27 May 2023

Ashmolean exhibition in
Oxford looks at the myths
and reality of the Labyrinth,
Knossos and Arthur Evans

A reproduction of the Ladies in Blue Fresco in Knossos … part of the exhibition ‘Labyrinth Knossos, Myth & Reality’ in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

I was in Oxford earlier this week, and spent much of the day in the Ashmolean Museum at the exhibition, Labyrinth: Knossos, Myth & Reality. This is the Ashmolean’s first exhibition this year, and it explores one of the most infamous of classical myths and celebrated stories of modern archaeology: the Labyrinth, the Minotaur and the Palace of Knossos.

I have been to Knossos countless times since the mid-1980s, and have roamed around its labyrinthine passages, wondering whether the site represents the fantasies of Sir Arthur Evans or actually reconstruct the palace of the mythical Minotaur.

Was there ever such a thing as a Minoan civilisation?

Was it all a myth?

Were the Minoan people and the palace itself the fantastical reconstructions of a British archaeologist?

The current exhibition in the Ashmolean features more than 200 objects, over 100 of which are on loan from Athens and Crete. They are being shown for the first time in more than a century alongside the Ashmolean’s collections and the archive of photographs and documents that illustrate the exciting moments when the Palace of Knossos was uncovered between 1900-1905.

In Greek myth, the Labyrinth at Knossos held the Minotaur, a monstrous bull-human hybrid awaiting his sacrificial victims. The story remains one of the most enduring of classical myths and Knossos is now one of the most visited archaeological sites in Greece.

The exhibition traces the story of the excavation of Knossos at Crete and offers both an exploration of Minoan culture and Greek myth, and a deeper look at British archaeological history.’

The bull depicted on frescoes in Knossos in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

For centuries, travellers searched Crete for the mythical Labyrinth, leaving a trail of myths, misleading maps, and misread archaeological evidence until 1878, when the remains of an ancient building at Knossos were discovered by a Cretan businessman and scholar, Minos Kalokairinos.

The authorities in Iraklion prevented Kalokairinos from properly excavating the site. Crete was then under the partial control of the Ottoman Empire, and – until Crete gained independence – any significant finds were at risk of being removed to Constantinople (Istanbul). His discoveries attracted international attention, and archaeologists from various countries competed for the future rights to excavate.

Kalokairinos welcomed the British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans (1851-1941) to Knossos in 1894. But relations between the two men soured after Evans gained the rights to excavate the site. Kalokairinos later claimed that Evans had illegally excavated on his land near the Palace, but his case was rejected in court.

Kalokairinos had become a marginal figure in Cretan archaeology while Evans had been embraced by the academic establishment. Kalokairinos died that same year, having had no further involvement with the site he had discovered. The authorities in Crete gave Evans permission to dig at Knossos in 1900.

Descending into the labyrinth in Knossos (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Evans was also the Keeper or director of the Ashmolean in Oxford. He began his excavation in Knossos, outside Iraklion, convinced that this building was the Labyrinth of myth. He rapidly found colourful frescoes, clay tablets showing an early system of writing and even a room with an intact stone throne on which he imagined the rulers sat.

Evans dubbed this labyrinthine building as the ‘Palace of Minos,’ and established that it was around 4,000 years old and built during the Bronze Age. He popularised the term ‘Minoan’ to describe the civilisation of Crete in this period.

The exhibition features some of the finest Minoan objects uncovered by Evans, from everyday objects like decorated pottery to elaborate sculptures, many on loan from the Archaeological Museum in Iraklion. They are reunited in this exhibition with drawings made during the excavation from the Ashmolean’s Sir Arthur Evans archive.

Some of the drawings show the process of reconstructing the site and its finds, providing an insight into Evans’s controversial concrete restorations of the Palace of Minos in the mid-20th century.

One of the exhibition’s highlights is a finely carved marble triton shell, showing the skill of Minoan craftspeople and their particular interest in marine animals. Other objects show octopuses and Argonauts in the depths of the sea, or depictions of bulls, sometimes with people leaping over them.

