The Great Ancient City of Knossos

Knossos was the most important town in Crete in prehistoric times. Homer speaks of the existence of one hundred cities in Crete at the time of the Trojan War and mentions Knossos first, then Gortyn, Miletos, Phaistos and others. He describes Knossos as “vast” and “a great city”. Knossos is situated on a hill 3.1 miles southeast of the city of Heraklion, the modern capital of the Aegean island of Crete. Knossos was constructed by the Bronze Age Minoan civilization, named for the legendary King Minos of Crete. The Minoan culture existed on the island for around 1500 years, from 2600 to 1100 B.C., and was at its height from 18th to 16th centuries B.C. The main feature of the extraordinary site at Knossos is the Great Palace, a huge complex of rooms, halls, and courtyards covering approximately 205,278 square feet. The Palace of Knossos is closely associated in Greek myth with Theseus, Ariadne, and the dreaded Minotaur. But how was this magnificent civilization destroyed? The destruction is apparent but its cause is not.

Greek mythology immortalized Crete and Knossos with its legends. According to the Greeks, Mount Ida which is on Crete was the location where Rhea, the Earth Mother, gave birth to Zeus. He was fed by nature a diet of honey and goat’s milk, was tended by a group of nymphs, and was guarded by an army of youths against his father, Cronis, whose reign was threatened by Zeus’s existence. Zeus fathered a son, Minos, who became the King of Knossos, Crete, and the rest of Aegean. King Minos built his palace in the city of Knossos, and had a son, Androgeus. Androgeus, according to the myth, was a strong, athletic youth. He was sent to represent Crete in the Athenian games and was successful in winning many events.

Theseus fighting the Minotaur, as illustrated on an Attic black-figure vase in Palace of Knossos

The King of Athens murdered Androgeus out of jealousy. When Minos heard about the death of his son, he was enraged and he deployed the mighty Cretan fleet. The fleet took Athens and instead of destroying the city, Minos decreed that every nine years Athens was obligated to send seven young men and seven virgin women. King Minos threw them into a labyrinth where they were sacrificed to his fierce, bovine monster, the Minotaur.

Theseus, the Athenian King’s son, volunteered to be one of the seven sacrificial young men with the intention of killing the Minotaur and end the suffering of Athens. If he succeeded in his mission, he told his father that he would raise white sails instead of the black sails.

Theseus arrived at the palace of the Cretan King, and with the help of Minos’s daughter, Ariadne, who fell in love with Theseus, he was able to kill the Minotaur. In returning home, Theseus, in his excitement, forgot to change the sails on the ship from black to white. The King of Athens saw the black sails. Thinking that his son’s plan failed and that Theseus was dead, the king flung himself into the sea and died.

The major excavations conducted in Crete since the end of the 19th century have brought to light the remains of a great civilizations, the first advanced civilizations in Europe. The ruins at Knossos were discovered in 1878 by Minos Kalokairinos, a Cretan merchant and antiquarian. He conducted the first excavations at Kephala Hill. After Kalokairinos, several people attempted to continue the excavations, an archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann, who discovered Troy, was fully intending to excavate Knossos until his death. But it was not until March 16, 1900 when another archaeologist, Arthur Evans was able to purchase the entire site and conduct massive excavations. The excavation and restoration of Knossos, is inseparable from the individual Evans.

Sir Arthur John Evans, the English archaeologist who excavated the Palace of Knossos

Arthur Evans, the English excavator of Knossos, named it the Minoan Civilization after the legendary Minos. The centre of the Minoan civilization was Knossos, where excavations have revealed the actual palace of King Minos with its well-stocked magazines, royal apartments, shrines, the large central court and the throne room, in which the throne of Minos was discovered, the oldest throne in Europe. The palace is about 130 meters on a side and since the Roman period has been suggested as the source of the myth of the Labyrinth, an elaborate mazelike structure constructed for King Minos of Crete and designed by the legendary artificer Daedalus to hold the Minotaur, a creature that was half man and half bull and was eventually killed by the Athenian hero Theseus.

