Introduction to the history and archaeology of Knosós
Significance | Location | Excavation | Conservation | History

A brief history of Knosós

Destructions: a note.
Knosós, due to its longevity and location in a very active seismic area, has produced evidence for destructive events, large and small, throughout its history. Almost every period boasts a destruction and due to the fact that Crete suffers from a major earthquake roughly every one hundred years, it is logical that many of the destruction deposits of archaeological material resulted from seismic activity. However, human beings can be as thorough - and more selective - in their destructive powers. Some destructions could be the result of warfare or even attack after a weakening seismic destruction. Evidence for an earthquake will be clearest when we discover collapsed masonry and buckled walls, and sometimes, evidence for burning. However, efforts to rebuild and tidy up after an earthquake, a constant feature of Knosós, tend to hide many of the tell-tale signs. Occasionally we find walls doubled in thickness, a good indicator that this was caused at least by the fear of another earthquake. Any form of human aggression will tend to include burning, as this is the most immediately effective way of destroying a site. If the aggressors then leave, we should expect pillaging of valuables but no record in the subsequent archaeological levels as to their identity. There is only one point in the prehistoric story of Knosós where selective destruction by fire is followed by archaeological levels which include clear non-Knossian, indeed, non-Minoan elements. This point occurs sometime at the beginning of the 15th century BC - the end of the Late Minoan IB period. Thereafter, Knosós provides evidence in the form of new tomb types, new pottery shapes and decoration and, most remarkably, a new language, all of which combined demonstrates that the Palace at Knosós was under foreign control, namely that of the mainland Mycenaean Greeks. Many Minoan features continue, not least a freedom of spirit in art and a continuity of architectural design. After at least two more destructions, the Palace was destroyed in a huge fire which baked the Mycenaean Greek Linear B archives. The cause of that is unknown.

(Note that the eruption of the Thíra in the 17th or 16th century BC, however cataclysmic it may have been, caused no directly traceable damage to Knosós, although its effects may be detected in more subtle ways discussed below.)

The Neolithic Tell.
Knosós was first inhabited some 9,000 years ago at the beginning of the Neolithic period (Aceramic Neolithic) when a group of people arrived on Crete with animals and grain and the ability to farm, but without pot-making skills which, however, they soon acquired. The entire hill on which the Minoan Palace stands is a Neolithic Tell settlement - metres upon metres of occupation debris and collapsed mudbrick houses representing around 4,000 years of history. The most detailed information has come from the Central and West Courts as well as the area of the South House. Not only did the settlement grow rapidly, but by the Late Neolithic period, there were many farming communities throughout the island; Knosós, however, had been the first, a tradition which may have had an important effect on its continuing prominence until the end of the Bronze Age.

The Early Bronze Age "Prepalatial" Period.
During the Early Bronze Age (3rd millennium BC), settlement continued and houses became more substantial with a greater use of stone in construction. The best visible remains can be seen in the recently re-investigated Early Houses just by the South Front, east of the South House. A substantial wall of small stones at the north-west corner of the Palace belongs to Early Minoan III and may indicate the construction of terracing for a major building, perhaps a fore-runner of the Old or First Palace. Most of the remains of this millennium, however, were swept away when the more formal and grandiose constructions of the early 2nd millennium took place.

The 20th Century BC and the Expansion of Settlement at Knosós at the end of the Prepalatial Period.
Some house remains of the final phase (Middle Minoan IA) before the massive construction programme of the First or Old Palace can be seen at the bottom of the Koulouras in the West Court as well as south-east of the Domestic Quarter in the form of the Monolithic Pillar Basement. Basement rooms of this date were also found on one side of the Royal Road which led west up the hill to the Stratigraphical Museum Excavation. Here, evidence of occupation in the 20th century BC indicates a substantial expansion of the Minoan town. It may have been that this early expansion of the town was one of the catalysts for the foundation of a palatial centre to organize the rapidly growing population.

