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The Palace at Knossos: The Archaeological Discovery of Minoan Civilization

The Palace at Knossos: The Archaeological Discovery of Minoan Civilization


Knossos (also spelled Cnossus) is located 3.1 miles (5 km) inland from the northern coast of Crete near the present-day town center of Heraklion (Iraklion). Known in Greek mythology as the capitol of King Minos and the site of the Minotaur's labyrinth, Knossos was the center of Minoan civilization, the earliest of all Aegean civilizations.

Greek myth and epic poetry attested to the existence of an ancient city called Knossos on Crete. Later inhabitants of the region often found artifacts of previous civilizations when they tilled their fields. Originally attracted by the discovery of stones bearing an unknown script, British linguist and archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans (1851-1941) first visited Crete in 1894 hoping to decipher the script and link the Cretan tablets with similar artifacts of the recently discovered Mycenaean civilization in Greece.

When Evans published his research a year later in Prae-Phoenician Script, he acknowledged that the Cretan pictorial script, and a later linear script he named Linear A, were that of another culture. Only one script, Linear B, was found to have a direct link with Mycenae. Three years later, Evans began a survey of the Knossos site that was based on studies of myth, language, art, and material culture. He spent the next 31 years excavating the archaeological site, work that revealed a palace and surrounding network of buildings that were the capitol of the Bronze Age culture that dominated the Aegean from 1600 to 1400 b.c..


The first person to excavate in the area was an Iraklionian merchant and amateur archaeologist, Minos Kalokairinos. He had already uncovered two storerooms by 1878, when the site's landowners forced him to stop his investigation of the ruins. In 1900 Evans began a systematic excavation of the site. After expanding upon Kalokairinos's initial dig, Evans discovered a complex network of corridors and rooms that reminded him of the legendary labyrinth of King Minos. Evans accordingly named the palace, Knossos, after that of Minos.

As the ongoing excavations yielded evidence of distinct pottery, artwork, and architecture, Evans realized that he had indeed discovered a civilization distinct from that of the recently discovered Mycenae. This Cretan civilization became known as the Minoan.

Recognizing the site's uniqueness, Evans rapidly expanded his excavations. The intricate, multistoried palace he unearthed spanned an area of 22,000 square miles (56,980 sq km). Each section had a specific use. The western area, with large rooms and a theater, was built for administrative and court functions. The eastern area consisted of smaller rooms with verandas and numerous interior frescos characteristic of Minoan art, many portraying men and women leaping bulls. These frescoes, along with several artifacts from cultures foreign to Crete, suggest that the Minoan civilization at its zenith was a highly developed society that routinely traded with its Mediterranean neighbors.

Archaeological evidence also suggests that this "Great Palace of Minos," as Evans called it, was destroyed by fire in 1400 b.c.. Around the same time, the political center of Aegean civilization shifted to Mycenae. As a result, the palace at Knossos was not rebuilt to its previous form, although small-scale inhabitation of the site continued in subsequent centuries. By 1903 Evans had unearthed nearly all of the palace structure and survey work began on the surrounding area.

Soon after the large palace had been excavated and mapped, Evans and his team discovered that it was not the only structure that had been built upon the site. Below the Palace of Minos lay the ruins of yet another, earlier palace that had a simpler form and consisted of a series of structures surrounding a rectangular court. It had been built around 2000 b.c. and destroyed by earthquake, according to Evans's hypothesis, some 300 years later.

Evans developed a chronology for the site using a complex pottery sequence, which he established by associating types of pot shards, or small fragments of pottery, with Egyptian or Mycenaean trade goods and other artifacts that had been more concretely dated. Through this work, Evans realized that the Minoan civilization had existed within the chronological context of the larger Aegean civilization. He continued to dig below the first palace structure in the hope of finding some proof of earlier inhabitation on the site.

Excavations below the Bronze Age strata revealed that the area had been inhabited as far back as the Neolithic period (6000 b.c. and perhaps even earlier.) The excavated Neolithic levels at Knossos are still among the deepest in Europe. Archaeological survey of the upper strata of the Neolithic site revealed artifacts such as gold jewelry, glazed pottery, and bronze. A prepalace structure from 3000 b.c. was also identified, thus making the Early Minoan Period contemporary with the emergence of the Early Bronze Age in the Aegean.


Evans's discoveries in Crete were a major influence on the field of linguistics. He published the first study on the Minoan scripts, but it was not until English architect and cryptographer Michael Ventris (1922-1956) deciphered Linear B in 1952 that the approximate relationships of the different scripts were known. Ventris identified the Minoan Linear B as an early form of Greek that dated as far back as 1400 b.c.—roughly contemporary with the events depicted in the epic poems of Homer. Though the phonetic sounds depicted in the Minoan Linear A are decipherable from Linear B, the actual language represented by Linear A is unknown. How the Minoan pictorial, or hieroglyphic, script identified by Evans is related to the linear scripts as well remains unknown. This linguistic connection offered further proof that the Minoan and Mycenaean were among the ancestral civilizations of Greek and later Western civilization.

Evans's archaeological research at Knossos also provided new insight into the technology of urban planning. For example, the Palace of Minos at Knossos had an elaborate system of drains, ducts, and pipes that brought a water supply to the community and improved its sanitation, innovations once thought only to have emerged in later, more advanced Greek and Roman civilizations. The palace also contained workshops and massive storage compartments for agricultural products, and the urban area around the palace was connected to outlying towns and ports by a network of paved roads. Thus, Knossos was not just a ceremonial palace, but a vibrant working city with seemingly modern amenities.

In addition, the discovery and excavations of Knossos and Mycenae added an historical and cultural frame through which to view Greek mythological literature. These ancient myths, if not wholly reliable, could be corroborated with newly found physical evidence to offer an additional dimension of understanding and contextual insight into the history and society of the Greeks.

Several later scholars have disputed some of Evans's earlier conclusions. More recent excavations brought new evidence to light that suggests flaws in the pottery sequence that Evans developed. Advances in archaeological dating techniques, most notably the advent of radiocarbon (C-14) dating, have helped refine the established chronology of Knossos. Scholars also hesitate to rely on mythological explanations for the political structure of Knossos. Though there is evidence that Knossos was ruled by an individual, the archaeological record yields few clues about the governmental structure of Minoan civilization.

Though Evans was one of the pioneers of scientific excavation, his preservation methods remain controversial. As a greater portion of the palace grounds was excavated, questions arose of how best to protect and preserve the structure, art, and artifacts that were exposed. In the later phase of his excavations, Evans decided to reconstruct part of the palace. His reconstruction of part of the Palace at Knossos used contemporary building materials such as reinforced concrete, lead paints, and plasters. This method of preservation and reproduction received considerable criticism because it combined ancient artifacts and modern building materials that were foreign to Minoan construction practices. Among modern archaeologists, the reconstruction of archaeological ruins has largely fallen out of favor.

Regardless of modern questions surrounding his research at Knossos, Evans is still widely admired as an astute scholar and pioneering archaeologist. Knossos remains an active archaeological site and excavations still continue today.


Further Reading

Chadwick, John. The Decipherment of Linear B. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Farnoux, Alexandre. Knossos: Searching for the Legendary Palace of King Minos. Translated by David J. Baker. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1996.

Hamilton, Edith. Mythology. New York: Warner Books, 1999.

Woodard, Roger D. Greek Writing from Knossos to Homer: A Linguistic Interpretation of the Origin of the Greek Alphabet and the Continuity of Ancient Greek Literacy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.

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