Archaeological Museum of Heraklion and Palace of Knossos
Regarded as the first advanced civilisation in Europe, Minoan Crete dated from around 3000 BC until around 1100 BC, preceding ancient Greece.
The culture was named by British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans who excavated the ruins of the greatest of the Minoan palaces at the beginning of the 20th-century.
He took the name from the ancient King Minos, although it could justifiably have been inspired by the Cretan archaeologist Minos Kalokairinos, who had already found the site of the palace of Knossos before Evans began digging.
The best way to get a sense of the incredible thrill of discovery both must have felt is probably to visit the Archaeological Museum close to the bus terminal in Crete’s capital Heraklion before you take the 20-minute bus ride to Knossos.
Surrounded by rugged hills and echoing with peacock cries, the ruins are wonderfully atmospheric, but the museum’s contents more forcefully convey the sophistication of a civilisation that centuries before our own had managed to invent much of what we have and more besides.
Soberingly, its demise, the museum speculates, was probably due to internal causes. It had survived natural disasters believed to have been massive versions of the earthquakes that rock Crete to this day.
Minoan society reached its zenith in the rebuilding following its initial collapse and Knossos became a massive multi-storey edifice of labyrinthine complexity that gave rise to the myth of King Minos and his Minotaur.
Knossos and the other Minoan palaces, with their central courts and outer wings, led a transformation from Bronze Age communities to organised and hierarchical society. What remains suggests men and women participated equally in religious and social life, but it would be rash to underestimate the level of male dominance given the apparent worship of bulls.
They feature not just in the Minotaur myth but in breath-taking craftsmanship.
One of the most striking treasures in the Heraklion museum is a magnificent bull’s head rhyton, or ceremonial drinking vessel.
Made of black soap stone, jasper and mother-of-pearl, it explains Picasso’s fascination with the bull as art-form.
The museum also houses the famous bull-leaping fresco, showing an athlete leaping over a bull, which once adorned the Knossos palace walls. Modern-day attempts to emulate the feat have ended in death.
When they weren’t attempting, or possibly just imagining, the impossible, the Minoans busied themselves filling giant storage jars with grains, banqueting with the help of giant cooking cauldrons and developing writing and money.
They also crafted jewellery and the standout is from Malia, just along the coast from Heraklion.
It’s known as “The Bees of Malia”, although there is dispute over whether the two insects storing a drop of honey are bees or wasps. Either way, it’s a masterpiece and the “museum imitations” sold around Crete do not compare.
It was found not by Evans, but by French archaeologist and historian Pierre Demargne and it was in a tomb. Like the ancient Egyptians, the Minoans buried treasures with their dead, presumably to accompany them to the afterlife, but the Cretans favoured larnakes over pyramids.
The Heraklion museum has a rich display of these terracotta chests. They’re decorated with plants and fish as if to make the point death is just part of the cycle of nature, though I still found it chilling to imagine the bones of the long-dead that had lain within.
Barbara Lewis © 2023.