The 19th-18th Centuries BC and the First or Old Palace Period at Knosós.
Sometime during the 19th century BC (MM IB), a Palace (the Old or First Palace) was constructed with the West and Central Courts, East, North and West Wings, the latter including a long row of oblong storage rooms or Magazines. No evidence for construction has yet been found on the south side of the hill and it is possible that, during its first phase, the Palace was horse-shoe in shape, the Central Court being open to the south with a magnficient view of the sacred Mount Ioúktas with its "peak sanctuary". This phase ended in destruction by fire to be followed by even more building. Around about this time, a great cutting was made on the east side of the Central Court to accommodate multi-storied constructions which ultimately formed the Domestic Quarter in the New or Second Palace period. The first task here was to construct an elaborate drainage system of fine limestone blocks and slabs to cope with the torrential winter rains. The positioning of the system beneath the building indicates that a very advanced stage of architectural planning had already been reached. To the northeast, the Royal Pottery Stores were constructed as was the Magazine of the Giant Pithoi. The pottery stores were affected by another destruction, at the end of Middle Minoan IIA (18th century BC), which preserved masses of the very finest, handmade, polychrome pottery so distinctive of the period. Other destruction deposits have yielded important evidence for bureaucracy in the Old Palace period, notably in the area of the Southwest Houses where part of a Linear A inscribed clay tablet was found with clay impressed by seals.

By the end of the Old Palace period (MM IIB), we find settlement as far away as the area of the Hellenistic Kilns, some 800 metres southwest of the Palace, although it is, perhaps, unlikely that the town was continuous to that point.

Yet another major destruction appears to have affected the Knosós area at the end of Middle Minoan IIB or the middle of the 17th century BC. Little remains of that destruction in terms of archaeological deposits in the Palace where pottery of that style is often mixed with that of the succeeding period due to attempts at massive rebuilding and remodelling.

The 17th Century BC and the first phases of the New Palace Period.
The next period, called Middle Minoan IIIA, seems to mark a new era both at Knosós and elsewhere in the island. A new Palace was constructed some 30 kilometres to the south-east of Knosós at Galatás and a shrine was built at Anemospiliá on the northern spur of Mount Ioútas. In the town of Knosós, massive basements were built west of the Palace (under a modern house in the tourist area) and further construction is found just south of the Hellenistic Kiln area. The earliest lustral basin at Knosós also appears to belong to this phase, the Northwest Lustral Area. This is a new architectural period which only saw its fulfillment at the beginning of the Late Bronze Age since MM IIIA ended in a massive destruction, causing a temporary hitch to grandiose architectural designs. The destruction of the Houses of the Sacrificed Oxen and the Fallen Blocks belongs to this period. Rebuilding and new building continued to the end of the Middle Bronze Age when, around 1600 BC, a most massive earthquake hit Crete, leaving numerous destruction deposits for the archaeologists in its wake. Evans aptly termed this "The Great Destruction" by the "Great Earthquake" at Knosós. But more importantly for us, this was followed by "The Great Rebuilding", again an Evans term for the building programme which gave us the Palace essentially as we see it today. (The Temple Repositories with their faience "Snake Goddesses" may have been filled in after this event as Evans thought or after the next destruction described below.) The preceding Middle Minoan III periods can, perhaps, be pictured as the first, if thwarted, attempts to construct the New or Second Palace - essentially proto-New Palace periods.

The 16th Century BC and the Acme of Minoan Civilization.
The 16th century BC or Late Minoan IA period is the acme for almost all aspects of Minoan culture. On the broad Mediterranean level, this is the phase of maximum Minoan influence and presence abroad exemplified by the magnificently Minoanized site of Akrotíri on the volcanic island of Thíra (Santorini) and hinted at in the tomb wall-paintings of "Keftiu" in Egypt, and the Minoan-related frescoes at Tell el Dab'a the Hyskos capital of Avaris. In Crete, the arts and architecture achieve a sophistication unparalleled in the Bronze Age Mediterranean. The achievements are thought to be chiefly Knossian. Thence, they spread during Late Minoan IA to the rest of Crete - Palaces, towns and country houses. The jewel of this architectural style is the Domestic Quarter in the East Wing of the Knossian palace, approached from the Central Court by the magnificent and stately Grand Staircase. The Throne Room area in its present form was built at this time, gypsum floor slabs replacing the Middle Bronze Age red plaster floors. The Lustral Basin, first seen at Knosós in the North-West Lustral Area in MM IIIA, becomes relatively common in Palace and town alike. Pier-and-door partitions emphasize the ability of Knossian architecture to enclose or open spaces at will. The finest frescoes - monumental, relief and miniature - belong to this great refurbishment and rebuilding. Indeed, as the centre for religious, ceremonial, bureaucratic and economic activity, the Palace at Knosós had reached its finest hour.

