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Category Archives: Knossos

As I promised on our Facebook page Tours on Crete when posting an article about olive oil and how many fake and low quality oil is offered in our supermarkets, today I’d like to speak about Cretan olive oil and it’s history.

Oldest Olive tree

Olive Tree of Vouves

The olive tree has been declared by the Association of Cretan Olive Municipalities as a natural monument because of its shape and the exceptional aesthetics of its relied truck, reminiscent of exceptional woodwork.

The tree is located at Ano Vouves and belongs to Panagiotis Karapatakis. Its variety is called mastoid and is grafted on a rootstock of a wild olive tree. From this tree, the winner of the men’s’ marathon in the Olympic Games Athens 2004 was crowned.

The trunk at a height of 0.9m from the ground has a diameter of 3.70m and a circumference of 8.10m, while its base has a diameter of 4.53m and a circumference of 12.55m. Locals say that the olive is the oldest in the world, but this is not true as the olive tree at Azorias is older.

Olive Oil

Image result for olive oil crete image

Made from the natural juice of the olive, olive oil is truly a precious “elixir” of life, and helps the people of the Island of Crete maintain health and long life, as well as enjoying delicious food!

It’s a great mystery to anyone who has picked an olive from the tree to work out how someone could have thought that this small fruit would be transformed into a delicious meze on its own or into a nutritious tasty, and health giving oil. Even when looking fat and ripe – straight from the tree, it tastes awful!

But someone did work this out! And from its use in ancient times and the results of study after study, the oil that is pressed from the olive has proven to be a precious gift of nature. The ancient land of Crete is home to 30 million olive trees and the Cretans make full use of the abundant fruit and have been cultivating the olive tree since 3500 BC during the early Minoan period. The Minoan palace of Knossos has an olive press room.

Civilization and Olive Oil

 The olive is a favourite subject in Minoan art. Olive trees, olive branches and olive blooms are depicted in many wall paintings and relief works, found at the palace of Knossos (1600-1400 BC) and displayed in the Heraclion Museum today.

with olive foliage
Storage-jar (pithos) from
Psira island

Of the most well known, is the wall painting depicting an olive tree between wild goats, the relief with the bull and the olive tree at the balcony of the northern entrance of Knossos palace, the wall-painting with “The dance in the Sacred Grove” and other scenes with olive foliage, blooming branch, branches and relief olives.


Olive branches and leaves are often depicted on the vases of the Minoan period. Characteristic examples are to be found in the storage-jar discovered at the small island Psira off the coastline of north-eastern Crete which is decorated with bull’s heads and olive shoots on either side (1600-1500 B.C) as in the cup with the olive branch in bloom from Knossos (1600-1500 B.C), both now displayed in the Heraklion Museum.

Rushing bull and olive-tree


The olive was a favourite subject even in the craft of gold-plating in the Minoan period. Characteristic of this is the superb piece of jewellery made up of a bunch of golden olive leaves found in the pre-palatial cemetery on the small island just outside today’s settlement of Mochlos to the north of the village of Lastros in Sitia.

Olive – trees on the fresco  “Dance at the Sacred grove”Knossos


At the Olympic games that started in 776 B.C, ancient Greeks were crowning the winners with a wreath (“kotinos”) made of branches cutted always off the same wild olive-tree, known as “kallistefanos” (which means “for beautiful wreaths”).

Wild goats and olive-tree


Also at the Panathenea games (600 B.C), the winner’s prize was a decorated amphora, full of olive-oil which was produced of the “Mories” (Sacred) olive-trees belonging to Godess Athena.

Wall-painting with
olive-tree branch
Olive branch
in bloom

Today the Cretans still eat far more olive oil than any other people in the world. And as a famous study proved, are the healthiest and longest living people.

