Exhibition poster for Labyrinth, Knossos, Myth and Reality at The Ashmolean Museum

Confronting the British Minotaur in the Cretan Labyrinth: Minos Kalokairinos and Arthur Evans at Knossos

The Ashmolean Museum’s temporary exhibition Labyrinth: Knossos, Myth and Reality transports one through history and archaeology to investigate the legend of the labyrinth and its ancient roots in the Cretan Bronze Age civilization of the Minoans. A 2nd century Roman statue of the beastly Minotaur that functioned as part of a fountain on the Athenian Acropolis greets the visitor as they step into the exhibition, beckoning them to explore the significance of the labyrinth through ancient Greek vases, medieval maps of Crete, and modern prints by Picasso. This first room of the exhibition demonstrates that Knossos, a site on the northern coast of Crete near modern day Heraklion, has always been associated with the legendary labyrinth, King Minos, the Minotaur, and Theseus, the Athenian hero. While Minos and Theseus remain myths, the city of Knossos actually existed in the Bronze Age and was home to a monumental central ‘palace’. As the rest of the exhibition demonstrates through ceramics, fresco reproductions, and stone artefacts, we now know today that the Bronze Age city of Knossos was an important cultural, political, economic, and religious centre for Crete. At the height of its powers, Knossos boasted impressive luxury goods (i.e., ivory, semi-precious stones, gold, alabaster, ostrich eggs), monumental architectural complexes, administration and writing, colourful frescoes depicting processions and dancing, craft specialization, and strong Aegean trade networks and ship faring capabilities. The last room of the exhibition details the modern excavations and studies that are ongoing to uncover the history of this important site. The exhibition is a wonderful display of the complexities of the labyrinth myth and its origins in Minoan Crete. However, the most significant part of the exhibition, in my opinion, is the small area between the first and second room, the space between the myth and reality, where we are greeted by a large photograph of Minos Kalokairinos. This photograph and the adjoining panels recognize the complicated story of this Cretan man’s quest to discover Knossos and of the British aristocrat who stepped in instead to claim Knossos for Europe and western civilization.

Front room of the Labyrinth Exhibition, photographed by the author

Middle room of the exhibition with Minos Kalokarinos and the pithos jar he excavated, photographed by the author.

In 1900, Knossos was famously unearthed by Sir Arthur Evans, revealing a sophisticated Bronze Age (3000-1200 BC) ‘palace’ not unlike those which Henrich Schliemann had discovered at Troy and Mycenae. At this time in history, wealthy businessmen turned antiquarians were intent on discovering the realities of Homeric epics (the Iliad and the Odyssey) and the origins of European civilization. Following in the footsteps of his archaeologist father Sir John Evans, Sir Arthur Evans— an Oxford graduate and Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum (1884-1908) —used the wealth of his family’s successful paper businesses to discover a lost city. So the traditional story goes. But, Knossos’ rediscovery actually begins with Minos Kalokairinos, a Cretan businessman who explored the area of the Palace in 1878, excavating several large pithos jars of extraordinary storage capacity. One such pithos with alternating wavey and straight bands of incised decoration, a symbol of Kalokairinos’ achievements, is situated in the adjoining room of the exhibit. The discovery of these pithoi suggested to Kalokairinos that a pre-Hellenic civilization existed on Crete. Kalokairinos began to show visitors around the site, create drawings of his discoveries, and gift his pithoi to major museums around the world in Athens, Rome, Paris, and London. Evans was one such visitor to Kalokairinos’s excavations in 1894, recording in his notebooks (on display in the exhibit) architectural mason’s marks and his ideas about finding the labyrinth. In the late 19th century, the political situation on Crete was tumultuous as Crete struggled to gain independence from the Ottoman empire. The government had not allowed Kalokairinos to continue his excavations for fear that any discoveries would be shipped to Constantinople. However, Evans anticipated Cretan independence and struck up a deal with a local archaeologist (Iosif Hatzidakis) that he would purchase part of the site property. When Crete became independent in 1898, Evans was completely prepared to undertake excavation at Knossos, having petitioned Prince George of Chania to grant permission for excavation. A letter displayed to the left of Kalokairinos’s portrait in the exhibition attests to his attempts to gain recognition by suing Evans in 1907, but he died within the same year before any progress could be made.

