Home of the Minotaur

The palace at Knossos

The second most popular archaeological site in Greece, Knossos features impressive remains of a Bronze-Age Minoan “palace”.

Josho Brouwers

If you want to explore Minoan Crete, it’s best to start big – and archaeological sites don’t get much bigger on Crete than the palace at Knossos. The site is located a little south of Iraklion, Crete’s administrative capital, and can be easily reached by bus.

One immediately noteworthy thing about the site is that it’s located in what is essentially a bowl, with hills almost entirely surrounding the site. The site was not chosen because it occupied a commanding position in the landscape, unlike e.g. Phaistos (or many other ancient sites, like Etrurian cities in Italy or Greek cities on the mainland), which I’ll write about later. And like all other Minoan palaces, it wasn’t protected by monumental fortification walls, either, unlike the (later) Mycenaean palaces on mainland Greece.

The area around Knossos is beautiful. The palace itself is located in an area surrounded by hills, essentially a bowl that you can’t look out of. That suggests that whoever lived here didn’t fear being attacked, or else they would have constructed the palace at a more strategic location, on higher ground with a more commanding view of the surrounding territory. Photo: Josho Brouwers.

During the Bronze Age, Knossos was the largest settlement on Crete and perhaps the most powerful. All of the other “palace” sites in Crete – Phaistos, Malia, Zakros, Galatas – share similar features, with internal spaces organized along more or less similar ways. All of the palaces are centred on a central court. At Knossos, it measures ca. 25 x 50 m; at most of the other sites it is roughly the same size or a little smaller. However, the relationship between Knossos and the other major “palace” sites in Crete is still not well understood: were these all independent polities or did Knossos function as the “capital city” of a unified Minoan state?

It’s a topic that I might deal with in more detail in a later article. But for now, we have a more pressing question that needs to be addressed. What, exactly, is a Minoan “palace”? Was this the home of a king, comparable to similar structures familiar from the ancient Near East or indeed the Mycenaean citadels on the mainland, or something different entirely?

What’s a Minoan “palace”?

Much of the terminology we use to describe the Bronze-Age palaces in Crete derives to a large extent from the work of Arthur Evans, who excavated Knossos at the very start of the twentieth century and was first to describe the culture that he dubbed “Minoan”. While much of Evans’s work has been re-evaluated, archaeologists focusing on Bronze-Age Crete often still rely on Evans’ basic framework, which is not without its problems.

In 2018, Ilse Schoep wrote (p . 5):

Although it has been pointed out by others that the main purpose of Evans’ narrative was to promote Crete as the cradle of European civilization, the implications of this observation for the concepts that he constructed and the interpretations that he made have not been fully explored. Although we have now in theory moved beyond a grand narrative of the origins of European modernity and the need to attribute to Europe in general and to Crete in particular a pivotal role in the evolution of civilization, in practice Evans’ rhetoric lives on, not only in the popular literature, as might be expected, but also in mainstream academic discourse.

Among the most problematic terms that Evans has saddled us with is “palace”. According to the later Greek myths, Knossos was ruled by King Minos, whose wife Pasiphaë had fallen in love with a bull. From their unholy union the Minotaur was born, who was kept locked away in a labyrinth built underneath the palace.

When Evans had revealed the plan of the complex structure at Knossos, which he thought was maze-like in appearance, he believed to have found the origins for the later Greek myth. (Personally, the plan of the palace isn’t that much more complex than, for example, the more or less contemporary Palace of Zimri-Lim in Mari, Syria.) The importance of bulls, frequently depicted in wall-paintings and in the form of artefacts (like bull-shaped drinking vessels), seemed to underscore this. It’s no surprise that Evans referred to the complex as the “palace of Minos”.

A view inside what Evans called the “Queen’s Megaron”. A megaron is the great hall of Mycenaean palaces, which also served as the groundplan for later Greek temples; it’s a bit of a misnomer when applied to anything Minoan. The room is heavily restored; the original fragments of the dolphin fresco can be seen in the archaeological museum of Iraklion. Photo: Josho Brouwers.

But it’s not clear that this large structure was actually the seat of a king. We know that the Mycenaeans, the inhabitants of the Greek mainland during the Late Bronze Age, had kings, since the Mycenaean Greek word for king – wanax – is encountered in Linear B tablets, as are other terms for members of what are presumed to be the upper classes (such as basileis, “princes”, and heqetai, “followers”). The word wanax is used later in the Homeric poems to denote Agamemnon, who functions as a kind of “high king” within the epic world.

But for the Minoans, there is no evidence – textual, pictorial, or otherwise – for the existence of kings. True, Linear A isn’t fully understood yet, but what evidence there is doesn’t suggest the presence of a king so far. And in the pictorial evidence, women appear to be far more important than men, at least in “palatial” wall-paintings, though there are depictions of men, often naked or clad in kilts or loin cloths, holding a staff in what is referred to as a “Commanding Position”. This and other aspects of Minoan material culture have led some to suggest that Minoan Crete offers real evidence for a matriarchal society – but I’ll deal with that in a forthcoming article.

