Minoan Domestic and Funerary Architecture of the Neopalatial and Post-Palatial Periods

The “Little Palace” at Knossos, Crete / Wikimedia Commons

By Dr. Jeremy B. Rutter
Professor Emeritus of Classical Studies
Sherman Fairchild Professor Emeritus in the Humanities
Dartmouth College

Settlement Architecture

Neopalatial Minoan villa at Knossos / Wikimedia Commons

The following site categories have been identified by Cadogan during the Neopalatial period in Crete:

I. Small towns with blocks of living units defined by cobbled streets: Palaikastro, Pseira. Note that blocks (or “insulae”) of this kind are also characteristic of contemporary settlements in the Cyclades such as Akrotiri, Phylakopi, and Ayia Irini.

II. Settlements with a central main building (sometimes in the form of a palace) and a surrounding town of small buildings: Phaistos, Gournia, Myrtos Pyrgos (with, respectively, a regular palace, a small-scale palace, and a villa as central buildings).

III. Towns with a palace at the center surrounded by large houses or mansions: Knossos, Mallia, Zakro. At Knossos, the surrounding mansions include the Little Palace, the Royal Villa, the South House, the House of the Chancel Screen, the “Unexplored Mansion”, the House of the Frescoes, the Southeast House, the House of the Sacrificed Oxen, etc.

IV. Towns (or villages?) consisting of large and separated houses [e.g. Mochlos, the houses being spaced out along a waterfront] or of large houses all in a relatively small clump [e.g. Tylissos, Ayia Triadha(?)]. Are these perhaps to be considered somehow as “resorts” (Mochlos) or as rich outlying “suburbs” of other major centers (Tylissos, Ayia Triadha)?

V. Isolated rural villas: Vathypetro, Sklavokampos. These are probably just centers for the collection of agricultural surpluses in sparsely populated areas.

One of the more distinctive features of the Neopalatial period is the existence for the first time of large and sumptuously appointed buildings which are neither palaces nor ordinary residential structures. Often called “villas”, these buildings may occur by themselves and in isolation (Category V), as the centers of villages or small towns (Category II), in clumps (Category IV), or clustered around the largest palaces (Category III). A comparable class of structures is not readily detectable in the Protopalatial period. Whether or not these “villas” represent a distinct social class in Minoan society, a “nobility” of some sort as Evans imagined, remains to be determined.

A Selection of Important Non-Palatial Buildings

Ayia Triadha

From Ayhia Triadha /  Bryn Mawr Collections, Creative Commons

This site, destroyed like all of the palatial centers except Knossos in LM IB, was re-occupied in LM IIIA and became a major, although as yet poorly understood, site in the Post-Palatial period. In the Neopalatial period, a spacious and lavishly decorated L-shaped complex stood here at the west end of the same ridge on whose east end the palace of Phaistos is located. Often identified as a “summer palace” for the authority resident at Phaistos, the complex at Ayia Triadha is probably not a single structure at all but rather a pair of large mansions or villas comparable to those at Tylissos, a site which may have been a “suburb” of Knossos in much the same way as Ayia Triadha was of Phaistos.

Ayia Triadha west wing storage magazines and workshops / Wikimedia Commons

Southern Part of West “Wing” or “Villa” – A row of rooms served by a single long corridor is often identified as the servants quarter but is more likely to be a storage and workshop area (9).

Northwest Corner of West “Wing” or “Villa” – A well preserved set of “residential quarters” is approached from the paved court to the southeast by a staircase leading down and lit by a window opening onto a lightwell at the north. From the stairway, the visitor enters a “Men’s Hall” (3 + 12) which opens toward the northwest onto an L-shaped portico (11) with terraced gardens beyond. At the east, tne “Men’s Hall” opens onto a lightwell (the same which provided light for the stairway), on the other side of which is a room with a gypsum-paved floor, gypsum-panelled walls, and a bench along the wall on three sides (4). Off this room in turn opens a room which has a raised platform in the northeast corner (for a bed?). North of the “Men’s Hall” is a “Women’s Hall” (13) with pier-and-door partitions on three sides, beyond the eastern of which a staircase leads down through a door to another hall, this one lit by a square lightwell colonnaded on two sides.

Central Part of North “Wing” or Villa – Several rooms crowded with large pithoi (5-6) define another storage area which is to be assigned to a “north villa”, while the rooms with a similar function to the southwest mentioned above are to be connected with a second “west villa”.

East End of North “Wing” or Villa – A series of major apartments separated by pier-and-door partitions open onto lightwells at the east through porticoes or windows (1-2). At the southeast corner, a major staircase leads up to what was probably a series of equally important apartments on the second floor.

Little Palace at Knossos

The “Little Palace” at Knossos, Crete / Wikimedia Commons

Located ca. 230 m. northwest of the palace and itself extending over a surface area of some 800 m.2, this large and impressive mansion is linked on the east to the palace by the major thoroughfare called the “Royal Road” and is linked on the west by a bridge at the second-storey level to the so-called “Unexplored Mansion” (excavated by the British in the mid-1970’s and published in the mid-1980’s). The major rooms of the Little Palace are located on its east side and are only partially preserved. At the north is a large “Men’s Hall” divided into two by the usual pier-and-door partition and opening throughout its length toward the east through another pier-and-door partition onto a colonnaded veranda with a splendid view toward the palace and the Kairatos valley. South of the “Men’s Hall” is a peristyle (the only comparable colonnaded court occurs in the palace at Phaistos), which is in turn approached from the south by a broad, three-stepped staircase. At the south end of the building on the basement level are three pillar crypts. At the northwest end is a toilet. Just to the south of the toilet is a “Lustral Basin”, converted in a Post-Palatial re-occupation phase into the so-called “Fetish Shrine”. Still further south is a major stairway leading up to the second floor.

Royal Villa at Knossos


The Royal Villa at Knossos / Wikimedia Commons

Located ca. 150 m. northeast of the palace, this townhouse measures ca. 18 x 10 m. in surface area and stood at least three storeys high. The entrance to the villa, as restored to the east, opens directly into a light well at the east end of a “Men’s Hall” which occupied the central portion of the ground floor. The floor of the major half of the “Men’s Hall” is paved with gypsum slabs, while the walls of this room are faced with a veneer of the same material. At the west end of the hall, a stone balustrade 0.81 m. high and pierced in the center by a three-stepped stairway, separates the hall from a narrow space which is restored as being open up to the level of the room over the second floor (i.e. this space is two storeys high). In a niche in the west wall of this high-ceilinged space were found the remains of a stone seat or throne. Columns at the ends of the balustrades on either side of the stairway leading up to the niche helped to support the first-floor ceiling over the “Men’s Hall”, and a pedestalled stone lamp was found on the stairs themselves. North of the “Men’s Hall” is a pillar crypt, the best preserved example in Minoan architecture. The walls in the crypt are constructed of coursed gypsum blocks, while the ceiling was supported by large tree trunks which rested in notches cut in the tops of the walls and on the top surfaces of a large beam which ran north-south across the room resting on the central pillar of the “crypt”. A channel and two basins (“cists” on the plan) are cut into the floor around the pillar and may have been designed to catch liquid offerings poured during cult ceremonies in this room. Stairways lead up to the second floor, one at the northwest from the “pillar crypt” and another at the southwest of the villa. The latter stairway turns up to both east and west of the first flight above the level of the first landing, a stairway design unique in Minoan architecture. The unusual arrangement of stairways and the peculiarly roofed space west of the “Men’s Hall” have suggested to some scholars that some form of religious chicanery took place in this building. In the southeast quarter of the villa is a suite consisting of a small hall (E), a “closet” (toilet?) (F), and a possible bathroom (G). This suite, together with a narrow hall lit by a lightwell at the south (H), is loosely comparable with the combination of “Women’s Hall”, “Lustral Basin”, and toilet at the palaces of Mallia, Phaistos, and Knossos, and like them connects with a “Men’s Hall” by means of a dog-legged corridor (A) in the by now familiar unit termed a “Residential Quarters”.

Nirou Khani


Ruins at Nirou Khani / Wikimedia Commons

The site is located on the north coast, some 13 kms. east of Heraklion. A normal “Men’s Hall” divided in two by a pier-and-door partition (2 + 2a) is separated from a sizable, paved east court by two columns. This arrangement is a bit unusual in that the hall opens directly onto a court rather than onto the more normal lightwell. A floor paved with slabs is a feature of many of the rooms (e.g. 5, 8, 9, 12), while several rooms also have their lower walls panelled with gypsum veneer (e.g. 2a). Storerooms exist both within the villa proper (15-18) and in a subsidiary enclosed area to the north (24, 25, 31) which also includes a series of cereal bins (26-30). The contents of some storerooms are peculiar: forty to fifty clay altars were stacked in room 18, four large stone lamps in room 14, four very large and thin bronze double axes in room 7. The axes are so fragile that they must have been symbolic rather than functional (cf. the double axes on poles portrayed on one side of the famous Ayia Triadha sarcophagus). Fragments of a large pair of stone “Horns of Consecration” were found in the east court just north of a niche in that court’s south wall. Evans and Xanthoudides used these finds to interpret the villa as that of a “high priest”. Graham merely observes that the building’s architecture is quite conventional and does not in itself set the building apart from many other rural villas of the Neopalatial period.


