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Minoan Plumbing at Knossos

Minoan Toilets, Drains, and Water Pipes

Knossos or Κνωσός has been called the first European city. The site was settled around 7000 BCE in the Neolithic period. By about 2000 BCE it had become an urban area of up to 18,000 people. At its peak shortly after 1700 BCE, the population of the complex and the surrounding city had grown to about 100,000.

But, we don't know what these people called themselves, or what their language (or maybe languages) were like. We call them "Minoan" because that matches up with myths recorded significantly later.

The Knossos palace complex was abandoned in the Late Bronze Age, around 1380–1100 BCE, and the Mycenaeans (the Greeks in the story of the Trojan War) took control of the site and other former Minoan sites and trade routes.

In the mid 20th century we finally figured out how to read its name in the Linear B syllabary script used for Mycenaean Greek: 𐀒𐀜𐀰 or KO-NO-SO.

You can take bus #2 from central Heraklion to the Knossos site for just €2.

Μίνως Καλοκαιρινός or Minos Kalokairinos, an amateur archaeologist, discovered the site in 1878.

Minos Kalokairinos from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Minos_Kalokairinos.jpg

Minos Kalokairinos.

Sir Arthur John Evans from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sir_Arthur_John_Evans.jpg

Sir Arthur John Evans.

Along came Arthur Evans, eventually to become Sir Arthur John Evans. It was a different and much earlier time in archaeology and science in general. If you think Dr Henry "Indiana" Jones was reckless and sometimes unethical, get a load of this guy. Evans applied his personal assumptions and opinions on Knossos, its people, and their culture. His hypotheses were based on the art of Renaissance Italy and ancient Egypt, on languages and scripts of the Levant, and most dangerously, on some of the more ancient myths.

Arthur Evans' imaginative reconstructions at the prehistoric site of Knossos, outside Iraklia in Crete.

Arthur Evans' imaginative reconstructions at Knossos. Many of the details are based on his assumptions.

Drain just below Arthur Evans' imaginative reconstructions at the prehistoric site of Knossos, outside Iraklia in Crete.

An authentic Minoan drain just below the most prominent palace reconstruction at Knossos.

Sir Arthur John Evans

Arthur Evans studied at Oxford, getting involved along with his brother Lewis in various intrigues and adventures.

Visiting Bucovina in the Carpathians

In 1872 the Evans brothers went into Ottoman territory in the Carpathians, crossing borders illegally in the mountains with "revolvers at the ready" as they wrote about it in Fraser's Magazine. The next year they went through Lapland, Finland, and Sweden. The year after that, Evans graduated from Oxford, barely. He had extensive knowledge in areas of ancient history and archaeology that interested him, but was unable to answer any of his examiners' questions on topics after the 12th century.

In the summer of 1874 he attended, or at least started, a summer term at the University of Göttingen. It may have been intended as a remedial session to make up for his lack of modern history knowledge.

Evans was quickly bored with Göttingen, and met his brother for another trip to the Ottoman-ruled Sanjak of Herzegovina. It was then in a state of violent insurrection that the Ottomans were trying to quell with Bashi-bazouks, notoriously cruel irregular soldiers from all over the Ottoman Empire. Arthur and Lewis planned to spy against the Principality of Montenegro at the resistance's strongest point in the mountain ranges of Ljubišnja and the Tara river gorge, the deepest canyon in Europe.

They got along fine with the Ottomans and the Serbs, but they provoked the Austro-Hungarian Empire's officers into imprisoning them for a night. They were eventually escorted to a British consulate just before the area erupted into mutual massacres of civilian populations. The Chargé d'Affaires was Evans' former mentor at Oxford, who had been quite tolerant of his lack of recent historical knowledge. But now Evans was embedded in current events.

Arthur wrote about all this in Through Bosnia and Herzegovina, in two editions in 1876 and 1877. He was suddenly seen as an expert on the Balkans, and was sent back as a correspondent for the Manchester Guardian.

