Sir Arthur Evans - Famous Archaeologist
Bust of Sir Arthur Evans at Knossos
Sir Arthur Evans 1851-1941
Famous for the uncovering of the Minoan palace of Knossos on Crete, Sir Arthur Evans placed his own unique interpretation on what he revealed. His controversial theories about the ancient Minoans were scorned by many. Sir Arthur was also criticised for his restoration work at Knossos using materials unknown to the Minoans such as reinforced concrete. His liberal approach to the restorations of several frescoes also came under fire, yet no one can deny his success as a founding father of archaeology. He was one of the first archaeologists to use a large scale systematic methodology. His legacy survives him in the classic works he published and in the name he gave the civilisation he uncovered - The Minoans. He is remembered for his excellence in scholarship, his intuitive grasp and his creative imagination. We owe our knowledge of the Minoan Civilisation to Sir Arthur Evans.
Fossil hunters Sir Arthur Evans and Eugene Dubois
Dig at Knossos
About Sir Arthur
Sir Arthur was the son of Sir John Evans, an eminent numismatist (coin expert), prehistoric archaeologist and successful businessman. As a boy he was fascinated with the inscriptions on his father's coins and artefacts. Sir John's wealth allowed the young Arthur to be well educated. Sir Arthur achieved notoriety and success as a student and through his adventures as a young man. He served as a war correspondent in Bosnia in the 1870s where he identified a number of Roman roads and towns. Physically he was a small man, but was noted for his toughness and and tenacity. He was also a respected scholar and held the curatorship of the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford from 1884-1908. He went on to become a profesor of prehistoric archaeology at Oxford in 1909. He was knighted in 1911.
The Island of Crete
Excavations at Knossos
Crete was a Turkish possession until 1898. After independence from the Turkish Ottoman Empire, the local government on Crete allowed excavations to go ahead at Knossos. They had previously banned excavations for fear that anything discovered would be seized by the Turks and removed to Istanbul. Sir Arthur had been to Crete in 1894-5 with a friend, John Myres (who was later to win fame for his excavations on Cyprus). The two were hunting for artefacts and sites. They both believed the ancient Greek myths were based on historical fact. Myres and Sir Arthur had an interest in digging at Kephala (Knossos) along with another famous archaeologist - Heinrich Schliemann. At that time the Turks were still in control and no one was successful in terms of excavation.
Sir Arthur eventually purchased the site at Kephala. It took roughly four years from when he commenced the dig in March 1900 to uncover the 13,000 square metre palace complex site. He continued to work on the site for approximately thirty years, during a period that encompassed two world wars. Work still continues at Knossos.
The Palace Complex at Knossos
Fresco in the Throne Room at Knossos
Knossos was a Literate Society
Among the spectacular finds of Knossos, Sir Arthur uncovered a large number of clay tablets or stone seals containing a style of hieroglyphic script. Sir Arthur postulated a theory of the picture-writing literacy of the Cretan islands languages "Linear A" and "Linear B" found on these stones. Linear A has never been deciphered. Linear B was ultimately determined to be an ancient form of Greek by Michael Ventris in 1953.
Deciphering Linear B
Criticism of Sir Arthur
Sir Arthur restored parts of the palace at Knossos during his excavations. He used reinforced concrete to rebuild walls, rooms and columns. He painted the renovated columns and other structures in tones that reflected paint fragments he found on the structures. See the picture below for an example. He has been much criticised for this on the basis that the ancient Minoans could never have used reinforced concrete. Sir Arthur was enthusiastic about what he found, declaring one room to the the 'Throne Room' of King Minos, relying heavily on Greek mythology. He restored the throne room room in what he thought was a fitting manner. He has been criticised for this type of enthusiasm. Modern archaeologists avoid 'over-interpretation' and the use of modern materials in restoration.
The chronology Sir Arthur created for Knossos was inconsistent with the work of others in the same field. Later investigations of Knossos revealed the miscalculations made by Sir Arthur and showed that the connection with King Minos was closer to romance than reality. He has even been condemned by some as a falsifier of history. He overrated the importance of Cretan culture in the early Aegean history. Nonetheless no one can doubt the truly spectacular nature of what he uncovered or the brilliance of his scholarship. Sir Arthur Evans was not a treasure hunter, unlike several of the earlier archaeologists. He had a genuine love of his work and was dedicated to the study of ancient history. Sir Arthur is celebrated by a large bust placed at the palace at Knossos (pictured above).
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Restoration of Knossos
- Odyssey Adventures
- Dictionary of Art Historians
- Paul Bain (ed), (2008), The Great Archaeologists, Southwater, London.