The Palace of Minos


THE publication of the last volume of the great archæological work, Palace of Minos, by Sir Arthur Evans, brings to a close what must rank as the most complete record of the largest single archæological enterprise ever undertaken in any land. It is almost a commonplace among educated circles to talk of the ‘Minoan world,’ of ‘Cretan art,’ and of the hundred and one elements of Minoan life; but the story of how the unknown became a commonplace is as fascinating as the life of Cnossus itself. For before 1894 it would have been true to say that no single reliable generalization was possible about the long and mighty civilization in the heart of the ancient world that we now so easily call Minoan. The whole structure and history of that utterly forgotten age might have remained illunderstood, or only partly revealed, or, worse still, inadequately examined, had not one man, with a clear and penetrating eye, foreseen from the discoveries made by previous workers that there was a wide gap in knowledge that had to be filled, and then set out, equipped with all the qualifications of scholarship, archæological acumen, mature learning, and firm and determined forethought, to solve the problem of how to find the archæological facts which were presupposed by accumulated knowledge.

Schliemann had unearthed at Troy and Mycenæ a world which, at the first discovery, baffled historians and Greek scholars so completely that, in the early controversies, doubts were formulated whether what had been discovered was merely early Greek or an unexpected growth of mediæval barbarism in the Mediterranean. As late as 1900, Sir Arthur had to contend with a heresy uttered by the British Museum excavators of Cyprus, that the objects and culture they had there brought to light were probably of the seventh or eighth century B. C., and not, as in fact they were, of the Late Minoan Age and of the Mycenæan type already recognized at Mycenæ. Evans had long since taken the long view and placed in their proper perspective the varied discoveries of the Greek world that belonged to a pre-Greek period. One can now only with great difficulty imagine the situation that existed a generation ago. The march of exact and scientific archæological research has gone so fast and so far that the early gropings of the predecessors of Sir Arthur Evans seem like the discussions of those who believe that the earth is flat, while his efforts to correct them seem now as unnecessary as the arguments of those who prefer to believe that the earth is a sphere.

The emergence into the light of knowledge of a wholly new period of history previously unsuspected, or the material remains of a civilization not immediately identifiable, invariably provokes the speculation of those least competent to judge, and the new material rapidly falls a prey to the illiterate or, far worse, to the semiliterate, who should know better. The piecemeal acquisition of knowledge of pre-Columbian American culture, particularly that phase of it represented by the Mayas of Yucatan and Honduras, led to great outpourings of the wildest theories on the part of speculative writers. Before even the most elementary researches had begun, these theorists had already staked the claim of the Lost Ten Tribes and of Atlantis on the temples and jungle cities of primitive Mayan culture. Crete has fortunately escaped from the frothing waters of idle speculation and been dragged in to the safety of a solid shore by the simple fact that from the very start of research its hidden history was safely under the guidance of a scholar who, already fifty years of age and already an acknowledged authority on many branches of archæology, was far more competent to undertake the immense task than any other living scholar.

Evans had the enormous advantage of having been fully trained from his childhood in the scientific and rational methods of archæology formulated by his father, Sir John Evans, who himself was the foremost of prehistoric archæologists in England. Nothing can make an archæological researcher more proficient at his task than a meticulous knowledge of things and objects, quite apart from his actual training in method and historical studies. Evans had handled the vast collections of antiquities made by his father, and continued those collections himself. He knew the feel of ancient surfaces and could sense the detail of structure and fabric better than any other archæologist of his day.

This detailed knowledge of things, important or unimportant, is one of the few qualities which are absolutely essential to the excavator. One sees it in museum curators, one sees it in all good craftsmen, one sees it in doctors and pianists, in gamblers and in grocers. Schliemann made a superb archæologist because he had been a grocer’s assistant. The handling of innumerable groceries and the keeping of endless accounts equipped him with those qualities which professional archæologists should always possess, but usually acquire otherwise. Schliemann’s reports on Troy, his first excavation, are marvels of detail and accuracy, and reek of the grocery — as indeed they should, for excavation bears a distinct likeness to the reassembly of a scattered hardware store. And when Schliemann was excavating, learned scholars were scoffing; and when many of these scholars themselves excavated, the results of their excavations were so badly and insufficiently recorded that now their work is worthless, while much of Schliemann’s remains.

