Ruined Ruins: The Trouble with Knossos

“Handmade, you see?” He knocks a vase with an innocent dolphin on the side against the counter top. “See, it will not break!” The gray haired man behind the market stall of mass produced pottery has a hard sell on his hands. He continues to slam his own product against hard surfaces to show me how well made his pots and vases are, ones that are no doubt produced in factories and not in some local potter’s kiln. A theme I would later discover at the archaeological site Knossos, I understand his imagination is far different than mine. He is selling me a lie, but I can imagine it to be something it is not. The vase might be real and fake. I fork over €4 for a little piece of this moment and for a constant reminder to always keep the mask of imagination in my home, just as that man did to sell his tourist clutter.

Heraklion Market Stalls

Six hours earlier, I drove up to Crete’s most famous and visited site, the ancient city of Knossos. Right outside of sprawling Heraklion, I imagine rolling hills of nothing and then ruins to make my jaw hit the floor. Instead, more and more tourist shops appear and men start to wave their flags at me in hopes that I will pay them for a free parking space. I keep on the road ahead and finally find the site’s designated parking lot, right next to the ruins and with no flagging men.

We hand over our €6 euros and head into Knossos with the purest of imaginations. Knossos is the site of the most important palace of Minoan civilization. The ancient Crete city was in fact the center of the Minoan world, the earliest of the Aegean civilizations. Often lauded as one of the greatest archaeological sites in the world, you can’t help but go into Knossos with incredibly high expectations. Some have even added myth to this legendary site, attributing it to King Minos, son of Zeus.


We begin roaming the palace, one that survived without need of imagination until a fire in 1350 BC. Before that palace, stood another, mostly constructed from 2000 BC to 1585 BC. Its destruction was blamed on an earthquake. Earthquake, fire, I’m beginning to think Knossos is doomed to the core. Our sandals make contact with stones, just as sandals have been since the Neolithic Period on this site. Knossos was occupied up until as late as the fifth century A.D. The dust that we are kicking up is truly ancient.


The second palace, the remains of what we see today, was sophisticated by all means. It featured water and sanitation systems, painted plaster, beams to reinforce the masonry and even colorful wall art. Aside from loads of large vases and fragments of frescoes, the Linear B tablets were found at Knossos, etched in the oldest known dialect of Greek. The multi-storey building once spanned 20,000 square meters. Like most ancient powerhouses, Knossos would fall from grace and eventually shrivel in importance when the political focus of the Aegean shifted to the mainland. As I roam deeper and deeper into the ancient city, I get more and more heated when I see concrete beams made to look like wood clearly not from 2000 BC holding up doorways and red slapped on to the columns, as if they were painted yesterday.

Reconstructed beams and colored columns

Knossos lay in its ruins until 1878 when Heraklion local Minos Kalokerinos unearthed the monumental city. British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans would step in to excavate and restore the site to its former glory. However, excavate he did to the point of reconstruction. He uncovered the whole palace and the sophisticated Bronze Age culture behind it. Evans spent 35 years of his life and roughly £250,000 on Knossos. Critics have admonished Evans’ work, saying he sacrificed accuracy for imagination, namely his own imagination. He painted the columns. He reinforced doorways with fake wood. He hired artists to fill in the missing pieces of frescoes, pieces that weren’t, many argue, even there. He envisioned Knossos to be the grand palace of not an actual Minoan, but a mythical one, King Minos.

Large vases at Knossos

I see a line forming to see the Throne Room on site. Evans imagined King Minos holding court here. However, it was most likely used for religious reasons. Sadly, the alabaster throne and colorful frescoes can’t tell which imagination is right or wrong.

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Knossos’ crowning glories are its many frescoes. Original fragments can be found at the Heraklion Archaeological Museum. The site itself has copies displayed where they were found. Evans had artists fill in the pieces of what he unearthed, producing famous scenes of Knossos such as the Dolphins fresco and the Ladies in Blue. The art found at Knossos emphasized dancing, sports and dolphins, the good things in life.


By this point, I have seen enough of Evans’ imagination, when I spot a rich fresco on the side of a former entrance to the palace. I find myself calling a different kind of bull over this bull. It’s originality is absurd. I start to question what is real and what is a figment of Evan’s imagination at Knossos. In my imagination’s mind, he seemed to ruin the ruins.

Knossos Bull Fresco

There is a stubborn nature to the imagination. It doesn’t want to be told what to envision. Rather it delights in creating something that isn’t really there. I prefer true ruins, not those doctored to give me an imagination. Unfortunately for the ancient city of Knossos, Sir Arthur Evans created the city of his imagination, one that I argue can only be truly understood by its creator.


The dolphin that Evans had filled into frescoes found on site is now the dolphin that sits on my nightstand. I realize that I quite literally bought into Evans’ dream for Knossos, as much as his imagination made my blood boil. Knossos is either some archaeologist’s over zealous imagination come to life or a truly remarkable window into an ancient world. And not unlike the vase, it is real and fake at the same time.

My Dolphin for Imagination's Sake

What do you think of Knossos? Can you go too far when recreating the past or do reconstructions help the imagination?


  1. says

    “There is a stubborn nature to the imagination. It doesn’t want to be told what to envision.” Well said! That really is unfortunate and I’m sure he meant well but everyone should be able to experience it how it was discovered and let our own imaginations take over. Thanks for sharing your experience!

    Happy travels :)

  2. says

    Real and fake at the same time: perfectly stated! I haven’t been to Crete but that is how I would feel too. Inserting your own designs and creations is part desecration. He meant well but…

  3. says

    Interesting debate. Would it of been better to of just left this place to how it was? How much is imagination and how much is real? Its just the problem with history and ruins isn’t it, we never know how much of what we are looking at is real and how accurate.

    • says

      I guess I would have preferred him to leave Knossos how he found it, salvaging the art along the way. Those are my thoughts exactly! Knossos is problematic because you don’t know if you are looking at something that is real or reconstruction.

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