BMCR 2001.02.17

MINOTAUR. Sir Arthur Evans and the Archaeology of the Minoan Myth

, Minotaur : Sir Arthur Evans and the archaeology of the Minoan myth. New York: Hill and Wang, 2000. viii, 373 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm. ISBN 0809030357 $30.00.

Disclaimer: J. Alexander MacGillivray is the co-director of the Palaikastro Excavations in Eastern Crete where I have worked as a trench supervisor during the excavation seasons of 1988 to 1994.

Sir Arthur Evans marveled the world with his extraordinary discoveries at Knossos that shaped not only our conception of the prehistoric culture known as Minoan on the island of Crete but the very origins of European society. In what is likely to become the definitive biography of Evans, J.A. MacGillivray has given us a rich account of the archaeologist’s exciting life from his childhood exploits in the prehistoric caves of England and France with his father to his own explorations of Crete looking for early writing and physical evidence of ancient Greek myths, such as the birthplace of the god Zeus and especially the fabled labyrinth of Daedalus. MacGillivray, however, paints a broad canvas, setting Evans squarely in his times and shows that many of Evans’s conceptions of ancient Crete were Victorian preconceptions, which the archaeological evidence was made to support. While much of Evans’s charged terminology and ideology, very much still in use, are the questionable legacy of a determined and creative genius, the physical remains of a vast complex at Knossos will endure as testimony to an early civilization that continues to fascinate us today.1

Arthur Evans was born in England in 1851 the only child of John Evans, a successful paper maker turned distinguished archaeologist. John Evans lived in a time when the field of prehistory was just beginning as a modern discipline. Fossil records were coming to light that yielded evidence for human existence long before the 4004 B.C. date commonly upheld on the basis of James Ussher’s 17th century calculations from genealogies in the Bible. John contributed to the growing body of geological and archaeological evidence through his own explorations of caves and other prehistoric sites in England and France. He frequently took his son Arthur along with him on these expeditions introducing him to archaeology at a young age. Despite this early training, Arthur Evans was a late bloomer. He graduated from Oxford in 1874 much in the shadow of his father’s illustrious career. Between stints as a journalist in the Balkans, Arthur courted and married Margaret Freeman, the oldest daughter of the historian Edward Freeman. In 1884 Arthur was elected keeper of antiquities at the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology at Oxford, a position he would hold until 1908. His ambitious acquisitions and progressive stewardship were instrumental in determining the direction that the Ashmolean would take, and it was under Evans’s initiative that new quarters were created to house the growing archaeological collections—the existing premises of that great institution to the present day. At this same time, inspired by Heinrich Schliemann, whose successes at Troy and Mycenae had begun the rediscovery of the mythic past of ancient Greece, Evans began his own career as an archaeologist, setting his sights on Crete and its heroic ruler, king Minos.

Minotaur briefly recounts (pp. 84-89) the complex political and social history of Crete after Minoan times. Those interested in post-classical Crete will find this succinct review most illuminating. We see the tense political climate of Crete during the Late Ottoman period and the fervent and often bloody conflicts between Muslims and Christians, which have chilling contemporary parallels in the ethnic battles of Herzegovina. Indeed in the late nineteenth century, all excavation was discouraged by the growing Orthodox Christian populace (which allied itself with Greece) because there was not yet an archaeological museum on the island and all finds of note could be required to be sent away to the Imperial Museum in Constantinople. MacGillivray shows that when Evans began digging at Knossos in 1900, he was actually the last of a long line of archaeologists who recognized the importance of the site, beginning as early as 1879 with the investigations of a Cretan named Kalokairinos.

In six consecutive seasons, between 1900 and 1905, utilizing a large team of workers, Evans and his field director Duncan MacKenzie uncovered the majority of the architectural complex at Knossos. A magnificent multi-storied network of buildings centered on a large paved courtyard had emerged. Fine ashlar masonry, a monumental stairway, shrines, a “Throne Room”, elegant bedrooms, the first known flush toilet, an underground sewage system, and extensive storage magazines still filled with large clay pithoi provided an image of a remarkably sophisticated civilization. An archive of clay tablets with inscriptions in the prehistoric script (now known as Linear B and recognized as an early form of ancient Greek) used on Crete in the later part of the Bronze Age, vibrant frescoes in a naturalistic style, and many other artistic works of a very high quality added to the impressive architectural remains, creating a vivid impression of a society that is still considered to be the most advanced of its time in Europe, some thirty-five hundred years ago.

The discoveries at Knossos were a sensation felt throughout the world. Even as Evans was beginning the final publication of his excavations, King George V knighted him in 1911 by for his contribution to Aegean archaeology. At the same time, his theories engendered heated debate among scholars and specialists alike—perhaps the most famous example being his debate with Alan Wace over the chronological relationship between the remains of the palaces at Knossos and Mycenae. Evans spent much of the rest of his life writing his masterwork, the four-volume publication, The Palace of Minos, and dividing his time between the home he built near the excavations, the so-called Villa Ariadne, and Youlbury, his estate in England.

