Knossos Palace is the legendary site of Theseus fighting the Minotaur, Ariadne and her ball of string, Daedalus the architect and doomed Icarus of the wax wings: how many of us dream Minoan dreams and never realize it?
The Aegean culture known as Minoan is the Bronze Age civilization that flourished on the island of Crete during the second and third millennia B.C. The city of Knossos was one of its main cities--and it contained its largest palace after the shattering earthquake that marks the beginning of the New Palace period in Greek archaeology, ca. 1700 BC.
Palaces of the Minoan culture were likely not simply residences of a ruler, or even a ruler and his family, but rather held a public function, where others could enter and use (some of) the palace facilities.
The Minoan Languages
We know little of the Minoan culture, compared to later Greek cultures, because much of their language has been lost. Homer spoke of the Cretan civilization--that's from where the legends of Minos and Ariadne come. Two written languages are associated with Minoan culture; Linear A, first used during the early Minoan period, and Linear B, which doesn't appear on tablets until ca 1450, well past the culture's fluorescence.
Knossos Palace Construction and History
Construction on the palace at Knossos, according to legend the palace of King Minos, was begun in the PrePalatial period, perhaps as long ago as 2000 B.C., and by 1900 BC, it was fairly close to its final form--a large single building with a central courtyard surrounding by a set of rooms for various purposes: a famously standardized Minoan form. The palace had perhaps as many as ten separate entrances: those on the north and west served as the main entry ways.
Around 1700 BC, one theory goes, a tremendous earthquake shook the Aegean Sea, devastating Crete as well as the Mycenaean cities on the Greek mainland. Knossos' palace was destroyed; but the Minoan civilization rebuilt almost immediately on top of the ruins of the past, and indeed the culture reached its pinnacle only after the devastation.
During the Neo-Palatial period [1700-1450 BC], the Palace of Minos covered nearly 22,000 square meters (about 5.4 acres) and contained storage rooms, living quarters, religious areas, and banquet rooms. What appears to be a jumble of rooms connected by narrow passageways probably gave rise to the myth of the Labyrinth; the structure itself was built of a complex of dressed masonry and clay-packed rubble, and then half-timbered. Columns were many and varied in the Minoan tradition, and the walls were highly decorated with frescoes.
Artifacts and furniture found within the palace include a number of figurines, including faience "snake goddesses"; a likely Post-Palatial bronze male figurine and a libation table; frescoes inside the palace celebrate the iconic bull.
Excavation and Reconstruction
The Palace at Knossos was first extensively excavated by Sir Arthur Evans, in the earliest years of the 20th century. One of the pioneers of the field of archaeology, Evans had a marvelous imagination and a tremendous creative fire, and he used his skills to create what you can go and see today at Knossos in northern Crete. Too much by today's standards, I fear: as you might guess by the photograph, Evans painted temple is a little gaudier than was probably the case. But visiting Knossos is still a great way to absorb the ancient Minoan culture.
A Few Recent Studies
Adams E. 2004. Power and ritual in Neopalatial Crete: a regional comparison. World Archaeology 36(1):26-42.
Adams E. 2007. Approaching monuments in the prehistoric built environment: New light on the Minoan palaces. Oxford Journal of Archaeology 26(4):359-394.
Nafplioti A. 2008. "Mycenaean" political domination of Knossos following the Late Minoan IB destructions on Crete: negative evidence from strontium isotope ratio analysis (87Sr/86Sr). Journal of Archaeological Science 35(8):2307-2317.
Schoep I. 2004. Assessing the role of architecture in conspicuous consumption in the Middle Minoan I-II periods. Oxford Journal of Archaeology 23(3):243-269.
Shaw JW, and Lowe A. 2002. The "Lost" Portico at Knossos: The Central Court Revisited. American Journal of Archaeology 106(4):513-523.
Sweetman RJ. 2007. Roman Knossos: The Nature of a Globalized City. American Journal of Archaeology 111(1):61-82.