Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Phil Paine visits Knossos, at last

His reflections after fulfilling a life-long dream:

I have my owned pref­er­ences about inter­pret­ing Knos­sos, but until now they’ve been based on pho­tographs, writ­ten descrip­tions, and site plans. These second-hand things give lit­tle feel­ing for the three-dimensional real­ity. It was only after exam­in­ing every cor­ner of the real site that I could con­fi­den­tially feel con­firmed in my own inter­pre­ta­tions. I am con­vinced that the “palace” of Knos­sos was no palace. The Minoan state of Knos­sos may or may not have had kings, but if they did, this com­plex was not an expres­sion of it. It is noth­ing like the royal palaces of Mesopotamia.

The most dis­cussed part of the com­plex is the Cen­tral Plaza, which Evans visu­al­ized as a palace court­yard, and the venue for the bull-leaping por­trayed in Minoan art. The plaza seems sin­gu­larly imprac­ti­cal for such an activ­ity, but it is not impos­si­ble. What­ever cer­e­monies were per­formed there, it seems to me unlikely that they were pri­mar­ily for the enter­tain­ment of a king, queen and court. Com­mu­nal feast­ing seems more likely. Per­haps the bull-leaping was done else­where, and the bull brought to the plaza for sac­ri­fice. Large quan­ti­ties of cups have been found, to del­i­cate for nor­mal use, and there are other signs of large-scale cooking.

The most impor­tant alter­na­tive expla­na­tion of the pri­mary pur­pose of the com­plex has been that it might have been a monas­tic com­plex. There are strik­ing analo­gies in its lay­out to monas­tic com­plexes in Tibet (which also focus on a rec­tan­gu­lar plaza), or the medieval Euro­pean monas­ter­ies (which also had exten­sive stor­age and work­shop facil­i­ties). I think this is closer to the truth, but I would take the argu­ment a step fur­ther. At one point, I turned to Filip and said: “This is an Agora.”
Every­thing about the place says “Agora” to me. In my mind’s eye, I can see a mar­ket place (gr. agora), spring­ing up between two or small sacred places that have turned into sanc­tu­ar­ies and places of pil­grim­age. These grad­u­ally evolved into shrines served by priest­esses, and even­tu­ally into a com­plex of monas­tic insti­tu­tions, but always main­tain­ing the cen­tral open space for a mix­ture of com­mer­cial, rit­ual, judi­cial, and polit­i­cal use. There is no one over­whelm­ing sacred place, as with a Cathe­dral or a Mesopotamian tem­ple. There is no one cen­tral audi­ence hall where a king could over­awe his sub­jects. The struc­ture which Evans imag­ined to be a royal throne room is com­pletely inap­pro­pri­ate for such use. It’s a small room, with a small chair set against the longest wall, at floor level. The “throne” faces a nar­row space partly filled with some kind of offer­ing bowl. Nobody ever built throne rooms like that. The aes­thet­ics is over­whelm­ingly inti­mate and reli­gious, not monar­chi­cal. No king who could com­mand the impres­sive resources of so wealthy a state would be con­tent with such a dinky lit­tle room, in which he could impress no one. All over the com­plex, there are no murals con­vey­ing kingly power and author­ity, noth­ing say­ing “look on this, ye mighty, and despair.” There are only pic­tures of flow­ers, chil­dren play­ing games, dol­phins leap­ing in the sea, farm­ers har­vest­ing their crops, ath­letes, ele­gant ladies, pets, and so on. The archi­tec­tural fea­ture are every­where con­sis­tent with domes­tic, com­mer­cial, and small-scale reli­gions uses.
At some points in time, the whole com­plex seems to have been con­sol­i­dated or rebuilt by a uni­form plan, but that is quite pos­si­ble in a non-monarchical con­text. The Agora of Athens under­went such a process under demo­c­ra­tic rule.

Which brings us to the intrigu­ing pos­si­bil­ity that Knos­sos, and the other Minoan cities such as Malia, Phaestos, and Gortyn might have been republics of some kind. Of course, no proof exists for such a hypoth­e­sis, but no proof exists for Evan’s roy­al­ist inter­pre­ta­tion, or sub­se­quent priestly the­o­ries. The level of evi­dence sim­ply does not per­mit any cer­tain­ties. Only the pos­si­bil­ity of deci­pher­ing the Lin­ear A or the hiero­glyphic texts holds any hope for that. But I think that a repub­li­can inter­pre­ta­tion has been resisted by archae­ol­o­gists and his­to­ri­ans under the influ­ence of dubi­ous assump­tions about lin­ear social evolution.

The emer­gence of repub­li­can state insti­tu­tions in the 18th and 19th cen­turies was partly inspired and harked back to Medieval and Renais­sance republics, though the con­ti­nu­ity between them was slim stuff, and largely depen­dent on folk­loric insti­tu­tions below the state level. The Medieval republics sim­i­larly harked back to the Clas­si­cal republics of Greece and Rome, though again the con­ti­nu­ity was ephemeral. It may be that the Democ­racy that emerged in the Greek polis of the fourth cen­tury BC was itself hark­ing back to remote prece­dents in the Bronze Age.

Before com­ing here, I had no clear notion of the broader phys­i­cal set­ting of Knos­sos. The “palace” was sur­rounded by a large (by Bronze Age stan­dards) city, of which we know very lit­tle. There were some large out­ly­ing struc­ture, and prob­a­bly a net­work of vil­lages sub­servient to, or inte­grated with the city. There were roads which led directly to the cen­tral plaza — another fea­ture that sug­gests an Agora. It’s only when you stand in them that you grasp that they were as tech­ni­cally advanced as any­thing the Romans built. The plaza is aligned with the region’s most dra­matic look­ing moun­tain peak. It is in a val­ley of fab­u­lous agri­cul­tural poten­tial. The sur­round­ing hills are ter­raced, and from what I gather the ter­races, con­stantly rebuilt, were there in Minoan times. This val­ley in turn was part of a sys­tem of broad, fer­tile val­leys and plains that dis­sects the island of Crete, with other major Minoan sites scat­tered in it. This area is extra­or­di­nar­ily beau­ti­ful. The Neolithic agri­cul­tural “pack­age” of domes­tic ani­mals and crops would have sup­ported a very high stan­dard of liv­ing, and com­bined with fish­ing and sea trade would have made life very sweet by ancient stan­dards. The murals don’t seem to lie.

We returned to Irak­lion and vis­ited its Archae­o­log­i­cal Museum. This was almost as great a plea­sure as Knos­sos itself. It con­tains most of the famous arti­facts unearthed at Knos­sos. It’s only when you see them in real life that you can fully appre­ci­ate them. Some are of great beauty. Some are just delight­ful, like the toy or model house, which is so detailed and obvi­ously intended to be real­is­tic that we can con­fi­dently pic­ture what Minoan houses actu­ally looked like. The famous murals are there. You can imag­ine my delight at being pho­tographed in front of the “Prince of the Lilies” mural that adorned my web­site for years.

Image:  the mural.

1 comment:

  1. Its a great visit here. It makes my mind to visit here. thanks to share with us.