But soon afterwards the first 'Dark Ages' descended upon Crete and upon Greece itself. Perhaps this is why Greeks of classical times remembered nothing of Crete except a few legends – about King Minos and his great palace at Knossos; the Minotaur, a fierce monster, half man, half bull, who lived in the Labyrinth, a maze so complex that anyone who ventured inside was unable to find his way out again.
Most legends, however, have a grain of truth in them. After his brilliant discoveries at Troy, Tiryns, and Mycenae the wealthy German Heinrich Schliemann determined to see if he could find the palace of Minos at Knossos. But for various reasons he was not able to excavate at once, and he died before he could do so.
Excavations in CreteThe first person to excavate the site at Knossos was an Englishman, Sir Arthur Evans. He began his work in 1900, and continued it almost without interruption for 25 years. The result was astounding. He not only discovered the palace of Minos: he spent over £250,000 on restoration work, so that the present-day visitor can have a good idea of what the palace must have been like in the days of its splendor.
Knossos is not the only archaeological site on Crete. Other archaeologists have excavated a second palace at Phaistos in the south, second only to Knossos; and villas have also been found at Hagia Triada and Mallia.
A characteristic feature of all these remains is the complete absence of fortifications and defense walls. Evidently Crete enjoyed a prolonged period of peace. Probably it was protected, as the later Greek historian Thucydides said, by a strong fleet.
This great palace, survivor of many earthquakes, was finally destroyed by a disastrous fire. The marks of the smoke show that this happened on a spring day when a strong south wind was blowing. But what caused it? The answer is still unclear.
Cretans in wall-paintingsThe wall-paintings discovered during the excavations of the palaces at Knossos and Phaistos give us a fairly clear idea of what the ancient Cretans looked like – slender people, with black wavy hair and aquiline noses. Men were clean-shaven, and wore tight belts and usually a short kilt.
The picture to the right, of the so-called Priest-King fresco at Knosses, shows a young prince crowned with peacock feathers.
Fashions in women's clothing, as shown in wall-paintings, were elegant and remarkably similar to those of 1900, the year in which the paintings were discovered. Women wore low-cut blouses with puffed sleeves, tight waists, and flounced skirts colored in bands of blue, yellow, and red. Hair was long, in various elaborate styles.
ArtifactsThese notes refer to the illustrations below.
The bull was evidently a sacred animal. It has been suggested that this was because the roaring of a bull resembles the sound of an earthquake – Crete has suffered many times from these over the centuries.
The story of the Minotaur may well have sprung from this cult of the bull. "Minotaur" simply means "bull of Minos," and "labyrinth" "place of the labrys."
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