Knossos is situated on a low hill in the fertile valley of the Kairatos River, 5 km southeast of Heraklion. The first excavations were undertaken in 1878 and 1879 by Minos Kalokairinos, a Cretan merchant and antiquarian. Systematic excavations, however, were conducted in 1900–5 by Sir Arthur Evans and his assistant Duncan Mackenzie. Excavations are continuing to the present day.
Knossos is so far the earliest known settlement on Crete. The site was occupied as early as the Aceramic Neolithic (7000–6500/6400 BCE), perhaps by settlers who journeyed over open sea from the east (Cyprus, the Levant, and southeastern Anatolia). Over the following centuries, the Neolithic settlement grew. Excavation data provide evidence for household activities, including a full weaving and potting technology, complex exchange networks with other parts of the island and the Aegean, and the introduction of new drinking practices. These innovations may have increased household wealth and status and produced a complex social setting.
The Early Minoan settlement (3000–2100) was one of the largest and most prosperous on the island. Its best remains were excavated below the west court of the palace and belong to a complex that may have been a ruler's residence. Imported pottery and stone vases reveal trading relations with Egypt, mainland Greece, and the Cyclades Islands, as well as other parts of Crete. A monumental building was erected in the northwest corner of the palace in the Early Minoan III phase (2300–2100). Also contemporary may be the hypogeum, an underground circular structure, often interpreted as a cistern or granary, below the south porch of the palace. The data point to a social structure, perhaps run by a central authority, which anticipated the subsequent rise of the palace.
The palace was built in Middle Minoan IB (1900–1800) and destroyed, after many centuries, in LM IIIA2 (1370–1340). Its early architectural layout is not fully known due to intensive occupation. Over its very long history, the complex was damaged and repaired, destroyed and rebuilt many times. The current palace is a complex architectural palimpsest of different episodes of destruction and renovation difficult to reconstruct. Most of the layout is dated Middle Minoan IIIB-LM I (1640–1450) with modifications dated Late inoan IIIA1 (1390–1370). The exceptional size of the complex, its elaborate and unique architectural layout, sumptuous building materials, and superb wall-paintings, make the palace of Knosses a landmark in the history of ancient architecture.
Little has been recovered of the extensive town extending around the palace. Information on the Protopalatial town (1900–1700) is scarce. Tombs of the period have been found on the hill of Ailas and Gypsades. Field work suggests that the town reached its greater extent in the Neopalatial period (1700–1450). It covered 75 ha with a total of approximately 12,000 inhabitants. Knossos was the largest urban center in the Aegean. Well-built and elaborately finished houses were constructed close to the palace, while small houses were laid out in dense blocks further out. Poor houses stood on the fringe of the community, with cemeteries on the periphery. The excavation data highlight the great importance of Knossos. Although it is uncertain whether Knossos was the political capital of Crete at the time, as many scholars have held, it was certainly the most important political, religious, artistic, and ideological center of the island, whose influence extended outside Crete across the whole of the eastern Mediterranean. Knossos, it has been argued, was the "cosmological center" of Crete.
The town, though not the palace, was destroyed by a great fire at the end of Late Minoan IB (1450). The reuse of the palace and town after that destruction has been attributed to the conquest of Knossos by the Mycenaeans. The new inhabitants brought with them a different material culture and, above all, the use of Linear B, the first script to record the Greek language. Finds from contemporary cemeteries are also evidence of new burial customs. Under Mycenaean rule, Knossos became the political and administrative center of almost the whole of Crete. The Linear B texts from the palace bear witness to the intensive Knossos-based bureaucracy that controlled Crete. After Late Minoan IIIA2, however, political power was transferred to Kydonia. The most important Bronze Age town of Crete fell into decline. A few parts of the palace were reused and a small shrine, known as the Shrine of the Double Axes, was established in the southeastern part of the complex.
In the centuries that followed, Knossos grew back into one of the most important and flourishing cities of ancient Crete, becoming a Roman colony following the Roman conquest of the island in 67 BCE. The earthquake of 365 CE ruined the city. Heraklion began to develop, and Knossos was forgotten.
Kydonia, Crete; Minoan archaeology; Mycenaean society and culture; Palaces, Minoan/Mycenaean.
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