Life in Neo-Palatial Knossos

Houses and urban form; pottery

Map showing extent of Knossos in 1560 BC
(Click to enlarge)

The Second Palace at Knossos was surrounded by houses of the same period, which varied in size and complexity.

The South House, Knossos (1933).
(Click to enlarge) Max Parrish

The grandest houses reproduced a number of features seen in the palace itself. For example, the South House, located just below the south-west corner of the palace, was built partly of cut stone, and had at least two floors and a basement.

The house had rooms divided by pier-and-door partitions, a pillar crypt, lustral basin, and plumbing; one room had a wall-painting of a bird.

The plan of the house shows that several groups of valuable artefacts were recovered: a hoard of silver vessels inside the house, in the area of the pillar crypt, and an ivory griffin and lapis lazuli gem encased in gold from two findspots outside to the north. Though many governmental functions were probably carried on within the palace, valuable and prestigious objects did circulate beyond its limits.

Symbols and Motifs


Double axe, from side. Ashmolean Museum (inv. 1910.183).
Courtesy of the Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Several objects and designs clearly had great symbolic meaning for the Minoans - even though we may not know exactly what their significance was. Double axes occur in two forms - solid functional axes, and axes made of thin, almost foil-like metal sheets, which could never have been used.


Double axe, from side. Ashmolean Museum (inv. 1971.849).
Courtesy of the Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

The word in Greek, labrys, is old and may be semantically linked to the word 'labyrinth' (house of the double-axe). In the South House there was a conical stand for a double axe, perhaps like the thin examples already mentioned.


Steatite vase fragment from Knossos. Ashmolean Museum (inv. ae.1247).
Courtesy of the Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Horns of consecration have already been mentioned. This stone (steatite, also called soapstone) vase fragment shows a horn of consecration set on an altar-like structure outdoors, with a man walking (or dancing??) past it on the right, and a wall and tree in the background.


Faience figurine of Snake Goddess, from Knossos.
Ekdotiki Athenon

Snakes may also have had a particular meaning for the Minoans. This female figurine, made out of faience, holds a snake in each hand.

She is known as a snake goddess, but we have no way of determining whether she was a deity, a priestess, or a snake handler.


Rhyton in the form of a bull’s head, from Knossos. Height: 30.6 cm excluding horns. Herakleion Museum.
Ministry of Culture Archaeological Receipts Fund

Bulls occur with unusual frequency in Minoan art. This bull's head rhyton was found in the Little Palace, another grand house at Knossos.

It is made of serpentine with horns added separately.


Bull-leaping fresco, from Knossos. Herakleion Museum (1984)
Ekdotiki Athenon

This fresco was found at the palace itself.

It shows two women (pale skin) and one man (dark skin) involved in bull-leaping where one person grasps the bull by the horns, a second vaults over the bull's back, and a third catches the vaulter.


Fresco from Knossos. Ashmolean Museum (inv. AE.1707).
Courtesy of the Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Fragments in the Ashmolean Museum show a male leaper and a female leaper.


Fresco from Knossos. Ashmolean Museum (inv. AE.1708).
Courtesy of the Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

This ivory figure may also be a bull-leaper.


Ivory statuette of an acrobat, from Knossos. Herakleion Museum.
Ministry of Culture Archaeological Receipts Fund

The myth of the Minotaur may ultimately be linked to stories of Minoan bulls.


Marine Style vessel. Ashmolean Museum (inv. 1911.608).
Courtesy of the Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

And finally, marine motifs such as the octopus on this jar may also have had some religious significance, as vessels decorated in the Marine Style are usually found with other items of cult equipment.


The Queen's Apartments, Knossos.
Ministry of Culture Archaeological Receipts Fund

Compare again the dolphins in the Queen's Megaron.

Religious Places


The Tripartite Shrine on the west side of the Central Court, Knossos.

The Tripartite Shrine on the west side of the Central Court was mentioned above.


