The Palace of Malia is situated on the North coast of Crete, East of Heraklion. To the south lie the Lasithi mountains. At 7,500 square metres, it is the third largest of the Minoan palaces. The Minoan name for the Palace is not known and it takes its name from a local town.
It is now thought that the first monumental architecture to be erected on the Malia site dates back to EM IIB. An EM IIB building, or possibly a group of buildings, built around a large open space has been discovered below the present Palace, and aligned in the same way. Below this EM IIB building are the remains of EM IIA architecture built in a more simple style and based on a different orientation.
In the view of Jan Driessen, the EM II building or buildings would not have been a Palace like the ones that emerged later but would have been more like a monumentalised court, the beginning of a process of bringing ritual in from the natural environment to a closed, artificially constructed environment.
Already in the pre-palatial period the town had grown to occupy an area of 2.58 hectares, with remains of the town found beneath the Palace and to the north west. Some of the walls in the West magazines of the Palace had been constructed in EM II and incorporated into the new structures when the first palace was built, where they remained standing until the final destruction of the Palace. When these walls were first excavated, Vasiliki ware pottery (from EM II) was found in a foundation deposit.
The old palace — when was it built?
View to the south-west from the top
of the “Grand Staircase”
The traditional view has always been that the first palaces were constructed in MM IB (around 1900 BCE) at a time when a powerful elite of some sort was emerging on the island. Other indicators of the emergence of this elite were thought to be the growing widespread use of the fast turning potter’s wheel, the emergence of local writing scripts and administration, specialised craft production, urbanisation and long-distance trade, especially in metal. However, it is now thought by some archaeologists that the palaces were in fact begun at different times and there was no sudden shift from a simple pre-palatial era to a suddenly more complex proto-palatial Crete as had first been thought.
At Malia, remains of EM III-MM IA buildings appear to represent a town or small city considerably larger than anything that existed before. The population at Malia must have been counted in the thousands. Excavators have uncovered EMIII-MMIA remains throughout the area but the neopalatial palace may have covered up most of the remains on the site of the palace itself. Some archaeologists now claim that the first palace was begun in EM III-MM IA but the excavators of the site disagree strongly about the issue. Van Effenderre has denied that there was a palace at Malia at this early date, while O. Pelon claims to have found not only traces of an EMIII-MMIA palace but evidence for an ever earlier EM II predecessor. Jean-Claude Poursat, who excavated Quartier Mu, says there isn’t enough evidence to be sure either way.
The evidence for an early date is very limited. Pelon bases his view on two discoveries. Firstly a “teapot” of Patrikies type was found inside a stone enclosure at the base of a palatial wall. Secondly in the northwest quarter of the palace he found some EM III-MM IA sherds along with the MM II floor deposit. While it seemed logical to date the destruction to MM II Pelon assumed that the earlier material meant the first palace had been constructed over the course of MM IA. This would make it possibly the first palace to be built on Crete, although it has been argued that similar EM II monumental architecture also existed at Knossos, which may affect the dating of the first palace there.
The Central Court
However, Jean-Claude Poursat argues that the high point of the early development at Malia was EM IIB and that during EM III there was so little activity that it was almost as if the site had been abandoned. In the town only a single deposit has been dated to EM III, and while reoccupation is clearly underway in MM IA, it is not clear how extensive this activity was. A group of buildings called maisons sud, part of which are to be found underneath the palace, seem to date from MM IA. Given that the palace was built over part of these houses, Poursat argues that the palace cannot have been constructed before the very end of MM IA at the very earliest and possibly in MM IB. Indeed, Poursat believes that there is so little evidence of activity at Malia in EM III/MM IA when compared with Knossos and Phaistos, where construction works were undertaken throughout this period, that it is surprising that Malia was able to build a palace at all at the same time as Knossos and Phaistos.
Indeed, Poursat goes even further. He argues that between 2300 and 1900 (EM III/MM IA), Malia was no more developed than other sites like Gournia, Vasiliki and Petras at that time and he asks how it was possible for Malia to achieve the same level of construction as Phaistos and Knossos so quickly. Moreover, suddenly the whole area is inhabited. A period of massive construction work produces new areas of Malia town, with large buildings seemingly independent of the palace and with their own style of architecture. He suggests the answer for the rapid rise of a local elite may lie in the two main activities carried out in Quartier Mu, one of the more impressive areas of the Middle Minoan town: bronze working and textile production.
Altar in the middle of the Central Court
There does not seem to be much room for agreement between those who argue for an early date for the construction of the first palace and those who believe that it dates from the same period as the other two palaces built at Knossos and Phaistos. The dispute is only likely to be resolved if further evidence can be found to support one or other of the two positions.
