Knossos: journey to the centre of the labyrinth

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A trip to Crete allows Rachel Glaves to delve into the fact and fiction of Knossos.

The restored ruins of the palace complex of Knossos, with its distinctive red pillars, are the latest in a series of structures at the site.

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?

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.

Ruins of the lower level of the sprawling complex, which at its peak extended over six acres.

The Minos touch

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.

The North Propylaeum, restored by Arthur Evans. The reconstructed section of fresco depicts a charging bull.

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.

This is an extract from an article published in issue 91 of Current World ArchaeologyClick here for more information about subscribing to the magazine.

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