Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Why I loved the Palace of Knossos

I've long been interested in Minoan culture and history centred around Crete, so when we first started planning our trip to Greece, it was at the top of my list. We gave ourselves a few days on the island - ample time to explore the town of Heraklion and also visit one of my childhood dreams - Knossos, Minoan palace and home of the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur.

There has always been a lot of controversy surrounding the palace of Knossos, and specifically, the nature of the excavations and subsequent reconstructions by Sir Arthur Evans, the British archaeologist who unearthed the ruins in 1900. Evans adored Knossos, and spent many years, and a considerable amount of his own money, reconstructing sections of the palace to fit his interpretation of how they may have looked. The methods he used for these reconstructions have attracted criticism, and understandably so, although the time in which he was working must be taken into consideration - in those days the scientific method wasn't as rigorous as it is now. More aesthetically, a number of archaeologists argue against Evans' vision of how Knossos would have appeared in Minoan times, and have very strongly criticised his efforts to bring the palace partially back to life in this way.

Now, I consider myself a pretty hardcore archaeology fan. I will travel far and wide to explore ruins, and have planned trips based solely around one particular site of interest. Nothing puts me off - not pouring rain, freezing cold or burning sun. I research sites with fervour, and although my first love will always be the ancient cultures who lived within the ruins, I am also interested in the history of archaeology as an academic pursuit. I love it so much that one of my university degrees is in archaeology. And do you know what? I liked the reconstructions. I think Evans was a product of his time, and not only do they offer an idea of how the palace might have looked, they also stand as a memory to that era of archaeological work (whether that memory is positive or negative).

I've heard so many people say that archaeological ruins are boring. The most popular and over-run sites are those that are extremely well-preserved, whilst others languish, ignored and abandoned. Unless you are a serious ancient history fan, why would you want to spend hours scrambling over piles of stone, or looking at foundations or imprints in the ground where a building once stood. It's very hard to visualise how something might have looked, the scale and size, the colours and features, when you have little to go on.

Evans' reconstructions may not be the most accurate, but for the majority of visitors, they help with this visualisation. And these visitors bring money to the site which helps with future excavation work and preservation, and keep people interested in the Minoan civilisation. There are a number of Minoan ruins scattered around Crete, but most people will only visit Knossos. So whilst I can completely understand the criticisms (particularly with the way the reconstructions were developed), I don't mind them being there. If it helps people become more interested in archaeology, if they leave the site excited about Minoan culture, then they have done their job.

Anyway, enough about that! The palace itself is hugely impressive - vast but easily navigable with the help of the short snippets of information scattered around. The original frescoes have been removed (but are on display in the main museum in Heraklion, although it was partly closed when we visited), replaced by vibrant reconstructions. The throne room and queen's megaron are particularly interesting, as is evidence of the drainage system that shows just how advanced the Minoan civilisation was. We reached the palace easily from town using the local bus, and were very impressed at the security of the site - more than once we heard whistles blown when a tourist was behaving inappropriately, and all the main areas were manned by staff.

Knossos really fires up the imagination, and was everything I had hoped it would be, and Crete is a wonderful island to lose a few days - warm, friendly and interesting.


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