Two Labyrinths, Two Mysteries: The Palace at Knossos and the Winchester House

This past weekend, I fulfilled one of my lifelong dreams when I visited the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California.  Some children dream of a trip to Disneyland,  but as a youngster I yearned to wander the halls of the sprawling, 160-room Victorian mansion constructed non-stop over a period of 38 years by Sarah Winchester, widow of the inventor of “The Gun That Won the West.”

Standing in front of the Winchester Mystery House. My glasses are straight - it's the house that's crooked! (right?)

Convinced that if she ever stopped expanding and altering the structure for even one day her life would be forfeit to the angry spirits of the restless multitude slain by bullets from the barrel of the Winchester Repeating Rifle, Sarah hired a dozen workmen to labor around the clock, at astronomical cost, building and rebuilding according to designs delivered directly to her by the spirits during nightly seances.  The fruit of those bizarre labors is a gorgeous but stunningly confusing structure with third-floor doors straight to the outside, closets that open into elevator shafts, and narrow stairs that climb multiple flights only to reach the beams of the ceiling.  During my hour-long tour that covered more than a mile, all of it inside the walls of the mansion, I was reminded of another, more famous, labyrinth that I visited a few months ago: the Minoan palace at Knossos on the Greek island of Crete, long claimed to have been the royal residence of the mythical (though perhaps also historical) king Minos, as well as the prison for his wife’s freakish half-man, half-bull offspring, the flesh-eating minotaur.

Looking down on part of the "labyrinth" at Knossos

At both of those historical sites, it is difficult to fully appreciate the labyrinthine nature of the construction.  Only a fraction of the palace at Knossos is open to the public.  What is visible was reconstructed with a famously heavy hand by the British archaeo-adventurer Sir Arthur Evans in the early 20th century, permanently obscuring or even destroying some original details.  The Winchester Mansion has been damaged in several earthquakes and as a result of both this and of its massive size, its caretakers have also opened only some sections to curious guests.

Clearly the Minoan labyrinth and the Winchester Mansion are different types of things.  The complex at Knossos is of greater historical importance because it is the richest existing source of our knowledge about an extinct civilization.  Still, the modern house is impressive, especially noteworthy for having been built entirely based on the designs of one woman, and by a team of only 12 workmen (one wonders why Sarah did not hire 13 laborers, obsessed as she was with the spiritualistic importance of that number, which she incorporated in every possible way in the design details of the house; perhaps she considered herself the 13th workman – the spiritual foreman?).  The point of this post is not to draw comparisons and contrasts between the two very different sites, but rather to ruminate on the nature of historical mysteries.

The so-called Throne Room at Knossos

There are many things we will probably never know about the palace at Knossos and about its builders and inhabitants, though it seems certain that it was a hub of an advanced culture; it’s possible that it was a mercantile and administrative center rather than a royal residence, as was originally thought.  But despite the best efforts of archaeologists and other researchers,  we have unfortunately lost much of the cultural information created by the inhabitants in the form of written texts and records, works of art, and other tangible and intangible remains of their daily lives.  The advance of Greek peoples into the area millennia ago gradually erased knowledge of the Minoan written language, so even some of what does remain has to this point proven inscrutable.

The Winchester house, in clear contrast, was constructed within living memory of my grandparents’ generation, and we have a wealth of information on its history and development.  Despite this, many questions remain about the details of the structure, the answers to which Sarah Winchester took to her grave.  Walking through the house I couldn’t help but think what an archaeologist investigating the site hundreds or thousands of years in the future might make of the astonishing, illogical structure.  This question reminded me of David Macaulay’s 1979 book “Motel of the Mysteries“, which I loved as a child and would probably appreciate even more as an adult (note to self: a trip to the bookstore is in order).  That satirical book reports the results of the discovery in the year 4022 of the long-dead civilization of the country of Usa.  In a classic moment that I think I am recalling correctly, the intrepid archaeologist Howard Carson enters a 20th century “throne room” complete with porcelain “throne” and interprets the toilet seat, long since detached from the base, as a ceremonial necklace.

Macaulay’s book issues an amusing challenge to all of us to consider the conclusions to which we sometimes leap in the excitement of discovery and out of a desire to make things make sense when dealing with partial information, in this case in an instance in which basic cultural knowledge has been lost.  What my visits to both the Minoan palace and the Winchester mansion have compelled me to contemplate are the incredible changes in social memory that have taken place over the last 3000 years, a shocking amount of it in the last two decades.  Consider the fact that very little about our modern and contemporary culture will remain mysterious for future generations, barring some type of awesome cataclysm in which every form of record-keeping, physical and digital – yes, even the ever-present “cloud” whose name always evokes a stir of science fiction-fueled paranoia in me – were  eradicated.  Most terrifying to contemplate, a complete loss of cultural information would also require that all personal experience be wiped away before individuals had the chance to pour it once more into the great pool of collective knowledge.

Modern visitors tour the partially-restored Minoan "palace."

I assume that the Minoans never imagined a future in which their culture and its “secrets” would be largely lost, but perhaps it is more than mere hubris to suggest that for such a thing to happen now would be, barring the complete annihilation of the human race, effectively impossible.  This is true in a much broader sense than it ever has been.  We lovers of the past have often lamented the loss of the details of silent lives, the millions of “unimportant” individuals who have always made up the greater part of societies, but who have often lacked their own voices, their data (to use the modern term) going largely un-stored.  But now, even those aspects of society are carefully archived and shared in almost obsessive detail.  Yes, we Tweeters and Bloggers fall, by and large, into the category of the “unimportant” masses of our own generations (though we hate to admit it), but now we have a voice that was long denied to those in our position in earlier historical periods.  Of course there are still many individuals who live and die silently in our world, but it’s worth considering the incredible increase in the volume of the voice of the common man in the last decades – the social amplifier of anyone with access to a computer has been turned up to eleven.

All of this leads me to a few questions that I will be considering for awhile, and I welcome your thoughts on them in this forum: How, in modern times, is knowledge stored, and how might it be accessed by researchers in the future?  Perhaps more interestingly, how does it degrade and how is it destroyed –  is its destruction, in fact, even possible?

It has been popular for some time for archaeologists and historians to muse about how their future counterparts will view the times in which they themselves live, but now the greater question might be: Will we give them any choice in the matter?

A silent statue welcomes visitors to the Winchester Mansion. Don't blink!

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16 Comments

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16 responses to “Two Labyrinths, Two Mysteries: The Palace at Knossos and the Winchester House

  1. Love the Doctor Who reference. I work at the Winchester Mystery House and I never thought of the goddess Demeter as a weeping angel, but the caption fits.
    Interesting thoughts in the article, too.

    • Mike: thanks for stopping by! I really enjoyed visiting the House – you guys do a great job of making it accessible to the public, which is much appreciated. Just a few minutes after stepping inside the grounds, Todd and I both said, at almost the same time, “I could work here.” I hope you enjoy it as much as we imagine we would! As for the Doctor Who ref, as someone who has spent most of their adult life studying Greek and Roman art, I really appreciated how that episode of the show changed the way I look at silent, still statuary. One of the best new episodes, in my opinion.

  2. thelaurelbush

    Hey, was that statue recently restored? I went there four years ago. You may like my blog. I came across this not through my blog roll, but looking for really old WH images. I talk about Engineering there and and New Haven.

    I found this today, which proves the walls to nowhere were switchboxes and tampered with when it became WMH, LLC, which is a violation of the law for a historic landmark:
    http://digitallibrary.usc.edu/search/controller/view/chs-m15774.html?x=1320382157539

    Btw, I thought of the WH too when a friend showed me Doctor Who. It’s all timey wimey wibbley wobbley…

    • I don’t know anything about that statue – this was my first time at the WH. But I wouldn’t doubt that they would do work on it. You are right…the house is very timey wimey wibbley wobbley. Your picture is fantastic! I love the USC photo archive, and not just because I am an alumna of the school. I’m always finding treasures there. Our guide at the WH did in fact show us the series of bells, but not the wiring behind the door. The bells are still functioning though, so they can’t have tampered with them much, although the wiring was probably replaced to bring it up to safety code.

      Really fantastic idea to use the house as an engineering teaching tool. That would really get kids interested. Not being an engineer, I didn’t give a lot of thought to the fact that the wiring, etc. must be just as crazy as the rest of the house! I do want to be clear about what you are suggesting though – that some of the “doors to nowhere” (surely not all of them?) were access points for the house’s electrical infrastructure? That is pretty interesting.

      Thanks for posting! I will take a look at your blog as well.

