A Life in a Year – 16th March, The Theory of Atlantis and The Palace of Knossos

In 2001 I visited Crete with Jonathan and while we were there we visited the ancient site of the Palace of Knossos.  This is the largest archaeological site on Crete and was the ceremonial and political center of the ancient Minoan civilization and culture who once lived there.

According to Greek mythology, the palace was designed with such complexity that no one placed in it could ever find the way out and King Minos who commissioned the palace to imprison the hideous Minotaur kept the architect prisoner to ensure that he would not reveal the palace plan to anyone.  The architect was Daedalus who was a great inventor and he built two sets of wings so he and his son Icaros could fly off the island and escape.  Daedalus warned his son not to fly too close to the sun because the wax that held the wings together would melt but Icaros was young and impulsive and flew higher and higher until the heat destroyed his wings and he fell to his death in the Aegean sea.  Daedalus escaped and gave the palace plans to the Athenian King Theseus who travelled to Crete and found and killed the Minotaur.

The ruins at Knossos were first discovered in 1878 by a local man, Minos Kalokairinos, and the earliest excavations were made.  After that several Cretans attempted to continue the dig but it was not until March 16th 1900 that the English archeologist Arthur Evans purchased the entire site and carried out massive excavations and reconstructions.  These days archeology is carefully regulated and supervised by academics who apply scientific rigour (except for Tony Robinson and the Time Team of course) to make sure that history isn’t compromised but it was very different a hundred years ago when wealthy amateurs could pretty much do as they pleased and went around digging up anything that they could find of interest.

 

Evans employed a large staff of local labourers as excavators and within a few months had uncovered a substantial portion of what he named the Palace of Minos, at the same time applying the description Minoan on the people who lived there, although no one really knows what they called themselves four thousand years ago when the Palace was constructed.  In the Odyssey which was composed centuries after the destruction of Knossos, the poet Homer called the natives of Crete Eteocretans, which means true Cretans and these may have been descendants of the Minoans. There is much disagreement over the value of Evans’ work because experts argue that some of his reconstructions are inaccurate, unresearched and constructed from unsuitable material, including concrete. 

Unfortunately, it is probably true that Sir Arthur got a bit carried away with his restoration and most of the famous icons are largely modern and what survives of the original paintings amounts in most cases to no more than a few square inches. The rest is more or less imaginative reconstruction, commissioned in the first half of the twentieth century by Evans.  Most of the famous dolphin fresco was painted by a Dutch artist, architect, and restorer Piet de Jong, who was employed by Evans in the 1920s and the “Prince of the Lilies” is an earlier restoration, from 1905, by the Swiss artist Émile Gilliéron.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the scholars arguments I have to say that it does make the site a whole lot more interesting than just a few old walls and foundations and some of the experts have been forced to agree that in some places the concrete has actually helped preserve the original building, especially on steps that would otherwise have been worn away by thousands of visitors over the last hundred years.

We left the holiday village of Agios Nikólaos early in the morning and arrived in Knossos an hour or so later and paid our entrance fees.  Once inside we were approached by a local guide who looked as though he was stuck in a 1960s hippie culture time warp and somehow he persuaded me to part with €10 to join his guided tour.  This isn’t something that I would normally do but on this occasion I was pleased that I did because he provided an informative and amusing tour and we learned that the Palace had one thousand interlocking rooms and enjoyed the comforts of an elaborate system of water supply and drainage systems as well as flushing toilets, air conditioning and paved roads.  The Palace was not the home of one privileged individual but housed a complete community and included artisans workrooms, shops and food processing centres and it served as a central storage point, and a religious and administrative centre for the north of the island.

Even at fourteen, Jonathan was cultivating a mean streak and he became very concerned when two non-payers joined the guided tour and tagged along, he kept trying to draw this to the attention of the guide who eventually responded to the hints and asked them to pay up, much to his satisfaction.  Actually I think freeloading in this way is quite good fun so long as there isn’t a spoilsport like Jonathan around!

The Minoan civilization was a Bronze Age culture that flourished from approximately 2700 to 1450 BC but it came to a dramatic end sometime between 1550 and 1630 BC as a result of the eruption on the island of Santorini which is about one hundred kilometres north of Crete.  This eruption was among the largest volcanic explosions in the history of civilization that measured six on the Volcanic Explosivity Index and is just about as big as you can get.  The Yellowstone eruption, six hundred and forty thousand years ago, was the biggest ever and measured eight.  So this would have been a fairly big bang and when it went off you would probably want to be standing well back because it ejected an estimated sixty cubic kilometres of material as it blew the devastated island apart.

To get a sense of perspective try to imagine the county of Essex rising sixty kilometres into the air into the earth’s mesosphere (a terrible thought I agree) and you can get a sense of just how much material that is.  Actually it probably wouldn’t be such a bad thing if Essex blew up in this way, except we would lose Stansted airport I suppose.  As it happened, one hundred kilometres was not far back enough and the eruption devastated the Minoan settlement at Akrotiri on Santorini which was entombed in a layer of pumice and created a huge tsunami that engulfed the island of Crete and destroyed the Palace of Knossos and many other Minoan coastal settlements.  Archeologists believe that the eruption created a crisis in Minoan society (well I imagine it would) and with trade and agriculture seriously disrupted they were easily conquered by the Mycenaeans from mainland Greece who took their place on the island of Crete.

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