Crete 2: Malia and Knossos

At our first briefing from the Saga Archaeology group guide, she said that the Cretan custodians and guards at the sites and museums were all going on strike on the Thursday, so everything would be closed. So the excursions were all rescheduled. It meant that we would be visiting Knossos and Malia that afternoon, so she gave us a talk on Knossos and Sir Arthur Evans, the archaeologist who carried out the work there in the early 20th century.

After lunch we boarded the bus, driven by Nikos, who was our driver for the whole of the week. And we met our Cretan archaeology host, Katerina.

Our first visit was to the Minoan palace site at Malia. According to legend, it was ruled by Sarpedon, one of the brothers of King Minos, if you believe that sort of thing. It’s a large site, spread out quite widely, with some sections of it protected by roofs. Katerina took us into the most recently excavated part of the complex, showing us the workshops (ceramics, seals), and the conjectural wooden roofs. In an island like this, and with the climate then probably similar to the climate today, flat roofs would have been fine. This area gave us our first glimpse of a feature we would become very familiar with throughout our trip – the lustral basin. Essentially a sunken room entered via a short staircase and a dog-leg wall. The archaeologists think they were used for ritual purification, but I’m not so sure. None of the ones we saw had any outlet drains.


Malia is the third major palace in Crete, after Knossos and Phaestos, all started around 2000 BC, subsequently rebuilt, and all destroyed by fire around 1450 BC, after which the Myceneans took over the island. Like the others , it has Neolithic and Prepalatial artefacts and structures. Malia, however, is built on a provincial scale.

I was impressed by the ‘kernos’, a circular stone offering table with a central well, possibly for oil, and numerous circular pits round the circumference, one pit larger than the others. I’m wondering if kernos has the same root as our quern?


After walking along a raised processional walkway, we came to a group of circular storage rooms and a large central courtyard. On one side there is a group of storage ‘magazines’, behind a portico of alternating stone and timber pillars, square and circular. Floors were of limestone, mostly pale, but some were darker and much harder. They’re either argillaceous or more strongly metamorphosed by pressure. I saw one block made of cementstone. We saw the royal apartments – his and hers – and an odd building – the ‘diagonal building’ arranged on a different orientation from the rest, and probably Mycenean.


Next we drove to Knossos, not far from Heraklion. I suppose Knossos would be the highlight of any archaeological tour of Crete, so it was a bit odd to be visiting it on our first day. Would everything that followed be an anti-climax? But it turned out all right. It was startling at first to see the red-painted concrete pillars at the site entrance, but it’s entirely possible, given the pigments available at the time, that this had been their original colour. It was certainly the same as on some of the original frescos, now in Heraklion Museum.


It’s a massive construction, around 20,000 m2,, and as an administrative and economic centre it housed the ruler, officials and the priesthood. The range and quality of the buildings is incredible, and I didn’t find Arthur Evans’ reconstructions detracted – I thought they enhanced it.

Knossos_lustral basinb

As elsewhere, the Neolithic underlies the Bronze Age, but here it hasn’t been excavated because of the complications of unravelling original and reconstructed buildings.

Most of the building stones are limestone, mostly pale, but the dark limestone predominates in the central square. Where a whiter, reflective finish was desired, gypsum has been used, but it weathers badly, so it’s mostly been protected by concrete. At one point we came across a collection of porphyry boulders in a storage area. The closest source I know is Egypt. What were the rocks doing there?

Knossos_porphyry stoneyard

Several of the rooms have reconstructed frescos – the dolphin fresco, bull-leaping, the Prince with the lilies. They are stunningly beautiful. The ‘Horns of Consecration’ are a stylised representation of the horns of a bull. Large storage jars called pithoi are in the storage areas and elsewhere.

Knossos_dolphin frieze

For all that we were awestruck and amazed, I just couldn’t picture the lives of the original inhabitants of the complex. They’re too far removed from us by time and cultural differences.

Knossos_bull frieze

We finished our tour at the ‘theatre’ area, sloping and paved with flat slabs.


About sunnydunny

Poet, publisher, gardener
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