However, yet another earthquake was followed by the cataclysmic eruption of the Santorini volcano striking two blows in quick succession to Knosós and palatial Crete towards the end of Late Minoan IA, around 1520 BC (an alternative dating places the eruption about 1645 BC: the extensive ramifications of this are too complex to be gone into here). No direct traces of the eruption are found at Knosós which was too far inland to have been affected by tsunami, although the harbour towns of Póros, by modern Irákleio, and Amnissos did suffer. A Knossian naval fleet would probably have been lost, if in port,and all the agricultural land along the coast would have been heavily salinated. This double disaster appears to have affected Knossian life and culture so that it did not renew itself with great vigour as before.

The 15th to 14th Century BC: the decline of Minoan culture and the influence of mainland Greek Mycenaeans.
During Late Minoan IB a programme of repair and restoration was probably put in place and many of the traces of the LM IA destruction removed. This period of repair may have lasted some time since when we meet our next destruction, no destruction deposits are found in the Palace, only in parts of the town. Some important town houses were not used in LM IB, rather being re-occupied or re-built in the succeeding Mycenaeanised period, Late Minoan II (Southwest Houses, Unexplored Mansion, South House west of the Stratigraphic Museum.) Features of the LM IB period are increased industrialisation, a concern for water supplies and a decline in architectural standards, most obvious where a fine LM IA building is repaired in a rough-and-ready manner and used more for storage and small industries. This period is one of decline in many spheres of Minoan culture and the fragmentation of whatever political structure had existed at the beginning of the 16th century. It is also a period which produced palatial styles of pottery, notably the "Marine Style", which had important religious connotations. It would not be surprising if an attempt to stem the decline of palatial power was marked by an increase in religious intensity, an archaeological manifestation of which is palatial pottery. The "Marine Style" itself may well be connected with a shift in religious emphasis after the eruption of Santorini demonstrating a new awareness of the power of the sea; if this is the case, LM IB would have begun within only a year or two of the eruption, a suggestion which is directly relevant to discussions of absolute chronology.

In Late Minoan II, a revival in Minoan architecture is apparent at Knosós. It may be a period with many mainland Mycenaean elements, but what little new architecture we can identify is purely Minoan in form (Southwest Houses) with an increase in the use of gypsum. Mycenaean elements include new pottery forms and decoration, new cemeteries, tomb types and burial customs, notably rich "warrior graves", and probably the adaptation of the old Linear A script for the Mycenaean Greek language. This Linear B script is only known from Late Minoan III levels but is likely to have been first used in Late Minoan II. It appears that the administration of the Palace from the second half of the 15th century into the 14th was controlled by Mycenaeans. Records deal with such matters as amounts of produce required by or distributed from the Palace, as well as mentioning religious matters such as offerings and deities including Diktaian Zeus, Mistress Athena and Poseidon. The tablets record no history or literature. Tablets and clay seal impressions were preserved in the severe fire that destroyed the Palace at a time when it surely played a major role in Cretan affairs and trade beyond. The appropriate historical moment for this destruction is during the years of maximum Aegean sea trade, in Late Minoan IIIA and the beginning of Late Minoan IIIB. The precise date of the destruction is still debated since no pure deposit of datable pottery is certainly associated with tablets and clay sealings. The date is important in that the removal of Knosós from the Aegean and East Mediterranean scene would have had major impact on trade systems. A date between the second quarter of the 14th century and the beginning of the 13th is almost certainly correct, although not as precise as we would like. The cause of the destruction was a raging fire that consumed large parts of the Palace. Whether this was the result of yet another earthquake and/or human agency is unknown.

The 13th and 12th Centuries BC: Post-palatial Knosós.
There can no longer have been a palace administration in the 13th century BC. As far as we know, writing skills were lost or, at least, no longer needed for the purposes of written records. Repairs were carried out to damaged buildings - doorways blocked, walls shored up or doubled up. New features are seen, notably rooms dedicated as shrines only. Previously, there had been flexibility in the use of rooms between the sacred and the profane with religious paraphernalia stored out of the way for use on special occasions. Now, we see rooms such as the "Shrine of the Double Axes" in the southeast of the Palace and the "Fetish Shrine" in the Little Palace, with religious objects placed on platform ledges for display. So-called "re-occupation" walls were frequently found during the excavation of the Palace and removed to give a clearer picture of the building at its architectural pinnacle, namely LM IA and, to a lesser extent, LM II-IIIA. Burials in the cemeteries change in that very few rich graves are found and there are almost no "warrior graves" of the LM II-IIIA kind. Cemeteries appear more scattered, perhaps representing more numerous small communities than the centralised palace and town of earlier periods. Part of the Knossian town appears virtually uninhabited, although in LM IIIC, settlement once again becomes dense.