The location of the labyrinth of legend has long been a question for Minoan studies. It might have been the name of the palace or of some portion of the palace. It is possible that the palace was a great sacrificial center and could have been named the Labyrinth. Its layout certainly is labyrinthine, in the sense of intricate and confusing. Many other possibilities have been suggested. The modern meaning of labyrinth as a twisting maze is based on the myth. Several out-of-epoch advances in the construction of the palace is thought to have originated the myth of Atlantis.

The famous gypsum throne, found by Evans in situ in the Throne Room of the Palace of Knossos, is probably the oldest known throne in Europe

There are even dark hints in archaeological findings at Knossos (and elsewhere on Crete) of the practice of human sacrifice, as is suggested by the myth of Athens sending 14 girls and boys every seven years to be devoured by the Minotaur. The work of Evans and his team at Knossos revealed (among other things) the main palace, a large area of the Minoan city, and various cemeteries. Evans carried out much restoration work at the Palace of Minos, as he called it, much of it controversial, and the palace in its present form has been said by some archaeologist to be as much due to Evan’s imagination and pre-conceptions as to the ancient Minoans.

Since Evan’s time, further excavations at Knossos have been undertaken by the British School of Archaeology at Athens and the Archaeological Service of the Hellenic Ministry of Culture. The hilltop on which Knossos is situated has an extremely long history of human habitation. People were living there from Neolithic times (7000 B.C. – 3000 B.C.) continually up until the Roman period. Evans believed that Knossos was destroyed by a powerful seismic event. Between 1700 B.C. and 1450 B.C., Minoan civilization was at its peak, with the city of Knossos and the surrounding settlement having a population of perhaps as many as 100,000. During this period the Minoan centers survived two major earthquakes, the most serious of which probably occurred in the mid-17th century B.C. (though some researchers date it to as late as 1450 B.C.), and was caused by a massive volcanic eruption on the Cycladic island of Thera (modern Santorini) 62 miles away from Crete. The explosion from this eruption was even greater than the atomic blast at Hiroshima, and blasted the island of Thera into three separate parts. Finally, in the mid-15th century B.C., due to a combination of the accumulative effects of earthquake damage, periodic invasions from the Greek mainland, and the collapse of their trade networks, the Minoan civilization began to decline. However, most experts have since decided that Crete was invaded and destroyed. The debate continued as to which group of people was responsible for the massive destruction. Many experts believe that is was either the Dorians, the Achaens, or the Mycenaeans.

Magazine 4 with giant pithoi. The compartments in the floor were for grain and produce.

When Evans began digging in 1900, the remains of the walls lay close to the surface. After a few weeks, Evans discovered the remains of buildings spanning over an area of 8,480 square feet. The remains of the palace itself covered five and a half acres. The palace was originally built in 2000 BC. It was rebuilt and enlarged in 1700 BC after a massive earthquake and again rebuilt and modified in 1500 BC after a devastating fire. At its most modern, the palace provided drainage sumps, luxurious bathrooms, ventilation systems, ground-water conduits and waste chutes. Evans unearthed other wonders of Knossos as well.

Thousands of artifacts found helped identify the various rooms and their functions. Kitchens, residences, storerooms, bathrooms, workshops, and ceremonial rooms were discovered. The artifacts included pottery, stone and metal work and other lovely, colorful works of art, revealing the level of artistry the Minoan people possessed. In one of the old storerooms that Evans discovered in the palace at Knossos, stood rows of huge, vase-like jars that once contained oil. The oil vessels were ornamented in rich, elegant detail. Evans measured the volume of each of the containers and calculated that the inventory of the storeroom contained around 19,000 gallons of oil. Some pottery had a foreign origin, particularly Egyptian.

