The site of Knossos is located some 5 kilometers to the southeast of Herakleion, in the Kairatos Valley on the Greek island of Crete. The earliest Neolithic settlement and the Bronze Age palace are situated on a low hill known locally as the Kephala hill, and the Roman settlement is located to the west, on the lower slopes of the Acropolis hill. The first excavations at Knossos were by Minos Kalokairinos in 1878, on the western side of the mound of Kephala, but the main excavations were undertaken by Sir Arthur Evans between 1900 and 1931.
Knossos is the longest-inhabited settlement on Crete and was preeminent—culturally, politically, and economically—as the largest settlement on the island until the end of the Bronze Age. The Neolithic settlement at Knossos was established on the Kephala hill during the late eighth millennium b.c. or early seventh millennium b.c. by a migrant population probably from Anatolia, and it represents the earliest human occupation attested on the island. Arthur Evans first recognized the existence of a Neolithic settlement beneath the Central Court of the Bronze Age palace in 1923. This he divided into four main phases, based on changing pottery styles. Subsequent excavations by John Evans refined the sequence, with ten strata dating from the Aceramic Neolithic (so-called because of the absence of pottery containers in the material assemblage) through the Early, Middle, Late, and Final Neolithic.
Knossos was an obvious location for settlement, being a naturally protected inland site on a low hill, with a perennial spring and fertile arable land. The settlers brought with them a fully developed Neolithic economy. They reared sheep, goats, pigs, and cattle and grew wheat, barley, and lentils. Stone tools included obsidian from the volcanic island of Melos in the Cyclades as well as flint and chert. During the course of the Early Neolithic, mace-heads became a typical component of the material assemblage. The Neolithic population lived in rectilinear houses built of mud brick or pisé (rammed earth) on a stone foundation. Pottery is attested from Stratum IX (Early Neolithic): initially with incised and dotimpressed (pointillé) decoration filled with white paste and later with ripple burnished decoration. Equipment associated with textile production (spindle
whorls and loom weights) was also introduced in the Early Neolithic period. The symbolic life and religious beliefs of the earliest inhabitants of Knossos remain elusive. Although no adult burials have been found, there are infant and child burials in pits under the house floors in various strata. Figurines are attested from the earliest occupation levels, with a concentration of human and animal terra-cottas in the Early Neolithic II levels.
The Early Bronze Age (Early Minoan or Pre-Palatial) occupation of Knossos is poorly known, being largely obscured by the later construction of the palace, but it has been identified in a number of soundings throughout the site. The remains of the Early Minoan II settlement indicate that it was large and prosperous. It has been suggested that a partially excavated building beneath the West Court of the palace was the residence of an important inhabitant, possibly the ruler of Knossos. This structure was destroyed by fire and might have been superseded by a large building beneath the northwest corner of the palace in Early Minoan III. The so-called Hypogeum, at the southern limits of the later palace, likewise probably dates to Early Minoan III. It has been suggested that this was an underground, corbel-vaulted granary. Occasional imports from the Cyclades and southern Greece and even stone vases from as far away as Egypt have been found at Knossos, indicating initial trading ventures beyond the island. Internal exchange is illustrated by the presence of significant quantities of luxury pottery imported from the Mesara region of southern Crete and by the Vasilike ware from eastern Crete.
Knossos is perhaps best known for the palace remains on the Kephala hill. Two main phases have been identified: (1) the Old Palace (Proto-Palatial) period, which comprises the Middle Minoan IB, IIA, and IIIA strata, and (2) the New Palace (Neo-Palatial) period, comprising Middle Minoan III through Late Minoan IB. The Old Palace period has traditionally been dated to c. 1900–1700 b.c. and the New Palace period to c. 1700–1425 b.c. New chronometric dates derived from radiocarbon dates from Akrotiri, a site on the nearby island of Thera (modern Santorini) destroyed in a massive eruption in Late Minoan IA, suggest that the duration of the New Palace period should be revised to c. 1690–1500 b.c. The palace at Knossos is one of several palaces identified within the Minoan landscape of Crete: the other principal palaces are at Mallia, Phaistos, and Zakros. Other possible palace structures have been identified at a number of sites in Crete. Although all the Minoan palaces conform to general underlying architectural principles and probably shared similar functions, there are distinct differences most evident in the internal configuration of space.
