The Knossos Palace Archeological Site in Crete: Is It a Ruined Ruin?
Here's my complete guide to understanding and visiting the Knossos Palace archaeological complex on the north shore of Crete in Greece. Knossos is the symbol of the ancient Minoan civilization. It's the largest archaeological site from the pre-classical Bronze Age and Europe's "oldest city." After the Parthenon, it's the most visited site in Greece.
Knossos is largely the creation and brainchild of British archaeologist Arthur Evans. Evans was the Indiana Jones of the early 20th century architectural world. Or, perhaps more accurately, he was an archaeological minotaur, who trampled on an ancient site.
Armed with inherited cash, Evans unearthed a 5,000 year old world at Knossos -- reputedly Europe's first civilization. Based on the Greek legend of King Minos and the minataur, he romantically dubbed the early Crete citizens "Minoans." We have no idea what they actually called themselves.
Evans worked on the Knossos archaeological site for 30 years, from 1900-30. He engaged in some dramatic and controversial restoration. He conveniently termed his work "reconstitutions." Still, they make modern antiquarians wince.
With its stout red columns and brilliant frescos, Knossos is immediately recognizable and a huge tourist draw. But is it an archaeological Disneyland? Are people really seeing real Minoan artifacts?
As an avid ruin luster, I went to Knossos with dreams of reliving a beguiling ancient Greek past. When I clapped eyes on the Knossos Palace complex, I was shocked by the vivid color and recreations. Shocked, somewhat appalled -- and admittedly -- a little dazzled too.
I wondered, is any of Knossos real? Or is it both real and fake? If so, what parts of the Evansian version of Minoan history are real? And, if some parts of Knossos are fake, is Knossos Palace a ruined ruin?
This is a complicated topic. Let's start off with some basics and, hopefully, break it down in a not too scholarly fashion.
What is Knossos?
Knossos is the largest archaeological site in Crete, dating from the Bronze Age. It was likely the center of Minoan civilization, although there are other smaller Minoan complexes on Crete at Phaistos, Malia, Zakros, and Kydonia.
The Knossos complex is dubbed a "palace." But that term was coined by Evans. It seems largely to derive from Evans' belief -- fueled by romanticism -- that he had discovered King Minos' labyrinth from an ancient Greek myth.
Archaeologists now know that Knossos wasn't a palace. There's no indicia of monarchy, no giant statues or iconography of monarchs, no insignia, and no grand room for a monarch. The Knossos complex was likely a sprawling public area. It could have been a communal political, cultural, and/or ceremonial center.
The Knossos site consists of the ruins of two "palaces," one built over the other. The first complex dates from the 19th–17th centuries B.C., while the second one is from the 16th–14th century B.C. The sites were inhabited for several thousand years.
Who discovered Knossos in Crete?
The first serious scholar interested in Knossos was Heinrich Schliemann, the discoverer of Troy and Mycenae, the two cities from the Trojan war. The German archaeologist and lover of Greek legends was convinced that there was an important Minoan site in the area of Heraklion. However, Crete was under Ottoman domination. The Turkish authorities refused to give Schliemann excavation permits.
But Knossos beckoned. There were telltale signs that it was an important archaeological site in Greece. Coins, pottery, jars, murals, seal stones, and rings had been found on the hill of Knossos. Enter the well-heeled Arthur Evans, an Oxford-educated gentleman archaeologist with little excavation experience.
Evans possessed “all of his era’s thirst for scientific inquiry, most of its grand passions and many of its reflexive prejudices.” Even on a dig, he dressed in suit and tie and carried a walking stick he’d nicknamed Prodger.
In 1900, Evans bought the land on which Knossos is situated from a newly independent Crete nation. That gave him total control over the excavation. Characteristic of the time, Evans reserved for himself the right to decipher the relics he’d found.
Evans began his self-financed and self-conceived digging in 1900. Within weeks, he'd uncovered a labyrinthian series of rooms, a large complex at Knossos. It reflected great wealth, power, and a highly advanced architecture.
The Knossos complex was based around a central courtyard with more than a thousand interlinked maze-like halls and chambers. The sections were up to 5 stories high. There was even a plumbing system and the world's first flushing toilet.
Evans was especially intrigued with antechambers leading to a main room with an alabaster throne of sorts. Without much reflection, Evans promptly announced the discovery of King Minos' throne room and the Minoan civilization.
Who Were the Minoans Exactly?
The Minoans are the people who lived on Crete during the Bronze Age between 2600 and 1100 B.C. The Minoans preceded the Mycenaean civilization, which later gave rise to classical Greece. The Minoans might have been Europe's first advanced civilization. But we know very little about them.
