Knossos (alternative spellings Knossus, Cnossus, Greek Κνωσός, pronounced [knoˈsos]), currently refers to the main Bronze Age archaeological site at Heraklion, a modern port city on the north central coast of Crete. Heraklion was formerly called Candia after the Saracen name for the place, Kandaiki, meaning the moat that was built around the then new settlement for defence. Kandaiki became Byzantine Chandax.

The name, Knossos, survives from ancient Greek references to the major city of Crete. The identification of Knossos with the Bronze Age site is supported by tradition and by the Roman coins that were scattered over the fields surrounding the pre-excavation site, then a large mound named Kephala Hill, elevation 85 m (279 ft) from current sea level. Many of them were inscribed with Knosion or Knos on the obverse and an image of a Minotaur or Labyrinth on the reverse, both symbols deriving from the myth of King Minos, supposed to have reigned from Knossos. The coins came from the Roman settlement of Colonia Julia Nobilis Cnossus, a Roman colony placed just to the north of, and politically including, Kephala. The Romans believed they had colonized Knossos. After excavation, the discovery of the Linear B tablets, and the decipherment of Linear B by Michael Ventris, the identification was confirmed by the reference to an administrative center, ko-no-so, Mycenaean Greek Knosos, undoubtedly the palace complex. The palace was built over a Neolithic town. During the Bronze Age, the town surrounded the hill on which the palace was built.

The palace was excavated and partially restored under the direction of Arthur Evans in the earliest years of the 20th century. Its size far exceeded his original expectations, as did the discovery of two ancient scripts, which he termed Linear A and Linear B, to distinguish their writing from the pictographs also present. From the layering of the palace Evans developed de novo an archaeological concept of the civilization that used it, which he called Minoan, following the pre-existing custom of labelling all objects from the location Minoan.

The palace complex is the largest Bronze Age archaeological site on Crete. It was undoubtedly the ceremonial and political centre of the Minoan civilization and culture. It appears as a maze of workrooms, living spaces, and storerooms close to a central square. An approximate graphic view of some aspects of Cretan life in the Bronze Age is provided by restorations of the palace's indoor and outdoor murals, as it is also by the decorative motifs of the pottery and the insignia on the seals and sealings.

The palace was abandoned at some unknown time at the end of the Late Bronze Age, ca. 1380–1100 BC. The occasion is not known for certain, but one of the many disasters that befell the palace is generally put forward. The abandoning population were probably Mycenaean Greeks, who had earlier occupied the city-state, and were using Linear B as its administrative script, as opposed to Linear A, the previous administrative script. The hill was never again a settlement or civic site, although squatters may have used it for a time.

Except for periods of abandonment, other cities were founded in the immediate vicinity, such as the Roman colony, and a Hellenistic Greek precedent. The population shifted to the new town of Chandax (modern Heraklion) during the 9th century AD. By the 13th century, it was called Makruteikhos 'Long Wall'; the bishops of Gortyn continued to call themselves Bishops of Knossos until the 19th century. Today, the name is used only for the archaeological site now situated in the expanding suburbs of Heraklion.

Discovery and modern history of the antiquities

In addition to having a history of some thousands of years in the Neolithic, the Bronze Age, and the Classical period, the ruins in the age of archaeology; that is, since the 19th century, have undergone a history of their own, from excavation by renowned archaeologists, education and tourism, to occupation as a headquarters by governments warring over the control of the eastern Mediterranean in two world wars. This site history is to be distinguished from the ancient.

The term Minoan

"Prince of lilies" or "Priest-king Relief", plaster relief at the end of the Corridor of Processions, restored by Gilliéron, believed by Arthur Evans to be a priest-king, wearing a crown with peacock feathers and a necklace with lilies on it, leading an unseen animal to sacrifice.

In 1825, Karl Hoeck used the name Das Minoische Kretas for Volume II of his major work, Kreta. This is currently the first known use of the term Minoan to mean ancient Cretan. Arthur Evans read the book, continuing the use of the term for his own writings and findings. The term, however, is often erroneously attributed to Evans, sometimes by noted scholars. Evans said:

    "To this early civilization of Crete as a whole I have proposed — and the suggestion has been generally adopted by the archaeologists of this and other countries — to apply the name 'Minoan.'"

He claims to have applied it, but not to have devised it. Hoeck had in mind the Crete of mythology. He had no idea that the archaeological Crete had existed. Similarly, "Minoan" had been in use since ancient times as an adjective meaning "associated with Minos." Evans' 1931 claim that the term was "unminted" before his use of it has been tagged a "brazen suggestion" by Karadimas and Momigliano. However, Evans' statement applies to archaeological contexts. Since he was the one who discovered the civilization, and the term could not have been in use to mean it previously, he did coin that specific meaning.

Legends of Knossos

In Greek mythology, King Minos dwelled in a palace at Knossos. He had Daedalus construct a labyrinth in which to retain his son, the Minotaur. Daedalus also built a dancing floor for Queen Ariadne. The word labyrinth manifestly contains the word labrys, the double axe, at least in folk etymology. It was subsequently adopted by Arthur Evans because it seemed to fit the archaeology of Knossos. It has never been credibly questioned, mainly because of that archaeology.

Western civilization was thus predisposed by legend to associate whatever palace ruin should be found at Knossos with the legends of Minos and the labyrinth. The very first name of the first man to excavate at Knossos, Minos Kalokairinos, was taken from the legend. As far as is currently known, it was Stillman who, seeing the sign of the double axe on the massive walls partly uncovered by Kalokairinos, first associated the complex with the labyrinth of legend. Evans agreed with Stillman. The myth stirred his imagination to such a degree that he viewed the first room uncovered, the Throne Room, as the bathroom of Ariadne. Moreover, he named his subsequently constructed living quarters the Villa Ariadne. As a professional archaeologist he knew that the likelihood of any feature of the palace being associated with any part of the legend was small. Like Schliemann, he was enough of an impressario to retain elements of the legend.

As it turns out, there probably was an association of the word, whatever its etymology, with ancient Crete. The sign was used throughout the Mycenaean world as an apotropaic symbol: its presence on an object would prevent it from being "killed". Axes were scratched on many of the stones of the palace. It appears in pottery decoration and is a motif of the Shrine of the Double Axes at the palace, as well as of many shrines throughout Crete and the Aegean. And finally, it appears in Linear B on Knossos Tablet Gg702 as da-pu2-ri-to-jo po-ti-ni-ja, which probably writes Mycenaean Greek Daburinthoio potniai, "to the mistress of the Labyrinth," recording the distribution of one jar of honey. A credible theory uniting all the evidence has yet to be formulated.

Art and architecture of the palace complex

The features of the palace depend on the time period. Currently visible is an accumulation of features over several centuries, the latest most dominant. The palace was thus never exactly as depicted today. In addition, it has been reconstituted in modern materials. The custom began in an effort to preserve the site from decay and torrential winter rain. After 1922, the chief proprietor, Arthur Evans, intended to recreate a facsimile based on archaeological evidence. The palace is not exactly as it ever was, perhaps in places not even close, and yet in general, judging from the work put in and the care taken, as well as parallels with other palaces, it probably is a good general facsimile. Opinions range, however, from most skeptical, viewing the palace as pure fantasy based on 1920's architecture and art deco, to most unquestioning, accepting the final judgements of Arthur Evans as most accurate. The mainstream of opinion falls between.