Maze of underground caves could be the original site of the Labyrinth

An elaborate network of underground tunnels topped by a stone quarry on the Greek island of Crete may be the original site of the ancient Labyrinth – the mythical maze where the half-bull, half-man Minotaur lived. The site, located near the town of Gortyn in the south of the island, is believed to have as much claim to be the Labyrinth as the Minoan palace at Knossos, 20 miles away.

Knossos, which was excavated a century ago had largely been heralded as the home of the legendary King Minos, who commissioned the Labyrinth to contain the Minotaur, a terrifying hybrid born of a union between his wife and a bull. Wealthy English archaeologist Arthur Evans, who excavated the site between 1900 and 1935 had keenly encouraged this belief. But scholars say that this site is an equally plausible setting for the legend.

labyrinth plan

An 1821 plan of the Labyrinth at Gortyn

The Gortyn site, known locally as Labyrinthos Caves, is made up of nearly three miles of interlocking tunnels with widened areas and dead end rooms. They have been visited since medieval times by travellers looking for the Labyrinth, but since the rediscovery of Knossos at the end of the 19th century, the site has been neglected by travelers searching for the Labyrinth, and was even used as a Nazi ammunition dump during World War II.

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.

Nicolas Howarth, an Oxford University geographer, said: ‘Going into the Labyrinthos Caves at Gortyn it’s easy to feel this is a dark and dangerous place where it is easy to get lost.

‘Evans’s hypothesis that the palace of Knossos is also the Labyrinth must be treated skeptically. 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’s personality and privileged position.’

A third contender for the site of the Labyrinth exists at Skotino on the Greek mainland.

Mr Howarth added: ‘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.’

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The Labyrinth of the Mesara, Crete.

The Labyrinth of Crete is situated around 3 km northeast from the archaeological site of Gortys in central Crete. It is an underground quarry in marly limestone, excavated probably during the Roman Period. It was first described and mapped in the 18th and 19th centuries. More detailed descriptions have been published recently.

The cave comprises 2.5 km of corridors, leading to or connecting small and larger rooms covering almost an area of one hectare. The Labyrinth of Gortys is connected to Greek Mythology and more especially to Theseus and the Minotaur, at least from the 9th century A.D. According to many travellers’ reports and 16th century maps, the Labyrinth of Gortys was one of the first and most significant Cretan attractions, at least from the beginning of the 15th century. Visits were organized, with Greek guides leading the visitors inside to the cave. These guided tours were carried on until at least the Second World War.

From the beginning of the 15th century, many travelers to Crete visited the Labyrinth, and stressed the existence of the numerous inscriptions they were carved on the cave’s walls. The first was that of Christophoro Buondelmonti who visited the Labyrinth on 1415. The inscriptions made by the visitors of the famous cave are found mostly on the walls of the rooms -especially the more distant ones- but also on the walls of the corridors and the rubble-stone interior walls.

In 1999 the Department of Crete of the Hellenic Speleological Society started a project for the inventory of the inscriptions found in the so-called Labyrinth of Gortys. More than 2,000 inscriptions have been inventoried so far.