A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
In judging everything he found at Knossos to be indigenous, the British antiquarian Sir Arthur Evans misguided generations of Minoan scholars.
Every year more than a million visitors wander through the maze of walls and low foundations at the Minoan palace of Knossos in Crete, where tour guides recount an elaborate tale passed on from the ancient Greeks. It is the story of King Minos and the monstrous Minotaur, who fed on a yearly tribute of seven Athenian youths and maidens until the hero Theseus slew him. The Minotaur, we are told, had a man's body and bull's head and was confined in a dark maze designed by the architect Daedalus, who, fleeing from Minos, escaped Crete with his son Icarus on wings crafted from beeswax and feathers.
How did the labyrinth and this fantastic cast of characters become associated with one of the world's most famous archaeological monuments? One can blame the British antiquarian Sir Arthur Evans. Educated at Harrow and Oxford, Evans had a mediocre career in journalism and as curator of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, before going to Crete in 1894 to find the truth behind the legend of the sinister Minotaur. Six years later, he excavated what he thought was the labyrinth, declaring it was also the palace of King Minos, a clear example of how an archaeological discovery may be no more than wish fulfillment.
A rich man's son, Evans had set out to find the origin of European civilization, which he felt was linked to the origin of the Greeks. As he joined the modern Cretans in their struggle to throw off the Ottoman Turkish yoke, Evans made invidious comparisons between the free and independent spirit he observed in Minoan art and the monotonous style he saw in Ottoman and ancient Near Eastern and Egyptian art.
Ever since the Turkish withdrawal from Crete in 1898, the ancient Minoans have remained hostage to Evans' various presuppositions. For example, he insisted the Minoans had been free of all outside influence, even though he was the one who discovered archaeological evidence for strong Egyptian and Mycenaean Greek presences at Knossos. This attitude ensured that he would never be able to read the abundant clay tablets he unearthed there. He refused to consider the possibility that the tablets were written in an early form of Greek, as the English epigrapher Michael Ventris would later show, insisting that the Greeks didn't arrive in Crete until after the decline of Minos and his kin. Evans and other early twentieth-century excavators searched for and found in the Minoans the origins of Hellenic culture because the Christian Greek majority then in control of the island needed historical support for their desired unity with Greece, which eventually came about in 1913.
Modern students and practitioners of Aegean archaeology must come to grips with the extent to which Evans prejudged everything he found at Knossos during his 30-year excavation. Once the trappings of his mythical agenda are removed, we will have to re-evaluate a large body of artifacts in light of recent discoveries in the Levant, Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Crete.
J. Alexander MacGillivray currently co-directs with L.H. Sackett the British School at Athens excavations at Palaikastro in eastern Crete. He is the author of Minotaur: Sir Arthur Evans and the Archaeology of the Minoan Myth (New York: Hill and Wang, 2000).