This article was originally published on Ancient World Magazine. It is archived on this website with the kind permission of the author.
“What made you want to come here?” A few years ago I took it upon myself to start a long-running, intermittent, and entirely unscientific survey by asking this question of people I met on visits to archaeological sites in Greece.
The different answers were as numerous as the people I asked. Some were short: “I didn’t,” was the response of one sulky teenager dragged along by her grandparents. Some were detailed: archaeological colleagues would outline the research outcomes they hoped to achieve by visiting a particular site, some at more length than others.
From the neophyte tourist to all but the most hard-nosed archaeologist, almost everyone uttered some version of, “There’s just something special about being here amongst the ruins”.
So what is it about ruins? Much has been written about their significance – they have attracted the attention of anthropologists and sociologists as well as archaeologists and art historians – but a common idea is that people find ruins special because they somehow bend the rules of time and space. To be amongst them is to place yourself in the past, but by their very nature ruins belong to the present. They are what is left when that past has gone.
When we look at this physical remnant, the real earth and stone that make up a ruin, we really see so much more. Like a “then and now” guidebook in which every picture of a ruin is paired with an acetate overlay depicting an artist’s reconstruction, our imaginations conjure the sights, the sounds, and the people that would have been here before the ruins were ruins.
When presented with remnants of the past it comes naturally to us to imagine what was once there. Something that is less intuitive is that people in the past did this too – that the past existed in the past. In this article we will explore this idea using the example of Knossos, the Minoan “Palace” on the island of Crete.
The Palace of Minos
Visiting Knossos today we see the extensive remains of a Bronze Age building complex excavated by the British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans, primarily between 1900 and 1905. This complex Evans termed “The Palace of Minos”, and the civilisation to which it belonged “The Minoans”.
The palace had a wide range of functions. It was an administrative centre and a place for religious activity; it had storerooms and it had artisans’ workshops. The palace was architecturally monumental and highly decorated with vivid frescos depicting processions, animals, and games. And the palace was a centre of power. Knossos, along with other Minoan palaces such as Malia and Phaistos, was at the top of a hierarchy of settlements across the island which flourished in the Middle and Late Bronze Age.
Though flourishing, Knossos was never immune from threat, whether from piracy, war, or earthquake, and on several occasions suffered serious damage. One of these, in the eighteenth century BC, saw the destruction of the “Old Palace” only for the Knossians to redesign the site and begin construction of the “New Palace”.
The New Palace too suffered a destruction in the fifteenth century BC and was rebuilt with minor changes to become what we call the “Final Palace”, with new people from mainland Greece perhaps now in charge. The Final Palace would itself later be damaged too, and in the thirteenth century BC the palace was abandoned.
Most of the ruins we see at the site today belong to the New Palace or, in places, to its similar successor the Final Palace. We also see, however, the controversial efforts by Sir Arthur Evans to rebuild and restore sections of the site, to present them as he thought they would have been in the time of the New Palace. The value of these reconstructions is apt to provoke heated debate amongst archaeologists, but they certainly provide an insight into Evans’ vivid vision of the Minoan world, albeit a subjective and speculative one.
Between the ruins and reconstructions the visitor to the site would be forgiven for assuming that this window of time in the Late Bronze Age was the extent of Knossos’ history, a glorious few centuries followed by a three thousand year or so wait to be discovered again, but this wasn’t the case at all.
Life in the Early Iron Age
Not long after the palace itself was abandoned in the thirteenth century, a new phase of settlement was established to the west in outer buildings that Evans called the “Little Palace” and the “Unexplored Mansion”. This settlement continued into the twelfth century and beyond, through the gradual end of the Minoan Period and the transition from the Late Bronze Age to the Early Iron Age.
The main evidence of continued occupation of the area in the Early Iron Age, however, was a burial area to the north, the Knossos North Cemetery (Coldstream and Catling 1996). Over 100 tombs received over 600 interments here from the eleventh to seventh centuries. The cemetery was newly established in the late eleventh century but the burial practices, including warrior burials in pit-caves, and family burials in pit-caves, shaft graves, and chamber tombs, were broadly a continuation of Late Bronze Age practices.
