He could see me coming, step by stealthy step, as I moved towards him down the long driveway to the turnstiles. We locked eyes as I inched forward. One step. Now another. And another. He started laughing. And then he waved us forward. It’s not yet 8am, and the huge iron gates behind us are not even officially open, but we are allowed in; the very first on the site.

For the next thirty minutes or so we have the place almost entirely to ourselves. And what a magical place it is. Steeped in history, steeped in mystery, steeped in controversy, steeped in early morning golden light. We are enchanted.

I had first learned about the Minoan civilization, and Knossos, and bull leaping, in high school and it has lived in my imagination ever since. What kind of people have a sport where they come running at a bull, grab it by the horns, summersault up and over and do acrobatic leaps across its back? Talk about grabbing life by the horns. So to speak. And here I am finally at the cradle of their civilization, at the palace of Knossos.

So I’ll start with a Greek myth: Minos was the King of Crete. His wife had an illicit union with a white bull, which led to the birth of a Minotaur – half bull and half man. So Minos had an inescapable labyrinth built to house it. And every nine years, seven boys and seven girls were sent into the labyrinth as dinner for the Minotaur. Fun huh? Anyway Sir Arthur Evans, credited with the discovery and excavation of the palace of Knossos back in the 1900’s, and the driving force behind the site’s restoration, found the place to be so complex that it reminded him of the Minotaur’s labyrinth, and he named the civilization after the mythical King Minos. Some sources say he actually thought it was the Minotaur’s labyrinth.

To this day the true name of these people is not known, and interpretations of the site by Evans are challenged. He certainly had a lively imagination. Also he wasn’t actually the first to discover it. That honour goes to a local businessman and scholar from Heraklion named, appropriately enough, Minos Kalokairinos. Honestly, you can’t make this stuff up. Unless you’re an archaeologist. I believe they make stuff up all the time.

Here’s a short story from my youth: In the last two years of high school I was given a choice in art history; studying the moderns was mandatory, but beyond that I could choose to focus on any period in the entire history of art. I chose pre-Christian art. Why? Because I was dumfounded by what was known about stuff thousands of years old that they dug up from the ground. How do they know that? What if it’s not true? What if they just made it up? I was flabbergasted and sceptical in equal measure. And remain so to this day.

The arrival of the earliest inhabitants on Crete is dated to about 6000 BCE. Over the next 4000 years they developed a civilization based on agriculture, production, and trade. As island dwellers they naturally became seafarers, and traded extensively throughout the Mediterranean. The true Minoan period, regarded as the first European, and the first advanced Bronze Age civilization, began around 3000 BCE and endured for almost 2000 years before it was absorbed into the Mycenaean civilization. The palace of Knossos became the ceremonial and political centre of the Minoan civilization and culture.

Although it is known as a palace, the Knossos complex was more than that. It was also a substantial multi-storied communal building and administrative centre. With the city of Knossos adjacent to the palace complex the entire site covers 5.5 acres. It was the largest Minoan centre, and one of the largest urban centres anywhere in the ancient world. It included living quarters, storage rooms,

and working areas for skilled craftsmen. The complex has a large central courtyard. Similar courtyards are found in all Minoan centres. Was the courtyard used for ritual events? Is this where the bull leaping took place?

This reconstruction in the Heraklion Archaeological Museum gives us a much better understanding of the centre,

as does this artist’s rendering from Brown University,

but wandering around the site is a different experience. Arthur Evans poured concrete on top of ancient structures to create his reproductions. And you know what? I don’t care. Archaeologists are appalled. To them it amounts to sacrilege, but I’m glad he did it. His reconstructions bring the site to life, never mind that in one place he got the columns upside down. And unlike Elgin, who is condemned in Greece for taking marble statues from the Parthenon back to England, Evans is still celebrated because he popularized Minoan culture.

The controversies surrounding the interpretation of the various areas is evident in the information panels next to them. For example:
Piano Noboli: The great staircase and the upper floor to which it leads are largely Evans’ creations. Evans thought that it had a function rather like the first floor of Italian palazzi.
Kouloures: The function of the circular pits is not clear. They have been interpreted as rubbish dumps either for all the refuse from the Palace or just the left-overs from sacred offerings. Support has also been given to the idea that they were for storing grain.

The reconstructed rooms are hung with reproductions of details from the original frescoes.

