The Palace of Knossos
The Palace of Knossos
Settled as early as the Neolithic period, the name Knossos survives from ancient Greek references to the major city of Crete. The palace of Knossos eventually became the ceremonial and political centre of the Minoan civilization and culture. The palace was abandoned at some unknown time at the end of the Late Bronze Age, c. 1380–1100 BC. The reason why is unknown, but one of the many disasters that befell the palace is generally put forward.
In the first palace period around 2000 BC the urban area reached a size of up to 18,000 people. In its peak the palace and surrounding city boasted a population of 100,000 people shortly after 1700 BC.
The site of Knossos has had a very long history of human habitation, beginning with the founding of the first Neolithic settlement c. 7000 BC. Neolithic remains are prolific in Crete. They are found in caves, rock shelters, houses and settlements. Knossos has a thick Neolithic layer indicating the site was a sequence of settlements before the Palace Period. The earliest was placed on bedrock.
Arthur Evans, who unearthed the palace of Knossos in modern times, estimated that about 8000 BC a Neolithic people arrived at the hill, probably from overseas by boat, and placed the first of a succession of wattle and daub villages (modern radiocarbon dates have raised the estimate to 7000 – 6500 BC). Large numbers of clay and stone incised spools and whorls attest to local cloth-making. There are fine ground axe and mace heads of colored stone: greenstone, serpentine, diorite and jadeite, as well as obsidian knives and arrowheads along with the cores from which they were flaked. Most significant among the other small items were a large number of animal and human figurines, including nude sitting or standing females with exaggerated breasts and buttocks. Evans attributed them to the worship of the Neolithic mother goddess and figurines in general to religion.
John Davies Evans (no relation to Arthur Evans) undertook further excavations in pits and trenches over the palace, focusing on the Neolithic. In the Aceramic Neolithic, 7000–6000 BC, a hamlet of 25–50 persons existed at the location of the Central Court. They lived in wattle and daub huts, kept animals, grew crops, and, in the event of tragedy, buried their children under the floor. In such circumstances as they are still seen today, a hamlet consisted of several families, necessarily interrelated, practicing some form of exogamy, living in close quarters, with little or no privacy and a high degree of intimacy, spending most of their time in the outdoors, sheltering only for the night or in inclement weather, and to a large degree nomadic or semi-nomadic.
In the Early Neolithic, 6000–5000 BC, a village of 200–600 persons occupied most of the area of the palace and the slopes to the north and west. They lived in one- or two-room square houses of mud-brick walls set on socles of stone, either field stone or recycled stone artifacts. The inner walls were lined with mud-plaster. The roofs were flat, composed of mud over branches. The residents dug hearths at various locations in the center of the main room. This village had an unusual feature: one house under the West Court contained eight rooms and covered 50 m2 (540 sq ft). The walls were at right angles. The door was centered. Large stones were used for support under points of greater stress. The fact that distinct sleeping cubicles for individuals was not the custom suggests storage units of some sort.
The settlement of the Middle Neolithic, 5000–4000 BC, housed 500–1000 people in more substantial and presumably more family-private homes. Construction was the same, except the windows and doors were timbered, a fixed, raised hearth occupied the center of the main room, and pilasters and other raised features (cabinets, beds) occupied the perimeter. Under the palace was the Great House, a 100 m2 (1,100 sq ft) area stone house divided into five rooms with meter-thick walls suggesting a second story was present. The presence of the house, which is unlikely to have been a private residence like the others, suggests a communal or public use; i.e., it may have been the predecessor of a palace. In the Late or Final Neolithic (two different but overlapping classification systems), 4000–3000 BC, the population increased dramatically.
In Greek mythology, King Minos dwelt in a palace at Knossos. He had Daedalus construct a labyrinth, a very large maze (by some connected with the double-bladed axe, or labrys) in which to retain his son, the Minotaur. Daedalus also built a dancing floor for Queen Ariadne. The name «Knossos» was subsequently adopted by Arthur Evans.
As far as is currently known, it was William Stillman, the American consul who published Kalokairinos’ discoveries, who, seeing the sign of the double axe on the massive walls partly uncovered by Kalokairinos, first associated the complex with the labyrinth of legend, calling the ruins «labyrinthine». Evans agreed with Stillman. The myth of the Minotaur tells that Theseus, a prince from Athens, whose father is an ancient Greek king named Aegeus, reason for the name of the Greek sea (the Aegean Sea), sailed to Crete, where he was forced to fight a terrible creature called the Minotaur. The Minotaur was a half man, half bull, and was kept in the Labyrinth – a building like a maze – by the king Minos, the ruler of Crete. The king’s daughter Ariadne fell in love with Theseus. Before he entered the Labyrinth to fight the Minotaur, Ariadne gave him a ball of thread which he unwound as he went into the Labyrinth so that he could find his way back by following it. Theseus killed the Minotaur, and then he and Ariadne fled from Crete, escaping her angry father.
