Knossos (also Cnossos, both pronounced /(kə)ˈnɒsɒs, -səs/; Greek: Κνωσός, Knōsós [knoˈsos]) is the largest Bronze Age archaeological site on Crete and has been called Europe's oldest city.

Settled as early as the Neolithic period, the name Knossos survives from ancient Greek references to the major city of Crete. The palace of Knossos eventually became the ceremonial and political centre of the Minoan civilization and culture. The palace was abandoned at some unknown time at the end of the Late Bronze Age, c. 1380–1100 BC. The reason why is unknown, but one of the many disasters that befell the palace is generally put forward.

In the first palace period around 2000 BC the urban area reached a size of up to 18,000 people.[5] In its peak the palace and surrounding city boasted a population of 100,000 people shortly after 1700 BC.

Spelling

The name Knossos was formerly Latinized as Cnossus or Cnossos, and occasionally Knossus, Gnossus, or Gnossos but is now almost always written Knossos.

Neolithic period

The site of Knossos has had a very long history of human habitation, beginning with the founding of the first Neolithic settlement c. 7000 BC. Neolithic remains are prolific in Crete. They are found in caves, rock shelters, houses and settlements. Knossos has a thick Neolithic layer indicating the site was a sequence of settlements before the Palace Period. The earliest was placed on bedrock.

Arthur Evans, who unearthed the palace of Knossos in modern times, estimated that about 8000 BC a Neolithic people arrived at the hill, probably from overseas by boat, and placed the first of a succession of wattle and daub villages (modern radiocarbon dates have raised the estimate to 7000 – 6500 BC). Large numbers of clay and stone incised spools and whorls attest to local cloth-making. There are fine ground axe and mace heads of colored stone: greenstone, serpentine, diorite and jadeite, as well as obsidian knives and arrowheads along with the cores from which they were flaked. Most significant among the other small items were a large number of animal and human figurines, including nude sitting or standing females with exaggerated breasts and buttocks. Evans attributed them to the worship of the Neolithic mother goddess and figurines in general to religion.

John Davies Evans (no relation to Arthur Evans) undertook further excavations in pits and trenches over the palace, focusing on the Neolithic. In the Aceramic Neolithic, 7000–6000 BC, a hamlet of 25–50 persons existed at the location of the Central Court. They lived in wattle and daub huts, kept animals, grew crops, and, in the event of tragedy, buried their children under the floor. In such circumstances as they are still seen today, a hamlet consisted of several families, necessarily interrelated, practicing some form of exogamy, living in close quarters, with little or no privacy and a high degree of intimacy, spending most of their time in the outdoors, sheltering only for the night or in inclement weather, and to a large degree nomadic or semi-nomadic.

In the Early Neolithic, 6000–5000 BC, a village of 200–600 persons occupied most of the area of the palace and the slopes to the north and west. They lived in one- or two-room square houses of mud-brick walls set on socles of stone, either field stone or recycled stone artifacts. The inner walls were lined with mud-plaster. The roofs were flat, composed of mud over branches. The residents dug hearths at various locations in the center of the main room. This village had an unusual feature: one house under the West Court contained eight rooms and covered 50 m2 (540 sq ft). The walls were at right angles. The door was centered. Large stones were used for support under points of greater stress. The fact that distinct sleeping cubicles for individuals was not the custom suggests storage units of some sort.

The settlement of the Middle Neolithic, 5000–4000 BC, housed 500–1000 people in more substantial and presumably more family-private homes. Construction was the same, except the windows and doors were timbered, a fixed, raised hearth occupied the center of the main room, and pilasters and other raised features (cabinets, beds) occupied the perimeter. Under the palace was the Great House, a 100 m2 (1,100 sq ft) area stone house divided into five rooms with meter-thick walls suggesting a second story was present. The presence of the house, which is unlikely to have been a private residence like the others, suggests a communal or public use; i.e., it may have been the predecessor of a palace. In the Late or Final Neolithic (two different but overlapping classification systems), 4000–3000 BC, the population increased dramatically.

Minoan period

See also: Minoan civilization, Minoan pottery, and Minoan chronology

It is believed that the first Cretan palaces were built soon after c.2000, in the early part of the Middle Minoan period, at Knossos and other sites including Mallia, Phaestos and Zakro. These palaces, which were to set the pattern of organisation in Crete and Greece through the second millennium, were a sharp break from the Neolithic village system that had prevailed thus far. The building of the palaces implies greater wealth and a concentration of authority, both political and religious. It is suggested that they followed eastern models such as those at Ugarit on the Syrian coast and Mari on the upper Euphrates.

