Minotaur: Sir Arthur Evans and the Archaeology of the Minoan Myth

Minotaur: Sir Arthur Evans and the Archaeology of the Minoan Myth

by Macgillivray, J. A. Macgillivray

The intrepid Englishman who shaped the way we think about Europe and the Middle East.

Sir Arthur Evans was the diminutive, fiery archaeologist who, at an excavation in Knossos in 1900, discovered what he called the Palace of Minos and presented to the world his stunning re-creation of Minoan civilization. This is the first biography of a flamboyant and very…  See more details below


The intrepid Englishman who shaped the way we think about Europe and the Middle East.

Sir Arthur Evans was the diminutive, fiery archaeologist who, at an excavation in Knossos in 1900, discovered what he called the Palace of Minos and presented to the world his stunning re-creation of Minoan civilization. This is the first biography of a flamboyant and very influential man--written by a scholar with unparalleled expertise in the archaeology of Crete.

When Evans went to Greece after a mediocre career as a journalist in the Balkans, Heinrich Schliemann had recently uncovered what he claimed were Troy and Mycenae, famed cities of Homer; Evans, too, wanted to verify the factual basis for the myths that meant most to him. He found what he was looking for in Crete: he believed he located the origin of "tree and pillar worship," at the heart of Teutonic mythology in Europe but somehow linked to an early cult of the Greek god Zeus.

Joseph Alexander MacGillivray shows that Evans in fact anticipated what he found. Evans's Minoans were perfect Victorians: a peaceful, literate, aesthetic, just society where wise men held political office and powerful women ruled the people's hearts. Yet Knossos was not simply a lucky find, and MacGillivray shows Evans was a heroic figure struggling with many central themes concerning the origins of civilization. He concludes with his own assessment of our current knowledge about ancient Crete.

Read More

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
On the most obvious level, this splendid, multilayered book is a biography of Sir Arthur Evans, the archeologist most responsible for the excavation of the palace at Knossos on Crete, the center of Minoan civilization in the second millennium B.C. Evans's life and work provide a fascinating example of the private and professional lives of those Victorians whose superb education, nonconformist brilliance, determination and diligence resulted in major discoveries that continue, even today, to define dialogue concerning the origins of civilization in Western Europe. But this book by MacGillivray (an archeologist who has worked on Crete) is much more than a biography of the right man at the right place at the right time. It was in the late 19th century that archeology moved from being essentially an international treasure hunt financed by wealthy individuals (as was the case with Schliemann and Troy) to a scholarly discipline with well-defined expectations for the conduct of an excavation, preservation of finds and publication about ancient sites. Evans was among a number of prominent archeologists who recognized the need for change and helped to make it possible--but only, it seems, grudgingly. The book's appeal, however, should reach far beyond readers interested specifically in Minoan civilization or in the process of archeological discovery. This richly detailed and engrossing account also illuminates the social, intellectual and military/political history of the give-and-take among the great European powers and the Ottoman Empire. It will also appeal to readers of travel literature as Evans and those around him were always on the move and insatiable sightseers. 24 pages b&w illus. not seen by PW (June) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Library Journal
Archaeology in the late 19th and early 20th centuries mounted large excavations that produced astounding discoveries. In an age when archaeologists were often larger than life, Sir Arthur Evans was a towering figure. MacGillivray, who has worked on Crete for 20 years, amply illustrates the qualities that vaulted Evans into the spotlight and kept him there following his 1900 discovery of the "Palace of Minos." Evans was arrogant, self-assured, bigoted, single-minded, prone to hyperbole, and quick to judgment. His opinions, once formed, rarely wavered. But though Evans originally scorned Schliemann's adherence to Greek myth and narratives, he too adopted their themes as a framework. Through his excavations, Crete was validated as a potent force in the ancient Aegean. MacGillivray's engaging narrative nicely balances the personal and professional sides of Evans, an intense and driven man from the romanticized past of archaeology. Strongly recommended for public and academic libraries.--Joyce L. Ogburn, Univ. of Washington, Seattle Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\

Read More

Product Details

Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date:
Edition description:
1 ED
Product dimensions:
6.30(w) x 9.32(h) x 1.31(d)

Read an Excerpt


Like most visitors to Knossos who want to see the remains of the earliest civilization in Europe, I first looked at the Greek archaeological site in a photograph. The fierce brown bull charging between dark columns on the stone bastion towering above the North Entrance Passage was projected onto the wall of a makeshift classroom in my Montréal junior college. "This is the evidence," the young lecturer informed us, "which Sir Arthur Evans discovered at Knossos, to prove the facts behind the myth of the Minotaur and the Labyrinth which Daedalus built for King Minos in Crete." He expected us to remember it only long enough to pass the quiz at the end of the week, but I've never forgotten it.

