Knossos—or Knosos, what with flexible Greek spelling—is to Crete as Denali is to Alaska: the #1 tourist attraction, the must-see, the favorite, the most talked about and promoted.
Minoans and Mycenaeans
Knossos is an ancient Minoan palace site that dates back over 4,000 years. The Minoans are considered the first European civilization, and they ruled the Aegean area for 550 years during the Bronze Age, trading far and wide, and spreading their influence.
In mythology, Knossos was the seat of King Minos. Daedalus built his labyrinth here beneath the palace, and a Minotaur hunted the people who got lost inside. Eventually, Theseus killed the dreaded Minotaur and found his way out with the help of a string.
In history, the “First Palace Period” in Knossos started around 2,000 BC, and some of the ruins at Knossos date all the way back to this time. In the mid-1700s BC, an earthquake destroyed the original palace, but it was rebuilt bigger and better shortly thereafter in what is now called the “Second Palace Period.” Clever names, no?
After 1500 BC, the second palace on the site was partially destroyed, but stayed in use for another 50 years, when it finally burned and crumbled. We always have a little trouble comprehending how rock structures burn, but the ceilings tend to be wood, so in the end, I guess it makes sense.
Here is yet another example of new being built on top of old; although, the “new” in this case is more than 3,700 years old.
The Minoans reigned at Knossos until about 1450 BC when Mycenaeans from the mainland took over. Remember all that Mycenaean gold from the National Museum? Those people. I’m not sure anyone knows exactly what happened to create this change: disease, war, natural disaster, something else.
The Knossos palace included private royal quarters, public meeting rooms, shrines, workshops, and storerooms, all surrounding a large central court.
Excavation at Knossos
Heinrich Schliemann (we talked about him finding the Mask of Agamemnon) was convinced that Knossos held an important ancient Minoan palace, but he died before being able to excavate. Sir Arthur Evans, who had visited Schliemann’s other sites, enthusiastically picked up the Knossos reigns after Schliemann’s death, and shortly after Turkish rule of Crete ended in 1897, he got to work.
Born into a wealthy British family, educated at Oxford, and employed by the prestigious Ashmolean Museum, Evans purchased the farmland above and around Knossos and spent 250,000 pounds of his family’s money to excavate it.
Dear Mom and Dad, will you please buy me an archaeological site and then fund the excavation?
Beginning in 1900, Evans spent 30 years excavating and restoring Knossos.
Yes, restoring. Hmmm.
Some think Arthur Evans over-reached, letting his imagination run riot and then imposing the results on history. Others think his restorations make the site more interesting and accessible to visitors, helping them to imagine what might have been.
I’ll show you some of what we saw, and you can decide what you think.
Entering a site always excites me, the anticipation of discovering something new and making new connections. Memories of Pompeii invariably spring to mind, probably because it’s a favorite for me and is the bar by which all other visits back into history are measured.
These kouloures (granaries) seem to be outside the palace, and I’m curious as to why. Maybe this was grain for people who lived outside the palace complex. Maybe it was grain for animals that lived in the fields surrounding the palace. Or maybe this is where grain was collected from surrounding farms, perhaps part of a tax system.
Arthur Evans got to contemplate this stuff.
The ubiquitous clay pots:
But look at those giant ones. How heavy do you think those are? Can you imagine moving one? Well, that’s what all those handles around the outside are for. They used some sort of pulley or crane system to hoist those puppies. Ancient engineering.
Arthur Evans’s Restorations
Wall with Wood Beams
Arthur Evans imagined what the different parts of the palace complex were, based on the clues present, and he hired craftsmen to restore various parts. This, I think, is just a random wall.
Now, my question is were the original palace walls painted to look like wood beams, or were there real wood beams in the walls? Did Arthur Evans know, or is he making this up? It bugs me that I don’t know what’s real and what’s made up here.
I remember a church in Italy where the interior was a giant fresco of brickwork. Um, if you want the church interior to look like brickwork, why not build with bricks and save yourself heaps of trouble?
The “Throne Room”
We saw and discussed this room in our class, along with other parts of this site. While it does contain a stone seat that looks like a throne, it’s a small room, not easily accessed, and the throne faces a wall. The course instructor and I both think Arthur Evans was wrong about how this space was used.
Ancient people understood that building up was more efficient than building out, and most of these ruins that we see were multi-story complexes. They had to have a lot of stairs. For a reason I don’t fully understand, I find stairs at these sites exciting, perhaps because they suggest more. Whenever possible, I climb the stairs. They’re usually narrow and irregular. Sometimes they’re noticeably worn; those are my favorites. (I’m thinking of worn stairs at Pompeii and the Colosseum.) I always want to know where the steps went, what was at the top or bottom.
Brightly Painted Frescoes and Pillars
Most ruins are simply the natural color of the stone, the paint washed away by rain or faded by sun, but in the heyday of the palaces, bright colors prevailed. The restored areas remind us of this.
And they’re a little jarring, too, since they don’t blend with the rest of the site.
Horns of Consecration
This U-shaped statue, a limestone replica in this case, was a popular architectural design and motif in both Minoan and Mycenaean culture. Arthur Evans labeled this shape the “Horns of Consecration,” believing they represent bulls’ horns, since bulls also feature prominently in art and symbols of the time. Check out the fresco above—a bull. There’s another below.
It really looks like Mike’s touching the stone, doesn’t it? Good job, Barb! (She took the picture.)
North Entrance and Theater
This theater area is my favorite part of the site. Look how warped the surfaces are; that’s one of the things I especially like. Now turn around, and you see this:
Beautiful! Evans decided this was the “Royal Road.” I like it enough that I can get on board that name. The road was restored to some extent, with new rocks laid, but it’s easy to imagine it as the original. The restored parts don’t call attention to themselves like the brightly painted columns and frescoes here or the bright white marble on the Temple of Athena Nike or the Parthenon.
Don’t you love Barb’s blue coat in this picture?
Favorite Restored Frescoes
We had a couple of rain showers today, but the site offers several covered areas that provided excellent shelter. We spent some time in the Fresco Room, and so I made everyone pick a favorite fresco. Well, I made Mike and Barb pick favorites; I did not make the three twenty-something visitors taking a tour do it.
Mike’s favorite fresco. “Bull dancing” was a real thing. Athletes would vault over bulls in daring acts of grace and strength. I’d kind of like to see this, provided the bulls didn’t mind.
Barb’s favorite fresco. She likes the ladies sitting under the trees. I love all those heads; although, I think it’s a rather strange design overall.
My favorite. These Greek ladies remind me of characters in Disney’s Hercules movie. The Disney folks do their research, of course. I just think they’re pretty; I love the dark, wavy, bejeweled hair.
Pro- or Anti-Restorations?
As much as I would love to see a site like Knossos in its colorful, multi-storied (literally and figuratively) heyday, I don’t like the restorations. I feel suspicious; skeptical of Evans’s interpretation; unsure of what is original, what is a replica of an original, and what is wholly of Evans’s imagination. Instead of drawing me into the site, it distances me from it.
I would prefer an Evans version next door to the original so that I can interpret and imagine the original myself. By imposing himself on the site, he deprives me of that pleasure.
But what do you think?