Standing in a class of its own, this museum guards practically all of the Minoan treasures uncovered in the legendary excavations of the Palace of Knossos and other monuments of Minoan civilization. These amazing artifacts, many 3,000 years old, were brought to light in 20th-century excavations famed British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans and are shown off in handsome, newly renovated galleries. It's best to visit the museum first thing in the morning, before the tour
buses arrive, or in late afternoon, once they pull away. Top treasures include the famous seal stones, many inscribed with Linear B script, discovered and deciphered by Evans around the turn of the 20th century. The most stunning and mysterious seal stone is the so-called Phaistos Disk, found at Phaistos Palace in the south, its purpose unknown. (Linear B script is now recognized as an early form of Greek, but the earlier Linear A script that appears on clay tablets and that of the Phaistos Disk have yet to be deciphered.)
But perhaps the most arresting exhibits are the sophisticated frescoes, restored fragments found in Knossos. They depict broad-shouldered, slim-waisted youths, their large eyes fixed with an enigmatic expression on the Prince of the Lilies; ritual processions and scenes from the bullring, with young men and women somersaulting over the back of a charging bull; and groups of court ladies, whose flounced skirts led a French archaeologist to exclaim in surprise, "Des Parisiennes!", a name still applied to this striking fresco.
Even before great palaces with frescoes were being built around 1900 BC, the prehistoric Cretans excelled at metalworking and carving stone vases, and they were also skilled at producing pottery, such as the eggshell-thin Kamares ware decorated in delicate abstract designs. Other specialties were miniature work such as the superbly crafted jewelry and the colored seal stones that are carved with lively scenes of people and animals. Though naturalism and an air of informality distinguish much Minoan art from that of contemporary Bronze Age cultures elsewhere in the eastern Mediterranean, you can also see a number of heavy, rococo set pieces, such as the fruit stand with a toothed rim and the punch bowl with appliquéd flowers.
The Minoans' talents at modeling in stone, ivory, and a kind of glass paste known as faience peaked in the later palace period (1700–1450 BC). A famous rhyton, a vase for pouring libations, carved from dark serpentine in the shape of a bull's head, has eyes made of red jasper and clear rock crystal with horns of gilded wood. An ivory acrobat—perhaps a bull-leaper—and two bare-breasted faience goddesses in flounced skirts holding wriggling snakes were among a group of treasures hidden beneath the floor of a storeroom at Knossos. Bull-leaping, whether a religious rite or a favorite sport, inspired some of the most memorable images in Minoan art. Note, also, the three vases, probably originally covered in gold leaf, from Ayia Triada that are carved with scenes of Minoan life thought to be rendered by artists from Knossos: boxing matches, a harvest-home ceremony, and a Minoan official taking delivery of a consignment of hides. The most stunning rhyton of all, from Zakro, is made of rock crystal.
Eleftherias Sq., Heraklion, Crete, 71202, Greece