As it turns out, there probably was an association of the word labyrinth, whatever its etymology, with ancient Crete. The sign of the double axe was used throughout the Mycenaean world as an apotropaic mark: its presence on an object would prevent it from being «killed». Axes were scratched on many of the stones of the palace. It appears in pottery decoration and is a motif of the Shrine of the Double Axes at the palace, as well as of many shrines throughout Crete and the Aegean. And finally, it appears in Linear B on Knossos Tablet Gg702 as da-pu2-ri-to-jo po-ti-ni-ja, which probably represents the Mycenaean Greek Daburinthoio potniai, «to the mistress of the Labyrinth,» recording the distribution of one jar of honey. A credible theory uniting all the evidence has yet to be formulated.
Hellenistic and Roman period
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Fieldwork in 2015 revealed that during the early Iron Age, Knossos was rich in imports and was nearly three times larger than indicated by earlier excavations. Whilst archaeologists had previously believed that the city had declined in the wake of a socio-political collapse around 1200 BC, the work found that the city had prospered instead, with its final abandonment coming later.
After the fall of the Minoans, Knossus was repopulated around 1000 BC and it remained one of the most important centers of Crete. The city had two ports: Amnisos and Heraklion. According to the geographer Strabo the Knossians colonized the city of Brundisium in Italy. In 343 BC Knossos was allied with Philip II of Macedon. The city employed a Phocian mercenary named Phalaikos against their enemy, the city of Lyttus. The Lyttians appealed to the Spartans who sent their king Archidamus III against the Knossians. In Hellenistic times Knossos came under Egyptian influence, but despite considerable military efforts during the Chremonidean War (267-261 BC) the Ptolemies were not able to unify the warring city states. In the 3rd century BC Knossos expanded its power to dominate almost the entire island, but during the Lyttian War in 220 BC it was checked by a coalition led by the Polyrrhenians and the Macedonian king Philip V.
Twenty years later, during the Cretan War (205–200 BC), the Knossians were once more among Philip’s opponents and through Roman, and Rhodian aid this time they managed to liberate Crete from the Macedonian influence. With Roman aid, Knossus became once more the first city of Crete, but, in 67 BC, the Roman Senate chose Gortys as the capital of the newly created province Creta et Cyrene. In 36 BC, Knossus became a Roman colony named Colonia Iulia Nobilis. The colony, which was built using Roman-style architecture, was situated within the vicinity of the Palace, but only a small part of it has been excavated.
The identification of Knossos with the Bronze Age site is supported the Roman coins that were scattered over the fields surrounding the pre-excavation site, then a large mound named Kephala Hill, elevation 85 m (279 ft) from current sea level. Many of them were inscribed with Knosion or Knos on the obverse and an image of a Minotaur or Labyrinth on the reverse. The coins came from the Roman settlement of Colonia Julia Nobilis Cnossus, a Roman colony placed just to the north of, and politically including, Kephala. The Romans believed they were the first to colonize Knossos.
In Christian times Knossos became a titular see, but during the 9th century AD the local population shifted to the new town of Chandax (modern Heraklion). By the 13th century, it was called Makruteikhos ‘Long Wall’; the bishops of Gortyn continued to call themselves Bishops of Knossos until the 19th century. Today, the name is used only for the archaeological site now situated in the expanding suburbs of Heraklion.
Discovery and modern history of the antiquities
The site of Knossos was discovered in 1878 by Minos Kalokairinos. The excavations in Knossos began in 1900 by the English archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans (1851–1941) and his team, and continued for 35 years. Its size far exceeded his original expectations, as did the discovery of two ancient scripts, which he termed Linear A and Linear B, to distinguish their writing from the pictographs also present. From the layering of the palace Evans developed an archaeological concept of the civilization that used it, which he called Minoan, following the pre-existing custom of labelling all objects from the location Minoan.
Since their discovery, the ruins have undergone a history of their own, from excavation by renowned archaeologists, education and tourism, to occupation as a headquarters by governments warring over the control of the eastern Mediterranean in two world wars. This site history is to be distinguished from the ancient.