No matter how acquired, this flair for handling Realien is one of the prerequisites of excavation. The hands of the expert have fingers; those of the amateur seem to be solid lumps.


It was thus to the immense good fortune of all future learning that Cnossus fell into the right hands. It might have been excavated only halfheartedly by the staff of an institution, interested more in a pleasant season of excavation than in the vital problems presented by a new discovery of incalculable importance. It might even have fallen into the hands of a dilettante or an amateur. The whole site, with its countless treasures and secrets, might have been irretrievably ruined.

By 1894, Evans had gained control of the site of Cnossus and begun the preliminary researches so essential to an undertaking of such magnitude. Systematic excavation was begun in 1900, and, with the exception of the pause during the war, has been continued ever since. As soon as the war was over, Evans embarked on the equally immense task of a substantive publication of the whole site of Cnossus, together with a consideration of the Minoan world in all its aspects. The first bulky volume of the Palace of Minos appeared in 1921, the last has come out in 1935. Excavations reports had, of course, been published from time to time as the excavation proceeded, but they were in no sense a final statement of the situation, as are the volumes of this mighty work just completed.

The strange site of Cnossus was the key to the situation. Evans unerringly started work on the capital city. Within a short while of the commencement of his excavations, other scholars were impelled to add to the accumulating knowledge of this new civilization. Italian and, later, French excavators, and many British, opened sites of the same age in various parts of Crete. Search was begun to find out how far afield the influence and control of the Minoan world had extended, and further work was undertaken to ascertain exactly in what relationship stood the mighty citadels of Mycenæ and Tiryns to Crete. For these sites had been fully excavated in the mid-nineteenth century, and from their evidence alone it was not possible to find out their origin and genesis. It was as though an excavator of the future had commenced his researches into mediæval Gothic England by first excavating Hampton Court! He would start with a site too late and too different to enable him to envisage the earlier period, but not too distinct, nor yet sufficiently detached, from the Middle Ages to be wholly disconnected from them.

Now, in the new light shed by the excavations of Cnossus, obscure points were elucidated, and things gradually began to fit into their proper place. Archæology was at last truly scientific, for the essence of scientific method is that, as with Newton’s discovery of the laws of gravity, once the main hypothesis is established, minor difficulties are disposed of and a mass of unexplained data fall automatically into their proper place. In this case the main hypothesis that was evident after the first few seasons at Cnossus was that Crete was the creator and centre of a very long-lived and virile civilization. Here was revealed not merely a culture, like that recently found in India in the Indus Valley, nor yet an evanescent world like that of the Hittites, which lasted a bare five hundred years and then vanished as mysteriously as it had appeared, but a real civilization of high quality, equipped with almost all the main elements that go to make a cultured and intelligent life possible, and that distinguish what the Hellenes called ‘the good life’ from mere existence. Once it was known, as it was after the first few years of excavation at Cnossus, that Cretan life at Cnossus alone had a continuous history of two and a half millennia, with an equally long, or even longer, preliminary primitive history, it was obvious that Mycenæ and Tiryns and all the sites in Greece of that type belonged to the closing centuries of the Minoan development and were a mere postscript to a much longer story.

Cnossus itself was no unknown site. It had a reputable record as a small Hellenic and Roman city, but on its coins of both periods there stands, for all to see, the sign and symbol of the city, a maze design, recording the dim legend of the Labyrinth, where, as the Greeks knew, Theseus had battled with the Minotaur. And that was almost all that the Greeks knew of the great Minoan world, the account of which, us revealed in this series of volumes, would have surprised them as much as it did the general public when the first excavations began. But there was in ancient times some lingering feeling that Cnossus held more secrets than those preserved in legend. Evans shows how in the reign of the Emperor Nero an earthquake ravaged Cnossus — one of the innumerable earthquakes that have done this, the most recent only a few years ago nearly destroying the Museum at Candia — and how an ancient tomb was thus thrown open, revealing within a ‘tin chest.’ Passing shepherds searched the tomb, as they always do in Greece for treasure, but found instead ‘documents of gray lime-bark’ inscribed with unknown characters. They were later sent to Nero, who commanded them to be translated. The translation revealed that they were the famous history of the Trojan War, written in Phænician and thence transcribed into Latin for Nero.

