Has the original Labyrinth been found?

Archaeologists shed new light on the inspiration for the Greek myth. Steve Connor reports

A disused stone quarry on the Greek island of Crete which is riddled with an elaborate network of underground tunnels could be the original site of the ancient Labyrinth, the mythical maze that housed the half-bull, half-man Minotaur of Greek legend.

An Anglo-Greek team of scholars who undertook an expedition to the quarry this summer believes that the site, near the town of Gortyn in the south of the island, has just as much claim to be the place of the Labyrinth as the Minoan palace at Knossos 20 miles away, which has been synonymous with the Minotaur myth since its excavation a century ago.

The 600,000 people a year who visit the ruins at Knossos are told the site was almost certainly the home of the legendary King Minos, who was supposed to have constructed the Labyrinth to house the Minotaur, a fearsome creature born out of a union between the king's wife and a bull.

But the scholars behind the latest expedition to find the Labyrinth believe the cave complex near Gortyn, which was the ancient Roman capital of Crete, could be an equally plausible candidate for the site of the Labyrinth – if indeed there was any truth in the idea that the myth was based on a real place and a real king.

Nicholas Howarth, an Oxford University geographer who led the expedition, said there was a danger of Gortyn being lost from the story of the Labyrinth because of the overpowering position that Knossos had taken in the legend, a position fostered by Arthur Evans, a wealthy English archaeologist who excavated the site between 1900 and 1935.

"People come not just to see the controversial ruins excavated and reconstructed by Evans, but also to seek a connection to the mythical past of the Age of Heroes. It is a shame that almost all visitors to Knossos have never heard of these other possible 'sites' for the mythical Labyrinth," Mr Howarth said.

Working with experts from the Hellenic Speleological Society, the Oxford researchers found that the cave complex at Gortyn had been visited recently by archaeological thieves who were preparing to dynamite one of the inner chambers in the hope of discovering a hidden treasure room.

The caves, which are known locally as the Labyrinthos Caves, consist of about two and half miles of interlocking tunnels with widened chambers and dead-end rooms. They have been visited since medieval times by travellers looking for the Labyrinth, but since Knossos was rediscovered at the end of the 19th century they were neglected, and were even used as a Nazi ammunition dump during the Second World War.

"Going into the Labyrinthos Caves at Gortyn it's easy to feel that this is a dark and dangerous place where it is easy to get lost. Evans' hypothesis that the palace of Knossos is also the Labyrinth must be treated sceptically," Mr Howarth said.

"The fact that this idea prevails so strongly in the popular imagination seems more to do with our romantic yearning to believe in the stories of the past, coupled with the power of Evans' personality and privileged position," he said.

In addition to Knossos and Gortyn, there is a third cave complex at Skotino on the Greek mainland that could also be a contender for the site of the Labyrinth. "If we look at the archaeological facts, it is extremely difficult to say that a Labyrinth ever existed... I think that each site has its claim to the mystery of the Labyrinth, but in the end there are questions that neither archaeology nor mythology can ever completely hope to answer," Mr Howarth said.

Andrew Shapland, curator of Greek Bronze Age at the British Museum in London, said the siting of the Labyrinth was a "hoary old chestnut" that refused to go away. Gortyn has been visited by travellers looking for the Labyrinth since the 12th century.

"But I think Knossos really has a better claim because it is based on the classical tradition rather than the later tradition of travellers," Dr Shapland said. "Knossos is mentioned in Homer. If the Labyrinth is a real thing, it was the way in which a site such as Knossos was transmitted into later Greek myth."

Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones