Synthesis piston cylinder experiments were carried out in the range 2.0-4.5 GPa and 680-1,050 °C to investigate phase relations in subducted continental crust. A model composition (KCMASH) has been used because all major ultrahigh-pressure (UHP) minerals of the whole range of rock types typical for continental crust can be reproduced within this system. The combination of experimental results with phase petrologic constraints permits construction of a UHP petrogenetic grid. The phase relations demonstrate that the most important UHP paragenesis consists of coesite, kyanite, phengite, clinopyroxene, and garnet in subducted continental crust. Below 700 °C talc is stable instead of garnet. As most of these minerals are also stable at much lower pressure and temperature conditions it is thus not easy to recognize UHP metamorphism in subducted crust. A general feature, however, is the absence of feldspars at H2O-saturated conditions. Plagioclase is never stable at UHP conditions, but K-feldspar can occur in H2O-undersaturated rocks. Mineral compositions in the experiments are fully buffered by coexisting phases. The Si content of phengite and biotite increase with increasing pressure. At 4.0 GPa, 780 °C, biotite contains 3.28 Si per formula unit, which is most probably caused by solid solution of biotite with talc. Above 800 °C, the CaAl2SiO6 component in clinopyroxene buffered with kyanite, coesite and a Mg-phase increases with increasing temperature, providing a tool to distinguish between 'cold' and 'hot' eclogites. Up to 10% Ca-eskolaite (Ca0.50.5AlSi2O6) in clinopyroxene has been found at the highest temperature and pressure investigated (>900 °C, 4.5 GPa). Garnet buffered with coesite, kyanite and clinopyroxene displays an increase of grossular component with increasing pressure for a given temperature. Although the investigated system represents a simplification with respect to natural rocks, it helps to constrain general features of subducted continental crust. The observed phase relations and phase compositions demonstrate that at pressures >3.0 GPa and temperatures >800 °C continental crust can retain significant amounts of H2O (>1 wt%), whereas K-free mafic or ultramafic rocks are dry at these conditions. UHP parageneses are only preserved if the whole exhumation path is situated within the stability field of phengite, i.e. if there is cooling during exhumation or if the whole exhumation occurred at T <700 °C. In contrast, break down of phengite and concomitant partial melting in terranes that show isothermal decompression may lead to a complete recrystallization of the subducted crust during exhumation. The density of UHP rocks can be estimated on the basis of the established phase relations. Pelitic rocks are likely to have a density close to mantle rocks (3.3 g/cm3) because of significant amounts of dense garnet and kyanite whereas granitic rocks are less dense (3.0 g/cm3). Hence, subducted average continental crust is most probably buoyant with respect to mantle rocks and tends to get exhumed as soon as it is detached from the down-going slab. Electronic supplementary material to this paper can be obtained by using the Springer LINK server located at http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s00410-001-0336-3.