THE OLD PALACE PERIOD
The origins and function of the Old Palace at Knossos are elusive. Its architectural remains are poorly preserved, whereas those of the immediately preceding phase had been leveled. Certainly the construction of the Old Palace represents the introduction of a new social and architectural concept: a large central building and the use of repeated architectural elements to create ceremonial space. Although the exact plan of the palace is unknown, two phases of construction have been identified. In the earlier phase the palace was laid out around the Central Court (on a north-south alignment). Sir Arthur Evans believed that the palace was laid out in separate blocks of buildings, but it is now accepted that the first palace was envisaged as a single architectural complex. Components of the Old Palace include the initial construction of the Throne Room, several of the shrines along the west side of the Central Court, and the storerooms on the east and west wings of the palace. In the later phase the West Court was laid out with three large circular pits (kouloures), possibly serving as grain silos. Also dating to this phase are the Theatral Area, to the north of the palace, and the Royal Road leading west from the palace.
The Old Palace is generally viewed as an elite residence and a religious or ceremonial center. The use of monumental architecture, in particular cut-stone (ashlar) masonry, was designed to impress the local populace and visiting dignitaries and also illustrates large-scale mobilization of labor. Moreover the palace appears to have played an important economic role, with control over production and redistribution of agricultural staples. In addition to the storage magazines and kouloures, the so-called Keep was possibly used to store agricultural produce. By Middle Minoan II there is evidence for the development of a sophisticated bureaucracy, in the form of clay sealings (used to seal shut containers) and "hieroglyphic" clay tablets. It is also suggested that the palace controlled the production of prestige goods. Even so there is only limited evidence for craft production, although some four hundred loom weights were found in the eastern wing of the palace, representing substantial evidence for textile production. Certainly by the New Palace period textile production is central to the Minoan economy, and New Kingdom tomb paintings indicate that woolen cloth was one of the primary Minoan exports to Egypt. Many of these activities are extrapolated from the functions of the New Palaces.
THE NEW PALACE PERIOD
The Old Palace was destroyed at the end of Middle Minoan II, and its reconstruction in Middle Minoan III marks the zenith of Minoan palatial society. The New Palace at Knossos is the largest of the Minoan palaces, covering a surface area of around 13,000 square meters. Much of the extant remains date to Late Minoan IA. The focal point of the palace was the Central Court, a paved open area (54 by 27 meters) on a north-south alignment. The function of the Central Court is unclear, but it probably served as the focus of ceremonial activities, possibly associated with the cult rooms opening onto the west side of the court. These include the so-called Throne Room (possibly the principal shrine), the Tripartite Shrine, and the Temple Repository, the latter where three faience figures of possible snake goddesses were found together with a rich assortment of faience plaques (animals, dragonflies, and richly decorated female costumes).
The ground floor of the palace was devoted to economic activities, namely craft production and storage of agricultural produce. The storerooms (a row of eighteen long, narrow storage magazines containing large ceramic storage jars, or pithoi) are restricted to the area of the ground floor immediately behind the west facade of the palace. The walls of the storerooms are blackened by the massive fire that destroyed the palace. The storage area was accessed either via the long corridor from the north or through the Throne Room—the latter approach indicating the extent to which the Minoan economy was embedded within the ceremonial or religious aspect. This symbolic control of the agricultural wealth is reiterated by the presence of pyramidal stands for totemic double axes at the entrance to the storage magazines. To facilitate the redistribution economy, there was a flourishing bureaucracy. Economic transactions were recorded on clay tablets in the Linear A script. Workshops associated with high-status craft production are located at the northeast side of the Central Court.
The suite of rooms located to the southeast of the Central Court, at the foot of the Grand Staircase, has become known as the residential quarters of the Knossian palace elite. These quarters comprise a series of Minoan halls: each hall consists of two adjoining rooms separated by a pier-and-door partition (a polythyron) with a light well (a shaft to admit light) at one end. Most notable are the Hall of the Double Axes and the so-called Queen's Hall. The domestic quarters also include a toilet. Indeed Minoan domestic architecture is noteworthy for the development of a sophisticated sanitation system, perhaps best illustrated by the drains at Knossos. A typical feature of the palace is its lavish decoration, namely wall paintings located in both the ceremonial rooms and the private chambers. Themes include processional scenes, bull sports, and richly dressed women.
