Knossos and the Minoan Mystery

On my recent trip to Crete to lead a workshop, I was able to visit just a couple of sites, one of which was Knossos, a UNESCO World Heritage tentative list site (along with the four other Minoan palace ruins in Crete).

a ewer from Knossos
a beautifully crafted ewer from Knossos

I was looking forward to seeing these ruins of an ancient civilization, the Minoans, even though I knew next to nothing about them. I loved seeing the Colosseum in Rome, the Western Wall and Masada in Israel, the Great Zimbabwe ruins in Zimbabwe, the pyramids in Egypt. There’s something about the age, the old stones, the ancient dust, that speaks to me. So do the stories and legends: gladiators in the Colosseum, the Masada siege, the mystery of Great Zimbabwe, or Tutankhamun.

In this case, I went in with even more than my usual level of ignorance. Why didn’t we study the Minoans in school? Ancient Egypt, ancient Greece, then ancient Rome, but no Minoans.

The Minoans

The Minoan civilization lasted from about 2000 to 1500 BCE. It was a sophisticated culture that, over time, traded with surrounding Mediterranean cultures, improved its technology (e.g. the potter’s wheel), and developed its own alphabet (Linear A). The mystery is: why did this relatively advanced civilization collapse? It might have had to do with the rise of the Mycenaean culture or with a natural disaster like a volcano or earthquake; no one knows for sure.

You might also enjoy my article Rethymnon in Half a Day.

The Archaeological Museum of Heraklion

The organizer of the workshops decided we should first go to The Archaeological Museum of Heraklion before exploring the ruins, and I’m glad he did so. It was eye-opening to learn about how remarkably advanced this civilization was.

An archeology museum is, by its very nature, likely to involve a lot of static items in glass cases. As you may already know, I’m not the most patient person when it comes to looking at such items. An hour or so seems to be my limit, but I’ve become good at skimming the posted information to get the gist of a topic quite quickly.

Goddess figurines from 1300-1200 BCE.
Goddess figurines from 1300-1200 BCE.

As such museums go, this one is extremely well-designed. For one thing, the lighting is adjusted well, so there is little or no glare on the cases, as I’ve seen in many museums. No squinting to see what’s in there. Items are labeled unobtrusively in Greek and English.

Arranged chronologically, the rooms take visitors past artifacts from the Neolithic period to the height of Minoan civilization, and up to the Roman period as well. Strolling through, stopping when anything caught my attention, The sheer quality of the workmanship and detail that the Minoans achieved so very long ago astonished me . I saw pottery, for example, that would not be out-of-place in a high-end art gallery.

a bulls-head "rhyton" from Knossos, apparently used for libations. It can be filled through a hole in the neck and the liquid can be poured out through the snout. Carved from stone, with inlays of shell, rock crystal and red jasper.
a bulls-head “rhyton” from Knossos, apparently used for libations. It was filled through a hole in the neck and the liquid poured out through the snout. Carved from stone, with inlays of shell, rock crystal and red jasper. 16000-1450 BCE.

Knowledge questions

I went to Crete to lead a workshop about Theory of Knowledge, a required course in the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme, so visiting the museum inevitably raised questions about how we know history. Some of the statements on the labeled items made me wonder how archeologists knew what these labels were stating as fact. The double-bladed axes, for example, of which the museum has several examples, were labeled as being used at palaces like Knossos for ceremonial purposes. Were they? How does a conjecture about how the Minoans used an item so far in the past cross the boundary between guess and accepted fact?

This question especially struck me upstairs in the museum, where the frescoes from the Knossos ruins hang. Most of them are extremely fragmentary, so that the majority of the image is painted in to show how archeologists think each fresco looked. How can we know these guesses are correct?

a fresco from Knossos in the museum. You can see how very little of it remains.
a fresco from Knossos in the museum. You can see how very little of it remains.

Knossos ruins

Once armed with some knowledge of Minoan society and its achievements, we were ready for the Knossos ruins, not far away. Ranged down a hillside, the ruins were once a huge palace. Not much is left but the bases of walls, so it’s only possible to get an idea of the outlines of the structures.

This area at Knossos may have been used for ceremonies.
This area may have been used for ceremonies.

Back in 1900-1905, an archeologist named Arthur Evans excavated the Knossos site. He decided to rebuild some of the buildings, and his reconstructions still stand. The problem is, they’re really just replicas based on guesswork, including new paint and concrete beams imprinted with wood grain. The frescoes and other items he found are all housed in the museum now, and Evans painted replicas of the frescoes in some places.