During the 12th century, there was almost no occupation of the Palace site and its immediate surrounding area. Recent excavation southwest of the Palace shows a virtual break in occupation until the early 10th century BC. This is not true of the entire site of Knosós where, east and west of the Stratigraphic Museum, intensive LM IIIC occupation has been uncovered. Pottery shows close links with other Cretan sites, particularly in the west and south of Crete. In broad Aegean terms, the period sees a revival in sea travel and, perhaps, trade. That Knosós played its part in this is not in doubt. Whether it remained a leading settlement of Crete is unknown.



Bibliography - Knosós

Evans, A.J., The Palace of Minos at Knossos, vols I-IV (London 1921-1935). [Essential for the Palace and other buildings but also a great source for interpretations of Minoan society.]
BSA = Annual of the British School at Athens. [From 1900 onwards, reports, detailed studies and general syntheses have been published here. Consult the Index.]
Brown, A. Arthur Evans and the Palace of Minos. (Oxford 1983). [Fascinating short book on Evans's excavations using many unpublished photographs from the Ashmolean Museum archives.]
Evans, J.D., «Neolithic Knossos: The Growth of a Settlement.» in Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society (1971) 127-147. [Synthesis of Neolithic excavation results; otherwise look in Index of BSA.]
Hood, M.S.F. and W. Taylor, The Bronze Age Palace at Knossos. Plan and Sections. (London 1978). [The first stone-by-stone plan of the Palace; booklet includes history of excavation as well as archaeological history of Palace.]
Hood, M.S.F. and D. Smyth, Archaeological Survey of the Knossos Area. (London 1981). [Detailed map of the Knossos area as well as concise history of settlement.]
MacGillivray, J.A., Knossos: Pottery Groups of the Old Palace Period. BSA Studies Vol. (In press). [Pottery used to reconstruct the history of the First Palace.]
Panayiotaki, M. The Central Palace Sanctuary at Knossos. BSA Supplementary Vol. (In press). [Detailed account of the history of this important area through the orginal notebooks and finds.]
Pendlebury, J., A Handbook to the Palace of Minos, Knossos (London 1954). [Very readable guide with many interesting insights.]
Popham, M.R. and Sackett, L.H. The Minoan Unexplored Mansion. (London 1984). [Full report of modern excavation.]
Vasilakis, A. Knossos. Mythology, History and Guide to the Archaeological Site. Adam Editions, Athens. [Well-illustrated, up-to-date guide.]

Bibliography - Knosós and Minoan Crete

Alexiou, St., Minoan Civilisation (Irαkleio 1969). [Good section on Knossos]
Cadogan, G., The Palaces of Minoan Crete. (London and New York 1976). [Lively guide to the main Minoan sites including Knossos.]
Driessen, J. and C.F. Macdonald, The Troubled Island. Late Minoan Crete before and after the Eruption of Thira. (Liege 1997). [Only detailed account, including gazetteer, of Minoan Crete at its height; detailed section on Knossos.]
Graham, J.W., The Palaces of Crete. (Princeton 1969, 2nd ed.). [First work aimed at understanding the principles of Minoan architecture.]
Hood, M.S.F., The Minoans. (London 1971). [Good introductory work with stimulating ideas.]
Hutchinson, R.W. Prehistoric Crete. (Harmondsworth and Baltimore 1962). [Dry but informative survey.]
Myers, J.W., Myers, E.E. and Cadogan, G. (eds), The Aerial Atlas of Ancient Crete. (Berkeley 1992). [Beautifully produced volume with plans and photographs of the main sites, and historical summaries by excavators including Cadogan on Knossos.]
Pendlebury, J.D.S., The Archaeology of Crete. (London 1939). [Full and methodical survey of the island's prehistory up to WW II.]
Powell, D. The Villa Ariadne. (London 1973). [Informative and often moving account of the archaeologists and their work at Knossos.]
Shaw, J.W., «Minoan Architecture: Materials and Techniques.» in Annuario della Scuola Archeologica di Atene 49. (Rome 1973). [Self explanatory title and fairly up-to-date.]


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