Documents recording Kalokairinos’ lawsuit against Evans, as well as some original drawings of ceramic fragments from Kalokairinos’ excavations, photographed by the author.

Kalokairinos’s contribution has been largely overshadowed by Evans’s ‘discovery’, but the exhibition tries to reconcile with this troubling history by recognising Kalokairinos as the true hero of the labyrinth. The history of Kalokairinos has been recently extensively researched by Katerina Kopaka, helping us re-centre Cretan figures in the archaeology of the Minoan civilization. We must remember that Evans was excavating Knossos in a period where imperial agendas and perspectives were rampant in Europe. Several scholars have discussed how Evans drew parallels between the Minoan civilization and Britain, emphasizing Minoan thalassocracy, the rulership of monarchs, and the idea of a monotheistic-type religion with a Great Goddess and youthful, human warrior based on Christian ideas of Mary and Jesus. In choosing particular types of evidence that supported his theories, Evans laid a claim to Crete and the Minoans for Britain, Europe, and the ‘West’. His legacy, particularly his role in the establishment of a British associated research centre, has perhaps left us with the idea that foreign groups can claim a piece of Minoan civilization. In a modern period of anti-imperial and anti-colonial initiatives, it is important to now step back and remember that the Minoan civilization reflects Cretan and Greek history and archaeological actions of the past and present still impact the lives and histories of Cretan peoples. While Evans and his foreign assistants were overseeing excavations in the 1900s, it was Cretan men and women that bore the brunt of manual labour and physically dug their history from the earth. Still today, Cretan workers are called to excavation sites because they have the best knowledge for the site formation processes and stratigraphy of the island. Through the story of Minos Kalokairinos, we are reminded that 20th century imperialism deeply affects our view of the past. As you go through the Labyrinth exhibition at the Ashmolean make sure to recognize the path Kalokairinos set for Evans, reflect on how foreign archaeologists have impacted local sites, and be critical of their attempts to appropriate ancient civilisations to justify their own purposes.

Labyrinth: Knossos, Myth and Reality is running at the Ashmolean Museum until 30 July 2023. https://www.ashmolean.org/exhibition/labyrinth-knossos-myth-reality.

Renée Trepagnier is a MPhil student in Classical Archaeology at Hertford College, specializing in the Bronze Age civilization of Crete, particularly at Knossos.

Further Reading:

Kopaka, K. 2015. ‘Minos Kalokairinos and his early excavations at Knossos. An overview, a portrait, and a return to the Kephala pithoi’ in The Great Islands: Studies of Crete and Cyprus presented to Gerald Cadogan, Macdonald, Colin F., Eleni Hatzaki, and Stelios Andreou, eds. Athens: Kapon Editions.

Kopaka, K. 2017. ‘Rhea Galanaki’s The Century of Labyrinths: a dialogue between literature and archaeology that starts with Minos Kalokairinos’ in Cretomania: Modern Desires for the Minoan Past, Momigliano, Nicoletta and Alexandre Farnoux, eds. 3:180-188, London and New York: Routledge.

McEnroe, J. 2002. “Cretan Questions: Politics and Archaeology 1898-1913” in Labyrinth Revisited: Rethinking “Minoan” Archaeology, edited by Yannis Hamilakis, 60–72. Oxford: Oxbow.

Schoep, I. 2018. “Building the Labyrinth: Arthur Evans and the Construction of Minoan Civilization.” American Journal of Archaeology 122 (1):5–32.

Shapland, A (ed.). 2023. Labyrinth: Knossos, Myth and Reality Catalogue, Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford.


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