Discovery and Debate

Evans with rhyton

Created by Heather Gustafson

Table of Contents


The Myth

Sir Arthur Evans

Discovery of the Site

Frescos, Reconstructions, and the Debate

-Priest King Fresco
-Dolphin Fresco
-Bull-Leaping Fresco

Discussion and Conclusion
Annotated Links and Bibliography



In this website I will explore the discovery of Knossos by Sir Arthur Evans and his controversial reconstructions.  I will analyze Sir Arthur Evans influences, sources, and motivations.  Then I will examine three frescos which he had reconstructed according to his interpretation of the rooms they were found in and the site as a whole.  I will refer to Knossos as the "Knossos complex" since the theory of Knossos being a palace is only one interpretation of the site.

                 general view



The Myth

The story of King Minos and his palace at Knossos have been around since ancient times.  According to myth Minos was the son of Europa and Zeus, Minos and his two brothers (Rhadamanthys and Sarpedon) were adopted by Asterios the King of Crete (Castleden 1990). While Minos was reigning as king of Crete he was given a beautiful white bull by the god Poseidon which Minos did not give back, to Poseidon’s great wrath (Castleden 1990).  In one version the Wife of Minos, named Pasiphae, was struck by Poseidon with an insatiable lust for the bull (Castleden 1990).  She turned to the inventor Daedalus who created the frame of a female cow so that she could consummate her lust for the beast (Castleden 1990).  From this union a horrifying beast a half-man, half-bull with a hunger for human flesh known to us as the Minotaur, was born (Castleden 1990).


                                                                                An artists' depiction of the Minotaur.

To conceal the deed, Daedalus was commissioned to build a labyrinth under the palace (Castleden 1990).  According to one version of the myth, Athens was required to pay a tribute to Crete by surrendering seven young men and seven young women every nine years to be offered to the Minotaur in the labyrinth (Farnoux 1996).  Theseus, son of the Athenian king, volunteered to be sacrificed to the Minotaur, but he caught the eye of Ariadne, the daughter of Minos and Pasiphae, who gave Theseus thread and a magic sword (Farnoux 1996).  With these items Theseus was able to overcome the monstrous beast and escape (Farnoux 1996).  


It was these stories, in addition to references by other sources (such as Homer, Plutarch, Diodorus, Thucydides, and Herodotus) which drew Sir Arthur Evans to search for this legendary palace at the beginning of the twentieth century (Castleden 1990).  Evans was also living in the wake of Heinrich Schliemann’s discovery of Troy, which may have inspired him to search for more evidence of a Mycenaean presence in the Mediterranean. These myths would be both the strength and the weakness of Sir Arthur Evans’ excavation and reconstruction.

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Sir Arthur Evans


Photograph of Sir Arthur Evans.

Sir Arthur Evans, the discoverer of the site of Knossos, although he did not conform to today’s standards of archaeology did implement some important techniques for retrieving evidence.  In fact his biographer, Sylvia Horwitz, says that he was the first archaeologist to run debris through a sieve to prevent small artifacts from being lost (Horwitz 1981).  We also need to remember that archaeology was still a very young science in this period and Evans should be given credit for his much gentler care of the evidence and excavation than earlier archaeologists like Schliemann.

Sir Arthur Evans was born into a “rising middle class” English family in 1851 and was the heir to a sizeable fortune (Horwitz 1981).  Evans’ father was a brilliant man who studied numismatics and paleontology (Horwitz 1981).  Evans received his education at Harrow, Oxford, and Göttingen (Castleden 1990).  He was also well traveled and at one point he was a special correspondent for the Manchester Guardian (Castleden 1990).   Evans was even knighted for his work in 1911 (Vaughan 1959).  Furthermore, he bought the land which the Palace of Minos was found on and paid nearly all the expenses of the ensuing three decades of excavation with his own money (Horwitz 1981). 

He set out to find the site keeping in mind the ancient sources he had read.  He was intimately involved with his work and admitted to being a micro-manager (Horwitz 1981).  I do not believe that he purposefully tried to give incorrect information, but his presuppositions caused him to make decisions which greatly affect our view of Minoan history and perhaps give us a partially incorrect view of the Knossos complex.  He assumed that the complex was a palace and based his reconstructions off of that assumption, labeling each room based on what he found and what he believed the function of the room was.   Because of these presuppositions some of his “reconstructions” strayed into the realm of fancy and have sparked decades of controversy about what is genuine Minoan and what is a modern with a few flakes of ancient fresco put in.

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Discovery of the Site

aerial view

                                                                          Aerial view of the Knossos site.