Evans saw in these the origin of the myth of the Minotaur: some Minoan seal-stones show how these images of bull-leaping could be condensed into the head of a bull and the legs of the leaper.

The size and scale of the site meant excavation work at Knossos continued at times throughout the 20th century and still continues today.

A watercolour of the restored bull-leaping fresco panel (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The final room of the exhibition displays discoveries made in the post-war period, and many recent finds. These include objects verifying Knossos as the site of the earliest known farming settlement in Europe, established ca 7000 BCE, as well as objects uncovered in cemeteries and religious sanctuaries in the surrounding areas. These show that Knossos flourished for thousands of years before it was largely abandoned ca 800 BCE.

Among the recent finds on display is a spectacular Bronze Age dagger with inlaid gold and silver griffins, the first of its kind found in Crete.

The exhibition ends with the chilling discovery at Anemospilia in 1979 that appeared to show evidence of a ritual human sacrifice. This discovery by the archaeologists Yannis and Efi Sakellarakis challenged the public perception of the Minoans as peaceful and provided a tantalising hint of the Minotaur myth.

They excavated a building on the slopes of Mount Juktas that had been destroyed by an earthquake. Within it they found several human skeletons, one lying on a platform, and seemingly in the process of being ritually killed. Two others, a man and a woman, appeared to be carrying out the deed.

Other similar finds in other parts of Crete have confirmed this theory. Perhaps the sacrifices were a response to the damaging earthquakes that are frequent in Crete. Could stories of human sacrifice have been passed down from generation to generation and resulted in the myth of the Athenian youths being fed to the Minotaur?

A Cremation Urn (670-600 BCE) … this unusual type of cremation urn with its three looped feet is only found in the area of Knossos (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

After uncovering the Palace at Knossos, Evans tried to find where the people who lived there were buried. Although he found tombs, they dated from later in the history of the palace.

The archaeologist Nota Dimopoulou continued excavations at Poros, a suburb of Iraklion, in the 1980s. Under the modern houses she found chamber tombs, cut into the soft limestone bedrock. They contained valuable grave goods from the palace’s heyday between 1700 and 1450 BCE. Poros was probably the main harbour for Knossos in this period and the grave goods reflect prosperity from trade with the Eastern Mediterranean.

Since 1903, the Ashmolean Museum has held the largest and most significant collection of Minoan archaeology outside Crete thanks to Sir Arthur Evans.

This is the first exhibition in Britain to focus on Knossos. It includes over 100 objects that have never left Crete and Greece before, alongside discoveries from the Sir Arthur Evans Archive in the Ashmolean.

The exhibition also offers two immersive experiences inspired by Knossos. A Restoration (2016), by the Turner Prize winning artist Elizabeth Price, is being shown in the third gallery. The 15-minute, two-screen digital video is a fiction, narrated by a ‘chorus’ of ‘museum administrators’ who use Arthur Evans’s archive to figuratively reconstruct the Palace at Knossos within the museum’s computer server.

Visitors are also invited on a unique virtual tour of the Palace at Knossos as reimagined in the 5th century BCE, during the time of the Peloponnesian War, thanks to the digital recreation of the site in the Assassin’s Creed Odyssey video game.

Horns of consecration (1375-1300 BCE) … a number of these objects were found at Knossos and Evans regarded them as stylised bull’s horns used to define a sacred space (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Archaeologists continue to explore Knossos and its surrounding area, using the latest techniques. They have expanded the scope of Evans’s research in both time and place. Their discoveries have shown that people have lived at Knossos for 9000 years, making it one of the oldest settlements in Europe, although the Palace of Minos only existed for 600 of these years.

Finds from before, during and after the time of the palace provide a glimpse into people’s lives, and how they were treated in death. Over thousands of years, people must have told each other stories about Knossos which evolved into myths. Archaeologists may have uncovered some alarming grains of truth behind the fantastical tales.

The exhibition is curated by Dr Andrew Shapland, Sir Arthur Evans Curator of Bronze Age and Classical Greece, and is open until 30 July 2023.

Octopus Jar (1450-1400 BCE) … a number of these ‘Palace Style’ octopus jars were found at Knossos (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

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