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Among My Souvenirs

Stories of the road

The Great Debate

One of the must-see places on our tour of Greece was the island of Crete and the famous Minoan Palace of Knossos. The day dawned bright, as is typical of the Aegean, the sea a deep blue mirroring the sky.

Knossos, the capital city of the Minoan world, is the most important site in Crete and second only to the Acropolis at Athens in all of Greece. It stands as tangible evidence of the Minoan civilization, the earliest to evolve in Greece and Europe.

The site is also at the center of an age-old archeological debate – to restore or not to restore, that is the question.

Crete was under occupation by the Ottoman Empire for much of its history. And many historians believed that the Minoan stories were merely legend and myth. If anything of value was found, it would soon be taken by the Ottomans and shipped away from Crete. Thus, excavations did not really begin at the site until a local man of some wealth, Minos Kalokairinos began an amateurish excavation in 1877 only to be stopped three weeks later by Turkish authorities. Yet, for all his uneducated archeological skills, he did indeed discover parts of the West Wing of the Palace complex. Now at least the world did have concrete proof of a civilization once thought to be only fanciful stories from antiquity.

It was not until the British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans came to Crete in 1894 did the excavation work begin to happen in earnest.

Over the years many difficulties faced the growing team of excavators, the fragile gypsum used to make the floors, column bases, door jambs, facades, and paneling was now exposed to the weather conditions and needed to be protected. Evan’s initial efforts soon collapsed. Compounding the problem was the site was far larger and grander than anyone had imagined.

After 1925, the restoration work became bolder and more extensive. The technique of reinforced concrete played a decisive role. In the first technique Evans tried to copy what the Minoans had used as building materials to no lasting success. The second time he used new building materials (concrete and iron) to copy the ancient materials and painted them.

As you can imagine a heated debate continues to rage. Did he enhance the site or did he destroy it for future generations of archeologists with more sophisticated techniques and equipment? For unknown to Evans at the time, the extensive use of these materials had no resistance to time and sadly a greater degree of decay than the original ruins.

Yet, when you walk up the hill and you see the façade of the Palace entrance much like it “might” have looked in 1500 B.C.E. at the height of its grandeur, it is hard to say he should not have gone “that” far.