The Palace of Minos: Archaeology of the Minotaur, Ariadne and Daedalus

Archaeology of the Minotaur, Ariadne and Daedalus

Throne Room, Palace of Knossos, Crete, Greece
Throne Room, Palace of Knossos, Crete, Greece. Ed Freeman / Getty Images

The Palace of Minos at Knossos is one of the most famous archaeological sites in the world. Located on Kephala Hill on the island of Crete in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Greece, Knossos palace was the political, social and cultural center of the Minoan culture during the Early and Middle Bronze Age. Founded at least as early as 2400 BC, its power was greatly diminished, but not completely dissipated, by the eruption of Santorini about 1625 BC.

What's perhaps more important, perhaps, is that the ruins of Knossos Palace are the cultural heart of the Greek myths Theseus fighting the Minotaur, Ariadne and her ball of string, Daedalus the architect and doomed Icarus of the wax wings; all reported by Greek and Roman sources but almost certainly much older. The earliest representation of Theseus fighting the minotaur is illustrated on an amphora from the Greek island of Tinos dated 670-660 BC

Palaces of the Aegean Culture

The Aegean culture known as Minoan is the Bronze Age civilization that flourished on the island of Crete during the second and third millennia BC. The city of Knossos was one of its main cities--and it contained its largest palace after the shattering earthquake that marks the beginning of the New Palace period in Greek archaeology, ca. 1700 BC.

Palaces of the Minoan culture were likely not simply residences of a ruler, or even a ruler and his family, but rather held a public function, where others could enter and use (some of) the palace facilities where staged performances took place.

The palace at Knossos, according to legend the palace of King Minos, was the largest of the Minoan palaces, and the longest-lived building of its type, remaining throughout the Middle and Late Bronze Ages as the focal point of the settlment.

Knossos Chronology

In the early 20th century, Knossos excavator Arthur Evans pegged the rise of Knossos to the Middle Minoan I period, or about 1900 BC; archaeological evidence since then has found the first public feature on Kephala Hill--a deliberately leveled rectangular plaza or court--was constructed as early as the Final Neolithic (ca 2400 BC, and the first building by Early Minoan I-IIA (ca 2200 BC).

This chronology is based in part on that of John Younger's plain-jane Aegean chronology, which I highly recommend.

  • Late Helladic (Final Palatial) 1470-1400, Greek take over of Crete
  • Late Minoan/Late Helladic 1600-1470 BC
  • Middle Minoan (Neo-Palatial) 1700-1600 BC (Linear A, eruption of Santorini, ca 1625 BC)
  • Middle Minoan (Proto-Palatial) 1900-1700 BC (peripheral courts established, heyday of the Minoan culture)
  • Early Minoan (Pre-Palatial), 2200-1900 BC, court complex started by EM I-IIA including the first Court building
  • Final Neolithic or Pre-Palatial 2600-2200 BC (first central courtyard of what would become the palace at Knossos begun in FN IV)

The stratigraphy is difficult to parse because there were several major episodes of earth-moving and terrace building, so much so that earth moving must be considered a nearly constant process that began on Kephala hill at least as early as EM IIA, and probably starts with the very end of the Neolithic FN IV.

Knossos Palace Construction and History

The palace complex at Knossos was begun in the PrePalatial period, perhaps as long ago as 2000 BC, and by 1900 BC, it was fairly close to its final form. That form is the same as other Minoan palaces such as Phaistos, Mallia and Zakros: a large single building with a central courtyard surrounding by a set of rooms for various purposes.

The palace had perhaps as many as ten separate entrances: those on the north and west served as the main entry ways.

Around 1600 BC, one theory goes, a tremendous earthquake shook the Aegean Sea, devastating Crete as well as the Mycenaean cities on the Greek mainland. Knossos' palace was destroyed; but the Minoan civilization rebuilt almost immediately on top of the ruins of the past, and indeed the culture reached its pinnacle only after the devastation.

During the Neo-Palatial period [1700-1450 BC], the Palace of Minos covered nearly 22,000 square meters (~5.4 acres) and contained storage rooms, living quarters, religious areas, and banquet rooms. What appears today to be a jumble of rooms connected by narrow passageways may well have given rise to the myth of the Labyrinth; the structure itself was built of a complex of dressed masonry and clay-packed rubble, and then half-timbered.

Columns were many and varied in the Minoan tradition, and the walls were vividly decorated with frescoes.

Architectural Elements

The palace at Knossos was renowned for its unique light emanating from its surfaces, the results of the liberal use of gypsum (selenite) from a local quarry as a building material and ornamental element. Evans' reconstruction used a grey cement, which made a huge difference to the way its seen. Restoration efforts are underway to remove the cement and restore the gypsum surface, but they have moved slowly, because removing the greyish cement mechanically is detrimental to the underlying gypsum. Laser removal has been attempted and may prove a reasonable answer.

