If we are to study how the great empires of the past were ruled and how they worked, we need to start by studying the palaces. Palaces were not just the places places where the ruler lived. Indeed the domestic accommodation was often fairly insignificant, and one suspects that the ruler cherished a certain degree of privacy and lived for much of the time in a subsidiary palace — just as today the Queen spends most of her time in her own houses at Sandringham and Balmoral, rather than the official palaces at Buckingham Palace or Windsor. No, the palace is the place where the ruler displayed his prestige. It was the place where the gift exchange system operated, where tribute was rendered and gifts were distributed. Archaeologically this means that the palace often contained great store rooms, granaries for grain and storage jars for olive oil, and one suspects rooms where blankets and woollen goods could be stored and displayed. Indeed they were not simply for storage, but for display, to show just how rich the ruler was – and the ruler was the state and the state was the ruler, so that by displaying his wealth, the ruler was displaying the success of the state.
And there were the gifts to be given out, often jewellery or perfumes, and this meant that – bizarrely to our eyes — workshops are often found in the palace where the jewellery can be crafted. And there were the opportunities for grand ceremonies too, for games, and for processions, for sitting on thrones, or worshipping the gods. All of these form part of the make-up of a palace, and in analysing palaces, these are the sort of features we need to look for.
In our study of ancient empires these features are best displayed in the palaces of the Minoans. The Minoans in Crete are the least known of the great ancient empires: they were only discovered at the beginning of the twentieth century and their language was only deciphered in the middle of the twentieth century. But their language was discovered to be an ancient form of Greek – so the Minoans have the added interest that they were the forerunners of the Greeks.
On Crete, four great palaces have been discovered: all have been excavated and are well displayed. We begin with the greatest of all, at Knossos, excavated in the early twentieth century by Sir Arthur Evans and extensively restored. It was Evans who recognised this great empire and named it the Minoans, and it is with the Minoans that we must begin our study of the Ancient World, and with the fascinating, and still slightly controversial figure of Sir Arthur Evans.
2nd October 2017