Evans suggests, with probability, that the event was real enough and that a tomb was robbed, but that the contents were really those tablets of gray baked clay of which he found so many in the Palace repositories, the famous Minoan tablets that preserve inscriptions in the hitherto unsuspected Minoan script. The rest of the story can be explained simply enough. The experts ordered by Nero to provide a translation merely produced a longforgotten Greek text, known as the Trojan Journal, translated it into Latin, and declared that this was the record of the tablets; for obviously they had to do something in the matter.


Cnossus was thus a place that had interesting memories and associations for Greeks and Romans, though they would envy us for the exact knowledge that we now have of its history. And it is a strange and unusual site. A few miles inland from Candia, the nearest port, is a trough among low hills, with a stream running through it. In the centre of this trough is a hillock on and round which stood the Græco-Roman city. But that hillock also hid the vast Palace of the priest-kings of Cnossus, and it was there that Evans began his excavations, right in the heart of the most ancient city of the Greek Ægean. A few years ago I was standing with Evans in the centre of the great Palace and he waved his hands toward the surrounding hills that ranged themselves like an amphitheatre, hemming in the Palace area. ‘ On all those hillsides,’ he said, ‘that look down on the Palace here in the centre, were once the houses of the ordinary citizens of Cnossus. There is hardly an acre of that amphitheatre that does not reveal traces of Minoan occupation. All that I have done is to excavate the main central Palace and the buildings and tombs associated with it. On those sloping hillsides there is work for excavators for another hundred years. We know almost nothing of the town itself, but from the traces on those hillsides the total number of inhabitants of Cnossus must have been about 100,000 when the city and Palace were at the height of their glory, about the sixteenth century B. C.’

Most excavators are content to dig, to remove the most important objects and repair the ruins excavated roughly and then depart, leaving the site to look after itself. Evans saw at once that the remains of this Palace and its associated buildings would moulder away into rubble if they were left in the open air as they were found. For Minoan buildings at Cnossus are not built, like Egyptian buildings, of imperishable granite and limestone, but of the only local stone available — gypsum rock. This material, white and sparkling, has but a temporary life, especially when it has been weakened by long submergence in the damp earth. Thin slabs of gypsum, after heavy rain, warp like wood, split like chalk, and even dissolve in water. The surfaces soon get pitted and weathered. So he built a villa in which he could live on the site, and personally superintended the strengthening and reconditioning of almost every building excavated.

Those who travel to Cnossus will be astonished to see, not a flat area of ruins like Olympia or Delos, but a low massive building, the Palace itself, roofed, re-created, protected, to be wandered through as if it had never perished. On its walls are many of the original frescoes (though the finest have been removed to the Museum) and in its halls and along its corridors and staircases are the colored patterns and decorations that always stood there. In the royal throne room stands the very throne of Minos itself, with the low seat round the walls on which the courtiers sat. The Palace was overwhelmed by catastrophe when this room was filled up with earth and ruins, and excavations indicate that the catastrophe took place when some ritual of anointing was in progress, for an overturned oil jar and cruses for oil were found on the floor.

The grand staircase of the Palace is its most impressive feature. No less than five flights of steps have been preserved, and the mighty columns beside the stairs have been restored. On the walls replicas of the frescoes are placed, and as the visitor winds round the great stairs he is living in the very atmosphere of the Cretan world.

Outside the Palace are its ceremonial approaches, with paved ways and entrance portals. But there are other buildings which have been excavated, and of these the principal is what is called the Little Palace. This is the second largest building excavated at Cnossus. Next to it lies a larger building, as yet unexplored.

