Exhibition | Labyrinth: Knossos, Myth and Reality

The Ashmolean Museum in Oxford is running an exhibition called Labyrinth: Knossos, Myth & Reality until July 30, 2023. I couldn’t resist a visit!

The story of Theseus and the Minotaur in the labyrinth at Knossos was well known, and there had been various conjectures about whether the site really existed.

The original discovery of buildings and items at Knossos was by a Cretan, Minos Kalokairinos, in 1878. However, although archaeologists came to view the site it was not excavated at the time, because Crete was part of the Ottoman Empire, and any finds could have been sent to Turkey. After the independence of Crete, Arthur Evans was given permission to begin excavations in 1900. Due to the complex layout of the buildings, Evans thought the palace itself was the labyrinth of myth. Famously, he partially re-created some of the buildings and decorations so that current-day visitors to the site can get an impression of its former splendor. He named the ancient Cretan civilization “Minoan” after king Minos.

The exhibition includes ancient and modern artworks inspired by the myth. There are also beautiful illustrations showing reconstructions and site diagrams, excavation notebooks, and photographs, and an array of finds from the original and ongoing excavations at the site.

The objects on display include artifacts held by the Ashmolean itself, and others on loan from Heraklion, and Athens, among others.

The photos show some of the items that particularly drew my attention.

Sculpture: Minotaur
Minotaur, probably a Roman adaptation of an earlier Greek bronze. c 1–300 CE. National Archaeological Museum, Athens
Floor painting: labyrinth design
Fragment of plaster, originally part of a floor design at Knossos. 1700–1600 BCE. Heraklion Archaeological Museum
Vase paintings: Theseus and the Minotaur
Theseus and the Minotaur left: 500–480 BCE; right: c 500 BCE. Both Ashmolean Museum
Coins with labyrinth design
Top: Labyrinth coin with the Minotaur, 300–200 BCE. Ashmolean Museum Bottom: Coin marked ‘of the citizens of Knossos’. 300–270 BCE. Keble College Oxford, at Ashmolean Museum
Plan of palace
Theodore Fyle: Ground plan of the Palace, 1903. Ashmolean Museum
Finds from Knossos
Stratified finds Top layer: 3 Late Minoan designs (ranging from 1600 to 1300 BCE); Second layer: Middle Minoan cup and goblet (2000 to 1800 BCE); Third layer Early Minoan footed cup (3100–2700 BCE); Fourth layer: Neolithic fragments (6500–3100 BCE). Ashmolean Museum
Decorated jug and cup
Left: Jug with ‘sacred knot’ design 1450–1375 BCE, Heraklion Archaeological Museum, Right: cup with floral decoration 1500–1450 BCE, Ashmolean Museum
Reproduction of fresco
Émile Gilliéron fils: Reproduction of Grandstand Fresco, c 1930. Ashmolean Museum
Loom weights
Loom weights from Knossos 2000–1600 BCE. Ephorate of Antiquities of Heraklion (Stratigraphical Museum)
Weight with octopus design
Stone weight, 29kg, an Eastern Mediterranean standard ‘talent’ for weighing textiles in trade. 1600–1350 BCE. Heraklion Archaeological Museum. Side and front views.
sponge print cup
Sponge-print cup 1600–1750 BCE. Heraklion Archaeological Museum
Pots with Octopus designs
Increasingly stylized depictions of octopus—Left to right: 1500–1450 BCE, Heraklion Museum; 1500–1200 BCE, Heraklion Archaeological Museum; 1300–1200 BCE, Ashmolean Museum
Gold headband
Gold headband: each gold bead has the pattern of a double argonaut. From the tomb of a young man. 1400–1375 BCE. Heraklion Archaeological Museum
Painting of bull leaping
Émile Gilliéron père: Watercolor of restored bull-leaping fresco, early 20th century. Ashmolean Museum
Bull's head
Bull’s head rhyton (pouring vessel). 1450–1375 BCE. Heraklion Archaeological Museum
Drawing reconstruction of staircase
Christian C.T. Doll: Proposed restoration of the Royal Staircase. 1905. Ashmolean Museum
Drawings reconstructing rooms of palace
Imaginative reconstructions Top left: Theodore Fyfe: Throne Room 1901. Bottom left: Edwin J. Lambert, Throne Room 1917. Top right: Theodore Fyfe: Central Palace Shrine, early 20th century. Bottom right: Émile Gilliéron fils Queen’s Megaron, c 1930. All Ashmolean Museum
Figurines. Goddess with bird on the head. Man holding a bird, 1375–1300 BCE. Heraklion Archaeological Museum
Early artifacts
Pottery cup and bowl. Ceramic, imitating wood or leather. 5900–540 BCE. Heraklion Archaeological Museum. Bone spoon 6700–6500 BCE. Ephorate of Antiquities of Heraklion (Stratigraphical Museum)
Axe and offerings
Ceremonial bronze axe 1700–1450 BCE. Ceramic and lead offerings 2000–1450 BCE. Heraklion Archaeological Museum
Ceremonial axe and bowl
Sacrificial knife and vessel which may have been a container for blood at sacrifices. 1700–1600 BCE. Heraklion Archaeological Museum
Glass bird
Glass bird 1–100 CE. Ephorate of Antiquities of Heraklion (Stratigraphical Museum)
3D model of Knossos
School of Archaeology, University of Oxford: 3D model of Knossos

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The theōriā and the Ship of Theseus

Ariadne: Abandonment and Transformation

On the trail of the Minoan civilization: Crete, June 2019

Travels in the Mediterranean


Information and captions are based on displays at the exhibition.

Image credits

All photos: S Scott

Sarah Scott is a member of Kosmos Society