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Knossos Palace Crete

Knossos Palace

It is impossible for someone to come to Crete on vacation and not visit its landmark, Knossos. For the island of Crete, Knossos has the same significance as the Acropolis for Athens. The most famous and the most impressive palace of the Minoan era, the biggest and the greatest of the decision-making centers of the Minoan Crete. Our tour in the majestic site travels us back to the past, getting us to know the Neolithic settlement, the new imposing palace, the four wings of the building with the ceremony chambers, the public warehouses, the Throne Room, the Corridor of Procession with the amazing murals, the Propylaea with the famous Double Horns of Consecration, the Royal Chambers, the servants’ dormitories, the storehouses of the palace, the various workshops, the Reservoir Basin, even a stone-built theatre. We are about to hear great myths, relating to the Palace of Knossos, such as the myth of the Labyrinth and the story of Daedalus and Icarus. We are going to walk on Sir Arthur Evans’ steps and we may feel a bit of the excitement and pride he felt when he discovered this exceptional symbol of the Minoan architecture, which even nowadays transfixes everybody with its grandeur.

Leaving the marvelous Palace of Knossos, we continue our tour towards the centre of the island, where we visit the lovely Monastery of Kera Kardiotissa, which was named after a miraculous icon of Virgin Mary. In an idyllic landscape, the monastery, run currently by nuns, is known for its artistic and its historical importance, as well as its remarkable murals.
Moving on inland and driving up to the Lassithi Plateau, we have the chance to admire the remaining famous windmills, the ditches, the “linies” as they are known, the Venetian drainage system of the plateau that turned the arid area into the most important grain-growing region of Crete and of course the small traditional villages that still keep the scent of another era. The most famous of all is the village of Psychro, where we can admire the primeval traditional art of pottery-making by the remaining craftsmen and of course we have the opportunity to visit a very significant place for religious worship of the Minoan era, the cave of Psychro, mostly known as Dictean Cave. A cave of exceptional beauty, it is considered as the place where Zeus, the father of the Olympians Gods, was born.

The Palace of Knossos is located in North Central Crete just south of the outskirts of Heraklion on the Kephala hill.


The site was first occupied some time around 7000 BCE in what is called the Aceramic Neolithic period (aceramic because no pottery was produced). The Bronze Age was not to begin for a further four thousand years. It is thought that Knossos was the first and oldest Neolithic site in Crete and the first indication of human activity on the island is located in the exact area where the Palace and its Central Court were to be located. So humans had been continually active on the site for five thousand years before the First Palace was constructed.

Knossos viewed from above
Part of the West Wing

Although the Neolithic gave way to the Bronze Age, when no doubt new peoples arrived from the East, there is no evidence that the original population on the Kephala Hill was replaced by the newcomers. More likely was a gradual transition from neolithic to bronze age practices.

The Early Minoan II period seems to have been of some importance at various sites on Crete. Jan Driessen thinks it was important at Knossos as well. A large amount of EM IIB pottery has been uncovered at Knossos. It was found in locations which suggest that the ground had been cleared for construction during EM III.

As at other Palatial sites on Crete, large scale building preceded the actual construction of the First Palace. At Knossos this building activity appears to have begun during Early Minoan III. On the palace site itself there is very little evidence from this late Prepalatial period (Early Minoan III-Middle Minoan IA). What evidence there is tends to be found on the perimeter of the later palace or on the slopes of the Kephala hill on which the palace was built.

For example, there are prepalatial walls at Knossos (EM III-MM IA) to the north and south of the later palace. These walls already had the north-south, east-west orientation which would be used in the building of the later palace. Just outside the area where the palace was built a number of structures probably date to the prepalatial period. The Southwest Houses contained pottery from EM IIB-MM IA. A large wall running south from the north west corner of the area where the first palace would later be built may well have been a terrace wall supporting a flat level on which some structure was built. Very little can be said at present of this structure except that it was not a palace. In the West Court some houses were discovered under the kouloures which were built during the protopalatial period.

