This Just in: World Doesn’t End in 2012 (or, the ROM and the Maya)

El Castillo

There's more to Mayan culture than this! (Photo courtesy Flickr user Herkie)

All right, the Maya special exhibition at the Royal Ontario Museum is not about the supposed Mayan prophecy that the world will come to an end on December 23, 2012. But even in a serious exhibition, you know they had to address the question. Yet the discussion of the Mayan calendar was just the icing on the cake of a fascinating and absorbing look at the Classical period of this culture (which existed roughly from 250 to 900 AD).

Even people who love Egyptian ruins don’t always know much about actual Egyptian history or culture. With the Mayans, people are probably even less well informed, recognizing only famous pyramids like the one at Chichen Itza, but knowing little beyond that. That’s not really anyone’s “fault,” though; the Mayan logographic writing system has been deciphered only slowly, with the majority of the work being done just since the mid-twentieth century. So the tale of Mayan culture has only recently begun to be told.


The Tower in the Palace at Palenque (Photo courtesy Flickr user Sachavir)

The exhibition at the ROM doesn’t provide king lists or battle histories, but it focuses primarily on one city: Palenque. Through films and models, stone carvings and building panels, utensils and bowls, jewellery, and even a few small weapons, we learn a great deal about the everyday lives of nobles and citizens alike. You’ve heard about that ball game played by warriors, where sometimes the penalty for losing was death? We see one of the actual balls they used — fashioned, it seems inevitably, in the shape of a skull. We see the tall, intricately carved incense burners that stood guarding the doorways of temples. And view the portrayals of gods and kings and their doings, on vases and walls.

One thing that fascinated me was the many similarities between what seemed to be the Mayan view of the world’s structure and the Norse view. Each believed in a tripartite world, each had a world tree ascending through all three levels (underworld, earthly world, and heavenly world), and each had a divine bird sitting at the top of that tree. There were other minor similarities too, but I had to be careful not to carry this too far: I overheard one young, enthusiastic gentleman telling his friend how certain he was that Mayan culture was mostly created by Egyptians who found their way to the region. There seems to be a popular need to deny that complex cultures (before our own) could ever be created by “primitive” people; they always seem to have to have needed help from outside, whether those outsiders were Egyptians or space aliens.

But human ingenuity is far greater than that, and always has been. The Maya of this period had no wheeled vehicles, for example, yet they found ways to trade goods from city to city (often caravans of messengers carrying goods in pouches on their backs). They also had other ways of transporting the stone and mud bricks they used to create their intricate buildings. They were excellent farmers and hunters. And they built cities, temples, and palaces of immense sophistication. Magnificent Palenque, even after a couple of centuries of investigation, still probably has at least a thousand buildings covered by jungle, yet to be explored.

Coba stele

Stele at Coba; part of the Mayan calendar? (Photo courtesy Flickr user snackfight)

The Mayan exhibit at the Royal Ontario Museum covers everything, from geography to gods and worship to home life, play, death — and of course, time. The calendar this culture used was another indicator of their sophistication. It involved several different cycles, based on the moon, the solar year, and other astronomical observations. It’s true that the Mayans believed in the destruction and recreation of the world at certain periods (their beliefs resemble Hinduism in that respect), but it’s not true that they believed the next period of destruction would be December of 2012.

That is simply when their latest Long Count of years will come to an end. The Maya viewed it more like we view the end of a century, though on a larger scale. And after all — it was going to be about 1000 years in their future. Were they really going to start carving out the next calendar for the next Long Count, that far ahead of time? (That would be something like our making a calendar, right now, for 2111 A.D. We just don’t need it yet.) They might have started creating the new cycle’s calendar in recent years — except, of course, the Mayan culture as it then was has been gone for about 1060 years. But as it turns out, some of their inscriptions do mention things they expected to happen well after December of 2012. So it simply isn’t the case that they “prophesied” the end of the world at that time.

For anyone who wants to know what Mayan culture was really about, this exhibition is a thorough and fascinating introduction.


Mesopotamian Magic, With a Hint of Misogyny


Mesopotamian tablets

It wasn’t the good witches they were after, you understand – it was the bad ones. And yet…were there any good ones in the ancient Mesopotamian world?

