Knossos: The Lost Women

On Thursday 10th February, we were delighted to be joined online by Dr Janina Ramirez to deliver her much-awaited talk on Ancient Knossos for the branch. Classics Ambassador Caroline recaps the lecture, which you can watch in full here.

Dr Ramirez began her talk by focusing on her experience of visiting Knossos while filming her documentary series: ‘Raiders of the Lost Past’. She discussed how she had gone beyond her usual speciality, late antiquity to high medieval art, to look at the ancient civilisation and its discovery, and to consider both what the excavation meant at the time and how scholarship and approaches have developed since. Whilst studying Minoan society, culture and religion, Dr Ramirez discovered that one particularly interesting theme was the role of women in ancient Crete: female emancipation and rights, she explained, are not less than a hundred years old, but rather have been manifested at different times and in different places across history, as she explores in her forthcoming book, Femina.  

Dr Ramirez went on to discuss the British archaeologist famous for his excavation of Knossos: Sir Arthur Evans. Evans’ portrait still hangs in the Ashmolean museum, of which he was Keeper, surrounded by both copies of and original artefacts he uncovered during his time in Crete. Evans wrote a multi-volume write-up of his thirty years of work in Knossos, at what he called the Palace of Minos, which acted as a starting point for Dr Ramirez when looking at the male lens through which we’ve viewed Minoan civilisation for the last 100 years. An understanding of Evans, and the time in which he was working, was imperative when examining how studies have been conducted in Knossos since. 

Each volume of Evans’ work was imprinted with an image of a crown in gold, the symbol he identified with his version of Knossos. This crown came from a reconstructed piece of Minoan art known as the Prince of Lilies. Dr Ramirez spoke about how Evans initially correctly identified this as a hybrid piece, assigning the body to a boxer and the headdress to a priestess, although it is now thought to have belonged to a griffin. However, Evans subsequently had a change of heart and instructed the pieces be put together in the way we see them now. He was reconstructing frescoes that were in a fragmentary condition, a task similar to assembling a jigsaw puzzle with no idea of the overall image or even all of the pieces. In his early letters home, Evans stated that he had discovered the palace of King Minos and hence wanted visual evidence to support this. By creating this hybrid fresco, he produced a poster boy for the strong king he was searching for, but in doing so drew false assumptions about palace life. 

Dr Ramirez examined Evans’ background and the origins of his excavation of Knossos. Arthur Evans was a wealthy young man, able to conduct his work off the back of Schliemann’s discovery of Troy. As funds were pumped into treasure seeking missions such as his, Evans entered an archaeological arms race with representatives from America, Germany and Holland, and ultimately ended up plunging his entire fortune into his dig. His determination to achieve results quickly meant that he paid his diggers based on who hit solid stone first and, whilst we now know the destruction this method caused, it was the nature of archaeology at that time. 

Although Evans was not the first to investigate the area of Knossos, as was common during the period, he wrote off any previous contributions. Minos Kalokairinos, whose bust now stands alongside Evans’, actually discovered Knossos twenty years before him and it was only because of his finds, of coins and enormous pithoi, that Evans knew to start work on the site. Kalokairinos was only mentioned by Evans once, and his excavation was described, in a derogatory tone, as being poorly executed. Dr Ramirez, upon examining Kalokairinos’ paperwork, concluded that this was an unfair analysis as he had kept meticulous records, considering it was the 1880s, carefully identifying where he’d found objects, their measurements and diagrams. 

Evans was working in 1900, when colonialism was rife. As both overseer and land owner he had complete control over his dig. Whilst gratitude is owed to Evans for his funding of the discovery of Knossos, Dr Ramirez pointed out that he was a product of the empire and wanted things he recognised reflected back at him. Discussing this idea in the context of Evans’ ‘reconstruction’ of Knossos, Dr Ramirez examined his “Disneyfication” of the archaeological site, making it contrast the other ruins on Crete. Evans wanted to find a way to preserve the stone he uncovered, to prevent it from deteriorating in the elements, and also sell Knossos to the world. This led to the concrete restorations that have become synonymous with the site. The northern entrance, with its iconic bull frieze, was practically all the work of the 1920s. Whilst parts of a bull frieze were discovered in this location, the pedestal and particularly the colours, were not original but rather an imagined reconstruction designed to fit the tastes of 1920s and 1930s Art Deco Europe. These ‘interpretations’ extended to the whole site of Knossos and were controversial as, whilst they misrepresented Minoan culture, they also encouraged many visitors to delve deeper into the subject than they may have done otherwise. 