The Minoans weren't Greek and they didn't speak Greek. Their language is known as Linear A. But it hasn't been translated, although Evans collected clay tablets with a form of writing on them.
With some Victorian fantasizing run amuck, and possibly as a counterpoise to world events, Evans cooked up a theory that the Minoans represented a golden age of early civilization.
He claimed they were a mysterious, peaceful, idealistic, and insular people. Based on fresco fragments, Evans envisioned a society where woman played an important role. The art he uncovered at Knossos depicted a happy leisure society -- with people dancing, bull leaping, and swimming with dolphins.
The Minoans worshiped bulls. Of that, there is ample evidence found in Crete's ruins. The Minoans may have invented the sport of "bull leaping," although it could be a purely symbolic sport. Theoretically, daredevil Minoan acrobats entered an arena with a wild bull, somersaulted onto his back, performed stunts, and somersaulted off behind.
In fact, the Minoans were possibly a singular example of an early matriarchal society. But Evans was wrong about a host of other things about the Knossos site.
The Minoans weren't a monarchical society. Nor were they insular. There's evidence that they were a seafaring society, and sailed the seas in search of bronze. There's also evidence of human sacrifice and child cannibalism on Crete, a fact drastically at odds with Evan's utopian vision of the Minoans.
The Myth of the Minotaur and Theseus
To understand Evans and the backdrop of Knossos, you need to know the Greek myth of Theseus. It's one of the most gripping Greek myths. King Minos appears in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey.
In Greek legend, King Minos was the son of Zeus and Europa. But he had some sovereignty problems. So he asked the Greek god Poseidon for an offering, a sign that Minos was the rightful king of Crete. Poseidon sent him a magnificent white bull.
But Minos was so besotted with the bull that he kept it and scarified another bull to Poseidon. Poseidon was predictably pissed. He cursed Minos' wife, enchanting her with bull lust. In due course, Minos' wife gave birth to a fearsome half man, half bull creature called the "minotaur."
King Minos was horrified. He summoned his chief architect Daedulus to build a sort of prison for the minotaur. Daedulus built a labyrinth inside Minos' palace, from which the minotaur couldn't escape. King Minos forced Athenians to send sacrificial children to feed the minotaur.
To ensure that Daedulus didn't expose the embarrassing secret of the minotaur, Minos imprisoned him and his son Icarus. They constructed wings to escape their tower prison. But Icarus famously flew too close to the sun, his wings melted, and he was killed.
Theseus bravely volunteered to kill the minotaur to put an end to Athen's travails. Once in Crete, Theseus fell in love with Ariadne, King Minos’ daughter. She gave him a ball of thread to find his way out of the labyrinth. The hero managed to defeat the beast, left the labyrinth, and sailed away with Ariadne (who he later ditched).
What Happened to Knossos? How Did the Minoan Civilization Disppear?
The mystery of Knossos' disappearance is still unsolved. Many sources attribute it to a volcano in Santorini that whipped up a tsunami. The tsunami, in turn, theoretically destroyed part of nearby Knossos. But that's only partly true.
The Knossos complex survived that geophysical disaster for several centuries. There's evidence of Mycenaen activity. Most likely, the Minoan complex was taken over and renovated by the Mycenaens, either by conquest or because the Minoan civilization was at its denoument. Later, in 1375, the palace was destroyed for good by a fire.
Evans' Controversial Restoration, the Land of the Labyrinth
Evans aimed high. He wanted to restore the Knossos Palace ruins to their perceived former glory. But was Evans a discoverer or a fabricator? Some of his work has been discredited as "delirious interpretive incontinence.” Or even vandalism.
Evans seemed convinced that he had uncovered proof of the Greek myths. Unfortunately, his literal reading distorted his archaeological mission. Evans used concrete and paint to bring the Minoan culture back to life. Evans' work was effectively an architectural coup, which couldn't happen in today's more stringently regulated archaeological world.
The Knossos that tourists see today is largely the product of Evan's employee Piet De Jong, who worked there from 1922-52. De Jong created passages and multiple levels of reconstructed walls and rooms from scratch. He used iron reinforced concrete, a then popular architectural innovation, to replace rotted wood pillars. But the concrete may have obliterated actual architectural remains.
The Frescos of Knossos
Knossos is especially renowned for its frescos, images which appear worldwide on fridge magnets and postcards today. They were created by a Swiss father and son team of professional archaeological illustrators, both named Émile Gilliéron.
The pair cleverly combined individual pieces into a single figure, almost like a jigsaw puzzle. But only tiny fragments of the ancient destroyed frescos were actually found and unearthed. There's no written evidence about the methodology or analysis the pair used to reconstruct the frescos.