    Six years of university and graduate school in archaeology passed before I stood in the Palace of Minos at Knossos and shared, like millions of tourists each year, that moment of enlightenment when you first see the downward-tapering, sooty-black painted columns and the richly grained beams in the great halls and dark passages. But then you reach out and touch, not the warmth of natural wood but the eerie chill of cement or, more precisely, reinforced concrete, once coated with a brilliant gloss but now cracked and chipped, or blown away, leaving only a dull hint of faded grandeur. But whose grandeur, and from when?

    On the heels of this jarring encounter with the cold, hard facts followed bewilderment and disappointment mixed with a sense of betrayal and shame. I looked at the walls around me and realized I couldn't tell which ones were modern and which were ancient. And if I wasconfused, what about all those visitors who hadn't studied archaeology as I had? If Evans had literally constructed much of the palace, how much more had he fabricated?

    I became Knossos Curator of the British School at Athens in 1980, three years after my first visit to Crete, and I began to re-examine Evans's work in detail, starting with his excavation of the earliest palace beneath the huge complex of state and store rooms set around the Central Court, now so familiar to tourists. My investigation concentrated on tangible artifacts like pottery and walls, but, as I worked through the excavator's notebooks and publications, I came to know the man who had done so much to reveal and revive Knossos. As I completed a technical manuscript for a report on the earliest palace at Knossos, I began to read Evans's personal letters and testimonials and entered the maze of social, political, religious, and artistic movements stretching back to a time long before his birth and culminating in his dazzling discoveries on the threshold of the twentieth century.

The myths that the ancient Greeks "literally believed and reverentially cherished," including the "fabulous incidents attached to the name of Minos," wrote the British member of Parliament and historian George Grote in 1846, in his universally accepted twelve-volume History of Greece, were "in the eyes of modern inquiry essentially a legend and nothing more." Five years later, Arthur Evans was born to prove him wrong.

    "We know now that the old traditions were true," Evans declared almost a century later, standing beneath a bronze bust of himself, placed to mark his achievement in the western courtyard of the Palace of King Minos, the palace he had discovered on the site of the Knossian Labyrinth that Daedalus built to house the Minotaur—the monstrous result of Queen Pasiphae's lust with the Greek god Zeus in the guise of a bull. "It is true that on the old Palace site what we see are only the ruins of ruins," he conceded, "but the whole is still inspired with Minos's spirit of order and organisation and the free and natural art of the great architect Daedalos." Evans opened the twentieth century with the revelation that Knossos had really existed: he found it in March 1900 in Crete, buried under the low hill where Greek tradition placed it. Excavating on and off for the next thirty years, he gave the world a new chapter in its ancient history, one he called Minoan.

    Arthur Evans was "a man of paradoxes ... flamboyant and oddly modest: dignified and loveably ridiculous ... extravagant, yet by no means self-indulgent and in some things austere ... always loyal to his friends," Joan Evans eulogized in Time and Chance, a biography of her half-brother forty years her senior. "He lived as the genius he was," her praise continued, "and a genius is a man whose mind works in so unusual a fashion that his truth to that vital working must be the only criterion of his life." Evans's genius was to notice something unusual about a place or thing and to let his unfettered imagination raise it from the mundane to the eternal. His childlike enthusiasm and stubborn insistence on revealing the truth blended perfectly with his willful independence and propelled his longing to substantiate the folklore and early myths of Greece.

    Where did this longing come from, and why was it so important for Evans and his society? Born the first son of John Evans, a successful British paper manufacturer, in Herefordshire in 1851, Arthur John Evans was a "rich man's son," and so he could do largely as he pleased, but the source of the wealth that his freedom depended upon was also the cause of his yearning for something fantastic.

    Evans grew up in a dull and sullied landscape of industrial England, where the random harmonies of nature had been replaced by man's geometry and harnessed to satisfy society's arrogant need to control its resources in the name of progress. He was surrounded by communities that, he felt, were enslaved by their nation's greed, by a delusive urgency to create a surplus, and by a mechanistic, materialistic world. The people who lived there had forgotten what it was like to live in the natural world, as the clock replaced the sun and the calendar the moon, as water came from a pipe and light from a wire. Evans shunned "modern conveniences," using electric light and the telephone sparingly—unless, like the automobile and airplane, they saved him time, a commodity he was obsessed with.

    Evans refused to join his father's world of merchants and manufacturers, and he escaped from his social and familial responsibilities into his own world of adventure and discovery whenever possible. In spite of nearsightedness and total night blindness, and fear of water—"that uncertain element" which made crossing the English Channel so arduous for him—he loved exploring new places and meeting strangers. But the farther he journeyed from his native land, the more difficult it became for him to reassimilate upon his return.

    Eventually, Evans created a world of his own, which was "exactly to his taste," as Joan Evans acknowledged, "set in a beautiful Mediterranean country, aristocratic and humane in feeling: creating an art brilliant in colour and unusual in form, that drew inspiration from the flowers and birds and creatures that he loved ... a world which served to isolate him from a present in which he had found no real place." It was the perfect antidote to industrialized Europe and America, which, he felt, was trapped in the pessimism and anxiety about the future that prevailed then and were expressed in the works of Henry James, Joseph Conrad, and H. G. Wells, and in Decadence by Arthur Balfour, leader of the British Conservative Party and prime minister from 1902 to 1905.

    Crete was where Evans needed to go to heal his wounds. The death of his mother when he was six years old left a vacuum in his life that was never filled, not even by his wife, who also died prematurely and left him bereft; they had no heir. Minoan Crete was no Garden of Eden, where women were guilty of introducing all that was evil, but a place where the sexes were equal; men controlled the affairs of state, but women ruled the hearts and beliefs of a society at peace with itself and its neighbors. Evans's Minoans, then, worshiped the Great Mother of all creation, and when destruction came it was at the hands of a masculine society, Homer's Achaeans, dominated by their vengeful patron—Zeus.

    Evans's Minoans are an example of how an archaeological discovery occurs first in the mind, born of the thinker's need to prove something of vital importance to himself. Finding proof in the dirt is the final stage of a process of wish-fulfillment. We're rarely aware of archaeologists' inventiveness and creative ability. It's only with hindsight that we can guess at the abstract origins of an archaeologist's discoveries, which otherwise appear to be surprising and fortunate.

    Joan Evans attributed Arthur's brilliant discovery of Minoan culture to his being in the right place at the right time. "He had set out to find a script," she romanticized, "but Time and Chance had made him the discoverer of a new civilization." Nothing could be further from what I believe about how Evans discovered Knossos or how archaeological excavations work. I maintain that every detail in an investigation must be treated as a deliberate and relevant part of a greater picture; otherwise we would limit our study to selected material that fits a preconceived notion or research plan. When, however, we allow for chance, we impose another kind of limitation, because we acknowledge that accidents occur and that some things are beyond explanation, and thereby we draw a line between what we decide is worth examining and what is beyond our interest or grasp. Accidents appear to be chance only until we explain them, at which point they cease to appear fortuitous. There is no such thing as a random encounter or a lucky find, then. If such a thing did exist, we'd have to abandon all hope of ever explaining anything. When Joan Evans rationalized her half-brother's discoveries as luck, she excused herself from having to investigate the most important aspect of her study: Evans's active work in conceiving and discovering Minoan civilization.

    Most archaeologists take comfort in being impartial observers using scientific techniques, which, they believe, reasonably protects them from anything but a passive involvement with their discoveries. For them, archaeology is the process of delivering the past into the present; they are the messengers, and the artifact is the message. But this separation is an illusion. Evans was no simple errand boy; the message he communicated was as much from him as by means of him. Archaeologists are the progenitors as well as the midwives at the birthing process we call excavation. To understand this process, I should like to examine the connection between Evans, appointed by his society to search for certain specific and tangible truths, and the material evidence that came into his hands in Crete.