Ruins of Gournia / Wikimedia Commons

Gournia storage magazines / Wikimedia Commons

This town in eastern Crete was excavated from 1901 to 1904 by an expedition from the University of Pennsylvania under the direction of three women (the leader of whom, Harriet Boyd Hawes, was married to a Dartmouth professor!). The site is particularly significant as the most extensively excavated (i.e. fully cleared) town of the Neopalatial period in all of Crete. On the south side of the crest of the low hill on which the site is located is a large open court resembling the central courts of the major palaces. To the north of this court is a heavily eroded building which has some features typical of a palace. For example, its principal facade faces west onto a small paved court, is constructed of cut blocks of poros limestone resting on a low projecting plinth, and is characterized by multiple setbacks behind which are storage magazines. At least one of the blocks of magazines, that just south of the western entrance to the building, has a shallow recess in the center of its west front. At the north end of the large court is an L-shaped “theatral area” which constitutes part of the building’s south facade. Within the building, north and slightly west of the “theatral area”, is a colonnade of alternating piers and columns running north-south. The original layout of the building is unclear because of its poor state of preservation, but it was probably a small-scale palace located very near the center of this small coastal town. To the north of the palace, near the summit of the hill, is a small, rectangular one-room shrine approached from the west by a cobbled street leading up from the “circumferential highway” that loops around the hill.

Building Types Peculiar to Post-Palatial Crete

House H-e ruins at Gournia / Wikimedia Commons

During his recent excavations just west of the Stratigraphical Museum at Knossos, Warren has uncovered all of two low cylindrical structures and part of a third. All three date between later LM II and early LM IIIA2 (i.e. ca. 1425-1375/1350 B.C.), at which point the area in question, a densely settled residential district both before and afterwards, boasted no other buildings at all. Two of the structures are small (diameters of 3.0 and 3.22 m.), the third considerably larger (maximum diameter of 8.38 m.). All have solid cores of rubble and earth faced with exteriors of coursed ashlar masonry. The two smaller circles have simple vertical sides, are nowhere preserved to their original heights but in both cases probably stood no higher than a meter, and preserve nothing in the way of an access stairway to their upper surfaces. The larger circle has a profile resembling two superimposed discs, the smaller (diameter of 7.64 m.; two courses high) on top of the larger (diameter of 8.38 m.; one course high). It also preserves traces of two floors on top (one of beaten earth below one of irregular stone slabs) and a simple access stairway against its west side. In the larger circle, twelve of the surviving forty-eight ashlar blocks bear a “mason’s mark”, always in the form of a reversed, three-stroked Z. By contrast, only two blocks from one of the smaller circles bear a “mason’s mark” and these are different both from each other and from the aforementioned Z. These carefully built cylinders cannot be the foundations for houses or towers nor are they containers for liquid or dry contents (e.g. cisterns, bathing pools, granaries). Furthermore, the small ones are far too small to have served as threshing floors. Warren identifies the largest as a dancing floor (choros; compare the terracotta models from the Kamilari tholos and Palaikastro, as well as the description in the Odyssey of the one which Daidalos is said to have built for Ariadne at Knossos). The smaller circles, if not simply for smaller groups of dancers, are interpreted as stands for musicians or as podia for one or more presiding religious officials.

Dating exclusively to the LM III “reoccupation” period at sites destroyed in LM IB are megaron complexes, such as House H-e at Gournia (which has an excellent parallel in the LH IIIA1 megaron at Phylakopi on Melos) or a large building of which only the foundations survive overlying the northern of the two LM I villas at Ayia Triadha. Most authorities consider it unlikely that earlier rectangular, porch-and-hall units in Minoan architecture such as the LM II Throne Room at Knossos or the LM IB “Men’s Hall” at Nirou Khani already described are to be interpreted as Minoanized forms of the megaron so characteristic of Mainland Greek architecture from the EH III period onwards.

Tombs of the Neopalatial and Post-Palatial and Post-Palatial Periods


Late Minoan chamber tombs at Phourni (left) and Stylos (right) / Wikimedia Commons

The variety of tomb types on Crete is even more impressive during the LM period than it had been during the EM period (see separate lesson for plans or consult the appropriate drawings in Pini 1968):

Pit and Cave Burials – Although rare, both forms do continue from earlier periods.

Chamber Tombs – This is the single most common LM tomb type, having been introduced into Crete during MM II-III. Such tombs consist basically of dromos (entrance passageway leading down into earth or bedrock), stomion (doorway opening into tomb chamber), and thalamos (tomb chamber itself). Burials could be simply laid on the floor of the chamber or corpses might be placed in larnakes or pithoi which themselves rested on the chamber floor. Also commonly found are cists or shafts cut into the tomb floor, into which simple bodies or bodies inside larnakes were lowered. Most LM chamber tombs are of Post-Palatial (LM III) date. LM Ivchamber tombs are at present very rare, perhaps because many of them were re-used in the LM III period, at which time their LM I contents were removed. LM II examples are also relatively few in number. After each burial, the tomb chamber was closed off by a blocking wall built across the stomion and the dromos was filled with earth. The location of a tomb was presumably marked by some form of post stuck into the dromos fill, but no such markers have survived, a fact which suggests that, if these indeed existed, they may all have been made of wood.

Temple Tomb at Knossos


Royal temple tomb at Knossos / Wikimedia Commons

First constructed in MM IIIB and then rebuilt following a partial collapse in LM IA, this monumental tomb consists of two storeys. The lower has a rectangular rock-cut chamber at the west end whose roof was supported by a single pier. The walls of this chamber were veneered with gypsum and the floor was paved with slabs of the same stone, a central square around the pier lying at a somewhat lower level than the floor next to the walls (cf. the “pillar crypt” in the Royal Villa described above). This chamber was entered from an antechamber whose roof was supported by two more piers. Above the antechamber was a cult room on the second floor. The antechamber was remodeled in the period following the LM IA collapse through subdivisions of its western and northern portions by means of thin partition walls into a number of small compartments which were found occupied by numerous burials when the tomb was excavated. The antechamber was entered through a corridor flanked to north and south by bastion-like chambers, within the southern of which a stairway leading up to the second storey was built. The corridor in turn was entered from a lightwell which had a portico with two columns on its opposite side. Entrance to the lightwell, and hence to the rest of the tomb, was by means of a passageway coming in from the direction of the palace to the north. In contrast to less elaborate chamber tombs, the Temple Tomb incorporates a significant number of built (as opposed to simply rock-cut) features. It was also clearly designed to remain at least partially visible after a burial had been made. Persson saw in this tomb evidence of strong Egyptian influence of Middle Kingdom date, but both Graham and Pini have argued that all of the elements in it can in fact be paralleled in Minoan palatial architecture.

Tomb of the Double Axes at Knossos

East wing of the Tomb of the Double Axes at Knossos / Wikimedia Commons

(Pini 1968: Figs.16-17) In thischamber tombs, a rock-cut pier projects from the back wall of the tomb chamber, the end of the pier being carved in the form of a half-column. Stone benches, such as that carved out along one wall of the chamber, are fairly common in LM chamber tombs but the grave shaft whose unusual plan gives the tomb its name is not, although such shafts may occur in either the chamber or the dromos.

Shaft Graves – Graves of this type are relatively rare both in Crete and on the Greek Mainland. The Minoan examples are probably inspired by Mainland prototypes, although on Crete the shafts may hold either simple bodies or bodies in larnakes. Most Minoan examples are found in the Knossos area. The upper edge of the tomb shaft is often cut back into a ledge on which roofing slabs could rest. In the Knossos area, particularly in the Zapher Papoura cemetery, shafts are large rectangular pits up to 2 m. deep, in the floor of which are cut smaller shafts for the burial itself. The smaller shafts constituting the grave proper would have been roofed by stone slabs. A variant form at Zapher Papoura consists of a double-shaft divided into two by a rubble wall, the body being placed in one compartment and the grave goods in the other at a considerably lower level (Pini 1968: Figs.82-83).