In any event, after more than a century, it’s hard to change terminology, so we’re stuck using the term “palace”. But it’s good to define what we mean when we refer to a Minoan palace. John McEnroe, in his useful book on Minoan architecture, defines it as “a monumental architectural form characterized by a standard set of quarters (including a Residential Quarter, storage magazines, and rooms for bureaucracy and cult) arranged around a Central Court” (p. 177). Charles Gates, in his wide-ranging survey of ancient cities, suggests we “consider it a large architectural complex with a variety of functions” (p. 120).

Exploring Knossos

When it comes to archaeological sites in Greece, Knossos is second only, as far as crowds are concerned, to Athens. Still, when we were there, at the height of summer but a little later in the day, it was perfectly tolerable; busy, but not so swamped with toursists that we couldn’t see anything. The site is fairly extensive, but can you see everything in two hours; less, if you hurry, but why would you want to do that?

Most of the physical remains of the palace span a few centuries, with the bulk of the currently visible remains dating to the Neopalatial period, or ca. 1750 to 1490 BC. Some parts are earlier, but most of the Protopalatial evidence – here as elsewhere on the island – cannot be investigated fully without destroying the Neopalatial remains, something that archaeologists are naturally disinclined to undertake. Hopefully, advances in technology will one day allow us to investigate what’s in the soil without actually digging into the ground.

One of the kouloures at Knossos, which were probably not used to store grain, but rather runoff water. In the background, right, part of the monumental western facade can be seen. These were probably buried during the Neopalatial period. Photo: Josho Brouwers.

In any event, visitors today enter the site from the west and pour into the West Court. This would probably also have been the main entrance to the complex during the heyday of the Minoans. What remains now are mostly the stone foundations; in the Bronze Age, the palace had multiple floors with lots of corridors, rooms, and lightwells, with the superstructure consisting of a combination of wood and mudbrick, topped with flat roofs.

As you move into the West Court, note the circular structures in the ground, the so-called kouloures (named after a Greek type of circular bread; this term was also coined by Evans). Similar structures have been unearthed at Phaistos and Malia, but only in the latter case can these be definitively identified as places to store grain. Elsewhere, they may have been used to collect water that ran off the flat roofs of the palace and the paved court (McEnroe 2010, p. 60). As you continue towards the West Porch, you’ll be struck by the monumental West Facade, largely restored by Evans (and perhaps entirely wrong: see Hitchcock and Koudounaris 2002, p. 47), which today gives some idea of the palace’s original grandeur.

A map of the palace at Knossos. 1) West Porch. 2) Corridor of the Procession. 3) South Propylaeum. 4) Central Clay Area. 5) Long Corridor. 6) West Magazines. 7) Stepped Portico. 8) Pillar Crypts. 9) Throne Room. 10) Central Palace Sanctuary. 11) North Entrance Passage. 12) North Pillar Hall. 13) Fragments of “Priest King” fresco. 14) Residential Quarter. 15) Grand Staircase. 16) North Lustral Basin. 17) Temple Repositories. 18) Magazines of the Giant Pithoi. 19) Early buildings. 20) Royal Pottery Stores. 21) Loom Weight Basement.

One of the characteristics of Knossos are the many reconstructions in situ, built at the direction of Arthur Evans. The South House in the southwest corner, but also parts of the Propylaeum (the monumental entrance), the area with the “Priest King” fresco, the Throne Room (dating from the era of the Mycenaean occupation), and other areas of the palaces have been partially restored as per Evans’s instructions.

These reconstructions are considered controversial, not in the least because part of the original site had to be destroyed to make way for them. (For a convenient overview of the many, many problems associated with Evans’s reconstructions, see Hitchcock and Koudounaris 2002.) But Evans created these reconstructions to help educate visitors. As John McEnroe puts it (p. 79):

To criticize the Evans reconstructions – or those at more or less contemporary Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia or Greenfield Village in Michigan – as historically inaccurate not only involves an enormous understatement, but it misses the point: these were fundamentally new types of institutions, addressing a new constituency. Those constituencies have continued to grow. Knossos is now the second-most-visited site in Greece, with more than six hundred thousand visitors per year.

And indeed, the reconstructions do help visitors to the site to better visualize what the palace might have looked like back when Minoans roamed its halls and traversed its courts. That doesn’t mean we should accept these reconstructions as accurate – the “Priest King” fresco, for example, is almost certainly neither a priest nor a king, nor indeed originally a single figure! – but we have to hand it to Evans that he has helped make the site come alive to a far larger audience than might otherwise have been able to enjoy it. (Other Minoan sites have – fortunately! – not been reconstructed in this manner.)

