Classics Prehistoric Knossos
Kostis Christakis
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 April 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 April 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0396


Knossos lies among the inland hills 6 km (3.7 mi.) south of the city of Heraklion on the north central coast of Crete, in the valley of the river Kairatos and its tributary, the Therron. To the east rises the hill of Ai Lias, to the north is the low height of Kefala, to the south the hill of Gypsades, and roughly in the south of the valley stands the hill of Kephala tou Tselevi, where the Bronze Age palace was built. In the early seventh millennium BCE, a settlement of farmers and herders arose on this low hill in the valley, forming one of the earliest known farming sedentary villages in Europe. Significant socioeconomic and ideological ferment, in the later third millennium BCE on Crete, resulted in the appearance of proto-urban centers and the rise of complex sociopolitical structures. The most important center was Knossos, which in the following centuries became the largest city in the Aegean and Mainland Greece and one of the largest in the Eastern Mediterannean. Knossos was the most important political, economic, ideological, and artistic center of Crete and the Aegean, and its brilliance extended beyond the geographical limits of the island to Egypt and the empires of the East. Of course, how far the culturally leading role of Knossos may be interpreted as a sign of a lasting island-wide political system is highly debatable. Most Cretan centers were destroyed around 1450 BCE, due to human agency. Knossos recovered quickly, emerging as the sole political center of the island. A hierarchical administrative system extended across almost the whole of Crete, accompanied by new forms of political, administrative, and ideological expression. Although the dominant view attributes these changes to the establishment of a mainland Mycenaean dynasty, it has been argued that this new order was the creation of a Knossian leadership that imposed its rule by the use of new instruments of power. Despite their military might, however, the rulers of Knossos were unable to maintain their authority for long. In 1325/1300 BCE, the palace was destroyed. Knossos fell into decline, and the town shrank significantly. However, the memory of its Bronze Age glory remained alive in the Greek tradition of the historical era, in the tales of King Minos, son of Zeus and Europa, a powerful and merciless sovereign, highest judge of souls, inspired lawmaker, and ruler of the seas.

General Overviews

Knossos has long been associated with the research of the British School at Athens, which has been active in the area since 1900. Christakis 2019 provides a full synthesis of the activities of the British School at Athens in the area. A wealth of studies on Knossos have been published in the Annual of the British School at Athens from 1900 to the present day. They present the final results of small-scale excavations and preliminary excavation reports, provide detailed analyses of artifactual and ecofactual remains of almost every kind, and discuss the political, economic, and ideological aspects of Knossian society. Although it is impossible to review all these studies in the present article, the Annuals of the British School at Athens are a key point of reference for those wishing to study this important archaeological site. For a synthetic treatment of many aspects of Knossian society, see Evely, et al. 1994 and Cadogan, et al. 2004. It is also worth noting the collective volume Momigliano 2007 on prehistoric Knossian pottery, and the publication of the masons’ marks from the palace and its peripheral buildings in Hood 2020.

  • Cadogan, G., E. Hatzaki, and A. Vasilakis, eds. 2004. Knossos: Palace, city, state. Proceedings of the conference in Heraklion organized by the British School at Athens and the 23rd Ephoria of Prehistoric and Classical Antiquities of Heraklion, in November 2000, for the centenary of Sir Arthur Evans’s excavations at Knossos. BSA Studies 12. London: British School at Athens.

    Edited book with articles organized in thematic sections, exploring almost all aspects of Neolithic and Bronze Age Knossos.

  • Christakis, K. 2019. The emergence of a metropolis: The excavations of the British School at Athens in the valley of Knossos. In Crete. Emerging cities: Aptera Eleutherna Knossos. Edited by N. C. Stampolidis, E. Papadopoulou, I. G. Lourentzatou, and I. D. Fappas, 195–231. Athens, Greece: Museum of Cycladic Art.

    Complete and updated discussion of the research activities of Evans and the British School at Athens in the valley of Knossos from 1900 to the present.

  • Evely, D., H. Hughes-Brock, and N. Momigliano, eds. 1994. Knossos: A labyrinth of history. Papers presented in honour of Sinclair Hood. London: British School at Athens.

    Edited book with thematic papers examining various aspects of Neolithic and Bronze Age Knossos.

  • Hood, S. 2020. The mason’s marks of Minoan Knossos. BSA Suppl. 49. Edited by Lisa Maria Bendall. London: British School at Athens.

    The final publication of the largest assemblages of mason’s marks in the prehistoric Aegean. Although the proposed interpretation of these marks is problematic in places, this work forms the cornerstone of their study.

  • Momigliano, N., ed. 2007. Knossos pottery handbook: Neolithic and Bronze Age (Minoan). BSA Studies 14. London: British School at Athens.

    The most comprehensive presentation of Knossian pottery from the Neolithic to the Late Bronze Age, written by top pottery specialists. The ultimate basis for the study of Knossian and Cretan Bronze Age pottery in general.

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