In the tenth and ninth centuries, there was a growing tendency towards cremation in chamber tombs, and by the mid-ninth century the deposition of urn cremations in chamber tombs had become established as the typical practice for adult burials (Coldstream 1998, p. 58). This coincided with an increase in the number of tombs, and by supposition a growth in the settlement population.
Surveys and excavations carried out by the Knossos Urban Landscape Project have supported the hypothesis of a growing settlement at Knossos in the Early Iron Age, with a “wide scatter of Early Iron Age material” indicating a settlement area of around 40 hectares (Kotsonas et al. 2012, pp. 7-8).
Many of the tombs coming into use in the latter half of the ninth century were of a larger size than was really required, even for the deposition of numerous cremation urns. The British archaeologist and art historian Nicolas Coldstream proposed the possibility that at least five of the tombs were not in fact new, but were Bronze Age tombs, previously used for inhumations, emptied of all contents and reused.
If the other tombs were indeed new, they at least imitated the design of the Late Minoan types. And this wasn’t the only recycling taking place. Coldstream also notes the presence of Late Minoan larnakes (see the featured image at the top), small terracotta coffins from fourteenth and thirteenth centuries, which in the ninth century were reused for child inhumations (Coldstream 1998, p. 58). They were perhaps discovered in the very tombs which were being reused and imitated.
Meanwhile, though a settlement area was growing to the west amongst some outer buildings of the former palace, the main palace complex and the large open court at its centre were not reoccupied. Archaeologist Mieke Prent emphasises Evans’ observation that fragments of Late Bronze Age frescos were found amongst Iron Age excavation levels, indicating that centuries after the Final Palace went out of use its architecture and decoration remained visible (Evans 1930, p. 171; Prent 2003, p. 82).The evidence suggests a largely undisturbed mass of surviving ruins surrounding the Central Court.
The Early Iron Age inhabitants of Knossos were therefore living in what we may call a “landscape of memory”: they lived amongst prominent reminders of the past, a landscape shaped by surviving monuments and structures and imbued with the collective distant memories of a bygone era.
Before the emergence of writing we cannot know precisely what they thought about this distant past. The poems of Homer suggest that oral tradition preserved at least some knowledge of the Bronze Age, and that this surviving knowledge morphed into a broad cultural memory of a “heroic” era, but it is unwise to attempt to “backdate” specific memories into this pre-literate society. It is possible, however, to observe that the Early Iron Age inhabitants of Knossos interacted with their “landscape of memory” in two rather distinct ways.
On the one hand, they approached the Bronze Age remains with “purposeful curiosity” (Prent 2005, p. 518). Their homes were amidst the ruins to the west of the palace and in the cemetery to the north they did not hesitate to open, empty, and reuse Minoan tombs. Their curiosity even went as far as studying and imitating these tombs, and in times of tragedy they chose to bury their children in “antique” coffins.
On the other hand, the Central Court and the palace itself seem to have been left deliberately undisturbed in the Early Iron Age, even as peripheral buildings were being reused and reoccupied. Evans interpreted this as indicating a recognition of the palace as sacred in some way (Evans 1928, p. 7).
It is possible that there was a specific memory of the Central Court as the primary arena for public ritual in the Late Bronze Age, but it is more likely that a cultural memory of the court’s significance was prompted by the remarkable setting of an “untouched” space surrounded by extensive ruins. In any case, in contrast to the tombs of the north cemetery and the ruins to the west, the former palace seems largely to have been “out-of-bounds”.
The special significance of the palace and the Central Court is revealed further by the limited activity that did take place there. There was no residential reoccupation, as there was amongst the ruins to the west, nor burials, as there were in and around the Minoan tombs to the north.
Rather, a new cult was initiated amidst the ruins of the Central Court and the West Wing of the palace in the ninth century. Evans noted in the first reports from the excavations that in the Central Clay Area, part of the Propylaeum in the West Wing, there was an accumulated layer of ash and bones, “possibly of a sacrificial nature” (Evans 1900, p. 17.). This has come to be associated with deposits discovered in the south-west corner of the Central Court, the closest area of the court to the West Wing Propylaeum, with votive offerings dating from the ninth century right through to the Classical period (Coldstream 2000, p. 286; Prent 2004, p. 416).
Coldstream notes with regret that in his efforts to restudy the material the early votives remained “elusive” (Coldstream 2000, p. 286). Nonetheless, Evans reports the discovery of ninth and eighth century pottery, whilst Hartley, a member of his excavation team, notes in a review of the material that it included fragments from drinking vessels and a krater (Evans 1928, pp. 5-7; Hartley 1931, pp. 92-93), i.e. a large bowl for diluting wine with water. Hartley further reports the presence of two animal figurines, thought to date to the latter half of the eighth century, whilst Coldstream includes a bird-shaped askos (a kind of small jug) found in the area, which he considers to be a votive offering (Coldstream 2000, p. 286; Hartley 1931, p. 108.).
Some inferences may be deduced from the evidence that is available. The layer of ash and bone is a clear indication that the cooking and consumption of meat was a part of the activities, and the discovery of fragments of cups and a krater show that this was duly accompanied by communal drinking.
Furthermore, it seems that deposition of votive offerings was of secondary importance. Regardless of the “elusive” nature of the material today, the fact that Hartley only recorded two animal figurines suggests that if any other early votives were found, they seem neither to have been numerous nor noteworthy. Rather, it was drinking and the cooking and eating of sacrificial meat that were the primary features of these rites.
A further consideration is that the respective locations of the ash layer and the ceramic deposit imply a two-stage process. The animal sacrifice took place deeper within the actual ruins of the West Wing of the palace, whilst the consumption that followed was in the more visible open space of the Central Court.
Interpreting the evidence
So what are we to make of this assembled evidence? The expansion of the north cemetery in the tenth and ninth centuries implies a growing population, an interpretation supported by the work of the Knossos Urban Landscape Project. The use of new and reused monumental tombs for some burials in turn implies that during this expansion there was growing social stratification in the community at Knossos.
Taking these two points of evidence, Coldstream posits the emergence of a small group of powerful families wishing to “associate themselves with the ‘heroic’ past” (Coldstream 1998, p. 60). The opportunity to reuse a grand Minoan tomb, or to instigate the construction of an imitation, both required and reinforced status.
The cult, meanwhile, was the first reuse of the main palace site since the thirteenth century. The motivation behind this return may be related to these changing burial patterns. Prent proposes that the cult of the Central Court may have been established in the ninth century by the same emerging elites forging a connection with the past through their reuse and imitation of grand Minoan tombs.
Ritual dining and drinking served as a tool both to forge bonds between elites and to reinforce elite exclusivity – some had the status to take part and others did not. A “privileged association with the past” would engender the unity and exclusivity of emerging aristocratic families (Prent 2004, p. 417).
Furthermore, the two-stage process of the cult activity may be significant. The progression from the ‘secrecy’ of the sacrificial area within the ruins of the West Wing to the conspicuity of drinking and dining in the open space of the Central Court would have served to reinforce the distinction between participants and non-participants, between the elite and the non-elite.
We started with the question I asked to visitors at archaeological sites: “What made you want to come here?” And we can ask a similar question to the people of ninth-century-BC Knossos. They had been burying their dead in the vicinity of Minoan tombs for generations without apparently showing much interest in them. They had likewise lived on the outskirts of the former palace for centuries, in which time its ruins had never been significantly obscured, and yet they had kept away. What changed?
In exploring the engagement of past societies with their cultural memories, we must always address two questions. First, what is it in their present society that prompted them to seek a connection with the past? And secondly, what is it about the past that they sought to connect to the present?
Knossos in the ninth century was a changing society. The population was growing and social hierarchies were emerging. The memory of a shared history could provide a sense of unity to a community at risk of fracturing and simultaneously confer legitimacy on an elite whose authority was in its infancy. The physical vestiges of that shared history were right there on their doorstep, both grander tombs than they were accustomed to using and the ruins of an architectural complex far beyond their present capabilities.
Though, as mentioned, we should refrain from trying to identify specific myths in a pre-literate society, oral tradition seems to have forged a broad cultural memory of the Bronze Age as a “heroic” era, and the tombs and ruins of the Minoans matched such expectations. By reusing and imitating Minoan burials and by granting themselves privileged access to the heart of former palace, the emerging elites associated themselves with this glorious history.
Modern visitors may talk about ruins being ineffably “special”, but in the example of Early Iron Age Knossos we see that they can also be symbolic, powerful, and political.