Arthur Evans restored the South Propylaeum. Stone and concrete have been used instead of mudbrick and wooden beams. The combination of round and square columns is typical for Minoan architecture. In the Bronze Age, columns were made of wood, and the round columns always taper towards the bottom, whereas in Classical times the columns were made of stone and tapered towards the top. The wall features modern reconstructions of Minoan frescoes. Photo: Josho Brouwers.

If you continue to follow the route, you’ll come across the Propylaeum, a monumental entrance area that was, after the arrival of the Mycenaeans in the fifteenth century BC, used as a storage area, hence the presence of a set of large pithoi or storage vessels in this area. Ignore the (restored) “Horns of Consecration” for now (as I’ll write about them in a forthcoming article) and head northeast.

You’ll arrive at the Central Court, the defining feature of every Minoan palace and an excellent place to roast in the Mediterranean sun. People would have congregated here for religious and other purposes. The stepped portico off to one side may have been used as a viewing area, perhaps even by high-ranking Minoans. Nearby this portico are the remains of a Minoan tripartite shrine, a structure divided into three parts.

Knossos, like many Minoan sites, features lots of drainage channels and other features that have to do with the flow and management of water. Here is a good view of a drainage channel near the Southern Propylaeum. Photo: Josho Brouwers.

The Central Court is a good place to look around and get your bearings. West of the Central Court are different rooms, some of which were used for ritual and/or religious purposes. Beyond those rooms are the so-called West Magazines, where supplies of various kinds were stored. Each of the magazines could hold up to thirty large pithoi, with an average capacity of ca. 590 litres (McEnroe 2010, p. 75).

The palaces are often thought to play a central role in the collection, storage, and redistribution of goods: farmers would pay tribute in the form of e.g. olives, grapes, wool, grain, and so on, which was stored in the palaces and used to pay workmen, scribes, and others who worked for the palace, as well as to produce specialized products, such as wine, oil, textiles, and so on.

The “Throne Room” at Knossos, directly underneath the fresco gallery; heavily restored by Evans. This room actually dates to the Late Bronze Age, after the arrival of the Mycenaeans. Nevertheless, it’s not clear if this is where a king would have seated, rather than a queen or priestess. The back of the throne has a wavy shape and might refer to mountains. The griffins are associated with priestessess (e.g. frescoes from Akrotiri) and – on the Greek mainland, at least – rulers (e.g. the throne room at Pylos). Photo: Josho Brouwers.

In the extreme northwest is a so-called “Theatral Area”, with steps (seats) and a raised causeway for processions. Head east and you’ll see the so-called North Lustral Basin, about which I’ll write more in a forthcoming article. Evans believed this to be a place where one could ritually clean themselves before going into the palace to meet the ruler.

A picture of the “North Pillar Hall”, taken from the south. This was a monumental roofed hall, entered via a vestibule to the left. In the southeastern corner (where the man in the red shirt and orange cap is located) a narrow, unroofed corridor that sloped upwards led the visitor to the Central Court. Photo: Josho Brouwers.

There’s also another entrance to the palace nearby. A small vestibule gives way to the monumental “Pillar Hall”, which was roofed. A narrow corridor, the North Entrance Passage, which was probably open to the sky, connected the Pillar Hall to the Central Court. It seems likely that different social groups entered the palace along different routes.

A peep inside the Grand Staircase, which is itself not accessible to tourists. Rebuilt by Evans. Note the wall-paintings featuring “figure-of-eight” shields. These were large body-shields, which protected the bearer from chin to ankles and were carried by a shoulder strap (Greek: telamon). Photo: Josho Brouwers.

Much of the northeastern part of the palace was devoted to service areas and workshops, as demonstrated by the presence of areas now referred to as the “Royal Pottery Stores” and the “Loom Weight Basement”. The southeastern area is referred to as the Residential Quarters, since these seem to be rooms where (wealthy) families lived.

The monumental Grand Staircase, reconstructed by Evans, is a monument in its own right, with walls decorated with frescoes, including depictions of so-called “figure-of-eight” shields, which show that contrary to popular opinion the Minoans were familiar with warfare. Sadly, the staircase is not accessible to the public, but there are areas from which you can look inside.

The seats/steps in the so-called “Theatral Area” in the northwestern corner of the archaeological site at Knossos. Photo: Josho Brouwers.

There’s much more to write about, but I’ll touch upon a lot of the details in forthcoming articles. You can also look forward to articles on two other of the main Minoan palaces, Phaistos (famous for its Disc) and Malia. Both share a lot of similarities with Knossos, but they also have their own characteristics. And as always, if you like Ancient World Magazine, please consider becoming a patron.

This is part of the series: Exploring Crete.