At Crete’s Heraklion Archaeological Museum: Palace of Knossos frescoes, artifacts and much more

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Known as the Minoan Chessboard, this artifact was found at the Palace of Knossos, site of an ancient civilization on Crete. Among the materials used were ivory, blue glass paste and gold and silver leaf.

By Betty Gordon 

© 2019 text and photos. All rights reserved.

This is the fifth 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; October 30, 2018 about the destruction of the Jewish community on Crete during World War II; February 7, 2019, about the Minoans’ Palace of Knossos on Crete; and February 19, about a thick soup and appetizer called fava puree.

The Palace of Knossos, just to the southeast of Heraklion, is the most-visited sight on Crete, drawing more than 600,000 tourists a year, as of 2017, according to the Hellenic Statistical Authority. 

The site gives a glimpse into the sophistication of the Minoan civilization that occupied the area from about 3000 B.C. to 1050 B.C.

As I wrote in my February 7 post, parts of the Knossos site are restored, with its frescoes and structures echoing the vision — some say imagination — of Sir Arthur Evans, the Englishman who directed the excavation of the ruins over a period of 30 years in the early 20th century. 

But to be able to appreciate many of the artifacts — and marvel at the craftsmanship and ingenuity of the Minoans — tourists should pair their Knossos experience with a stop at the 27 rooms of the Heraklion Archaeology Museum, Crete’s second-most popular attraction with more than 400,000 visitors in 2017.

While the frescoes are re-created at Knossos, the originals uncovered by the many Cretans in Evans’ employment reside at the museum, where an extensive renovation was completed in 2014. The frescoes are displayed one floor up from ground level, and it is here that visitors can get a much closer look at how from just a few fragments nearly complete paintings were extrapolated.

No other museum in the world has such a wealth of Minoan artifacts — thousands of objects — though Evans did leave part of his personal collection to the Ashmolean at Oxford University in England, where he had formerly been a director. 

Beyond the Minoan collection, the museum showcases Cretan art ranging from the Neolithic period through Roman times (7000 B.C. to the third century AD). The non-Minoan collection is particularly strong in large pieces of pottery, funeral art, and figural sculptures large and small.

Crete’s strategic Aegean Sea location meant that there was trade with other wide-ranging cultures, and as a byproduct, the importation of goods, ideas and a sharing of technical abilities.

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The bull’s-head rhyton was a drinking vessel, found at Knossos. It was filled though a hole in its neck, and the liquid would exit through its nose, which is outlined in inlaid seashell.

Among the most famous Minoan artifacts is a realistic-looking stone bull’s-head rhyton, which, despite its menacing face, was used as a drinking vessel. It dates to 1600 B.C. to 1450 B.C. and was found at Knossos.

The rhyton would have been filled through a hole in its neck, with the liquid exiting through the nose, which is delineated with inlaid seashell. 

The horns have been restored, as has the left side of the face, but the rock crystal left eye surrounded by red jasper is original.

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Many scholars think the bull-leaping fresco depicts an ancient sport; dissenters say it might have been a religious rite. The action involved the middle figure somersaulting from the left into the outstretched arms of the figure on the right.

The male bovine motif is found again in the bull-leaping fresco depicting the action of an ancient sport — or was it a religious rite? Two female athletes bookend the animal, above which is a feet-in-the-air somersaulting brown male figure. The female on the left holds the bull by the horns to slow its speed, while the one on the right, with outstretched arms, waits to catch the tumbling leaper.

This fresco, and other fragments, were found on the east side of the Palace of Knossos and date 1500 B.C. to 1400 B.C.

The life-size “Prince of the Lilies” fresco in three vertical sections holds its own secrets: With a crown of peacock feathers and papyrus lilies, was this a likeness of the ruler of Knossos, as Evans posited, a priest-king with religious and secular power?

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Similarly, theories differ as to the fresco identified as the “Prince of Lilies.” Was the figure a priest, priestess or an athlete? Does the crown of papyrus lilies and peacock features indicate royalty? Was the figure leading an animal with its left hand?

Other scholars present arguments that the figure (circa 1600 B.C. to 1450 B.C.) represented an athlete — possibly a boxer — or that the figure was a female priest or maybe even a sphinx.

Found at Knossos in the Corridor of the Procession (just south of the rectangular Central Court), where a re-created fresco stands, the figure’s outstretched left hand holds a tether, possibly indicating that it was leading an animal. 