The First Palace

Knossos: The West Porch with the west facade behind
The West Porch with the west facade behind

Although some archaeologists argue on the basis of the limited finds from EM III-MM IA for a continuity in building on the site from the prepalatial period, Colin Macdonald, who has spent much of his career excavating different parts of the Palace, finds the evidence unconvincing and it is still generally accepted that the First Palace was built during Middle Minoan IB-IIA, with the southern half possibly being completed a little later than the West, North and East wings.

By the end of MM IIA the palace covered an area of almost 10,000 square metres on the ground floor alone. Access to the Palace was easier during the Protopalatial period than it was to become later. It therefore continued in one form or another for about five hundred years. It signified the transition of Minoan Crete from a clan-based society into a hierarchical one, with an urban elite, though some archaeologists claim that there may have been several competing elite groups, what they call a heterarchy.

Knossos: The West Facade and the West Court
The West Facade and the West Court

At other Palace sites, like Phaistos, the old palace suffered a major destruction. The ground was subsequently levelled and a new palace was constructed. This does not appear to have happened at Knossos. According to Colin Macdonald the construction of a monumental building around a central court at Knossos may have been “a long project that lasted for several generations, punctuated by destructive episodes, notably in MM IB and reaching a conclusion in MM IIA only to be damaged at the end of that period and again in MM IIB, after which it was largely rebuilt over MM III along the same lines but with markedly different architectural elements.”

So, although parts of the Palace certainly suffered from earthquake destruction a number of times over the ensuing five hundred years, the Old Palace was never levelled or covered over in order for a new palace to be built on top. New areas were added to the Palace and sections damaged by earthquake were rebuilt, often in a different way from the sections that preceded them. But the palace was never replaced by a completely new building.

From the First Palace period would date the West Facade which is thought to have had an upper floor with windows looking out over the West Court. Also dating from this period would have been the raised walkways in the West Court, and the kouloures, three large circular pits sunk into the West Court and whose use is still a subject of debate. The royal Road, which approaches the north west corner of the palace from the Minoan town, was one of a number of roads that would have been constructed by some central authority and were yet another indication of the transformation that was taking place in Minoan society. By Middle Minoan III there were also drainage systems in parts of the Minoan town and in the Domestic Quarter and the North Entrance of the Palace.

Knossos Storage magazines</div>
Storage magazines

Another innovation of the First Palace period were the magazines which take up much of the ground floor of the West Wing of the Palace and make such an impressive sight for visitors today. Their current appearance, however, dates from a later period. There has been much discussion about the role of the storage facilities in the Minoan Palaces and some have argued that the Palaces acted as redistribution centres for produce coming in from the countryside. Howevever it has been calculated that the storage capacity of the Palaces would not have been adequate for such a task and it is more likely that the storage was for goods consumed by people working at the Palace or those attending the feasting ceremonies which seem to have been such an important part of Palace life.

There is already evidence by the Middle Minoan IB period of a strongly hierarchical aspect to this feasting with one deposit yielding up a collection of vessels of varying quality with very few of the highest quality and rather more of lower quality.

There were certainly workshops in and around the Palace. Loomweights provide evidence of weaving activity but it is not known whether workshops were directly under the control of the Palace. No sign has yet been found of a large area outside the palace devoted to skilled craft production like Quartier Mu at Malia.

The New Palace

At the end of Middle Minoan IIB other palaces in Crete were so thoroughly damaged that they had to be rebuilt. It seems that this was not the case at Knossos, which may have been far enough away from the epicentre of the earthquake to escape the complete devastation that hit the palace at Phaistos. During the Middle Minoan IIIA period which followed the palace destructions elsewhere, the Palace at Knossos did not undergo any dramatic architectural transformation. Other changes, however, became noticeable. For example, the writing script at Knossos had been Cretan Hieroglyphic while in the south at Phaistos, Linear A was preferred. Now Linear A came to Knossos and over a period of time it replaced the use of the Cretan Hieroglyphic.