Professor Tzvi Abusch, (The Rose B. and Joseph Cohen Professor of Assyriology and Ancient Near Eastern Religion, Department of Judaic and Near Eastern Studies, Brandeis University) touched on this question and many others when speaking to a keen audience at the most recent lecture hosted by the Canadian Society for Mesopotamian Studies: A Ceremony against Witchcraft: Mesopotamian Magic in Action. Guiding us through a ceremony against witchcraft, Abusch explained the ancient Mesopotamians’ view of magic. They felt it could either be used for good, in the case of herbalists or exorcists, or used for evil by sorcerers and witches. It was all magic; it just depended how you used it. At least, that was how it started.

Abusch took us through excerpts from nine tablets recording an Akkadian ritual conducted through a single night in July or August – the Maqlû, meaning “Burning” – in which a male exorcist worked on behalf of a very ill patient. At the time of these tablets, the view that every person’s fate was determined by the gods had changed to the idea that personal misfortune was caused by another person – a malevolent enemy who could work magic. And the only way to heal oneself was to call upon an herbalist, or in the case of this ritual, an exorcist, who could undo the evil spell and cast it back upon the witch or sorcerer instead. The gods were still very much in evidence – after all, the exorcist could only work by invoking their power – but human action had true significance.

The procedure involved creating a figurine that represented the evildoer, and then ritually burning it in a brazier to break the witch’s power. The flames were doused with water, which both cleansed the victim and carried the evil back to the perpetrator. Specific chants, calling upon the gods, were performed at each stage.

The Akkadian sun god, Shamash

Sun-god, Shamash, who played an important part in the Maqlu ritual

While it was fascinating to go through the ritual step by step and learn what it meant, the real fascination in Abusch’s presentation was what this and similar rituals reveal about the daily life of the ancient Mesopotamians. Incantations like this would have reflected a perceived need in society. In fact, Doctor Abusch took us through two versions of this ritual: an earlier shorter one, and the later nine-tablet version that had become much more elaborate and took much longer to perform. This had to have reflected a greater need to ease the troubles of people who believed they were suffering from the malicious attentions of enemies.


Equally as fascinating — though unfortunately predictable — was the status of magic practitioners themselves through Mesopotamian history. In the early stages, magic was regarded as a neutral tool that could be used either for good or evil, by men or women. But over time, it became more genderized: those casting these troubling spells were generally assumed to be women, while all exorcists who undid the evil were men. Herbalists could still be either male or female, and there was still the occasional male sorcerer. But on the whole, this formula became pretty standard: evil women caused the magical trouble, and good men repaired it.

One can ask why this change occurred, and try to follow the texts for hints. But the problem, Abusch said, is that we only have texts from institutional repositories – royal archives or training establishments for exorcists. Neither would retain tablets that contradicted the official view of things. So all we’ve got are tantalizing hints that situations were different and more egalitarian at an earlier time, with existing texts that developed in response to some kind of change whose nature isn’t clear.

Thanks to Doctor Abusch, we were given an intriguing glimpse into the worries occupying the Mesopotamian mind, and the remedies devised to alleviate them. We may think we’ve come a long way since then, though medical science still hasn’t entirely superseded the invoking of deities to solve our ills and punish our enemies. But when we look at how often women are blamed even today for the problems in the world, we might shake our heads and think, “The more things change…”

Kush and its Pyramids: Sleeping Next to the Elephant

Jebel Barkal Pyramids

What do people from Scotland, Canada, and ancient Kush have in common? They all know, or knew, what it’s like to “sleep next to the elephant.”

This phrase comes from a remark by former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau, when addressing the Press Club in Washington, DC, in 1969:

Living next to you [i.e., to the United States] is in some ways like sleeping with an elephant. No matter how friendly and even-tempered is the beast, if I can call it that, one is affected by every twitch and grunt.

Smaller countries, or countries with considerably less population, tend to feel and be affected this way by a larger, more powerful neighbour. And that, says Gayle Gibson of the Royal Ontario Museum, was exactly the experience of ancient Kush, or Nubia, in what is now northern Sudan. Being Egypt’s southern neighbour over the millenia was often uneasy, and sometimes even fraught with danger. Particularly because Kush had the luxury goods – not to mention gold – that Egypt craved. As a result, Egypt seemed to assume that it had the right to the resources of the land, and often exerted its military might to take them. (Canada and Scotland might again shift uneasily in their chairs, wondering if they’re hearing an echo.)

Gibson recently presented a slide show and a very informative talk, called “The Pyramids of Kush,” in an afternoon session at the Toronto Reference Library. This lecture was the first event in the library’s program to celebrate Black History month. And what a history lesson we got! The topic was indeed the many pyramids that the rulers of Kush, or Nubia, erected for themselves, influenced by what they saw in Egypt. Yet the discussion also encompassed a swift tour of all the great Kushite or Nubian kingdoms.

