BMCR 2001.02.19

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.

Myths and heroes are our stock-in-trade. Study of ancient Greek society teaches us to respect them. It is therefore hardly surprising that we cherish our modern heroes—in particular, the pioneers of classical archaeology, whose excavations have thrown so much light on the ancient world. Chief among these must be reckoned Schliemann and Evans. The critical re-evaluation of Schliemann did not begin until 1972, when W. M. Calder’s groundbreaking article appeared, exactly one hundred and fifty years after Schliemann’s birth and fully a century after he began to excavate at Troy. The present reassessment of Evans has been just as slow in coming. MacGillivray’s book also appears (almost) one hundred and fifty years after his birth (1851) and exactly a century after the first season at Knossos. Previously, critical attention was focused almost exclusively on the achievements of these great figures, their biographies being considered largely irrelevant and left to non-professionals. Disregard for Schliemann’s character, however, as is now clear, has perpetuated misunderstanding of his work. M., who has served as assistant director of the British School and Knossos curator, shows that Evans’s achievements were also colored—perhaps even more than Schliemann’s—by his personal foibles. The passage of a hundred years has made this fact apparent, to some degree, to even the comparatively unsophisticated tourist at Knossos. Yet Evans’s reconstructions, as M. correctly points out, have themselves become an integral part of the site’s history. However controversial, they at least allow visitors to grasp something of the former grandeur of the complex structure he uncovered. Their now faded glory M. sees as symptomatic of the crumbling world of the Minoans that Evans constructed. The vision of a happy, peace-loving people, long accepted by scholars and purveyed to the general public, has, M. points out, been overthrown by archaeological evidence uncovered in recent decades.

M’s goal in writing his book was to show that Evans “had created, not discovered, the Minoans.” He sees in Evans a striking example of what he holds to be the fate of all archaeologists. He calls the phenomenon “relative archaeology.” By this he means that archaeologists are much less engaged in a process of uncovering the truth about the past than they think and much more in a process of “inventiveness” and “creativity.” He compares their experience to that of Michelangelo who thought he was “liberating” figures trapped in blocks of marble rather than creating them. Clearly, M. has a point, though the evolution of more scientific techniques has, one hopes, reduced the scope for the more egregious flights of fancy. Equally clearly, archaeologists differ and should not all be placed towards the subjective end of an objective-subjective continuum.

One of the strengths of M’s book lies in demonstrating how Evans’s interpretations of his discoveries were conditioned by the mindset he brought to Knossos—a mindset shaped by class, nationality and personal background. Money, persistence, an abundance of impressive finds, and a vivid imagination did the rest. The elaborate structure that emerged from the soil became, inevitably, the “Palace of Minos.” M. wonders if we should not rather consider it a temple complex. For Evans, the lack of fortification walls confirmed Thucydides’ remarks about Cretan thalassocracy and therefore the essential similarity between Minoan Crete and Victorian Britain: the Minoans had ruled the Aegean, just as the British ruled the world, thanks to their navy. Recent discoveries have demolished that myth too.

Perhaps the most sensational revelation of the biography is the information that Evans was arrested in 1924 for a homosexual encounter with a young hustler in Hyde Park. Some will no doubt regard this disclosure as a gratuitous attack on Evans’s reputation, but in today’s world these will surely be few indeed. The incident is clearly significant for any consideration of Evans’s personal life. It is also of central importance to the history of Knossos, for, as M. makes clear, it precipitated Evans’s gift of all his property there—the site, adjacent fields and the Villa Ariadne—to the British School. Equally sensational, though perhaps more difficult to assess, is the charge of racism. A century ago polite society was tolerant of racially derogatory remarks that today would be considered unacceptable, and this raises the question of what standards should be applied. By any standard, however, Evans’s father-in-law, the historian Edward Freeman, best known to classicists for his History of Sicily, would be considered a racist (pp.52-3). Those who would dispute M.’s charge that Evans too was guilty of “manifest racism” must deal with his astonishing published statement: “I believe in the existence of inferior races and would like to see them exterminated.” In Evans’s defense, one might argue that the remark was not seriously intended and was made by an irritated and rather hotheaded twenty-five-year-old, who could not imagine the horrors of genocide.1 That said, the remark remains a distinct embarrassment.

M. has been very diligent in consulting published sources. His bibliography lists 500 publications, including a useful list of Evans’s writings, which alone runs to 150 items. Perhaps the greatest disappointment is the very limited use he has made of unpublished sources. Besides the (rather small) Evans Archive in the Ashmolean, there must be hundreds, if not thousands, of letters to and from Evans still extant, though these are no doubt scattered and difficult to access. Many of these would throw important light on the man and his work. Surprisingly, M. does not address the issue of Evans’s Nachlass. Perhaps the “outing” of Evans in this biography may make it easier for the next biographer to gain access to deposits of relevant letters and other papers that have hitherto been kept inaccessible.

