A toast to Knossos at West Berks Museum
Treasures from Crete
Written by Michael Wilson, museum volunteer and author of recently published Into the Labyrinth: in search of Daidalos.
Highlights from the West Berkshire Museum Collection
Treasures from Knossos
FOUR thousand years ago, at Knossos on the island of Crete, there was a huge palace with more than 1,300 rooms. Brightly-coloured frescoes decorated the walls of the rooms which contained beautiful pottery and other works of art.
Figure 1. Artist’s impression of the Knossos palace. Mmoyaq / CC BY-SA
The palace had running water, baths, flushing toilets, central heating and a sewage disposal system. It had large rooms for storing wine, olive oil, wool and grains as well as factories for producing pottery and cloth. Courtyards for festivals, games and religious ceremonies were also present. Compared to such luxury, the people of Britain at that time lived in small roundhouses made of wattle and daub with a thatched roof.
Knossos was just one of many palaces that are typical of what became known as the Minoan
civilisation, named after the legendary King Minos who was said to have ruled over this kingdom. The palace was the main building of the city of Knossos, which is regarded as having been the first true European city and, at its peak, may have had a population of 100,000. It lasted from around 2,000 BCE until its destruction in about 1,300 BCE.
The palace was excavated by Sir Arthur Evans in 1900 and many of the objects found there are now in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. Some treasures, however, are housed in West Berkshire Museum and include a small pottery wine cup.
The conically-shaped vessel above was the most frequently-used type of cup for drinking wine. Such cups were sometimes elaborately decorated but, for everyday use, they were usually left unpainted. The simple, undecorated type was often used for giving toasts and then immediately smashed. The cup in the museum collection is of particular interest because it was found just outside the palace by the eminent archaeologist Harold Peake (below) who was West Berkshire Museum’s honorary curator from 1909 until his death in 1946.
Figure 3. Portrait of Harold Peake, Honorary Curator of West Berkshire Museum 1909-1946. NEBYM:T0221.
Another find from the palace that can be seen in the museum is a small clay figure of Cupid. This is decorated with a red slip, which is a mixture of clay and pigment in water.
Figure 4. Cupid found in the Knossos palace. NEBYM:OA144.
Pictures courtesy of West Berks Museum