Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2001.09.38

Davina Huxley (ed.), CRETAN QUESTS. British Explorers, Excavators and Historians.   London:  British School at Athens, 2000.  Pp. xxi, 227.  ISBN 0-904887-37-5.  

Contributors: John Bennet, Keith Branigan, Ann Brown, Gerald Cadogan, Hector Catling, Nicolas Coldstream, Jan Driessen, Eleni Hatzaki, Judith Herrin, David Holton, Rachel and Sinclair Hood, Alan Johnston, Colin Macdonald, Robert Merrillees, Nicoletta Momigliano, Sara Paton, Alan Peatfield, Hugh Sackett, Peter Tomkins, Malcom Wagstaff, Peter Warren

Reviewed by Anna Lucia D'Agata, CNR, Roma, Italy (
Word count: 1897 words

"Of provisions I personally recommend a few idiotic luxuries; caviar, asparagus tips, paté de foie gras. These are the unessentials which make life worth living in a world of hard-boiled eggs and hacked meat." These sybaritic suggestions are given to travellers in Crete by John Pendlebury,1 surely the greatest connoisseur of the topography of ancient Crete, and Curator of Knossos from 1929 to 1934. John Pendlebury, however, explored the island far and wide, always on foot, and claimed that a journey in Crete is always "a pure joy".2 He started his Cretan career under Arthur Evans, the discoverer of the palace of Knossos and Minoan Crete, and his humanity, passion for field archaeology and unrivalled knowledge of the island, as much as his tragic fate at the hands of the German troops invading Crete in 1941, have become a legend for the following generations of archaeologists concerned with the Cretan past.3

Evans and Pendlebury are as much the protagonists as Minoan Crete itself in Cretan Quests, a fine collection of essays published by the British School at Athens to celebrate the centenary of Evans's initial excavations at Knossos in 1900. The volume also evidences the continuity and vigour of the tradition of British research on Crete, developped through constant, often critical reappraisal of the work undertaken by the pioneers. Cretan Quests is not addressed to specialists in the first instance. As the lack of footnotes and the highly selective bibliographies at the end of each chapter readily show, the aim is to offer an informed overview of British activities and scholarship on Crete to a wider audience, and it can also be seen as one way of responding to the ever-growing demand, in Europe as much as in the United States, for more detailed information on archaeological research in the Mediterranean. The volume is arranged in two sections. Following a foreword by Gerald Cadogan, Chairman of the School, and an introduction by the editor, Davina Huxley, the first section includes seven essays surveying the history of British research involvement with Crete, most of which are by scholars who have played leading roles in this involvement over the last half century. The first two contributions, by Peter Warren and Ann Brown, are in fact new versions of previous works. Warren's aim is to sum up the contribution made by early visitors to Crete from Britain and Ireland--pilgrims voyaging to the Holy Land, merchants and travellers. Beginning with the Middle Ages, he takes us up to the nineteenth century, when Robert Pashley, Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, and Captain Spratt raised knowledge of the naturalistic and historical aspects and indeed the quality of publications on the island to a superior level, paving the way for modern research.

Brown embarks on a rapid review of the first years spent on Crete by Arthur Evans, who, undoubtedly familiar with Pashley's and Spratt's works, arrived on the island in 1894 searching for engraved seals and tracking down sites to excavate. His expectations were fulfilled a few years later, in 1900, when he started excavating Knossos. Evans's work at Knossos is outlined by Gerald Cadogan in the third chapter, which deals with the very beginning of British archaeological research in Crete. Cadogan stresses two essential facts of those years. As a result of its newly acquired independence from the Ottoman Empire, a few scholars from Europe and the States chose Crete as a promising virgin territory to launch new archaeological enterprises. Quite soon, Knossos became the heart of British interest in Crete, while Evans acquired a towering role both in the archaeological exploration of the island and in the newly-born Minoan archaeology. However, the same years also saw the British School extending its interests beyond Knossos towards other areas of the island: Palaikastro, Petras and Zakros in Eastern Crete, the Kamares Cave in Mesara, and the Late Minoan settlement of Plati on the plain of Lasithi were explored between 1901 and 1914. This approach to the island as a whole, over and above excavations on individual sites, has been maintained and developed by British archaeology to the present day, representing a particular asset marking it out from other national traditions.