Crete is located southeast of mainland Greece, the island consisted of fertile land broken up by mountain ranges, Mount Ida is the central range (Biers 1996). 

                                                    sea of crete

                                                                                    Crete in relation to the Mediterranean.

Evans and his team began digging on March twenty-third 1900, within one week they found the level of Knossos which corresponded to its’ golden years, around 1700 B.C. (Horwitz 1981). 


                                                                                                    Knossos site on the island of Crete.

The site is a “large architectural complex, traditionally called a ‘palace’ and considered to be the living quarters of rulers” (Biers 1996, 26).  The foundation of the site covers six and a half acres (Vaughan 1959).  The ground floor of the palace alone had three hundred rooms, with at least one upper story, which means that it could have had as many as one thousand rooms (Horowitz 1981).  The building complex had a paved, rectangular, central courtyard with the other rooms grouped around it (Biers 1996). 

                                full map

The Minoans used a wooden post-and-lintel system, in addition to stone blocks, rubble, and mud brick, to form the walls (Biers 1996).  The “basement” consisted of many long thin storage areas called magazines which held food and valuables (Biers 1996).  We know that the “palace” was at least one story because of the thickening of the walls and heavy pier foundations (Biers 1996).  The three locations I will be focusing on are the “Queen’s apartment,” the “Procession Corridor” and the “Great Goddess Sanctuary.”

The Knossos complex was assumed by Sir Arthur Evans to be the palace of King Minos, but there are at least two other possibilities, it could have been a necropolis (city of the dead) or a temple complex (Castleden 1990).  However, since Evans assumed that the texts were mostly literal he assumed when he found this large complex that it had to be the legendary palace.  This will be an issue in the interpretation of the frescos in the following section. 

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Frescos, Reconstructions,

and the Debate


There are many things which could be debated about the findings at Knossos, but I am going to discuss several controversial frescos.  First off, a fresco is a painting on fresh plaster where the colors are fixed by carbonization of lime in the background (Morgan 2005).  The frescos at Knossos were usually found as tiny broken fragments on the floor.  Sir Arthur Evans had to do something to preserve the delicate fresco fragments and so he began the process which he called “reconstitution” (Castleden 1990).  It was a common practice at that time for the restoration to be “painted on a panel made of plaster of paris, in which were also embedded the actual plaster fragments” (Shaw 2004, 65).  Evans employed Emile Gilliéron, a talented Swiss artist who specialized in archaeological drawings, to “reconstruct” the frescos (Horwitz 1981).  Evans admits that he was very involved in how the reconstructions should look, he said that the frescos were put together “in accordance with my own suggestions” (Horwitz 1981, 115).  His biographer Sylvia Horwitz says “[he found] incredibly tiny relics and drawing from them, with his visionary intuition, conclusions which might have eluded a less imaginative man” (Horwitz 1981, 105). This makes archaeologists apprehensive about Evans’ findings, is it really a good quality that he made mountains out of molehills?  There was a large number of frescos fragments found and each have their own set of issues, but I will focus on three: the “Priest-King Fresco,” the “Dolphin Fresco,” and the “Bull-Leaping” or “Toreador Fresco.”


                                                The Priest king

This fresco was located in the southern portion of the complex with the remains of the “procession” fresco (Castleden 1990).


                                                                             The remains were found in fragments in the basement.


  First, the “Priest-King” fresco (also called “Prince of the Lilies”) was interpreted by Evans as being a depiction of king Minos (Castleden 1990).  Evans found this to be completely logical because it agreed with the ancient sources and his own preconceptions about the site (Castleden 1990).   However, there are several problems with his conclusion. 

                                           priest king

                                                             Notice that the rough portions are the original fragments.


First, the “priest-king” fragments found were part of a procession fresco with many human figures, so Evans was very much reading into this one male figure (Castleden 1990).  Second, there were only a few scattered fragments left to even guess at a reconstruction (Castleden 1990).   Third, Evans had the “priest-king” placed at the head of the procession when there may have actually been several figures in front of it (Castleden 1990).  Fourth, the headdress which signified his kingship, in Evans’ mind, may have belonged to another figure all together (it may have actually belonged to a griffin) (Castleden 1990).  This fresco was Evans’ best piece of evidence supporting his assumption that the Knossos complex was indeed a palace and had been ruled by a king (Castleden 1990).  Evans also assumed that the “priest-king” figure was holding a rope which tied* to a magical animal, but Shaw argues that there is no solid evidence that a rope was in the figures hand (Shaw 2004).   This figure could have been a boxer, a bull-leaper of a groom (Shaw 2004).  In the 1980’s independent articles published by Jean Coulomb and Wolf-Dietrich Niemeier they argued that “the separate fragments of [the] relief must belong to more than one individual, particularly since the crown was of a type normally worn by female figures (Shaw 2004, 65). As you can see in the figure above the fragments are very small, in poor condition and could be interpreted in several ways.  The interpretation of this figure as King Minos does not rest on solid archaeological evidence.                                                                                                                                                                                            


The Dolphin Fresco

                         dolphin recon

                                                                                             An artistic recreation of the “Queen’s Apartments.”


