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).
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 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.
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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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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!