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Labyrinth: Knossos, Myth & Reality at Oxford's Ashmolean Museum

By Theresa Thompson, Timeless Travels Arts' Correspondent

Emile Gillieron père (1850–1924), Restoration of Ladies in Blue Fresco, undated, watercolour, 95 x 161 cm, © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Labyrinth. The very word has a ring to it. The concept is exciting; you can lose yourself in a labyrinth, a mysterious place, a maze of intricate passageways and blind alleys. Myths to do with labyrinths have circulated, told and retold and inevitably embellished from the Bronze Age onwards, and never more famously than that of the Labyrinth built at Knossos on the island of Crete to hold the monstrous Minotaur.

According to Greek myth, the Labyrinth at Knossos was built by King Minos to imprison the ferocious half-man, half-bull progeny of Minos’s wife Pasiphae and a white bull sent by Poseidon. Confined deep underground, the Minotaur awaited the seven young women and seven young men shipped annually as sacrificial victims from Athens. In due course, the hero Theseus volunteered to be one of those, and killed the beast, escaping out of the maze using a ball of thread Ariadne, the daughter of King Minos, had given him.

It has all the elements of a captivating story, romance, mystery, threat, and remains one of the most enduring of classical myths. Consequently, Knossos is now the second most visited archaeological site in Greece after Athens.

A major exhibition at Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum now explores that legend alongside one of the most celebrated stories of modern archaeology: the discovery and excavation of the Palace of Knossos in northern Crete.

Sir Arthur Evans at the Palace of Knossos, 1901 ©Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

With 200 objects on show, over 100 of which have never left Greece before, it's the first UK exhibition to focus on Knossos that combines the excavation archive of Sir Arthur Evans (1851–1841) who was Keeper of the Ashmolean from 1884-1908 (bequeathing the archive to the Museum in 1941), and fine objects from Heraklion and Athens alongside the Ashmolean's own Minoan collections.

But first things first. Despite the popular perception, Sir Arthur Evans did not discover Knossos. It was a Cretan businessman and scholar, Minos Kalokairinos who discovered it in 1878. Kalokairinos is given his due in the exhibition, but was prevented from excavating by the authorities because Crete was then under the partial control of the Ottoman Empire, and until it gained independence any significant finds were at risk of being taken to Constantinople (Istanbul).

Archaeologists from all over came to look at the site, among them British archaeologist Arthur Evans who was shown by Kalokairinos the remains of the huge building he had discovered there. From its layout, Evans decided that this building had to be the Labyrinth of myth, so sought and was granted permission to dig by the Cretan authorities. Having agreed to wait to excavate the site until Crete was independent, he began his excavations at Knossos in 1900.

When he started digging Evans hoped to find evidence of early writing, and almost immediately unearthed tablets of baked clay with inscriptions on them. Incidentally, his four decades of excavations at Knossos produced thousands more inscriptions, although they could not be read until philologist Michael Ventris deciphered Linear B in 1952.

Sculpture of the Minotaur, 1–300 CE, marble, h. 73 cm, Athens © Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Sports, General Directorate of Antiquities and Cultural Heritage, National Archaeological Museum

More wondrous things were to follow, including colourful frescoes of ‘Ladies in Blue’, olive trees, and young people leaping over bulls, and a room containing an amazingly intact stone throne that convinced Evans that this was the ‘Palace of Minos’. He was able to establish the date, that it was around 4,000 years old and built during the Bronze Age, and popularised the term ‘Minoan’ (after King Minos) to describe the civilisation of Crete in this period.

So to the exhibition. Firstly, hats off to the exhibition designers, for this is an exciting design. From the moment you enter, it’s like walking into a story. A white bull greets you – a startling marble sculpture of the Minotaur from 1-300 CE, its massive broken, almost writhing body a Roman copy of part of an earlier public fountain in Athens. Skirting around that, you see one of the most amazing finds to come from Knossos: a fragment of labyrinth pattern from a 3500 years-old floor painting. This is juxtaposed with Mark Wallinger’s maze-like design for the London Underground, 2013, and nearby also Pablo Picasso’s Minotauromachie, 1935, demonstrating how stories of bulls and labyrinths continue to inspire artists to this day.

