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The Palace of Knossos - Discovery and Renovation

Excavating physical remains that confirm the existence of a civilization only described in legend: it’s the dream of every archaeologist, and Sir Arthur Evans is one archaeologist for whom the dream came true.

Bastion A at the north end to Knossos as recreated by Evans The year was 1900; the location was the outskirts of the modern day city of Heraklion, on the Greek island of Crete. The ruins Evans extracted from its baked earth were those of the Palace of Knossos, a spectacular Bronze Age citadel from which the dapper British antiquarian was able to begin uncovering and piecing together the forgotten history of one Europe's first advanced civilizations.

He christened them the Minoans, after the mythical Cretan King Minos – the son of Zeus and Europa whom it’s said built a Cretian labyrinth in which to hide the Minotaur, a terrible half-man half-bull creature, the offspring of his wife Pasiphae and a bull.

Prior to 1900 our only knowledge of these Minoans (we can’t be sure what they called themselves) derived from little more than hazy references by Homer in The Odyssey to “Eteocretans” – descendents of “true Cretans”. Through Evans’ work, a very real people would emerge from the ancient shadows, a people who at their peak of prosperity in the Middle Minoan Period, around 2160 to 1600 BC, commanded fabulous wealth and power as reflected by the Palace of Knossos – their ceremonial and political centre.

Knossos’ mysterious destruction and the sudden demise of Minoan culture – which quite possibly occured, say experts, as a consequence of a tsunami following the Thera volcanic eruption in the 17th or 16th century BC – has been cited by some as basis for the legend of Atlantis.

What’s the story behind this momentous project? And why does controversy stalk the restoration of the Palace of Knossos that Evans led?

Who Was Arthur Evans?

The statue of Sir Arthur Evans at Knossos Evans was born into a rich Hertfordshire family in July 1851. His father, Sir John – who had made his fortune from owning a paper mill, and would substantially fund his son’s expeditions in Crete – was himself a respected, self-taught archeologist. Arthur was to follow in his footsteps, after receiving an education at Harrow and the universities of Oxford and Göttingen.

In 1884 Evans became curator of the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford – a post he would hold until 1908, when he was appointed Extraordinary Professor of Prehistoric Archaeology at the university.

He was already an esteemed and successful figure in his field when he travelled to Crete for the first time in 1894, the prehistory of which he has been fascinated by for some time.

In modern archaeology projects are usually undertaken by large teams – usually from universities – and governed by strict local and international regulations. Certain credentials need to be presented and stipulations met before an archaeologist is allowed to even think about breaking ground; thereafter, methods and findings are always subject to the close scrutiny of peers throughout a dig.

In Evans’ day, around the turn of the 20th century, things were different: a self-taught and wealthy individual could quite easily muscle in on a site and do with it as they pleased.

Evans was once such figure – a man of both status and, crucially, means.

Discovery and Excavations

It’s important to note that Evans didn’t find the Palace of Knossos – that accolade belongs to a much more obscure figure, Minos Kalokairinos, a Cretian merchant and antiquarian. In 1878, Kalokairinos conducted the first dig at Kephala Hill, upon and around which the Palace of Knossos was built. He located parts of the west wing before being stopped by the Turkish authorities (Crete was under Ottoman dictatorship).

Fate was to play a part in ensuring Evans was the man to pick up where Kalokairinos’ left off: Heinrich Schliemann, the legendary German archaeologist – excavator of Troy, discoverer of Priam’s Treasure and expert on Mycenaean culture – had briefly dug at Knossos once already, and was said to be planning a further excavation their before he died suddenly in 1890.

In 1899, Evans seized on Crete’s status as a newly-declared autonomous state, and bought the entire archaeological site for an undisclosed sum. He quickly recruited as his right hand man Scottish archaeologist Dr Duncan Mackenzie – who had earned a great reputation for his work on island of Melos – and employed a large staff of local labourers as excavators. Together they set to work on a massive dig and study at the Palace of Knossos that would rewrite Mediterranean and European prehistory.

Into the Labyrinth

Evans’ expedition on Crete would last until 1929, but most of the Palace of Knossos would be uncovered by 1903. Excavations were concluded in 1905.

It’s important not to be misled by the title “palace”. To us, it conjures up a grand, imposing standalone structure of conspicuous glamour and splendour. But in fact Knossos was a sprawling complex of 20,000 square metres, based around a central courtyard and branching out into four wings, housing more than a thousand interlinking chambers – from royal quarters to a throne room, banquet halls, workshops, storerooms, shrines, wine presses, grain mills and repositories.

The Throne Room at Knossos It was built using highly advanced architectural techniques (one section was five stories high), and had a three-tier water management system for supply, waste and drainage runoff. Its labyrinthine nature reminded Evans of the legend of Minos and the Minotaur, and prompted him to give the Minoans their name. (Last year a team of Anglo-Greek experts speculated that a stone quarry outside the tiny town of Gortyn is another possible location for the mythical labyrinth).

A vital source of Knossos information is the Arthur Evans archive – Evans’ vast collection of archaeological records and papers, which he bequeathed to the Ashmolean Museum on his death in 1941. It can be viewed today on the Oxford Digital Library website. To appreciate the true density and complexity of the Palace of Knossos you need only look at Evans’ sketch of its ground plan. The mind boggles how anyone was able to navigate its maze-like warren of rooms, corridors, halls and chambers.