Little is known of the Old Palace though some finds from the Old Palace period attest to the wealth of the Old Palace at Malia. This palace was later destroyed, along with the surrounding town, at the end of MM IIB, probably by an earthquake.
The new palace
The second palace, the ruins of which we see today, was built about 1650 BCE and is similar in many respects to the old one. The second palace was destroyed around 1450 BCE, along with the other Minoan sites in Crete. The various functions of a palace — religious, political, economic — are all in evidence here.
One of the East Magazines
For over 60 years, excavators at Malia have concluded that Malia palace was a vassal of Knossos. The power of Knossos grows during EM III and it extends the territory under its control. It dominates international trade.
During MM III there is little rebuilding work done at Malia although the palace continued to function. There is evidence of craft activity, trade and administration being carried out in the palace. It is as if operations formerly carried out in the town in areas like Quartier Mu, which was never rebuilt, have been brought into the Palace itself. Some archaeologists believe that Malia may have maintained its independence up until 1600 BCE.
The new palace is essentially constructed in LM IA in the Knossian style and this suggests that Malia may now have passed into the control of the elite at Knossos. Much that would be expected is missing in LM IA Malia. Status objects are few, there are no administrative documents either in the palace or the town, pottery styles are influenced by Knossos and frescoes seem to be almost non-existent. Poursat wonders if the rebuilding of Malia was a plan by Knossos to ensure access to the east end of the island. The palace declined in LM IB when it was finally destroyed along with most other Minoan centres on Crete.
A tour of the Palace
The first attempt to excavate the site was made in 1915 by Joseph Hadzidakis but the full excavation of the Palace and much of the surrounding town was conducted by the French Archaeological School under F. Chapouthier and is still continuing today. Like the other palaces Malia has a west court. The west wing of the Palace, which probably had two storeys, contained magazines, cult rooms and official apartments.
To the east is the Central Court, which existed at the time of the Old Palace. This central court is oriented north-south and the main entrance to the court would have been from the north. The central court measures 48 metres by 23 metres. The north and west sides of the Central Court were lined by porticoes, a common feature in Minoan Palace architecture. Often the pillars would be alternately wood and stone, a feature also to be seen at the Knossos palace.
In the middle of the central court there is an unusual altar which was built in the New Palace period. Inside the sunken area are four supports. Although altars are common enough features of the Palaces and even of palace-like buildings such as the country house at Makriyialos on the south coast, this particular feature is unique to the Malia palace.
To the east of the Central Court are the East Magazines, well-preserved and now covered for protection. The six magazines each consist of a raised area where the pithoi would have been placed, and in the middle of each magazine there is a channel which ends with a hole in the ground. It has been argued that these channels and holes were for collecting any liquids — wine, olive oil or whatever — that got spilled.
The “Grand Staircase”
Opposite the magazines on the north side of the west wing was a large building, in the middle of which was the “Loggia”. This building was entered from the Central Court up four steps. It is assumed that religious rites took place here which would have been visible from the central court. Behind the Loggia, and linked to it by a stairway, was the Treasure Room. Other rooms in this part of the Palace included a lustral basin and an assembly room.
To the south of the Loggia is the grand staircase. which originally led to a first floor room. To the left of the grand staircase, steps led south into the corridor which led to the Main Hall, an area used for religious purposes, which stood exactly opposite the Central Court altar. Again the Malia palace follows the traditional design of the palaces, since at Knossos the west side of the central court contained buildings with a religious function, including a tripartite shrine.
Pillar crypt from SE corner
The pillar crypt is entered from the Main Hall, and two large pillars can still be seen in the room, one of which has the engraving of a double axe on it. Pillar crypts exist in other palaces and in other buildings as well and their use is assumed to be religious. This view has been challenged but in many of the pillar crypts the room is far too small to need a central pillar to support the roof. An alternative explanation therefore has to be sought for the existence of these pillars in so many Minoan buildings. To the west of this area ran a long corridor, onto which opened a large number of magazines or storerooms. Once again the traditional design of the Minoan Palace is maintained.
The South Wing
The south wing of the Palace actually had an independent apartment which was entered from outside the palace, to the south. Within the apartment there was a small shrine room with a bench and various ritual objects were found here. In common with the Palace of Zakros, the south wing of the Malia palace had various workrooms on the ground floor. Between this wing and the east wing was the south-east entrance to the palace, a passage which led directly into the Central Court.
The corn granaries
Outside the south-west corner of the palace, there are two rows of four large pits, each of which contained a central pillar. In each row, the pits are so close that they touch each other.
Similar structures, called “kouloures”, were found at Knossos in a similar position. Although these were originally considered to have been water cisterns, given the problems of supplying the Palaces with water in a climate like that of Crete, it is now thought that they were used for the storage of grain. It is possible that their location on the west of the palace may have been linked to religious ceremonies since these are known to have been carried out in the West Court of Knossos.
