There are few Greek legends which have as much cultural capital as Theseus and the Minotaur. The first chamber of the Ashmolean’s latest exhibition, Labyrinth: Knossos, Myth and Reality, lines its walls with century-spanning artistic depictions of the creature at the centre of Daedalus’ maze from Hellenistic sculpture to Picasso’s Minotauromachie, a testament to its longevity in the popular consciousness. But Labyrinth’s concern is less the myth itself and more the process of myth-making, using the artefacts displayed to follow the legend’s winding cultural thread back to terra firma.
This first section does an excellent job in establishing the rise of the labyrinth in Knossos’ iconography, the town’s inhabitants cultivating their mythic heritage with coins, seals and floor tiles. It’s easy to see how the imagination of subsequent scholars was taken by this enigmatic insignia, leading to centuries of scholarly debate as to the Labyrinth’s existence and location. Densely illustrated maps and travelogues demonstrate a fervour to ground the legend in something tangible - and out of this fervour comes one of Labyrinth’s key players.
Keeper of the Ashmolean Sir Arthur Evans serves as a frustrating figure within the exhibition’s narrative. Evans did not originally discover the site of the palace at Knossos that forms the basis of Labyrinth’s second section - that honour belongs to one Minos Kalokairinos, a businessman and scholar. However, Kalokairinos was stifled by both Crete’s occupation by the Ottoman Empire and later Evans’ superior wealth and standing with Cretan authorities, meaning that Evans is, to this day, erroneously credited with the site’s discovery. His vision of the palace permeates our understanding of the site, and while the second chamber serves largely as an examination of life within the palace walls, it is not without wariness of Evans’ methods.
Some of the most exquisite pieces of antiquity from Knossos can be found in this portion. The craftsmanship on a stone drinking vessel carved to resemble a shell is staggering, as is the elaborate relief detailing of shells, seaweed and argonauts on the Poros Ewer, a jug discovered in a tomb in modern Heraklion. The iconography of the bull is present, but as prominent, if not more so, is that of the octopus, which can be found adorning pottery, jewellery and other ornaments with varying degrees of stylism. Though Knossos’ artists would not have conceptualised their work in terms of ‘realist’ or ‘abstract’, Evans used the variation in styles to trace a perceived rise and decline of Minoan art, and herein we find a microcosm of the flaws in Evans’ excavation.
The impression of Evans that emerges over the course of the exhibit is one of a man with a very specific vision and not much time for evidence to the contrary. Descriptions draw attention to his theorising about the palace’s customs, but without much to corroborate them. His drastic restructuring and restoration of the palace included filling in missing frescoes and liberal use of reinforced concrete, an effort to ‘bring the palace to life’ that ultimately obfuscated much of its original structure. It’s a hubris worthy of a Greek legend; a man so intent on proving his own notions of reality that he wound up constructing a myth.
Judging from the aforementioned descriptions, the exhibition seems aware that Evans’ practices were less than responsible. However, it would have been nice to get more of a sense of critique in this section, such as citing specific contradictions to Evans’ theories rather than mentioning them in passing. A description of a caricature of Evans by artist Piet de Jong describes him as ‘mischievous’, and a film playing on the gallery wall (a little difficult to sit and take in in full due to its placement) draws attention to his and his workers’ play and leisure activities while on the site, as well as the presence of both Christians and Muslims working on the project at a time of religious conflict on the island (a climate of unrest of which there’s credible evidence to suggest that Evans took advantage). There’s even a kid’s activity where you can imagine yourself seated on Evans’ personal recreation of a palace chair and imagine who you would help if you were in charge.
I recognise the Ashmolean probably doesn’t want to step on many toes, given that without Evans’ archive, this exhibition would not exist. However as it stands, their treatment of his excavations in this section takes him at his word a little too readily. When there is dissension, it’s recuperative and too coy to properly register. The third section, which features subsequent discoveries at Knossos by modern archaeologists, examines how modern technology has expanded on Evans’ vision, but it is very much framed as indebted to his work, as seen in the two fragments of a rhyton, one purchased by Evans in 1894 and another discovered in 2015, placed side by side.
As for the final section itself, this is where we enter the stuff of ‘reality’. Here we find what could potentially be the basis for Knossos’ enduring myths, such as the City Cult Centre and evidence of human sacrifice at Anemosophilia, but these are offset by more everyday domestic items - oil jugs, grain, carved offerings. It’s a welcome grounding after Evans’ more colourful speculations, and though the use of the labyrinth as a narrative thread has worn a little thin by this point, I appreciated the time devoted to a more genuine insight into the lives of Knossos and its people.
The section is capped off by an 18 minute film installation by Elizabeth Price, which is the most overt critique of Evans’ restorations - the images in the Ashmolean’s digitised archives granting an eerie collective voice to his restoration before staging its collapse. It’s a mesmerising viewing experience for sure, and the sound design is rich and multifaceted (although it can be heard quite prominently from its antechamber during the last section, which can be a little overwhelming). However, it’s a little too abstract for the commentary to really come off. Without its written description, you’d be forgiven for not picking up on the satirical element at all - plus, 18 minutes is a rather hefty time commitment for most museum goers.
It might have been fitting to place this installation at the end of the second chamber in lieu of another more modern addition, the incorporation of the palace into the landscape of Assassin’s Creed. Invoking the video game genre again goes some way to illustrating how indelibly etched in our cultural psyche the labyrinth has become. But its placement at the end of a section which is a largely straightforward anthropological study of the palace and its residents feels a touch disjointed, and might have been better served in Labyrinth’s first, more myth-centric segment. It also might have benefited from a greater sense of interactivity - the rendering is certainly impressive, but it feels odd to include a usually interactive medium so prominently in the layout and have us experience it only as passive observers.
The pacing of Labyrinth might be a little uneven, but within its walls are some extraordinary examples of Cretan craftsmanship, a testament to the endurance of the legend and a considered examination of its human context. It has its dead ends, but it’s still absolutely worth getting lost in.