helens_daughter (helens_daughter) wrote,

Writing A Historical Knossos

Knossos is both a mythical and a real place.  You can do anything you like with the fantasy Labyrinth and its mythological denizens without apprehension; no one will call you out for inaccuracy.

Knossos the real site, however, is more complicated.  Want to write a historical novel with attention to the utmost accuracy?  Here comes the bullet list.

  1. The Tell.  Knossos occupies a tell site called Kefala Hill.  A tell is comprised of successive occupation layers going back thousands of years.  The earliest evidence of occupation dates to 6300-6100 B.C., the latest to 1200 B.C., when the site was abandoned.  During the Minoan period, terraces were built, maintained, and reinforced to support the weight of the temple complex.

  2. Inland.  Many writers place Knossos by the sea, probably due to a bit in the Theseus myth where Theseus dives after and retrieves a ring Minos tosses into the sea.  Actually, Knossos is six miles inland.  Today it's a suburb of Herakleion, from which it's a short bus ride to tour the site, but in Minoan times it was served by two seaports, Katsamba and Amnissos.  There's not much to see of Katsamba because it lies partially under the local airport, but you can visit Amnissos, where archaeologists have found some lovely artifacts and frescoes. 

  3. The Palace of Minos.  The idea that Knossos was a royal residence comes from Sir Arthur Evans, who, like Heinrich Schliemann, gave evocative names to the areas he excavated.  A hundred years on, however, we have a different understanding of Knossos.  It functioned more as a temple/administrative site than a residence.  Did anyone live there?  Probably.  We don't have the upper stories, after all, and I can see there being dormitories for some, but most of its staff would have lived in the town surrounding the temple complex.  Want a well-documented parallel to Knossos for a better idea of how the temple complex system worked?  Look at the temple of Karnak in Egypt.  In addition to its religious sanctuaries, Karnak had administrative offices for various officials, workshops, and storehouses. 

  4. The Labyrinth. So Minos hires Daedalus to build the Labyrinth.  Here's the question: which Labyrinth? Notice that I'm capitalizing "Labyrinth."  That's because it's original, Greek meaning is "Place of the Double Axe."  If you visit Knossos, you'll see the stylized "horns of consecration" everywhere.  If you visit the archaeological museum in Herakleion, you'll see depictions of the ceremonial double axe, which is called a labrys.  There are at least three or four phases to the Minoan occupation of Knossos; the first, or Prepalatial Period, lasted from 1900 to 1700 B.C.  Yet much of the splendor we associate with Knossos comes from later periods; frescoes were not part of the original decoration.  So again: which Labyrinth do you want to write about?

  5. Daedalus. There's a Linear B tablet from circa 1380 B.C. which refers to the "Daidalion," the "structure of Daidalos" or the "structure that Daidalos built."  People in the 14th century B.C. certainly knew of someone called Daidalos or Daedalus who was associated with the Knossos temple, but who he was remains a mystery.

  6. Infrastructure.  Knossos had drains and light-wells to provide drainage and to circulate light/air, respectively.  Pier-and-partition doors allowed chambers to be shut against the cold in winter, and opened for light/air, and for ritual uses; these types of doors still exist in Crete today.  Chambers were small and dark, and lit by oil lamps which don't provide a lot of illumination.  Excavation has turned up a ground-floor bathtub or two, and evidence of privies; these tubs might be evidence of ritual activity rather than occupation.  In places, the temple complex rose four or five stories, and a conservative estimate gives Knossos about 3,000 rooms.  Some were sealed off at various periods, usually after a natural disaster, and not used again.  Yet to the Mycenaeans, who took over Crete circa 1450 B.C., the place must have seemed a maze, hence the shift in the meaning of the term "Labyrinth."

  7. The Mycenaeans.  It has long been thought that the Mycenaeans invaded Crete and subdued the Minoans.  Recently, though, this model has undergone some revision.  The Mycenaeans might traded with and even lived among the Minoans, becoming part-Minoan themselves; the so-called "conquest" might have been a more peaceful transition than previously thought.  So the old trope of Greek men/sky gods/evil rapists/killers versus Minoan priestess-queens/mother goddesses/good nurturers is just that, a trope that should be retired.

I think that's a good list for now.  No doubt I've forgotten something.  I still intend to write about Knossos again, but the problems in doing so--aside from my chronic writer's block--I'll leave for another post.
Tags: amnissos, archaeology, daidalos, heinrich schliemann, katsamba, knossos, minoans, minos, mycenaeans, sir arthur evans, theseus, writing
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