As a kid I read a book called “Motel of The Mysteries,” about an archeologist from the distant future who finds the preserved remains of a 20th century American motel called the Toot N’ Come Inn*. The archeologist mistakenly identifies the motel room as an important tomb and he goes on to make all manner of fractured guesses about what 20th century life was life. In the future, they think the bathtub is some sort of sarcophagus! Hilarious.
I hadn’t thought about that book in something like 20 years, but it came rushing back to me as I wandered through the Knossos archeological site on the island of Crete. In Greek myth, King Minos builds a labyrinth at his palace on Crete to confine the Minotaur. Sadly, the bronze-age palace ruins at Knossos contain neither a maze nor a man/bull hybrid. But they do contain a mystery.
The ruins are lousy with double-headed axes. There are huge ones, tiny ones and even little carvings of them all over the stones. It’s believed that they were religious symbols, used in sacrifices and to ensure divine protection. The Greek word for a double-bladed axe is possibly related to the word “labyrinth”. When the palace ruins were rediscovered in the early 20th century, an archeologist named Arthur Evans looked at the axes and a handful of Roman-era coins with Minotaurs on them and decided that what he’d found was the legendary home of King Minos.
I’m not saying Evans was wrong. In case it’s not painfully obvious, I should point out that I am not an archeologist**. But the leaps of intuition here at pretty grand. A little razzle-dazzle with folk entomology and Roman understanding of Greek oral tradition and a pile of lost rubble — a suddenly a ruin that would have been pretty impressive in its own right becomes a fragment of legend.
I’m not the only person who casts a skeptical eye at Evans’ work. The ruins there are filled with signs that very carefully qualify his descriptions. For example, the site doesn’t directly claim that a certain room was the throng room — only that Evans suspected it was because he found a bench in it.
Even the ruins themselves are now educated guesses. Large sections of walls and even whole rooms were rebuilt, sometimes based on context clues, and sometimes based on logical assumptions. In an earlier post, I talked about how much fun it is to walk through a ruin and try to imagine what it was like when it was whole. The discovers of the Knossos ruins just took the next logical step — rebuilding the lost world around them.
The most striking examples of this are the frescoes. The discovers of the site found a handful of brightly colored plaster shards. The shards were then used to create massive frescoes that these shards could reasonably have hit into, which were in turn based on popular motifs that appeared elsewhere during that period. It’s the equivalent of finding the Mona Lisa’s left eye, deducing that it from an early 16th century court painting and then using other court paintings as a model to try to reconstruct the rest of the lady and her surroundings. You could probably create a pretty nice painting using that method — but it wouldn’t be the Mona Lisa.
The paintings actually on display at the Knossos site contain no elements of the original frescoes. They are complete copies of the “original” reconstructions — as authentic as a dorm room poster.
The reconstructions now hang in a nearby museum, complete with the hunks of plaster salvaged from the ruins. They are as much as product of the modern mind as the ancient, developed by an artist named Piet de Jong. Their creation isn’t the science of reconstruction but the art of rebirth. It’s marvelous to think that the 20th century saw the birth of some of the ancient world’s most beautiful art.
Staring at the those tiny shards of plaster in the museum,** it was possible to see the entire ancient world as a modern invention. The guesses are reproduced over and over and then they’re put under glass and hung in the original’s place. If you could do that with a painting — or even an entire palace — what else could you reinvent?
* I could remember the name of the motel off the top of my head, but not the name of the book. We don’t get to choose what we keep.
** I’m just barely a travel blogger.
*** It reminded me of the day I realized my 7th grade science teacher didn’t know how many phases of matter there were, because she was using an out of date textbook. Most people don’t know anything. They just repeat what they hear.