Secondly, there’s something for everyone here. In the first gallery alone, which starts with the myths, apart from the pieces of modern art, there are period maps (showing labyrinths all over the place) and books containing examples of the labyrinth in literature, including its adoption as a Christian symbol, silver coins from Knossos with labyrinth designs on the reverse, amphorae and cups decorated with scenes of the myths of Theseus and the Minotaur or Ariadne.

The Poros Ewer, 1500–1450 BCE, ceramic, h. 26.2 cm, Poros, © Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Sports, General Directorate of Antiquities and Cultural Heritage, Heraklion Archaeological Museum

In the next gallery the highlights include a finely carved marble triton shell showing the skill of Minoan craftspeople and their interest in marine life, designs of octopuses and argonauts, depictions of bulls and the famed bull leaping, statuettesof snake goddesses, besides a section on the probable high status of women in Knossos. On frescoes and palace objects the women appear to wear elaborate dyed textiles (using the likes of saffron and the prized purple colour from crushed murex shells), pointing to the importance of the textile trade for the island.

Drawings from the archive made during the excavation and the process of reconstructing the site and finds, displayed or reproduced on the gallery walls, provide insights into Evans’s controversial concrete restorations of the Palace of Minos in the mid-20th century.

Modern-day excavations at Knossos and elsewhere in Crete are dealt with in the final gallery, which displays discoveries such as a bronze double axe, a bone spoon (dated to 6700-6500 BCE, apparently the earliest in Europe), tiny carved puppy figurines (some originally covered in gold, possibly made as offerings for valued pets?), plus animal bones and stone axes left by the first farmers that tell us that people have lived at Knossos for 9000 years, making it one of the oldest settlements in Europe.

Click on each picture to enlarge. Left to right: Elizabeth Price (1966–), A Restoration, 2016, high-resolution digital video with colour and sound, © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford, (Presented by the Contemporary Art Society, 2016); Video still from Assassin’s Creed Odyssey © Assassin’s Creed™ & © Ubisoft Entertainment. All Rights Reserved; The Minotaur, concept art by Guang Yu Tan, 2018 © Assassin's Creed™ & Ubisoft Entertainment. All rights reserved.

Finally, two exciting 21st century additions to the story bring us bang up to date. One, a specially-made film based on the acclaimed video game Assassin’s Creed Odyssey is terrific, compelling, enveloping, the roars of the beast unescapable. Ubisoft, a pioneer of the video game industry, created the film specially for the exhibition to demonstrate the research behind the game.

The other is A RESTORATION made in 2016 by Turner Prize winning artist Elizabeth Price, inspired by the Arthur Evans archive. First shown only a few years ago at the Ashmolean, it reconstructs figuratively the Palace at Knossos and is redisplayed today at the end of the exhibition.

The exhibition catalogue, The Sir Arthur Evans Curator of Bronze Age and Classical Greece, edited by curator Dr Andrew Shapland, is a tremendous read, full of informative essays and photographs that help unpick the themes already encountered. I found the myth and historical timelines especially helpful.

There are many twists and turns to the stories told in this superb exhibition, as many as in a labyrinth itself. It makes going to see the exhibition in Oxford an exciting proposition - which it duly lives up to. And those twists and turns continue to the café where the cappuccinos have a chocolate labyrinth pattern on top!

The exhibition is held in collaboration with Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Sports, General Directorate of Antiquities and Cultural Heritage, Heraklion Archaeological Museum, Ephorate of Antiquities of Heraklion, National Archaeological Museum, Athens.


Labyrinth: Knossos, Myth & Reality

Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

Showing until: 30 July 2023.


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