Knossos is not the only palace on the island of Crete: there are three other palaces of varying size and importance, and these form a valuable comparison to the palace at Knossos. There is Phaistos to the south which nearly rivals Knossos in size and importance; then there is Malia to the east, and then at the far eastern end of the island is the smaller palace at Zakros.
Archaeologists often wonder whether there are more palaces left to be discovered: in particular there is no palace on the western half of the island. Chania is an obvious candidate as Minoan Linear A tablets have been found there, but the suspected palace lies under the modern town. There are indeed numerous smaller buildings which archaeologists often call villas, the best known being that at Hagia Triada, which is virtually an annex to Phaistos. No doubt with the palace civilisation stretching over 1,000 years, palaces rose and fell, but it is convenient to consider the four known palaces as an entity.
Geologically Crete is interesting, it is long and narrow, 160 miles long by only 35 miles at its widest. But it consists of long mountain ridges which slope down to the north, so all the best land and the best harbours – and today the best beaches – are all along the north side. The south is mostly mountainous with little good land and few harbours. The one exception is at Phaistos which is south west of Knossos and like Knossos about five miles inland from the sea and surrounded by very rich farmland. In the Roman period the provincial capital was established at Gortyn fifteen miles away.
Phaistos was excavated at much the same time as Knossos by an Italian excavator, and in many ways it is even more illuminating than Knossos. There is a very large courtyard which is easy to photograph, though like Knossos it has fallen away on the southern and eastern sides.
At Phaistos the principal rooms were at the north end entered by a grand staircase in the north-western corner. There was a fine facade at the northern end of the courtyard, with the peaks of the Mount Ida range lowering in the distance. In the north range were the royal apartments, which are the best preserved royal apartments in any of the palaces, with its own internal courtyard (74).
However the most interesting aspect is the large room in the Western range known as the Vestibule. Its function is controversial – no-one quite knows what to make of it – but it leads into a wide corridor lined with storerooms, some of them containing pithoi for olive oil. This was one of the most prominent positions in the palace with a special stairway leading down from the royal apartments to the north: was this ‘vestibule’ a display area, where visitors could be taken to see the pithoi, and some of the other lavish possessions of the court, perhaps some of the textiles which the linear B tablets talk about.
Here the visitor could not help but admire the wealth of olive oil that had been taken in as a tribute, and was now ready to be given out again as ‘gifts’ to show the ruler’s munificence. Whereas today we might put gold and silver on display to show our wealth, in Minoan Crete, olive oil was the wealth to be put on display. Similarly there are two pithoi displayed against the wall at the north side of the court, clearly visible to anyone entering the courtyard from the South. Just see how wealthy we are!
The most interesting aspect however – to me at any rate – is that in the north west corner adjacent to the grand rooms on the northern side of the courtyard there were the palace workshops, an open courtyard with a smelting hearth at the centre. This is where the skilled bronze smiths prepared the rich jewellery of which the emperor needed a constant supply as gifts to give away to the great hierarchy of princes and potentates to impress them with his magnificent and his generosity.
It would seem that the north-east corner of the palaces may have been the place for workshops. At Knossos, there is evidence of a workshop in the north-east corner where blocks of work or semi-worked imported stone which Evans called ‘Spartan basalt’ and stone tools were brought to light. According to Evans, the main workshop lay on the upper floor from which vases and a large stone amphora had fallen to the ground floor. Nearby is an area that Evans called the Schoolroom where he envisaged that scribes were taught to write on clay tablets. The more modern interpretation however is that it was a workshop for ceramics or wall painting.
The best examples of such workshops are at Mycenae, though they are outside the palace in the town below. However it would appear that at Phaistos the Royal accommodation was in the North Block behind the service block and the royal rulers would have been right next door to the metal working area so the king could keep a close watch on the metal work that were being prepare as the highlights of his gift exchange.