Knossos horns of consecration

Another major development at Knossos at the beginning of the Neopalatial period was the development of foreign trade, in particular in the South Aegean and Asia Minor. What all this meant for the position of Knossos on the island of Crete itself is not well understood.

That is not to say that changes in the Palace did not take place. Colin Macdonald claims that there were in effect three New Palaces which he calls the New Palace (MM IIIB), the Frescoed Palace (Late Minoan IA) and the Ruined Palace (LM IB). He also points out that there then followed the Mycenaean Palace. This categorisation is not universally accepted.

Knossos was hit by a massive earthquake at the end of MM IIIA and this resulted in major rebuilding work. Much of the West part of the palace was levelled and built over while basement rooms on the east side were filled with rubble to create new terraces for building on. So the New Palace effectively dates from MM IIIB. Then, towards the end of MM IIIB another earthquake struck, resulting in more demolition and rebuilding during LM IA. The palace we see today dates largely from this period.

The main changes to the Palace during the Neopalatial period included the filling in of the kouloures which resulted in an enlargement of the West Court. A major entry route into the palace passed along the Corridor of the Procession to the south of the West Facade and from there through the South Propylaeum, where stairs led to the first floor of the West Wing (but see page 1 of the Tour of the Palace where these structures are questioned). Also in the West Wing, the Throne Room with its adjacent lustral basin and associated rooms also dates from Middle Minoan III, though like so much else, the form of the room that we see now dates to a later period.

On the East side of the Central Court the Grand Staircase and the Domestic Quarters two floors below, are a creation of the Neopalatial period. Also on the East side was the Great East Hall, where more storage facilities were located on the ground floor. To the North East a new entrance was constructed using ashlar masonry and the North Entrance Passage was built and decorated with a famous wall painting (see logo at the of the page). The Neopalatial period also sees the widespread creation of wall paintings on a variety of subjects including the famous bulls and scenes of ceremonies.

The Final Palace period

Around 1450 BCE there was widespread destruction throughout the island of Crete. All the other palaces were destroyed as were many towns and villages, although it tended to be the prestige buildings that were primarily targeted. While there was some damage to the Palace at Knossos it was not destroyed in the same way as the other Palaces. Ashlar masonry went out of use, replaced by the increased use of gypsum. Architectural changes to the palace showed inferior quality of materials. A lot of the changes made during this period were removed by Evans during his excavation of the Palace and in Colin Macdonald’s words “Evans had stripped most of the palace down to its Middle Minoan III to Late Minoan I skeleton, so that it’s later plan is now difficult to reconstruct.”

One of the most important developments during this period of the history of Knossos is the arrival of Linear B. Although there are differences between Linear A and Linear B scripts the most significant difference is that Linear B has been deciphered and is now known to be an early form of the Greek language spoken by the Mycenaeans while Linear A, which remains undeciphered, represents a different language. It seems likely that the Mycenaeans had a presence at Knossos from Late Minoan II onwards but the exact nature of that presence is not known.

When the Palace was finally destroyed a large number of clay tablets and sealings were baked, and therefore preserved, in the fire. The town survived the destruction of the palace which seems to have been left deserted but much of the evidence from this period, which would have formed the top layers over the site at Knossos were removed by Evans and so vital evidence about this period has been lost.

The date of the final destruction of the Palace at Knossos is still the subject of debate with suggestions varying from Late Minoan II, to Late Minoan IIA or IIIB. Macdonald favours a Late Minoan III A2 (1325-1300 BCE) date for the final destruction of what he calls the Linear B palace.

Frescoes are the source of some of the most striking imagery handed down to us from the Minoan civilization of Bronze Age Crete (2000-1500 BCE). Further, without written records, they are often the only source, along with decorated pottery, of just how the world appeared to the Minoans and give us tantalizing glimpses of their beliefs, cultural practices and aesthetic tastes.

