By Betty Gordon
© 2019 text and photos. All rights reserved.
This is the third in a series about my October 2018 trip to Athens, Greece; and Crete. See my October 21 post about a fast-paced Greek cooking class in Athens; and October 30, about the destruction of the Jewish community on Crete during World War II.
Considered among the most important European archaeological excavations of the early 20th century, the restoration of the ancient site of Knossos is not without controversy.
The ruins, about 5 kilometers (3.2 miles) southeast of the city of Heraklion (also spelled Iraklio) on the island of Crete, cover an area of about 20,000 square meters (almost five acres), laid out in a roughly square configuration.
Beginning in March 1900 and over more than three decades, Sir Arthur Evans, a former director of the famed Ashmolean Museum at England’s Oxford University, presided over hundreds of Cretan workers as they filled container after container with rock, soil and other debris, uncovering the secrets of a site that was occupied as early as the Neolithic period (7000 B.C.-3300 B.C.).
While much of the Palace of Knossos — thought to have more than 1,000 rooms — is accessible to visitors, those who trod the rambling ruins will see not just the remains of the excavations, but the restorations of what Evans imagined the structures and their colorful adornments looked like during the late Bronze Age (about 3000 B.C.-1050 B.C.).
Evans named this civilization Minoan, after the mythological Cretan King Minos. Advances in written script, art, architecture and culture are credited to this period. (It was not until 1952 that the writing was identified as an early form of ancient Greek.)
So while there is a possibility that the restored orangish fresco of a fierce-looking, golden-horned, snorting bull — a recurring Minoan symbol and tied to the myth of the half-man, half-bull Minotaur — once decorated the palace’s West Bastion, the question of whether it is an authentic replica may likely never be answered.
Among the most complete restorations are the grand staircase, which led to the three- or four-storied Royal Apartments on the eastern side of the site; the apartments themselves, decorated for the queen with a clay bathtub, en suite toilet and a fresco of leaping dolphins and fish; and the Throne Room, with its original alabaster throne — perhaps the seat of a priestess (opinions differ on this) — guarded by a wraparound fresco of griffins (head and wings of an eagle with the body of a lion; think speed and power). The frescoes were both “re-created” by British-born artist Piet de Jong.
Also in generally good condition scattered around the site are more than 100 giant earthenware pithoi (storage jars) more than 6 feet tall, which would have been filled with supplies such as grains and olive oil; and on the north side of the complex, a stepped Theater leading to the Royal Road heading back into town.
Just inside the west entrance are three wide subterranean kouloures, stone-lined storage pits that may have been granaries, or used possibly for refuse. Nearby is a bust of Evans, unveiled in 1935 at a ceremony which he attended.
It seems that once the often imperious Englishman made up his mind about what he was certain Knossos looked like during the second palace period (built in about 1700 B.C.-1580 B.C. and replacing the residences and administrative center that might have been destroyed by an earthquake), those who challenged his assumptions could not persuade him that he might have been in error.
Or as author and archaeologist Joseph Alexander MacGillivray puts it in “Minotaur: Sir Arthur Evans and the Archaeology of the Minoan Myth,” Evans “let his unfettered imagination raise [the site] from the mundane to the eternal.”
Detractors call these fanciful decisions “reconstitutions,” criticizing not only the artwork, but the use of modern materials such as concrete to shore up walls and columns. Evans argued the original limestone and gypsum would not stand the test of time.
Repainted wall-size frescoes extrapolated from mere fragments of material have also drawn the ire of archaeologists, who later studied Minoan civilization. In other words, even before excavations began, Evans had already arrived at his conclusions about what would be uncovered and how they would fit a historical timeline, MacGillivray writes.
Evans (1851-1941), born in Hertfordshire, England, was the son of a wealthy British paper manufacturer, himself an avid amateur archaeologist. Evans’ mother died when he was 6, and the young boy retreated further into a world of his own making, often peppered with artifact-collecting excursions with his father. Coins and script written on seals were particular interests.
Educated at Harrow and Oxford, where he read modern history, Evans’ ambitions to leave his mark in the world were stoked by German amateur archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann’s late 19th-century excavations in Turkey (where he mistakenly identified what he said were the remains of Troy) and at Mycenae (in the Peloponnese), the Greek mythological capital of King Agamemnon and another Bronze Age site.
In the mid-19th century, archaeology was a newly spun-off scientific discipline. Certainly excavations — and site looting — had taken place prior to that time, but rigid specifications for laying out measured grids, methodically excavating strata, making detailed drawings and recording voluminous notes were only beginning to form an accepted standard.
It took Evans more than seven years to acquire the rights to excavate the site — Schliemann had tried previously — hampered by political upheaval as Greece (Crete fell under its umbrella) was trying to oust the long-ruling Ottoman Turks. He also faced difficulty in raising the funds needed to begin the project, and often turned to taxing his personal fortune to keep the work going.
More than 25 years before Evans began to dig, Minos Kalokairinos (1843-1907), born on the Greek island of Kythera, began looking for the Palace of Knossos on north-central Crete. He found the outline of some buildings in 1879, and collected “bits of painted stucco and scraps of pottery,” according to MacGillivray, but digging stopped because the Cretan Assembly was afraid the Turks would insist on taking artifacts to Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul).
Evans, according to MacGillivray, himself a former curator at the British School at Athens (an “institute for advance research”), was less than generous later when it came to acknowledging Kalokairinos’ work, and also may have failed to give enough credit to the contributions of artists and experts he hired to document and preserve the site.
Archaeologist Duncan Mackenzie (1861-1934), a native of Rosshire, Scotland, served as Evans’ right-hand man for many years. He also supervised the workmen, kept accounts, and wrote the excavation daybooks from which Evans drew on for his exhaustive four-volume “The Palace of Minos” opus.
Once the excavation season was in full swing, Evans, wearing a suit, vest, tie and hat, was a familiar sight, riding daily from Heraklion atop a wooden-saddled donkey to the site, accompanied by senior team members.
In 1906, he built a two-story home and garden northwest of the main site, under the direction of excavation architect Christian Doll, which Evans named Villa Ariadne, after King Minos’ daughter. It put an end to the commute from Heraklion.
During World War II, the villa served as headquarters for the occupying Nazis, and also was where the defeated Axis powers signed papers returning Crete to the Allies. The home still stands, though it is not open to the public.
A visit to Knossos should be coupled with several hours in the Heraklion Archaeological Museum, where many of the palace artifacts reside — from pottery to Linear B tablets — as do some original frescoes. I’ve touched on only some of the highlights here.
Quick reference: Ruins at Knossos, 8 a.m.-8 p.m. April to October; 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. November to March. Holiday hours may differ. 16 euros for combo ticket with Heraklion Archaeological Museum; museum alone is 10 euros. Ticket is valid for two days after Knossos entrance. To avoid the summer heat and the busloads of cruise line passengers, arrive early. There is very little shade at the site, so bring a hat, water, sunglasses and sunscreen.
Parking is severely limited. Instead, catch Bus 2, which makes the 10-minute journey almost continually. Buy a 1.70 euro ticket (two for round-trip) from a machine or at a tobacco/newsstand kiosk. It’s 2.50 euros one-way if buying on the bus.
Heraklion Archaeological Museum, hours vary by season, see website; Xanthoudidou 2, Heraklion, heraklionmuseum.gr/