    The heart of what I call relative archaeology is complex; that is, the study of the origins of this association between an artifact and its creator or finder is quite elaborate. I treat all archaeological discoveries as creative in their origin, rather like Michelangelo Buonarroti's views of his own sculpture; he believed he was liberating figures trapped in the stones of the Carrara marble quarries (images that were submerged or repressed aspects of his own personality) when he tangibly created them. I suspect that the great archaeologists, like Heinrich Schliemann at the site he believed was Troy, do something similar when they gaze beneath the earth's mantle in search of clues to their desired history.

    Much of this creative process is dismissed as archaeological intuition, but what does this mean? To intuit is to receive knowledge by direct perception without reasoning, but this presumes that the knowledge is absolute in its truth. To say that Evans was intuitive about Knossos is to assume that what he found was an absolute truth. I think that what he found was a relative truth, relative primarily to himself and then to those who wanted it most and who engaged him and his colleagues to uncover it, and it was truthful only for as long as the facts he delivered were necessary to support the desired history.

    Archaeologists create a version of history, which in turn guides the archaeology in a circular motion that, ideally, is ever changing as each new discovery causes a new appraisal of the history. New discoveries change the direction of archaeology, which in turn produces new artifacts and new histories, which send the archaeologists in new directions, so that they never cover the same ground twice. There is no stasis in such a dynamic, no fixed point, and therefore no absolute historical truth. Instead, a succession of relative truths occurs, with relative histories that satisfy a set of changing requirements for a while. When Evans formulated his notion of what Minoan culture in Crete had been, he blocked this succession by insisting on an absolute and fixed history. Because of his exalted status, this history was largely accepted, but until after his death in 1941 it hampered the learning process. And he didn't restrict himself to antiquity: Evans was also a powerful and willful designer of modern nations, as his involvement in the creation of Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia during the First World War demonstrated.

    Evans's great discovery of the Bronze Age civilization of Crete, the Minoan civilization, earned him a place in history. But what of the Minoans themselves? They have become such an important element in so many conflicting ancient and modern political, social, and spiritual agendas that we seem to have lost sight of who these early inhabitants of Crete were. They're still classed as pre-Hellenic—a label that tells nothing about them, leaving them in a state of suspense, waiting to become something recognizable to us as "Hellenic." They're presented as the last bastion of matriarchal rule and as worshipers of the Mother Goddess—believers that nature is a loving mother fertilized by a heavenly father (Evans's early theory recently revised). This view holds that the Minoans survived into "proto-historical" times, when their conquest by bloodthirsty "Indo-Germanic" ancestors of a European male-dominated society ended their civilization. Recent scholarship relegates them to an even more fantastic realm than that of Minos: Plato's lost continent of Atlantis. Some suggest that Atlantis was Crete, submerged at the height of its power by a tidal wave from an eruption from the nearby island of Thera, a volcanic crater whose most recent and most devastating explosion, in the fifteenth century B.C., had extinguished Minoan civilization.

    A century after Evans's discoveries at Knossos, the time has come to reconsider the circumstances in which this early Cretan society was reborn, if only to clarify the origins of much of what we still call Minoan. To do so, we must start with Evans himself, the product of his genes and his life experiences, and with his own search to explain aspects of himself—such as his explosive temper, which his mother called his volcanic nature, and his frequent and playful references to beastly lairs. Evans identified with the mythical Minotaur—an allegory for the monster in men—but what was his particular monster, which he worked so hard to contain in its lair and hide from public view? I suspect that it may have been the repressed "beastliness" of his homosexuality, which gave his life part of its powerful creative drive until he lost control of it in his later years. But Evans didn't exist in a vacuum, and so we must also reconstruct the social, political, and intellectual climate in which he developed and that compelled him to excavate Knossos.

This study in relative archaeology is a radical departure from the common view of how archaeology and archaeologists work. It requires us to change our perceptions of the field dramatically. In my view, archaeologists must cease to believe that what they are doing is to sort objectively through a confusion of facts to sustain a historical truth, and they must become much more aware of their truly creative interpretative work. They must be conscious of their active participation in the formative and recovery stages of the archaeological process. In the twenty-first century, they must ask more penetrating questions than their predecessors in the twentieth century did, both about their discoveries and about themselves. This is only part of a wider review of the bigger question of how we relate to the past from the only fixed point in time we know: the present.

Read More

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >