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Knossos: Definition, Facts & Discovery

Instructor: Grace Pisano

Grace has taught high school history in several states with a master's degree in teaching.

Knossos was both a mythological and historical ancient capital city on the island of Crete. In this lesson, learn about the magnificent palace and its discovery.

Imagine you are an archaeologist uncovering ruins on a site. You are probably accustomed to finding the unexpected buried beneath thousands of years of dust and earth. What if, as you clear away more and more of the site, you realize that what you are discovering is something that was always considered a myth, something that only existed in stories. This is exactly what happened at Knossos.

The Minoan Capital

Knossos was an ancient Minoan palace on the island of Crete (an island in the Mediterranean Sea). King Minos, famous in mythology for his wisdom and as a judge of the underworld, named the Minoan Kingdom after himself. Although sources vary, most historians agree the kingdom was founded around 3000 BCE and lasted until it was destroyed around 1450 BCE.

Location of Crete, an island in the Mediterranean Sea

Knossos in Mythology

For a long time, historians did not think Knossos was a real city. It was considered to be only a myth. The myths surrounding King Minos and Knossos vary slightly, but there are certain elements with which most historians agree. King Minos wanted a palace built not only for his kingdom but also to keep the dangerous Minotaur (half-man/half-bull who was also the child of Minos's wife) from killing the population. Minos hired Daedalus, a famed Athenian architect and inventor, to build the palace with an elaborate labyrinth (maze) inside. Daedalus built such an intricate labyrinth that no man could find his way out of the palace without a guide.

Knossos in History

Excavations of this site reveal that Knossos was destroyed and later rebuilt at least two times. The initial palace, built around 1900 BCE, lacked the labyrinthine features that make Knossos famous. Instead, it is known for extremely thick exterior walls, an indication that Knossos was often at war during this time. These walls also indicate that Crete was not unified at this time. This palace was destroyed around 1700 BCE and rebuilt soon after.

The second, more famous, palace was built in a way that promoted unity and prosperity throughout Crete. The exterior walls were less thick, and there was an architectural focus on ornate design. There were four entrances to the palace. All had long, meandering hallways (hence the labyrinth myth) that led to a court in the middle. This was the legendary spot where the Minotaur was held and likely where King Minos's throne was located. Based on wall paintings, many historians believe that the throne room of the palace was designed for the Snake Goddess.

Under King Minos, Knossos prospered from maritime and overland trade. Between 1500 and 1600 BCE, a volcanic eruption from a nearby island played a role in destroying the famed Knossos. Around 1450 BCE, much of Crete was destroyed by both earthquake and invasion by the Mycenaeans. Some scholars believe that the Mycenaeans may have used the palace as their headquarters, but there is still much to be learned before a consensus can be reached on this.

Discovery

Today, Knossos has been redone to highlight what Sir Arthur Evans believed to be the most notable features.

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