Bull leaping was practiced by both men and women, and like much at Knossos the specifics of the activity are still debated. It is, however, commonly interpreted as a ritualistic activity connected with bull worship. Look carefully at the original bull leaping fresco.

It’s the best preserved of at least four frescoes depicting the same subject. You’ll see that they dug up tiny pieces of it, and like a jigsaw puzzle with most of the pieces missing, they recreated it by painting in the missing parts. And they’re ALL like this – all the frescoes are reconstructed from scraps. How archaeologists do this is a great mystery to me – the patience and perseverance it must take to create a believable whole from these tiny fragments.

Except for the room known as the Throne Room. Evans hired Swiss artist Émile Gilliéron, to restore the frescoes. Evans identified fragments of the original fresco as palms, then next day he decided they were reeds. Parts of the seated griffins were identified in one area, and a griffin’s paw in another, which Evans had previously thought was an eel. The controversy about the Throne Room restoration is that the frescoes arguably have no archaeological basis. Well they probably have some, and there certainly were frescoes there. The ones painted by Gilliéron make the room come alive, help us imagine possibilities, even if they’re not entirely accurate.

Along with shards of pottery, frescoes are often the only source of information about the world of the Minoans, giving tantalizing glimpses of their culture. Even if the restorations have been sometimes over-imaginative, the overwhelming impression is of their sheer delight in fluid graceful forms. Here are the Cup Bearers in procession,

and this is the Prince of the Lillies. He is elegant is he not?

But of course controversy surrounds him too. Evans decided he’s a Priest-King, but other scholars have variously named him a boxer, or athlete, or ruler making a commanding gesture. If you could see the sparse fragments that were found you would not wonder at all that there are so many theories as to who or what this person was. However all agree that the crown of lilies and peacock feathers had religious significance.


It’s time to leave. On our way out we understand why we groaned our way out of bed so early. Being alone, or almost alone, on the site there’s room to breathe, to take in the wonder of the place, instead of being shuffled from one area to the next, with little room to look around, take in the grandeur of the setting, or feel your feet on this ground that was so full of life so long ago.

And on our way out there are peacocks! We’d seen one earlier,

but a couple of them are there to farewell us as we leave. Peacocks astonish me, every time.

In the archaeological museum I’m thrilled to see the original bull-leaping fresco, and the snake goddesses that I learned about in school all those years ago. My art history books have come to life!

The snake goddesses are iconic symbols of the Minoan civilization, and were part of a collection of ritual objects used in the palace sanctuary. Snakes symbolize the underworld and the relationship of the goddesses with it. This makes some kind of sense, but the cat on the head of one is attributed to her dominion over wildlife. Really? I tell you, archaeologists make stuff up. And then argue about it. And I’m right back in high school with my fascination and scepticism, and the same enduring question: how do they know?

Of course there are many bull figurines in the museum,

and some exquisite jewellery that was found in an undisturbed burial in a Minoan cemetery that was in use for over 1000 years! The necklaces are made of gold, blue glass, sard, rock crystal, and faience, and date from 1400-1300 BCE.

Then there’s this:

This rhyton, or ritual vase, is considered a masterpiece of Minoan art, showing their stone-carving expertise. I would say it’s also a masterpiece of modern restoration art. Only the left side of this bull’s head, carved from black steatite, is the original.

Back to Sir Arthur Evans: the core of the controversy is not that the interpretations are disputed, so much as it is that a significant piece of Cretan history was written by a foreigner, moreover one who sometimes disregarded historical accuracy. But for me, even if somewhat inaccurate, Evans’ reconstructions give life to a place that crumbling walls of bare ancient stones could not. They help us imagine what it was like, and give us a sense of how it was for the people that lived there. I remember seeing an artist’s imagining of the Great Temple at Karnak with all the colours it would have had when originally constructed. It was magnificent, so much more impressive and attractive than the brown monochrome we are left with a couple of thousand years later. Evans’ reconstructions give us a hint of that. There’s a Facebook meme floating around along the lines of: Life is decay. You are expendable. You’re going to die. Eventually you will be forgotten. It will be like you never existed. The reconstructed Knossos reminds us that these people existed. And we get to experience a tiny hint of what it was like for them.

Full disclosure: I stole the title for this post from an article in The Guardian about an exhibition of Minoan objects recently held in England. I couldn’t possibly improve on a headline like that!

Next post: Back to Australia – native birds, or flowers, or the National Museum, or Australia Day celebrations. Still so much to share from our Dec-Feb visit.

All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2023.