Cadogan traces the history of excavation at Knossos leaving Evans's personality in the background. Evans comes very much to the foreground, naturally, in a new biography by A. Macgillivray,4 who challenges the traditional view of the great British scholar, claiming that he discovered far less of Minoan civilisation than he created. If Macgillivray's reconstruction is in many cases highly controversial 5 he at any rate deserves credit for his endeavour to place Evans within the broader context of the contemporary European culture. Indeed, it could have been enlightening to include in Cretan Quests a chapter on the reception accorded in Europe to the discovery of Minoan civilisation--one of the major achievements of twentieth century British archaeology--for a fuller appreciation of the import and impact of Evans's excavations beyond the specifically archaeological environment. With reconstruction of the palace of Knossos on the one hand, and publication of his Palace of Minos on the other--and despite a certain amount of criticism--Evans embodied in the first half of the twentieth century the emblematic figure of the excavator-reconstructor, exerting such an influence that Freud himself seems to have held him up as a model for psychoanalytic research, like archaeological investigation based on 'excavation' and 'reconstruction'.6

The two following chapters are rather short and could easily have been covered by one author. The fourth, by Keith Branigan, is devoted to the years between the wars, which saw publication of the Palace of Minos (1921-1935), Evans's monumental work on Minoan civilisation. Now Pendlebury appears on the scene, and with admirable speed is able to publish works such as A Handbook to the Palace of Minos (1933), his own research at Karphi in the Lasithi plain (1939), and the Archaeology of Crete (1939), still landmarks in Cretan archaeology. Even during the Second World War, as Robert Merrillees recalls, British archaeological activity on the island did not entirely cease, as evidenced by the excavations carried out at Knossos in 1940 by R.W. Hutchinson, then Curator, and the study of the Amari valley achieved by Tom Dunbabin (Deputy Director of the British School at Athens) while fighting side by side with the Cretan Resistance against the Germans.

The years from 1945 to 1990 are summarised by Hugh Sackett. This is in fact the first overall picture produced of a complex period that saw an impressive series of discoveries and studies of great moment for Cretan--and, above all, Minoan--archaeology, including the deciphering of Linear B, excavation of the 'warriors' graves' at Knossos and consequent resurgence of the whole issue of the Mycenaeanisation of Crete and, finally, dispute over the dating of the destruction of the Palace of Knossos and the tablet archives. In other words, the years covered by Sackett saw a positive burgeoning of studies on the Minoan world, and the crystallisation of a whole series of issues that have remained central to research on Aegean archaeology to our own day. The first decades of this phase were deeply marked by the figure of Sinclair Hood, whose directorship (1954-1962) acted as a turning point in the interests of the British School and whose scholarly influence lasted far beyond the period of his appointment. To Hood two major achievements are to be ascribed: survey activity extending the limits of the ancient settlement of Knossos, and, by virtue of an innate talent for teaching, the training of most of the future leading scholars of Minoan and post-Minoan Crete. As a matter of fact, the following decades saw the School engaged in intensive activity thanks to a group of scholars--G. Cadogan, N. Coldstream, M. Popham, H. Sackett, P. Warren--who made a fundamental contribution to the development of Cretan and, above all, Minoan archaeology with the excavation and prompt publication of both new areas at Knossos and new sites. A further important achievement was the application of scientific techniques to archaeology, at the School largely due to the work of Hector Catling, director for 18 years from 1971 to 1989.

The closing chapter of the first section, by Colin Macdonald, deals with the activities of the School at Knossos, which has in recent years been transformed into a centre aiming not only at scientific research but also, in collaboration with the Greek Ministry of Culture, at the preservation of the archaeological site and creation of an archaeological park.

