The most well known and excavated architectural buildings of the Minoans were the administrative “palace” centers.
When Evans first excavated at Knossos, not only did he mistakenly believe he was looking at a labyrinth, he also thought he was excavating a palace. However, the small rooms and excavation of large pithoi, storage vessels, and archives led researchers to believe that these palaces were actually administrative centers. Even so, the name became ingrained, and these large, communal buildings across Crete are now known as palaces.
Although each one was unique, they shared similar features and functions. The largest and oldest palace centers are at Knossos, Malia, Phaistos, and Kato Zakro.
The Complex at Knossos
This provided an example of monumental architecture built by the Minoans (Figure 2). The most prominent feature on the plan of Knossos was the palace’s large, central courtyard. This may have been the location of large ritual events, including bull leaping, and a similar one can be found in every Minoan palace center.
Several small tripartite shrines surrounded the courtyard. The numerous corridors and rooms of the palace center created multiple areas for storage, meeting rooms, shrines, and workshops. The absence of a central room, or even living chambers, suggested the absence of a king and rather, the presence and rule of a strong centralized government.
The palaces also had multiple entrances that often took long paths to reach the central courtyard or a set of rooms. The palace structures had no fortification walls, although the multitude of rooms created a protective, continuous façade. While this provided some level of fortification, it also provided structural stability for earthquakes. Even without a wall, the rocky and mountainous landscape of Crete, itself an island, created a high level of natural protection.
The palaces were organized not only into zones along a horizontal plain, but also had multiple stories. Grand staircases, decorated with columns and frescos, connected to the upper levels of the palaces, only some parts of which survive today.
Wells for light and air provided ventilation and light. The Minoans also created careful drainage systems and wells for collecting and storing water, and sanitation. Columns were uniquely constructed and easy to identify as Minoan (Figure 1). These were constructed from wood, not stone, and tapered at the bottom. They stood on stone bases and had large, bulbous tops, now known as cushion capitals. The Minoans painted their columns bright red and the capitals were often painted black.