He married a daughter of the British consul to whom he had been delivered, his former Oxford mentor, and continued as a foreign correspondent. Eventually his continued support of native government if possible and local insurrection if not got him arrested, imprisoned for six weeks, then put on trial as a British agent provocateur. He and his wife were expelled from the country.

Evans and his wife moved back to Oxford in 1883. He finished some articles and decided not to apply for a new Professorship of Classical Archaeology.

Toilets at Mycenae and Tiryns

Instead, he and his wife traveled to Greece to meet with Heinrich Schliemann, who had discovered Mycenae and excavated it and Tiryns. Schliemann was like Evans but more so — a huge fan of Homer, he concluded that obviously the Iliad and Odyssey must be literally true, so let's go find Troy. And then, Agamemmnon's tomb.

Returning to Oxford, Evans found that the university's Asmolean Museum was in a mess. It had been a natural history museum, but its collections had been transferred to other museums, leaving only some art and archaeology. The university planned to make those its focus and reorganize and expand the museum. Evans became Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford.

In 1892 and 1893, Evans' father-in-law died, having traveled to Spain for the beneficial climate but immediately contracting smallpox; then his wife died of tuberculosis; and then Evans began searching Athens markets for seal stones bearing mysterious writing, said to come from Crete.

In 1894 he was back in Crete. Archaeologists were waiting for the death of the "sick man of Europe", the Ottoman Empire. The Cretans were afraid that the Ottomans would take any discovered antiquities to the imperial museum at İstanbul. The Ottomans were stalling, trying to prevent any progress.

Evans went to Knossos and saw the sign of the double ax head. He realized that this was the source of the mysterious script. The double ax head or labrys had already been found as an inscription by Minos Kalokairinos. The Mycenaeans and, apparently, this earlier civilization, used it as an apotropaic mark, preventing an object's destruction or misuse.

The Ottomans disallowed purchases by foreign individuals, but allowed purchases by funds. The Cretan Exploration Fund, to which Evans was the only contributor, bought a quarter of the site with first option to purchase the rest later.

In 1898 the last Turkish troops left Crete, and the violent reprisals started. Cretan Christians began massacring Turks, and Turks tried to defend themselves. The British government forbade travel by private citizens, but Evans stayed on in his old role as correspondent for the Manchester Guardian. By 1899 a new constitution had been written, a government of both Christians and Moslems was established, and Crete was a republic.

The other archaeologists discovered that Evans, through his one-person fund, had purchased the rest of the two-hectare site of Knossos.

Evans' Excavations, Assumptions, and Reconstructions

Arthur Evans began his excavations at Knossos in March 1900. Within a few months they realized that they were uncovering an intricately interconnected three-dimensional network of over 1,000 rooms. There were at least three to four levels through most of the complex. Evans called this a "palace", although some of it was artisans' workshops, food processing spaces, and religious and, presumably, administratrive spaces. The initial excavation continued through 1903. Evans and his team kept working here through 1935. Research and conservation continue today.

Based on ceramic styles, failing to match them to anything known from Greece but finding apparent parallels to pieces from the Levant and Egypt, Evans concluded that this civilization on Crete had existed before the Mycenaeans.

The maze-like quality made Evans think of the labyrinth of Greek myth. Homer had descibed Minos as the king of Knossos on Crete in his Iliad and Odyssey. The myths tells us that Minos' wife Pasiphaë was more than just bovine-curious, she had a definite thing for bulls. A sexual thing. It had something to do with Minos once failing to sacrifice an especially fine bull to Poseidon, leading to Poseidon cursing Minos by giving his wife this weird obsession.

Pasiphaë had Daedalus, the king's dangerously imaginative inventor, build her a wooden cow that she could hide within. A bull would mate with this apparent cow, and really be mating with Pasiphaë.1 Ouch.

1: Even if you discount all the times that it was really Zeus in disguise, Greek myth features a lot of zoophila, to use a Greek-derived term.

The bull impregnated Pasiphë and the hideous result was the half-man half-bull Minotaur. Minos didn't want people to know the Minotaur's origins or even of its existence, and can you blame him? So, he had Daedalus devise a complicated underground maze. He then locked the monstrous Minotaur, and Daedalus, and his son Icarus inside it. Daedalus and Icarus escaped, of course, using yet another dangerous invention of Daedalus.