The kernos is located to the south of the central court, near the south entrance to the palace. It is so named because it resembles a kernos from the classical period. Offerings to the gods, especially of seeds and smaller grown objects were placed in the small holes of the kernos. The Minoan Kernos is a large, round stone into which 34 shallow holes have been incised around the rim of the top. One of these holes is larger than the others and another has been placed in the centre of the stone.
The North Wing
The main entrance to the Palace is thought to have been The North Entrance, where a processional way from the northern part of the town ends at a vest bule behind which there is a row of small rectangular rooms (Quartier XXVII) which were used as a storage and work area. The south wall of these rooms faced the north court. There is no elaborate entrance way, as there is at Knossos. From the vestibule the visitor would enter directly into the north court at the heart of the large north wing of the palace. The north court gave access to the north wing in every direction, including areas used for storage and work, to stairs to the upper floor, to the North West Court and the Minoan Hall or via a paved corridor to the northwest corner of the Central Court.
A portico formed the north side of the central court, but unlike the east portico, this one only had columns. The bases were of stone but the columns themselves were of wood and were tapered so that they were wider at the top than at the bottom. Behind the portico was a large hypostyle hall with six piers in two asymmetrical rows, of which only the bases survive. It is not known for certain what this hall was used for. One view is that on the first floor of this room, which was the largest in the palace, there was a ceremonial or banqueting hall, which was reached by a double stairway on the right.
On the west side of the hall there was access via a corridor to the North Court. The north-west corner of the palace was originally considered to be the royal apartments. In this area, Linear A tablets were found.
The Lustral Basin
Here, also, there is a lustral basin with a large anteroom. Once considered to be bathrooms, these are now thought to have had a religious function. Apart from anything else, in the Palaces where underground drainage systems have been found, these are not linked to the lustral basins. This would suggest that they were not filled with water. Moreover they tend not to be very private areas, which again suggests a public ritual function for the basins.
Several important areas lie just outside the Palace to the north. Malia did not have a theatral area like Knossos and Phaistos, partly because the land was too flat to allow for a large area of paved steps. Instead, the excavators suggested that the area now known by the later Greek name of Agora, took the place of the theatral area. This courtyard measures almost 30 metres by 40 metres. Around the perimeter of the courtyard, foundations have been found which it is thought originally supported banks of seats. Three sets of steps gave access to the seats. An L-shaped portico, named by the French excavators the Portique Coude, bears a resemblance to the porticos at the theatral areas of the other palace sites. Even with seating raised to a relatively low level around the four sides of the Agora, a large number of people could be accommodated. It should be noted, however, that in the west wing of the palace there is a “staircase” which may have originally led up to the first floor. It has been described as a theatral area by Spyridon Marinatos and although the French excavators consider it to be a monumental stairway, they also point out that it does provide a view of the court, as mentioned earlier in this guide.
Polythyron and crypt
Another important building just north of the palace and south-west of the Agora, is the Hypostyle Crypt. Working out its importance is made difficult by the fact that most of the remains were basement rooms, situated underground. That it was important is beyond doubt; the building contains ashlar masonry, columns and plastered walls. The excavators suggested that the building was used as a meeting place for a “town council”, while mass meetings of the populace would have taken place in the Agora. Since it is clear that a large part of the preserved basement area consisted of storage magazines an alternative explanation has been put forward suggesting it was used for commercial purposes. No building similar to the Hypostyle Crypt has been been identified at the other palace sites.
The Minoan Town
Around the palace, the French excavators have uncovered various parts of the Minoan Town. To the north west of the Palace part of the Minoan Town, known as Quartier Mu, has been excavated and opened to the public. This area, which was destroyed in MM II, seems to have played a role independent of the Palace in producing various items like pottery, seals, etc. The largest building in Quartier Mu was clearly very important as it contains a shrine, a lustral basin and other aspects of elite architecture. It also seems to have performed an administrative function. Click on the link below to find out more about this important part of the Minoan town.
The earliest houses beyond the palace (EM III to MM I and MM I to MM II) are simple structures, except for Quartier Mu. It was not until Middle Minoan III and Late Minoan I that large buildings began to appear in the town.
The cemeteries are located to the north of the palace by the sea and the cemetery of Chrysolakkos was in use from EM II onwards although the remains on view date from MM I. It is basically a house tomb but one built on a much grander scale than other known house tombs. It exhibits the earliest known use of ashlar masonry in Crete and was used as an ossuary. Over forty chambers are still in place and there may have originally been many more. One of the most exquisite of all Minoan finds was uncovered here — the gold bee pendant, showing two bees holding a berried fruit or honey cake.