Phaistos, the second biggest Palace, is very similar in plan to Knossos – indeed all four palaces are very similar in plan, being a large central courtyard oriented north-south, with an entrance to the south and a more elaborate assembly point to the North West.

Phaistos courtyard

The Phaistos courtyard from the south - click to enlarge. The display area is in the far corner

Along the west side there are ritual rooms and staircases leading up to upper stories. However the pithoi – the huge olive oil containers, are even more prominent than at Knossos, for the main magazines for the olive oil pithoi were placed in the north west corner.

Phaistos display area

The display area in the north west corner of the courtyard. Note the corridor leading off with store rooms on either side.

Here there was a large room opening onto the court – the excavators called it a ‘vestibule’,  and this led into a corridor with rooms on either side lined with olive oil pithoi. This was one of the most prominent positions in the courtyard with a special stairway leading down from the royal apartments to the north: was this ‘vestibule’ a display area, where visitors could be taken to see the pithoi, and perhaps some of the other lavish possessions of the court, some of the textiles perhaps which the linear B tablets talk about.

Phaistos: pots in storeroom

Inside one of the storerooms that line the central corridor. These large jars would have contained oil.

Here the visitor could not help but admire the wealth of olive oil that had been taken in as a tribute, and was now ready to be given out again as ‘gifts’ to show the ruler’s munificence. Whereas today we might put gold and silver on display to show our wealth, in Minoan Crete,  olive oil was the wealth to be put on display. Similarly there are two pithoi clearly displayed against the wall at the north side of the court, clearly visible to anyone entering the courtyard from the South. Just see how wealthy we are!

Phaistos workshop area

This courtyard in the north east corner of the palace at Phaistos has an oven or kiln at its centre. Were the small rooms round the outside workshops?

The other major perhaps surprising aspect of Phaistos is the presence of workshops in the heart of the Palace where the ruler could have close supervision of the jewellery and weapons that would be lavished as gifts on the deserving nobility. In the north-east corner there is an outer courtyard which has at its centre an oven or furnace, while around the sides of the courtyard are a number of small rooms which could have been workrooms.

It would seem that the north-east corner of the palaces may have been the place  for workshops. At Knossos, there is evidence of a workshop in the north-east corner where blocks of work or semi-worked imported stone which Evans called ‘Spartan basalt’ and stone tools were brought to light. According to Evans, the main workshop lay on the upper floor from which vases and a large stone amphora had fallen to the ground floor. Nearby is an area that Evans called the Schoolroom where he envisaged that scribes were taught to write on clay tablets. The more modern interpretation however is that it was a workshop for ceramics or wall painting. The best examples of such workshops are at Mycenae, though admittedly they are outside the palace in the town below. However it would appear that at Phaistos there was the Royal accommodation in the North Block behind the service block and the royal rulers would have been right next door to the metal working area so the king could keep a close watch on the metal work that were being prepare as the highlights of his gift exchange.

Malia palace courtyard

Malia: the courtyard seen through the broad southern entrance. The display area is in the far left corner, but note the cover building over the factory area to the right.

The other two palaces are less well-known. Malia lies on the coast, 20 miles to the east of Knossos.  Today Malia is the site of one of the biggest and most raucous seaside resorts in Crete, but the Palace lies outside the town, some 2 miles to the east. In many ways it is the best preserved of the palaces, as it is on flat ground and therefore it does not have the falling off and erosion to the east that is seen both at Knossos and more extensively at Phaistos.

In size, Malia is almost identical to Phaistos, with the courtyard similarly oriented north-south. However though it is better preserved, being on flat ground and never having been built on, it is apparent that it was the poorer relative with no signs of any wall painting,  though a number of rich objects have been found there. However nearly a third of the build space was devoted to storage.

Malia: the display area

Malia: the display area in the north west corner of the courtyard, set up a short flight of steps. Note on the extreme left the grand staircase leading originally to the upper storey

The main range of magazines was set lining the rear corridor behind the West Wing,  but interestingly there was also what I believe to be a display area  in the north-west corner of the courtyard. Here there is a large room adjacent to the ceremonial stairway leading to the Banqueting Hall on the upper floor.  This is up a couple of steps and is thus in the most prominent position in the courtyard. This surely is rather more than a ‘lobby’ or ’vestibule’.

Malia: workshops

The workshops on the eastern side of the courtyard under a modern cover building. The walls and floor are plastered, but note the channels cut in the plaster floor

Even more interesting however is what was happening on the opposite eastern side of the courtyard. Here there is a large mysterious building today protected by a large cover building.  At first sight this appears to be another set of magazines, long narrow rooms opening off a corridor at the back. However both floors and walls were plastered — which is why it is protected by the cover building. There are runnels or furrows in the floor where any spillage from the storage jars could be collected. Was this perhaps a factory, where the olive oil was mixed with herbs and spices to form the valuable fragrances, cosmetics, medicines, soaps and ointments for which the Minoans were famous? In the corner there appears to have been a large trough where processing was presumably carried out. There is also a similar room with plastered floors in the adjacent outside building known as the agora.

Malia: Cartier mu

Malia: the rather splendid modern cover building over the extensive town houses uncovered in Cartier mu

However the most remarkable aspect for the visitor at Malia is the extensive area of the town that has been excavated by the French excavators. This is several hundred yards away from the Palace and is called Quartier Mu, mu being the Greek letter M. There is a chaotic jumble of town buildings all covered by a large modernistic concrete cover building.  But what is of particular interest is that most of them date to the period of the old palaces, that is MMII.

Malia: the palace at Zakro

Zakro: the courtyard of the palace with the town houses rising up behind it on terraces

The fourth and smallest Palace is at Zakro on the eastern coast of Crete, removed from most modern facilities on the island. This was long known as being the site of a settlement but no Palace was known until one was discovered and excavated by the Greek archaeologist Nicholas Platon from 1961 onwards.  This has an extensive excavated settlement rising in the hill behind the Palace,  but the site as a whole is difficult to access from the land side.  Yoday it lies at the end of a long and winding road,  and field survey has failed to find the farms in the hinterland that surround the other three palaces. It must therefore originally have been dominated by the sea:  it was the site that faced eastward to the rich lands of the East Mediterranean, and to copper-rich Cyprus.

Zakro: courtyard from town

Zakro: the palace as seen from the town. The domestic quarters are to the left mostly destroyed by modern agriculture.To the right, the ceremonial buildings. This is somewhat wider than in the other palaces as many of the ceremonial halls appear to be set on the ground floor as seen here

On the western side it would appear that the banqueting hall instead of being on the upper storey, was on the ground floor. There was a large kitchen to the north.  On the eastern side were two large rooms which the excavator interpreted  as being the Kings and  Queen’s quarters: behind them a large circular cistern that may have been a larger variant of the usual lustral basin.

Zakro: harbour road

Zakro: the main road leading from the palace through the town to the harbour

In the town, a prominent road led towards the sea shore and must have been the main entrance route to the Palace.


On to Minoan Linear B