Evans concluded that obviously the Knossos complex was the palace of King Minos. And therefore the people who built and occupied it must be the Minoans.

The reality is that we have no idea what they called themselves. Or even what their language was like.

We now know that their civilization began around 3500 BCE, with a complex urban civilization beginning around 2000 BCE, then declining from about 1450 BCE until its end and replacement by Mycenaean Greece around 1100 BCE.

Evans figured out that the mysterious seal stones and other transcriptions were in three scripts, which he named as Minoan hieroglyphics, Linear A, and Linear B. His strong Classics education gave him some wild ideas about their possible relations to Phoenician and other languages of the Levant, to Anatolian languages, and so on. Alice Kober did a lot of analysis through the 1930s and 1940s discovering the linguistic characteristics of Linear B, and then Michael Ventris showed in 1952 that Linear B was Mycenaean Greek.

Linear B was derived from Linear A, and now that they knew how to read Linear B, it was obvious to try pronouncing Linear A by using the sounds of the corresponding Linear B signs. The result of such a "reading" of Linear A doesn't resemble any currently known language.

Lustral Basins

Evans' team found several examples of a sunken rectangular space accessed by an L-shaped or multi-turn stairway. Many had a balustrade alongside the stairway, ending with a pilaster supporting a column.

Evans believed that these spaces were used for ritual bathing, or purification through lustration, and so he called them lustral basins. Here's a largely reconstructed example at Knossos:

So-called 'Lustral Basin' at prehistoric site of Knossos, outside Iraklia in Crete.

You'll notice that Cretan columns have an "upside-down" taper, wider at the top than the bottom.

One problem is that all of the lustral basin examples at Knossos, and many of those at other Minoan sites across Crete, are lined with gypsum. That's a somewhat water soluble mineral, a very poor material for lining a bathing chamber. It's the main component of blackboard chalk, drywall, and many forms of plaster. It's useful for those applications, but not at all good for lining a water tub or tank.

Steps leading to so-called 'Lustral Basin' at prehistoric site of Knossos, outside Iraklia in Crete.
Steps leading to so-called 'Lustral Basin' at prehistoric site of Knossos, outside Iraklia in Crete.

Another glaring problem is that none of them have drains. The Knossos complex and others in Crete are famous for their surprisingly advanced plumbing, both supplies and drains. The lack of plumbing at these so-called lustral basins is strange.

Many lustral basins throughout Crete and at the Cycladic but Minoan-influenced Akrotiri site on Thera were found to contain cult objects. They might contain offering tables or sacred vessels. Or the walls might be decorated with religious themes. These structures could have to do with a chthonic or underworld deity associated with the renewal of nature. Many current scholars prefer the term Adyton for these spaces, a Greek term meaning "off limits", referring to the most holy part of a temple of Classical Greek times.

2: Dario Puglisi, "Ritual performances in Minoan lustral basins: new observations on an old hypothesis", in Annuario della Scuola Archeologica di Atene e delle Missioni Italiane in Oriente, vol XC serie III, 12 2012.

Dario Puglisi's paper2 points out that the frescoes in the Xesté 3 lustral basin at the heavily Minoan-influenced Akrotiri site on Thera depict a female rite of passage. So, this might have also been their use in sites in Crete.

Another problematic lustral basin is in what Evans called the Throne Room at Knossos.

It's not a very grand throne room for such an impressive complex. Yes, there is an alabaster chair along one wall, with gypsum benches for some henchmen to either side, and a medium stone bowl. But is this the throne room of an empire that controlled trade all around the eastern Mediterranean at its peak?

And then the frescoes...

Many authors have complained that Evans and his restorers were not discovering the complex and its civilization as it really was, but instead they were creating a modern artifact based on the art and architecture of their own time. "Minoan civilization as it should have been", or something like that.