To my knowledge for the first time in print, MacGillivray presents evidence that Arthur Evans had homosexual tendencies. The topic is treated with sensitivity, even if the possible implications are not well developed in the narrative. Nonetheless, we can now add Arthur Evans to a long list of creative intellectuals of the 19th and early 20th centuries, such as Oscar Wilde and Marcel Proust, who could not express their sexual preferences without serious social and even legal consequences. Arthur Evans died peacefully in his sleep at Youlbury, having lived to the ripe old age of 91.

MacGillivray argues that Evans’s active work in conceiving and discovering Minoan civilization led him to write a history that although fundamentally flawed has been largely accepted and, consequently, has hindered the progress of scholarship. For MacGillivray, however, Evans is a paradigm not an aberration. MacGillivray believes that, even when adhering to long-established scientific methods of excavation recording, archaeologists today can only arrive at relative truths, true objectivity is not possible. This theory, which he calls “relative archaeology”, requires us to change our perceptions of the field dramatically; we can no longer believe that archaeologists “sort objectively through a confusion of facts to sustain an historical truth”. He admonishes all archaeologists to be aware of their truly creative, interpretive work. This last statement rings true but the theory of relative archaeology will be more than most practicing Aegean archaeologists can agree with. Archaeology is predicated on the notion of systematic, objective recording of data. Only after this recording should the interpretive process begin. Although I acknowledge that complete objectivity may not be possible, with the self-awareness that MacGillivray proposes, it is a goal worth striving for. MacGillivray considers his musing on the relative nature of archaeology as a “radical departure from the common view of how archaeology and archaeologists work” (p. 9). In actuality, theorists have traveled this road before and his idea is, perhaps, best understood in the broader context of current discussions of processual and post-processual archaeology.2

The strong case MacGillivray makes that Evans consciously manipulated fact and myth to arrive at his version of Minoan civilization is itself based on MacGillivray’s own interpretation of Evans’s character and his life’s work. One could also see Evans’s anecdotes as less contrived recollections and even many of his theories of the “Pan-Minoan School” as attempts at reconstructing the past without the conscious intention to mislead. In the end, we may never be able to resolve such cerebral matters conclusively. MacGillivray makes clear, however, that the cultural and mythical biases are there and need to be addressed in any future reassessment of the discipline.

The final chapter reflects briefly on the state of Minoan archaeology after Evans’s death. Intermingled with some of the more standard interpretations of the last sixty years, such as the peace-loving, matriarchal Minoan society and the thalassocracy of Minos, are a number of intriguing ideas espoused by MacGillivray and others. Recent survey and excavation work has shown that the Cretan countryside was controlled, at least in the early palace period, from small hill forts strategically placed along road networks, suggesting a considerable military element at home previously unrecognized. MacGillivray coins the term “Black Ariadne” to refer to the growing evidence for Minoan contact with Egypt, suggesting even that Knossos may have come under Egyptian authority at some point during the second palace period.3 In a radical reinterpretation of the spectacular finds at Anemospilia, a site on a northern spur of Mount Juktas not far from Knossos, MacGillivray suggests the crushed human bodies that were found were not the remains of human sacrifice but bodies being prepared “for excarnation, the practice of exposing the deceased for consumption by birds and beasts so the flesh may be recycled in a pure and natural manner.” Such a practice would explain the extraordinary absence of burials from the palatial periods on Crete.

Minotaur is itself a Daedalian work of diligent research and artful prose. Interesting on many different levels, it accomplishes what so many books about archaeology fail to do. It takes a complex subject, in this case the life of Arthur Evans and his significant contribution to the archaeology of prehistoric Crete, and engages the reader without becoming mired in mind-numbing detail. Minotaur is a provocative and rewarding read for the seasoned archaeologist. It is also a fine introduction to Minoan archaeology and its founding father, Sir Arthur Evans, and would be an especially good traveling companion for those who wish to visit Crete and see for themselves the excavations at Knossos and the treasures they have yielded.


1. For an assessment of the site and its many restorations, see J.K. Papadopoulos, “Knossos,” in Marta de la Torre, ed., The Conservation of Archaeological Sites in the Mediterranean Region. An International Conference Organized by the Getty Conservation Institute and the J. Paul Getty Museum, 6-12 May 1995 (Los Angeles 1997) pp. 93-126 with previous bibliography.

2. For a measured discussion of these terms and their meanings, with previous bibliography, see M. Johnson, Archaeological Theory: An Introduction (Oxford 1999) esp. chapter 7, pp. 98-115. See also p. 172 for the many criticisms of unrestrained relativism.

3. For an assessment of some of the considerable evidence for the Minoan-Egyptian connection, see the catalogue of a recent exhibition at the Herakleion Archaeological Museum: A. Karetsou, M. Andreadaki-Vlazaki, and N. Papadakis, Κρητη. Πολιτιστικοι δεσμοι τριων χιλιετιων (Herakleion 2000).