The place has a magic aura. Just say “the Palace of Knossos,” and millions of people with a mythical or historical bent emit a mental, “Ahhhhh.” Present day goddess worshippers view Knossos as a shining example, and armchair historians mourn that it suffered physical ruin from the volcanic eruption around 1450 B.C. on the nearby island of Thera (today’s Santorini), which some believe to be the source of the Atlantis legend.
And at least a million people a year love the idea of Knossos so much that they journey all the way to Crete to visit this ancient wonder.
But most would be surprised that almost everything they believe about Knossos is probably mistaken in some way. Professor Carl Knappett of the University of Toronto, in his lecture last Wednesday entitled, “Knossos: New Light on a Bronze Age Superpower,” contradicted some of those beliefs during his whirlwind tour of the site’s history, before advancing his own theory about what really brought it down.
For example: the symbols usually connected to the idea of goddess worship (the bare-breasted woman holding the snakes, the double-bladed axe, and the bull) occurred at different periods in the history of the site. Even the fascinating frescoes — the “bull vaulters,” for example — are from a fairly late period.
But what shocked me — sensationalist TV documentaries notwithstanding — was that the Thera eruption did not directly affect Knossos. It created no earthquake on Crete. No rain of volcanic ash. And certainly no tsunami that could have reached the site, kilometres inland. Yet Knossos did fall for a while, not long afterward, and even though it rose again, it never had the same power or influence it had had for centuries before the eruption. So…did the Thera volcano cause this fall, or didn’t it?
No, and yes, according to Knappett. No, there was no direct physical destruction. Instead there was severe trade disruption, and a loss of confidence in the leadership of Knossos.
The “palace” was more a vast administrative complex, cult centre, and storage centre, with whole additional wings of rooms whose use is still uncertain. In the period of about 1700-1500 B.C., evidence shows that Knossos exported goods all over the Greek islands, even possibly to the mainland and to Anatolia. Goods from those areas appear in Knossos, and nowhere else on Crete, so clearly the trade returned as well. At the same time, Knossos did control or influence much of Crete itself.
Knappett says there was essentially a trade network, like a complex web, with Knossos at the centre and all lines going outward and returning. But while this network was the source of its power, it was also subsequently the source of the downfall. Because the central hub through which most of these lines passed, on their way to and from Knossos, was Akrotiri.
Akrotiri — on the island of Thera.
And that’s where the volcano does come in. Because as Knappett has discovered using physics models, if you remove Akrotiri, the primary node in the network, Knossos has few trade avenues left. This would have been a shattering blow, and while life and habitation continued after the volcano, there was little time to try to develop other lines of trade. Because within a generation afterward, most sites on Crete were destroyed and burned.
This brings Knappett to a possible secondary reason for the fall of Knossos. A few years after the eruption, Cretan pottery exhibited a new “marine” quality, decorated with sea creatures. Knappett speculates that perhaps a tsunami affected the coast, at least, and washed these creatures ashore. And at that time, the world view centred at Knossos may have lost its credibility, due to the disaster emanating from Thera. This loss of faith could have led to rebellion and the human-made destruction that eventually brought down the major sites on Crete.
So even if the stories we’ve learned about Knossos aren’t quite accurate, the real story is intriguing and even tragic, nonetheless, doing nothing to diminish the magic. Nor are we the only ones who have viewed the place through magic-coloured glasses. As Knappett says, any site continuously occupied for 7000 years has something that makes people perceive it as a centre of more than just economic power.
It may have lost that aura for a while, not long after the Thera eruption. But since Sir Arthur Evans began its rediscovery in the nineteenth century, it has risen yet again, with most of its magic still intact.
Just ask the millions of people who hear its name and get that dreamy look in their eyes.