South of the Palace, on the southern road to the sea, lie the most recent discoveries of all — a massive viaduct, along which the road ran, and near it a hostelry for travelers, excavated only in the last few years. Near by is the last discovery of all, perhaps the most important — the great temple tomb of Cnossus, in which was buried the last king. Many of the objects buried with him were found, and parts of his skeleton, but the tomb had been robbed. It consists of a deep vault for the burial, with a temple for ceremonies and services above the royal resting place.

This was indeed an appropriate conclusion to the long years of excavation. Cnossus has never failed its discoverer in surprises, and this, perhaps the most remarkable of all, has brought the main excavations to a close, with the conclusion of the book. Its finding was fittingly mysterious. Evans records how a Greek boy, bringing his father’s midday meal in 1930 to a secluded corner in the Cnossian hillside, picked up a ‘bright object on the tilled earth beside a vine, which turned out to be a massive gold signet ring.’ The ring was shown to Evans, who promptly had a replica made of it. It was then purchased from the boy’s father by a priest of unbalanced mind, who now tells inquirers that his wife had ‘buried it and forgotten where’! Science, however, has not suffered, for the replica of the ring survives. But this odd discovery suggested to Evans that the region should be investigated. His trial excavations in the vicinity resulted in the discovery of this royal tomb. Probably, when the tomb was robbed in antiquity, the robber in escaping dropped this gold ring, which had been worn by the skeleton whose broken remnants were found inside the tomb.

Such are the main buildings of Cnossus. The ordinary accidents and excitements of research are almost a commonplace in Crete. Sometimes they have not been accidents of good fortune. Evans recounts how, on the occasion of one of the largest and most important discoveries of inscribed tablets in the Palace, a group of tablets was removed carefully in one close batch from the earth and transferred to an old Turkish house which in the early days served as a headquarters. ‘But a torrential storm that came on in the night poured through our rotten thatch and inundated the tray containing the tablets. When the mischief was discovered it was too late and they had been reduced to a pulpy mass.’


The non-specialist will ask, ‘What does it all amount to? Here is this splendid palace restored and preserved so skillfully that now Cnossus is a place of pilgrimage and the home of more marvels than any site in the Ægean. But exactly how much does the discovery of the Minoan world contribute to the general advancement of history in particular and education in general?’

To this there can be given only one answer. Once a civilization is tolerably well understood and once its main contributions to posterity have been assessed, further investigation is to be ranked as mere luxury, unless there are certain vital matters which still can be solved only by the archæologist. As an example I can take Roman Britain. Some three generations of archæologists have labored at the study of Roman Britain, and now there is hardly anything more left to find out. Further research is thus in the nature of a useful luxury which is not absolutely necessary for the study of the subject or for the enlargement of history As a consequence Romano-British archæologists have now largely turned their attention to Celtic pre-Roman Britain. But Evans’s work in Crete presented the world with a complex and complete civilization the very existence of which was, previous to his excavations, in doubt and dispute. Nor can it be classed as a civilization the study of which contributes but little to our improvement. On the contrary, a study of the elegant and sophisticated life of the Cretans fills us with astonishment that so fine a culture could vanish so utterly; for the character of the Cretan world was unusual.

As a result of this long campaign of excavation it is now possible to recreate a very full idea of the religion of the Minoans; of their art and their craftsmanship; of their architecture; and even of their social organization some small smattering — but politics do not leave many material traces behind them for such matter-of-fact people as archæologists to discover.

From their remains we can reconstruct the daily life and pursuits of Minoans, both royal and commoner. What we find is surprising. Minoan life seems to have differed profoundly from life in Egypt or Babylonia, or indeed in any other part of the ancient world. It had none of the rigid religious autocracy and traditionalism of Egypt, none of the heavy and rather sordid materialism of Sumer and Babylonia. Minoans lived in the world that was more extensively occupied by Babylonians and Egyptians and other semiOriental peoples, but there seems to have been little that could be called Oriental or even semi-Oriental about them. Life in Cnossus, as we conceive it, was gay and light-hearted and excessively refined. Minoan religion, as Evans has wisely pointed out, had none of the gross elements and obscene practices so often associated with Oriental life. In his own words: ‘From the beginning to the end of Minoan art, among all its manifold relics, — from its earliest to its latest phase, — not a single example has been brought to light of any subject of an indecorous nature.’ And this can be said of no other religion in the world, except Christianity, and even there some examples of mediæval Christian art are too cruel and brutal for general consumption. Minoan religion seems to have been largely a monotheistic cult in which the female form of divinity was predominant.