The frescos at Knossos were very fragmentary. For most of them, the vast majority of surface is an imaginative "reconstruction" or really de novo creation by Evans and his staff. Evans had a father-and-son team of Swiss artists, Émile Gilléron pers et fils, recreate the frescoes. It's believed that almost all of what you see today is simply their invention guided by suggestions from Evans.

'Throne Room' at prehistoric site of Knossos, outside Iraklia in Crete.

The supposed throne looks across the small room, over the stone bowl to the lustral basin. Did the ruler — now believed at least as likely to have been a queen rather than a king — simply sit there and watch a ritual? Or did the ruler cross the room and enter the lustral basin? And if so, what happened there? No one has any idea.

So-called 'Lustral Basin' in the 'Throne Room' at prehistoric site of Knossos, outside Iraklia in Crete.

Let's See Some Real Minoan Plumbing!

There's no end to finding skepticism about the assumptions and conclusions of Arthur Evans and other early archaeologists.

But the Minoans — for lack of a solid name — had extremely impressive plumbing for their time.

What you see today at Knossos and other Minoan sites has to be a cross-section of eras. The Knossos site began with a small Neolithic settlement of 25–50 people around 7000 BCE. That grew to about 200–600 people by the Early Neolithic of 6000–5000 BCE, and 500–1000 by the Middle Neolithic of 5000–4000 BCE.

The first "palace" complexes were built soon after roughly 2000 BCE. These were destroyed, almost certainly by earthquakes, before roughly 1700 BCE.

The palace complexes were rebuilt on a grander scale, leading to about 1650–1450 BCE being the peak of Minoan prosperity and power. The settlements of all these periods were built on top of each other.

Below, as we enter, one of the first things we see is a drain in the western approach to the complex.

Drain at prehistoric site of Knossos, outside Iraklia in Crete.
Drain at prehistoric site of Knossos, outside Iraklia in Crete.

The Queen's Toilet

The most famous piece of plumbing at Knossos is the Queen's Toilet. However, it is famous but perhaps not the best known.

Below is the Queen's Toilet according to the usually authoritative Blue Guide for Crete. It would be the square hole along the far side of that lower rectangular space. We're looking three levels down from the level of the throne room.

According to the Blue Guide, the Queen's Toilet at prehistoric site of Knossos, outside Iraklia in Crete.
According to the Blue Guide, the Queen's Toilet at prehistoric site of Knossos, outside Iraklia in Crete.

I believe, however, that the actual Queen's toilet is the structure to the left of the metal grate in the below. The rectangular space above it, with some plants growing there, is associated with her bath.

The actual Queen's Toilet at prehistoric site of Knossos, outside Iraklia in Crete.

You can see the complex 3-D nature of the Knossos palace complex. We've been looking down two floors to what I believe to be the true Queen's Toilet, three levels to the spurious Blue Guide suggestion.

The actual Queen's Toilet at prehistoric site of Knossos, outside Iraklia in Crete.
The actual Queen's Toilet at prehistoric site of Knossos, outside Iraklia in Crete.
The actual Queen's Toilet at prehistoric site of Knossos, outside Iraklia in Crete.

Water Supply Lines

Knossos famously had tapered clay pipes supplying fresh water. Here is an example.

Tapered clay water pipes at prehistoric site of Knossos, outside Iraklia in Crete.

Separate Drains

Knossos had separate wastewater and storm drains.

That is, independent "sewer lines" and "storm water drains." Many cities in today's United States don't have this. In those cases, all septic wastewater and relatively clean rainwater runoff go into a unified drain system, meaning that raw or at least imcompletely treated sewage is dumped into streams during periods of heavy rain.

Knossos had solved this problem before 1450 BCE by using drains like these.

Storm water drains at prehistoric site of Knossos, outside Iraklia in Crete.
Separate wastewater and storm water drains at prehistoric site of Knossos, outside Iraklia in Crete.

Finally, what can the modern tourist use at Knossos? Here's a public toilet at the Knossos palace site. As usual in Greece:

Modern toilet at prehistoric site of Knossos, outside Iraklia in Crete. Seatless, all paper into the waste bin, it needs a toilet brush.

Check out another Minoan site in Crete:

Minoan Toilets