Sir Arthur Evans

Sir Arthur Evans


Sir Arthur Evans is one of the great, albeit sometimes controversial figures of archaeology. Arthur Evans not only excavated the Palace of Minos, the greatest of the Cretan palaces, but he also invented the Minoan civilisation, being the first to recognise it as being a distinct civilisation all of its own. He was a powerful and controversial figure, and currently opinion is swinging rather against him, so one cannot understand the Minoans without understanding something of Arthur Evans and trying to navigate between him and his detractors.

Sir Arthur Evans

Sir Arthur Evans as painted by Sir William Richmond, surrounded by some of the objects he dug up from the Palace of Minos

Arthur Evans was born in 1851, the son of Sir John Evans who made an immense fortune from his paper works that subsidised all his son’s later archaeological work. John Evans was born into a middle-class family and his uncle, John Dickinson built up a very successful paper works. John joined it and then married the boss’s daughter — his cousin — and was taken into partnership. He then gradually took over the running of the firm and greatly expanded it, inventing envelopes in the process.

John Evans was also a very distinguished archaeologist, playing a major role in the work that led up to Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species. John Evans studied flints: his most famous exploit was when he went as a representative of the learned bodies to France to see the sites in the Somme valley where hand axes were being discovered alongside extinct animals, thus proving that they belong to a very extinct era. He wrote books on both The Ancient Stone Implements, Weapons and Ornaments of Great Britain, similarly on The Bronze Implements, as well as a book on The Coins of the Ancient Britons. He became President of the Society of Antiquaries, and was a long term President of the Royal Numismatic Society.

Thus his eldest son Arthur was born to the purple. After an academic career, first at Harrow School and then at Oxford, (where foolishly he read history instead of classics) he travelled around Europe and in particular the Balkans observing the dying days of the Ottoman Empire and showing great sympathy with the oppressed peoples in the Balkans and indeed in Crete. His liberal ideals and beliefs came to the front and on one occasion he was put in prison for his activities. He was also a correspondent for the Manchester Guardian for whom he wrote fiery dispatches.

Then in 1884 he at last got a proper job, when he was appointed Keeper (i.e. director) of the Ashmolean Museum, the Oxford University Museum which claims to be the oldest museum in the world. The museum at that time was in the doldrums, having just suffered the loss of its natural history material to the new Natural History Museum (now the Pitt Rivers Museum), but Evans revived the museum, expanding the collections not only with his father’s material and also eventually with his own, but also acquiring a huge collection of classical and renaissance material from C D E Fortnum, of the family of the Fortnum and Mason grocery store, and also persuading him to put up £10,000 towards the building of a major extension at the back of the museum to accommodate all the new exhibits.

But his work at the museum did not prevent him from taking extensive holidays abroad and in particular he became intrigued with small amulets with an unknown script which came from the island of Crete. He was determined to track them down, discovered the site at Knossos in the middle of Crete, just inland from what is today the major town of Heraklion, where spasmodic excavations had already begun to reveal an extensive site. He was able to purchase the whole site, and set about excavating, and in five seasons from 1900 to 1905 he laid bare the full enormous palace. There were several later seasons on the periphery, but he then spent the rest of his life writing a report on his excavations in four massive volumes and at the same time building up the whole history of what he named the Minoan civilisation, assigning it to 3 phases, the Early Minoan (EM) the Middle Minoan (MM), and the Late Minoan (LM).

Two of his activities in particular proved controversial. The first was his restoration of the palace. In his first season of excavating, he came down on what he called the ‘throne room’ but when he returned for the second season he found that it had suffered from the winter floods and that the walls that he had exposed would need protection. However, when he returned to Knossos after the great World War in the 1920s he began what many considered to be a process of over-restoration. He used the latest techniques of reinforced concrete. Indeed Cathy Gere in her book onKnossos and the Prophets of Modernismsays that ‘the palace enjoys the dubious distinction of being one of the first re-enforced concrete buildings on the island’.

Boys for Vogue? How far does this show a Minoan youth, and how far does it reflect the artistic ideals of the 1920s?

In addition he employed the father and son team of artists both called Emile Gilliéron to do restoration drawings of the fragments of wall paintings that he discovered: the resulting drawings are 10% wall plaster and 90% Gillieron’s imagination, — based on Evans’ ideas. People often remark on the similarity between Cretan painting and art nouveau; but this is because Gilliéron was an art nouveau artist.

Evelyn Waugh had the aesthetic acumen to remark that the Gillierons had ‘tempered their zeal for accurate reconstruction with a somewhat inappropriate predilection for covers of Vogue’.

Girls for Vogue? Though I don’t think Vogue would show bare-breasted girls with quite the aplomb of the Minoans

In the 1970s, there was considerable criticism of Evans for his over-restoration, restoring the palace to two stories high when only the foundations of the ground floor remained. Today a sort of uneasy truce is in place: a visit to Knossos is splendid theatre, and should not archaeologists be encouraged to use their imagination to bring sites alive?

The current criticisms concern Evans’ interpretation, not only of Knossos but of the whole Minoan civilisation, and are well expressed in Cathy Gere’s book Knossos and the Prophets of Modernism. Evans wrote his great book in the 1920s and 30s. He had been too old to take part in the Great War himself – he was 63 at the outbreak of war and he spent much of the war running the Society of Antiquaries as president, protecting the British Museum from the War Office as a trustee, and pressing the cause of the South Slavs, which eventually resulted in the creation of an independent Yugoslavia.

Bare breasted Minoan ladies

Bare-breasted Minoan ladies, in the Ashmolean Museum

But his original liberalism, combined with a pacifism resulting from the Great World War, led him to reconstruct the Minoan society as a peaceful society in which women played a leading role, a belief encouraged by the statuettes that he discovered or restored with the famous depictions of Minoan women with bare breasts and long flounced skirts. Many were intrigued by his vision. It fitted in well with the Nietzsche philosophy. Oswald Spengler adopted it in his magnum opus ‘The Decline of the West’. Freud was deeply influenced, as was Picasso who drew a portrait of the Minotaur and incorporated it in his famous painting of Guernica.

Henry Miller sums it all nicely:

Knossos in all its manifestation suggests the splendour and sanity and opulence of a powerful and peaceful people. It is gay – gay, healthful, sanitary, salubrious … far closer in spirit to modern times … than other later epochs of the Hellenic world … I felt, as I have seldom felt before the ruins of the past, that here throughout the long centuries there reigned an era of peace … The religious note seems to be graciously diminished; women played an important equal role in the affairs of this people; a spirit of play is markedly noticeable. In short, the prevailing note is one of joy.

It was a splendid image for the interwar period and was hugely successful, a splendid alternative to capitalism, communism and fascism: but how does it play today? Evans died in 1941 a disillusioned man, but his legacy lives on. Knossos is certainly one of the great World Heritage sites; his system of Early Minoan, Middle Minoan and Late Minoan, even though he himself realised that it did not correspond to the periods of the palace, forms the basic categorisation for the period and has been imitated on the mainland of Greece with the Early, Middle and Late Helladic and the same for the Cycladic cultures. And he was the first and I think only person to establish a new “civilisation” in Europe.

Sometimes Evans’ exuberance goes a little over-the-top, but ultimately we cannot but admire the man who not only discovered the Minoans, but who also demonstrated as never before how archaeology can reconstruct the past.


On to Knossos