    The second fresco to discuss is the “Dolphin Fresco” found in what Evans called the “Queen’s apartments”.  The fresco was reconstructed on the wall, but it may actually have been a floor-fresco from an upper floor which collapsed during a fire (Biers 1996).  Evans believed the area where it was found to be the Queen’s private area and assumed that it was decoration for her private apartments.  However, Sinclair Hood a friend of Evan’s said that it might symbolize the “soul’s liberation from the earthly body” and this room might actually have served as a sanctuary (Castleden 1990, 92).  Evans, in reference to the “dolphin fresco,” admitted that “the most that could be done was to place the figured pieces together in a certain relation to one another ac-cording to a tentative scheme of my own” (Koehl 1986, 414).  Evans said he wanted it reconstructed to give a sense of the original and a “spirited amplification” (Koehl 1986, 414).  Evans assumed that this portion of the complex was the “Queen’s apartments” and from that, inferred that these were the decorations for her personal space, even though there is a host of different interpretations.



                                                                    Notice that it is only the dark blotches which are the original portions of the fresco.



        The third fresco to discuss is the “bull-leaping” or “Toreador” fresco which was found in the “Great Goddess Sanctuary” (the destroyed remains fell to the basement) in the east wing of the complex (Castleden 1990). 

east again       bull map

            “Great Goddess Sanctuary” in relation to the rest of the palace.                          Close up view of the “Great Goddess Sanctuary.”


The prominent appearance of bulls at Knossos reinforced Evans’ view of the myths’ faithfulness to the material remains. This fresco pictures a bull charging and either one figure in several stages of leaping over the bull, or three separate figures interacting with it (Castleden 1990).  Evans believed this to be a sport practiced by the Minoans. Evans says this about bull-leaping:

“The graceful fling of the legs and arms, the backward bend of the head and body give a sense of untrammeled motion…These youthful figures are athletic-not to say acrobatic-in their nature, and certain parallels presented by the palace wall-paintings, as well as by a series of gem impressions, seems to connect them in the most unmistakable way with the favourite [sic] sport of the Minoan arena-the bull-grappling scenes” (MacGillivray, “Minotaur” 2000, 220).

      bull leaping


However, there are several other theories as to what this fresco illustrates.  Some skeptics say that leaping over a bull in the manner depicted is physically impossible (Castleden 1990).  MacGillivray says it is impossible, because bulls twist their necks while charging (MacGillivray “Labyrinths” 20000).  Others interpret the scenes of bull-leaping as a religious ritual, part of a bull cult (Castleden 1990).   In any case we should be careful about treating this scene as realistic (Castleden 1990).  The bull is very stylized, its’ neck is very disproportionate to its small stubby legs, showing power and swift motion (Biers 1996).  MacGillivray argues that instead this scene depicts constellations: “Orion confronts Taurus, composed of the Hyades and Pleiades (the seven sisters), while Perseus somersaults with both arms extended over the bull's back to rescue Andromeda, recognizable by the rope (not shown in all representations) that extends from her hand” (MacGillivray “Labyrinths” 2000).  We are left to wonder what these scenes (which are found in many other places in the Knossos complex) actually mean and we should not necessarily jump to the conclusion that it is being realistic. <>
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Discussion and Conclusion


Discussion Questions:

1. Should mythology and oral tradition be used as evidence for interpreting artifacts and sites?

Answer: I think that mythology can be a helpful starting point for finding a site and perhaps understanding the evidence, but other interpretations need to be carefully examined.


2. Was Sir Arthur Evans trying to mislead people through his reconstructions?

Answer: I believe that he sincerely believed in what he was doing, but I think he was too quick to assume that Knossos was a palace.  His bias is especially noticeable in his instructions on how to “reconstitute” the “Priest-King” fresco.


3. Can we trust Evan’s interpretation of Knossos?

Answer: We need to take Evan’s interpretation with “a grain of salt.”  There are many scholarly articles listed in my bibliography which propose alternative explanations for the Knossos site and many of its’ frescos.