In social organization it is impossible to be precise. Probably Cretan life was organized on an aristocratic basis. But women were everywhere the equal of men, perhaps in some cases superior to them, and matriarchy seems to have been the basis of family organization. There are three large palaces now known in Crete — at Cnossus, Phæstus, and Malea. There may be others. Crete may have been divided into cantons, under the supreme control of Cnossus, which held by far the largest palace and city.

Architecturally, Minoans were skillful enough to build themselves palaces three stories in height of stone, served by a drainage system as complicated and scientific as any Roman system, lit by an ingenious arrangement of light wells that diffused the light everywhere. The smaller houses of the ordinary people seem to have been much the same as the charming houses with colored walls and flat roofs that one sees to-day on every Greek island of the archipelago.

They were not bad engineers, and built stone-paved roads and bridges. They also made harbors on the stormy coast of north Crete and built ships sufficiently seaworthy to maintain trade with Egypt for many centuries and to clear the Ægean of pirates.

It is refreshing in times like these, when armies march and countermarch throughout Europe, to know that the Minoans appear to have been able to dispense almost entirely with troops, except for a royal guard which seems to have been largely ceremonial. Their weapons alone show that they were not highly or competently equipped for war, for they would have been of but little use against their better-armed neighbors. But the Minoans relied largely on their island position and their ships for defense, as well as on the fact that none of their neighbors seem to have coveted their island. Their power collapsed only when it came into contact with warlike and envious Europeans who surged down into Greece and thence moved over to destroy Crete.

Of their literature and language we know, alas, almost nothing. Of the large total of several thousand inscribed tablets found at Cnossus no single one can be read. The clue to the Minoan tongue still awaits discovery. Here, perhaps, is the most tantalizing problem of all the revelations recorded in these volumes. Evans was able to find these tablets actually arranged as they had originally been placed in their library. They had been arranged on shelves like modern books, with indications of their contents marked on the back of each tablet. Probably there was a mass of written material on papyrus or vellum which has perished.

But it is in the discovery of Minoan art that the world is enriched. For, even if all else is lost, the art of a vanished people is by far the clearest clue to their mentality and their standards of life. The art of the Minoans was revealed to the world slowly and steadily, and now at last in these volumes we have the complete material for study. Fresco paintings over a long range of time show the growth and decline of the art of painting, so that, amazingly enough, we know more about Minoan painters than we do about Hellenic (excluding the indirect knowledge acquired of classical painting through the medium of vase decoration). Sculpture is represented by superbly rendered ivory figures and bronzes, and by the designs cut in relief on architectural cornices and friezes of buildings. Pottery of every period shows the change and movement of national style.

The actual fabric of some of the ceramic is technically amazing. The glass-thin cups of the Middle Minoan age, rivaling ostrich eggs in smoothness and thinness, in three colors, exquisite of form and delightfully decorated, can rank as one of the finest products of the potter’s wheel ever manufactured. In contrast, the mighty Ali Baba oil jars of the Palace cellars, which still stand in long rows, almost perfect, as they once stood over three and a half thousand years ago, rank among the most massive and colossal works of the potter. They could only have been made by one who, in the final stages, actually had to climb inside the pot to finish it off.

Perhaps in gem carving the Minoan artist found the field that suited him best, and here we see most clearly his strange and exquisite artistic outlook. Technically the cutting of the gems is as good as that of any age, and the semiprecious stones the cutter selected are always charming and never garish. He preferred the half tones and light colors of pale chalcedonies and agates and carnelians. The designs give an epitome of the Minoan taste and outlook. The Minoan artist, here and in his frescoes, seems to be the only artist in antiquity who saw nature with an impressionistic eye and appreciated the varied scenes and incidents from natural life, as well as the humanistic scenes from the daily life of men. He selected momentary pictures and fixed them forever in a painting or a gem design.