The main approach to the palace was from the west, and the western facade of the palace was grandly built with ashlar masonry and a line of gypsum orthostats. Large stone "horns of consecration" (a potent Minoan religious symbol, apparently representing stylized bulls' horns) were displayed in places of prominence in the West Court. Raised walkways led across the West Court to the ceremonial southwest entrance. The southwest entrance led into the narrow Corridor of the Procession Fresco (decorated with life-size figures carrying luxurious offerings) toward the Propylaeum and a staircase to the grand reception rooms on the upper stories of the palace and also to the Central Court. A second entrance to the palace was located on the northwest. This entrance was approached via the Royal Road (leading west to the town house known as the Little Palace) and the Theatral Area.
The palace was at the center of a large town, which reached its greatest extent in the New Palace period, possibly covering an area of around 75 hectares. The population has been estimated to have been around 12,000. Several grand town houses have been excavated, such as the South House, the Little Palace, the Unexplored Mansion, and the Royal Villa. Workshops and kilns indicate that the palace did not exclusively control craft production at Knossos. Moreover several of the large houses were decorated with wall paintings, and high-status prestige objects were also found in these buildings. Most notable is the steatite bull's-head vase found in the Little Palace.
The size and grandeur of the town and palace at Knossos indicate the preeminence of the site in Neo-Palatial Crete. The lack of city defenses and the unprotected villas and palace argue for the so-called Pax Minoica, a seemingly peaceful arrangement of political unification and centralization of Minoan Crete ruled from Knossos. In the absence of documents that can be read, this is difficult to substantiate; however, Knossos certainly played a preeminent cultural role on the island. The town was destroyed in a massive conflagration in Late Minoan IB (contemporary with the destruction of the other palace centers around Crete). An unusual discovery in the town to the west of the palace suggests ritual cannibalism of children, possibly to stave off disaster. Yet the palace at Knossos was seemingly unaffected and continued to function into Late Minoan IIIA (the fourteenth century b.c.).
the end of the palace period
The collapse of the Minoan palace centers in Late Minoan IB is usually attributed to an invasion from the Greek mainland and the establishment of a Mycenaean ruling elite. Knossos continued to be an important center in Late Minoan II and III, alongside Khania in western Crete. Parts of the palace were rebuilt and redecorated, and the characteristic griffin decoration of the Throne Room dates to this period. Knossos appears to have been an important religious center, and the Linear B archives (written in an early form of Greek) illustrate the importance of the wool industry at the site. These texts also give the name of Knossos as ko-no-so. There is a horizon of wealthy warrior graves in the Knossian hinterland at Zapher Papoura, Ayios Ioannis, and Sellopoulo. Characteristic features include Mycenaean chamber tombs, single inhumation, and distinctive Mycenaeanizing grave goods: a preference for bronze weapons (daggers and swords) and boar's-tusk helmets, hoards of bronze vessels, and large quantities of Mycenaean-style jewelry. The date of the final destruction of the palace at Knossos is unclear due to the vagaries of Sir Arthur Evans's early excavation at the site and in particular the context of the Linear B archives.
The location of the Iron Age settlement at Knossos is unknown, but several important cemeteries have been excavated, such as Fortetsa and Teke. The site continued to be wealthy, receiving imports from Athens and Phoenicia. Most notable is a reused Minoan tholos (stone-built circular) tomb, lavishly furnished with gold jewelry. This was used in the ninth century b.c., probably by a migrant Phoenician goldsmith. A sanctuary to Demeter was established in the eighth to seventh centuries b.c. to the south of the palace, and a Hellenistic shrine dedicated to the local hero Glaukos has been found in the western part of Knossos. In 67 b.c. Knossos became a Roman colony (Colonia Julia Nobilis Cnossus), and a large Roman city was established on the lower slopes of the Acropolis hill. Most notable among the Roman remains is the imposing second-century a.d. Villa Dionysos.
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