Knossos: Temple and Grand Stand fresco.

The Temple and Grand Stand Fresco is thought to depict this shrine.


Fresco of Sacred Grove and Dance.

It has been suggested that the West Court may have been used for religious ceremonies. The Temple and Grandstand Fresco gives an idea of what these might have been like.


Libation table from Dictaean Cave, with Linear A inscription. Ashmolean Museum (inv. ae.1).
Courtesy of the Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Outside the palace there were other kinds of cult places, such as peak sanctuaries set on relatively low hilltops with a good view of a major site and its territory. The peak sanctuary for Knossos is on Mount Juktas nearby.


View from inside the Dictaean Cave (1982).
Sphakia Survey

Another location used by the Minoans was caves. This stone libation table inscribed in Linear A (see below) was found in the Dictaean Cave in eastern Crete.

Entertainment


The Theatral Area, Knossos.
Lucia Nixon

The Theatral Area west of the palace could have been used for entertainment as well as for receiving important visitors.


Gaming board, from Knossos. Herakleion Museum.
Ekdotiki Athenon

And one suggestion for the location of bull-leaping at Knossos is the Central Court. But perhaps the best evidence for entertainment is this object identified as a gaming board.

Record-keeping


Libation table from Dictaean Cave, with Linear A inscription. Ashmolean Museum (inv. ae.1).
Courtesy of the Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

The stone libation table from the cult cave was inscribed in Linear A, a script whose language we do not know.


Two sealstones. Ashmolean Museum (inv. 1938.955 [blue], 1938.963[gold]).
Courtesy of the Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Linear A was also used to write lists of people and commodities; the Linear B script used by the Mycenaeans in the Third Palace period to write Greek is an adaptation of Linear A.


Sealing. Ashmolean Museum (inv.1938.1153b).
Courtesy of the Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

The Minoans also kept track of commodities in transit by using stamp seals. Seals, and sometimes sealings - the impressions they left on clay used to close vessels and parcels - have been studied in order to understand this aspect of Minoan rule.

Foreign Contacts


Ivory statuette of an acrobat, from the Palace of Knossos.
Ministry of Culture Archaeological Receipts Fund

As has already been mentioned, Lapis Lacedaemonicus was imported from the Greek mainland. The ivory used to make the acrobat came from either Egypt or Syria.


Fresco of Blue Monkey from House of the Frescoes, Knossos.

Crete had many contacts in Egypt. Some Minoan frescoes depict monkeys, which were not native to the island.


Wall-painting from the tomb of Senmut at Thebes in Egypt, ca. 1500 BC, showing Cretan emissaries bearing gifts (1967).
Thames and Hudson

This Egyptian painting from the tomb of Senmut at Thebes depicts people called Keftiu wearing Minoan kilts and carrying vessels of Minoan-type, included one decorated with two bull's heads.


Tell el-Dab’a: Water colour of fresco fragment with bull and male? youth. From remains of garden near Hyksos Palace, Egypt.

In the last ten years, fresco fragments have been found at Tell el-Dab'a in Egypt, in the remains of the garden near the Hyksos Palace, showing a young man in a Minoan kilt who may be bull-leaping.

Further Reading


  Author(s): Jack L. Davis, Cynthia W. Shelmerdine.
  Title: A Guide to the Palace of Nestor, Mycenaean Sites in its Environs and The Chora Museum.
  Year: 2001
  Publisher: American School of Classical Studies at Athens
  Published in: Princeton


  Author(s): Jack L. Davis (Ed.).
  Title: Sandy Pylos: An Archaeological History from Nestor to Navarino
  Year: 1998
  Publisher: University of Texas Press
  Published in: Austin


  Author(s): Yannis Tzedakis, Holley Martlew.
  Title: Minoans and Mycenaeans: Flavours of their Time
  Year: 1999
  Publisher: Kapon Editions
  Published in: Athens
on Minoan food and drink etc.