupation – including what is thought to be Europe’s oldest spoon – while there are also artefacts from a religious sanctuary excavated in 1974, including enigmatic double-axes, and a stunning dagger inlaid with the image of a griffin. Equally appealing are tiny gold, ivory, and stone puppies that were found on nearby Mount Juktas in 1974-1988. Although barely bigger than your thumbnail, they are so detailed that it is possible to identify them as a kind of mastiff – a valuable, imported breed. Could these votive offerings have been intended as an early form of pet insurance for these expensive animals?

Other displays present artefacts uncovered in only the last few years, and highlight the value of scientific techniques that Evans could have only dreamed of. The overwhelming impression is that this is a site with a long and in some ways very familiar story, but a story that still has many new secrets to reveal.

Further information
Labyrinth: Knossos, Myth and Reality runs until 30 July. See https://ashmolean.org/exhibition/labyrinth-knossos-myth-reality for more details.