The palace remains yielded evidence of a civilization of equally intricate history, which for many hundreds of years had built at Knossos one generation atop another. Its first inhabitants had settled perhaps as early as 7,000 BC; at its apex, a population of as many as 7-8,000 people lived in and around the palace.

Knossos' history can be broken down into two main phases. The first palace was probably completed by around 1900 BC, then flattened by an earthquake circa 1700 BC. The second palace was erected on the first’s ruins, and existed throughout the zenith of Minoan sophistication and influence, which can be narrowed down to approximately 1700 to 1450 BC. Its demise seems to have occurred around 1350 BC, when it burned down, possibly during a Minoan rebellion against Mycenaean overlordship. This event marked the mysterious and sudden end of Minoan culture.

What Was the Palace For?

Other major Minoan palaces have been discovered and excavated on Crete, such as Malia and Phaistos. But Knossos appears to have been the largest and most important.

Knossos wasn’t a military stronghold – no fortifications or weapons stores have been found at the site (a long-held supposition is that the Minoans were a purely peaceful civilization, although that has been disproven in recent years by the discovery of fortifications at places such as Gournia). The Palace of Knossos’ purpose was either administrative or religious or – most likely – both.

It was a place that bustled with the daily activity of a society that enjoyed a remarkable degree of social equality and even distribution of wealth, traded with the Egyptians and civilizations of the Near East, worshipped their own gods and – particularly – goddesses as well as symbols such as the bull and the double-headed axe, and quite possibly practiced ritual sacrifices.

The Minoans were also masterful artists. Remains found at the Palace of Knossos testify to this in the shape of many fragments of beautiful frescos and carvings. They depict scenes almost exclusively featuring young or ageless adult men and women (always colour-coded – the men dark, the women pale) fishing, gathering flowers or dancing, or performing feats of daring sporting prowess such as – in the case of one famous example – leaping over a bull.

Concrete Knossos

The job Evans and his team did in not only fully excavating the remains of Knossos – which today represent Crete’s most popular tourist destination and attract tens of thousands of visitors a year – but also in bequeathing an extensive array of Minoan artefacts to the Ashmolean Museum, the largest collection outside of Greece, is highly commendable. Evans was knighted in 1911 for his services to archaeology. Decades on from his death in 1941, his name remains one of legend in world archaeology, and inseparable from the story of Knossos and the discovery of Minoan culture.

The Dolphin Fresco Yet one aspect of his story rather sours his achievements – namely the somewhat eccentric restoration of the Palace of Knossos he led after 1905.

Rather than leaving the ruins in the state they were uncovered, Evans believed the former splendour of Knossos could somehow be revived – giving visitors a lucid vision of the past – if sections of the palace were reconstructed. He hired talented Dutch-Englishman artist Piet De Jong – a man who had no archaeological training – to spearhead a spate of building activity that would make contemporary antiquarians wince in disgust. Knossos was recreated, in substantial part, in Evans’ own modernist vision.

Wooden beams and squat reinforced concrete pillars coloured a severe tone of red (Knossos has the dubious distinction of being one of the first reinforced concrete buildings in Crete), were thrown up left right and centre, to prop up crumbling walls, covering original brickwork and features in the process. The evidence Evans based his restorations on was fragmentary at best. Often he plucked his romantic interpretations of rooms and buildings’ purposes, and his notions of how they should be restored, from thin air.

The throne room – so-called because of a carved gypsum chair discovered set into the wall which Evans described as “the oldest throne in Europe” – was deemed to be a spot of particular significance, receiving especially peculiar attention. A scaffold was initially built over the room to give it protection, since the throne couldn’t be removed. Evans later decided to replace this scaffold with wood-and-plaster columns for artistic effect, creating a fabricated room. Inside he gave free reign to a father-son team of French artists, Émile Gilléron Junior and Senior, to paint the walls. He would claim they had based their gaudy images – of the likes of griffins crouching in long grass and a Cretan youth with long curly hair – on original designs, but in fact many of them were completely made-up.

Some of the celebrated remains of ancient Knossos frescoes mentioned above, meanwhile, were treated to fanciful reconstruction and placement by De Jong. The so-called “dolphin fresco” is one of its most conspicuous examples: a brilliant blue cascade of swimming dolphins, fish and sea urchins hung on the east wall of the Queen’s Megaron. De Jong based it on just tiny original fragments, then from there let his imagination run wild. While undoubtedly pretty and elegant, it looks glaringly out of epoch.

Archaeological Delinquent or Visionary?

Attitudes towards Evans’ reconstruction of Knossos among contemporary archaeologists are largely hostile – some regard his actions as tantamount to archaeological delinquency. But visitors – while pointing out that it’s not difficult to distinguish between original temple features and Evans’ restorations – will often argue that the reconstructed features are visionary in the way that they yield a unique and tangible insight into life inside the hub of Minoan culture, one that no mere ruins could ever offer.

Whichever way you look at it, the Palace of Knossos represents an incredible site of incalculable value.

Source: Heritage-Key


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  1. Who wrote this post? I am trying to create a citation for a school assignment and would like to give credit to the author.


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