Through Mazes to Mathematics

Drawing the Cretan maze as a game

Polish translation of this page.

The Cretan maze can be drawn as a game, a kind of systematic doodle: start with a cross, four L's and four dots as shown on the left and then join up the ends of the figure by arcs, beginning with a central pair and then always using the next two ends, one from each side. What results is a maze that can be traversed completely by a single path beginning at the outside and ending up at the center.



This game must be very old, since this same design (in rectangular form) occurs on the back of a clay tablet found in the ruins of the palace of King Nestor in Pylos, in western Greece. According to Hermann Kern (Labyrinthe, Prestel-Verlag, Munich 1983) the tablet, measuring 7 by 5.7 cm., was hardened in the fire that destroyed the palace around 1200 BC and, furthermore, the way the scratches are made strongly suggests that it was drawn from its nucleus, just as in our figure, except that the connecting arcs are squared off rather than rounded.


Recently (9/29/92) the New York Times, in a report on excavations of the Philistine city at Ashkelon, in Israel, conducted under the direction of Prof. Lawrence Stager of the Semitic Museum at Harvard, ran this photograph of a pottery shard found in the ruins. Painted on the shard is, quite unmistakably, a copy of the nucleus for the Cretan maze. The layer in which it was found is dated around 604 BC; I believe this is the earliest instance known of the Cretan nucleus drawn by itself. The accompanying text states that this and other designs show Greek influence on the Philistine culture.

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April 6 1999