The second section of the volume, entitled "A century of Achievement", comprises fifteen short essays summing up the British contribution to Cretan studies. They are arranged according to chronological periods and subjects dealt with: Topographical and Environmental Studies, by M. Wagstaff; the Neolithic Period, by P. Tomkins; the Early Bronze Age, by P. Warren; the Old Palace Period, by N. Momigliano; the New Palace Period, by J. Driessen; Linear A and Linear B, by J. Bennet; Minoan Religion, by A. Peatfield; the Postpalatial Period, by E. Hatzaki; Early Greek and Classical Crete, by N. Coldstream; Hellenistic and Roman Crete, by S. Paton; Epigraphy, by A. Johnston; the Byzantine and Arab Periods, by J. Herrin; Cretan Renaissance, by D. Holton; and a chapter on the British School at Knossos, by H. Catling. The final chapter is contributed by Rachel and Sinclair Hood, and dedicated to "Artists and Craftsmen", or in other words to the numerous technicians--architects, restorers, draftsmen and foremen--involved with the Knossian excavations who have made great, indeed in may cases decisive contributions to the success of the various archaeological projects. On the whole, these are summing-up studies by specialists in the various areas, focusing on the British contribution to the subjects examined and thus leaving scant space to the international contributions. Clearly they make no claim to be innovative, but all are readable and in any case useful for filling out the picture of British archaeology on Crete.

Among them, the sensitive works by P. Tomkins on Neolithic Crete and J. Driessen on the New Palace Period may be cited as models for the chapters of a hypothetical handbook on the history of Cretan archaeology. Peter Tomkins successfully delineates a comprehensive picture of Neolithic Crete, giving room to the history of research and rightly highlighting the importance of new techniques and theoretical models for the results achieved in this field in the post-war period. Jan Driessen portrays a composite scene of Minoan civilisation in its heyday, with the history of British discoveries concerning this period, the pioneers' theses and recent hypotheses on the widespread destruction on Crete at the end of Late Minoan IB in the fifteenth century BC, fitting neatly into a historical picture that also finds room for the still puzzling problems of the absolute chronology of Crete, the destruction of the palace of Knossos and subsequent arrival of the Mycenaeans from the Continent: this is a real chapter of Minoan history.

The volume appears in simple, sober guise avoiding any waste of space, but the titles of the two sections might have been printed on pages of their own to be more readily located.

In conclusion, Cretan Quests adds up to a worthy celebration of the Cretan activity of the British School at Athens, which has made of open-mindedness, openness to foreigners and faithfulness--albeit never slavish--to tradition its strong points, thus taking on an irreplaceable role for all concerned with archaeology in Greek lands.


1.   D. Powell, The Villa Ariadne, Athens 1994 (repr. of the 1973 London edition), 68.
2.   J.D.S. Pendlebury, The Archaeology of Crete. An Introduction, London 1939, xxix.
3.   I. Grundon, The Rash Adventurer: A Life of John Pendlebury, London 2001; see also the booklet Pendlebury 1904-1941, produced by the British School at Athens in spring 2001 to accompany a photographic exhibition of Pendlebury's work.
4.   J.A. Macgillivray, Minotaur. Sir Arthur Evans and the Archaeology of the Minoan Myth, London 2000, reviewed in BMCR by E.F. Bloedow (2001.02.18), S. Hemingway (2001.02.17) and D.A. Traill (2001.02.19).
5.   See for example the article by A. Luck in The Times, London, July 23, 2000; and, for a reassessment of Evans's contribution to Minoan archaeology, P.M. Warren, "Sir Arthur Evans and His Achievements", BICS 44, 2000, 199-211.
6.   On Evans's legacy in Europe, A. Farnoux, Cnossos: l'archéologie d'un rêve, Paris 1993, 61-112; Idem, "Art Minoen et Art Nouveau. Le miroir de Minos", in Ph. Hoffmann, P.-L. Rinuy (eds.), Antiquités imaginaires. La référence antique dans l'art moderne de la Renaissance à nos jours, Paris 1996, 109-126. On Freud and Aegean archaeology, A.L. D'Agata, "Sigmund Freud and Aegean Archaeology. Mycenaean and Cypriote Material from his Collection of Antiquities",SMEA 34, 1994, 7-36.

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