Knossos old



In our consideration of Barbarism and Civilisation, palaces play an important role. Palaces are the opposite of democracy; they are the symbol of a hierarchical pyramid-shaped society, with the ruler at the top, dominating not only the politics but also the economics. We tend to think of palaces as being largely ceremonial affairs, the home of the ruler where grand ceremonial dinners and balls are held in honour of visiting foreign dignitaries.

But a Palace of this early period is somewhat different. Its  functions are in many ways more economic than political. It is the place to which tribute is brought, and  it is the place where ‘gifts’ are given out,  where the most valuable goods are displayed and sometimes given away — or sometimes left to rot, just to show how rich and wealthy the ruler is. And it is the place where the ruler keeps close to him the producers of his most valuable assets, the jewellery that he flaunts himself or gives away as a sign of his generosity. It is the peak of the principle known as gift exchange.

Knossos courtyard

The central courtyard at Knossos, where it is nice to imagine that the famous bull leaping took place. At the top left corner is  the throne room, reconstructed by Evans, with above it, what Evans called the piano nobile where the main rooms were situated at first floor level.

In this consideration of palaces, Crete plays a vital role. Here we see the Palace par excellence. There are four palaces in Crete – others may be discovered — but all of them were abandoned after the Roman period so all are free from modern clutter and can therefore be excavated and displayed in their entirety. And the biggest of all, the Palace of Minos, is also the most lavishly excavated and the most theatrically displayed.

The Palace of Minos has its origins in Greek myth. In the Greek myths, there was a great Palace on Crete ruled over by King Minos, from whose name Sir Arthur Evans invented the Minoan civilisation. There were many versions of the myth — every Greek poet and dramatist invented a new myth — but the best-known is that based on Athens. According to this myth, the Athenians had offended King Minos, who ordered them to send every 9 years seven youths and seven beautiful maidens to be sacrificed to a fearful bull called the Minotaur.

Knossos bull leaping

The bull leaping fresco as painted by Gilliéron, based on small fragments. Note that men are always painted red and women as white. This means that the figure on top of the bull is a man, the figure to the right, about to catch him, is a woman, and the figure on the left, about to be tossed by the bull, is also a woman.

However, the Athenian king’s son, Theseus, thought this was a bad idea, so he volunteered to go himself as one of the youths and said he would kill the Minotaur and thus free the Athenians. When he arrived at the Palace he was so handsome that the king’s daughter, Ariadne, fell in love with him and gave him a sword and a ball of string. He tied one end of the ball of string to the entrance, made his way through the Palace, found the Minotaur in the central courtyard, and using the sword, killed him. Then, following the string  backwards he managed to get out of the labyrinth and carried off Ariadne back to Athens, calling on the way on the island of Naxos where she went off with the god Bacchus – but that is another story (and another opera).


An early plan of the Palace at Knossos. The entrance would have been at the bottom and the ‘Throne room’ top left of the central courtyard. But note the rows of magazines that line the West Court.

When Evans began digging at Knossos,  he soon found what he was looking for — the reality behind the myth. There was a Palace with a central courtyard where presumably the bull-ceremony took place. He soon found frescoes apparently showing boys and occasionally girls leaping over a bull  – is this not the origin of the myth of the Minotaur?



Furthermore the courtyard was surrounded by a maze of small rooms — would one not need a ball of string to find one’s way out? In fact all the Cretan palaces appeared to have been centred around courtyards and that at Knossos is  particularly large.

Knossos Grand staircase

The grand staircase leading from the courtyard to the first floor. To the left is the Palace sanctuary with the Treasure Repository, to the right is the Throne Room. The staircase is almost entirely reconstructed by Evans, but surely correctly.

The courtyard was oriented north-south and was surrounded by suites of rooms on both the long sides. But the rooms were very different. The site sloped originally from west to east, so the rooms on the west the uphill side were the more important ones where the main rituals took place. The big formal ceremonies probably took place on the upper storey, which have not survived, though Evans restored at least the floors of what he imaginatively called the piano nobile.  However those on the downhill slide were set on the lower level and were reached by a splendid staircase.