So what does this tell us about the palace that used to stand on that spot? Perhaps trained archeologists know, but I wondered to what extent Evans’s guesses were correct about what the buildings looked like. And I wondered what gave him the right to make such extensive changes to the site.

one of the reconstructed building fragments at Knossos, with a replica fresco
one of the reconstructed building fragments at Knossos, with a replica fresco

In any case, walking around the ruins and around the small sections Evans rebuilt, I couldn’t get a clear picture of how the place might have looked. It was too ruined and too scattered and I couldn’t get an overview in my head at all. A place like Masada—an equally destroyed ruin—allows more of an overview somehow. I suspect it’s Evans’s reconstructions that obscure that understanding.

The mystery remains, in any case. What happened to the Minoans? Why did they disappear from history? The Archaeological Museum of Heraklion provides a better insight into that mystery than the Knossos ruins.

Have you been to Knossos? What were your impressions? Add a comment below!


  • Marcia

    July 1, 2016 at 3:31 am

    You’re quite right – we never really know what the real story is, do we? There usually are several stories, several viewpoints. Some reveal themselves as the scholarship gets more sophisticated. Others are forever shrouded in mystery.
    As I read your post, I kept thinking, who really writes his story? And also, “the danger of a single story” as Chimamanda Adichie warns. There are always at least two sides to any story,

    • Rachel

      July 1, 2016 at 7:52 am

      Yep, at least two sides. And also two interpretations of the same story: the freedom fighter/terrorist difference, for example. You could draw incorrect conclusions from the given evidence, and you could also shape those conclusions based on what you hope is the truth.

  • Ruth - Tanama Tales

    July 1, 2016 at 7:02 am

    Rachel, your comments kept me thinking … Seems like what we know about the palace is based on theories of a person who explored it years ago. His opinions are taken in certain way as facts. I have seen pictures of the palace ruins but didn’t know they ware a replica. That is a little bit shocking. But, I guess things are like that in a lot of cases. Haven’t you discovered a lot of things that were incorrectly taught at school? Sometimes it is because the teachings were based on the best texts of that moment (which later become obsolete) or because the teacher introduced his/her own bias.

    • Rachel

      July 1, 2016 at 7:49 am

      True. But one of the goals of Theory of Knowledge is to teach kids to question the ‘facts’ they’re given and think about how we arrive at conclusions. In a place like Knossos we tend to defer to the experts–in this case, archeologists–which is fine. But it’s good to stay aware that those experts are just humans trying to draw conclusions from incomplete evidence. By the way, only some parts of the ruins at Knossos are replicas. A lot of it just looked like low walls that had been stabilized a bit.

  • budget jan

    July 1, 2016 at 12:02 pm

    When I walk around a ruined site I try to just appreciate what I’m seeing even if I don’t understand it. There are always some points of reference that we do understand. I do appreciate the odd board with snippets of information or hearing about a feature in advance and locating it. I love exploring ruins in Turkey because you can just potter around doing just that – exploring.

    • Rachel

      July 1, 2016 at 9:55 pm

      I’ve never been to Turkey, but I know what you mean. I did glean some interesting “facts” from the boards posted here and there. I guess I needed more complete prep work to understand what I was seeing, and to make a judgement as to whether the reconstructed parts were accurate or not.

  • Jackie Smith

    July 1, 2016 at 4:09 pm

    Knossos was one of the few historic places we’ve visited that didn’t knock our socks off. After learning that Evans had pretty much rebuilt the place as he envisioned it to be, we just didn’t quite ‘get it’ . On the other hand, we loved Heraklion’s museum (it was still under construction) so many of the displays weren’t available but still the history of the Minoans is one (like you said so well) that I wish I had studied in school. Great photos!

    • Rachel

      July 1, 2016 at 9:57 pm

      Thanks, Jackie! Yes, if you want “better ruins” there are lots of other choices. I’d recommend many of the temples and other sites along the Nile, for example, or in other parts of Greece or in Italy. Pompeii, for example, is amazing.

  • Nancie

    July 6, 2016 at 9:24 am

    Archaeologists seemed to have had a lot more leeway back then as to what they could or couldn’t do. Maybe Evan’s reconstructions weren’t accepted with open arms by the archaeological community, but he could have been long gone by the time anyone criticized what he took upon himself to recreate. The Minoan culture sounds fascinating and I would love to visit the museum. Thanks for hosting this week. #TPThursday

  • Marina Pitsinou

    July 14, 2016 at 12:18 pm

    Hello, this is an interesting take on Knossos, a place I visited too many years ago to be in a position to comment on your specific points. As a general comment though, I think that what is portrayed as fact by archaeologists in museums is usually the gist of numerous findings. For example, a room may be identified as being used for ceremonies by several indicators and then, how many double-bladed axes do you need to find in ceremonial rooms to conclude they had a ceremonial purpose? As a Greek, I am however baffled by a detail in the beginning of the post: did you in fact visit a Colosseum in Athens? Because the only Colosseum I know is in Rome. Unless you refer to some other venue we call by a different name…


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