A Minoan adventure at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford: Journey with the History Guru to England and Spain

Posted on Dec 29, 2011 in category

5 OCTOBER – On the Minoan Trail (part 1)

An extraordinary thing happened to me on the way to Oxford! A queue of cars stopped us suddenly before a little stone bridge over the Thames River. Eventually we found out the reason for the holdup. Highway robbery! A 5d toll per vehicle was handed over to the toll collector who surprisingly didn't have a clue who owned the bridge. I thought the owner has to be a privileged aristocrat sitting in the House of Lords maintaining age old lurks and perks. At the time I thought it hilarious, I've actually gone back in time for only 5p! In fact, this bridge was originally owned by Lord Abington who secured the right to building a toll bridge in 1767 with only a minimal land tax (no income tax in those days!). Two years later 'Swinford Tollbridge' was operating. Recently the tollbridge was sold to a private investor for over 1 million pounds. A local campaign to abolish this impost from the past failed. The campaign tried to pressure the local Oxfordshire County Council to buy it. Revenue from this toll is 190,000 pounds per annum.

See: Eynsham toll bridge

After dropping off 'VW Golf' and leaving our luggage at Rewley House (part of the Continuing Education of Oxford University), we headed for the Ashmolean Museum, Britain's first public museum founded in A.D.1683. Recently moved to its newly renovated premises, the Ashmolean Museum is fantastic! Sir Arthur Evans, who excavated the Palace of Knossos in Crete, was once its curator. Consequently, I spent most of my time 'swatting up' on the Minoan civilisation.

A brilliant new internal design but maintaining the classic facade:


Honey was an important commodity for the Minoans. Linear B tablets testify to this important agricultural industry. A smoking terracotta piece was displayed which served the purpose of quietening the hive with the introduction of smoke. It was found in the 'House of Sacrificed Oxen'; incidentally, a house I never knew existed!

A Minoan bee smoker (1700-1450 B.C.)

Seal stones were the scent that led Sir Arthur Evans to the Minoan 'holy grail' – the Palace of Knossos. Many of Evans' seal stones are on display. A real treat! Their origins vary from mainland Greece as well as Psychro Cave, Milatos and Mallia - all on the island of Crete. Fortunately, Evans was near-sighted which allowed him to have a good eye for detail and appreciate small things. One of the seal stones shows a man with three of his prize bulls reinforcing the importance of the bull cult. Another has a bull caught in a net.

Seal (red jasper) man with three bulls 1700- 1450 B.C.

More seal stones:

1. Seal (lapis lacedaemonius) found in Psychro Cave with Minotaur figure 1450 –1375 B.C.

2. Seal (agate) found in Athens region depicting hybrid creatures 1450 -1375 B.C.

3. Seal (haematite) found in Milatos, east Crete 1450 -1375 B.C.

4. Seal (serpentine) found in Mallia, Crete with a half-man, half-goat figure 1450- 1375 B.C.

A gold ring found in the Archanes region (a 'palace' in the mountains south of the Palace of Knossos) shows a bull-leaper.

Archanes gold ring 1450 -1375 B.C.

Bronze knives, razors, arrowheads and double axes fill another display cabinet. Many are gifts from Sir Arthur Evans. Appropriately, the terracotta pipes, which made up part of the water and drainage system of the Palace of Knossos, are highlighted in the Minoan section. Anyone who has visited the Palace of Knossos would agree that the drainage/water system is a key architectural feature of the 'palace'.

The ingenious Minoan interlocking terracotta pipe system

Bronze smithing (copper and a little tin) played a large role in Minoan society

For information on the oldest Bronze Age shipwreck, the Uluburun, see:

Uluburun shipwreck

Sir Arthur Evans is a controversial figure in archaeology. His 'restoration' of the 'Palace of Knossos' in the early 1900's was carried out with much artistic licence – the fashionable Art Nouveau scene probably overly influenced the palace's frescoes' restorations and he ignored other historical eras on the site such as the Neolithic period in his quest to make the Minoans (his own term named after King Minos, in the Minotaur legend) the greatest civilisation in history. Evans had a grand Victorian vision for the 'Palace' and lack of facts wasn't going to hinder him. Knossos was an early theme park.

Evans reconstructing the Grand Staircase (no shortage of concrete here!)

'Art Nouveau' inspired fresco restoration? Pieces were found in Court of the Stone Spout/School Room

Evans employed two Swiss artists, the Gillerons (father and son), to reconstruct Minoan frescoes and to draw palace landscapes in watercolour to serve as blueprints for his reconstructs.

'Queen's Megaron' (E. Gilleron, son) 'Hall of the Double Axes' (E. Gilleron, son)

For a detailed account by John K. Papadopoulos of the restoration history of the site and today's subsequent conservation problems see:

"Inventing the Minoans"

Click on part two: Knossos.

For a good account of the Gillerons' contribution see:


An important feature of Evans' Minoan dating system was the reliance on pottery styles found only on site at Knossos. Evans' dating system: Early, Middle and Late Minoans, is not used in the dating of the pottery styles. Rather the Platon dating system based on the building of the palaces is preferred: Old Palaces, New Palaces and Post-palatial periods. Some scholars believe that the 'palaces' were 'ceremonial centres' rather than Evans' legacy of a king, queen and their court. See Jan Driessen's article: http://uclouvain.academia.edu/JanDriessen/Papers/663886/Court_Compounds....palaces_or_ceremonial_centres

'Kamares ware' first found in Kamares cave

Where is the 'Marine' style 'Octopus vase'?

Here it is! Notice the lighter restored pieces

Post-palatial 'Mycenaean' pottery

There are so many interesting Minoan artefacts on display so I'll finish with a picture of Sir Arthur Evans' diary. His diaries are truly fascinating historical documents that historians still use to verify their ideas.

April 14 1900 diary entry by Sir Arthur Evans

A few other amazing artefacts found in the Ashmolean collection from different eras are:


Part of a wheel tray or wagon 800 B.C.- 600 B.C. (Lezoux, Puy-de-Dome, France)

Torcs from Spain, England and Germany made from gold, electrum (gold and silver) and bronze. They often showed Celtic nobility and status.

The 'Whittenham Sword' found in the Thames, Oxfordshire dated 100 B.C.

The 'Henley Hoard' of 32 gold staters in a flint nodule showing a triple-tailed horse over a wheel (Atrebates tribe 50 B.C.)


A collection of bronze brooches – many are from France (stag, lion, swan and fox chasing a hare)

After two hours in the Ashmolean Museum it was time to see the rest of Oxford's famous sites. A walk around the myriad of colleges such as Christ Church and Queen's Colleges was an eye-opener. Education goes back a long way in Oxford. Inspired by Moslem universities and their high culture in the Holy Land, crusading knights and the Christian Church brought back this educational improvement and many other ideas and products. In A.D.1167 King Henry II banned Englishmen from attending the University of Paris. Although some form of teaching occurred in Oxford prior to this date, Henry's law gave a fillip to establishing a 'universitas' or corporation in Oxford finally in A.D.1231. Rioting between students (gown) and citizens (town) led to accommodation residencies established controlled by masters. The oldest were University, Balliol and Merton Colleges A.D.1249-1264. Women weren't admitted to full membership of Oxford University until 1920 and in 1974 the first 5 all-male Colleges admitted women that soon led to all male Colleges admitting women.

Christ Church College was the brainchild of Cardinal Wolsey who in A.D.1524 confiscated the monastery and its land in order to fund his College. King Henry VIII gained the property on Wolsey's fall from grace in 1529 and he recommissioned the College in A.D.1546. The quadrangle is the largest in Oxford and the Cathedral and 'Tom Tower' (latter bell tower designed by Sir Christopher Wren) are both grand.

'Tom Quad' was Cardinal Wolsey's work

A great view of central Oxford was gained from the 13th century tower of University Church of Saint Mary the Virgin. The largest church in Oxford, it played a significant role in Oxford's early history.

All Souls College founded in A.D.1437 from University Church's tower

'Radcliffe Camera' (camera means 'room' in Latin), a domed, circular library building (1737-1749) that was a white elephant for many years.

The Bodleian Library was begun in A.D.1320 with several extensions culminating in Sir Thomas Bodley's generous donations of 2,500 books and funds to refurbish the library in A.D.1602. For a history of the Bodleian Library see:


An interesting exhibition 'Treasures of the Bodleian' was on display that included many famous hand-written manuscripts such as:

  1. One of three copies of the 1217 Magna Carta 'engrossments' http://treasures.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/Magna-Carta
  2. A poem written by Sappho
    Sappho 620-550 B.C. 

An updated version of 1215 Magna Carta (1217) written on parchment and sent to Gloucestershire nobility

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