Evans seemed to superimpose what he knew onto the site from researching ancient Egypt and discoveries across the Mediterranean. He saw the site as a palace, with the sole function of supporting a royal family, with a king at the head and a subservient queen. However, one indisputable fact that Evans could not deny was the powerful role of women in Minoan society. After abandoning his search for King Minos, he found multiple pieces of evidence that argued in favour of women’s primary position in politics, society and religion. One of these was the throne room, which had been reconstructed with fragments of griffins. Originally thought to belong to a king, the delicate throne that was discovered was, following detailed studies, concluded to be a woman’s seat because of its design. This threw the purpose of the room into question. If it was a welcoming chamber for a royal, it was rather small, accommodating only about 30 people. It was, therefore, perhaps a religious site, with one hypothesis suggesting a priestess sat in the chair to represent a goddess during ceremonies, although this is of course, Dr Ramirez explained, only speculation. 

Dr Ramirez focused the latter part of her talk on Minoan art, praising it for being a blend of both the figurative and highly naturalistic, abstract and symbolic, creating vibrant, almost modern appearing, images and objects that were completely different to other ancient art. She described how a visit to the Heraklion Museum’s Minoan galleries quickly revealed how Minoan art was inundated with representations of women, with some fragments being exclusively dedicated to them. For example, one large scale fresco depicted beautifully dressed women processing, singing or dancing whilst other women reclined, engaged in conversation. What was so striking about this piece was how, behind both the standing and seated women, was a wave of cream and red, full of exclusively female faces. A similar theme was continued with frescoes from around the complex and Dr Ramirez went on to discuss La Parisienne, a fresco named by Evans in the 1920s. He felt that, with her aesthetic, she could quite easily have graced the covers of Paris Vogue. Her name itself acted as a window into the motivations of Evans, who was trying to market his discovery in Europe and who managed to make Knossos the place to visit during the 20s and 30s. However, looking beyond Evans’ version of her, the woman that the fresco depicted was clearly in an important position. Her makeup, elaborate hairstyle and the knot, termed a sacral knot, that ran down from her neck, perhaps indicated that she was a priestess. Whilst this is, once again, speculation, the frequency of such representations of women suggests that they held some form of authority. 

Dr Ramirez continued her discussion of Minoan art by looking at the Ring of Minos, which exemplified everything that has been said about Evans and the archaeology of the time. It was supposedly discovered by a young boy whose parents, when he took it back to show them, contacted the local priest who in turn sought out Evans. The priest then seemed to begin negotiations with Evans directly, asking for extortionate amounts, technically for the family, which would be passed to them through him. Somehow, Evans produced a cast of the ring and had it reconstructed. The original then disappeared until the Greek authorities gave it the Heraklion. The ring itself was a seal ring depicting four female figures: a woman navigating a boat, another looking upwards, and two women pulling a tree towards themselves on either side of the ring. One interpretation of this scene was that it represented different elements of the apotheosis of a female deity, although the absence of any further evidence limited the analysis. What was interesting about this particular item was that it was one of the biggest pieces of solid gold found in Crete and due to its scale, most likely belonged to a male owner. However, the ring, dating from 1600 BCE, during the high point of Minoan civilisation, exuberantly portrayed women, not men.

Dr Ramirez examined two snake goddess sculptures, made of faience, which were both dressed in the distinctive Minoan fashion reflected in the frescoes. Dr Ramirez looked at how the integration of snakes into the sculptures suggested a layer of symbolism. The larger goddess figure had serpents writhing up and around her arms, head, neck and headdress whilst the smaller statue, termed the priestess, had a serpent in each hand and a cat on her headpiece. Due to their ability to shed their skin, snakes represented resurrection and reincarnation in both the classical and medieval tradition, perhaps suggesting a chthonic association with the figures, aligning them with regeneration. The cat maybe even suggested the woman had power over the natural world. The discovery of large moonstone fragments in close proximity to the sculptures led to discussions about whether the figures were part of a ritual space and acted as icons. However, despite the religious intentions behind their creation, such strong representations of feminism do not feature in other ancient civilisations, or even more modern ones, which made these pieces powerful and important.

Finally, Dr Ramirez concluded her talk by looking at Minoan art’s individual take on the natural world. Unlike later Greek and Roman art, which was significantly more homocentric, Minoan art revelled in depicting nature. From a vase, painted to mirror the way reeds move in the wind, to a fresco, where a cat waits to pounce, with each tensed muscle and hair added meticulously in colour, the Minoans showed an astounding attention to detail in their art. Dr Ramirez described how she wanted to portray a Minoan world that valued such art, nature and beauty, and had a court in which women were very much at the heart. Whilst Arthur Evans began to uncover some of these elements, he was selective with his material, as he searched primarily for nobility, and misrepresented the palace’s usage through his reconstructions. It has therefore been the role of later archaeologists to reveal Knossos as much more than just its king, but rather a thriving centre, with a palace that included storage units, libraries, temples and administration offices. Dr Ramirez highlighted how the Minoans were not a warlike society but rather one that relied on trade and that had their own distinct culture and artistic techniques.

Thank you so much, Dr Ramirez, for an absolutely brilliant lecture!