This week: Knossos

Knossos, Crete. IMAGE: Wikimedia Commons/C messier

According to the catalogue for the new exhibition at Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum, Knossos is the place where ‘myth, archaeology and reinforced concrete come together’ – a neat encapsulation of some of the world famous site’s many complexities.

Perched on a low Cretan hillside, King Minos’ palace attracts up to 8,000 visitors a day in summer, with many coming to immerse themselves in one of the most captivating of all ancient Greek myths – that of Theseus and the Minotaur, the monstrous offspring of a queen and a bull, who lives at the centre of the terrifying Labyrinth.

As we learn this week on The Past, however, there is another level on which we need to understand the story of Knossos: as the location for one of the most extraordinary archaeological excavations of the early 20th century – carried out by Sir Arthur Evans (1851-1941), the wealthy British pioneer in the study of Bronze Age Aegean civilisation, who bought the site for the equivalent of £60,000 today.

It is largely as a result of the work of Evans, who was also keeper of the Ashmolean from 1884 to 1908, that Knossos came to be so widely celebrated. In some cases, his renovations proved essential to the preservation of the site (such as when the Great Staircase collapsed after excavation); and while many of his theories would later be challenged, there is no doubt that his efforts have helped to bring the past to life for millions around the world.

But some of the techniques used by Evans would also prove controversial, both in his time and thereafter. In particular, his liberal approach to restoration, and his determination to ‘reconstitute’ what he mistakenly believed to have been there 3,500 years earlier, led to some eye-catchingly clumsy interventions – such as his use of the aforementioned reinforced concrete, a material unknown to the ancient Minoans.

In the latest issue of Minerva magazine, Maev Kennedy introduces the Ashmolean’s fascinating new show, Labyrinth: Knossos, myth and reality, which tells the story of Evans in Crete – and explains why, despite everything, he continues to be admired not only in Britain, but also in Greece.

Elsewhere this week, we have been delving into the archives for more about Knossos: we discovered how the 20th-century British artist John Craxton sought creative fulfilment on the island of Crete; we learned how Picasso found inspiration in the myth of the Minotaur; we talked about Minoan civilisation with the historian Janina Ramirez; and we even followed Ariadne’s thread on a journey to the centre of the Labyrinth.

And finally, if all that simply whets your appetite, don’t forget to have a go at our latest Quiz, which this week is also themed around Greek islands. Good luck, and we hope you enjoy The Past!

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