Ancient Cretan City Had A Secret Afterlife

Some of the Iron Age pottery found in Knossos, demonstrating the city survived as a center of trade after its empire was gone. Todd Whitelaw

Knossos, Europe's first great city, didn't simply disappear at the end of the Bronze Age as previously thought. Instead, it recovered and thrived as a center of trade despite having lost its place as a hub of world power.

Ancient Greek stories refer to a mighty city on the island of Crete named Knossos. It was here that the hero Theseus was supposed to have killed the minotaur and escaped the labyrinth. The story of a half-man/half-bull monster is obviously myth to us, but to the ancient Greeks it became mixed with genuine memories of a time when Crete dominated the region, extracting tribute from surrounding peoples.

In 1878, the site of an ancient city on the north coast of Crete was discovered. Excavations in the early 20th century produced evidence that this was Knossos, including the palace that was at the heart of the Minoan civilization. Now, evidence has been presented to the annual meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America and Society for Classical Studies that the city lasted much longer than had previously been recognized.

The Minoan civilization fell around 1500 BCE, but Knossos was occupied by Mycenaean Greeks and survived as a center of power, although without its previous hegemony.

In 1200 BCE, near the end of the Bronze Age, Knossos was thought to have been abandoned. The fall of such a great metropolis has been attributed to an earthquake or invading armies, but the event coincided with what is known as the Bronze Age Collapse, which saw violent disruption throughout the eastern Mediterranean. The Romans subsequently built a city nearby, which used imagery that recalled Knossos on its coins, and later nearby cities also looked to the location's glorious past.

According to Dr. Antonis Kotsonas of the University of Cincinnati, however, there is more to this city's story than the familiar tale of supremacy and collapse. Kotsonas is part of the Knossos Urban Landscape Project, which has slowly collected Iron Age relics from the area around Knossos itself. He concludes that the Iron Age Knossos was three times as large as previously believed, and a center of great wealth.

“No other site in the Aegean period has such a range of imports,” Kotsonas said in a statement, with metals, jewelry, and pottery from not only nearby Greece and Egypt but the Sardinia and the western Mediterranean – a vast distance by the standards of the day.

Prosperous as Knossos may have been in the early Iron Age, it was sufficiently outshone and disappeared from history. Kotsonas said far more exploration is required to understand the nature of the city in its last era but, “Even at this early stage in detailed analysis, it appears that this was a nucleated, rather densely occupied settlement extending over the core of the Knossos valley.”

Kotsonas' talk was part of a colloquium at the conference, where he said the findings emphasize the importance of preserving unexplored areas of what is now a popular tourist site. 

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