As would befit a palace population, a handsome board game testifies to leisure pursuits. Known as the Minoan Chessboard, it is believed to share similarities with a game from the Egyptian court.

Materials such as ivory, blue glass paste, glazed ceramic ware and gold and silver leaf adorn the busy board’s pattern. It was found in a corridor to the northeast of the Central Court (where the above mentioned bull-leaping game might have taken place) of the Palace of Knossos. Religious celebrations might also have been staged in the Central Court.

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Another Minoan palace existed at Phaistos, where this mysterious two-sided disk was found in 1908. Again, scholars have theories, but no one has definitively deciphered the 45 symbols. Look for the plumed head, which repeats on the spiral, as do other symbols.

Still posing a mystery to experts is the clay Phaistos disk, which contains 45 distinct stamped symbols — some repeating such as a plumed head and shield — in a spiral configuration on both sides of its 16-centimeter (about 6.25 inches) surface. It was found in 1908 south-central town of Phaistos (also spelled Phaestos), site of another Minoan palace, and dates to the early 17th century B.C.

Gareth Owens, a linguist at researcher at the Technological Educational Institute of Crete, and John Coleman, a phonetics professor at Oxford, believe the disk may be a prayer to a Minoan goddess. 

Other interpretations range from an adventure story to a possible game board.

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Pottery known as Kamares ware was both decorative and utilitarian.

Also from Phaistos are pieces of polychrome pottery known as Kamares ware, showcasing decorative flourishes such as scrolls, leaves and imaginative sea creatures. A lovely example is the Kamares crater, a large footed bowl with attached white blossoms and a checkerboard band around the central body.

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 from Heraklion, which makes the 10-minute journey almost continually. Buy a 1.70 euro ticket (two for round-trip) from a machine or tobacco/newsstand kiosk. It’s 2.50 euros if buying on the bus.

Heraklion Archaeological Museum, in March: 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Mondays and Wednesdays-Sundays, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays; closed some holidays, summer hours not yet available, see website; Xanthoudidou 2, Heraklion, heraklionmuseum.gr/

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Greek appetizer fava purée can be served as a thick soup or a veggie-friendly dip

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This might be one of the thickest soups you ever try: Fava purée, popular in Santorini, and all over Greece.

By Betty Gordon 

© 2019 text and photos. All rights reserved.

This is the fourth 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; October 30 about the destruction of the Jewish community on Crete during World War II; and February 6, 2019, about the Minoans’ Palace of Knossos on Crete.

Lost in translation, or just something else entirely? 

At our cooking class last fall in Athens, Greece, we made fava purée, which we ate as an appetizer, with portions served in small red clay pots, like the containers you would use to grow plants or herbs. 

But the key ingredient was not what we in America identify as fava beans. Favas are generally broad, flat, tan beans that mature in a slender pod and are shelled before being prepped.

In Greek cuisine, fava purée is made with what most closely resembles yellow split peas. It is often served like hummus (made from chickpeas) — as a thick dip. And it’s a specialty on the island of Santorini, famed for its white-washed buildings and abundant sunshine.

In class at the Greek Kitchen, we made five dishes in under four hours. We started with the fava purée, putting some of the ingredients in a saucepan, which was then attended to in the kitchen by our instructor Vasia’s assistant, while we moved on to the next recipe. 

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The yellow peas are covered by a quartered red onion, three whole cloves of garlic, a bay leaf and water.

Technically we hadn’t prepared it from start to finish, so we hadn’t had to stand over the saucepan, skimming off the foam that rose to the top, monitoring the water level or scraping the peas off the bottom so they wouldn’t stick.

The recipe calls for removing the onion after the peas are cooked, but when I made it at home, I found most of the quarters had disintegrated, and besides, extra flavor is always welcome.

Another possibility would be to use two or three medium shallots, and perhaps they hold together better during cooking.

I’d never had this dish before, either as a thick soup or dip, though I am well-versed in green split peas. The purée was so flavorful — and healthfully high in protein — that I bought a 500-gram package of fava beans (a bit more than a pound) for 1.55 euros (about $1.75) before I left Crete — one of the easiest-to-pack and worry-free souvenirs that I’ve ever brought home. 

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The Greek version of split favas that I bought on Crete.