Meroe pyramids, with shrines

I had known that some of the people of this land had served the Egyptian pharaohs as warriors, since they tended to be physically larger and stronger than most Egyptians. What I didn’t realize was that there were at least three great Nubian civilizations, the second of which had actually invaded and ruled Egypt for a few generations.

Kush, Gibson told us, tended to rise to greater strength during periods when Egypt had become weak for some reason. But while Egypt’s strong periods often meant bad things for Kush, it wasn’t always the other way around. When King Piye of the second powerful Nubian civilization conquered Egypt, he actually brought a renaissance of art and culture into Egyptian society. Unlikely as it seems, said Gibson, the Egyptians liked and welcomed the overlordship of these Nubian rulers.

It was during this period, from the 8th to 7th centuries BCE, that the Kushite pyramids first made their appearance. When you examine the caves and chambers carved into Gebel (or Jebel) Barkal, the mountain around which this civilization was centred, you see paintings and decoration much like that on the walls of Egyptian Pharaohs’ tombs. But the Nubian pyramids had their own character: smaller and steeper than their Egyptian inspirations. And rather than having tombs enclosed inside them, these pyramids sat on top of them as monuments and shrines.

Structure at the Karnak temple complex, built by Taharka

Even after the last Nubian ruler, Taharqa, was finally forced out — not by the Egyptians, but by the invasion of Sennacherib of Babylon — they rose once more in a third powerful civilization in their own land, about 150 years later, now centred at Meroe (pronounced “MER-oh-ay”; located northeast of present-day Khartoum). They continued building pyramids there, finally totalling about two hundred. The result is that there are actually more pyramids in Kush/Nubia/Sudan than there are in Egypt.

The Meroitic civilization was strong enough even to hold back attempted invasions by Emperor Augustus of Rome, and became a great trading nation. The only reason it finally faded was that camels became popular for taking traded goods straight across the desert. Since traders no longer needed to go up and down the Nile – which was the great source of Meroe’s wealth – trade on the river trickled to a fraction of its former volume. And Nubia was bypassed.

Ms. Gibson’s talk was a veritable feast for those of us who love to devour history. As an introduction to Black History Month, it also filled a serious gap in our knowledge of African history, a gap that most North Americans seem tragically to suffer from. And for those of us who sleep next door to a modern-day national elephant, it gave us a feeling of kinship with the Nubians, a fellow feeling that spans the millenia.

Tomb of Nubian King Tantamani, or Tanwetamani, at el-Kurru

Gertrude Bell: a Shaping Force in Iraq

Gertrude Bell in front of her tent in Iraq

Gertrude Bell in Iraq, 1909

Gertrude Bell had a lot of authority in Mesopotamia and Iraq around the time of World War 1. A lot. She hobnobbed with people like the young Winston Churchill and T.E. Lawrence (i.e. Lawrence of Arabia), helped draw the borders of the newly created country of Iraq, and even tried to educate its first king, Faisal I.

But all of this happened in the first two decades of the twentieth century – a time when women having this kind of authority was virtually unheard of, whether it was in Bell’s homeland of Great Britain, or in Mesopotamia. So how did she end up wielding such influence?

According to UBC’s  Dr. Lisa Cooper during a lecture for The Canadian Society for Mesopotamian Studies last Wednesday, what catapulted Ms. Bell into those rarefied levels was her background in archaeology. Bell knew the region intimately, having engaged in extensive travels and making detailed measurements and notes for the important ancient sites she encountered. On one trip, in 1909, she began at Aleppo in Syria, journeyed down the Euphrates to Babylon, came back up along the Tigris River, and then headed west into Anatolia, which is modern day Turkey.

These were not the idle travels of a gentlewoman trying to keep herself amused. Bell’s meticulous measurements and detailed photographs are sometimes all we have left of sites that were later looted or even destroyed. And when modern archaeologists return to many of the sites she described, her descriptions and conclusions still stand, and are often still cited authoritatively.

Dr. Cooper showed us one primary example of Bell’s expertise, on the site of the Ukhaidir Fortress, about seventy five miles southwest of Baghdad. Bell was able to examine the vaulting of the roofs and the types of domes used, and accurately pinpointed the influences — both western and eastern — that went into their construction. She recognized some elements learned from western Iran and others that seemed to have originated in pre-Christian Roman times.