Shaft-Niche Graves – These graves constitute a small group of LM II-IIIA tombs found only in the Knossos area, particularly in the Zapher Papoura cemetery (Pini 1968: Figs.84-86). The tombs are shaft graves up to 4.35 m. deep with a niche cut into one of the longer side walls at the bottom, usually ca. 1 m. high by 2 m. long. These niches contain an extended burial walled off from the shaft proper by a double row of stones. Burials in such tombs are always simple, never in larnakes or coffins. Such tombs are rare on the Greek Mainland but do exist, although most seem to be of LH III date. The origin of this tomb type is presently unclear. Its peculiarities may be due to a desire to foil tomb robbers.

Built Chamber Tombs with Vaulted Roofs – The home of tholoi of the “Mycenaean” type in Late Minoan Crete is particularly the eastern portion of the island, only isolated examples being known from other areas. On Crete, vaulted tholos tombs of the Late Bronze Age may have rectangular as well as circular plans. According to Pini, only the LM III tholos at Maleme definitely had a pyramidal rather than a hemispherical or keel-vaulted roof. A circular or rectangular pit was dug for the tomb, walls of rubble or of cut stone would line this pit (and in some cases the sides of the dromos as well), and, if the vault of the tomb projected above ground level, a mound of earth was heaped over it. Only in the case of the Maleme tomb is there any evidence for a wooden door giving access to the tomb chamber. In other cases, the chamber doorway or stomion was blocked with a rubble wall as in ordinary chamber tombs.

In comparison to the situation on the Mycenaean Mainland, subterranean tholoi of the Late Bronze Age are relatively rare on Crete. A variant form with a keel-vault rather than the normal hemispherical vault of a tholos is exemplified by three tombs with rectangular rather than circular tomb chambers: the Royal Tomb (Pini 1968: Figs.96-97) and Isopata Tomb 1 (Pini 1968: Fig.98) at Knossos and a tomb at Damania (Pini 1968: Fig.95). In keel-vaulted tombs, the short sides of the tomb chambers have continuously vertical walls and it is only the long sides which are corbelled above a certain point to form the vault.

Four vaulted tombs at the sites of Apodolou, Damania, Stylos, and Maleme have relieving triangles above the lintels of their stomia, a clear instance of Mycenaean architectural influence (see lesson on Mycenaean Tholoi). The entrances to the Royal Tomb and Isopata Tomb 1 at Knossos are preceded by built antechambers with vaulted roofs. In the Royal Tomb there are in addition a pair of niches in the sides of the dromos which also have corbel-vaulted roofs. The lower part of the dromos of the Kephala Tholos at Knossos (Pini 1968: Fig.90) is also roofed, although here simply with flat slabs, and in this dromos, as in that of the Royal Tomb, there are two side niches. The Royal Tomb at Knossos is dated to LM IB-II with re-use in LM IIIB. The Kephala Tholos at the same site is often dated as early as MM IIIB, but is probably no earlier than LM IB.

Tholos A at Archanes of LM IIIA date has a side chamber hewn out of the bedrock to the visitor’s left of the main chamber. This tomb may well be the archetype for the better known Treasuries of Atreus at Mycenae and of Minyas at Orchomenos, Mycenaean tholoi of later date (LH IIIB) on the Greek Mainland which have a similar side chamber located on the visitor’s right.

Peculiar Forms of Built Tomb – The “chamber tomb” at Ayia Triadha which contained the famous painted sarcophagus is a rectangular room measuring only 2.40 x 1.95 m. in area and having walls 0.90 m. thick preserved to a maximum height of 1.20 m. above ground level (Pini 1968: Fig.112). It has an off-axis door in its east wall. The well-known sarcophagus rested on the chamber floor, while an unpainted larnax was found in a shaft grave cut in the floor alongside it. The roofing of this tomb, built entirely above ground, is problematic but is unlikely to have been a vault

Cist Tombs – With the exception of cists cut in the floors of built chamber tombs such as the Royal Tomb and Isopata Tomb 1, the only LM examples of this tomb type contained some child burials at Mallia, probably of LM III date.

Burial Containers – These are of four types:

(1) wooden coffins, rarely preserved, even if only in the form of soil discolorations;

(2) larnakes of the elliptical “tub” type, modeled after contemporary bathtubs such as that found in the Lustral Basin of the “Residential Quarters” at Knossos;

(3) larnakes of the rectangular “chest” type on four, or sometimes six, legs, a cheaper copy in clay of a wooden prototype whose panelled sides are imitated in the terracotta versions;

(4) pithoi, very popular in the MM period as burial containers, but largely, although not completely, replaced by larnakes in the LM period.