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Athena Review, Vol.3, no.3: Minoan Crete

Sir Arthur Evans and the Excavation of the Palace at Knossos

Before work began in Crete by the British archaeologist Evans at Knossos (1900), and his American contemporary Harriet Boyd at Gournia (1901-1904; see Box 1), knowledge of the Bronze Age Minoan culture was only faintly reflected in a few Classical Greek myths. By the time this pioneering work was finished several decades later, the Minoan periods on Crete had been defined well enough to identify them as a major civilization from ca. 1900-1300 BC.

Evans was born in 1851 in Nash Mills, Hertfordshire, England. Studying history at the Universities of Oxford and Göttingen, Evans later became Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford. During this period (1884-1908), he became interested in seals (tiny carved stones) as sources of inscriptions from ancient, pre-Classical Mediterranean civilizations.

[Fig.1: Arthur Evans holding Minoan vase.]

Evans was particularly drawn to Crete as one such source of seals containing undeciphered early inscriptions. The ancient town site of Kafala (Knossos) on the northern coast of Crete, next to the capital city of Herakleion, was well-known to local inhabitants, who plowed up ancient objects, including pottery, coins, and seals, as they cultivated their fields. Knossos had been occupied up through the Roman period, and during the Classical and Hellenistic eras (500-200 BC) had issued its own coinage, which interestingly showed pictures of labyrinths, Minotaurs, and Ariadne, the stuff of later interpretations (fig.2).

First to excavate at Knossos was an Herakleion merchant and antiquarian, aptly named Minos Kalokairinos, who in 1878 uncovered foundations of store rooms filled with large pithos jars. Documentation of Kalokairinos' work by William Stillman, US Consul in Crete at the time, identifies the finds as being from the west magazine of the palace. Stillman also (somewhat prophetically) provides a sketch of the "Labyrinth of Daedelus," a portion of the foundations also dug up by Kalokairinos, and later identified as the Throne Room (Shaw 1990).

[fig.2: Classic-era silver coin from Knossos (425-330 BC). At left, the obverse shows a Minotaur, while the reverse at right shows the head of Ariadne, surrounded by a meander pattern representing the labyrinth (CNG; SG-3211).]

Turkish landowners, however, soon stopped the Kalokairinos investigations. Shortly thereafter, the famed German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann, excavator of Troy and Mycenae, attempted to purchase the "Kefala hill" - actually a "tell," or artificial, mound caused by long-term occupations at Knossos since the Neolithic (see Macdonald, this issue) - but refused to pay prices he considered exorbitant.

Evans first visited Crete in 1894 to study and decipher two types of unknown scripts appearing on Cretan seals. A year later he published the results in the Ashmolean publication Cretan Pictographs and Prae-Phoenician Script (Evans 1895), therein identifying both the enigmatic Minoan hieroglyphs ("Pictographs"), and the syllabic or pre-alphabetic ("Prae-Phoenician") scripts, now called Linear A and B.

Political fortunes then played a part in assisting Evans to excavate in Crete, after the island had won its independence from Turkey. In 1899, Evans used money from a family inheritance to buy the site at Kefala. Using a sizable local work force, Evans began large-scale, systematic excavations at Knossos in 1900, and by the end of 1903 had uncovered many of the foundations of the large, sprawling structures he designated as the Palace.

Restorations and reconstructions of portions of the walls and foundations often used reinforced concrete (fig.3), with reconstructed timber frames and other wooden structures painted in a pink or buff color. Numerous examples of the now famous frescoes, discovered mainly as small fragments, were boldly restored. Evans is also responsible for restoring many of the now famous rooms within the palace, such as the Throne Room, with its pair of griffins in a fresco flanking a gypsum stone seat. These restoration methods have been often criticized for both over-interpretation of sometimes scanty remains, and for using materials foreign to Minoan architecture.

[Fig.3: Reconstructed pillars and shield fresco at Knossos (photo: Athena Review).

In his decisive (and highly controversial) site interpretations, Evans drew heavily from post-Bronze Age, ancient Greek mythology to postulate the site as the palace of the legendary King Minos. This conclusion is now much disputed (as suggested in several of the articles in this section), but early on gained solid footing among many archaeologists as well as in the popular imagination (cf. Cottrell 1962). In legends from sources varying from Herodotus to Hellenistic coins, Knossos was thought to be the palace site of Minos, king of the Cretan Minoans whose labyrinth contained the mythic Minotaur. Evans interpreted the complex layout of the palace at Knossos as "labyrinthine," and connected this with the double-axe symbol or labrys found engraved on columns at the palace. Thus, his identification of Knossos' civilization as Minoan made a compelling if (at times) somewhat strained metaphor, given the associated myths of King Minos, the labyrinth, and the Minotaur.

Besides his pioneering work in excavating the main palace site, among Evans' most significant discoveries at Knossos was the recovery of about 3000 ancient Linear A and B writing tablets. Linear B eventually proved to be an early form of ancient Greek from a later, Mycenaean occupation of the site. Linear A, a script representing the language of the Minoans, still remains largely undeciphered.

Evans continued his research until 1931, with an interruption for the First World War. He published his monumental work in four volumes entitled The Palace of Minos at Knossos (1921-1935). When Arthur Evans died in 1941, the British School of Archaeology took up further investigations at Knossos, continued to this day (see Macdonald,  this issue). Despite many detractors, Evans stands as a major archaeologist whose creative imagination, motivation, and scholarship led him from an initial interest in inscriptions on tiny, carved seals to the discovery and documentation of Knossos, largest site of the Minoan civilization.

[Note: This is article appears in the printed issue of Vol.3, no.3 of Athena Review (p.19). Copyright 2003, Athena Publications, Inc.]

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