The Newcastle University Library in Britain contains Bell’s archives, including all her photographs, diaries, and letters. In her diary entry of March 25, 1909, you can read how matter-of-factly she decided that Ukhaidir must be mapped:

The size and splendour of the place were a revelation and at once decided that I must plan it. Lunched with Mr Watts and then set to work. He gave me the measurements.

Astonishingly, despite that “size and splendour,” Bell had finished her work in three days. And the entry for the day (March 27) she spent writing out all her observations is very telling:

At night we went into the great hall to hear Ghamin[?] the guide sing to the Rebaba. A wood[?] fire and two wicks placed in the square holes above the columns. Ma’ashi made coffee and Ghamin sang the kasida of Abd ul Aziz ibn Rashid, then the kasida of the the Beni Sakhar and finally that of the Anazeh. There is a song too about this castle. They say it belonged to Na’wan ibn Munthir. Chosroes came and beseiged him here and was put to flight. Then one of his chief men induced him to cut off his ears and send him to Na’wan crying for vengeance against Chosroes. Na’wan received him well and wished him to take up his abode with him. He said in that case he must bring all his goods, 150 camels loads. He brought them and set them down in the big court and in the night armed men stepped out and sacked the castle.

This passage is significant because it shows another aspect of how Bell achieved the authority and influence she did. She didn’t just examine ruins, but she interacted with the people in the areas she studied. She learned the history of these regions not just from dead ruins but from living beings who could tell her stories and legends.

Dr. Cooper brought Gertrude Bell very much to life for the fervent and knowledgeable audience who attended her lecture. With extensive photographs and her own expert storytelling, she helped us understand why this woman stood with Lawrence, Churchill, and others as a historical authority and a nation builder.


Those Trypilians could show Egypt and Sumer a thing or two

Trypilian Pot 2I must say, I’m not used to thinking of the ancient Egyptians or Sumerians as latecomers in the “civilization” department.

But after visiting the Royal Ontario Museum last weekend and seeing the exhibit, “Mysteries of Ancient Ukraine: The Remarkable Trypilian Culture,” I’m forced to reconsider everything I thought I knew about the beginnings of history.

To say this was a sophisticated society is an understatement. Where I expected perhaps some bits of primitive pottery and rough arrowheads (the culture went back to 5000 BCE, after all), there were large, elaborately painted pots, small models of houses, detailed figurines, bowls and cups, and other sculptures. The Trypilians were already living together in surprisingly large numbers, with a surprisingly complex society of art and culture, when the Egyptians and Sumerians were only starting to stir.

trypilian-figureThis culture was the first to build what can only be called cities, the biggest settlements with populations as large as 15,000 people. They were both hunters and farmers, living in large dwellings, some of them two storeys high. According to the posted information, there’s nothing yet that reveals their political structure, and strangely, no one has ever found cemeteries or discovered their funerary arrangements. But every three or four generations, they would burn down their settlements and move elsewhere.

The Trypilian culture is still not well known in the wider world, even though it was discovered in 1896, near the village of Trypillia, by archaeologist Vikenty Khvoika. Perhaps political matters in that area overshadowed archaeology for a few decades, meaning that the world didn’t get a chance to become familiar with this society.

trypilian-potWhatever the case, we’ve had a good look at it now, thanks largely to the request of Ukrainian President Victor Yushchenko. During his election to office in 2004, he met with the chair of the ROM’s board of directors, James Temerty, then in the country as a Canadian observer. Yushchenko, who has himself collected some pieces of Trypilian pottery, asked Temerty if the ROM would put this exhibition together, so the world would finally become aware of Ukraine’s deep cultural roots.

And so it transpired, four years later, with the ROM having the distinction of organizing the entire exhibit, and being the first museum in the world to bring this culture out of Ukraine on such a scale.

trypilian-binocularsThe atmosphere in the exhibit is warm and intimate. Curving corridors walled with lattices of dark wood imitate the complex sworls that decorate the huge pots, each short hallway curving into another section of the exhibit. The largest pots, several loaned by Yushchenko himself, stand on pedestals so observers can circle them and take in the detail of their painted designs. Smaller objects are placed in well lit cases, the figurines gazing distantly back through the glass, and the odd “binoculars” (like two tankards connected together, but with open bottoms) providing an unsolved mystery, since no one knows what they were used for.

My friend and I are always sceptical when some ancient artifact is automatically deemed to be of a religious nature. And I mused, wandering from case to case, whether having a look at Ukrainian cultures that succeeded this one might give a clue to the real beliefs of the Trypilians. Some ideas do survive through folk tales, songs, and so on.

trypilian-playhouseThis fact struck us as we looked at the miniature houses, thinking of them as doll houses rather than ritual objects. We were mystified about why these miniatures were all on stilts or legs, when real Trypilian dwellings stood firmly on the ground.

Then my friend remembered the Slavic story of the Hut on Fowl’s Legs. Could we have been observing the truly ancient root of that old folk tale? It’s an intriguing idea.

The exhibit’s last day is this coming Sunday (March 22, 2009). Rumour has it that the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City now wishes to show this Trypilian collection, and has engaged in negotiations. If true, Victor Yushchenko’s wish is coming true. The world is finally discovering that its earliest great civilization may have originated in Ukraine, and not farther south. This could force historians the world over to rethink their assumptions about humanity’s early history.

Egypt and Sumeria, move over!


(For an account of the exhibit’s opening, and more information about it, see this article originally published in the National Post.)

The Phoenicians live again

Tanit bulla from Kedesh

Tanit bulla from Kedesh

The lecture, given to the Toronto branch of the Archaeological Institute of America, was entitled, “In Search of the Last of the Phoenicians,” which conveys some idea of Dr. Sharon Herbert’s wry sense of humour and her cheerful attitude toward her work. Because of course the “last” Phoenicians are still alive today, in Lebanon, and the lecture title was only a play on a famous book title.

But the Phoenicians as we think of them — the descendants of the biblical Canaanites; seafarers and traders whose alphabet became the basis of almost all modern western alphabets and probably some north African — did seem to drop out of both the literary and archaeological record after the conquests of Alexander the Great. There’s a rather large gap, to put it mildly, between the 4th century BCE and the present day, between the Phoenicians of old and their modern descendants.

But that’s where University of Michigan archaeologist Sharon Herbert’s cheerful attitude comes in, because her digs in northern Israel have been astoundingly successful, rewriting a little history, and finding more traces of the Phoenicians on top of that.

It was when she and others were excavating at Tel Anafa, discovering a Hellenic complex beneath the ruins of Roman sheds, that Herbert realized there were elements to the building and its decoration that didn’t quite ring true to a Hellenic style. For one thing, they found pottery bearing the stamp of a Phoenician craftsman. And they unearthed a large public bath with stuccoed walls and a mosaic floor, and realized it was in a Punic style. That’s Punic, as in — Phoenician. And the closest parallel to such a place that had previously been found was in a suburb of ancient Carthage — the Phoenician colony.

What Herbert surmised was that this had been the home of a Phoenician family living in the Greek milieu of the day, yet also maintaining their historical ethnic identity and heritage. But she and her team could get a clearer picture by moving across the valley to Tel Kedesh (one of several ancient places that bore that name), a site they knew for sure had once been under the influence of the Phoenicians. If they found similar buildings or artifacts there, they would know they’d found at least some people retaining their ancient identity even as late as the 2nd century BCE.

And so it transpired. Further digs at this larger site found not only the Phoenicians, but Persians as well. Later history had been aware of one Persian administrative centre when the empire had controlled this part of the world, but that had been farther south. Now Herbert’s team found what is currently known as the PHAB — Persian Hellenic Administrative Building — the site of the northern Persian administrative centre, its walls providing the foundations for those of the later Hellenic edifice. The archaeologists discovered a room where documents had formerly been stored, leaving behind more than 2000 bullae, that is, impressions taken from official seals.

Even more significantly, many of those seals were carved with an “Aphrodite” that more closely resembled the Phoenician goddess Ashtarte-Tanit than any Greek goddess. And these seals bore an inscription meaning, “He who is over the land.” Which meant that the Governor at this administrative centre identified himself in some way with the power of the Phoenicians. They still had that much of an identity.

It only stands to reason, says Herbert. As she puts it, “The Greeks didn’t do genocide,” so the Phoenicians simply remained in their ancient land, gradually becoming assimilated into the overlying culture, yet retaining some memory of who they had always been.

We in the audience followed raptly as Herbert described her own history of archaeological discovery, in both words and slides. And for just a little while, the immaterial shades of the ancient Phoenicians took on more substance as their lives once again intersected the flow of living time.

Knossos: eternally magical

Knossos Reconstruction - photo by Laepplander

Knossos Reconstruction – photo by Laepplander

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.

Photo by George Groutas

Photo by George Groutas

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?

Photo by Lapplaender

Photo by Lapplaender

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.

Knossos Ruins - photo by Olaf Tausch

Knossos Ruins – photo by Olaf Tausch

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.

Knossos Dolphins - photo by Chris 73

Knossos Dolphins – photo by Chris 73