The Egyptian pottery were from particular periods in Egyptian history and helped date three periods of Minoan history, an Early Minoan Period from 3000 to 2000 BC, a Middle Minoan Period, proceeding until 1600 BC and a Late Minoan Period lasting until around 1250 BC. Evans also found stone and metal artifacts. Some of his findings predated the earliest period of Minoan history, dating back to Neolithic times. Originally Evans believed the artifacts were ten thousand years old, but later experts dated these stone artifacts to be five thousand years old. Many bronze objects that were used daily in ancient Knossos were also found.

Some bronze statues and figurines were discovered in conjunction with ceremonial rooms. Other works of art recovered from Knossos included terra cotta figurines of goddesses. Faience, though the technique was probably imported from Egypt, was among the art forms mastered by ancient Cretans. Evans uncovered two large faience figurines. Both statues were wearing the typical Minoan court costume consisting of a wide skirt with a tight, stiff bodice collar and exposed breasts. Evans identified the larger statue as a snake goddess or a mother goddess. The smaller one is generally accepted as her daughter or a priestess.

There is evidence that Knossos’s link with Theseus and the Minotaur was kept alive long after the Minoans ceased to exist. This comes mainly in the form of coinage, and examples include a silver coin from Knossos dated 500 to 413 B.C., which depicts a running Minotaur on one side and a maze or labyrinth on the reverse. Another coin shows the head of Ariadne surrounded by a labyrinth. The Minotaur and labyrinth were also extremely popular in the Roman period, and numerous mosaics illustrate the Knossos labyrinth. The most spectacular of these is probably that from a Roman villa near Salzburg, in western Austria, dating to the fifth century A.D. However, some researchers do not believe the Minotaur originates with the architecture of the Palace at Knossos. They point out the difference between a labyrinth, which has only one path to the center, and a maze, which can have many. Indeed it is tempting to see the labyrinth as relating to the maze as a symbol of the mysteries of life and death.

An abstract concept connected with religious ritual, where the Minotaur waiting at the center of the labyrinth represents something concealed in the heart of all of us. The story of the 14 youths brought from Athens to Knossos as a sacrifice to the Minotaur has always been thought of as simple myth. But there is archaeological evidence that perhaps gives some support to this horrific tale. In 1979, in the basement of the North House within the Knossos complex, excavators discovered 337 human bones. Analysis of these bones showed that they represented at least four individuals, all children. Further examination of the bones revealed the grisly detail that 79 of them showed traces of cut marks made by a fine blade, which bone specialist Louis Binford interpreted as being made to remove the flesh. Ruling out the possibility that the defleshing of the bones was part of a burial rite (only lumps of flesh had been removed, not every piece), excavator of the site Peter warren, Professor of Classical Archaeology, at the University of Bristol, concluded that the children were probably ritually sacrificed and then eaten.

The site of Knossos offered valuable information in understanding Europe’s earliest literate civilization. Evans’s work enlightened the history of not only Knossos, but also the surrounding cultures. However, the information had brought even more questions. The answers must be found by a closer examination of the site of Knossos. Otherwise, they are doomed to remain a mystery.

(Sources : Knossos (A Complete Guide To The Palace Of Minos) by Anna Michailidou; Hidden History by Brian Haughton; Wikipedia; and

(Pics sources : Pic 1 (General view of the Palace of Knossos from the north-east), 2, 3, 4 taken from Knossos (A Complete Guide To The palace of Minos) by Anna Michailidou page 89, 14, 19, 32. Pic 5 taken from

1 comment:

  1. The Cretan slaves created the Celt civilization in the Rhineland. Historians have mistakenly referred to them as the last tribal when in fact they were the first developed. They are credited with the creation of chain mail armor. They refused a written language, knew the brain was a source of power, shielded their head with metal, fought bare with only a golden torc, their symbol of freedom instead of the Cretan metal of enslavement.
    Not surprisingly, this successful slave revolt is ignored by the historical slave owners.

    Consider Gort of THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL fame, he stems from the Tolos of Cretan. One wonders if we have come full circle and a microwave weapon which Tolos represented is upon us once again; and consider how Tolos ended.


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