Builder of Ruins

Mary Beard

  • Minotaur: Sir Arthur Evans and the Archaeology of the Minoan Myth by J.A. MacGillivray
    Cape, 313 pp, £20.00, August 2000, ISBN 0 224 04352 8

Evelyn Waugh was characteristically unimpressed by the remains of the prehistoric Minoan palace at Knossos and its famous decoration. His 1930 travelogue, Labels, contains a memorable account of his disappointment, not so much at the excavation site itself (‘where,’ he writes archly, ‘Sir Arthur Evans … is rebuilding the palace’) but at its collection of prize paintings and sculpture, which had been removed to the museum in Heraklion. In the sculpture, he ‘saw nothing to suggest any genuine aesthetic feeling at all’. The frescoes were much more difficult to judge, ‘since only a few square inches of the vast area exposed to our consideration are earlier than the last twenty years, and it is impossible to disregard the suspicion that their painters have tempered their zeal for accurate reconstructions with a somewhat inappropriate predilection for covers of Vogue’.

It seems to have been relatively easy for Waugh, visiting soon after the paintings’ restoration, to spot quite how little of these masterpieces of Minoan art was actually Minoan. Almost a century on, and after a good deal of fading, most visitors to the Heraklion museum today are happily unaware that the icons of prehistoric Cretan culture that feature on thousands of postcards, posters and museum souvenirs (the ‘Dolphin’ fresco, the ‘Ladies in Blue’ or the ‘Prince of the Lilies’) have only an indirect connection with the second millennium BC, being largely re-creations of the early 20th century AD. Nor do most of them realise that those distinctively primitive, stumpy red columns, which are the trademark of the site of Knossos, are built wholly of modern concrete and are part of the ‘rebuilding’ by Evans.

Arthur Evans directed the excavation and restoration of the palace at Knossos over the first 25 years of the last century, though most of the best known discoveries were made in the earliest campaigns, between 1900 and 1905. Born in 1851, the son of a well-known antiquarian (who had made a fortune from paper manufacture), Evans read modern history at Oxford. When he failed to win a college fellowship despite a first-class degree, he turned to travelling in Eastern Europe, combining his interest in archaeology with service as Balkan correspondent for the Manchester Guardian. Investigative journalism, then as now, had its risks, especially in the Balkans. Accused of spying in Herzegovina and unceremoniously banned from the entire Austro-Hungarian Empire, he returned to Oxford, where in 1884 he was appointed Keeper of the Ashmolean (beating his father to the job, or so the story goes).

It turned out to be a revolutionary appointment. In the face of all kinds of objections from Benjamin Jowett and the like, Evans set about raising money to develop the Ashmolean collection into a research resource for the whole of European archaeology, from prehistory onwards; and he orchestrated its move in 1894 into large new premises behind the University Galleries in Beaumont Street, where it remains. From the mid-1890s his interests increasingly focused on the island of Crete. To start with, he was on the trail of prehistoric writing systems, for Evans had become convinced that Crete would provide the evidence of early literacy that Schliemann’s excavations at Mycenae had so signally failed to turn up. As time went on, however, it became clear that a vision of Greek prehistory was at stake: he was searching for a site that could challenge the dominance of Mycenae and the macho, warrior version of early Greece that went with it.

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[*] Institute of Classical Studies, 231 pp., £40, 1999, 0 900587 83 0.