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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."