There is less discussion of Evans’s major work, The Palace of Minos, than one might have expected. While M. acknowledges Evans’s marvelous eye, he could have done more to show how that eye and a fertile imagination united to create persuasive interpretations of Minoan scenes that were long regarded as authoritative. Instead, The Palace of Minos is dismissed as follows: “[the book’s] free admixture of modern and ancient artifacts make it impossible to take the analysis seriously.” Here M. is referring to the numerous pieces now recognized to be fakes that Evans cheerfully accepted as genuine. M. sees the workshop of Emile Gilliéron, père et fils, Evans’s talented artists and restorers, as the source of many of these fakes—in particular, the Thisbe treasure, the Archanes ring and the “Ring of Nestor.” A detailed study of the careers of these two artists along the lines of Margherita Guarducci’s excellent exposé of Helbig and Martinetti, is long overdue.2 One of Gilliéron’s assistants at Knossos confessed on his deathbed that he had long been manufacturing fakes for the antiquities market. Evans seems to have readily accepted these fakes as genuine because they were carefully designed to reflect his own theories about Minoan religion. After his death an identical copy of the Archanes ring was found in his possession. Why did he make no mention of this second ring in his publications? Was it because he thought it would inevitably bring the authenticity of both rings into question? These are the kinds of issues on which letters might throw welcome light.

The first six weeks of Evans’s excavations produced a wealth of finds, including Linear B tablets. In the general excitement, important stratigraphical distinctions were missed and went unrecorded, hence the vexed question of the dating of the Knossos tablets. Evans sought to associate them with the destruction of the Late Palace (ca 1400, or better, 1375 BC) rather than with the final “squatter” reoccupation phase. After Blegen discovered in 1939 very similar Linear B tablets at Pylos, firmly dated ca.1200 BC, he questioned Evans’s dating of the Knossos tablets. In the 1960s Leonard Palmer made a careful study of the excavation notebooks and showed that Evans had substantially misreported the tablets’ findspots. In 1969, Palmer could write: “It is now generally agreed that the elaborate stratigraphic picture which Evans had offered as his sole ‘decisive evidence’ for dating the tablets was a total fabrication.” No one now seems to dispute this. Nonetheless, scholars are still divided, M. reports, on the issue of the dating of the tablets. Der Neue Pauly (14, 1001), on the other hand, maintains that a consensus has emerged that dates the tablets to 1200 BC. At the very least, therefore, there has been a substantial shift towards Palmer’s view. One might expect that Palmer’s groundbreaking work in the 1960s would now be lauded. Instead, the Neue Pauly article fails to mention him and M.’s attitude towards him is equivocal at best. He acknowledges Palmer’s service in bringing attention to the crucial role played in the excavations by Duncan MacKenzie.3 At the same time, he refers to Palmer’s criticism of Evans as an “inquisition” and “vicious,” terms that seem to me inappropriate. If Mackenzie was long an unsung hero of Knossos, Palmer is surely another.

No matter what revisions to Evans’s grand vision of the Minoans and their artifacts may yet prove to be necessary, the greatness of his achievement cannot be denied, nor should we forget the huge outlays he made from his private fortune to excavate, conserve and restore. Gratitude and piety, however, should not blind us to his faults, nor should they prevent us from asking hard questions. M.’s biography, vastly superior to its predecessors by Joan Evans and Silvia Horwitz, has significantly advanced our knowledge of Evans, though I suspect it will not endear him to many Cretan specialists. I enjoyed reading it and learned a great deal from it. I had always thought that, although Evans’s date of birth places him a little closer to Schliemann than to Blegen, his work placed him closer to Blegen. Now I am not so sure.


1. The reference is: A.J. Evans, Through Bosnia and Herzegovina on Foot (London 1877) 312; M. cites the first (1876) edition. How seriously Evans means the remark is difficult to assess. The tone of the passage is decidedly one of petulance rather than hatred. The immediate context is the “excessively egalitarian” spirit which moves every “barbarian” Evans meets in Bosnia to address him as “brother.” The climax of the passage, however, is Evans’s acknowledgement that in Bosnia, given its history, the choice is between despotism and this “excessively egalitarian” form of liberty and that liberty “is to be infinitely preferred.”

2. M. Guarducci, La Cosidetta Fibula Prenestina: Antiquari, Eruditi e Falsari nella Roma dell’Ottocento (Rome 1980).

3. See now the important new biography: N. Momigliano, Duncan MacKenzie: A Cautious Canny Highlander and the Palace of Minos at Knossos (London 1999).