Reconstruction of the Palace at Knossos

A Discovery That Shook the Archaeological World: Sir Arthur Evans and the Unveiling of Knossos

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"A gentleman and a scholar." There are few such men who fit this description from the "archaeological" community of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. There were certainly gentlemen and scholars, yet those who understood the rules and propriety of historical investigations and those who studied the histories themselves were not always one and the same. Enter Sir Arthur John Evans: Oxford graduate, philologist, excavator and Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum. Today he is best known for his contributions to pre-Classical Aegean archaeology through his discovery of the Minoans. Yet how this man came to discover an untouched society, what and who inspired him, and—most importantly—which of his postulations were accurate and which false are as important to the examination of his research as the discovery itself. It is these questions this article intends to discuss. 

Sir Arthur John Evans, archaeologist

Sir Arthur John Evans, archaeologist ( CC BY SA 4.0 )

The Ancient Cretean Archaeologists

Sir Arthur Evans' predisposition for classical era research and Homeric literature was furthered by the "revolutionary" efforts of Heinrich Schliemann at Troy in the late 19 th century. Though now scholars have determined that Schliemann's success at Troy damaged more than it salvaged, archaeology was not yet a discipline when Schliemann's efforts began. It was merely a hobby of the rich and elite—those who could afford trips to far off places, fancy devices for use in investigations, and the paychecks required by mercenary diggers and tour guides. His damages, however, are considered in part why archaeology developed into a proper scholarly practice. Schliemann's work at Troy and at Tiryns, where he "discovered" the Mycenaean civilization that he associated with the Trojan War, inspired Evans' to turn away from his Italian, British and Balkan research, and toward the archaeology of the Aegean. However, Evans' work is far more respected than Schliemann's, due to his background—both in academics and political negotiations—and methodology.

Portrait of Sir Arthur Evans by William Richmond, 1907 (Ashmolean Museum)

Portrait of Sir Arthur Evans by William Richmond, 1907 (Ashmolean Museum)

The Ashmolean Minoan Collector

Evans' was well versed in art, history and philology, having made a name for himself as the author of many scholarly articles before he was entrusted as Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum—a job he would not have been hired for lightly. Under the employ of the Ashmolean Museum, Evans' Aegean investigations began while attempting to transfer private collections of ancient artifacts (i.e. the Fortnum collection) to the Ashmolean. It was under Evans' advisement that the museum as a whole transitioned into one focused on art and archaeology, and began the assemblage of what would become the greatest Minoan collection outside of Crete. The success of this transition and the untimely death of Evans' wife led to a shift in Evans' interests, this time away from the museum and towards physical excavation. In a moment of great insight during a visit to the island, Evans' purchased the land where he would uncover the palace complex at Knossos. Within three years he had achieved a great deal, exposing Minoan frescoes, writing and numerous rooms within the complex. Conversely, it was his future attempt at reconstructions of an unknown civilization, with a to this day untranslatable language, that is of concern.

The palace complex ruins at Knossos

The palace complex ruins at Knossos ( CC BY SA 3.0 )

Evans’ Blurred Vision for Reconstruction of Knossos

Much like the man himself, the reconstruction Evans directed at Knossos could be described as short-sighted. In reconstructing his belief of what the complex at Knossos looked like in the Bronze Age, Evans inadvertently caused some damage like Schliemann did at Troy, though his intentions were for academic preservation and thus, he did not use dynamite. At the time of his reconstruction (c. 1922), the name "Minoan" was borrowed from the Greek myth of King Minos and the Minotaur, and the various levels of construction were not accurately defined. (Such was the problem with Schliemann: his dynamite blasted through layers of Trojan culture before discovering that which has been determined as contemporary with Homer's.)

A simple example of Evans' miscalculation is his creation of the red, Minoan columns. There is no evidence that dark red columns—themselves constructed out of 20 th century materials rather than what would have been used in the Bronze Age—looked as Evans depicted them. These Minoan columns were based on Greek models (despite the fact that the Greeks themselves borrowed the idea from older cultures), mounted on bases with capitals that resemble the Greek Doric style. Yet the Minoans likely had columns made from tree trunks, uprooted from the ground and flipped on their heads so the bottom of the tree held up the roof while the top of the tree served as the base.

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