Credit: Blane Aitchison

Labyrinth: Knossos, Myth & Reality

A new major exhibition opens at the Ashmolean

Labyrinth: Knossos, Myth & Reality is the The Ashmolean Museum’s new major exhibition, tracing one of the most compelling Greek myths and celebrated stories of modern archaeology. According to legend, Knossos, in Crete, was home to a labyrinthine palace built to contain the Minotaur; a half-bull, half-human monster. The excavation of the Palace of Knossos between 1900 and 1905 led to the discovery of several fascinating objects which will now be shown at Oxford’s largest museum.

The exhibition features over 200 artefacts, more than 100 of which are on loan from Athens and Crete and have not been displayed for over a century. Highlights include an amphora decorated with paintings of Theseus and the Minotaur, a coin minted at Knossos which depicts the Cretan labyrinth, as well as an elaborate marble sculpture of the Minotaur estimated to be over 1,700 years old. 

The objects not only showcase the skill of Minoan craftspeople, but also indicate the origins of the myth of the Minotaur. Minoan seal-stones show how images of people leaping over bulls were condensed into the head of a bull and the legs of the leaper, foreshadowing the monster that would become one of the most enduring Greek myths.

One of the principal aims of the exhibition is to shed light on the road to the excavation at Knossos, which was by no means easy. Travellers attempted for centuries to uncover the mythical Labyrinth, leaving behind a trail of misleading evidence. It was in 1878 when Minos Kalokairinos, a Cretan businessman and scholar, came across the remains of the palace. Under the Ottoman Empire, however, he was prevented from carrying out a full excavation, and any noteworthy discoveries risked being removed to Constantinople.

In the years that followed, various archaeologists competed for the excavation rights.  In 1900, the British archaeologist and former Director of the Ashmolean, Sir Arthur Evans, was given permission by the Cretan authorities to begin digging at the site. Evans’ documentation of his findings was fundamental to an understanding of the archaeology of Knossos, and several of the excavation plans, artworks and records from the Sir Arthur Evans archive feature in the exhibition. 

There is also an interesting multimedia element, as visitors are offered two immersive experiences inspired by Knososs. A RESTORATION (2016) by Turner Prize winner Elizabeth Price will be shown in the third gallery. A 15-minute video, narrated by a fictional chorus of museum administrators who use Arthur Evans’ archive to figuratively reconstruct the Palace at Knossos within the museum’s computer server, will also be shown. In the second gallery, visitors can experience a unique virtual tour of the Palace reimagined in the 5th century BCE thanks to the digital creation of the site in the video game Assassin’s Creed Odyssey. The film was created especially for the exhibition by Ubisoft to demonstrate the research involved in creating the game.

Reflecting on the exhibition, Dr Xa Sturgis, Director of the Ashmolean, said: “This is an exhibition that only the Ashmolean could mount. Since 1903, the Museum has held the largest and most significant collection of Minoan archaeology outside Crete thanks to one of my predecessors as Ashmolean Director, Sir Arthur Evans. Long thought of as an archaeological pioneer, Evans and his interventions at Knossos are now being reconsidered in their historical context. The exhibition offers both an exploration of Minoan culture and Greek myth, and a deeper look at British archaeological history.” 

Labyrinth: Knossos, Myth & Reality is open from 10th February 2023 until 30th July 2023. Entry to the exhibition is free for students of the University of Oxford. A full price ticket costs ÂŁ15.30, with various concessions also available.