If there is one reason to go to Crete, it is to see the Minoan palaces and surviving artwork and jewelry housed in the fabulous museum in Heraklion. Aside from the museum and the proximity to the Knossos palace site, there really isn’t much of a reason to visit Heraklion. It’s a big Greek city with an okay (lively and pedestrian friendly) downtown, surrounded by miles of sprawl. Compared to the smaller Rethymnon an hour or so away, it’s characterless, dusty, and over crowded with cheap tourist trinkets and people begging for money. But the museum is definitely worth a visit.
The Minoans were a bronze age civilization that flourished on Crete from 2700 to 1450 BC – or for over 1,000 years. Much of the allure of the Minoans can be laid at the feet of British Archaeologist Arthur Evans – for good and for bad.
Evans is the archaeologist who excavated Knossos Palace – the largest Minoan Palace on the island – and the site where many of the amazing frescoes, artwork, and jewelry were found. To explain what happened to Knossos, it’s important to remember the times when it was discovered and excavated.
Knossos was discovered 1878 when Crete was occupied by the Ottomans. Archaeologists from all over the world had their eye on it (remember that at this time in history – archaeology was little more than antiquity hunting) but with the Ottoman occupation, the Cretans weren’t willing to take the chance of an excavation leading to the antiquities ending up in Istanbul. Time passed. The Ottomans made some effort to release the rights to excavate, but only under the condition that the Cretan owners sell the site. The owners refused to sell to any individuals – and kept raising the price – so it placed the site in a standstill.
Evans kept visiting Crete hoping that the situation could become resolved. Others gave up – including his mentor. He didn’t. After around 15 years had passed, he figured out a way past the stalemate; he set up a Cretan Excavation Fund (with his own money) and purchased a quarter of the site in 1894. By then, Evans was a middle-aged archaeologist / journalist with an acid tongue (his nickname was the pen-viper) who had been rambling around Europe.
He wrote copious amounts about the conflicts and politics in Crete, as they strived to end Ottoman rule. Eventually the Ottomans pulled out, and Crete became an independent state. Finally the stalemate over Knossos was over and when foreign archaeologists showed up to bid for the rights to excavate, they learned that they had already been secured by Evans.
Evans (and cohorts) started the excavation in 1898, and completed it within two years. Through his interpretation of the site, a picture of a peaceful and advanced culture with a focus on arts, sports, and infrastructure emerged – symbolized by perhaps the most famous fresco – the acrobat handspringing over the back of the bull.
Unfortunately, today it’s really hard to tell what part of the Minoans was Evan’s imagination, and what was derived from the archaeologic evidence. Even the various signposts around the site start with … “Evans thought this was ….” as if more recent archaeologists associated with the site are trying to distance themselves from his interpretations.
To start – he linked the civilization to mythology, applying the name Minoan based on myths of King Minos and the labyrinth – explaining that the castle configuration was labyrinth like. (He was not the first to link the Minoans to the civilization found on Crete – but he popularized it).
Perhaps the artifacts he found would have made enough impact on the world to make the Minoans, but what is clear from the exhibits in the museum is that much of what was found was reconstructed from a few fragments. It was like he took a few puzzle pieces, laid them out on a board, and drew in the remainder. The acrobat leaping over the bull was fairly complete compared to many of the other frescoes, and the museum has done a good job at differentiating the original pieces (raised) with the background. It’s not that way at the Knossos site, where reproductions are garish and a little misleading.
The frescoes weren’t the only things that were reconstructed with an ample amount of imagination. Evans returned to the site in the 30s, and was apparently upset about how much it had destabilized, that he poured copious amounts of effort and cement into not only stabilizing it (in places the palace was three stories) but also reconstructing. Only it’s pretty clear from the information boards around the site – that some of the reconstructions had more imagination than evidence associated with them.
Unfortunately the cement has not worn well, and much of the site is again unstable, but the reconstructions can’t be removed without further damage. It’s really a shame – good intentions but not a great result. There is a sense of “well at least people may be able to imagine what it was really like” – but the romance and mystic of Knossos is probably better felt without seeing the actual site.
Fortunately the opposite is true of Phaestos – a similar but smaller Minoan Palace on the other side of Crete – an easy day trip from Heraklion. The excavation in Phaestos left off any major reconstructions, but they did place a rain shelter over the King’s and Queen’s quarters, preserving an astonishingly exquisite set of staircases that leads between the stories. It’s simply astonishing.