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Saving Knossos Volume 52 Number 1, January/February 1999
by Spencer P.M. Harrington

[image]Entrance to the reconstructed Knossos (Spencer P.M. Harrington) [LARGER IMAGE]

Alexandra Karetsou squints into the late afternoon sun and points to a distant farmhouse perched on a wooded hill overlooking the Minoan ruins of Knossos. "That house," she says, "violates our building codes. It's too large. So is that one, and that one." They look innocent enough, but to her they are an insult. A petite, fashionably dressed woman of about 50, Karetsou is ephor (director) of prehistoric and classical antiquities in central Crete, and as such is responsible for maintaining the most famous Minoan sites--Knossos, Mallia, and Phaistos--managing the Herakleion Museum, and issuing permits to those building near archaeological sites. In addition, her salvage teams must excavate in advance of construction projects, no small task in central Crete, where seaside hotels sprout like toadstools after a rain. Being ephor is a busy job, often fraught with pressures from developers and homeowners who view building as their right. "In Greece," she says, "protecting our culture and monuments should be a matter of love. In reality it's a matter of war."

More than a million people visit the site annually. (Spencer P.M. Harrington) [LARGER IMAGE] [image]

As builders skulk along Knossos' boundaries like uninvited guests, a more immediate threat comes from the invited--the thousands of tourists who throng daily to the site to see the remains of Europe's first great civilization. Though 200 miles across the Aegean from Athens, Knossos has consistently drawn the most tourists of any archaeological site save the Acropolis, averaging a million visitors a year. This has meant prosperity for Cretans, among the richest of all Greeks, but great hardship for those entrusted with preventing the site from being trampled to dust. On the eve of the centenary of its initial excavation, there is little question that Knossos is imperiled by tourism, development, and weathering.

Utopian Vision

The discovery of Knossos was a godsend for Arthur Evans, whose professional life up until 1900 had lacked focus. He was a disappointment as a student at Oxford and had lost his first job as an unpaid newspaper correspondent in the Balkans. In 1883, Margaret Freeman, Evans' wife of 15 years, died. "Up until then he really had failed at just about everything," says Sandy MacGillivray, Evans' biographer. "So he became obsessed with Crete and was determined not to fail there, and he didn't."

As a journalist for the Manchester Guardian in the Balkans, Evans had sympathized with the struggles of various ethnic groups who were just then throwing off the Ottoman yoke. He eventually ran afoul of Austrian authorities, who accused him of spying. A series of reports he wrote in Herzegovina investigating the abuses of the area's Austrian government precipitated his arrest, jailing, and expulsion from the country. Back in England in 1884, Evans accepted the curatorship at the Ashmolean Museum. His father, John Evans, had made a fortune as a part-owner of a paper-pulp mill and had risen to distinction at Oxford as a geologist, archaeologist, and numismatist. Arthur, however, was frustrated in his academic pursuits. "The Oxford establishment did not want him," says MacGillivray. "They never gave him fellowships, and he knew he would never get a professorship there. Academically he wasn't up to it. He was pretty poor at school, and in the long run he was a pretty poor scholar."

Be that as it may, Evans had visionary ideas about Knossos. As if foreseeing modern development pressures, he purchased not only the palace grounds, but also large tracts of land around the site to keep it free of new buildings. He also landscaped the grounds. "Everything he did," says architect and Minoan specialist Clairy Palyvou, "from planting a tree to consolidating whatever was original, he did carefully, keeping in mind both the protection of the ruins and the presentation of the site, which was very much ahead of its time. He had no precedents for what he was doing."

* For more details on Evans' life, see Sandy MacGillivray's forthcoming Sir Arthur Evans and the Minoans: The Archaeology of Myth and Ideals, New York: Strauss and Giroux.

Spencer P.M. Harrington is a senior editor at ARCHAEOLOGY.

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© 1999 by the Archaeological Institute of America
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