The features of the palace depend on the time period. Currently visible is an accumulation of features over several centuries, the latest most dominant. The palace was thus never exactly as depicted today. In addition, it has been reconstituted in modern materials. The custom began in an effort to preserve the site from decay and torrential winter rain. After 1922, the chief proprietor, Arthur Evans, intended to recreate a facsimile based on archaeological evidence. The palace is not exactly as it ever was, perhaps in places not even close, and yet in general, judging from the work put in and the care taken, as well as parallels with other palaces, it probably is a good general facsimile. Opinions range, however, from most skeptical, viewing the palace as pure fantasy based on 1920s architecture and art deco, to most unquestioning, accepting the final judgements of Arthur Evans as most accurate. The mainstream of opinion falls between.
From an archaeological point of view, the terms, «Knossos,» and «palace,» are somewhat ambiguous. The palace was never just the residence of a monarch, although it contained rooms that might have been suitable for a royal family. Most of the structures, however, were designed to serve a civic, religious and economic center. The term palace complex is more accurate. In ancient times, Knossos was a town surrounding and including Kephala Hill. This hill was never an acropolis in the Greek sense. It had no steep heights, remained unfortified, and was not very high off the surrounding ground. These circumstances cannot necessarily be imputed to other Minoan palaces. Phaestos, contemporaneous with Knossos, was placed on a steep ridge, controlling access to the Mesara Plain from the sea, and was walled. To what degree Minoan civilization might be considered warlike remains debatable. It can, however, be said that Knossos bore no resemblance to a Mycenaean citadel, whether before or during Mycenaean Greek occupation.
The complex was constructed ultimately around a raised Central Court on the top of Kephala Hill. The previous structures were razed and the top was made level to make way for the court. The court is oblong, with the long axis, which points north-northeast, generally described as pointing «north.» Plot plans typically show the court with the long axis horizontal, apparently east-west with the north on the right, or vertical with the north on the top. Either arrangement is confusing unless the compass points are carefully marked. About 5 km (3.1 mi) to the north of the palace complex is the sea at the Port of Heraklion. Directly to the south is Vlychia Stream, an east-west tributary of the north-south Kairatos River. Kephala Hill is an isolated hill at the confluence.
The Kairatos River reaches the sea between the port of Heraklion and Heraklion Airport to the east. In ancient times the flow continued without interruption. Today the stream loses itself in the sewers of Heraklion before emerging from under a highway on the shore east of the port. It flows down from higher ground at Arkhanes to the south, where part of it was diverted into the Knossos Aqueduct. The water at that point was clean enough for drinking. When it reached Knossos it became the main drain of the sewer system of a town of up to 100,000 people, according to Pendlebury’s estimate. Today the population is mainly to the north, but the sewer function continues, in addition to which much of the river is siphoned off, and the water table is tapped, for irrigation. Looming over the right bank of the Vlychia, on the opposite shore from Knossos, is Gypsades Hill, where the Minoans quarried their gypsum. The limestone was quarried from the ridge on the east.
The archaeological site, Knossos, refers either to the palace complex itself or to that complex and several houses of similar antiquity nearby, which were inadvertently excavated along with the palace. To the south across the Vlychia is the Caravanserai. Further to the south are Minoan houses. The Minoan Road crossed the Vlychia on a Minoan Bridge, immediately entering the Stepped Portico, or covered stairway, to the palace complex. Near the northwest corner of the complex are the ruins of the House of the Frescoes. Across the Minoan Road entering from the northwest is the Arsenal. On the north side of the palace is the Customs House and the Northeast House. From there to the northeast is the modern village of Makrotoichos. Between it and the palace complex is the Royal Villa. On the west side is the Little Palace.
The Royal Road is the last vestige of a Minoan road that connected the port to the palace complex. Today a modern road built over or replacing the ancient, Leoforos Knosou, serves that function and continues south. The excavated ancient Royal Road is part of the complex. The junction of the ancient and the modern roads is partly over the Little Palace. Just to the northwest of there, off the modern road, is where Evans chose to have Villa Ariadne built as his home away from home and an administrative center. The villa is on a slope overlooking the ruins. At the edge of the property, on the road, is a pre-excavation house renovated many times as a residence for the official Keeper, called the Taverna. Immediately to the south of the villa, over parts of the Little Palace, is the modern Stratigraphical Museum, a square building. Excavation continues sporadically on its grounds. To the south of the museum is a modern settlement across from the entrance to the west court. Parking facilities are to the north, off Leoforos Knosou. A band of fields has been left on the northwest between the palace complex and the city streets of Heraklion. The east and west are protected by north-south mountain ridges, between which is the valley of the Kairatos.