If the package burst, I’d have little yellow pea pieces spilled among my clothes, but they wouldn’t stain or impart any lasting damage to anything. Collecting all the bits would have been a time-consuming task, but they probably would have been usable.

Fortunately, no calamity ensued, and the package took up residence in my pantry, waiting to be a rainy-day project.

I looked in a few cookbooks and online for similar recipes to the one we used in class. In “The Greek Vegetarian” by Diane Kochilas, her version finishes with a topping composed of sun-dried tomatoes, capers and green onions that is meant to be spread over a platter of fava purée. That sounds pretty mouth-watering also, and I might try it in the future.

But for now, here’s an adaptation of the recipe we made at our cooking class. You don’t need to stand over it the total time it’s on the stovetop. But I wouldn’t get too far away either, because if it boils over, you’ll have a mess.

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Fava Purée as a dip, with celery and carrot sticks, juicy slices of red bell pepper and chopped red onions. It’s also delicious spread on rustic bread or crackers.

Fava Purée from Santorini

Hands on: 10 minutes, plus periodic skimming of foam from liquid

Total time: About 1 hour, 40 minutes

Serves: 4-8 as a small appetizer

1 pound (450 grams) yellow split peas

1 medium onion (I used a red onion), peeled and quartered

3 whole garlic cloves, peeled

1 bay leaf

5 thyme sprigs, or 1/2 teaspoon dried (if using dried, add at end of recipe)

About 6-8 cups water

3.5 ounces (100 milliliters) extra-virgin olive oil

Juice of half a lemon 

1 teaspoon sea salt, or to taste

1/2 teaspoon black pepper, or to taste

Wash the split peas in a fine colander under cold running water. 

In a large, deep saucepan, place split peas, onion, garlic cloves, bay leaf and thyme sprigs, and cover with water.

Over medium heat, bring to a boil. Skim off foam as it floats to the top. 

After mixture boils, reduce heat to a simmer and cook until the peas are soft, about 1 to 1.5 hours.  

While peas cook, continue skimming foam as necessary, and add more water if needed. Stir occasionally so the peas don’t stick to the bottom.

When peas are done, reserve 1 cup cooking liquid, then drain the peas (you may have less liquid than 1 cup). Discard onion, bay leaf and thyme sprigs. Reserve the garlic.

In a medium mixing bowl, mash peas and garlic into a fine paste. Add olive oil until completely combined. Add lemon juice, and season with salt and pepper to taste. I like texture in my soup, so if you prefer a completely smooth puree, use an immersion blender or a blender, working in batches. 

If you find puree is too thick, add some of the reserved water. 

Portion into bowls or place on a dish surrounded by cruditiés. Drizzle with olive oil and serve warm. Garnish with chopped red onion, capers or chopped tomatoes. Serve with a wedge of lemon. If serving as soup, accompany with your favorite rustic country bread.

Adapted from a recipe from the Greek Kitchen in Athens, Greece. greekkitchenathens.com

Among the restored Bronze Age ruins at the Palace of Knossos on the Greek island of Crete

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A restored fresco of a raging bull adorns the West Bastion at the Palace of Knossos on the Greek island of Crete. From this view, the middle column mostly obscures an olive tree, but some of the branches are visible left of the column.

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.

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Part of the first floor of the Royal Apartments, with a flight of stairs featuring shallow steps and a gentle incline. Look closely in the upper left of the photo (behind the stone wall)  to see the tops of the columns in the Hall of the Royal Guard.

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.

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Figure-eight shields in the colonnaded Hall of the Royal Guard, which I referenced in the preceding photograph. The Royal Apartments would have been accessed through this hall. The shields may reflect the reign of the Mycenaeans, who ruled Knossos from about 1430 B.C. to about 1370 B.C.

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.  

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Mythical griffins guard the Throne Room, where a priestess may have sat on the alabaster throne on the right wall, flanked by stone benches. The door at the rear may have led to an inner shrine.

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.  

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The dolphin fresco in the Queen’s Apartments was re-created by British-born artist Piet de Jong, who based his work on mere fragments of material. The original fresco is in the Heraklion Archaeological Museum. 

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.

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The Theater’s wide, tiered steps and the location near the Royal Road could indicate that visitors were received in this area on the northwest side of the site.

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.

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Sir Arthur Evans was in attendance in 1935 when this bust of him was unveiled at Knossos.

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/