Minos Kalokairinos: The Original Excavator of Knossos

Sir Arthur Evans tends to be the first name that comes to mind when one thinks of Knossos and its initial discovery and excavation. However, the original excavator is less widely known. His name? Minos Kalokairinos (yes, Minos!), a so-called novice archeologist, businessman, lifelong student, and antiquarian. That being said, the first excavation of this ancient Cretan site took place in 1878, not 1900 (by a Cretan person no less).

Photo taken by Wikimedia Commons User Danbu14

Minos Kalokairinos, The Palace of Minos: Mere Coincidence or Fate?

Not to get too poetic about it, but I do find it interesting that Minos shares the name of the legendary king Minos, which the Minoan civilization was named after (by Evans). Also, he was the first person to pin down the location of the Minoan ruler’s palace (also known as the Knossian Labyrinth). It’s far too synchronistic, if you ask me…

from Wikimedia Commons

The Life of Minos Kalokairinos (Μίνως Καλοκαιρινός)

Born back in 1843 on the island of Crete in Heraklion, Minos was the son of an affluent landowner named Andreas Kalokairinos (he actually owned the Knossos site). Following in father’s footsteps, his life was a balancing act between entrepreneur and scholar.

Academic Pursuits

Minos pursued his secondary education at Syrus, followed by a law degree at the University of Athens, which was short-lived. A year into the program, his father passed away from a serious illness. From there, he and his brother Lysimachus took over the family business until 1871. Eventually, his unwavering entrepreneurial spirit led him to soap manufacturing at an award-winning level. Alas, that was also short-lived when he became bankrupt. Thankfully, he would later oscillate back to his scholarly endeavors to continue his studies, which would lead to a degree.

May the Excavations Begin!

During 1878, Minos embarked upon quite a feat: the initial Knossos excavations! However, he would only be entitled to a third of the findings because two other individuals already owned the site. This primary excavation spanned the course of nearly a month and comprised the Royal Palace complex, namely the west and south wings.

Another Roadblock

However, the political situation at hand at the time had other plans (Crete was under Turkish occupation). Less than a year later, Fotiadis Pasha (the Christian Commander of Crete) visited the site to check on their progress. Unfortunately, he and the city’s scholars came to a unanimous decision to halt the excavations right then and there, in the name of protecting the findings.

Shaken But Tenacious

Even still, Minos was deeply passionate about this ancient palace and dreamed of making Knossos the talk of the world. So, he discretely escorted various archaeologists, diplomats, etc. at Knossos and showed off his private collection. By 1886, famous German archeologist Heinrich Schliemann (the one who discovered Troy) paid Minos and the site a visit. That alone could have changed everything, but continued excavations were still forbidden.

The Second Excavator Takes Over as The First Bows Out

A pivotal moment came in 1894, when Sir Arthur Evans arrived to survey the site for himself. Immediately in awe, he purchased a fourth of Kephala Hill. Six years later, the excavations officially started back up again. The exact date? March 23rd 1900, the date most are familiar with and reference when it comes to the “first” Knossian excavation.

The Throne Room was first in line, and in two years’ time, the entirety of Knossos was dug out of the pervasive ash and lava. This was certainly a groundbreaking time, but alas, Minos retired due to tragedies that befell him and his loved ones. Long story short, a vast genocide of civilians by the Turks in 1898 took the life of his beloved brother Lysimachus and son. His niece also went missing. And if that wasn’t horrific enough, his home was set ablaze, his precious collection of artifacts and all.

from Wikimedia Commons

Minos’ Legacy Lives On

However, all hope was not lost. In 1903, Minos’ nephew built a new mansion. To this day, this mansion is home to the Historical Museum of Heraklion. And prior to Minos’ passing in 1907 (on an island no longer under the Ottoman Empire’s rule), he had the opportunity to publish a journal primarily dedicated to Knossos called the “Cretan Archaeological Ephemeris“.

And while that house fire destroyed many of his findings, Minos fortunately had quite an extensive assemblage of artifacts. The amphorae found in Knossos’ western wing were donated to Greek museums and beyond to garner global intrigue.

It is Μίνως Καλοκαιρινός’ initial explorations and discoveries that led to those major excavations that revealed an expansive and elaborate palace of ancient times to the world. That is a fact that should never be overlooked! He may have not had to opportunity to see things through until the end, but his contribution to Crete’s rich history will have an enduring ripple effect.