The early palaces were destroyed during Middle Minoan II, sometime before c.1700, almost certainly by earthquakes to which Crete is prone. By c.1650, they had been rebuilt on a grander scale and the period of the second palaces (c.1650–c.1450) marks the height of Minoan prosperity. All the palaces had large central courtyards which may have been used for public ceremonies and spectacles. Living quarters, storage rooms and administrative centres were positioned around the court and there were also working quarters for skilled craftsmen.

The palace of Knossos was considerably the largest, covering three acres with its main building alone and five acres when separate out-buildings are considered. It had a monumental staircase leading to state rooms on an upper floor. A ritual cult centre was on the ground floor. The palace stores occupied sixteen rooms, the main feature in these being the pithoi which were large storage jars up to five feet tall. They were mainly used for storage of oil, wool, wine and grain. Smaller and more valuable objects were stored in lead-lined cists. The palace had bathrooms, toilets and a drainage system. A theatre was found at Knossos that would have held 400 spectators (an earlier one has been found at Phaestos). The orchestral area was rectangular, unlike later Athenian models, and they were probably used for religious dances.

Building techniques at Knossos were typical. The foundations and lower course were stonework with the whole built on a timber framework of beams and pillars. The main structure was built of large, unbaked bricks. The roof was flat with a thick layer of clay over brushwood. Internal rooms were brightened by light-wells and columns of wood, many fluted, were used to lend both support and dignity. The chambers and corridors were decorated with frescoes showing scenes from everyday life and scenes of processions. Warfare is conspicuous by its absence. The fashions of the time can be seen in depictions of women in various poses. They had elaborately dressed hair and wore long dresses with flounced skirts and puffed sleeves. Their bodices were tightly drawn in round their waists and their breasts were exposed.

The prosperity of Knossos was primarily based upon the development of native Cretan resources such as oil, wine and wool.[18] Another factor was the expansion of trade. Herodotus wrote that Minos, the legendary king of Knossos, established a thalassocracy (sea empire). Thucydides accepted the tradition and added that Minos cleared the sea of pirates, increased the flow of trade and colonised many Aegean islands. Archaeological evidence supports the tradition because Minoan pottery is widespread, having been found in Egypt, Syria, Anatolia, Rhodes, the Cyclades, Sicily and mainland Greece. There seem to have been strong Minoan connections with Rhodes, Miletus and Samos. Cretan influence can be seen in the earliest scripts found in Cyprus. The main market for Cretan wares was the Cyclades where there was a demand for pottery, especially the stone vases. It is not known if the islands were subject to Crete or just trading partners but there certainly was strong Cretan influence.

This also applies to the mainland because both tradition and archaeology have formed strong links between Crete and Athens. The main legend here is the Minotaur story wherein Athens was subject to Knossos and paying tribute. The legend concerns a creature living in a labyrinth that was half-man and half-bull. Bulls are frequently featured on pottery and frescoes found at Knossos, where the intricate layout of the palace might suggest a labyrinth. One of the most common cult-symbols, often seen on palace walls, is the double-headed axe called the labrys, which is a Carian word for that type of tool or weapon.

At the height of Cretan power around 1450 BC, the palaces at Mallia, Phaestus and Zakro were destroyed along with smaller settlements elsewhere. Only Knossos remained and it survived till c.1370. At the time of its destruction, it was occupied by Greeks whose presence is suggested by a new emphasis on weapons and warfare in both art and burial. The Mycenaean-style chamber tombs had been adopted and there was a mainland influence on pottery style. Confirmation came from writing after Michael Ventris deciphered the Linear B tablets and showed them to be written in an early form of Greek which was quite unlike the earlier Linear A. Sir Arthur Evans found the Linear B tablets at Knossos and, although the writing was different from the Linear A ones at Phaestus and elsewhere, he thought they were a development of the first and so called them Linear B.

Despite speculation that Knossos was destroyed by the volcanic eruption on Santorini, it is generally accepted that the cause was human violence following an invasion of Crete by Greeks from the Argolid, most probably Mycenaean. Knossos was still prosperous at the time of its destruction c.1370 with trade and art continuing to thrive. Reasons for its destruction are speculative but a likely one is that the Mycenaeans, now prospering on the mainland, decided to remove a rival power.