Some of the Gilliéron recreations were almost entirely made up. They seem relatively modern, and influenced by the Art Nouveau and Art Deco trends of the day. Some remind me of the famous Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec posters of that era.
So all is not what it seems at Knossos. Evans blurred the lines between archaeological restoration and artistic invention. Everything that looks intact is really a modern 20th century creation, a "movie city" of sorts. Some of it is even Mycenaen, not Minoan.
It's all a bit disappointing.
Why did Evans adopt and encourage such a radical approach? Partly because Knossos was in disarray after WWI, except for the parts of the site with roofs. But mostly the showman in him cannily anticipated future tourism. Evans wanted to create a grand site and museum that would vividly conjure his beloved Minoan culture for posterity.
Despite superimposing his own vision on the site, Evans can't be completely shredded. If Evans hadn’t worked to preserve and restore Knossos, it may have been lost.
Evans revealed some Minoan art to the public -- figurines, fragmentary frescos, vessels, seal stones, an old throne, etc. He proved that there was a prehistoric civilization distinct from the Mycenaens and the ancient Near East.
What To See at the Archaeological Site of Knossos
The partially reconstructed Knossos "palace" you see today was built circa 1700 B.C, after the first palace was either destroyed or renovated. The complex includes 1300 rooms -- living quarters, baths, workshops, treasuries, and store rooms. The rooms are all connected by corridors of varying sizes and directions. They're named as if in a romance novel.
The archaeological site is fairly complex and rambling, consistent with Evan's conflation of it with the mythic Greek labyrinth. The Knossos complex is decidedly not "Greek." It's not symmetrical, balanced, or harmonious in the manner of most Greek sites.
When you first arrive at Knossos, you'll see some large circular pits. They're called "kouloures." They date to the earliest period of the Knossos complex. It's unclear what they were used for. They may have been storage bins for grain or even garbage dumps.
2. The Grand Staircase
The monumental "Grand Staircase" of Knossos leads to the "Royal Apartments." According to the site signage, it's considered "a miracle of architecture." The grand staircase consisted of two flights of stairs repeated on each floor and framed by a colonnade supporting the superstructure. The two lower levels are original, while the two upper levels had collapsed and were fully restored by Evans.
Here, you can see lightwells, an integral feature of Minoan architecture. A lightwell is an open shaft that's the full height of a building. Evans opined that lightwells provided light and fresh air to the complex interior. The Knossos grand staircase is now closed to visitors, due to conservation and protection concerns.
3. South Propylaeum
The South Propylaeum is an Evans' restoration based on deductive reasoning. It's a sequence of two halls, the roofs of both supported by pairs of wooden columns. The walls were once decorated with frescos, which suggest a procession at one of the main entrances of the complex.
From fragments, Evans had the Gilliéron team compose The Ladies in Blue and the Cup Bearer frescos.
4. The Throne Room
Evans most prized discovery at Knossos was a chamber he called the Throne Room. It's thought to date from the 15th century B.C. Hence, the Knossos throne room has been dubbed the "oldest throne room in Europe." Evans envisioned it as the seat of a mythical King Minos.
The Throne Room consists of a throne-like stone chair, gypsum benches on three sides, a basin in front of the throne (originally discovered in another room), and the famed griffin frescos. It could accommodate around 30 people. The room itself is windowless with low ceilings. Perhaps intentionally, the throne room was a separate space, invisible to most citizens.
Evans "throne room" theory has since been refuted. There's no evidence of a monarch in Minoan society. The chamber was likely a sacred sanctuary used to perform religious ceremonies. The chair may have been the seat of a female high priestess or other goddess-type figure.
The presence of the recovered griffin fragments in the Knossos throne room gives credence to this hypothesis. Griffins were mythical creatures, a combination of a lion and an eagle. The two beasts symbolize divinity. In Minoan civilization, griffins are associated with female figures and goddesses, never a male one.
5. The Lustral Basins
Lustral basins are sunken rectangular rooms reached by an L-shaped or dog-legged stairway. They were lined with gypsum and Evans thought they were for bathing. One of them was found in the Throne Rome. Evans thought it might be used for ritual purification, since bathing in that area seemed unlikely.
Evans called the Throne Room basin "Ariadne's bath." But this was misleading. The were no drains in the lustral basins. And they contained cult objects and sacred relics. They likely were used for religious purposes.
6. The Queen's Megaron
Taking the grand staircase, you find yourself at the "Royal Apartments," another whimsical Evans term. By the standards of the time, the rooms were comfortable and luxurious. They were probably used by important citizens and civil authorities. Because of their relatively small size, the rooms weren't really fit for "royalty."
