Just what was this palace that Arthur Evans discovered at Knossos?
Just what was this palace that Arthur Evans discovered at Knossos? The most outstanding and indeed a most unusual feature is the great central courtyard. As palaces go, this is somewhat unusual but these courtyards rather define the Minoan palaces. It is usually assumed that this is where the bull leaping took place: the courtyard would just about have been big enough to allow a fierce bull to have a good run and for the toreador to leap over him.
These courtyards are the central feature of all the known Minoan palaces, though some of the courtyards in the other palaces would have been a bit small for this purpose. Indeed, there is no hint of any stable facilities for the bulls — perhaps they were brought in specially for the ceremony. But one imagines that the spectators would have been safely accommodated on the first floor, looking down from balconies.
One might expect to have the principal accommodation at the far end, but no, this is where the other grand entrance came in, from the north. Instead the major ceremonial centre was to the west, that is to the left to the visitor entering from the south. We should remember that though the courtyard today is flat, it lies on sloping ground, sloping down from left to right and what we see today is the final Palace of many. Excavations in the courtyard have shown that there are several meters of build up beneath, demonstrating that a Palace had been there for 3000 years and what we see today is only the final version: on the left, staircases lead up to the upper levels, to the right a stairway leads down to the lower levels.
The most spectacular feature in the northwest corner is the so-called Throne Room. The Throne room was the first site to be excavated by Evans in his preliminary season, and he left it open over winter, and it was the worse for wear when he returned next summer, so it has been heavily reconstructed — indeed it is aroused Evans’ interest in the importance of conservation. This was restored in spectacular fashion by Evans — well, not all that spectacular, just a low seat with high back.
Opposite it was what appeared to be some sort of bathing or washing facility which he named the Lustral Basin – a grand name but as with much that Evans did, very appropriate for it clearly was not for bathing but for some sort of ritual washing ceremony where you cleansed yourself before approaching the king.
Next door was a grand stairway that led up to a first floor which Evans reconstructed with great imagination. If the courtyard was used for some bull fighting ritual, one imagines that the spectators were accommodated on the first floor to watch the ceremony in safety. These would have been the grand rooms, which Evans called ‘The Piano Nobile’.
Beyond the grand staircase, the central part of the western side was another elaborate suite of rooms which Evans called ‘the Palace Sanctuary’. At the centre were two rooms that he called the Temple Repository where there were cists in the floor which contained the finest discoveries made at Knossos – fragments of over thirty jars or amphorae. There were also small clay seals used to fasten bags, evidence for produce that had been brought into the palace. There was also a tablet in the Minoan Linear A script demonstrating that it belongs to the early period of the palace which was destroyed by the great earthquake that marks the division between the Middle and New palaces.
The finest object is a famous figurine of a snake goddess with bare breasts that is perhaps the best known figure of Minoan art. (I sometimes wonder whether the typical Minoan dress of a long flounced skirt but with bare breasts is not a figment of the modern male imagination. But this snake goddess and indeed several engraved amulets seem to suggest that the style was genuine enough). One wonders too what the snakes were doing. Was there a ritual ordeal whereby the young men had to go out into the court and run with the bulls: if they were gored, they died, but if they succeeded in leaping over the back, they became the king. Meanwhile the women had to handle a snake in each hand. If a snake bit them, they died; if they survived, they were clearly pure in spirit and beloved of the gods and they therefore became a queen.)
Behind the western range is what was probably the most important part of the palace – the magazines, the rows and rows of storerooms filled with pithoi, the huge storage jars in which olive oil was stored in huge quantities. Probably it was not just olive oil; there were other treasures such as woollen blankets. And it was not just for storage but it was for display too, and part of the ritual would have been perambulating round the magazines to admire the wealth of the ruler, and by implication the wealth of the whole country, so that the farmers could see the fruit of their labours.
On the other side of the courtyard, the ground falls away steeply and staircases lead down to the floors below. Evans named one of them the Hall of the Double Axes, the double axe being the early Minoan symbol of kingship, while another room was named The Queen’s Megaron. Evans called this eastern side the ‘domestic quarters’, yet it is hard to see them as being places where people actually lived, for there are no kitchens or hearths, no sign of food being prepared, so perhaps we should see them as being places of ritual.
There was another grand entrance to the palace from the north which was the main road from the town. Evans in his usual manner called it the Royal Road, and it is still exposed, though today it is a little misleading in that it appears to be a sunken way, though the sides are in fact modern embankments. This ended up in what Evans called the ‘theatrical area’ where there are steps which could have been used as seats possibly for those waiting to go up into the palace, or where ceremonies and the distribution of gifts at the gates of the palace took place – there are better examples at the palace at Phaistos.
From the theatrical area the entrance to the palace branches off to the right: this would have been a grand approach, and Evans had one of his grandest reconstructions alongside it.
Knossos thus offers a splendid example of how a palace worked. It was not a place for living, but a place for ceremonies, some peaceful, some violent as the bull-leaping presumably was. There were anointment rituals in the Lustral basins, and one wonders just what were the rituals concerning the double axes inherited from the early palaces. And there was the economic function represented by the huge numbers of magazines, partly indeed against famine, partly no doubt for redistribution as gifts and partly simply to impress by their opulence. And when it was all added up, there was the message: this is your master. You must not even think to question his superiority. He will look after you, he will answer all your needs: just realise how lucky you are to live in the ultimate welfare state.
But Knossos was not the only palace on the island of Crete. Let us move on to take a look at the other palaces.
Re-written 17th March 2020