The main source of water at Knossos initially was at the spring of Mavrokolymbos, about 10 kilometers away from the palace and conveyed by way of a system of terracotta pipes. Six wells in the near vicinity of the palace served potable water beginning ca. 1900-1700 BC. A sewer system, which connected toilets flushed with rainwater to large (79x38 cm) drains, had secondary pipelines, lightwells and drains and in total exceeds 150 meters in length. It has also been suggested as the inspiration for the labyrinth myth.

Ritual Artifacts of the Palace at Knossos

The Temple Repositories are two large stone lined cists on the west side of the central court. They contained a variety of objects, that were placed as a shrine either in Middle Minoan IIIB or Late Minoan IA, following earthquake damage. Hatzaki (2009) argued that the pieces were not broken during the earthquake, but rather were ritually broken after the earthquake and ritually laid down.

The artifacts in these repositories include faience objects, ivory objects, antlers, fish vertebrae, a snake goddess figurine, other figurines and figurine fragments, storage jars, gold foil, a rock crystal disk with petals and bronze. Four stone libation tables, three half-finished tables.

The Town Mosaic plaques are a set of over 100 polychrome faience tiles which illustrate house facade), men, animals, trees and plants and maybe water. The pieces were found between in a fill deposit between an Old Palace period floor and an early Neopalatial period one. Evans thought they were originally pieces of inlay in a wooden chest, with a linked historical narrative--but there is no agreement about that in the scholarly community today.

Excavation and Reconstruction

The Palace at Knossos was first extensively excavated by Sir Arthur Evans, beginning in 1900. in the earliest years of the 20th century.

One of the pioneers of the field of archaeology, Evans had a marvelous imagination and a tremendous creative fire, and he used his skills to create what you can go and see today at Knossos in northern Crete. Investigations have been conducted at Knossos off and on since then, most recently by the Knossos Kephala Project (KPP) beginning in 2005.

Sources

This glossary entry is a part of the About.com guides to the Minoan Culture, and Royal Palaces, and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

Angelakis A, De Feo G, Laureano P, and Zourou A. 2013. Minoan and Etruscan Hydro-Technologies. Water 5(3):972-987.

Boileau M-C, and Whitley J. 2010. Patterns of Production and Consumption of Coarse to Semi-Fine Pottery at Early Iron Age Knossos. Annual of the British School at Athens 105:225-268.

Grammatikakis G, Demadis KD, Melessanaki K, and Pouli P. 2015. Laser-assisted removal of dark cement crusts from mineral gypsum (selenite) architectural elements of peripheral monuments at Knossos. Studies in Conservation 60(sup1):S3-S11.

Hatzaki E. 2009. Structured Deposition as Ritual Action at Knossos. Hesperia Supplements 42:19-30.

Hatzaki E. 2013. The end of an intermezzo at Knossos: ceramic wares, deposits, and architecture in a social context. In: Macdonald CF, and Knappett C, editors. Intermezzo: Intermediacy and Regeneration in Middle Minoan III Palatial Crete. London: The British School at Athens. p 37-45.

Knappett C, Mathioudaki I, and Macdonald CF. 2013. Stratigraphy and ceramic typology in the Middle Mnoan III palace at Knossos. In: Macdonald CF, and Knappett C, editors.

Intermezzo: Intermediacy and Regeneration in Middle Minoan III Palatial Crete. London: The British School at Athens. p 9-19.

Momigliano N, Phillips L, Spataro M, Meeks N, and Meek A. 2014. A newly discovered Minoan faience plaque from the Knossos town mosaic in the Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery: a technological insight. Annual of the British School at Athens 109:97-110.

Nafplioti A. 2008. “Mycenaean” political domination of Knossos following the Late Minoan IB destructions on Crete: negative evidence from strontium isotope ratio analysis (87Sr/86Sr). Journal of Archaeological Science 35(8):2307-2317.

Nafplioti A. 2016. Eating in prosperity: First stable isotope evidence of diet from Palatial Knossos. Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports 6:42-52.

Shaw MC. 2012. New light on the labyrinth fresco from the palace at Knossos.

Annual of the British School at Athens 107:143-159.

Schoep I. 2004. Assessing the role of architecture in conspicuous consumption in the Middle Minoan I-II periods. Oxford Journal of Archaeology 23(3):243-269.

Shaw JW, and Lowe A. 2002. The "Lost" Portico at Knossos: The Central Court Revisited. American Journal of Archaeology 106(4):513-523.

Tomkins P. 2012. Behind the horison: Reconsidering the genesis and function of the 'First Palace' at Knossos (Final Neolithic IV-Middle Minoan IB). In: Schoep I, Tomkins P, and Driessen J, editors. Back to the Beginning: Reassessing Social and Political Complexity on Crete during the Early and Middle Bronze Age. Oxford: Oxbow Books. p 32-80.