Europe’s Oldest City Was Three Times Bigger Than We Thought


The ancient city of Knossos famously collapsed around 3,000 years ago when the palace at its heart was abandoned, but what happened next? New evidence suggests the city not only recovered, but was around three times bigger than previously thought.

Archaeologists from the Knossos Urban Landscape Project have made a pretty big discovery – one that stretches over 11km2 of Crete’s Knossos Valley.

The legendary city of Knossos is often described as Europe’s oldest urbanisation. According to Greek mythology, it was the seat of King Minos and home of his cruel labyrinth. During the Greek Bronze Age, it was the wealthy epicentre of Minoan civilisation and, with a magnificent palace at its heart, it was renowned as one of the most glorious cities in existence.

At its peak, it boasted a population of 100,000 people, before famously suffering a socio-political collapse at the end of the Bronze Age around 1200 BC. The palace was abandoned, the city declined and though it remained a major population centre throughout the so-called ‘Dark Ages’, it didn’t start to recover until the early Iron Age.

Or so the story usually goes. Since 2005, a team lead by Antonis Kotsonas from the University of Cincinnati has been carrying out an extensive survey, collecting pottery, artefacts and evidence of buildings and cemeteries, to chart the development of Knossos over the course of 9,000 years to the present day.

Until now, the story of Knossos was focused on its Bronze Age glory and collapse, but Kotsonas and his team are more interested in what happened next during the Iron Age. Over the last 10 years, they’ve found evidence of urban life spread over an extensive area that was previously unexplored, and say the city now appears to have been nearly three times larger than what was believed from earlier excavations. Not only did the city recover rapidly, he says, it morphed, grew, flourished and became even more of an urban centre than ever before.

“Even at this early stage in detailed analysis, it appears that this was a nucleated, rather densely occupied settlement extending over the core of the Knossos valley, from at least the east slopes of the acropolis hill on the west to the Kairatos River, and from the Vlychia stream on the south until roughly midway between the Minoan palace and the Kephala hill.”

What’s more, they were importing high quality goods from mainland Greece, Cyprus, the Near East, Egypt, Italy, Sardinia and the western Mediterranean.

“No other site in the Aegean period has such a range of imports,” Kotsonas says. The imports include bronze and other metals – jewellery and adornments, as well as pottery.

So far, they’ve found 355,000 sherds, about 50,000 fragments of tile, and another 20,000 or so non-ceramic artefacts, spread over 11km2. Although detailed analysis is still to take place, the project has so far revealed that:

“During the first 5,000 years Knossos was a nucleated village, growing gradually to 6.5 ha., with an estimated maximum population of 2,600.  By 2000 BC, the community rapidly became urban, expanding to ca. 40 ha. and up to 11,000 inhabitants.


In the century preceding the traditionally accepted foundation of the first Minoan palaces, ca. 1950 BCE, when Knossos became the centre of the first state in Europe.  Growth continued, reaching a maximum of one km2 ca. 1500 BCE, with some 25-30,000 occupants, making it one of the largest cities in the Bronze Age Eastern Mediterranean.


It declined gradually during the later Bronze Age, rapidly after 1200 BCE, but remained one of the major communities in the Aegean through the so-called Dark Ages, re-developing rapidly in the Early Iron Age, attaining an extent of 0.4 km2, as one of the earliest emerging city-states in the Aegean”

H/T University of Cincinatti  and Knossos Urban Landscape Project

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Written by Maiya Pina-Dacier

Head of Community at DigVentures, Maiya digs with a trowel in one hand, and a Twitter feed in the other. She reports on all our discoveries live from the trenches, and keeps our Site Hut full of the latest archaeology news. Got a story? Just drop her a line...

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