Knossos Throne room

The Throne room in the Palace of Minos. This was one of the first rooms to be excavated by Evans when the lower half of the rather small throne was discovered. Note the benches to either side, and the large bowl in front of the throne. The wall paintings on either side show a prominent Griffin.

To the west, that is the left hand side as one enters it from the modern entrance to the south, there  are two principal suites of rooms, the Throne room, and the Palace Sanctuary complex. The so-called Throne room was one of the first rooms to be discovered by Evans —one of the very first trenches went straight down on a comparatively well preserved ‘throne’,  a low chair with a high back which was preserved nearly a metre high. On the wall behind it was an elaborate fresco which is now so well known: it is of course restored but not, it seems, over restored.  But the main impression of the room is how small it is —  today in the summer there are long queues of people waiting to go in, half a dozen at a time to see the Throne room.

This stitched-together photo shows the complete Throne room, with the throne to the right, and on  the left, the ‘lustral basin’ where presumably the person who sat on the throne – whether  king or queen, priest or priestess, was ritually washed before going to the throne. Note too how small it all is: there was scarcely enough room for more than a dozen people to watch the ceremony.

Opposite the Throne is another suite of small rooms, surrounding what appears to be a bath.  Evans called it grandly a ‘Lustral basin’, and the name has stuck. There are many such ‘lustral basins’ throughout the Palace and it is envisaged  that they were used not for ordinary bathing but as part of a religious ceremony where the priest or as is commonly envisaged a priestess, took a ceremonial bath and was anointed with fine oils and then ceremoniously took her place on the throne.

In the centre of the west side was a large and elaborate staircase leading up to an upper storey, and on the other side of the staircase 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 30 jars or amphorae which had been broken and placed over the top. There were sealings, small clay seals used to fasten bags, evidence for produce that had been brought into the Palace, and also a tablet in the Minoan linear A script — demonstrating that it belonged to the main period of the Palace, and was destroyed and abandoned at the time of the great earthquake between the middle and new Palaces.

Knossos snake goddess

The Snake Goddess found in the Temple repository. The most notable feature is that the Goddess is showing both her breasts very prominently. Otherwise she is very elaborately dressed with a flounced skirt and a pronounced apron. Her upper arms were covered, and she has an elaborate headdress and is holding a snake in each hand. (Wikipedia)

The finest object is the famous figurine of a snake goddess made of faience, that is a type of glass. It is perhaps the best-known figure of Minoan art and one over which there can be no doubt as to its authenticity.

(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, wishing onto the Minoans the sort of dress that they wish their wives or girlfriends were brave enough to wear. 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.)

East staircase at Knossos

On the east side of the courtyard, the ground falls away steeply, and thus the facade is dominated at the centre by a very elaborate staircase leading down to a lower level. Traces of the staircase were found by Evans and he restored it very carefully in the early stages of the excavation. The staircase leads down to the cult rooms on the floor below.

The other side of the courtyard was the downhill side where the ground fell away steeply. There was  a magnificent staircase going down two floors which Evans found still partly surviving, and which he carefully restored, making it one of the most spectacular parts of the Palace for visitors.  At the foot of the stairs was the largest surviving ceremonial room  in the Palace, which he called the Hall of the Double Axes. The double axe was a particular Minoan symbol of kingship and they were often carved on stones at points of particular importance, especially in the earlier period.

Knossos: the Queen's megaron

The Queens megaron. Evans thought that this elaborate set of rooms on the  basement floor were the domestic quarters of the Palace and he labelled this the ‘Queens megaron’ and thought that it was in effect the Queen’s bedroom as there is a lustral  basin or bathroom adjacent to it. However it is now generally considered to have had a ceremonial function. The freeze of dolphins above it probably fell down from an upper story.

Evans called this eastern side the domestic quarters, yet it is hard to see them as being places where people actually lived. For one thing, there are no kitchens, no hearths or signs of food being prepared, so perhaps we should see them again as being places of ritual.

Knossos: magazines

The magazines from Knossos.This is a view into just one of the magazines set in a row at Knossos. The magazines in the palaces were usually filled up with pithoi, that is large pots, but when I last visited, the magazines were being restored and the pithoi had been taken away for conservation. This meant that the recesses, the boxes in the floor, were clearly visible. However these belong to an earlier phase and in the later palaces the magazines had two rows of pithoi on either side.

But the most remarkable feature of the Palace are the rows of long narrow store rooms or magazines as they are called. There is a row of 18 magazines on the western side, separated from the ritual complexes by a corridor.  In the later palace these giant pots called pithoi, or sometimes amphorae, were  presumably filled with olive oil, the principal prestige produce of the Minoan civilisation. However in the earlier palace, the magazines at Knossos had cists — one might almost call them cupboards — in the floors often lined with gypsum or slabs or with a lead lining. Presumably these also contained valuables,  grain perhaps, or olive oil or possibly other valuables as well.

I believe that the usual accounts of the Palace of Minos underestimate the importance of these magazines and see them as playing a functional role in the Palace economy.  However by following anthropological parallels one should surely interpret them in a far more ceremonial role, as  places where the rulers would take visiting dignitaries and indeed members of their own society to show off the wealth of the Minoan Empire and to give out quantities of it as gifts. The existence of granaries and storerooms surely played the central role in a society based on gift exchange.

But alongside, perhaps in addition to, this gift exchange was a high degree of ceremonial. How far can we reconstruct this, and where did the ceremonies take place? There were two cases of assembly in the Palace. The central courtyard was no doubt where the major ceremonies took place and presumably the bull leaping.

The western approach to the Palace at Knossos.  This is the end of the main road from the town and as the road ended, it branched out to form what Evans called the theatral area. There were steps both in front and to the right which led up to the Palace but which could also have served as seats to watch performances, laid on perhaps for those not important enough to be admitted to the palace. Here some happy tourists  are dancing down the steps!

There was another place where ceremonies took place — Evans called it the theatral area — at the Northwest corner of the Palace. Here the main road from the town – Evans in his usual manner called it the Royal road: 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. But at the end of the Royal Road was the theatrical area with steps leading straight ahead to the northern end of the palace, and leading southwards round the palace to the other main entrance to the south. Here no doubt people assembled either to go into the Palace or perhaps for ceremonies and distribution of gifts at the gate to the Palace.

Knossos southern entrance and facade

This is a stitched together photo showing the southern entrance to the Palace. Click on the photo to see an enlarged version. The ground falls away steeply here so it is not possible to be certain of the original entrance. Indeed the original entrance may have been to the right,  leading directly to a grand  stairway to the upper floor. However here to the right we see the so called Propylaeum,  or gateway which has the mural of the cupbearers seen adjacent.

Knossos the cupbearers

The cupbearers. This is one of the most famous wall paintings at Knossos situated in the entrance to the southern gateway. It shows two youths carrying highly decorated pots. It is usually assumed that the pots contain wine, or some other drink. But seeing the great importance of olive oil at Knossos I wonder whether they did not contain some form of olive oil,  possibly in the form of valuable perfumes or ointments which were being given as offerings either to the King or from the King.

Knossos therefore offers an extended example of how a palace worked Not so much a place for living but as a place for economic functions and prestige. There is a grand courtyard where the main ceremonies took place with a rather small throne room – if that is what it was. More important was the huge storage capacity and magazines where olive oil were stored in huge containers to impress and over awe the visitors, whether visiting dignitaries or local potentates, and occasionally no doubt to act as a strategic reserve at times of famine or disaster. The palace was where your master lived and no one would be so foolish as to challenge his supremacy.

But Knossos was not the only palace on the island of Crete. Let us move on to take a look at the other palaces.



On to Phaistos

25th January 2012