          As you can see the Knossos complex is anything but simplistic and it may take many years before we can construct a fuller view of Minoan life.  This site highlights many of the problems and controversies at archaeological sites with which we might never be familiar with unless we take the time to investigate further.

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Annotated Links and



Annotated Links:

1. URL:

Name of Web Site:                   Sponsor/Author: The British School at Athens
Authoritative?: Yes                                    New Information?: Fairly new
Date Published:  Last news update June 20, 2007

This site was created by the British School at Athens.  It has many resources including a history of the site, many artifacts and an online library.  My favorite portion of this BSA site is the virtual tour of the Knossos site which students who want a more comprehensive view of the site will find helpful.  The BSA worked closely with Evans and still views the Knossos complex as a palace.


2. URL:

Name of Web Site:                       Sponsor/Author: Washington State University
Authoritative?:   Somewhat                                        New Information?: No
Date Published:  Last updated 06/06/1999

    This site is hosted by Washington State University.  It is an older site, but it includes more in-depth information about Minoan society and culture.  It discusses religion, women, bull-leaping, and the role of art in society.   


3. URL:

Name of Web Site:            Sponsor/Author:
Authoritative?:  Somewhat                                    New Information?: Yes
Date Published:  Last updated October 2009

         I think this is actually a travel agency, but it has a very helpful layout of the Knossos site.  It has color-coded maps, sketched diagrams, and a short history of the discovery and excavation.  It is easy to get lost when looking at the palace and I found that this site helped me get my bearings.


4. URL:
Name of Web Site:                  Sponsor/Author: Minnesota State University
Authoritative?:  Somewhat                         New Information?: No
Accessed:  I accessed it on October 12, 2009

This site is hosted by Minnesota State University.  It features a short biography of Sir Arthur Evans, but the most useful portion of the site is a Minoan image gallery.  This gallery includes images of frescos, architecture, pottery, sculpture, and jewelry.  Be aware that these artifacts do not come just from Knossos, but also from other Minoan sites.

5. URL:
Name of Web Site:                 Sponsor/Author: Hellenic Ministry of Culture
Authoritative?:  Somewhat                       New Information?: No
Date Published:  2007

            This site is hard to read because of it having to be translated into English.  But it has some great images and more information about Sir Arthur Evans and the history of the site.  The images are much clearer than on other sites which I have visited and students may find them helpful.

6. URL:

Name of Web Site:    

Sponsor/Author: Thomas Sakoulas is an Associate Professor of Art at the State University of New York
Authoritative?: Somewhat                      New Information?: It appears to be a newer site.
Date Published:  2003-2009

            This site included more information about the economy and geography of the Minoan civilization.  It also includes details about several periods of Minoan history which I did not cover in my website.  At the end it proposes a theory about how Minoan civilization ended.  It has a section on the archaeology of Crete, art, architecture, culture, and some helpful maps.


7. URL:

Name of Web Site:             Sponsor/Author: This site is a publication of the Archaeological institute of America.
Authoritative?:  Yes                                         New Information?:  Unfortunately most of the article abstracts are from 2006 or before.
Date Published:  2008

            This site is a publication of the Archaeological institute of America.  When you type in the keyword: “Knossos” it lists abstracts of several interesting, scholarly articles on the Knossos site.  It is a great place to begin looking at scholarly articles since they are short and concise and someone else has already summarized the articles for you. It includes a few images.


8. URL:
Name of Web Site:                 Sponsor/Author:
Authoritative?: No                                      New Information?: No
Date Published:  Updated October 20, 2009

            This purpose of this site is to give people the opportunity to study art and humanities.  The portion of the site most helpful to students will be the Greek mythology section.  This section has links to all the characters in the Knossos myth in case students want more information.


9.  URL:

Name of Web Site:                          Sponsor/Author: University of Oklahoma
Authoritative?: No                                       New Information?: No
Date accessed:  October 12, 2009

This site is hosted by the University of Oklahoma.  It several categories of art including: architecture, wall paintings, sculptures, and pottery.  Be aware that this website includes artwork from other sites besides Knossos as well.   Students might also find the timeline to be helpful.


10. URL:

Name of Web Site:                    Sponsor/Author: Aaron J. Atsma
Authoritative?:  Yes in that it uses ancient sources.          New Information?: No
Date Published:  2000-2008

         This webpage is devoted to the sources (both literary and material) we have about the Minotaur.  It includes references by ancient sources about the Minotaur and links to more characters in the myth.  It also has a short name comparison and images from pottery and frescos.  This is a great site for students to look directly at what the ancient sources said about the Minotaur and how that might have influenced Sir Arthur Evans.




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Last revised: October 24, 2009