      • thelaurelbush

        Sure, it is winchestermystery.com. It is on wordpress as well. I would recommend starting with the engineering ones first. You can click on the calendar to look back at the titles. It goes back to 2007.

        What is unique about the Winchester House is that mechanisms were built into it to go with the earthquake. What I don’t like about the tour is that it doesn’t encourage visitors to think about engineering at the time and developments right before then. It was built at a time when the American Society of Mechanical Engineers was just starting to solve the issue of exploding boilers in the early 1900s, but the natural gas system in the basement survived an earthquake with the energy of over 700 nuclear bombs.

        I am sure the wiring would have had to be replaced, but it would have been nice to show some for demonstration. The purple walls on an island were most likely hiding transformers (and may still be there!), which were built with gold screws at the time from scratch. The “doors to nowhere” functioned more like aesthetic switch boxes like those in a house now.

        Oliver Winchester even helped start the first engineering college in the US in New Haven and lobbied for federal funding for colleges. He had help from a classmate of William’s to fill the first order of 110,000+ rifles to build a machine to process them, who was the first American to have a PhD in engineering.

    • Actually, would you mind posting in a reference for your blog?

    • Lauren,
      The bell and wiring are in fact still behind the same door as pictured in the USC archive. However, you have a few things wrong:
      1) None of the other doors that lead to the inside of walls have wiring or bells behind them. This is a singular example. The most likely explanation is that this was once a door that went through to the next room, but it was covered over with the lathe and plaster on the other side when that room was remodeled. Later on, it probably made sense to Mrs. Winchester to use the space inside the wall, behind the existing door, to install the bell and wiring. Why open up a wall when you already have a door to the inside of it? But it wasn’t originally planned to be a “switchbox”.
      2) Although portions of the mansion were sadly vandalized by visitors over the decades, the structure has not been altered or tampered with by its owners, and nobody has violated the protection of the house provided by its landmark status. In fact, the estate did not become a historic landmark until 1974, and since that time the mansion has actually been restored in many areas to repair the vandalization and the ravages of time, and bring it back to the condition it was in when Mrs. Winchester died.

      • Mike,

        Thanks for the insider view. It’s good to know that the house isn’t being tampered with too much. I’ll bet there are still some interesting aspects of the electrical systems that could be looked into though. Do you know if there are any schematics available? The house is about 2000 years younger than most of what I study, but I’m sure Lauren would love to see them if they exist.

      • No Candace, there are no wiring schematics and no floor plans. Mrs. Winchester never dealt with plans. She simply told her workers each day what to build, and they did so. That’s one of the reasons why the result was such a haphazard maze of a building.
        Since her death there have been several attempts to create a floor plan of the mansion, none of which have been completed. The house is just so crazy and complex that nobody has been able to make their measurements add up correctly on paper or on a computer screen. It could probably be done, but it would be a major, expensive undertaking requiring the services of a historical architecture firm for a substantial amount of time.
        None of the original wiring has been replaced, but some of it was ripped out by vandals over the years. What is left is the original, and is not used today. All lighting and electrical demands for our current uses are via modern wiring and fixtures retrofitted to the structure. When a room is restored, the electrical installation is done seamlessly. In original, unrestored areas it is mostly surface-mounted conduit and fixtures – not the prettiest solution, but the least invasive to the structure.

  3. thelaurelbush

    I do think it’s nice it’s still there, I just wish it would also be used to teach kids about engineering for such a place in the middle of Silicon Valley.

  4. Lauren – This is all very fascinating, thanks for sharing! In archaeology as well, it is often the case that the engineering aspects of buildings are not explained to the public, which means that some of the most intriguing and thought-provoking aspects of structures are not pointed out to visitors, even though they are readily visible (hypocaustic floors in Roman baths, for instance – hollow floors used as a system for circulating steam from the water-heating stoves so that the floors were never cold on the Romans’ bare feet). I’ll definitely browse through your blog more thoroughly when I have time.

    • thelaurelbush

      That’s true. Romans actually invented the idea of the gear.

      They act like it was odd to have a bird cage on the tour but it helped to find out early if there was a natural gas leak.

      You may also want to check out Captive of the Labyrinth by Mary Jo Ignoffo. It’s on Amazon and she has a Facebook page for it.

  5. Chenoa

    You do realize it’s pretty freaking obvious your glasses are crooked not the house. Just look at the right side. They are further forward on your head then the left side.

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