Minoan Bull Leaping

Inherent problems with frescoes are their fragility, incompleteness and artistic anonymity. In addition, in archaeological sites they are often found removed from their original settings, making them extremely difficult to date. Perhaps, restoration has at times been over-imaginative but nevertheless, the overwhelming impression given by this art form is the Minoan’s sheer joy in fluid, naturalistic and graceful forms represented in an impressionistic manner. There are also many surviving fresco fragments dating from the second phase palaces of 1550 to 1450 BCE, when the Mycenaeans began to take over the Minoan sites. However, as these are stylistically very similar to earlier Minoan frescoes, they are discussed as one in the following remarks.

As a technique, true fresco painting (buon fresco) is the painting of colour pigments on wet lime plaster without a binding agent and when the paint is absorbed by the plaster it is fixed and protected from fading. That the Minoans employed such a technique in their buildings is evidenced by string impressions in the plaster and by the depth of the paint employed. Fresco secco, which is the application of paint, in particular for details, onto a dry plaster was also used throughout the palaces as was the use of low relief in the plaster to give a shallow three dimensional effect. Colours employed were black (carbonaceous shale), red (haematite), white (hydrate of lime), yellow (ochre), blue (silicate of copper), and green (blue and yellow mixed). There are no surviving examples of shading effects in Minoan frescoes, although interestingly, sometimes the colour of the background changes whilst the foreground subjects remain unchanged. Although the Egyptians did not use true fresco, some of the colour conventions of their architectural painting were adopted by the Minoans. Male skin is usually red, female is white, and for metals: gold is yellow, silver is blue and bronze is red.

Griffin Fresco, Knossos, Crete

The first examples of fresco in Crete are limited to simple monochrome walls, most often red but sometimes also black. With improvements in the quality of plaster and pigments, the advent of monumental Minoan architecture and possibly through influence from Egypt and the Near East, the technique was employed to decorate the walls (either in their entirety, above windows and doors or below the dado), ceilings, wooden beams and sometimes floors of the palace complexes, depicting first abstract shapes and geometric designs and then later, all manner of subjects ranging in size from miniature to larger than life size.

As in earlier seal and ring engravings, popular scenes for frescoes – and perhaps indicative of the role of the palaces in Minoan society – were of rituals, processions, festivals, ceremonies and bull sports. Celebrated examples include two seated priestesses on either side of a shrine, a grove of olive trees with dancers and audience, two boxers, young men in a procession carrying rhytons, and a scene of both male and female figures in various stages of bull leaping – grasping the horns or somersaulting over the back of the animal. On occasion, fresco was also used to imitate architectural features, for example, veined alabaster slabs painted on the lower portions of walls.

Natural subjects included flowers such as lilies, irises, crocuses, roses, and also plants such as ivy and reeds. Indeed, the Minoans were one of the earliest cultures to paint natural landscapes without any humans present in the scene; such was their admiration of nature.

Animals were also commonly portrayed, most often in their natural habitat, for example, monkeys, birds, cats, goats, deer, sea urchins, dolphins and fish. Although Minoan frescoes were often framed with decorative borders of geometric designs (spirals, diagonals, rosettes, and ‘maze’ patterns), the principal fresco itself, on occasion, went beyond conventional boundaries such as corners and covered several walls, surrounding the viewer.

Dolphin Fresco, Knossos, Crete

Other objects which received the fresco treatment include the celebrated limestone sarcophagus from Hagia Triada, a rare example of a fresco surviving complete. Within decorated frames, different sides of the coffin show two goddesses, each in a chariot, one drawn by goats and the other by griffins, a scene of a bull sacrifice and a funeral scene.

The Minoan style in frescoes was influential both with contemporary cultures such as in the Cyclades (e.g. Akrotiri on Thera, Phylakopi on Melos and Hagia Irini on Keos) and with later cultures, especially the Mycenaean, albeit with slightly different subject matter such as shields and other martial paraphernalia and perhaps with a lesser importance given to naturalism. Indeed, as far afield as Tel el Dab’a in Egypt, frescoes have been discovered which are notable for their similarity in style to the Minoan.