The most famous room of the royal apartments is the "Queen's Megaron," located in the southeast part of the Knossos complex. Evans identified and labeled this suite as the apartment or reception rooms of a "queen." But there's no no direct evidence for his interpretation.
The suite has a toilet room, bathroom, and store room. The toilet room featured an actual flushing toilet. The bathroom had a beautifully decorated terra cotta bathtub.
You'll find a replica of the colorful Dolphin Fresco in this room, displayed over a door. It was recreated from fragments. However, analysis of the fragments suggests that they may have come from a decorated floor, not a wall.
7. Snake Goddess Sanctuary
Just to the south of the throne room is the "Snake Goddess Sanctuary." This is the room where broken pieces of statuettes were was found in the "Temple Repositories." Evans called the figurines the Snake Goddesses.
Theres's no real evidence that the figurines were of "goddesses" of prehistoric feminine authority. The terminology simply fit with Evans mythic vision of Knossos. Two of the Snake Goddess statuettes were heavily restored and are among the must see treasures at the Museum in Heraklion. Now, they're recognizable icons of Greek culture.
8. Piano Nobile
The Piano Nobile is one of Evans' recreated upper floors. Evans said the area reminded him of Italian Renaissance palazzi. He theorized that they were staterooms and the location of receptions.
A restored room at the northern end of the Piano Nobile houses the Fresco Gallery. There, you'll find replicas of Knossos' most famous reconstructed frescoes, including the Bull Leaper, the Ladies in Blue and the Blue Bird. The original frescos are in the Heraklion Archaeological Museum.
9. Central Courtyard
Lying in the central lies an important courtyard, the main source of activity at Knossos. A new floor lays over the oldest remains, which belong to the Neolithic era.
With his usual theatrical panache, Evans speculated that the courtyard was used for the bull-leaping ceremonies of the athletic Minoans. However, it's unclear that there was enough space for this acrobatic activity. And the sharp corners of the courtyard are at odds with typical curved bull rings. More likely, the central courtyard was used for ritual feasts or public ceremonies and spectacles.
10. The North Pillar Hall and Bastion
This is one of Knossos' most famous features. It links the central courtyard to the northern entrance. The columns taper down, not up as in Greek architecture. This is because the columns were made from Cypress trees turned upside down.
11. Hall of the Double Axes
The Hall of the Double Axes is a large double chamber with inner and outer rooms. Its name comes from a double axe symbol Evans found engraved on a wall of a rear lightwell. The double axe symbol, called a labrys, is a sacred to the Minoans and possibly the origin of the world labyrinth.
Evans theorized that this spot was the king's room, as it was next to the Queen's Megaron. The room has multiple doorways, two lightwells, and a drainage system. Evans reconstructed a wooden throne in the room.
12. Royal Road
Knossos' royal road is one of the oldest and best preserved ancient roads in Europe. As it approaches the Knossos complex, the roads divides into two. One road goes to the theatral area and the other to the west court.
A visit to an unrestored archaeological site can be rather staid and uninspiring at times. Even the most lavish ancient sites may appear to be just piles of disorganized rubble. That's how I felt when I visited Ancient Olympia in Greece. Underwhelmed, despite being an avid ruin luster.
Evans wanted to remind the world that Crete was the birthplace of Zeus and his beloved Minoan civilization. And his impressionistic recreation is evocative, a window back in time. Knossos summons up grand visions, myths, and legends. For a moment, you may really think you're entering the Minotaur's lair.
But Knossos isn't real history. Evan's fantasy world also summoned up hordes of tourists, who now crowd and semi-ruin the place that Evans semi-ruined. Evan's concrete fantasies obliterated some actual archeological remains, partly destroying the site for further study. Knossos is attractive to look at, to be sure.
It may be the best Minoan art you've never seen. It's a known unknown.
Practical Information and Tips for Visiting Knossos Palace in Crete:
Address: Knossos is located on the North shore of Crete, just a 15 minute drive south of Heraklion Hours: Winter: January 7 to March 31 8:00 am to – 5:00 pm. Summer: 8:00 am to 8:00 pm.
Entry fee: Full €15, Reduced €8. You can also purchase a combined ticket that includes the Heraklion Museum.
Getting there: Take Bus #2 from Heraklion, which runs several times per hour. If you're driving, there's two car parks near the entrance.
Tour guide: At the entrance there's a booth where you can find tour guides for private tours and group tours.
Pro tips: Bring a hat and water. There's only minimal shade. For a full understanding, it's probably best to visit the museum in Heraklion first.
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