One gem shows a fish diving among seaweeds and turning to the front, as though it were looking through the glass of an aquarium; another shows three swans moving gently along the rippling surface of a river; a third, a pair of swans surprised and alarmed in a papyrus thicket. One superb gem shows an astonishing scene: a great bull is climbing with its forefeet on to the edge of a water tank to drink; as it drinks, unsuspecting, a toreador takes a flying leap, from some rock or cliff above, on to its back between its horns. Another shows a wild goat standing on an inaccessible ledge of rock looking down unalarmed at a dog barking frantically, unable to reach it. These pictures perhaps enshrine fables and children’s tales of animals from some Minoan Æsop.

The varied fish of the sea and sea plants, all wild beasts and fowl, the bulls and toreadors of the Minoan bull ring, men and women singing and dancing — all these selected subjects indicate the wide and sympathetic outlook of the Minoan artist on life and his skill at rendering what he saw with fidelity, and yet with those elements of impressionism that remove his achievements from the sphere of the merely pictorial or representative. There is a light and flowery touch to all Minoan art that one finds nowhere else in the Orient.

‘This power of imaginative interpretation,’ says E. J. Forsdyke, in his Minoan Art, ‘existed in Minoan art alone, so far as we can tell, in the ancient world. It is the more remarkable because the Cretans were in close contact with the older and more accomplished cultures of Mesopotamia and Egypt and took much from them on the material side. But the Minoan genius refused the limitations of their prudent genius.’

In representations of humans, the ivory figures can take the first place. But the famous carved stone vase bearing a design of a procession of harvesters led by priests is an outstanding work of art. The figures are two and four deep in the relief and seem to move slowly. ‘Solemnity, gayety, movement, even noise are freely rendered. The only monument of classical Greek sculpture which can compare with this in composition is the procession of horsemen in the frieze of the Parthenon,’ to quote a further passage from the authority above referred to.

Minoans were in no sense Greeks by race or outlook. As far as we know, their place of origin was Asia, — the Middle East, — whence in some remote and dim age they moved across the Ægean to their island. They seem also to have had contacts with Libya. But they founded a strange and lovely civilization, devoted to the arts of peace, in the region that later was to produce the Greeks and their genius. They perished and were forgotten, and then the Greeks came. But in the ruin that followed the decline of the Minoan world there must have survived stray seeds of the Minoan genius. Ruins of their palaces and half-destroyed frescoes on the walls must still have been standing when the barbarous newcomers of Greece roamed the land. Strange fairy tales of palaces and kings and lovely ladies were handed on from generation to generation. Here and there in the soil a Greek would pick up some gem or ring, just as the peasant boy did in 1930 at Cnossus.

To Greeks, always ready for new ideas, always willing to be stimulated into artistic activity, these things were suggestions and hints. Greek art belongs to a completely different world from Minoan art, and yet the fact that the Greeks so rapidly became artists may in part be due to the fact that they were living in a region where art had flourished and flowered as amazingly as anywhere in the ancient world. ‘You never cross the same river twice,’ said Heraclitus. But once you have crossed it you know its varied currents and come back to it experienced.

The revelation of the Minoan world in all its complexities and detail, with all its skill and beauty, must always rank as the greatest achievement of modern scientific archæology. Some excavations reveal cultures that add nothing at all to our knowledge of art and beauty, like the cultures of Palestine, where no ancient site has yet produced a single native work of art of any merit whatsoever. Such excavations have only a historical value. Other cultures, like that of the Aztec, reveal an art, stern and lovely, but indicative of indescribable cruelty and barbarism. Others still refashion for us a world where mere comfort and safety of daily life were the objectives of the people, like the culture of the Indus Valley. But Crete proves to be an enchanted island where there was almost nothing sordid or grossly material, where the main brutalities of existence were forgotten and life was happy. We have no reason to think that the Minoans attached much importance to the more massive virtues that distinguished Roman life, but they seem equally to have avoided Roman brutalities. Even the Minoan bull ring does not seem to have involved the death of the bull.

New worlds of the forgotten past are not easily found, and when found may often disappoint their finders. Cnossus, to its excavator, must have been a perpetual refreshment and inspiration.